Science magazine touts the existence of strong and ubiquitous “implicit bias”, as well as the need to measure it and develop ways to eliminate it

March 5, 2023 • 10:45 am

This long new article in Science, one of the world’s premier science journals (or should I call it a “magazine”?), not only assumes that implicit (unconscious bias) is a real and pervasive thing, that it’s ubiquitous and has led to “structural racism” within institutions, that it can be assessed with a test (IAT: the “implicit association test”) that it diagnoses the severity of your bias correctly, and that making people aware of their hidden bigotry through “implicit bias training” will make them stop being bigots.

Every one of these assertions (particularly the last three) has been contested by psychologists, but you wouldn’t know that from reading the piece, which you can do by clicking below. Note that the point of this post is not to say that bias and bigotry don’t exist—you’d be a fool to claim that—but that there are grounds for questioning whether these biases are unconscious, can be diagnosed correctly with tests, and can be eliminated through training.

I’m not an expert on this topic, but I am aware that the notion of testing for and effacing unconscious bias has largely been dropped by experts—but not by “progressives”. For a documentation of the problems, with plenty of references, read this 2022 piece by Lee Jussim in Psychology Today (click on the screenshot). I’ll give his list of issues below, but note that even Scientific American has been allowed by an editor to publish a 2020 piece called “The problem with implicit bias training“, which contends that yes, implicit bias exists, but training doesn’t seem to get rid of it.

Here are Jussim’s reasons, each documented with references in the original article. The indented words and bolding are his (my comments flush left).

1. The peer-reviewed scientific literature has witnessed a great walking back of many of the most dramatic claims made on the basis of the IAT and about implicit social cognition more generally.

2. There is no consensually-accepted scientific definition of implicit bias.

3. The IAT measures reaction times, not things that most people think of as bias.

If you want to see what the IAT is all about, you can take a test here.

4. At best, the IAT measures the strength of association of concepts in memory.

5. The IAT may capture prejudice, stereotypes, or attitudes to some degree, but, if so, it is not a clean measure.

6. The IAT, as used and reported, has a potpourri of additional methodological and statistical oddities.

7. Many of the studies that use IAT scores to predict behavior find little or no anti-Black discrimination specifically.

8. Whether IAT scores predict behavioral manifestations of bias beyond self-report prejudice scales is unclear, with some studies finding they do and others finding they do not.

9. Procedures that change IAT scores have failed to produce changes in discriminatory behavior.

10. There is currently no clear evidence that implicit bias trainings accomplish anything other than teaching people about the research on implicit bias.

11. There is no evidence that IAT scores are “unconscious.”

This last one, which claims that people are very good at predicting their IAT scores, suggests that while people may be biased, it’s not unconscious (this is the main point of the “implicit” trope: that people may think they’re unbiased but they’re not, and therefore act out their racism constantly).

12. Critiques and discussions of its limitations or weaknesses are often not presented when the IAT is taught to introductory psychology students.

This is the main flaw with the Science article above. The only caveats it offers are that people’s scores aren’t often replicable, and that “simple interventions can dampen biases. . . but the changes are usually modest and don’t persist.” Well, that’s an admission of sorts, but the rest of the article is predicated on the existence of these biases and on the need for new ways to find them and eliminate them.

Jussim’s conclusion:

Here is my advice to you: Take an IAT or two (which you can here) if you have not already, just to see what the buzz is about. But now you are armed with enough information to reject any simple-minded proclamations about unconscious racism or the supposed power of implicit biases.

Again, Jussim gives copious references for his claims.

Now the one thing I’m not sure about is whether there really is a psychological trait of “implicit” bias that people aren’t aware of. It may be possible to have prejudices that linger in your unconscious (as opposed to prejudices you’re aware of but won’t admit).  When I saw the first claim below in the Science piece, for example—a study that’s gotten tons of press—I wondered if there really might be some unconscious bias leading to the effect, for the white doctors would surely assert that they don’t treat patients differently because of their race:

A 2020 study by Rachel Hardeman, a reproductive health equity researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Antiracism Research for Health Equity, and colleagues showed Black newborns are twice as likely to die in the care of a white physician than a Black doctor, for instance. Another study from 2022 found women and people of color with chest pain wait longer to be treated in the emergency room compared with white men.

Of course there are competing explanations: the chest pain difference could be due to triaging of symptoms not based on race (I haven’t read the article). But I have read the other article, and the difference in death rate of black babies cared for by white versus black doctors really is a cause of deep concern: it’s a huge difference! Is it possible that it’s due to unconscious racism affecting treatment of infants? But before we go accusing white pediatricians of wholesale and strong racism that kills babies, however, we should immediately begin to pose questions about controls and the like. It turns out, though these results haven’t yet been published, that there apparently were no proper controls in this study, and there were several unassessed non-bias factors that could explain the results. We should withhold judgment about the infant-death study—and not tout it as an example of egregious racism—until other statisticians and physicians have weighted in in the literature.

The Science paper documents other inequities (disproportional representation) in science and medicine, but, as always, we have to ask whether there are other explanations for them and not just bias, much less implicit bias. At times, as in the paragraph below documenting new ways to find implicit bias, there’s a telling assumption that it’s always there but sometimes hard to sniff out. This is, after all, science journalism (bolding is mine):

Others using computer software to research implicit bias in medicine are also struggling to give physicians meaningful feedback. Nao Hagiwara, a social and health psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, and her team are analyzing dozens of nonverbal and verbal communication behaviors, such as facial expressions and voice changes, in recordings of primary care physicians’ interactions with people who have type 2 diabetes. Their software hasn’t yet identified behaviors that could clearly be linked to bias or had an adverse effect in the patient’s outcome. One reason for this murkiness, Hagiwara suggests, is that multiple different cues likely interact to influence patient outcomes whereas studies so far tend to analyze the impact of only one behavior at a time.

