[Content warning: discussion of racism. Comments are turned off due to bad experience with the comments on this kind of material.]
A set of questions, hopefully confusing:
Alice is a white stay-at-home mother who is moving to a new neighborhood. One of the neighborhoods in her city is mostly Middle Eastern immigrants; Alice has trouble understanding their accents, and when they socialize they talk about things like which kinds of hijab are in fashion right now. The other neighborhood is mostly white, and a lot of them are New Reformed Eastern Evangelical Episcopalian like Alice, and everyone on the block is obsessed with putting up really twee overdone Christmas decorations just like she is. She decides to move to the white neighborhood, which she thinks is a better cultural fit. Is Alice racist?
Bob is the mayor of Exampleburg, whose bus system has been losing a lot of money lately and will have to scale back its routes. He decides that the bus system should cut its least-used route. This turns out to be a bus route in a mostly-black neighborhood, which has only one-tenth the ridership of the other routes but costs just as much. Other bus routes, most of which go through equally poor mostly-white neighborhoods, are not affected. Is Bob racist?
Carol is a gay libertarian who is a two-issue voter: free markets and gay rights. She notices that immigrants from certain countries seem to be more socialist and more anti-gay than the average American native. She worries that they will become citizens and vote for socialist anti-gay policies. In order to prevent this, she supports a ban on immigration from Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East. Is Carol racist?
Dan is a progressive member of the ACLU and NAACP who has voted straight Democrat the last five elections. He is studying psychology, and encounters The Bell Curve and its theory that some of the difference in cognitive skills between races is genetic. After looking up various arguments, counterarguments, and the position of experts in the field, he decides that this is probably true. He avoids talking about this because he expects other people would misinterpret it and use it as a justification for racism; he thinks this would be completely unjustified since a difference of a few IQ points has no effect on anyone’s basic humanity. He remains active in the ACLU, the NAACP, and various anti-racist efforts in his community. Is Dan racist?
Eric is a restauranteur who is motivated entirely by profit. He moves to a very racist majority-white area where white people refuse to dine with black people. Since he wants to attract as many customers as possible, he sets up a NO BLACKS ALLOWED sign in front of his restaurant. Is Eric racist?
Fiona is an honest-to-goodness white separatist. She believes that racial groups are the natural unit of community, and that they would all be happiest set apart from each other. She doesn’t believe that any race is better than any other, just that they would all be happier if they were separate and able to do their own thing. She supports a partition plan that gives whites the US Midwest, Latinos the Southwest, and blacks the Southeast, leaving the Northeast and Northwest as multiracial enclaves for people who like that kind of thing. She would not use genocide to eliminate other races in these areas, but hopes that once the partition is set up races would migrate of their own accord. She works together with black separatist groups, believing that they share a common vision, and she hopes their countries will remain allies once they are separate. Is Fiona racist?
As usual, the answer is that “racism” is a confusing word that serves as a mishmash of unlike concepts. Here are some of the definitions people use for racism:
1. Definition By Motives: An irrational feeling of hatred toward some race that causes someone to want to hurt or discriminate against them.
2. Definition By Belief: A belief that some race has negative qualities or is inferior, especially if this is innate/genetic.
3. Definition By Consequences: Anything whose consequence is harm to minorities or promotion of white supremacy, regardless of whether or not this is intentional.
Definition By Consequences Doesn’t Match Real-World Usage
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.
First, by this definition, racism can never cause anything. People like to ask questions like “Did racism contribute to electing Donald Trump?” Under this definition, the question makes no sense. It’s barely even grammatical. “Did things whose consequence is harm minorities whether or not such harm is intentional contribute to the election of Donald Trump?” Huh? If racism is just a description of what consequences something has, then it can’t be used as an causal explanation.
Second, by this definition, many racist things would be good. Suppose some tyrant wants to kill the ten million richest white people, then redistribute their things to black people. This would certainly challenge white supremacy and help minorities. So by this definition, resisting this tyrant would be racist. But obviously this tyrant is evil and resisting him is the right thing to do. So under this definition, good policies which deserve our support can nevertheless be racist. “This policy is racist” can no longer be a strong argument against a policy, even when it’s true.
