A Philosopher's Blog

Free Speech, White Supremacists & the Slippery Slope

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2017

While I accept the right to free speech, I also accept that it (like all rights) has moral limits. These moral limits can be used to justify legal limits, but such matters are settled by the courts rather than philosophers. While it is reasonable to believe that there are limits to free speech, it is equally reasonable to believe that these limits can be debated. Unfortunately, the debate is often distorted with emotions and bad reasoning.

As should be expected, many people dislike and even hate white supremacists, even more so as the supremacists become more Nazi like. Because of this strong emotional response, people often think that white supremacists should be silenced. However, how one feels about a speaker is not a good guide to whether the speaker should be allowed to speak. This is because, obviously enough, feelings are not reasons and the strength of a feeling is no measure of its correctness. That is, just because I really hate something does not mean it is bad. People do, of course, “reason” in this manner and “infer” that what they like is good because they like it and what they dislike is bad because they dislike it. As such, when considering white supremacists and free speech, it is important to approach the matter with reasons rather than feelings. This is not to say that feelings cannot be appropriate (one should dislike white supremacy), but to say that one cannot infer the correctness of a view from how one feels about it. A moral position should shape our emotions rather than our emotions determining our moral positions.

As with many debates over rights, the debate over free speech is often distorted by the slippery slope fallacy. The slippery slope is a fallacy in which a person asserts that some event must inevitably follow from another without any argument for the inevitability of the event in question. In most cases, there are a series of steps or gradations between one event and the one in question and no reason is given as to why the intervening steps or gradations will simply be bypassed. This “argument” has the following form:

 

  1. Event X has occurred (or will or might occur).
  2. Therefore event Y will inevitably happen.

 

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because there is no reason to believe that one event must inevitably follow from another without an argument for such a claim. This is especially clear in cases in which there are a considerable number of steps or gradations between one event and another.

In the case of free speech, the usual slippery slope argument is to claim that if the free speech of some person or group is restricted, then everyone’s free speech will be in danger. For example, someone might claim that if white supremacists are not allowed to speak, uninvited, on a college campus then soon everyone with unpopular views will be silenced. If a case can be made showing how this will plausibly play out, then there would be no fallacy—but that is rarely done.

The slippery slope fallacy gets most of its power from psychological factors, typically involving fear. The idea is that the person targeted by the slippery slope is supposed to be afraid of the bad consequence that is alleged to follow and this is intended to blight their reason and get them to accept the fallacy as reasonable. The slippery slope fallacy also gets some of its power from the fact that there can be good reasoning that resembles the fallacy. Specifically, a causal argument that shows that the slope is slippery by making the causal link between one event and the consequences.

In the case of free speech, a case can be made that argues from the restriction of the free speech of white supremacists to restrictions on all unpopular groups and then on to everyone. While this would avoid the slippery slope fallacy, there would still be the question of whether the argument’s premises are true and how strong the argument is. To use an analogy, someone could argue that sex with minors (statutory rape) should not be banned because this is the first step towards banning all sex. While the steps could be laid out, it is rather evident that the slide can be stopped: adults can be banned from having sex with minors without banning all sex. Likewise, white supremacists can be restricted without this sliding to other groups.

In many cases, people also make use of another fallacy, the line drawing fallacy, in trying to argue that one thing will follow from another. The line drawing fallacy occurs when it is claimed that unless a precise line can be drawn between X and Y, then no distinction can be made between them. In the case of white supremacists, the argument would go that there is no clear line between white supremacists and other unpopular groups, so there would be no way to distinguish them. As such, if white supremacists were restricted, then these other groups would be restricted. While it can be challenging to make such distinctions and there will be problems, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions. Going back to the sex example, the transition between a child and an adult is imprecise. However, it is clearly possible to make such distinctions and make then part of law. As such, white supremacist groups can be distinguished from other groups, though there would be considerable debate about where the lines would be drawn.

While the focus has been on white supremacist groups, the same principles would apply to analogous groups. So, for example, black supremacist groups who advocated ethnic cleansing and such should also be subject to the same restriction as white supremacist groups.

In closing, it must be noted that I do not favor restricting people who advance unpopular, false or morally wrong views about “races” when they do so in the context of an actual discussion and are not engaged in presenting a threat to others. This, of course, goes back to the principle of harm discussed in a previous essay.

 

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Free Speech & White Supremacists: The Principle of Harm

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 25, 2017

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In October, 2017 white supremacist Richard Spencer gave an uninvited speech in my adopted state of Florida on the campus of the University of Florida. As happened at the Charlottesville, Virginia event where Spencer spoke, white supremacists engaged in violence. While this time shots were fired at those protesting the white supremacists, no one was hurt. Three suspects were arrested and charged with attempted murder. As might be suspected, there have been efforts to keep Spencer from speaking. Spencer and his lawyers, however, have been able to successfully appeal to the First Amendment in their lawsuits. While the lawyers and courts will settle the legal aspects of this matter, there is also the moral aspect of free speech.

As a matter of principled consistency, I always apply Mill’s principle of harm when it comes to rights and liberty. The basic idea is that the collective has no right to restrict the liberty of an individual expect when the actions of the individual would cause harm to others. Sorting out all the details of any specific application can be challenging, but the basic idea is simple enough and is justified by Mill’s moral theory of utilitarianism. This is, of course, the view that the morality of an action depends on the value it creates for the morally relevant beings. Roughly put, an action is good when it creates more positive value for negative value (for those that matter morally).

