A Philosopher's Blog

The “Two Bads” Fallacy & Racism

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by mclfamu on June 24, 2015

The murder of nine people in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina ignited an intense discussion of race and violence. While there has been near-universal condemnation of the murders, some people take effort to argue that these killings are part of a broader problem of racism in America. This claim is supported by reference to the well-known history of systematic violence against blacks in America as well as consideration of data from today. Interestingly, some people respond to this approach by asserting that more blacks are killed by blacks than by whites. Some even seem obligated to add the extra fact that more whites are killed by blacks than blacks are killed by whites.

While these points are often just “thrown out there” without being forged into part of a coherent argument, presumably the intent of such claims is to somehow disprove or at least diminish the significance of claims regarding violence against blacks by whites. To be fair, there might be other reasons for bringing up such claims—perhaps the person is engaged in an effort to broaden the discussion to all violence out of a genuine concern for the well-being of all people.

In cases in which the claims about the number of blacks killed by blacks are brought forth in response to incidents such as the church shooting, this tactic appears to be a specific form of a red herring. This fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic.

This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:

  1. The topic of racist violence against blacks is being discussed, specifically the church shooting.
  2. The topic of blacks killing other blacks is brought up.
  3. The topic of racist violence against blacks is abandoned in favor of focusing on blacks killing other blacks.

 

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim. In the specific case at hand, switching the topic to black on black violence does nothing to address the topic of racist violence against blacks.

While the red herring label would certainly suffice for these cases, it is certainly appealing to craft a more specific sort of fallacy for cases in which something bad is “countered” by bringing up another bad. The obvious name for this fallacy is the “two bads fallacy.” This is a fallacy in which a second bad thing is presented in response to a bad thing with the intent of distracting attention from the first bad thing (or with the intent of diminishing the badness of the first bad thing).

This fallacy has the following pattern:

  1. Bad thing A is under discussion.
  2. Bad thing B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to A (when B is actually not relevant to A in this context).
  3. Bad thing A is ignored, or the badness of A is regarded as diminished or refuted.

In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:

  1. The murder of nine people in the AME church, which is bad, is being discussed.
  2. Blacks killing other blacks, which is bad, is brought up.
  3. The badness of the murder of the nine people is abandoned, or its badness is regarded as diminished or refuted.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that something else is bad does not entail that another bad thing thus has its badness lessened or refuted. After all, the fact that there are worse things than something does not entail that it is not bad. In cases in which there is not an emotional or ideological factor, the poorness of this reasoning is usually evident:

Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Well, some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “Yeah, so much for your broken arm being bad. You are just fine. Get back to work.”

What seems to lend this sort of “reasoning” some legitimacy is that comparing two things that are bad is relevant to determining relative badness. If a person is arguing about how bad something is, it is certainly reasonable to consider it in the context of other bad things. For example, the following would not be fallacious reasoning:

Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “That is worse than one broken arm.”
Sam: “Indeed it is.”
Joe: “But having a broken arm must still suck.”
Sam: “Indeed it does.”

Because of this, it is important to distinguish between cases of the fallacy (X is bad, but Y is also bad, so X is not bad) and cases in which a legitimate comparison is being made (X is bad, but Y is worse, so X is less bad than Y, but still bad).

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Narratives, Terror & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 22, 2015

After the terrorist attack on the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, commentators hastened to weave a narrative about the murders. Some, such as folks at Fox News, Lindsay Graham and Rick Santorum, endeavored to present the attack as an assault on religious liberty. This does fit the bizarre narrative that Christians are being persecuted in a country whose population and holders of power are predominantly Christian. While the attack did take place in a church, it was a very specific church with a history connected to the struggle against slavery and racism in America. If the intended target was just a church, presumably any church would have sufficed. Naturally, it could be claimed that it just so happened that this church was selected.

The alleged killer’s own words make his motivation clear. He said that he was killing people because blacks were “raping our women” and “taking over our country.” As far as currently known, he made no remarks about being motivated by hate of religion in general or Christianity in particular. Those investigating his background found considerable evidence of racism and hatred of blacks, but evidence of hatred against Christianity seems to be absent. Given this evidence, it seems reasonable to accept that the alleged killer was there to specifically kill black people and not to kill Christians.