Third, by this definition, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to say a particular person is racist. Racism is a property of actions, not of humans. While there are no doubt some broad patterns in people, the question “Is Bob racist?” sounds very odd in this framework, sort of like “Does Bob cause poverty?” No doubt Bob has done a few things which either help or hurt economic equality in some small way. And it’s possible that Bob is one of the rare people who organizes his life around crusading against poverty, or around crusading against attempts to end poverty. But overall the question will get you looked at funny. Meanwhile, questions like “Is Barack Obama racist?” should lead to a discussion of Obama’s policies and which races were helped or hurt by them; issues like Obama’s own race and his personal feelings shouldn’t come up at all.
Fourth, by this definition, it becomes impossible to assess the racism of an action without knowing all its consequences. Suppose the KKK holds a march through some black neighborhood to terrorize the residents. But in fact the counterprotesters outnumber the marchers ten to one, and people are actually reassured that the community supports them. The march is well-covered on various news organizations, and outrages people around the nation, who donate a lot of money to anti-racist organizations and push for stronger laws against the KKK. Plausibly, the net consequences of the march were (unintentionally) very good for black people and damaging to white supremacy. Therefore, by the Sophisticated Definition, the KKK marching the neighborhood to terrorize black residents was not racist. In fact, for the KKK not to march in this situation would be racist!
So Definition By Consequences implies that racism can never be pointed to as a cause of anything, that racist policies can often be good, that nobody “is a racist” or “isn’t a racist”, and that sometimes the KKK trying to terrorize black people is less racist than them not trying to do this. Not only have I never heard anyone try to grapple with these implications, I see no sign anyone has ever thought of them. And now that I’ve brought them up, I don’t think anyone will accept them as true, or even worry about the discrepancy.
I think this is probably because it’s a motte-and-bailey, more something that gets trotted out to win arguments than anything people actually use in real life.
Definition By Belief Is A Mess
Is it racist to believe that Mexicans are poorer than white people? After all, being poor is generally considered bad, so you’re attributing a bad quality to a minority group. What if you add “Mexicans are only poor because of being oppressed and discriminated against?”
Is it racist to believe that Mexicans are more criminal than white people? What if you add “Mexicans are only criminal because their culture was shaped by the experience of oppressive Spanish colonization, which left deep scars on their national psyche”?
Is it racist to believe that Muslims commit more terrorism than white people? What if you’ve done a lot of calculations of per capita terrorist attacks and you can quote exact numbers that prove your point?
Is it more or less racist if then you add “…but this is because Islam is a violent religion that encourages murder, and has nothing to do with the genetics of Middle Eastern people”?
Is it racist to believe that Pygmies are shorter than white people?
But None Of That Really Matters, Because In Real Life, Definition By Motive Usually Trumps Definition By Belief
After the London attacks, I heard someone ask “Do you have to be a racist to want to restrict immigration from Muslim countries? Or can you just be really worried about the terrorism risk?”
A lot of people responded. Some of them said no, it was perfectly reasonable to be worried about terrorism. Other people said that concern about terrorism was just a smokescreen, that people said they were just concerned about terrorism, but actually that was just a way to cover up their racism.
Think about how confusing this is. It’s positing two different things. First, a belief that Muslims are often terrorists and so we should crack down on them. And second, racism. These things are considered opposing explanations, such that if we believe the first one, we can dismiss the second – or, if we admit the second, that proves the first was claimed dishonestly. Under Definition By Belief, it’s really weird.
(compare: “I believe Jesus Christ is the Son of God and those who believe in Him gain eternal life.” “No, you’re just using that as a smokescreen to cover up that you’re Christian!”)
The only way I can make sense of this argument is to think of it as Definition By Motive trumping Definition By Belief. The first person is stating a belief that Muslims are more likely to be terrorists. The second person is questioning whether their motivation for restricting immigration is really this belief (in which case it would be ok) or if they’re motivated by an irrational hatred of minorities (in which case it would be racism).
Definition By Motive can even trump Definition By Belief when we’re talking about innate/genetic difference. Consider Charles Murray saying that he believes black people are genetically less intelligent than white people. Some of Murray’s critics object that this should be suppressed, even if true, because it could be used to justify racism.
Under Definition By Belief, this makes no sense. Imagine Murray was a geologist, pointing out that Antarctica contained mostly sedimentary rock. His critics object “This should be suppressed, even if true, because it could be used to justify believing that Antarctica contains mostly sedimentary rock!” Huh?
It makes more sense if we think of it as being about Definition By Motive. Then the critics are saying that if we find that minority groups are genetically worse in some way (ie racist beliefs are true), we should suppress that lest it be used to justify people’s irrational feelings of hatred for members of other races (ie justify racist motives).