As recent white supremacist rallies have shown, allowing white supremacists to express their views in public tends to create considerable harm. In the case of Charlottesville, a person was killed and others badly injured when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. As noted above, Spencer speaking in Florida lead to three white supremacists being arrested for attempted murder. While I normally disagree with Florida Governor Rick Scott, he was right to declare a state of emergency in Florida and prepare for violence. The University of Florida also decided to step up its security, spending $600,000 of public money. Because allowing such events to take place has resulted in death, injury and attempted murder, the principle of harm would seem to justify denying white supremacists the right to engage in public speaking. The fact that dealing with likely violence costs large sums of public money also supports this conclusion: while speech should be free, those whose speech costs the public such large sums should not be permitted to engage in the sort of events that require such security expenditures.

It can be objected that restricting white supremacists would be unfair. After all, other controversial speakers have drawn violent elements. To be consistent, the principle would need to be applied consistently: if a speaker is likely to draw followers/supporters that engage in violence, then the speaker would need to provide funding for adequate security to protect the community. If they cannot ensure the safety of others, then the right to not be hurt or killed (the right to life) of the people likely to be affected trumps the speaker’s right to free speech. The use of public money also brings in property rights, which can also trump free speech rights.

This, of course, leads to an obvious concern: speakers can draw “followers/supporters” that they do not want nor endorse. For example, a conservative speaker might attract white supremacists who support him, but he does not want their support or presence. On the left, a speaker might attract violent anarchist “supporters” who engage in violence and vandalism. It would be unfair to restrict freedom of speech because a person happens to have bad “supporters.” The challenge is to sort out cases in which a person is drawing “supporters” they do not want and cases in which they are pulling true supporters. In some cases, this will be rather difficult, while in others it will be easy. For example, Spencer’s remarks indicate the sort of people he wants as supporters and these are the sort of people who have engaged in violence.

It must be noted that restricting speakers because they might offend members of the audience or make them uncomfortable would be unjustified. While people do not like being offended or upset, these are not strong enough harms to a person to warrant restricting a basic right such as free expression. That said, a speaker who engages in threats can cross over into real harm by making people legitimately fear that they are in danger. While people like Spencer speak of “peaceful ethnic cleansing”, white supremacy is, by its very nature, a threat to everyone who is not perceived by the supremacists as white. As such, it is reasonable to assume, until proven otherwise, that any white supremacist speaker’s speech on the matter is a threat and thus a harm that warrants restriction. To use an analogy, if a person wants to speak in favor of molesting children or committing murder, it is reasonable to regard them as a threat and to not allow them to express such views.

While the burden of proof rests on the white supremacist, they could make the case that their views are not a threat of harm against others. If this case can be made, then they should be free to express their views. Naturally, the same principle should apply consistently. For example, if a speaker wanted to speak for black supremacy and urge the “peaceful” cleansing of whites, then the same principle would apply. But, supremacy of any stripe seems to be a threat of violence against everyone else.

 

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Confederates & Nazis

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race, Uncategorized by Michael LaBossiere on August 18, 2017

While there has been an attempt to revise the narrative of the Confederate States of America to a story of state’s rights, the fact of the matter is that succession from the Union was because of slavery. At the time of succession, those in the lead made no bones about this fact—they explicitly presented this as their prime motivation. This is not to deny that there were other motivations, such as concerns about state’s rights and economic factors. As such, the Confederacy’s moral foundation was slavery. This entails a rejection of the principle that all men are created equal, a rejection of the notion of liberty, and an abandonment of the idea that the legitimacy of government rests on the consent of the governed. In short, the Confederacy was an explicit rejection of core stated values of the United States.

While the Confederacy lost the war and the union was reformed, its values survived and are now explicitly manifested in the alt-right. After all, it is no coincidence that the alt-right has been marching in defense of Confederate monuments and often makes use of Confederate flags. They are, after all, aware of the moral foundations of their movement. Or, rather, immoral foundations.

While the value system of the Confederacy embraced white supremacy and accepted slavery as a moral good, it did not accept genocide. That is, the Confederacy advocated enslaving blacks rather than exterminating them. Extermination was, of course, something the Nazis embraced.

As is well known, the Nazis took over the German state and plunged the world into war. Like the Confederate states, the Nazis embraced the idea of white supremacy and rejected equality and liberty. The Nazis also made extensive use of slave labor. Unlike the Confederate states, the Nazis infamously engaged in a systematic effort to exterminate those they regarded as inferior. This does mark a moral distinction between the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany. This is, however, a distinction between degrees of evil.

While the Nazis are generally regarded by most Americans as the paradigm of evil, many in the alt-right embrace their values and some do so explicitly and openly, identifying as neo-Nazis. Some do make the claim that they do not want to exterminate what they regard as other races; they profess a desire to have racially pure states. So, for example, some in the alt-right support Israel on the grounds that they see it as a Jewish state. In their ideal world, each state would be racially pure. This is why the alt-right is sometimes also referred to as the white nationalists. The desire to have pure states can be seen as morally better than the desire to exterminate others, but this is also a distinction in evils rather than a distinction between good and bad.

Based on the above, the modern alt-right is the inheritor of both the Confederate States of America and Nazi Germany. While this might seem to be merely a matter of historic interest, it does have some important implications. One of these is that it provides grounds that the members of the alt-right should be regarded as on par with members or supporters of ISIS or other such enemy foreign terrorist groups. This is in contrast with regarding the alt-right as being entirely domestic.

Those who join or support Isis (and other such groups) are regarded as different from domestic hate groups. This is because ISIS (and other such groups) are foreign and are effectively at war with the United States. This applies even when the ISIS supporter is an American who lives in America. This perceived difference has numerous consequences, including legal ones. It also has consequences for free speech—while advocating the goals and values of ISIS in the United States would be regarded as a threat worthy of a response from the state, the alt-right is generally seen as being protected by the right to free speech. This is nicely illustrated by the fact that the alt-right can get permits to march in the United States, while ISIS supporters cannot. One can imagine the response if ISIS supporters did apply for permit or engaged in a march.