Some commentators also put forth the stock narrative that the alleged killer suffered from mental illness, despite there being no actual evidence of this. This, as critics have noted, is the go-to explanation when a white person engages in a mass shooting. This explanation is given some credibility because some shooters have, in fact, suffered from mental illness. However, people with mental illness (which is an incredibly broad and diverse population) are far more often the victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

It is certainly tempting to believe that a person who could murder nine people in a church must be mentally ill. After all, one might argue, no sane person would commit such a heinous deed. An easy and obvious reply is that if mental illness is a necessary condition for committing wicked deeds, then such illness must be very common in the human population. Accepting this explanation would, on the face of it, seem to require accepting that the Nazis were all mentally ill. Moving away from the obligatory reference to Nazis, it would also entail that all violent criminals are mentally ill.

One possible counter is to simply accept that there is no evil, merely mental illness. This is an option that some do accept and some even realize and embrace the implications of this view. Accepting this view does require its consistent application: if a white man who murders nine people must be mentally ill, then an ISIS terrorist who beheads a person must also be mentally ill rather than evil. As might be suspected, the narrative of mental illness is not, in practice, consistently applied.

This view does have some potential problems. Accepting this view would seem to deny the existence of evil (or at least the sort involved with violent acts) in favor of people being mentally defective. This would also be to deny people moral agency, making humans things rather than people. However, the fact that something might appear undesirable does not make it untrue. Perhaps the world is, after all, brutalized by the mad rather than the evil.

An unsurprising narrative, put forth by Charles L. Cotton of the NRA, is that the Reverend Clementa Pickney was to blame for the deaths because he was also a state legislator “And he voted against concealed-carry. Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead. Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.” While it is true that Rev. Pickney voted against a 2011 bill allowing guns to be brought into churches and day care centers, it is not true that Rev. Pickney is responsible for the deaths. The reasoning in Cotton’s claim is that if Rev. Pickney had not voted against the bill, then an armed “good guy” might have been in the church and might have been able to stop the shooter. From a moral and causal standpoint, this seems to be quite a stretch. When looking at the moral responsibility, it primarily falls on the killer. The blame can be extended beyond the killer, but the moral and causal analysis would certainly place blame on such factors as the influence of racism, the easy availability of weapons, and so on. If Cotton’s approach is accepted and broad counterfactual “what if” scenarios are considered, then the blame would seem to spread far and wide. For example, if he had been called on his racism early on and corrected by his friends or relatives, then those people might still be alive. As another example, if the state had taken a firm stand against racism by removing the Confederate flag and boldly denouncing the evils of slavery while acknowledging its legacy, perhaps those people would still be alive.

It could be countered that the only thing that will stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun and that it is not possible to address social problems except via the application of firepower. However, this seems to be untrue.

One intriguing narrative, most recently put forth by Jeb Bush, is the idea of an unknown (or even unknowable) motivation. Speaking after the alleged killer’s expressed motivations were known (he has apparently asserted that he wanted to start a race war), Bush claimed that he did not “know what was on the mind or the heart of the man who committed these atrocious crimes.” While philosophers do recognize the problem of other minds in particular and epistemic skepticism in general, it seems unlikely that Bush has embraced philosophical skepticism. While it is true that one can never know the mind or heart of another with certainty, the evidence regarding the alleged shooter’s motivations seems to be clear—racism. To claim that it is unknown, one might think, is to deny what is obvious in the hopes of denying the broader reality of racism in America. It can be replied that there is no such broader reality of racism in America, which leads to the last narrative I will consider.

The final narrative under consideration is that such an attack is an “isolated incident” conducted by a “lone wolf.” This narrative does allow that the “lone wolf” be motivated by racism (though, of course, one need not accept that motivation). However, it denies the existence of a broader context of racism in America—such as the Confederate flag flying proudly on public land near the capital of South Carolina. Instead, the shooter is cast as an isolated hater, acting solely from his own motives and ideology. This approach allows one to avoid the absurdity of denying that the alleged shooter was motivated by racism while denying that racism is a broader problem. One obvious problem with the “isolated incident” explanation is that incidents of violence against African Americans is more systematic than isolated—as anyone who actually knows American history will attest. In regards to the “lone wolf” explanation, while it is true that the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone, he did not create the ideology that seems to have motivated the attack. While acting alone, he certainly seems to be the member of a substantial pack and that pack is still in the wild.

It can be replied that the alleged shooter was, by definition, a lone wolf (since he acted alone) and that the incident was isolated because there has not been a systematic series of attacks across the country. The lone wolf claim does certainly have appeal—the alleged shooter seems to have acted alone. However, when other terrorists attempt attacks in the United States, the narrative is that each act is part of a larger whole and not an isolated incident. In fact, some extend the blame to religion and ethnic background of the terrorist, blaming all of Islam or all Arabs for an attack.