Note that the failure of the test to detect “implicitly biased behaviors” doesn’t even mention that such behavior might not exist, but assumes that the researchers haven’t yet hit on the right metric or combination of behaviors (of course, that could lead to p-hacking). That paragraph itself is biased towards the existence of biased behaviors.

Finally, here’s Science‘s pronouncement (through  at the end that implicit bias exists, that it’s strong and pervasive, has resulted from “centuries of white supremacy”, and it’s structural.

Sustained implicit bias training for physicians should instead be the norm, some emphasize. Hospitals also need to monitor and collect data on health care outcomes for different groups in order to monitor equity, Sabin says. “You have to know where the disparities lie and then begin to work backwards from that.”

It won’t be easy, Hardeman says, noting that, at least in the United States, centuries of white supremacy and other forms of bigotry have resulted in deep-rooted stereotypes and other implicit biases. “Every single person should be thinking about doing this work,” she says. “But if they’re doing it within a system that hasn’t addressed its own biases and racism, then it’s not going to be fully effective.”

Among the many things to worry about in this article, including some of its disturbing assertions about racism that do bear investigating (e.g., the infant-death research), is the lack of balanced coverage of this topic and an almost complete neglect of the points Jussim notes above (his name isn’t mentioned in the piece). Such science journalism is, well, unscientific.

Here’s Jussim giving a remote Merton Seminar on the problems with implicit bias.

As always, read the article, Jussim’s piece and the literature he cites, dig further into the topic, and draw your own conclusions.

Slapgate and “respectability politics”: should role models behave especially well?

April 8, 2022 • 9:30 am

You’ve surely seen this video of comedian Chris Rock being smacked onstage at the Oscars by Will Smith, who won a Best Actor award later in the show for his performance in “King Richard”.  Smith not only assaulted Rock, but cursed him out from the table after the incident. The reason: Rock made a joke about the alopecia (baldness) of Smith’s wife Jada.

Lots of people have weighed in on this, with most of them criticizing Smith for his unprofessional behavior. One of the most quoted detractors was former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who wrote a piece on his Substack site called “Will Smith did a Bad, Bad Thing“. (Jabbar is black.) Jabbar called out Smith for many things, deeming the slap “a blow to men, women, the entertainment industry, and the Black community.” But the part that got the most attention was Abdul-Jabbar’s assertion that the slap played into stereotypes about black violence and emotionality:

The Black community also takes a direct hit from Smith. One of the main talking points from those supporting the systemic racism in America is characterizing Blacks as more prone to violence and less able to control their emotions. Smith just gave comfort to the enemy by providing them with the perfect optics they were dreaming of. Fox News host Jeanine Pirro wasted no time going full-metal jacket racist by declaring the Oscars are “not the hood.” What would she have said if Brad Pitt slapped Ricky Gervais? This isn’t Rodeo Drive? Many will be reinvigorated to continue their campaign to marginalize African Americans and others through voter suppression campaign.

Comfort to the enemy? That already implies that the audience was predisposed to fit this violence into a racist narrative. True, black-on-black violence is much in the news, but anyone who fits the narrative of two show-business stars into a “hood” scenario is already predisposed to think badly of black people.  Here’s what Martin Luther King’s daughter said in a pair of tweets:

The trope that Smith’s assault reinforced stereotypes is taken up in this article from yahoo! Life, which also criticizes the idea that individual actions should reflect on their community or group. Click on the screenshot to read:

A quote from the article:

 “When I think of respectability politics, what I imagine is this idea that people, but Black people specifically, are only deserving of respect and should only be valued if they behave in a certain way and adhere to certain guidelines,” anti-racism educator and diversity & inclusion consultant Janice Gassam Asare tells Yahoo Life.

The idea that an individual’s actions can represent an entire group furthers the notion that people in marginalized communities can “behave” and “respect” their way out of oppression.

The article criticizes “respectability politics”—not just as instantiated by Smith’s slap, but also by other blacks who have called for better behavior from their community to raise the image of African-Americans:

Another recent pop-culture moment that focused on this idea came in 2021. That’s when comedian and actress Mo’Nique was accused of upholding respectability politics in an Instagram video in which she critiqued young Black women for dressing down in public, namely by wearing bonnets outside of their homes.

“Our young sisters in head bonnets, scarves, slippers, pajamas, blankets wrapped around them and this is how they showed up to the airport,” she said. The Precious star argued that the trend didn’t align with her vision for young Black women.

“When did we lose our pride in representing ourselves? When did we slip away from ‘let me make sure I’m presentable when I leave my home’?” she asked.

Bill Cosby is also famous for chastising some blacks for both behavior and clothing that, he said, tarnishes the image of the race.

Finally, the “white gaze” noted in Bernice King’s tweet above refers to “what white people think,” something King deplores because it plays into “respectability politics”. The article mentions white celebrities like Jamie Lee Curtis and Bette Midler, who re-tweeted Abdul-Jabbar’s criticism with approbation. An example:

And there’s other criticism for the approbation by white people of Abdul-Jabbar’s conclusion:

The white gaze can be referred to as the general assumption that the intended audience for anything is white, and that all behaviors are to be adjusted for the perception and comfort of white people.

