It has been argued that everyone is a little bit racist. Various studies have shown that black America are treated rather differently than white Americans. Examples of this include black students being more likely to be suspended than white students, blacks being arrested at a higher rate than whites, and job applications with “black sounding” names being less likely to get callbacks than those with “white sounding” names. Interestingly, studies have shown that the alleged racism is not confined to white Americans: black Americans also seem to share this racism. One study involves a simulator in which the participant takes on the role of a police officer and must decide to shoot or holster her weapon when confronted by simulated person. The study indicates that participants, regardless of race, shoot more quickly at blacks than whites and are more likely to shoot an unarmed black person than an unarmed white person. There are, of course, many other studies and examples that support the claim that everyone is a little bit racist.
Given the evidence, it would seem reasonable to accept the claim that everyone is a little bit racist. It is, of course, also an accepted view in certain political circles. However, there seems to be something problematic with claiming that everyone is racist, even if it is the claim that the racism is of the small sort.
One point of logical concern is that inferring that all people are at least a little racist on the basis of such studies would be problematic. Rather, what should be claimed is that the studies indicate the presence of racism and that these findings can be generalized to the entire population. But, this could be dismissed as a quibble about induction.
Some people, as might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because to be accused of racism is rather offensive. Some, as also might be suspected, would take issue with this claim because they claim that racism has ended in America, hence people are not racist. Not even a little bit. Other might complain that the accusation is a political weapon that is wielded unjustly. I will not argue about these matters, but will instead focus on another concern, that of the concept of racism in this context.
In informal terms, racism is prejudice, antagonism or discrimination based on race. Since various studies show that people have prejudices linked to race and engage in discrimination along racial lines, it seems reasonable to accept that everyone is at least a bit racist.
To use an analogy, consider the matter of lying. A liar, put informally, is someone who makes a claim that she does not believe with the intention of getting others to accept it as true. Since there is considerable evidence that people engage in this behavior, it can be claimed that everyone is a little bit of a liar. That is, everyone has told a lie.
Another analogy would be to being an abuser. Presumably each person has been at least a bit mean or cruel to another person she has been in a relationship with (be it a family relationship, a friendship or a romantic relationship). This would thus entail that everyone is at least a little bit abusive.
The analogies could continue almost indefinitely, but it will suffice to end them here, with the result that we are all racist, abusive liars.
On the one hand, the claim is true. I have been prejudiced. I have lied. I have been mean to people I love. I have engaged in addictive behavior. The same is likely to be true of even the very best of us. Since we have lied, we are liars. Since we have abused, we are abusers. Since we have prejudice and have discriminated based on race, we are racists.
On the other hand, the claim is problematic. After all, to judge someone to be a racist, an abuser, or a liar is to make a strong moral judgment of the person. For example, imagine the following conversation:
Sam: “I’m interested in your friend Sally. You know her pretty well…what is she like?”
Me: “She is a liar and a racist.”
Sam: “But…she seems so nice.”
Me: “She is. In fact, she’s one of the best people I know.”
Sam: “But you said she is a liar and a racist.”
Me: “Oh, she is. But just a little bit.”
Me: “Well, she told me that when she was in college, she lied to a guy to avoid going on a date. She also said that when she was a kid, she thought white people were all racists and would not be friends with them. So, she is a liar and a racist.”
Sam: “I don’t think you know what those words mean.”
The point is, of course, that terms like “racist”, “abuser” and “liar” have what can be regarded as proper moral usage. To be more specific, because these are such strong terms, they should be applied in cases in which they actually fit. For example, while anyone who lies is technically a liar, the designation of being a liar should only apply to someone who routinely engages in that behavior. That is, a person who has a moral defect in regards to honesty. Likewise, anyone who has a prejudice based on race or discriminates based on race is technically a racist. However, the designation of racist should be reserved for those who have the relevant moral defect—that is, racism is their way of being, as opposed to failing to be perfectly unbiased. As such, using the term “racist” (or “liar”) in claiming that “everyone is a little bit racist” (or “everyone is little bit of a liar”) either waters down the moral term or imposes too harsh a judgment on the person. Either way would be problematic.
So, if the expression “we are all a little bit racist” should not be used, what should replace it? My suggestion is to speak instead of people being subject to race linked biases. While saying “we are all subject to race linked biases” is less attention grabbing than “we are all a little bit racist”, it seems more honest as a description.