In the past, I have argued that the acts of terrorists should not confer blame on their professed religion or ethnicity. However, I do accept that the terrorist groups (such as ISIS) that a terrorist belongs to does merit some of the blame for the acts of its members. I also accept that groups that actively try to radicalize people and motivate them to acts of terror deserve some blame for these acts. Being consistent, I certainly will not claim that all or even many white people are racists or terrorists just because the alleged shooter is white. That would be absurd. However, I do accept that some of the responsibility rests with the racist community that helped radicalize the alleged shooter to engage in his act of terror.

 

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Law Enforcement as Revenue Stream

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on May 11, 2015

After the financial class melted down the world economy, local governments faced an obvious reduction in their revenues. As the economy recovered under a Democrat President, the Republicans held onto or gained power in many state governments, such as my own adopted state of Florida. With laudable consistency with their professed ideology, Republicans routinely cut taxes for businesses, the well off and sometimes even almost everyone. While the theory seems to be that cutting taxes will increase the revenue for state and local governments, shockingly the opposite seems to happen: state and local governments find themselves running short of funds needed to meet the expenses of actually operating a civilization.

Being resourceful, local leaders seek other revenue streams in order to pay the bills. While cities like Ferguson provide well-known examples of a common “solution”, many cities and towns have embraced the practice of law-enforcement as revenue stream. While the general practice of getting revenue from law enforcement is nothing new, the extent to which some local governments rely on it is rather shocking. How the system works is also often shocking—it often amounts to a shakedown system one would expect to see in a corrupt country unfamiliar with the rule of law or the rights of citizens.

Since Ferguson, where Michael Brown was shot on August 9, 2014, has been the subject of extensive study, I will use the statistics from that town. Unfortunately, Ferguson does not appear to be unique or even unusual.

In 2013, Ferguson’s court dealt with 12,108 cases and 24,532 warrants. This works out to an average of 1.5 cases and 3 warrants per household in Ferguson. The fines and court fees that year totaled $2,635,400—making the municipal court the second largest revenue stream.

It would certainly be one thing if these numbers were the result of the legitimate workings of the machinery of justice. That is, if the cases and warrants were proportional to the actual crimes being committed and that justice was being dispensed fairly. That is, the justice was just.

One point of concern that has been widely addressed in the national media is that the legal system seems to disproportionally target blacks. In Ferguson, as in many places, the majority of the cases handled by the court arise from car stops. Ferguson is 29% white, but whites make up only 12.7% of those stopped. When a person is stopped, a black citizen will be searched 12.1% of the time, while a white citizen will be searched 6.9% of the time. In terms of arrest, a black citizen was arrested 10.4% of the time and a white citizen was arrested 5.2% of the time.

One stock reply to such figures is the claim that blacks commit more crimes than whites. If it were true that blacks were being arrested in proportion to the rate at which they were committing crimes, then this would be (on the face of it) fair. However, this does not seem to be the case. Interesting, even though blacks were more likely to be searched, the police discovered contraband 21.7% of the time. Whites who were searched were found with contraband 34.0% of the time. Also, 93% of those arrested in Ferguson were black. While certainly not impossible, it seems somewhat odd that 93% of the crime committed in the city was committed by black citizens.

Naturally, these numbers can be talked around or even explained away. It could be argued that blacks are not being targeted as a specific source of revenue and the arrest rates are proportional and just. This still leaves the matter of how the legal system operates in terms of being focused on revenue.

Laying aside all talk of race, Ferguson stands out as an example of how law enforcement can turn into a collection system. One key component is, of course, having a system of high fines. For example, Ferguson had a $531 fine for high grass and weeds, $792 for Failure to Obey, $527 for Failure to Comply, $427 for a Peace Disturbance violation, and so on.

If a person can pay, then the person is not arrested. But, if a person cannot afford the fine, then an arrest warrant is issued—this is the second part of the system. The city issued 32,975 arrest warrants for minor offenses in 2013—and the city has a population of 21,000 people.

After a person is arrested, she faces even more fees, such the obvious court fees and these can quickly pile up. For example, a person might get a $150 parking ticket that she cannot pay. She is then arrested and subject to more fees and more charges. This initial ticket might grow to a debt of almost$1,000 to the city. Given that the people who tend to be targeted are poor, it is likely they will not be able to pay the initial ticket. They will then be arrested, which could cost them their job, thus make them unable to pay their court fees. This could easily spiral into a court inflicted cycle of poverty and debt. This, obviously enough, is not what the legal system is supposed to do.

From a moral standpoint, one main problem with using this sort of law enforcement as a revenue stream is the damage it does to the citizens who cannot afford the fines and fees. As noted in the example above, a person could find her life ruined by a single parking ticket. The point of law enforcement in a just society is to protect the citizens from harm, not ruin them.