In this case, Abdul-Jabbar’s critique of Smith drew further complaint after his post was shared by prominent white celebrities, including actresses Bette Midler and Jamie Lee Curtis. Both women drew backlash for appearing to support Abdul-Jabbar’s piece and the implication that Smith “perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community.”

Those celebrities don’t understand “the layers and the nuance of our experiences,” says Gassam Asare. “But hearing that from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was off-putting to me, because it’s a classic example of ‘you can’t do certain things in front of white people.'”

The point is not to excuse Smith’s behavior, she notes, but instead to decenter whiteness in regard to morality.

“Very few people are saying violence is OK,” she says, “but I think it’s problematic when someone as notable and with as big of a platform as Abdul-Jabbar plays into this respectability idea.”

In general I agree with the article’s theme on the grounds that no one person’s actions should be taken or seen as a reason to denigrate a group. But let me qualify this a bit, for there are some group behaviors that I see as worthy of criticism. When I see a Middle Eastern man in comfortable clothes, followed several steps behind by a woman loaded with babies and dressed in a burqa, I can’t help but see that man as participating in a form of misogyny promoted by some forms of Islam. Every culture has some behaviors that can be seen as not conducive to societal well-being. Not every person in such cultures adheres to the bad behaviors, but nobody can deny that there are such differences. If you want to consider America, our callousness about universal health care is widespread, and a politician who denigrates it could be seen as “acting American.”

But there is no way that one should see Will Smith’s actions as somehow characteristic of black men. It was simply a human being reacting in the wrong way to a slight on his wife. (Smith does have a reputation for a bit of a temper.) And of course Chris Rock reacted with the utmost decorum, not by starting a brawl. Doesn’t that counteract Smith’s behavior, even for bigots? When I saw the slap, I didn’t even think about the race of the Smith. The notion that the violence was it was a “black thing” arose only when I read this article.

Yet I do want to bring up one thing that struck me (pardon the expression). In the past, and even today, black people who make it big are often encouraged by fellow blacks to behave in a certain way because they are “role models”. When Jackie Robinson became the first black major-league baseball player, he was told by his manager, Branch Rickey, to behave very politely, and not react to the inevitable racial slurs he encountered on the field.  In the movie I just watched coming back from Chile, “King Richard,” Smith himself plays Richard Williams, and is seen encouraging his daughters to dress well and behave properly, because, he said, they can be role models for millions of little black girls who aspire to playing tennis. And, in the last scene, this view is vindicated.

Of course, if someone has no interest in being a role model for their group—and they don’t have to have such interest—then this whole point is moot.

My question is whether “respectability politics involves hypocrisy when it comes to “role models”? Are you supposed to behave better than others so you can be a “role model” for a group—if that’s something you want to be? Why can’t you just excel in tennis and forget about trying to look or behave better than anyone else?

And that goes for all other role models as well. Yet we know that even playing into that “role model” behavior reflects a form of bigotry that does exist. Racism isn’t gone, and there ARE those who will take advantage of an ill-timed slap to denigrate a group. The question is whether it’s worth emphasizing this as a form of behavior modification, as Abdul-Jabbar did in his article.

Or perhaps all this musing about the behavior of “role models” is simply misguided. A “role model” could simply be someone like Venus Williams whose success demonstrates to other members of their ethnic group (or gender, or whatever) that they, too, can achieve—that bigotry is no longer enough to hold people back from success. Perhaps Branch Rickey, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ manager who signed Jackie Robinson, was wrong in telling Robinson not to react to racial slurs on the field, thinking that any backtalk would just make racism more entrenched. Even if it did, then maybe Robinson didn’t feel like toeing the line to placate bigots. And perhaps, since racism is still with us, Abdul-Jabbar is just continuing the tradition of Branch Rickey, reminding people like Smith that, like it or not, they are seen as representatives of the black community and their actions can either lessen or entrench racism.

In the end, I guess I would want to say, “Nobody should have to be other than who they are to avoid fulfilling the hopes and expectations of bigots.” Yes, we should all try to behave civilly, but not tweak our behaviors because we have a certain gender or ethnicity. Yes, both individuals and groups differ in behaviors, but bigotry is imputing negative traits to an individual based solely on membership in a group. And that cannot be condoned.

But in the end, there’s still that nagging Branch-Rickeyish doubt in my mind, one that I quell by convincing myself that bigotry is not lessened when a black man wears a suit and behaves politely.  (I suspect that John McWhorter might disagree.) And even if it were, is everyone supposed to be a representative of their group?