After the election and re-election of President Obama, some Americans seriously considered the notion that America had become a post-racial country. Seemingly acting in accord with this notion, the Supreme Court of the United States has made rulings based on an assumption that racism is no longer a significant factor in America. Things seemed good, at least in that perception of reality. And then Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling started talking.
Cliven Bundy originally gained national fame when the federal government decided to seize his cattle in response to his illegally grazing his cattle on federal land for decades. Some conservative politicians, Fox News personalities and armed militia rushed to his defense—to stand between law enforcement and someone accused of stealing from the government.
Not surprisingly, some critics pointed out that Bundy seemed to be engaged in all that conservatives profess to hate, namely sponging off the government, breaking the law and defying legal authority. Sean Hannity emerged as his staunchest media defender, despite the fact that Hannity had, on previous shows, denounced and railed against people who had done the same sorts of things—namely sponging off the state and breaking the law.
In an interesting, but perhaps not surprising, turn of events, Bundy made some claims that most people would regard as rather racist: “I want to tell you one more thing I know about the Negro. They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”
Not surprisingly, many of those who had rushed to embrace him suddenly released their grip and ran to put as much daylight as they could between themselves and their former hero. This distancing could be dismissed as mere political theater and not an expression of actual distaste. That is, it might be claimed that his former supporters abandoned him not because of their own moral commitments but because they are well aware that overt racism no longer sells as well as it did.
After the Bundy story started cooling down in the media, Donald Sterling gained the spotlight when a recording of him making racist comments was leaked to the public. While Sterling’s views on race and gender have not been a secret, these remarks resulted in NBA commissioner Adam Silver banning him for life from NBA events and imposing a $2.5 million fine. There is also talk of compelling him to sell his team (based on the clause regarding damage done by an owner’s actions).
Not surprisingly, Sterling has been widely condemned and his punishment applauded. Sponsors and advertisers have also pulled away from the Clippers. While this might seem like a victory for morality, it seems unlikely that the NBA and the sponsors were primarily motivated by ethics. After all, Sterling is well known for his views and racism has been evil since, well, the advent of racism. The more plausible explanation is that Sterling’s words did financial damage to the NBA and failure to publicly punish him would probably have cost the NBA a considerably amount of money. As such, this was a triumph of money and not morality. In the case of Bundy, it was a triumph of politics and not principle. Or perhaps not.
While it is certainly reasonable to explain the response of the politicians and pundits in terms of political expediency and the response of the NBA in terms of financial expediency, there are reasons why racism now comes with a high cost politically and financially. One explanation popular with some is that there is a liberal conspiracy to punish people for being racists—that the liberals are somehow in the wrong for considering racists to be wrong and imposing penalties on them for their racism. Perhaps this is based on the belief that the liberals are not sincere and that race is just a political game-piece to them. This speculation is, of course, based on an “unknown fact” about the secret motive of liberals.
Another explanation is that while racism remains, the arc of the moral universe has bent further towards justice and now most Americans correctly regard racism as evil—or at least it is recognized as something that is to be publicly condemned. If this is the case, then while America is not post-racial, at least it is further along the moral arc. This is, as Dr. King had claimed, a step towards making good on the promise of America—we profess to hold all people to be created equal and to be endowed with inalienable rights. We also claim to believe in liberty and justice for all. Because we seem to be taking these moral principles seriously, racism is now quite costly—so much so that it factors strongly in the pragmatic decisions of politicians and businesspeople.
The death of Trayvon Martin has created a significant controversy in the United States and it has attracted attention around the world.
From a legal standpoint, the main points of contention are factual in nature. If Zimmerman acted in legitimate self-defense (as he claims), then he would seem to have acted within the law. If Zimmerman did not act in legitimate self-defense, then it would seem that he would have acted outside of the law and thus should presumably be charged with a crime. There also seems to be the possibility that both people believed they were acting in legitimate self-defense and, of course, perhaps there are other possibilities as well. From an objective standpoint, the currently available evidence does not seem decisive. That is, in a hypothetical trial a competent attorney could weave a narrative that accounts for all the existing evidence that supports either the defense or the prosecution.