While some hate groups can be regarded as truly domestic in that they are not associated with foreign organizations engaged in war with the United States, the alt-right cannot make this claim. At least they cannot to the degree they are connected to the Confederate States of America and the Nazis. Both are foreign powers at war with the United States. As such, the alt-right should be regarded as on par with other groups that affiliate themselves with foreign groups engaged in war with the United States.

The easy and obvious reply is that both the Confederacy and the Nazis were defeated and no longer exist. On the one hand, this is true. The Confederacy was destroyed and the succeeding states rejoined the United States. The Nazis were defeated and while Germany still exists, it is not controlled by the Nazis. On the other hand, the Confederacy and the Nazis do persist in the form of various groups that preserve their values and ideology—including the alt-right. To use the obvious analogy, even if all territory is reclaimed from ISIS and it is effectively defeated as a state, this does not entail that ISIS will be gone. It will persist as long as it has supporters and presumably the United States would not switch to a policy of tolerating ISIS members and supporters simply because ISIS no longer has territory.

The same should hold true for those supporting or claiming membership in the Confederacy or the Nazis—they are supporters of foreign powers that are enemies of the United States and are thus on par with ISIS supporters and members in terms of being agents of the enemy. This is not to say that the alt-right is morally equivalent to ISIS in terms of its actions. On the whole, ISIS is indisputably worse. But, what matters in this context, is the expression of allegiance to the values and goals of a foreign enemy—something ISIS supporters and alt-right members who embrace the Confederacy or Nazis have in common.

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Trump’s White Nationalists

Posted in Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 14, 2017


While the election of Obama led some to believe that racism had been exorcized, the triumph of Trump caused speculation that the demon had merely retreated to the shadows of the internet. In August of 2017, the city of Charlottesville, VA served as the location of a “United the Right” march. This march, which seems to have been a blend of neo-Nazis, white-supremacists and other of the alt-right, erupted in violence. One woman who was engaged in a counter-protest against the alt-right, Heather Heyer, was murdered. Officers Cullen and Bates were also killed when their helicopter crashed, although this appears to have been an accident.

While Trump strikes like an enraged wolverine against slights real or imaginary against himself, his initial reply to the events in Charlottesville were tepid. As has been his habit, Trump initially resisted being critical of white supremacists and garnered positive remarks from the alt-right for their perception that he has created a safe space for their racism. This weak response has, as would be expected, been the target of criticism from both the left and the more mainstream right.

Since the Second World War, condemning Nazis and Neo-Nazis has been extremely easy and safe for American politicians. Perhaps the only thing easier is endorsing apple pie. Denouncing white supremacists can be more difficult, but since the 1970s this has also been an easy move, on par with expressing a positive view of puppies in terms of the level of difficulty. This leads to the question of why Trump and the Whitehouse responded with “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides” rather than explicitly condemning the alt-right. After all, Trump pushes hard to identify acts of terror by Muslims as Islamic terror and accepts the idea that this sort of identification is critical to fighting such terror. Consistency would seem to require that Trump identify terror committed by the alt-right as “alt-right terror”, “white-supremacist terror”, “neo-Nazi terror” or whatever would be appropriate. Trump, as noted above, delayed making specific remarks about white supremacists.

Some have speculated that Trump is a racist. Trump denies this, pointing to the fact that his beloved daughter married a Jew and converted to Judaism. While Trump does certainly make racist remarks, it is not clear if he embraces an ideology of racism or any ideology at all beyond egoism and self-interest. While the question of whether he is a racist is certainly important, there is no need to speculate on the matter when addressing his response (or lack of response). What matters is that the weakness of his initial response and his delay in making a stronger response sends a clear message to the alt-right that Trump is on their side, or at least is very tolerant of their behavior. It could be claimed that the alt-right is like a deluded suitor who thinks someone is really into them when they are not, but this seems implausible. After all, Trump is very easy on the alt-right and must be pushed, reluctantly, into being critical. If he truly condemned them, he would have reacted as he always does against things he does not like: immediately, angrily, repeatedly and incoherently. Trump, by not doing this, sends a clear message and allows the alt-right to believe that Trump does not really mean it when he condemns them days after the fact. As such, while Trump might not be a racist, he does create a safe space for racists. As Charlottesville and other incidents show, the alt-right presents a more serious threat to American lives than does terror perpetrated by Muslims. As such, Trump is not only abetting the evil of racism, he could be regarded as an accessory to murder.

It could be countered that Trump did condemn the bigotry, violence and hatred and thus his critics are in error. One easy and obvious reply is that although Trump did say he condemns these things, his condemnation was not directed at the perpetrators of the violence. After seeming to be on the right track towards condemning the wrongdoers, Trump engaged in a Trump detour by condemning the bigotry and such “on many sides.” This could, of course, be explained away: perhaps Trump lost his train of thought, perhaps Trump had no idea what was going on and decided to try to cover his ignorance, or perhaps Trump was just being Trump. While these explanations are tempting, it is also worth considering that Trump was using the classic rhetorical tactic of false equivalence—treating things that are not equal as being equal. In the case at hand, Trump can be seen as regarding those opposing the alt-right as being just as bigoted, hateful and violent as the alt-right’s worst members. While there are hateful bigots who want to do violence to whites, the real and significant threat is not from those who oppose the alt-right, but from the alt-right. After all, the foundation of the alt-right is bigotry and hatred. Hating Neo-Nazis and white supremacists is the morally correct response and does not make one equivalent or even close to being the same as them.