Definition By Motive Makes Sense Of All Of The Above Examples And Basically Matches Most Real-World Usage
Definition By Motive fits the first example. When we ask “Was racism responsible for Trump’s election?” we mean “Did people elect Trump because they irrationally hated minorities and wanted to discriminate against them?”
It fits the second example. When we say that it wouldn’t be racist to resist a tyrant who wants to kill whites, we mean that such resistance is a good policy, which would be pursued for reasons other than just irrationally hating minorities and wanting to discriminate against them.
It fits the third example. When we claim a specific person (Bob, Barack Obama) is racist, we mean that they irrationally hate minorities and want to discriminate against them.
It fits the fourth example. When we say that the KKK marching through a black neighborhood to terrorize people is racist regardless of its consequences, we mean that it’s motivated by an irrational hatred of minorities and desire to discriminate against them.
It fits the fifth example. When we ask whether it’s racist to believe Mexicans are poorer than whites, we’re asking whether someone would only say that because they irrationally hate Mexicans and want to discriminate against them. But most of the time people making that claim are trying to point out inequalities and help Mexicans. So it isn’t racist.
It fits the sixth example. Somebody who believes that Mexicans are more criminal than white people might just be collecting crime stats, but we’re suspicious that they might use this to justify an irrational hatred toward Mexicans and desire to discriminate against them. So it’s potentially racist, regardless of whether you attribute it to genetics or culture.
It fits the seventh example. It’s probably not racist to believe that Muslims commit more terrorism than white people, since this seems to be a true or at least plausible claim, but if people talk about it too much it’s worrying that maybe they’re trying to justify their irrational hatred of Muslims and desire to discriminate against them.
It fits the eighth example. It’s probably not racist to believe that Pygmies are shorter than white people, because it’s obviously true and you would believe it whether you had an irrational hatred of Pygmies or not. Also, no one cares how tall anybody is.
It fits the ninth example. When people ask whether immigration restricts are really due to fear of terrorism vs. racism, they’re asking whether people who claim to be concerned with terrorism actually just irrationally hate minorities and want to discriminate against them.
And it fits the tenth example. When people say that Charles Murray’s claims about genetics might be used to “justify racism”, they mean that if you irrationally hate minorities and want to discriminate against them, you could use his claims about genetics as a justification for why your position makes sense.
Overall We Probably Use A Combination Of All Of These, Weighted In Favor Of Definition By Motives
I designed the discussion questions to be situations where Definition By Motive clearly didn’t apply, but one or both of the other definitions clearly did. I imagine some people stuck to their guns, went Definition By Motive all the way through, and said none of the people in the vignettes were racist. I imagine other people used one of the other two definitions, or a different definition of their own, and were able to navigate all of the objections and counterexamples down here in Part II successfully. But I think most people found a couple of inconsistencies, aren’t really sure what to do with them, and are just sort of echoing the Supreme Court’s view of pornography: “I’ll know it when I see it.”
This is natural. I’m not trying to say that Definition By Motives is the one “real” definition. All of our word usage is a mess; we hardly ever use anything simply or consistently, let alone a complicated word like “racism”. In reality we go back and forth among all of these, proving that something is racist using one definition, then applying the consequences of another definition, switching from very strict to very loose based on whether or not it’s something we like. All of this is totally normal.
But in this case it’s kind of likely to lead to disaster.
A digression, from an alternative universe.
“Murderism” is the ideology that murdering people is good and letting them live is bad. It’s practically omnipresent: 14,000 people are murdered in the US each year. That’s a lot of murderists, and a testament to the degree to which our schools teach murderist values.
But not all murderism is that obvious. For years, people have been pushing “soft-on-crime” policies that will defund the police and reduce the length of jail sentences – inevitably increasing the murder rate. Advocates of these policies might think that just because they’re not gangsters with knives, they must not be murderists. But anybody who supports murder, whether knife-wielding gangster or policy analyst – is murderist and responsible for the effects of their murderism.
Our two major parties have many differences – but both are united in their support for murderism. Republicans push murderist policies like the invasion of Iraq, which caused the murder of thousands of Iraqis. Democrats claim to be better, but they support openly murderist ideas like euthanasia, promoting the killing of our oldest and most vulnerable citizens. There’s no party in Washington that’s willing to take a good look at itself and challenge the murderist ideals that our political system is built on.
Murderism won’t stop until people understand that it’s not okay to be murderist. So next time you hear people opposing police militarization, or speaking out in favor of euthanasia – tell them that that’s murderism and it’s not okay.