Francesca Stavrakopoulou on her new book about God

January 16, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Reader Edward called my attention to a new video by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou, Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter with a specialty in the Old Testament (but she knows her Jesus, too). She’s my favorite Biblical scholar because she’s an out-and-out atheist and a strong skeptic, not accepting much of the Old Testament as true. As Wikipedia notes of her:

The main focus of Stavrakopoulou’s research is on the Hebrew bible, and on Israelite and Judahite history and religion.Stavrakopoulou supports the academic consensus that important figures in the Hebrew bible were not historical figures as represented in that text.[ She has further stated that she believes “very little, probably” of the Hebrew bible is historical fact, based on the arguments that ancient writers had an understanding of “fact” and “fiction” very different from a modern understanding, and that the Hebrew bible “wasn’t written to be a factual account of the past”; she concludes, saying she does not believe accounts of Moses and King David in the Hebrew bible to be factual, and that “as an historian of the bible, I think there is very little that is factual”. In her 2021 book, God: An Anatomy, Stavrakopoulou “presents a vividly corporeal image of God: a human-shaped deity who walks and talks and weeps and laughs, who eats, sleeps, feels, and breathes, and who is undeniably male. Here is a portrait–arrived at through the author’s close examination of and research into the Bible–of a god in ancient myths and rituals who was a product of a particular society, at a particular time, made in the image of the people who lived then, shaped by their own circumstances and experience of the world”. This book has been described by John Barton as showing that the non-corporeal God of Judaism and Christianity “was not yet so in the Bible, where God appears in a much more corporeal form”.

I bow deeply to Dr. Stavrakopoulou in Biblical expertise, but I’m wondering how she knows for sure that “the Bible wasn’t written to be a factual account of the past.”  I’ll grant that it is fictional, but then why did Church fathers like Augustine the Hippo, Aquinas, and many others take both the Old and New Testaments literally? Were they unaware why the Bible was written? (Granted, some of these theologians saw both a metaphorical and literal meaning of Scripture, but the literal meaning was always there.)

That aside, Dr. Stav (pardon the shortening, but it’s laborious to write her whole name) is discussing her new book and Biblical worldview in this video with Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of Humanists UK, an organization much less woke than the American Humanist Association. Her book, which comes out in a week in the U.S., is called God: An Anatomy , and got good reviews in the UK.

I could describe the high points, but I think the whole video worth watching, for you’ll see somebody the addressing the Bible as a work of historical fiction. She also has an engaging style of speaking, why is why she often appears on British t.v. and did a 3-part BBC special that you can find, in bits, on YouTube.

She describes the story of Job as as “God screwing over Job for no reason” (true!), and my favorite bit of chat is at 8:40: “Christianity in particular has done a tremendous job of trying to pretend that there a triune God and that God is one and then three at the same time—what a scam!” How refreshing is that? I wonder if her students are flummoxed when they take her classes and learn that they’re being taught by a total nonbeliever.

As similar nonbelievers, it’s our job to know more about religion than believers themselves, for you can always best them by knowing your Scripture. If you haven’t read the Bible—painful as it is—do it. And read Dr. Stav’s book.

She pulls no punches on Twitter, either:

h/t: Edward

Scientific American (and math) go full woke

August 29, 2021 • 12:15 pm

As we all know, Scientific American is changing from a popular-science magazine into a social-justice-in-science magazine, having hardly anything the science-hungry reader wants to see any more. I urge you to peruse its website and look for the kind of article that would have inspired me when I was younger: articles about pure science.  Now the rag is all about inequities and human diseases.

In the past couple of months, there have been some dire op-eds, and here’s another one—not as bad as some others, but (especially for a science magazine) riddled with unexamined assumptions. Click on the screenshot to read it. Apparently the “racial reckoning” that began last year has now crept into mathematics.

After reading it, I have two questions: Is mathematics structurally racist? And why has Scientific American changed its mission from publishing decent science pieces to flawed bits of ideology?

The article, of course, claims that mathematics is a hotbed of racism and misogyny, which explains why there are so few women and blacks in academic mathematics.

The article begins with stories of thee women mathematicians, all of whom report that they felt discriminated against or at least looked down upon. All of them have academic jobs, two as professors and one as a postdoc. I don’t doubt their stories, but what we have are three anecdotes. At face value, they show that there is some racism or sexism in academic math, but these are cherry-picked anecdotes that demonstrate little except that, like all fields, math is not entirely free of bigotry. I also procured two anecdotes with no effort. First, I asked one of my female math-y friends, Professor Anna Krylov,  a theoretical and computational quantum chemist at USC, who deals extensively with mathematicians, if that had been her experience, and she said what’s indented below. (I quote her with permission; we’ve met Anna before.)

 I was often a single women in a room — but so what? It did not turn me away from the subject I was passionate about.  I experienced some forms of discrimination throughout my career and can tell stories… But — as McWhorter often says — “there was then and there is now”! These anecdotes [from Sci. Am.] are blown out of proportion and completely misrepresent the current climate.

She also worried that these narratives, which don’t resemble her own, cultivate a victim mentality in women. (Anna is no anti-feminist, either: she helped initiate a protest against an all-male speaker agenda at a chemistry conference.)

Anna also mentioned another female math professor in the U.S. who agrees with her own experience. So we have two anecdotes on one side, and three on the other. (I have to add that, as I’ve said before, I myself felt inferior and suffered from “imposter syndrome” for several years in graduate school, constantly thinking about dropping out. But I finally realized that I could find my own niche.)

Author Crowell also gives two examples of undeniable racial discrimination against black mathematicians, but those took place in the early 20th century and in the Fifties, and it’s undeniable that at that time there was academic racism. But, as Anna said, “there was then and there is now”. If we’re to accept that mathematics is now structurally racist and misogynist, with an endemic culture of bigotry that leads to inequities, we need to do better than that.