One problem with Trump’s false equivalence is that it helps feed the narrative that those who actively oppose the alt-right are bad people—evil social justice warriors and wicked special snowflakes. This encourages people who do not agree with the alt-right but do not like the left to focus on criticizing the left rather than the alt-right.  However, opposing the alt-right is the right thing to do.  Another problem with Trump’s false equivalence is that it encourages the alt-right by allowing them to see such remarks as condemning their opponents—they can tell themselves that Trump does not really want to condemn his alt-right base but must be a little critical because of politics.  While Trump might merely be pragmatically appealing to his base and selfishly serving his ego, his tolerance for the alt-right is damaging to the country and will certainly contribute to more murders.

 

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Free Speech & Universities II: Heckler’s Veto

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 10, 2017

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While the debate over free speech is a venerable one, recent events have served to add a new drama to this matter. When Middlebury invited Charles Murray to speak, the event was disrupted by student protestors and both Murray and Professor Allison Sanger were attacked on campus. This incident has sparked considerable reflection on the campus and beyond. Peter Singer, a philosopher who is no stranger to controversy, also found his talk disrupted by people who disagree with his views. This shutting down of a speaker by protestors has become known as the heckler’s veto.

One of the narratives about these sorts of disruptions is that the left believes that free speech extends only to those they agree with. On the one hand, this does have some merit: recent disruptions have been aimed at speakers whose view are generally regarded as being out of step with the most vocal of the left. On the other hand, there has been strong opposition against these disruptions from people who would also be considered on the left. As such, to say that the left opposes free speech on the part of those they disagree with is no more (or less) accurate than saying that Republicans oppose local control when it goes against the interests of oil companies and the NRA. That said, it is fair to note that the opposition to speakers seen as being on the right does unsurprisingly come from the left. While speculating about whether “the left” is against free speech is interesting, what is philosophically important is the ethics of the heckler’s veto in the context of the right of free speech.

The most extreme version of the heckler’s veto is violence, such as that directed against Murray and Sanger. Richard Spencer, who is regarded by some as a Nazi, was famously punched for his views, igniting a debate about the ethics of punching Nazis. The usual version of the heckler’s veto is revealed by the name: to engage in heckling to prevent the speaker from being heard or interfering with the speaker until they give up trying to speak. The hallmark of this sort of heckler is that they are not trying to engage and refute the speaker, they are endeavoring to prevent the speaker from being heard.

The easy and obvious approach is to follow a stock position on free speech: as long as the speaker is not engaged in such directly harmful speech such as slander or calls for violence, then the speaker should be free to speak without disruption. This can be made more sophisticated by taking the classic utilitarian approach of weighing the harms and benefits of allowing the speaker to exercise the right to free speech. For example, if punching Nazis to silence them sends the message that Nazism will not be tolerated and this reduces the hate crimes committed in the United States, then such punching would seem to be morally good.

An alternative to the utilitarian approach is to argue that there are some things, such as Nazism and sexism, whose inherent badness entails that people should not be permitted to speak in favor of them even if doing so created no meaningful harms. While I do see the appeal in the “there are things we must not allow to be said” approach, there is the significant challenge of showing that even without any harm being caused, such speech is simply wrong. I will not endeavor to do so here, but I am open to arguments in favor of this view.

One interesting approach to heckling is to point out that it seems to be a tactic for those who cannot refute the views they oppose; it is the noisy refuge of the logically or rhetorically incompetent. If the views being expressed by the offending speaker are wrong, then they should be refutable by argumentation. If all someone can do is yell and disrupt, they should remain silent so that someone with the ability to refute the speaker can engage in this refutation. For example, those who disagreed with Murray should have made their points by arguing against him.

A practical reply to this is that a member of the audience might not be given the opportunity to engage in a possibly lengthy refutation of the speaker. As such, they must engage in the rapid and effective means of heckling to prevent the speaker from even getting the words out. A reasonable counter to this is that while a person might not have the chance to engage at the actual event, they have an opportunity at refutation via such venues as Twitter, a blog, or YouTube.

Another reply to this is that allowing the speaker to speak on a campus lends legitimacy and normalizes the speaker’s views, even if the views are not explicitly endorsed. As such, if a speaker cannot be prevented from being invited, then they must be silenced by disruption.

While this does have appeal and schools should consider the educational merit of speakers, having a person speak on campus does not entail that the school endorses the views and does not make them legitimate. To use the obvious analogy, using the Communist Manifesto and Mein Kampf in a political science class does not endorse or legitimize these works. Likewise, inviting someone with “alt right” views to a debate on American political thought does not entail that the school endorses the “alt right” or make it legitimate. Just as reading books containing ideas one might not agree with (or even hate) is part of education, so too is listening to speakers expressing such ideas. As such, heckling speakers to silence them would be on par with censoring books to keep people from reading them or movies to keep people from seeing them.

This can be countered by making use of one of Plato’s classic arguments for censorship in the Republic. Plato argued that exposure to certain types of art would corrupt people and make them worse. For example, someone who was exposed to violent works of art could become corrupted into becoming violent. Plato’s solution was to ban such art.