Not surprisingly, media folks and other people have been rather busy digging up information regarding Zimmerman and Martin. Their proponents have, naturally enough, focused on presenting positive information whole their opponents have fixated on the negative. In the case of Martin, considerable focus has been placed on the claim that he was suspended from school because of an empty bag containing marijuana residue. In the case of Zimmerman, focus has been placed on past behavior that seems negative.
Also not surprisingly, race has been brought in as a factor. It has been claimed that Zimmerman acted on the basis of racism and that Martin was shot because he was a young black man. It is this aspect of the matter that
has served to generate considerable attention.
Given the history of racism in the United States, it would not be absurd to consider that race was a factor in the incident. However, an accusation of racism requires adequate support if it is to be anything but a mere accusation. Naturally, to assume that there must be racism involved because the parties involved were black and Hispanic would itself seem to be a racist assumption. This is because it would assume that a Hispanic must be motivated by racism and not some other factors.
The difficulty of discerning whether or not racism is a causal factor can range from very easy to very difficult. For example, if people in Klan regalia murder a black person while shouting racist slogans and make it clear that they are killing the person because s/he is black, then it would be eminently reasonable to believe that racism was a factor. However, the matter is obviously not so clear in the case of Zimmerman. As such, to confirm a hypothesis of racism as a causal factor would require sorting out what would serve as evidence for such a claim and showing that such evidence exists.
As might be imagined, sorting out what counts as evidence for racism can be a rather controversial matter. As noted above, there are some easy and obvious cases (such as those involving self-identified racists who make it clear they are motivated by racism). However, when there is no Klan hood or shouted racist slogans, then a more subtle sort of evidence is called for. This, of course, raises the concern that the evidence might be rather too subtle.
One obvious starting point is the ethnicity of those involved. On the face of it, for racism to be a factor, then those involved would seem to need to differ in ethnicity (although this could be disputed-perhaps a person could be a racist regarding his/her own race). While this might be a necessary condition, it is clearly not a sufficient condition-otherwise every (presumably negative) interaction between folks of different ethnic backgrounds would be at least partially caused by racism. This seems to be so absurd that, at the very least, the burden of proof would need to be on the person who claims that racism is always a factor. Interestingly, if it could be shown that racism is always a factor, then it would not be a special factor in any such cases-since every such case would involve racism.
Getting back to the specific case, the fact that Zimmerman and Martin are of different ethnic backgrounds means that racism is a possibility-but only a mere possibility.
A second avenue of evidence is what a person says. In the United States there is a reasonably clear collection of racist terms and the use of them can be taken as evidence for the possibility of racism. In addition to specific words, there is also (obviously enough) the other things that a person might have said before or during the incident in question. It must, of course, be noted that such terms and the use of certain remarks is not conclusive evidence of racism. To use the obvious example, people in an ethnic group sometimes use racist terms regarding their own ethnicity. In an interesting coincidence, as I type this, I am listening to Kanye West and Jay-Z singing “Niggas in Paris” courtesy of Grooveshark. However, it would seem unreasonable to say that West and Jay-Z are presenting evidence of their racism against blacks. Naturally, it could be contended that the use of such terms is privileged by race/ethnicity and if a person of a different ethnicity uses such a term, then it is racist. This view, obviously enough, seems to involve accepting that racial or ethnic differences are actually significant and meaningful differences-which might be regarded as being a form of racism. However, discussing this matter would take the discussion to far afield and it must be set aside, at least for now.
There is also the fact that when people are angry, they tend to use the words they think will do the most damage or express their anger and hence they often use terms with racist connections. To use the obvious analogy, when people are angry, they also tend to swear, mainly because of what such words express and what they do. As such, saying things that sound racist need not be strong evidence that a person is racist.
Of course, it can be countered that people who are not racist do not use such terms even when angry. As such, a person using such terms when angry is saying what they really think, but conceal under normal conditions. This, of course, rests on the assumption that anger reveals what is truly in a person’s mind as opposed to the view that people say in anger what they do not really mean. As might imagined, this can be rather difficult to sort out as we do not fully understand the workings of the mind.