So beyond the academic data, the article adds this:

Racism, sexism and other forms of systematic oppression are not unique to mathematics, and they certainly are not new, yet many in the field still deny their existence. “One of the biggest challenges is how hard it can be to start a conversation” about the problem, Sawyer says, “because mathematicians are so convinced that math is the purest of all of the sciences.” Yet statistics on the mathematics profession are difficult to ignore. In 2019 a New York Times profile of Edray Herber Goins, a Black mathematics professor at Pomona College, reported that “fewer than 1 percent of doctorates in math are awarded to African-Americans.” A 2020 NSF survey revealed that out of a total of 2,012 doctorates awarded in mathematics and statistics in the U.S. in 2019, only 585 (29.1 percent) were awarded to women. That percentage is slightly lower than in 2010, when 29.4 percent of doctorates in those areas (467 out of 1,590) were awarded to women. (Because these numbers are grouped based on sex rather than gender, that survey did not report how many of those individuals identify as a gender other than male or female.)

This is the Kendi-an idea that inequities in achievement are prima facie evidence of bias. But if you think about it for both women and African-Americans, that need not be true. This is a true case of begging the question: assuming that there is structural racism and misogyny in math and thus the lower representation is simply its result.

The problem with this, as we’ve discussed before, is that there are reasons for these inequities beyond structural racism, so you can’t just assume its existence. (As I said, nobody with any sense would deny that there are racist or sexist mathematicians; the claim is that the field is permeated with bigotry._

Regarding women, we’ve learned that the sexes differ in interests and preferences, with men being “thing people” and women being “people people” (these are of course average differences, not diagnostic traits!). As Lee Jussim points out in a Psychology Today op-ed, on the advanced high school level, men and women do about the same in math, but women do better than men in demonstrating verbal and reading skills.  In other words, women are better than men at everything, but many choose areas that are more word-heavy than math-heavy. That itself, combined with different preferences, causes inequities. As Jussim writes,

This same issue of differing interests was approached in a different way by Wang, Eccles, and Kenny (2013). Disclosure: Eccles was my dissertation advisor and longterm collaborator; I am pretty sure she identifies as a feminist, has long been committed to combating barriers to women, and is one of the most objective, balanced social scientists I have ever had the pleasure to know.

In a national study of over 1,000 high school students, they found that:

1. 70 percent more girls than boys had strong math and verbal skills;

2. Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to have strong math skills but not strong verbal skills;

3. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) who had only strong math skills as students were more likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were other students;

4. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) with strong math and verbal skills as students were less likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were those with only strong math skills.

Thus inequities in academic math may be a matter of differential preferences or other factors not reflecting bigotry. And this may be one explanation for why, although Sci. Am. notes that only 29.1% of doctorates in math were awarded to women in 2019, it looks from Jussim’s bar graph that about 35% of first time graduate enrollees in math and computer science are women. That bespeaks only a slightly higher attrition rate among women than men—something that needs to be addressed. But again, the go-to answer is not automatically “misogyny.”

As for African-Americans, yes, there’s way too few doctorates awarded in mathematics. To me this does bespeak racism, but racism in the past, not necessarily now. The situation is that due to inequality of opportunity, blacks almost certainly lack easy entry now into mathematics studies. This is a narrowing of the pipeline from the outset that needs to be rectified. But again, the figures do not show that the low output at the pipeline’s terminus is due to racism.

As to what happened to Scientific American, well, it’s gone the way of all the science journals. It is doing performative wokeness.

One more item: Have a look at MathSafe, an organization hired by the American Mathematical Society to police meetings like beagles sniffing out impurities. It’s as if we are no longer adults who can police our own behavior at meetings, and need to pay others to do it for us.

h/t: Anna

An unbelievably invidious op-ed in the NYT: Americans shouldn’t physically attack Jews because it inhibits our ability to criticize Israel

May 30, 2021 • 11:30 am

The two screenshots below are to the same op-ed at the New York Times by Michelle Goldberg, but the title obviously got changed somewhere along the way.  And no surprise, either, for the subject of the article, well summarized by the article’s first title below, is an admonition so horribly bigoted and unempathic that I couldn’t believe it. The editors obviously changed the title to make it look less horrible. (Goldberg describes herself as both a “progressive” and a “secular Jew”.)

I read this article four or five times, trying to convince myself that it didn’t say what it seemed to say, but I couldn’t dissuade myself, and now others have agreed with me. This is what her message seems to be:

People should stop physically assaulting Jews in America for being Jewish, because that makes it harder for us to criticize Israel and its “apartheid” government.

In other words, what should help deter physical attacks on American Jews is not just empathy for other people, or a resistance to religious-based bigotry, but also the notion that the sympathy engendered by the anti-Semitic attacks in America make it less likely for people to criticize Israel for its clear “apartheid” and “anti-Palestinian” policies. How craven can somebody be?

To be fair, Goldberg does at least admit that the anti-Jewish attacks in America are horrible (by Gad! She’d better!)

In the article with the new title, I’ll give some quotes below defending my interpretation of what she says:

Quotes from this article:

But this [American anti-Semitic] violence also threatens to undermine progress that’s been made in getting American politicians to take Palestinian rights more seriously. Right-wing Zionists and anti-Semitic anti-Zionists have something fundamental in common: Both conflate the Jewish people with the Israeli state. Israel’s government and its American allies benefit when they can shut down criticism of the country as anti-Semitic.

Many progressives, particularly progressive Jews, have worked hard to break this automatic identification and to open up space in the Democratic Party to denounce Israel’s entrenched occupation and human rights abuses. This wave of anti-Semitic violence will increase the difficulty of that work. The Zionist right claims that to assail Israel is to assail all Jews. Those who terrorize Jews out of rage at Israel seem to make their point for them.