In the case of speakers, it could be argued that they must be silenced by heckling because their speeches would corrupt members of the audience. For example, one might claim that listening to Murray talk about his work would corrupt audience members with racism and poor methodology. This argument assumes, as does Plato’s, that most people lack the ability to defend themselves from such corrupting power. Since the hecklers think the speaker is wrong, they presumably think that most people are either incapable of discerning right from wrong or are just awaiting the right trigger to cause them to embrace evil. On this view, the hecklers would be heroes: those strong enough to resist the siren song of evil and loud enough to drown it out. For those who agree with Plato, Aristotle or Stanley Milgram, this argument should be appealing: most people are easily swayed towards misdeeds and few are influenced by either arguments or fine ideals. Those who dislike Trump and attribute his election in part to defects in voters would also find this approach appealing. And, of course, no discussion of this sort would be complete without a mandatory reference to Hitler and his ability to win over the people.

But, of course, no discussion of this sort would be complete without noting how heckling is like any other tool—it can be used by the good and the evil alike. Naturally, the people using it will think they are on the side of good and their foes evil. Their foes, of course, are likely to think the opposite. Since sorting out what is good and bad requires consideration and discussion, silencing people would interfere with sorting out this rather important matter. As such, I am opposed to heckling, even if I disagree strongly with the target. That said, my more cynical self is tempted by Plato’s argument that the ears of the many must be protected from corrupting words and that it is up to the philosophers to decide which words are corrupting and which are wholesome.

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H.P. Lovecraft & Racism

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy, Race by Michael LaBossiere on November 6, 2015

HPL 2015Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game was my gateway drug to the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. His works shaped my view of horror and led me to write adventures and monographs for Chaosium. I am rather pleased that one of my creations is now included among the Great Old Ones. I even co-authored a paper on Lovecraft with physicist Paul Halpern. While Lovecraft is well known for the horrors of his Cthulhu Mythos, he is becoming well known for another sort of horror, namely racism.

When I was a kid, I was rather blind to the prejudices expressed in Lovecraft’s writings—I was much more focused on the strange vistas, sanity blasting beings, and the warping of space and time. As I grew older, I became aware of the casual prejudices expressed towards minorities and his special horror of “mongrel races.” However, I was unsure of whether he was truly a racist or trapped just expressing a common world view of his (and our) time. Which, to be honest, can be regarded as racist. Since I rather like Lovecraft’s writings, I was a bit disturbed as revelations about his racism began to pile up.

For the past forty years the World Fantasy Convention has given World Fantasy awards that take the form of a bust of Lovecraft. Nnedi Okorafor won a WFA in 2011 and was rather disturbed to find that Lovecraft had written a racist poem. While not as surprising as the revelation that Dr. Seuss  drew racist cartoons,  such evidence of blatant racism certainly altered my view of Lovecraft as a person.

As should be expected, there have been efforts to defend Lovecraft. One of the most notable defenders is S.T. Joshi, one of the leading authorities on the author. The defense of Lovecraft follows a fairly stock approach used to address the issue of whether or not artists’ personal qualities or actions should be relevant to the merit of their art. I turn now to considering some of these stock arguments.

One stock defense is the “product of the times” defense: although Lovecraft was racist, nearly everyone was racist in that time period. This defense does have some merit in that it is reasonable to consider the social and moral setting in which an artist lived. After all, artists have no special immunity to social influences. To use an analogy, consider the stock feminist arguments regarding the harmful influence of the patriarchal culture, sexist imagery, sexist language and unrealistic body images on young women. The argument is often made that young woman are shaped by these forces and develop low self-esteem, become more likely to have eating disorders, and develop unrealistic images of how they should look and behave. If these cultural influences can have such a devastating impact on young women, it is certainly easy enough to imagine the damaging impact of a culture awash in racism upon the young Lovecraft. Just as a young woman inundated by photoshopped images of supermodels can develop a distorted view of reality, a young person exposed to racism can develop a distorted view of reality. And, just as one would not hold the young woman responsible for her distorted self-image, one should not hold the young racist accountable for his distorted other-image.

It can be countered that the analogy does not hold. While young women can be mentally shaped by the patriarchal influences of the culture and are not morally accountable for this, people are fully responsible for accepting racism even in a culture that is flooded with racism, such as the United States in the 1900s. As such, Lovecraft is fully to blame for his racist views and his condemnation is justified. The challenge is, of course, to work out how some cultural factors can shape people in ways that excuse them and other shaping leaves people morally accountable.

Another reply is that this stock argument is a version of the appeal to common practice fallacy—a fallacy that occurs when a practice is defended on the grounds that it is commonly done. Obviously, the mere fact that a practice is common does not justify that practice. So, although racism was common in Lovecraft’s day, this does not serve as a defense of his views.

A second stock defense is that the artist has other traits that offset the negative qualities in question. In the case of Lovecraft, the defense is that he was intelligent, generous and produced works of considerable influence and merit. This defense does have some appeal—after all, everyone has negative traits and a person should be assessed by the totality of her being, not her worst quality taken in isolation.

While this is a reasonable reply, it only works to the degree that a person’s good qualities offset the negative qualities. After all, there are many awful people who are kind to their own pets or loved some other people. As such, a consideration of this defense would require weighing the evil of Lovecraft with the good. One factor well worth considering is that although Lovecraft wrote racist things and thought racist thoughts, there is the question of whether his racism led him to actually harm anyone. While it might be claimed that racism itself is crime enough, it does seem to matter whether or not he actually acted on this racism to the detriment of others. This, of course, ties into the broader philosophical issue of the moral importance of thoughts versus the moral importance of actions.

Another concern with this defense is that even if a person’s positive traits outweigh the negative, this does not erase the negative traits. So even if Lovecraft was a smart and generous racist, he was still a racist. Which is certainly grounds for condemnation.