In the specific case at hand, the transcript of what Zimmerman said during his 911 call does not contain any blatantly racist remarks. Naturally, considerable attention has been paid to the unintelligible parts of the recording. However, these seem to be more of a Rorschach test for the listener than actual evidence of any racist comments. The mere fact that a garbled word or words might sound something like a racist word or phrase is hardly adequate evidence of racism-after all, people can hear “words” even in natural sounds and the sounds of animal and this hardly proves that the wind or a husky was actually saying specific words. Even if audio experts are brought in to work on the audio, there is still the obvious question of whether the “improvement” of the audio would reveal something that was actually said, or would merely make garbled sounds resemble a racist (or non-racist) remark. However, if the audio were properly cleaned up and then revealed unambiguously racist words, then this would be quite a different matter.
People do point to the fact that Zimmerman does say things that seem racist to them and this can be used to make a reasonable case in favor of the racism hypothesis. However, there is the obvious question of whether Zimmerman would have reacted similarly had the situation differed only by the person not being black. If Zimmerman would have said comparable things seeing a young Hispanic, white or Asian, etc., then it would be reasonable to infer that he was either not racist (or was racist towards everyone). Of course, there is the obvious question of whether such evidence is available or not.
It could also be replied that since I am a mostly Caucasian French-English-Mohawk mix, I simply cannot see the racism that would be obvious to someone of a different ethnicity/race. While it is tempting to dismiss such a response as being racist (after all, it makes assumptions about me based on my genetic background), it is reasonable to consider that different experiences that are often linked to ethnicity/race can lead to different perspectives. To support this, I will use my own experience.
While I look rather white, I have been a professor at an historically black university since 1993. While I would not claim that this enables me to have a “trans-racial” perspective, it has given me a somewhat different perspective on matters involving race and racism. I have found that because I have white skin, people will say and do things around me without being “on guard” against seeming racist. Over the years, I have noticed that people will sometimes say and do racist things that they actually do not see as racist-though the certainly seem racist to me. One classic example is that when I first started teaching at Florida A&M University, people would innocently ask me “what is it like teaching those people?” I would, of course, say “You mean students, right?” Then there would always be a very uncomfortable pause as the person realized that they had just said something that seemed just a bit racist. These sort of experiences have served to make it clear to me that what might not seem racist to one person might, in fact, be racist when properly considered. At the very least, it might truly seem racist to the person. As such, I would be a fool not to consider that my perception of the matter might be in error-that I am missing real evidence that others can clearly see. Of course, being a philosopher, I must also consider the fact the people sometimes see what is not, in fact, there. This raises the obvious problem of sorting out perception and reality-a matter that goes far beyond the limited scope of this essay.
Third, an obvious place to look for evidence of alleged current racism is to look for evidence of past racism. After all, people tend to act in accord with their character. This, of course, can run us in a bit of a circle: to find out whether past actions where racist or not, we would need to use the standards that we need for the current case. As such, turning to past cases would require establishing that those cases involved racism. If those past cases are in doubt, then they would not serve as very good evidence for the claim that the current case involves racism. If the past cases were clearly cases involving racism, then they would lend credence to a current claim of racism.
While there has been considerable focus on Zimmerman, as this is being written there seems to a lack of decisive evidence of his alleged evidence. While absence of evidence is not itself evidence of absence, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who claim that he is a racist. But, as noted above, perhaps such evidence exists and I simply cannot properly interpret it.
It might be argued, as some have, that Zimmerman cannot be a racist because he is “half Hispanic.” This is, obviously enough, not a good argument. Racism is, ironically enough, an equal opportunity employer.
My overall conclusion is, obviously enough, one of uncertainty. As this is being written, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence showing that Zimmerman is a racist or that he acted from racist motivations. Likewise, there seems to be a lack of truly decisive evidence that he is not a racist.
Given a presumption of innocence, it seems reasonable to hold that a person is not a racist until proven otherwise. As such, I would not be inclined to claim that Zimmerman of racism at this time. If additional evidence becomes available, my view could change-but, as always, a conclusion should be based on adequate evidence that is objectively considered. I am, however, keeping in mind that I could be just as blind to evidence of racism as the people who asked me about teaching “those people” in the example I gave above.
As always, my commitment is to the truth and if decisive evidence can be provided for or against a claim of racism, then I would accept such a claim based on the evidence.