…okay, done. Back in our own universe, we recognize that “murderism” is silly: it confuses cause and effect.
Murder is usually an effect of a strategy pursued for other reasons. The drug dealer who wants to keep rivals off his turf, the soldier who wants to win a war, the gangster who wants to get rid of inconvenient witnesses. If you want to stretch it, add the neocon who wants to “liberate” foreign countries, the cancer patient who wants to “die with dignity”, or the activist who wants to keep people out of jail.
But except in maybe the most deranged serial killers, it’s never pursued because of an inherent preference for murder. Most murderers would probably prefer not to have to kill. If the drug dealer could protect his business equally well by politely requesting people stay off his territory, that would be much easier. If the soldier could win his war without bloodshed, so much the better for everybody. Murder is an effect of other goals – sometimes base, sometimes noble – and the invocation of “murderism” only serves to hide these goals and conflate different actions into a single meaningless category.
Talking about murderism isn’t just uninformative, it’s actively confusing. If you believed that gangsters killed their rivals because of murderism, then there’s no point in examining how poverty interacts with gang membership, or whether the breakdown of law forces people to form gangs to defend themselves. The problem is just that gangsters have murderist values. It should be solved by censoring the works of philosopher David Benatar, who writes about how being alive is bad and it’s morally better not to exist at all. Or by banning high school Goths, whose pro-death aesthetic makes murderism seem cool to teens and causes them to harbor murderist thoughts as adults.
Talk about murderism is obviously confused. But it’s the same confusion between the Definition By Consequences versus the Definition By Motive that we saw was a hallmark of racism.
Belief in murderism creates a hostile and ineffective society whose weird beliefs can only be countered by accepting that murder is rarely a terminal goal, but a usually result of strategies pursued for other reasons. We accept that having a terminal goal of killing people seems so awful, inhuman, and incongruous with the sort of decent humans we all know – that it’s a very strange explanation to even consider when other, better ones are available. We can apply the same analysis to racism. The discussion questions in Part I already started the process, but we can go further.
I’m not just making the argument “lots of things aren’t really racist”. I can’t do much about how you choose to define words, plus it’s doomed to fail anyway. Imagine having to convince someone that a guy who committed homicide “isn’t really murderist”. Doesn’t sound like the most winnable fight.
And if you only break down non-racist things into non-racist motives, what reward shall you have? Do not even the scribes and the Pharisees do the same? I say unto you, if you want to be righteous, look for the non-racist motives in actually racist things.
What does that mean?
Consider some business, let’s say a daycare center, that we know discriminates against black job-seekers. If we ask them why, they say “Because black people are criminal”. This sounds like just about the most typical and obvious example of racism possible.
But there’s actually a lot of really good scholarship on this exact situation, and it helps provide a different perspective. It starts like this – a while ago, criminal justice reformers realized that mass incarceration was hurting minorities’ ability to get jobs. 4% of white men will spend time in prison, compared to more like 16% of Hispanic men and 28% of black men. Many employers demanded to know whether a potential applicant had a criminal history, then refused to consider them if they did. So (thought the reformers) it should be possible to help minorities have equal opportunities by banning employers from asking about past criminal history.
The actual effect was the opposite – the ban “decreased probability of being employed by 5.1% for young, low-skilled black men, and 2.9% for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.”
In retrospect, this makes sense. Daycare companies really want to avoid hiring formerly-imprisoned criminals to take care of the kids. If they can ask whether a certain employee is criminal, this solves their problem. If not, they’re left to guess. And if they’ve got two otherwise equally qualified employees, and one is black and the other’s white, and they know that 28% of black men have been in prison compared to 4% of white men, they’ll shrug and choose the white guy.
Is this racist? Is this “statistical discrimination”? Describe it with whatever word you want. The point is that they have understandable motives (don’t hire criminals to take care of the kids), accurate beliefs, and in their shoes you might do the same. More important, once you give them the tools they need to solve their problems without racial discrimination – you let them see applicants’ criminal histories – they have no further desire to discriminate and your problem is solved.
If you tried to solve this by sending these people to sensitivity training, you would fail. IF you tried to solve this by firing these people, then the people who replaced them would have the same incentives, and you would fail again. If you try to solve it by realizing that racial animus has no role at all in this scenario, and daycare owners just want to do what’s best for their kids, then you can provide them with the tools they need to do that, and solve the racial discrimination at the same time.