A second point of moral concern is that this sort of system is racketeering—it puts forth a threat of arrest and court fees, and then offers “protection” from that threat in return for a fee. That is, citizens are threatened to buy their way out of a greater harm. This is hardly justice. If it was practice by anyone else, it would be criminal racketeering and a protection scheme.

A third point of moral concern is that the system of exploiting the citizens by force and threat of force damages the fundamental relation between the citizen and the democratic state. In feudal states and in the domains of warlords, one expects the thugs of the warlords to shake down the peasants. However, that sort of thing is contrary to the nature of a democratic state. As happened during the revolts against feudalism and warlords, people will rise up against such oppression—and this is to be expected. Robin Hood is, after all, the hero and the Sheriff of Nottingham is the villain.

This is not to say that there should not be fines, penalties and punishments. However, they should be proportional to the offenses, they should be fairly applied, and should be aimed at protecting the citizens, not filling the coffers of the kingdom. As a final point, we should certainly not be cutting the taxes of the well off and then slamming the poor with the cost of doing so. That is certainly unjust and will, intended or not, result in dire social consequences.

 

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Protests & Violence

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on April 29, 2015

On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray died in police custody. From the viewpoint of some Americans, this was the continuation of a pattern police causing the deaths of young black men. From the viewpoint of some other Americans, this was just another isolated incident.

The initial protests to this death were peaceful and it was hoped by many that Baltimore would avoid the violence that has marked other protests (including riots in Baltimore’s own past). This hope was shattered in an outbreak of violence and destruction.

One obvious concern is the identity and the nature of those engaged in violence. According to some narratives, the rioters are thugs or even outsiders who are simply taking advantage of the situation to engage in destruction, theft and violence. That is, they are opportunists and not protestors.

The United States has a well-established history of costly and pointless riots that are not protests. These are, of course, sports riots. One outstanding example is the 1992 riot in the aftermath of the Chicago Bulls vs. the Portland Trail Blazers. The damage was estimated at $10 million. There have been many other lesser riots, such as that following the 1999 Michigan State vs. Duke game that resulted in about $250,000 in damage (and whose iconic photo is a shirtless white bro “flashing the horns” atop a burned out car). My adopted state of Florida also sees substantial violence and property damage during Spring Break, although California does seem interested in getting into the spring break riot game.

Given that Americans are willing to riot over sports and spring breaks, it is certainly reasonable to consider that the rioters in Baltimore are not protesting the death but are motivated by other reasons—perhaps as simple as wanting to break and burn things.

There are, of course, some narratives that cast at least some of the rioters as being engaged in protest. That is, their motivation is not just to steal, break and burn but to express their anger about the situation in Baltimore. One way to explore possible motivations for such violence is to consider the situation in Baltimore. That is, to see if there are legitimate grounds for anger and whether or not these factors might provoke people to violence and destruction.

Baltimore is, in many ways, a paradigm of the brutal race and class divisions in the United States. It has the historical distinction of being the first city to pass a citywide segregation law (segregating each residential block by race) and the legacy of this law persists to this day in terms of Baltimore being a highly segregated city. In the center of the city, 60% of the population is black. The suburbs are, not surprisingly, predominantly white. Despite there being laws against forced segregation, the United States is still highly segregated. This does seem to provide some grounds for anger—unless, of course, it is assumed that most people are living were they wish and there are no unfair factors impeding people.

Baltimore also exemplifies the stark class divisions in the United States. 150,000 of the city’s 620,000 are classified as poor (the average income for a family of four being $23,492). The unemployment rate is close to 10%. As the American Revolution showed, people do get angry and violent in response to perceived economic injustice. Given the massive disparity between economic classes in the United States and their support by the structures of law and authority, what is shocking is not that there is a riot now and then but that there are not daily riots. As such, there seem to be sufficient grounds for anger. Naturally, some people claim that this poverty is because the poor are lazy—if they would only work hard for the job creators, they would not be poor. This view seems to fail to consider the reality of poverty in America—but it is a beloved narrative of those who are doing well.

Not surprisingly, Baltimore also has serious issues with crime. Drug addiction is a serious problem and the city was 5th in the number of murders per year in 2014. It is, however, 15th in the number of violent crimes per year. Crime is, of course, a complex matter. Some claim that this sort of crime arises from poverty, oppression and lack of opportunity (as opposed to the ‘crimes’ of the financial classes, such as melting down the world economy). There is, of course, a correlation between crime and these factors. Some claim that people turn to crime because of moral defects rather than these factors. This does have some merit—after all, a look at the financial sector and halls of power show evil behavior that is clearly not caused by poverty (except a poverty of the soul) and lack of opportunity.