Being a long time gamer, I am very familiar with the vile mucous pits of sexism and racism that constitute much of the gaming habitats. Although I am not a member of any of the preferred target groups of the spewers of hate, their casual vomiting of hate causes me considerable dismay. While I have made the occasional futile attempt to correct such behavior, my usual recourse is avoidance (or the mute option).
Interestingly enough, there are those who actively defend this element of the gaming community and some of the top players are counted among this body. Most recently Aris Bakhtanians presented the sort of quality defense one would expect to given for sexism:
The sexual harassment is part of the culture. If you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years.
One problem with this “defense” is that Bakhtanians is committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. After all, the mere fact that something has been “established” for years is no evidence that it is good, correct or even sensible. For example, people have been committing murder and rape for years, yet no one would consider these practices justified by their longstanding existence.
Another way to see the problem with this “defense” is by considering the following modification of his argument:
Slavery is part of the culture. If you remove that from the slave plantation community, it’s not the slave plantation community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years.
While the racism and sexism he is defending are clearly not as wicked as slavery, his reasoning does parallel the sort of “reasoning” that is regularly used to defend immoral practices. As such, his reasoning should be rejected on the grounds of its absurdity. My criticism is, of course, based on using parity of reasoning and a reductio ad absurdum.
Interestingly enough Bakhtanians seems to believe that any attempt to criticize the fighting game folks because of their behavior would be “ethically wrong.”
Like Ben Kuchera at Penny Arcade, I think that this is perhaps the first time an “argument” has been given that it would be unjust to reduce sexism and racism in the gaming world (or at least the fighting game community).
On the face of it, it seems absurd to think that it would be wrong to reduce or at least criticize behavior that is itself morally wrong. Of course, Bakhtanians does attempt to defend this sort of behavior but his defense hardly seems to be intellectually compelling. As such, he does not seem to have much of a case. On the positive side, having a high profile gamer say such things does serve to draw attention to the vile attitudes that taint the gaming community (of which I am a member) and the need to clean up these mucous pits.
He even attempts to defend this behavior by claiming that this attitude of hateful exclusion is the “beauty” and “essence” of the fighting game community:
The beauty of the fighting game community, and you should know this – it’s based around not being welcome. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the key essence of it. When you walk into an arcade for the first time, nobody likes you.
This sort of attitude hardly seems beautiful. It might be the “essence” of the existing community, perhaps in the same way that racism is the essence of white supremacist groups. However, this sort of essence seems to be undesirable. After all, the general idea of a community that is based on an activity like gaming should be founded on inclusion rather than exclusion. After all, this is a community of video game players and not the KKK. In any case, the burden of proof seems to be on him to show that such sexism and racism are both morally desirable and essential to this community.
It is at this point that someone might wish to bring up the matter of free speech. I am, of course, a well-established defender of free speech. However, freedom of speech does not extend to the freedom to say things that do unwarranted harm to people. This includes intentionally creating an environment that is brutally hostile to people based simply on their gender or race and this seems to be the sort of thing that he is defending. While he thinks that being told that this is wrong is wrong, his moral compass seems to be pointing in the wrong direction.
I recently had an interesting discussion about the Tea Party and Muslims. It began with a Tea Party person being upset about the accusations of racism against the Tea Party. I think I surprised him a bit when I agreed that the Tea Party folks are often accused of being racist on the basis of a very visible fringe element-the sort of folks who carry signs depicting Obama as witch doctor. I also made the point that a group should not be defined by its fringe element or by the worst of those who claim to belong to the group. Rather, a group should be assessed on its actual values and the general behavior of its core. So, for example, the various Tea Party groups are not racist groups. In contrast, something like the KKK would be a paradigm of a racist group. That said, there are some grounds for being concerned about what seem to be racist elements in individual Tea Partiers. Of course, the same can be said about Democrats.
The conversation then switched to the matter of Muslims and how they pose a threat to the United States. I did the obvious move and pointed out that he had just agreed that a group should not be judged by its fringe or worst elements. To be consistent, what applies to the Tea Party should also apply to Muslims. After all, just as the fact that there are racists in the Tea Party does not make the Tea Party a racist movement, the fact that there are Muslim terrorists does not make Islam a terrorist faith.
As I expected, the counter was that Islam is inherently a religion of terror while the Tea Party is about taxes and not about race. This is a reasonable counter in the sense that it is based on the principle of relevant difference: if being a terrorist is part of being a Muslim and being a racist is not part of being a Tea Partier, then all Muslims would be terrorists while Tea Party members need not be racists.