Okay, fine. Harder example. Let’s take, uh, some guy who’s always ranting about how the Jews secretly control the world. They have underground tunnels where they have their secret Zionist meetings and talk about how they’re going to stick it to the Christians. Every major war and economic downturn has been caused by this. Are we allowed to treat this guy‘s racism as being a conceptual primitive that doesn’t need further breaking down?
I actually knew a guy like this. He was a schizophrenic patient in the mental hospital where I work. Overall I found it a nice break from the tedium of CIA-conspiracy folk, alien-conspiracy folk, and white-people-conspiracy folk (remember, this is Detroit).
Am I saying everyone like this is schizophrenic? Not diagnosably, no. But I notice that there are a lot of not-diagnosably-schizophrenic people who believe in the Illuminati, the New World Order, the Freemasons, and – yes – lizardmen. Is it really so outlandish to say that the same faulty reasoning that concludes that Freemasons run the world could conclude that Jews run the world, and for the same reasons? Does it really make sense to just blow one off as paranoid conspiracy-mongering, and the other as originating from a completely different process called “anti-Semitism” or “racism”? Remember, “healthy” people with paranoid and conspiratorial beliefs have the same kind of fronto-striatal prediction error signal that schizophrenics do, only less so, suggesting that their odd ideas probably come from the same kind of disturbed reasoning process.
“Are you saying that anti-Semitism literally plays no role in their theory about the Elders of Zion”? Again, call it what you want. I’m saying that by totally ignoring the anti-Semitic aspect, I was able to successfully treat this guy with Seroquel, whereas if you tried to read him Elie Wiesel books, he’d still be in that psych ward today.
Fine. Schizotypal conspiracy-mongerers are a noncentral example anyway. What about, I don’t know, rural Republicans in South Carolina who wave the Confederate flag all the time and think blacks and immigrants are ruining the country.
Here I would point out that this is pretty much the demographic that elected Nikki Haley (birth name, Nimrata Randhawa; daughter of two Punjabi immigrants) as governor, and that supports her so fervently that she remains one of the most popular politicians in the country. Also the demographic that loved Ben Carson, making him the only candidate to briefly displace Trump for first place in the 2016 Republican primary polls. One plausible explanation is that the South Carolinians don’t like blacks and immigrants because they view them as having foreign values – specifically, Blue Tribe values (it may be relevant here that 90%+ of blacks usually vote Democrat). If someone like Nikki Haley or Ben Carson proves that they share Red beliefs, they become part of the tribe and will be fiercely defended. Maybe this is more like the daycare situation than it looks – people using race as a proxy for something they care about, until they get direct information.
To be clear – I am not saying that racism doesn’t exist, I’m not saying that we should ignore racism, I’m not saying that minorities should never be able to complain about racism. I’m saying that it’s very dangerous to treat “racism” as a causal explanation, that it might not tell you anything useful about the world, and that’s a crappy lever to use if you want to change behavior.
And I’m not saying that it’s not useful to think of some of these things as places where there’s an opportunity for racial change. If a daycare owner is really interested in redressing racial inequality, they can hire minorities even if it’s against their incentives and self-interest (although it’s unclear why the owner should prefer that opportunity to other opportunities, like donating some of their profits to the NAACP.)
And I’m not saying that there will never be a case that’s impossible to break down into non-racist motives. Heck, I’m not even saying there aren’t some honest-to-goodness murderists out there. But I am saying we should at least try. Not because it’s necessarily costless. Not because there isn’t a risk of false negatives.
We should try because it’s the only alternative to having another civil war.
Arnold Kling likes to talk about how political groups are divided by different “languages”, different schemata for understanding the world that make it difficult to talk across political divides.
Jonathan Haidt accepts the premise but challenges the symmetry; his experiments ask liberals and conservatives to fill out questionnaires about their values, then to predict how someone from the opposite tribe would fill out the questionnaire. He finds that conservatives are able to predict liberals’ answers just fine and seem to have a pretty good understanding of their worldviews, but that liberals have no idea how conservatives think or what they value.
James Scott, as channeled by Lou Keep, draws the asymmetry a little differently. He says that the process of development, especially state-building and the switch from traditional to market economies, creates a pressure for “legible” language that renders entire classes of problems very difficult to talk about. This creates an asymmetry between an elite plugged into the global market structure whose concerns make perfect sense (“If we do this, GDP will go up 3% and we can build more roads!”) and the masses left behind whose concerns seem pointless and vague (“I feel like something important disappeared when we turned everything into a commodity”). Keep then proposes a very loose mapping onto cosmopolitan neoliberal Clintonites versus undereducated “I’m angry about losing my traditional culture” Trumpists.