A third, and especially intriguing stock defense against one moral flaw is to argue that the flaw is subsumed in a far greater flaw. In the case of Lovecraft, it could be argued that his specific racism is subsumed into his general misanthropic view of humanity. While there is some debate about the extent of his (alleged) misanthropy, this does have some appeal. After all, if Lovecraft disliked humans in general, his racism against specific ethnic groups would be part of that overall view and not racism in the usual sense. Many of Lovecraft’s stories (such as in “the Picture in the House”, “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, ‘the Rats in the Walls”, and “the Dunwich Horror”) feature the degeneracy and villainy of those of European stock. The descriptions of the degenerated whites are every bit as condemning and harsh as his descriptions of people of other ethnicities. As such, Lovecraft cannot be accused of being a racist—unless his racism is cast as being against all humans.

One counter to this is to point out that being awful in general is not a defense of being awful in a particular way. Another counter is that while Lovecraft did include degenerate white people, he also wrote in very positive ways about some white characters—something he did not do for any other ethnicities. This, it could be argued, does support the claim that Lovecraft was racist.

A final stock defense is to argue that the merits of artists’ works are independent of the personal qualities of the artists. What matters, it can be argued, is the quality of the work itself. One way to argue for this is to use an analogy from my own past.

Years ago, when I was a young cross country runner, there was a very good runner at another college. This fellow regularly placed in and even won races—he was, without a doubt, one of the best runners in the conference. However, he was almost universally despised—so much so that people joked that the only reason no one beat him up was because they could not catch him. Despite his being hated, his fellow runners had to acknowledge the fact that he was a good runner and merited all the victories. The same would seem to apply in the case of an artist like Lovecraft: his works should be assessed on their own merits and not on his personality traits.

Another way to make the argument is to point out the fact that an artist having positive qualities does not make the art better. A person might be a moral saint, but this does not mean that her guitar playing skill will be exceptional. A person might be kind to animals and devoted to the wellbeing of others, but this will not enhance his poetry. So, if the positive traits of an artist do not improve a work, it should follow that negative traits do not make the work worse.

This then leads to the concern that an artist’s personality qualities might corrupt a work. To go back to the running analogy, if the despised runner was despised because he cheated at the races, then the personality traits that made him the object of dislike would be relevant to assessing the merit of his performances. Likewise, if the racism of a racist author infects his works, then this could be regarded as reducing their merit. This leads to the issue of whether or not such racism actually detracts from the merit of a work, which is a lengthy issue for another time.

My own view of Lovecraft is that his racism made him a worse person. However, the fact that he was a racist does not impact the merit of his works—except to the degree that the racist elements in the stories damage their artistic merit (which is an issue well worth considering). As such, Lovecraft should be condemned for his racism, but given due praise for the value of his work and his contribution to modern horror.

 

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Race & Performance Based Funding

Posted in Race, Universities & Colleges by Michael LaBossiere on August 24, 2015

Florida, like some other states, has imposed performance based funding on its state universities. The basic idea is that each state school is evaluated by ten standards and then the schools are ranked. The top schools are rewarded and the bottom schools are punished.

As a runner and a professor, I certainly get the idea of linking rewards to performance. As a runner, I believe that better performance merits the better awards (be it a gold medal, a fat stack of cash, or a ribbon). As a professor, I believe that performance merits the better grades and that poor performance merits the corresponding lower grades. However, I also recognize the importance of fairness.

In the case of running, a fair race requires that everyone must compete on the same course and under the same conditions. The age and gender of the runners is also taken into account when assessing performance and there are even age-graded performance formulas to take into account the ravages of time.

In the case of grading, a fair class requires that everyone is required to do the same work, receives the same support from the professor, and that the assessment standards are the same. Fairness also requires that special challenges faced by some students are taken into account. Otherwise, the assessment is unjust.

The same applies to performance based funding of education. If the goal is to encourage better performance on the part of all the schools, the competition needs to be fair. Going with a classroom analogy, if a student knows that the class is rigged against her, she is not likely to be motivated to do her best. There also seems to be an obvious moral requirement that the assessment be fair and this would require considering the specific challenges that each school faces. Laying aside the normative aspects, there is also the matter of accuracy: knowing how well a school is performing requires considering what challenges it had to overcome.

While all the schools operate within the state of Florida and face similar challenges, each school also faces some special challenges. Because of this, a proper and just assessment of a schools performance (how well it does in educating students, etc.) should reflect these challenges. To simply impose standards that fail to consider these challenges would be unfair and would also yield an inaccurate account of the success or failure of the school.

Consider the following analogy: imagine, if you will, that the Pentagon adopted a performance based funding model for military units using various standards such as cost of operations, causalities, how well the units got along with the locals and so on. Now imagine that the special challenges of the units were not properly considered so that, for example, a unit operating in the deserts of Iraq fighting ISIS was assessed the same way as a unit stationed in Kentucky. As might be imagined, the unit in Iraq would certainly be assessed as performing worse than the unit stationed in Kentucky. The unit in Kentucky would presumably cost less per person, have far fewer causalities, and get along much better with the locals. As such, the unit fighting ISIS would find itself in funding trouble since its performance would seem rather worse than the unit in Kentucky. Of course, this approach would be irrational and unfair—the unit fighting ISIS might be performing extremely well relative to the challenges it faces. The same, it would seem, should hold for schools. Turning back to performance based funding, I will consider the relevant standards and how they are unfair to my school, Florida A&M University.

Florida A&M University is an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and is still predominantly African-American. The school also prides itself on providing educational opportunities to students who have been denied such opportunities as well as those who are first generation college students. Put roughly, we have many African-American students and a large number of students who are burdened with economic and educational baggage.

As I have mentioned in a previous essay, FAMU fared poorly under the state’s standards. To be fair, we honestly did do poorly in regards to the state’s standards. However, there are the important questions as to whether the standards are fair and whether or not the assessment of our performance is accurate.