While I do agree that most Tea Party folks are not racists, I do not agree that all Muslims are terrorists. While people do point to quotes from the Koran, people also point to some rather bad stuff in the bible. Just as I would not infer that all Christians are pro-slavery based on what the bible says, I would not infer that all Muslims are pro-terror based on what the Koran says about jihad. Fortunately enough, most people do not follow their holy books to the letter.
My considered view is that labeling the entire Tea Party as racist is just as unfair and unjust as labeling all Muslims as terrorists. As such, the Tea Party folks who resent being called racists should extend the same courtesy to Muslims and refrain from labeling them all as terrorists. Sure, there are Muslims who are terrorists-just as there are Tea Partiers who are racists.
I’m working on the next volume in my fallacy book series, so I’ll post the entries as I write them. Any useful criticism would be appreciated.
This fallacy occurs when a person uncritically assumes that the cause of a perceived mistreatment (such as not being hired or receiving a poor grade) is due to prejudice (such as sexism or racism) on the part of the person or persons involved in the perceived mistreatment. The form of “reasoning” is as follows:
1. Person P believes s/he is being mistreated by person or persons M.
2. Person P regards himself or herself as a member of group G and believes this group has been subject to prejudice. Or P believes that M regards him/her as a member of G.
3. P uncritically concludes that his/her perceived mistreatment is the result of prejudice against G on the part of M.
This is a fallacy because the mere that that a person perceives himself or herself as being mistreated does not provide sufficient justification for the claim that the alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice. After all, even if the situation does involve mistreatment, it might be the result of factors that have nothing to do with prejudice of the sort being considered. For example, imagine the following situation: Jane is taking a chemistry class and always comes to class late, disrupting the lecture when she strolls in. She also blatantly checks her text messages on her mobile phone during class. She earns a B in the class, but is assigned a C instead because the professor is angry about her behavior. Jane would be correct to conclude she has been mistreated given the disparity between what she earned and what she received, but she would not be justified in assuming that it was “just because she was a woman” without adequate evidence for the professor being a sexist.
This mistake is reasoning is similar to the various causal fallacies. In these fallacies an uncritical leap is made from insufficient evidence to conclude that one thing caused another. In this case, a leap is being made without sufficient evidence to conclude that the alleged mistreatment was caused by prejudice.
Reasonably concluding that an alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice involves establishing that the mistreatment is, in fact, a mistreatment and the most plausible explanation for the mistreatment is prejudice. Without taking these steps, the person is engaging in poor reasoning and is not justified in his/her conclusion-even if the conclusion is, in fact, true. This is because good reasoning is not just about getting a correct conclusion (this could be done accidentally by guessing) but by getting it in the right way.
If a person has good reason to believe that the alleged mistreatment is a mistreatment and that it is a result of prejudice, then the reasoning would obviously not be fallacious. For example, if Jane was aware that she earned a B and was intentionally assigned a C, she would be justified in believing she was mistreated. If the professor made sexist remarks and Jane knew he downgraded all the other women in the class and none of the men, then Jane would be justified in concluding that the mistreatment stemmed from prejudice.
Not surprisingly, the main factor that leads people to commit this fallacy “honestly” is because the group in question has been subject to prejudice. From a psychological standpoint, it is natural for a person who is aware of prejudice against the group in question to perceive mistreatment as coming from that prejudice. And, as a matter of fact, when considering a perceived mistreatment it would be quite reasonable to consider the possibility of prejudice. However, until there is adequate evidence it remains just that-a mere possibility.
In addition to cases in which the fallacy is committed as an honest mistake, there are cases in which this type of “reasoning” is cynically exploited as an excuse or even as a means of revenge (charges of prejudice, even if completely unfounded, can do a lot of damage to a person’s career in many professions). As an example of an excuse, a person who has done poorly in a class because of a lack of effort might tell his parents that “the professor has this thing against men.”