Like other US cities, there is also an issue with how the police deal with the citizens. In 2011 the city paid $6.3 million settling police misconduct claims. Between 2011 and 2012 there were 156 such lawsuits. The number has declined to 156 from 2013 to 2014. While it is reasonable to consider that not all of these suits had merit, what happened to Gray does provide reason to suspect that there are grounds for being concerned about policing in the city.

When people think they are being oppressed and subject to brutality, they tend to respond with anger. For example, one can see the rage the fine folks on Fox express when they speak of the War on Christmas and how Christians are being mistreated and persecuted in America. One can only imagine the anger that arises when people really are subject to mistreatment. As such, there seem to be legitimate grounds for anger.

While the anger of those engaged in violence might be justified, there is still the obvious concerns about whether or not such behavior is morally acceptable and whether or not such behavior is effective in achieving goals.

On the face of it, much of the violence and destruction would seem to be difficult to justify morally. The main reason is that most of the destruction seems to involve community infrastructure and the property of people who are not responsible for what has provoked the protests. While the anger against the police is certainly understandable, the attacks on reporters and firefighters are clearly unjustified. The reporters have presumably done nothing meriting being attacked and the firefighters are trying to keep the city from burning down, which is certainly a laudable goal. Crudely put, if the violent (alleged) protestors are striking against injustice, they are (mostly) hitting the wrong targets. To use an obviously analogy, if Bob has wronged Sam and Sam goes and smashes Sally’s windows because he lives near her and cannot get at Bob, then Sam certainly seems to have acted wrongly—no matter how badly Bob wronged him.

It might be countered that the destruction is morally acceptable because the (alleged) protestors are striking out against an unjust social order. The obvious reply is that while this might have some abstract appeal, the real damage is being done mainly to the innocent rather than the guilty. As such, the violence and destruction seem to be immoral.

A second issue, which can connect to the moral issue, is the effectiveness of violence as a means of protest and social change. Obviously enough, violence can be very effective in achieving goals—Americans can point to our own Revolutionary War and the wars won against everyone from the Apache to the Japanese. However, violence is generally only effective when one has enough power to achieve one’s goals. Since the rioters are up against not only the police but also the National Guard, it is rather clear they will not be able to achieve a victory through force of arms.

However, a case can be made that the violence gets attention and that it cannot be ignored. Peaceful protests, one might argue, sound nice but can be easy to ignore. After all, “change things or we will peacefully protest again” seems to have less power than “change things or there will be cop cars burning in the streets and the authorities will have to explain why they are losing control of the city.” Interestingly, many of the pundits who praise the property destruction that occurred during the Boston Tea Party are quick to condemn contemporary protests they do not like. These pundits also praise other violence they approve of, but do not seem to have a consistent principle regarding violence as a means of achieving goals.

Obviously, a strong case can be made against violence, such as that famously made by Dr. King. When there is the possibility of redress and justice through peaceful means, then non-violence seems to have an obvious advantage over violence: people are not hurt or killed and property is not destroyed. However, the fact that a major American city is now patrolled by the National Guard indicates that there are deep and profound problems in civil society. These problems must be addressed or the obvious consequence will be more violence.

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Race in America

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 23, 2012
Official photographic portrait of US President...

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While the United States professes that all men are created equal and there has been talk of a post-racial America, race is still a significant factor. To use but one example, the 2012 Presidential election involved considerable focus on race. Some, like Bill O’Reilly, lamented what they seem to have taken as the end of the dominance of the white establishment. Others merely focus on the demographic lines drawn in accord with race and hope to appeal to those groups when election time comes.

Despite this unfortunate obsession with race, the concept is incredibly vague. There have been various attempts to sort out clear definitions of the races. For example, the “one drop rule” was an attempt to distinguish whites from blacks, primarily for the purposes of slavery. More recently, there have been attempts to sort out race based on genetics. This has had some interesting results, including some people finding out that the race they identified with is not the same as their genetic “race.”

In many ways, of course, these sorts of findings illustrate that the concept of race is also a matter of perception. That is, being white (or black or whatever) is often a matter of being perceived (or perceiving oneself) as being white (or black or whatever). In many ways, race is clearly a social construct with little correlation to genetics.