Goldberg then segues into the familiar (but, to my mind, largely unfounded) claims that Israel is an oppressor state and is rife with institutionalized apartheid. One would expect that someone like Goldberg might point out that of all the states in the the Middle East, including the Palestinian Territories, Israel is the state least likely to be accused of apartheid, and those repeated accusations ignore not only the reality of Arab participation as citizens in Israeli life, but the fact that in Israel there is far more equality for gays, women, apostates, and non-majority religionists (like Muslims) than there is in Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and similar places. Were Goldberg to given a choice to live her life as a woman in Gaza versus Israel, wouldn’t she flee to Israel ASAP? The repeated declarations of Israeli apartheid, like the one from Human Rights Watch below, are, in my view, simple manifestations of anti-Semitism. What other reasons are there for singling out Israel for demonization and palpably ignoring the far worse treatment of its citizens by Palestine? It can’t be “whataboutism” because Palestine is never singled out by the Western press.

Nor does Goldberg mention the rockets fired into Israel by Hamas in an attempt to kill Israeli civilians, while the IDF attempts to avoid killing civilians. Is that willy-nilly targeting of civilians not a war crime? Isn’t Palestinians’ refusal to allow gays to be openly gay, for women to be fully free, and for Jews to even live in Palestine a better example of apartheid? If not, why not? Explain to me, please, how Israel is more of an “apartheid” state than is Palestine.

But then comes the familiar litany, which is wrong given that Israelis desire peace with Palestine, and have offered them peace multiple times, only to be rejected. Hamas will not be satisfied until Israel is wiped off the map, and “Palestine is free, from the river to the sea.” Goldberg:

Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians is often so shocking that just describing it neutrally seems defamatory; when Human Rights Watch decided, last month, to accuse Israel of the crime of apartheid, it was because the facts on the ground left it little choice. As Eric Goldstein, acting executive director of H.R.W.’s Middle East and North Africa division, wrote in The Forward last month, it’s not just that Palestinians live under relentless Israeli oppression.

“What’s gone is the possibility of saying, with a straight face, that it is temporary,” he wrote. “Israeli authorities today clearly intend to maintain this system of severe discrimination into the future — an intent that constitutes the third prong of the crime of apartheid.”

And once again, Goldberg emphasizes that attacks on Jews in the U.S., who are not Israeli citizens, make it harder to criticize Israeli apartheid:

It’s awful irony, but anti-Semitic violence helps shore up this system by strengthening the taboo against calling it what it is. I get the sense that some people on the left find talking about violence by Palestinian sympathizers embarrassing; it certainly doesn’t receive the same sort of attention as white nationalist attacks. But it should be treated as a crisis, both as a matter of basic human solidarity and because it’s a political danger.

And, at the end, Goldberg again pays lip service by decrying American assaults on Jews, which doesn’t take much courage. But as far as I can see, the “political danger” she mentions above is that this violence mutes the voices of those who would criticize Israel. It shouldn’t, though, for Israelis are a querulous lot and not loath to criticize their own government. But every bit of evidence shows that it is Israel, far more than Palestine or Hamas, which wants peace. To ignore this is to show a willful ignorance of history in the service of a misguided and woke ideology.

At any rate, to write a column arguing that attacking American Jews is bad in part because it makes it harder for the world to criticize Israel represents to me the height of woke hypocrisy—coupled with a reprehensible lack of empathy. You shouldn’t attack Jews in America, or any place else, simply because they’re Jews and that’s simply bigoted violence. War is a different issue, but it’s hard to call Hamas’s deliberate firing of rockets at civilians anything but a war crime. The IDF tries to avoid killing civilians, but that’s hard because Hamas places rockets near civilians, as if they want civilian casualties.  Hamas deliberately tries to kill civilians, which of course is what suicide bombing is about.

Lest you think my interpretation of Goldberg’s piece is wonky, at least one other person agrees with me: Jonathan Tobin writing at the Jewish News Syndicate. (An article like his, of course, could never be printed in the NYT, which, except for some columns by Bret Stephens, specializes in anti-Semitism these days.) Click on the screenshot to read:

One quote from Tobin:

In a gobsmackingly tone-deaf column that was published in print with one of the most egregious Times headlines in recent memory—“Attacks on Jews Are a Gift to the Right”—Goldberg did write that she didn’t approve of Jews being attacked in the streets. Her main complaint, though, was that those who victimized Jews in the name of “free Palestine” were giving a bad name to the anti-Zionist cause of which she is one of the most prominent Jewish advocates.

Goldberg, who has a large following on Twitter under her @Michelleinbklyn handle, has used her prominent perch on the Times’ opinion pages to promote the idea that denying the right of Jews to a state in their ancient homeland is the sort of idea that fashionable Brooklyn “progressives,” including Jews, should embrace.

. . .If there is violence against Jews either here or in Europe, Goldberg prefers to blame it on supporters of Israel who, not unnaturally, consider it their duty to speak up for the embattled Jewish state. She thinks they share common ground with anti-Semites because they “conflate the Jewish people with the Israeli state.” But while Jews elsewhere shouldn’t be blamed for what Israelis do, her linking of those who rightly understand that Israel is integral to Jewish identity and peoplehood to hatemongers is itself a crude calumny. Progressives like herself, who want to eliminate Israel, actually have far more in common with anti-Semites who share that objective.