In addition to the fact that this is a mistake in reasoning, there are other reasons to avoid this fallacy. First, uncritically assuming that other people are prejudiced is itself a sign of prejudice. For example, to uncritically assume that all whites are racists is just as racist as assuming that all Jewish people are covetous or all blacks are criminals. Second, use of this fallacy, especially as the “reasoning” behind an excuse can have serious consequences. For example, if a student who did poorly in a class because of a lack of effort concludes that his grade was the result of racism and tells his parents, they might consider a law suit against the professor. As another example, if a person becomes accustomed to being able to fall back on this line of “reasoning” they might be less motivated in their efforts since they can “explain” their failures through prejudice.
It must be emphasized that it is not being claimed that prejudice does not really exist or that people are not victims of prejudice. It is being claimed that people need to be very carefully in their reasoning when it comes to prejudice and accusations of prejudice.
Sam: “Can you believe this-I got a C in that class.”
Jane: “Well, your work was pretty average and you didn’t put much effort into the class. How often did you show up, anyway?”
Sam: “That has nothing to do with it. I deserve at least a B. That chick teaching the class just hates men. That’s why I did badly.”
Bill: “Hey, I earned an ‘A’, man.”
Sam: “She just likes you because you’re not a real man like me.”
Ricardo: “I applied for six jobs and got turned down six times!”
Ann: “Where did you apply?”
Ricardo: “Six different software companies.”
Ann: “So, why didn’t you get a job? Was it because you don’t actually have any experience in software?”
Ricardo: “All the people interviewing me were white. A person like me just can’t get a job in this white world.”
Dave: “Can you believe that-those people laughed at me when I gave my speech.”
Will: “Well, that was cruel. But you really should make sure that you have your facts right before giving a speech. As two examples, Plato was not an Italian and Descartes did not actually say ‘I drink, therefore I iz.’”
Dave: “They wouldn’t have laughed if a straight guy had said those things!”
Dave: “Yeah! They laughed just because I’m gay!”
Will: “Well, they didn’t laugh at me, but I actually did my research.”
A phobia is, obviously enough, a fear. What distinguishes a phobia from other fears is that a phobia is persistent, intense (though the intensity can vary) and irrational. Having a rational fear is not a phobia. For example, a person who is momentarily afraid because he discovers a black widow on his arm does not have arachnophobia. Someone who lives in ongoing fear of spiders even when they are not present might well have arachnophobia.
Interestingly, the term “phobia” is often used to indicate dislike, prejudice or discrimination rather than fear in the strict sense. For example, people who dislike homosexuals are often labeled as being homophobic. Perhaps this is based on an underlying assumption that there dislike or prejudice is based on fear. In any case, using the term “phobia” seems to be intended to convey that someone who has the phobia (such as homophobia) is irrational in this regard. So, in the case of homophobia the idea is that the person has an irrational dislike of homosexuals.
Not surprisingly, this usage of “phobia” is generally intended to be judgmental and critical. To be labeled as having such a phobia is, in effect, to be accused of being both irrational and prejudiced.
Just as there are rational fears, there are also rational dislikes. For example, pedophiles are reviled and disliked. But to claim that people who dislike them have pedophilephobia would be an error. This is because the label would imply that disliking pedophiles is a prejudice. However, this does not seem to be a prejudice but a correct moral view. As such, if a “phobia” of this sort can be shown to be rational and correct, then it would not be a phobia at all.
One recent example of such an argument is from Sam Harris, the famous atheist. He writes:
There is no such thing as Islamophobia. Bigotry and racism exist, of course—and they are evils that all well-intentioned people must oppose. And prejudice against Muslims or Arabs, purely because of the accident of their birth, is despicable. But like all religions, Islam is a system of ideas and practices. And it is not a form of bigotry or racism to observe that the specific tenets of the faith pose a special threat to civil society. Nor is it a sign of intolerance to notice when people are simply not being honest about what they and their co-religionists believe.
In the light of the above, Harris’ claim can be backed up by two arguments. The first is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is an irrational fear. This is because Islam is a special threat and hence being afraid of it is not irrational. The second is that there is no Islamophobia in the sense that a phobia is a prejudice or bias. This is because people should dislike Islam for its tenets.
One obvious reply is that some people do seem to have an irrational fear and bias against Muslims. Of course, Harris would have an easy reply to this. After all, he notes that being prejudiced against people who are Muslims “by accident of their birth” would be despicable. He is, apparently, distinguishing between the sin and the sinner (so to speak).