Getting back to genetics, many Americans are mixed rather than “pure.” This, of course, creates the problem of sorting people into those allegedly important racial demographics. After all, if a person has a mixed ancestry, they would not seem to fall clearly into a category (other than mixed). To “solve” this “problem” the tendency is to go with how the person is perceived. To use one example, consider President Obama. While his mother was white and his father black, he is considered black (after all, his place in history is as America’s first black president). The fact that he is considered black is thus a matter of perception. After all, he is just as white as he is black—although, of course, he looks black. As might be imagined, appearance is often taken as the major determining factor in regards to race. So, Obama looks more black than white, so he is black. Or so it might be claimed.

There is, of course, a problem in regards to people who are “mixed” but look “pure.” Interestingly enough, in the United States it is typically the case that a “mixed” person who looks “pure” means that they look white enough. After all, people who are “mixed” but do not look clearly white are typically classified as belonging to the “other” race. Like, for example, President Obama.  People who look white enough are typically classified as white, despite their actual ancestry.

I can use myself as an example in this case. While my mother’s side is documented “white” all the way back to the Mayflower, my father’s side is mixed. While my grandfather’s ancestry is French and some Native American, we really have no idea about the specific mix. My grandmother, however, was at least 50% “pure” Mohawk. As such, I am mixed. However, I look rather white and I have consistently been treated as white. Since many official forms and job applications require that a person identify by race, I always pause and look through the categories—especially when there is supposed to be consequences for not being honest. When a form allows multiple selections, I go with “white” and “Native American” since that is true. If I can only pick one, I usually go with “other” and if that is not an option, “white.” After all, no one would doubt that I am white simply by looking at me. As such, I might “really” be white—at least in the way that matters most in society (namely appearance). However, the race categories continue to annoy me and I always worry a tiny bit that I will be busted someday for putting down the wrong race.

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Huck Finn

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on January 8, 2011

The classic book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is no stranger to controversy. The latest incident involves an edition that replaces the “n-word” with “slave”, presumably to sanitize the book.

While it might seem intuitively wrong to make such a change, there are some reasons that can be used to justify this change.

First, the n-word is regarded by many as offensive to a degree that warrants its removal from art. Of course, it might be argued that the n-word is still dropped with great regularity. However, it could be replied that since Twain was a white man, he should not have used this word (or should not use it were he writing today) and hence the search and replace is correct. It could also be argued that no one should use the word and hence it is acceptable to remove it from works, regardless of the skin color of  the person using it.

Second, this book is one of the most banned books in America, presumably because of the n-word. The book is, however, an important work of literature. By replacing the offending word, this sanitized version of the book should be somewhat more appealing to squeamish school boards. As such, this could provide a compromise situation. Students would be able to read a book very much like the one Twain wrote. Those concerned with protecting the youth from the word could be satisfied with this alteration.

However, there are some very good reasons as to why the book should not be changed.

First, there is the obvious matter of freedom of expression. Changing the word is, in effect, a form of censorship. If artists have a right to this freedom of expression, then this sort of censorship would seem to be unacceptable.

Naturally, it can be argued that the right of the artist is outweighed by the offensive nature of the word. There are, of course, always good reasons to restrict freedom of expression so as to protect people from harm (the yelling of “fire” being the stock example). The question is, of course, whether the alleged harms of leaving the word  in the book exceed the right of the artist (even though he is dead).

It could be pointed out that the modified edition is but one edition, thus allowing readers to chose which version they read. As such, the artist’s freedom of expression remains intact and the freedom of choice for the readers is expanded. This seems to be a point worth considering.

Second, there is the concern that such a change violates the artistic integrity of the work. It could be seen as being on par with someone putting shorts on David because the nakedness of the statue offends him.  The word that is being replaced could be regarded as a integral part of the work and the change could thus be seen as damaging the artistic integrity of the book.

Tied into this is also the matter of historical integrity. Modifying past works, be they artistic or otherwise, because people find some of the content offensive, seems to be rather problematic. One of the main problems is that this sort of approach seems to embrace what might be regarded as a type of dishonesty-a willingness to change things so as to avoid what offends.

Third, the publishers of the modified version are, of course, selling the book as being by Mark Twain. However, this modification means that the product is not truly just Twain’s work anymore. As such, it would be incorrect to present it as being the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Rather, it should be the Modified Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on the Original Version by Mark Twain.

This does seem to be a reasonable matter of concern.

Overall, it seems that the work should not be altered in this manner.

 

Race & The Doll Study: Experience

Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2010
cropped from :Image:Races2.jpg 1820 drawing of...
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In my previous blog, I discussed a bias in a new version of the classic doll study regarding race. In this blog, I will consider another concern about the study.

In the study, the children were asked questions such as “which child is bad?” and essentially directed to select a specific color. In addition to the bias inherent in not allowing “all” or “none” as clear options, there is also the matter of the basis on which the children made their selections.