Criticism of Israel isn’t the issue. Israel isn’t perfect, but people like Omar and other supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement don’t attack Israel for what it does, but for what it is. More to the point, if you think the only country in the world that needs to be eliminated is the sole Jewish state on the planet, then clearly you do have a problem with Jews.

That last paragraph pretty much summarizes the “progressive” Left’s actions and beliefs about Israel. I have little doubt that people like Omar, Tlaib, and Ocasio-Cortez favor the elimination of Israel, even if it be by the untenable “one state solution” that would mean genocide for the Jews.

Should we retain the category of “hate crimes”?

January 19, 2021 • 12:00 pm

I’ve recently read several books on free speech, all of which emphasize a fairly strict construal of the First Amendment. That means that expressions that offend people, including “hate speech”, bigotry, and so on, while they may be offensive, are legal.

But while the verbal expression of bigotry is legal, the physical expression is not—not when it’s the motivation for a hate crime. And that got me thinking about the justifications for giving extra-harsh punishments for hate crimes. When I mention “hate crime”, I’m not referring to crimes that wouldn’t be crimes at all without the bigotry, so I’m not including Holocaust denialism or blasphemy (neither crimes in the U.S. but both in many other lands). I’m using the definition of hate crime given on the FBI website:

A hate crime is a traditional offense like murder, arson, or vandalism with an added element of bias. For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity.” Hate itself is not a crime—and the FBI is mindful of protecting freedom of speech and other civil liberties.

And here’s the FBI’s explanation of what’s considered a hate crime:

Hate crimes are the highest priority of the FBI’s civil rights program because of the devastating impact they have on families and communities. The Bureau investigates hundreds of these cases every year, and we work to detect and prevent incidents through law enforcement training, public outreach, and partnerships with community groups.

Traditionally, FBI investigations of hate crimes were limited to crimes in which the perpetrators acted based on a bias against the victim’s race, color, religion, or national origin. In addition, investigations were restricted to those wherein the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity. With the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009, the Bureau became authorized to also investigate crimes committed against those based on biases of actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, or gender.

We see here that the high priority for investigating hate crimes rests not on the motivation alone, that is, it’s not an explicit attempt to eliminate feelings and expressions of bigotry, which are protected by the First Amendment, but because of the higher impact such crimes are said to have on communities. They are seen as more serious crimes.

The American Psychological Association asserts that hate crimes have a disproportionately large effect on the victims themselves:

People victimized by violent hate crimes are more likely to experience more psychological distress than victims of other violent crimes. Specifically, victims of crimes that are bias-motivated are more likely to experience post-traumatic stress, safety concerns, depression, anxiety and anger than victims of crimes that are not motivated by bias.

Hate crimes send messages to members of the victim’s group that they are unwelcome and unsafe in the community, victimizing the entire group and decreasing feelings of safety and security. Furthermore, witnessing discrimination against one’s own group can lead to psychological distress and lower self-esteem.

But when thinking about hate crimes just in terms of the three valid rationales that I, as a determinist, see for punishing someone (deterrence, sequestering someone from society, and reformation), I see no obvious justification for punishing someone differently whether they, say, kill someone because he’s a Jew or kill someone because they don’t like him for non-religious reasons. Does a higher punishment for the same crime, but one motivated in part by bias, deter an offender? I doubt it, but I’m not sure we have good data on that.

In terms of sequestering someone from society, a higher punishment for hate crimes assumes that those who commit the are more dangerous than those who commit the same crime but with a non-“hate” motivation, and thus more likely to do damage if paroled at the same time. Again, I’m not aware of data on this, which this bears on the third rationale: reformation.

Is it easier to reform someone who commits a murder based on bigotry than someone who kills, say, simply for the thrill of killing? Who knows? Perhaps through treatment you can wean someone from bigotry more easily than a sociopath who simply hates people in general. Again, I’m sure we lack data.

The other issue is that for some “hate crimes” you must judge the motivations of the criminal, and ascertain that they play a significant role in the crime. Sometimes that might be easy, as in the case of a person who hates Muslims burning down a mosque (especially if you have a documented history of bias). In others that’s no so easy, but clearly we need to use a “beyond reasonable doubt” criterion for ascertaining motivation.

That might not always be easy. For example, all 20 of Ted Bundy’s victims were women. He sometimes had sex with the corpses. Other serial murderers rape women before they kill them. Is this because they are biased against women, or because part of their motivation is sex, or because they find it easier to overcome women, who are usually less powerful than men? In other words, did Bundy commit “hate crimes”? Well, in his case it hardly matters, for he was electrocuted. But for other crimes it may be hard to suss out a motivation, and we all know of criminals whose motivations are unclear.

It becomes even more difficult when bias is part of a pathology—as Bundy’s may have been. Mental illness, which can manifest itself as bigotry, is a mitigating factor for punishment, mandating psychiatric treatment instead of straight incarceration. Do you use the concept of “hate crimes” with criminals who have mental problems?

When thinking about whether an offender should be punished more strongly because he or she is motivated by bigotry, I don’t see a clear justification based on rehabilitation, sequestration, or deterrence. But that’s irrelevant to how many people think about hate crimes. In effect, they are saying that hate crimes are more serious crimes than the identical offense committed without obvious bigotry. In other words, burning a synagogue because you hate Jews is seen as a different crime from doing the same amount of damage by burning a building because you don’t like landlords. Behind the “hate crime” rationale, then, is the psychological damage that is said to be attendant on both victims and society.