On the one hand, the answer to both questions can be taken as “yes.” The standards apply to all the schools and the assessment was accurate in terms of the results. On the other hand, the answer is also “no”, since FAMU faces special challenges and the assessment fails to take these into account. To use a running analogy, the situation is like comparing the true 5K times of various runners. This is fair and accurate in that all runners are using their 5K times and the times are accurate. However, if some runners had to run hilly trails and others did their 5Ks on tracks, then the competition would not be fair. After all, a slower 5K on a hilly trail could be a much better performance than a 5K on a track.

To get directly to the point, my claim is that FAMU faces the special challenge of racism and the legacy of racism. This, I contend, means that FAMU is being assessed unfairly in terms of its performance: FAMU is running hills on a trail while other schools are enjoying a smoother run around the track. In support of this claim, I offer the following evidence.

One standard is the Percent of Bachelor’s Graduates Employed and/or Continuing their Education Further. A second is the Average Wages of Employed Baccalaureate.  The third is the Six Year Graduation Rate and the fourth is the Academic Progress Rate (2nd Year Retention with GPA Above 2.0). These four break down into two general areas. The first is economic success (employment and wages) and the second is academic success (staying in school and graduating). I will consider each general area.

On the face of it, retention and graduation rates should have no connection to race. After all, one might argue, these are a matter of staying in school and completing school which is a matter of personal effort rather than race.

While I do agree that personal effort does matter, African-American students face at least two critical obstacles in regards to retention and graduation. The first is that African-American students are still often victims of segregation in regards to K-12 education and receive generally inferior education relative to white students. It should be no surprise that this educational disadvantage manifests itself in terms of retention and graduation rates. To use a running analogy, no one would be surprised if the runners who were poorly trained and coached did worse than better trained and coached runners.

The second is economic, which ties directly into the standards relating to economic success. As will be shown, African-Americans are far less well off than other Americans. Since college is expensive, it is hardly surprising that people who are less well-off would have a harder time remaining in and completing college. As I have discussed in other essays, the main (self-reported) reason for students being absent from my classes is for work and there is a clear correlation between attendance and class performance. I now turn to the unfairness of the state’s economic success standards.

While I do not believe that the primary function of the state university is to train students to be job fillers for the job creators, I do agree that it is reasonable to consider the economic success of students when evaluating schools. However, assessing how much the school contributes to economic success requires considering the starting point of the students and the challenges they will face in achieving success.

To be blunt, race is a major factor in regards to economic success in the United States. This is due to a variety of historical factors (slavery and the legacy of slavery) and contemporary factors (persistent racism). These factors manifest themselves quite clearly and, as such, the relatively poor performance of African-American graduates from FAMU is actually what should be expected.

In regards to employment, the University of Chicago conducted a study aimed at determining if there is racial bias in hiring. To test this, the researchers responded to 1,300 job advertisements with 5,000 applications. They found that comparable resumes with white sounding names were 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview relative to those with more African-American sounding names. The researchers found that white sounding applications got call backs at a rate of 1 in 10 while for black sounding names it was 1 in 15. This is clearly significant.

Interestingly, a disparity was also found in regards to the impact of experience and better credentials. A white job applicant with a higher quality application was 30% more likely to get a call than a white applicant with a lower quality application. For African-Americans, the higher quality application was only 9% more likely to get a call than a lower quality black application.

This disparity in the hiring process seems to help explain the disparity in employment. For whites, the unemployment rate is 5.3% and it is 11.4% for blacks. As such, it is hardly surprising that African-American students from FAMU are doing worse than students from schools that are mostly white.

Assuming that this information is accurate, this means that FAMU could be producing graduates as good as the other schools while still falling considerably behind them in regards to the employment of graduates. That is, FAMU could be doing a great job that is getting degraded by racism. As such, the employment assessment would need to be adjusted to include this factor. Going with the running analogy, FAMU’s African-American graduates have to run uphill to get a job, while white graduates get to run on much flatter course.

In addition to employment, a graduate’s wages is also one of the standards used by the state. FAMU fared poorly relative to the other schools here as well. However, this is also exactly what should be expected in the United States. The poverty rate for whites is 9.7% while that for blacks it is 27.2%. The median household wealth for whites is $91,405 and for blacks $6,446. Blacks own homes at a rate of 43.5% while whites do so at 72.9%. Median household income is $35,416 for blacks and $59,754 for whites. As such, it would actually be surprising if African American graduates of FAMU competed well against the statistics for predominantly white schools.

It might be contended that these statistics are not relevant because what is of concern is the performance of African-American college graduates and not the general economic woes of African-Americans. Unfortunately, college education does not close the racial wealth gap.

While the great recession had a negative impact on the wealth of most Americans, African-Americans with college degrees were hits surprisingly hard: their net worth dropped 60% from 2007 to 2013. In contrast, whites suffered a decline of 16% and, interestingly, Asians saw a slight increase. An analysis of the data (and data going back to 1992) showed that black and Hispanics had more assets in housing and more debts and these were major factors in the loss of wealth (the burst of the housing bubble crashed house values). In terms of income, researchers take the main causes of the disparity to include discrimination and career choices. In addition to the impact on salary, this wealth disparity also impacts retention and graduation rates. As such, the state is right to focus heavily on economics—but the standards need to consider the broader economic reality as well.

It is reasonable to infer that the main reason that FAMU fares worse in these areas is due to factors beyond the control of the school. Most of our students are black and in the United States, discrimination and enduring historical factors blacks do far worse than whites. As such, these poor numbers are more a reflection of the poor performance of America than on the performance of Florida A&M University. Because of this, the standards should be adjusted to take into account the reality of race in America.

