THE JOYFUL REDUCTION OF UNCERTAINTY

Response To Current Affairs On Against Murderism

Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs has criticized my post Against Murderism. It’s in the middle of a longer article, but I’ll quote the relevant section:

Arguments against identity politics and social justice are often amusingly ironic. They speak strongly in favor of dialogue and listening, without actually entering into a dialogue or doing much listening. For example, Scott Alexander, whose “mistake theory” concept Brooks quotes favorably, has criticized the overbroad use of the word “racism.” He says that often, people attribute racist motives where there are none, and that in order to understand the causes of racially disparate outcomes we can’t treat people as having some “dark irrational hatred which is their only terminal goal.” This, he says, is as silly as if we treated anyone who caused another’s death as a “murderist,” i.e. someone with a strong belief in murder for murder’s sake. Instead, people kill for a variety of reasons, often instrumental ones, and reducing the amount of death requires honestly assessing those reasons. And he shares Brooks’ commitment to making every possible effort to understand people rather than demonizing them.

A lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense…The solution is the same as it’s always been: hard work, renewed commitment to liberal values, and a hefty dose of the Principle of Charity. Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them. This frees you from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to understand other people… You are right about everything, your enemies are inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death, and the only “work” you have to do is complain on Twitter about how racist everyone else is.

All of which may seem sensible. Yet even as this passage asks people to be charitable and not caricature opposing beliefs, it is itself uncharitable and caricatures opposing beliefs. I have moved in progressive circles for a long time, and been in academic sociology where supposedly a lot of this stuff emanates, and I don’t think many progressive people believe that people being “racist” means they are “inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death.” In fact, one of the central points made by contemporary progressives is that racism isn’t about individual “hate,” but that it’s a set of subconscious attitudes that almost everyone possesses to one degree or another. The whole “check your privilege” idea (a phrase I don’t like) is that people are “honestly misinformed and ignorant,” that they are oblivious to the various structural disadvantages that other people face. The argument being made is that thinking of racism as emanating from “hate-filled monsters” is a mistake: it’s something we all have to face up to our complicity in, regardless of how decent and well-intentioned a person we may be. Anyone who has read a introductory book on critical race theory or the sociology of race would know this. (In Matthew Desmond and Mustafa Emirbayer’s Race in America, the #1 entry on its “list of fallacies” about racism is the misconception that racism is about hateful and monstrous individuals.) But those who demand charity and openness toward their own beliefs are rarely willing to display it toward the terrible irrational campus left.

At the risk of going up a meta-level in the chain of accusing people of not engaging with other people, I don’t think this is engaging with me.

Not only was I aware of the counterargument Nathan cites, I included 2,070 words in the post (marked as Part II, please read it) bringing it up, admitting that it was the strongest argument against my position, and explaining why I disagreed. In a section on various definitions given for racism, I called a similar idea the “Definition By Consequences”. Current Affairs accuses me of not realizing that “anyone who has read a introductory book on critical race theory or the sociology of race would know this”, and thinks he has shown my unwillingness to read the other side. But as I said in the original post (archive.is link to prove I didn’t edit it):

I know that Definition By Consequences is the really sophisticated one, the ones that scholars in the area are most likely to unite around. But I also think it’s uniquely bad at capturing the way anyone uses the word “racism” in real life. Let me give four examples…

Followed by several thousand words explaining how that worked, why it didn’t match real-world usage, and why I thought this counterargument against my point was wrong. Followed by another few thousand words about “Definition By Motive”, which captures other parts of what Robinson means by “subconscious bias”.

I then go on to explain a lot of cases of racism that don’t make sense as “subconscious bias”. All of the six examples in Part I are like this. So is the daycare owner in Part IV. Even the title of the post is a reference to this – we don’t treat murder as the result of subconscious pro-murder biases. My whole point is that the official scholarly definition – itself an amalgam of “subconscious bias” and “structural consequences” (what I’m calling “Definition By Motives” and “Definition By Consequences”) – just doesn’t explain any of the real-world discourse.

I acknowledged in the post that everyone, when challenged, goes back to the official definition. But I said I didn’t take that any more seriously than the fact that every anti-gay activist, when challenged, goes back to saying that they “love the sinner but hate the sin”. I described this kind of “have a great-sounding explanation on hand that doesn’t match your behavior” strategy as a “motte-and-bailey”, something I’ve written several posts on before. Then I cited various examples of real-world leftists saying that racists couldn’t be negotiated with, couldn’t participate in civil society, and (in one case where I included a screenshot of the conversation) should be shot.

I try to believe people’s lived experience, and Nathan says he “moved in progressive circles” for a long time and almost never sees them talking about racists as monsters. I suppose that should be some evidence. On the other hand, I read Nathan’s magazine. This week, he published a piece which said that:

Anti-immigration activists of Coulter’s ilk are not people passionately advocating for what they believe is the most sensible and humane model of human governance. They are monsters who literally believe that non-American lives, especially non-white non-American lives, are worth less than dirt.

This is a pretty clear example of the trope, and Current Affairs themselves published it literally four days ago. I don’t know how to square this with their editor saying he doesn’t see this kind of stuff. Perhaps he thinks we’re referring to different groups? But anti-immigration activists are exactly the type of people I meant, and I mention them explicitly in the article.

Also in Current Affairs, from a few months back – a claim that:

We now consider racists to be monsters as foreign and grotesque as Godzilla.

I understand magazines aren’t monolithic and sometimes publish disagreeing voices. But this suggests it’s well understood, even among Leftists, that the racist-as-monster trope is a thing. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss it as just my ignorance and failure to engage with progressives. The reason I claim people believe this kind of thing is exactly because I do read your magazines where you say it.

And, unfortunately, this is the entire point of my Against Murderism article. In real life, leftists will say that racists are inhuman monsters. Then as soon as someone points out this is bad, they will retreat to saying that obviously nobody believes that, racism is just a collection of structural subconscious privilege discrimination IAT [insert Avenue Q “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” song here].

I don’t understand how someone could think they’ve disproven my article by ignoring that whole argument, then saying “obviously nobody believes that, racism is just a collection of subconscious privilege discrimination IAT [insert Avenue Q “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” song here]”, while also spreading the message that racists are monsters as loudly as possible in a widely-read magazine.

And I get especially annoyed when it’s framed as an accusation that I don’t like to debate other people, listen to their claims, or engage with their ideas.

Nathan writes that “shockingly, the people who most loudly call for empathy and dialogue are the least willing to engage in genuine empathetic dialogue…”, and uses me as an example. I can only say in my defense that last month, I sent Nathan an email saying that I thought it would be productive to engage in dialogue with each other in a way “where instead of trying to disagree publicly, we’re trying to come to agreement privately, then present the results of that agreement”. I offered to do this with him on a topic of his choice. He wrote back saying he didn’t have enough time, which is fine. But when he then publishes an article in a national magazine announcing that I am a hypocrite because I refuse to dialogue with my political opponents, I feel pretty betrayed.

I have always been interested (modulo time restrictions) in dialoguing with people I disagree with. The offer to Nathan is still open. Otherwise I politely request to be treated better than this.

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