One possibility is, of course, that racism is a factor in how the children made their choices. This is not to say that the children are consciously racists or were raised by people who are racists. Rather, the children could be influenced by various racist factors-such as how people are portrayed in the media or due to long standing stereotypes. Given that racism is still a factor in our society, it seems quite reasonable to accept this possibility. However, it is not the only possible factor.

Another possibility is that children are influenced by their experiences. So, when they pick a specific color it might not be a matter of racial bias but rather the result of positive or negative experiences. For example, if a child were bullied by a black child, he would tend to pick the black child on the card when asked “which child is mean?” As such, the choices made by some of the children might reflect specific experiences rather than a racial bias. However, there is the obvious question of how much these specific experiences are influencing the results and how much is the result of other factors (such as those that would be considered race based).

Suppose that people were asked “which person is in prison?” and were given a card showing people of various colors. Most people, I suspect, would pick the darker colors. Would this be evidence of racism? On one hand, it could be argued that is is racism-the people made the choice based on a racial bias against darker people. On the other hand, the choice could be based on the fact that black people are more likely to end up in prison than white people. Naturally, the fact that black people are more likely to be imprisoned than white people might be the result of racism, but being aware of this fact and making a choice based on it would not be racism.

To use another example, if people were asked “which person is employed?” they would tend to pick the lighter skinned people. This could be racism or merely knowledge that there is a disparity in employment along racial lines in the United States.

In the case of the study, some of the apparent positive bias towards whites and negative bias towards black might be the result of this factor. Take, for example, the question about who is smarter. Whites generally do better in school and on standardized tests. It is not unlikely that the children are aware of the performance of their classmates. As such, when asked something like “which child is smart?” they would tend to think of specific students they know who do well in school and these would generally tend to be white students. in this case, the choice would not be the result of racial bias on part of the child.

As such, it might be the case that some of the children who seem to be racially biased are actually not biased and are merely making their selection based on what they have experienced. These experiences might, of course, be caused by racism. For example, the lower performance of black students relative to white students can plausible be connected to racism. As such, it must be considered that some of the children might simply be aware of racism rather than being racist.

This is, of course, were the interviews with the children become especially important. They serve to provide some insight into why the children picked as they did. Of course, the fact that the media folks tend to sensationalize things must be taken into account as well. For example, the girl who said that she picked the black child as bad because the child is black is being used to advertise the story-as opposed to the children who presented rather enlightened views.

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Race & The Doll Study: Bias

Posted in Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on May 19, 2010
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The Anderson Cooper 360 program on CNN recently presented the findings of a new version of the classic doll study regarding race.  The gist of the study is that black and white children were presented with a color spectrum (in the form of cartoon children or an actual color spectrum from white to black) and asked various questions such as “who is the bad child?” and “who is the smart child?”. The general findings are not surprising: both white and black children proved to be more inclined to associate positive qualities to lighter skin colors and negative qualities to darker skin colors. In general, black children tended to show slightly less bias in these regards.

Those conducting the study did acknowledge that it is limited in size and hence the results must be extended to the general population with caution. However, the results do seem to be intuitively plausible and they can be checked by additional studies that will expand the sample size.

Aside from the matter of size, one of my main concerns with the study is that the approach taken has a built in biasing factor. As noted above, the children would be asked a question such as “which child is bad?”  or “which child is smart?” and this rather clearly directed them to pick a specific color. The children were not given a “none of the above”  (or “all of the above”) option and this is a biasing factor. Interesting, some children did create their own “all of the above” or “none of the above” options when asked such questions.  For example, when asked about which child he would want to be friends with, one of the children picked all of the colors and said, in effect, that he did not base friendship on color. Naturally, most children would not be aware that they had the option to do anything other than pick one color when asked. After all, the questions were worded in a way that guided children towards picking one color and, of course, the children were rather directly presented with a set of colors to chose from.

While this might not seem important, it can actually have an impact on the results. To be specific, when a child picks a specific color in response t0 a question, what the child might well be saying is “if I must pick a color, I will pick this one.” While this does provide some information about what the children think, it does so in a rather limited manner. To use an analogy, imagine if someone put three pies in front of  a person and asked the person “which pie do you not like?” The person might, in fact, like all the pies. However, if pressed to chose, she would probably pick the pie she liked less than the others. If she was then asked “which pie do you like?”, she would probably pick the one she liked the most, even though she might actually like all of them.  To conclude that the person liked the blueberry pie and disliked the apple pie based on this study would be an error. After all, the person was not given a clear option of selecting “all” or “none.”  Likewise for the color study. Of course, such studies can provide an indication of preferences and such information can be useful-provided that the limitations are properly acknowledged. While some people will break out of the limits on their own, most people will not. While this approach can provide interesting information (such as how many people will break out of the limits), it does create a bias by not allowing a full range of choices.