One reply worth considering is that people can have irrational fears even in regards to things that are rational to be afraid of. For example, consider terrorism. While it is rational to be afraid of terrorism, there is a point at which such a fear becomes irrational. Likewise for Islam. It seem clear that a person could have a fear of Islam far out of proportion to the threat it poses (assuming it poses a threat) and that this fear could be irrational, persistent and intense. That is, it could be a phobia. As such, there would seem to be such a thing as Islamophobia (at least in theory).
But this seems like it might be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris is probably not claiming that an irrational fear of Islam is not possible. Rather, he seems to be making (a bit dramatically) the point that it is rational to be afraid of Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. To settle this point requires determining whether Islam is, in fact, a threat of the sort alleged by Harris.
Another reply worth considering is that people can be biased or prejudiced even when there are rational reasons to dislike something. This is because a person could dislike (or even hate) something or someone on the basis of insufficient reasons. Thus, while the object of the dislike might be such that it is worthy of dislike, a specific person’s dislike might not be adequately grounded. As such, it would seem to be a bias or prejudice rather than a sound judgment.
In the case of Islam, there seem to be many people who hate or dislike it without knowing much about it. For example, someone might know that some terrorists are followers of Islam and that the 9/11 attackers were followers of the faith. However to dislike Islam on this basis would be like hating the United States military simply because one knew that Oswald was a Marine and Timothy McVeigh was in the Army. As such, this sort of Islamophobia also seems to be a real possibility.
Again, this might seem to be a mere technical victory. After all, Harris seems to be making the point that there are rational grounds to dislike Islam and that the term “Islamophobia” is being misused. As before, the heart of the matter is whether Islam is something that should be disliked or not.
Harris, obviously enough, contends that Islam should be feared and disliked. If he is right, then it seems that there would be no such thing as Islamophobia. Or, to take a more moderate approach, that the term is being misused. This then is the crux of the matter: is it rational to fear and dislike Islam?
Satire can be a rather sharp sword and can easily cut the hand that forged it. Mark Williams has been wounded by his own satirical blade: he decided to leave the Tea Party Express due to the fallout generated by his blog.
Satire, being a form of comedy, falls within the realm of the ugly. As Aristotle argued, it involves presenting “some defect or ugliness which is not painful or destructive.” That, then, is the challenge of satire-being ugly, but not crossing into the realm of pain and destruction. Crossing that line transforms the satire into the merely mean. As one might expect, discerning where the line lies does involve considering the purpose of the satire being examined.
I will, of course, admit the obvious: the line between the satirical and the merely mean is not an exact one. However, when someone crosses deep into the realm of the merely mean, that can often be readily seen.
Williams, I think, crossed that line.
Perhaps his failure at satire was due merely to a lack of skill rather than, as some have argued, racism. I will not render a judgment on this, but will merely consider the content of his post.
His post was supposed to be a fictional letter to Lincoln from the “Coloreds” and it begins as follows:
“Dear Mr. Lincoln, we Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don’t cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop!”
While it is tempting to claim that any use of “Coloreds” must be racism, that would be an error. While it is a rather sharp term, satire deals in sharp terms and hence almost no term can be excluded as unfit for use. However, the sharper the term being employed, he more deftly the satirist must handle his tools lest he be cut to the bone.
Williams does not seem to have handled the term particularly well, at least in terms of his avowed purpose of lampooning those who had raised concerns about racism and the tea party. After all, trying to satirize charges of racism by merely presenting racial stereotypes is hardly a demonstration of skilled handling. Using the term “cotton” is also rather questionable. After all, in the United States linking “coloreds” and “cotton” is a stock tool of racism.
As another example, consider the following:
“Bailouts are just big money welfare and isn’t that what we want all Coloreds to strive for? What kind of racist would want to end big money welfare? What they need to do is start handing the bailouts directly to us coloreds!”
I can see, somewhat, what Williams might have been attempting here. Perhaps he was trying to make the point that to see the Tea Party’s opposition to bailout’s as racism would itself be racist, presumably because it would be based on racist stereotypes about “Coloreds.” However, it seems to come across in a different way, namely that it asserts that “Coloreds” love welfare and hence oppose the Tea Party’s opposition to bailouts (which are seen as welfare). Thus, far from refuting the charge of racism via a clever satire, it rather seems to provide evidence for said racism.