There are a bunch more frameworks like this, but they all share the common warning that cross-cultural communication is really hard, and so a lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense. And most of them say that our demographic – well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason – are at especially high risk of just dismissing everyone else as too dumb to matter. 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, or the hard work of changing minds, or the hard work of questioning your own beliefs, or the hard work of compromise, or even the hard work of remembering that at the end of the day your enemies are still your countrymen. It frees you from any hard work at all. 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.
And I guess it sounds like I’m upset that we’re not very good at solving difficult cross-cultural communication problems which require deep and genuine effort to understand the other person’s subtly different value system. I’m not upset that we can’t solve those. Those are hard. I’m upset because we’re not even at the point where someone can say “I’m worried about terrorism,” without being forced to go through an interminable and ultimately-impossible process of proving to a random assortment of trolls and gatekeepers that they actually worry about terrorism and it’s not just all a ruse to cover up that they secretly hate everyone with brown skin. I’m saying that when an area of the country suffers an epidemic of suicides and overdoses, increasing mortality, increasing unemployment, social decay, and general hopelessness, and then they say they’re angry, we counter with “Are you really angry? Is ‘angry’ just a code word for ‘racist’?” I’m saying we’re being challenged with a moonshot-level problem, and instead we’re slapping our face with our own hand and saying “STOP HITTING YOURSELF!”
People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.
And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”
You say we must protect freedom of speech. But would you protect the free speech of racists?
You say people shouldn’t get fired for personal opinions that don’t affect their work. But would you let racists keep their jobs?
You say we try to solve disagreements respectfully through rational debate. But would you try to rationally debate racists?
You say people should be allowed to follow their religion without interference. But what if religion is just a cover for racism?
You say we need to understand that people we disagree with can sometimes have some good points. Are you saying we should try to learn things from racists?
You say there’s a taboo on solving political disagreements by punching people. Are you saying that we can’t punch racists?
The argument goes: liberalism assumes good faith and shared values. It assumes that, at the end of the day, whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, you can still be a basically good person. You can compartmentalize a few special beliefs relating to the Pope, and your remaining differences can be dissolved by the universal solvent of Reason. After everyone does this, you can invoke the wisdom of crowds via a popular election, and even if you don’t like the results you can at least understand where the other side is coming from. Some people prefer liberty to safety, other people prefer safety to liberty, but if the voters choose the wrong one then at least they’ve erred in an understandable way by preferring one real value to another.
But if there’s some group out there who aren’t connected to normal human values at all, some group that’s deliberately rejected reason; if they’re willing to throw liberty and safety under the bus in pursuit of some kind of dark irrational hatred which is their only terminal goal – then the whole project falls apart. Dialogue based on mutual trust may be all nice and well when it’s supposed to help us choose the optimal balance between liberty and safety, but if you give a platform to the people whose only value is hatred, then they’re just screwing over everybody.
A few days ago, Noah Smith posted on Twitter about hearing some people say racist things. The comments went like this:
Ah well. They said a racist thing. Guess we’ve got to kill them.
And I agree with this chain of logic. Using violence to enforce conformity to social norms has always been the historical response. We invented liberalism to try to avoid having to do that, but you can’t liberalism with people who refuse reason and are motivated by hatred. If you give the franchise to green pointy-fanged monsters, they’re just going to vote for the “Barbecue And Eat All Humans” party. If such people existed and made up a substantial portion of the population, liberalism becomes impossible, and we should go back to just using violence to enforce our will on the people who disagree with us. Assuming they don’t cooperate with our strategy of violently suppressing them, that means civil war.
I don’t want civil war. I want this country to survive long enough to be killed by something awesome, like AI or some kind of genetically engineered superplague. Right now I think going out in a neat way, being killed by a product of our own genius and intellectual progress – rather than a product of our pettiness and mutual hatreds – is the best we can hope for. And I think this is attainable! I think that we, as a nation and as a species, can make it happen.
But it starts with rejecting the “murderism” framework. Rejecting the choice to attribute whatever we disagree with to murderism, even if it is murderist, and instead trying to trace it back to root causes that make sense that and humanize the people involved. Working to find the reasons liberalism is possible, rather than the reasons it isn’t. Unless we can do that, semantic confusion and our political polarization are going to build off each other in a vicious cycle into who knows where.