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The New Black Barbie Dolls

Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2009

Mattel recently released a new line of black Barbie dolls. Not surprisingly, the reactions have been somewhat mixed. On the positive side, some people approve of the fact that Mattel is doing more to provide a greater ethnic diversity in the Barbie lineup. On the negative side, some people have been critical that the dolls fail to be “black enough.” Interestingly, this is a criticism that was once made against Obama.

While I do understand the concern that Barbies should reflect ethnic diversity, it is somewhat interesting to hear people complain that a specific ethnic Barbie of type X does not look properly X or X enough (for example, that a black Barbie does not look black enough). After all, these are Barbie dolls-plastic dolls whose measurements and plastic perfection cannot be matched by real woman and girls. Obviously, the Barbie doll has been subject to numerous feminist criticisms over the years and these still seem to generally apply. After all, are there overweight Barbies? Short, stocky Barbies? Weight lifter Barbies? I suspect not.

This is not to say that the fact that Barbie exemplifies a stereotype of female appearance excuses Mattel from not creating ethnically diverse Barbies. Rather, it is just an observation that it struck me as interesting that people would be concerned that black Barbies don’t look black enough when Barbies generally look more like sculpted androids (or fembots) than human beings.

Obama Joker Posters

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 5, 2009

A poster featuring a Joker like modification of Obama’s face has been appearing in Los Angeles and on the internet. In addition to the face, the poster has the word “socialism.” As is to be expected, Rush Limbaugh has also weighed in on this, prompting responses from various bloggers.

Apparently, some folks are calling this a racist attack. However, there seems to be nothing about the poster that clearly seems racist. Unless, of course, any sort of critical response to a black person is automatically racist. That is, of course, absurd. After all, to say that any criticism of a black person is racist would seem to entail that there can never be an warranted criticism of what a black person thinks or does. For example, this would make an argument between a black and white philosopher over something like the nature of universals a racist act. After all, the white professor would be critical of the view he disagreed with.

Naturally, it can be pointed out that the Joker poster is not on par with a bit of philosophical argumentation. After all, it is a fairly harsh image that seems to be trying to convey the idea that Obama is on par with the Joker. That is, a super villain out toburn the world.

True, this is a rather harsh and hyperbolic image. The idea that it seems to be intended to convey does not seem to be a fair one, hence it can also be regarded as unwarranted in addition to being extreme.

However, it does not seem to be racist. After all, Obama is being compared to the Joker and this has no racial baggage at all. While the Joker is white (and actually the color white in classic Batman), there are no racial connections associated with the Joker-at least as far as my memory of Batman movies and comics goes. The poster does not seem to be attacking any aspect of Obama’s race. Rather, it seems to be an attack on what the creator takes to be Obama’s socialist plans.

Now, it could be said that it is racist because Obama is being presented in “whiteface.” However, I suspect that the creator of the poster picked the Joker because he is a convenient symbol of destruction and chaos, which is what some folks think of Obama. This is, I believe, no more racist than Jon Stewart constantly casting Dick Cheney as Darth Vadar.

Rush Limbaugh got into the game by asserting that the Joker thing fits Obama because Obama admits to wearing a mask. Rush says:

Obama has admitted to wearing masks. In “Dreams from My Father”: (paraphrasing) “It was usually an effective tactic, another one of those tricks I had learned. People were satisfied so long as you were courteous and smiled and made no sudden moves. They were more than satisfied; they were relieved, such a pleasant surprise to find a well mannered young black man who didn’t seem angry all the time.” This is his tactic for fooling white people. This is the mask.

In terms of assessing this, there are a couple points worth considering. First, there is a huge leap from the fact that Obama learned to act in ways that did not scare white folks to the claim that Obama is like the Joker. After all, the Joker acts in ways calculated to create fear in people. Second, while Obama “wore masks”, it is also true that everyone seems to do this. We have a mask for work, a mask for our grandparents, a mask for our drinking buddies, a mask for our spouse, and so on. The world, it has often been argued, almost never sees a person’s true self. As such, if Obama is thus like the Joker, then we all are. Third, the Joker doesn’t wear a mask. The classic Joker had his skin and hair color changed due to a swim through chemicals. The latest Joker seems to just wear makeup (or maybe not-the movie does not make it clear).

So, my view is that the poster is not itself racist and Obama is not the Joker, or even Joker like.