 

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The “Two Bads” Fallacy & Racism

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere 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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Race Nominalism

Posted in Ethics, Metaphysics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on June 19, 2015

As it is wont to do, the internet exploded again—this time because the question was raised as to whether Rachel Dolezal, the former leader of Spokane’s NAACP chapter, is black or white. Ms. Dolezal has claimed that she is African-American, Native American and white. She also has claimed that her father is black. Reporters at KXLY-TV, however, looked up her birth certificate and determined that her legal parents are both white. Her parents have asserted that she is white.

While the specifics of her case are certainly interesting to many, my concern is with the more general issues raised by this situation, specifically matters about race and identity. While this situation is certainly the best known case of a white person trying to pass for black, passing as another “race” has been a common practice in the United States for quite some time. However, this passing was the reverse of Ms. Dolezal’s attempt: trying to pass as white. Since being accepted as white enables a person to avoid many disadvantages, it is clear why people would attempt to pass as white. Since being accepted as black generally does not confer advantages, it is not surprising that there has been only one known case of a white person endeavoring to pass as black. These matters raise some interesting questions and issues about race.

Borrowing language from metaphysics, one approach to race could be called race realism. This is not being realistic about race in the common use of the term “realistic.” Rather, it is accepting that race is a real feature of reality—that is, the metaphysical and physical reality includes categories of race. On this view, black and white could be real categories grounded in metaphysical and physical reality. As such, a person could be objectively black or white (or a mix). Naturally, even if there are real categories of race, people could be wrong about them.

The stark alternative is what could be called race nominalism. This is the idea that racial categories are social constructs and do not line up with an underlying metaphysical and physical reality. This is because there is no underlying metaphysical and physical reality that objectively grounds racial categories. Instead, categories of race are social constructs. In this case, a person might engage in self-identification in regards to race and this might or might not be accepted by others. A person might also have others place her into a race category—which she might or might not accept.

Throughout history, some people have struggled mightily to find an objective basis for categories of race. Before genetics, people had to make use of appearance and ancestry. The ancestry was, obviously, needed because people did not always look like the race category that some people wanted them to be in. One example of this is the “one drop” rule once popular in some parts of the United States: one drop of black blood made a person black, regardless of appearance.

The discovery of genes provided some people with a new foundation for race categories—they believed that there would be a genetic basis to categorizations. The idea was that just as a human can be distinguished from a cat by genes, humans of different race categories could be distinguished by their genetic make-up. While humans do show genetic variations that are often linked to the geographical migration and origin of their many ancestors, the much desired race genes did not seem to be found. That is, humans (not surprisingly) are all humans with some minor genetic variations—that is, the variations are not sufficient to objectively ground race categories.

In general, the people who quested for objective foundations for race categories were (or are) racists. These searches typically involved trying to find evidence of the superiority of one’s race and the inferiority of other races. That said, a person could look for foundations for race without being a racist—that is, they could be engaged in a scientific or philosophical inquiry rather than seeking to justify social practices and behaviors. As might be suspected, such an inquiry would be greeted today with charges of racism. As such, it is no surprise that the generally accepted view is that race is a construct—that is, race nominalism rather than race realism is accepted.

Given the failure to find a metaphysical or physical foundation for race categories, it certainly makes sense to embrace race nominalism. On this view, the categories of race exist only in the mind—that is, they are how people divide up reality rather than how reality is carved up. Even if it is accepted that race is a social construct, there is still the matter of the rules of construction—that is, how the categories are created and how people are placed in the categories.

One approach, which is similar to that sometimes taken in regards to gender, is to hold that people can self-identify. That is, a person can simply declare her race and this is sufficient to be in that category. If race categories are essentially made up, this does have a certain appeal—if race is a fiction, then surely anyone can be the author of her own fiction.

While there are some who do accept this view, the outrage over Ms. Dolezal shows that most people seem to reject the idea of self-identification—at least when a white person endeavors to self-identify as black. Interestingly, some of those condemning her do defend the reverse, the historical passing as white by some black people. The defense is certainly appealing: blacks endeavoring to pass as white were doing so to move from being in an oppressed class and this can be justified as a form of self-defense. In the case of Ms. Dolezal, the presumption seems to be that the self-identification was both insincere and aimed at personal gain. Regardless of her true motivation, insincere self-identification aimed at personal gain seems to be wrong—on the grounds that it is a malign deception. Some might, of course, regard all attempts at passing to gain an advantage as being immoral and not distinguish based on the direction of the passing.

Another approach is that of the social consensus. The idea is that a person’s membership in a race category depends on the acceptance of others. This could be a matter of majority acceptance (one is, for example, black if most people accept one as black) or acceptance by a specific group or social authority. The obvious problem is working out what group or authority has the right to decide membership in race categories. On the one hand, this very notion seems linked to racism: one probably thinks of the KKK setting its race categories or the Nazis doing so. On the other hand, groups also seem to want to serve as the authority for their race category. Consistency might indicate that this would also be racist.

The group or authority that decides membership in race categories might make use of a race credential system to provide a basis for their decisions. That is, they might make use of appearance and ancestry. So, Ms. Dolezal would not be black because she looks white and has white parents. The concern with this sort of approach is that this is the same tool set used by racists, such as the KKK, to divide people by race. A more philosophical concern is the basis for using appearance and ancestry as the foundation for race categories—that is, what justifies their use?

This discussion does show an obvious concern with policing race categories—it seems like doing so uses the tools of racism and would thus seem to be at least a bit racist. However, arguments could be advanced as to why the policing of race categories is morally acceptable and not racist.

 

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