I’m prepared to believe that this is the case, and understand that there are data supporting the excess damage, at least in terms of victims. But of course there’s more psychological damage caused to a person and a community when you insult their race, religion, or gender than when you simply call them a jerk. Offense is the price we pay for free speech. In light of that, is “excess fear” or “trauma” in victims a reason to increase the punishment for a crime, or create a new class of crime?

On balance, I think it is, but my mind isn’t fully made up on this issue. The same “harm” that attends legal free speech (and let’s face it—some people’s feelings are hurt by free speech) is also the same kind of harm that attends individuals and communities victimized by hate crimes. If someone calls you a “dirty Jew” rather than a “jerk”, you may be much more offended, even though no crime is committed. But if someone punches you because you’re a Jew as opposed to punching you because you’re a Republican, does the former crime, even if it causes more offense and trauma, warrant more punishment?

Weigh in below: do you think the concept of “hate crimes”, with the attendant higher punishment attached to them, a good one?

Another antiracist book to read

August 4, 2020 • 9:45 am

Oy! I barely started reading Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, to the detriment of my digestive system, when I learn that there’s another equally well known antiracist book out there, one that’s just been reviewed by John McWhorter at Education Next. To be sure, he says it is “the better of the two big antiracism bestsellers,” but hardly gives it a ringing endorsement. But I suppose that all of us who are liberals, committed to equal opportunity for all, and eager to understand the antiracist currents of society that have gone ballistic since the murder of George Floyd, should read both of them.

Click on the screenshot to read McWhorter’s review, and you can find Kendi’s book on Amazon here. (For some reason the paperback, which comes in large print only, costs ten bucks more than the hardcover.) You can read more about Ibram X. Kendi here.

Unlike DiAngelo, who asserts that all whites, even if they don’t realize it, are racists and complicit in structural racism, Kendi’s book admits that whites can be antiracist. But it’s still a Manichaean book in another way:

Kendi, like Hume, would seem to have it all figured out: We are divided simply between racists and antiracists. Racists are bigots and allow a status quo under which black people are not doing as well as whites. Antiracists are committed to working against that imbalance. For reasons Kendi seems to think obvious but are not, there is nothing in between these two categories—not to be actively working, or at least speaking, against the imbalance leaves one in the racist class. There is no such thing as someone simply “not racist.”

One trait that marks you as a racist, says Kendi, is to deny the claim that all disparities between races are due to racism. This is equivalent to saying that someone’s a misogynist or misandrist if they deny that disparities in representation of the sexes in jobs or achievements is due to sexism. In the cases of sexes, an alternative hypothesis is sex differences in preferences, be they cultural, genetic, or both. In the case of racism, says McWhorter, the alternative hypothesis for blacks and whites is that the culture of races differs, and for blacks it differs in a way that leads to underachievement.  Here McWhorter, as an African-American, can get away with saying stuff like the following:

In 1987, a rich donor in Philadelphia “adopted” 112 black 6th graders, few of whom had grown up with fathers in their home. He guaranteed them a fully funded education through college as long as they did not do drugs, have children before getting married, or commit crimes. He also gave them tutors, workshops, after-school programs, kept them busy in summer programs, and provided them with counselors for when they had any kind of problem. Yes, this really happened.

The result? 45 never made it through high school. Of the 67 boys, 19 became felons. Twelve years later, the 45 girls had had 63 children, and more than half had become mothers before the age of 18. Part of what makes How to Be an Antiracist a simple book is its neglect of cases like this, or the assumption that they easily trace to “racism.” What held those poor kids back was that they had been raised amidst a different sense of what is normal than white kids in the ‘burbs. That is, yes, another way of saying “culture,” and it means that through no fault of their own, it was not resources, but those unconsciously internalized norms, that kept them from being able to take advantage of what they were being offered.

Kendi’s taxonomy would classify what I just wrote as “racist,” but to qualify as coherent, this charge would have to come with a more careful defense than Kendi seems accustomed to engaging. For example, if that Philly story a generation past the Great Society is just a fluke, what about what was happening in Kansas City around the same time? Twelve new schools were built to replace crummy ones black students had been mired in for decades. The effort cost 1.4 billion dollars. The new schools included broadcast studios, planetariums, big swimming pools, and fencing lessons. Per-pupil spending was doubled, while class size was halved to about 25 students a class. Elementary school students all got their own computers, and there were now 53 counselors for them when before there had been none.

Fade out, fade in: dropout rates doubled, the achievement gap between white and black students sat frozen, and the schools ended up needing security guards to combat theft and violence. The reason for this was nothing pathological about the kids: the story of how black inner cities got to the state they were in by the 1980s is complex and has nothing to do with blame. However, to say that the revolution in schooling offered to these kids was not a major antiracist effort, in Kendi’s terms, would be willfully resistant to empiricism.

To wit: antiracism, under Kendi’s definition, only explains so much. Racism quite often leaves cultural legacies that render black people unable to take advantage of antiracist policies. Concerned people devote careers trying to figure out what to do about this, and they should. But consulting Kendi, they will encounter a proton/neutron contrast between “racist” and “antiracist” that blinds them to nature of problems in the real world.

Why McWhorter’s statement is anathema in current discourse is the “progressive” assumption that, on average, different groups are basically identical not just in talents and preferences, but in those cultural features that lead to success in society.  But, at least for the latter, this can’t be true, at least for those who favor ethnic diversity in colleges and institutions as a way to increase “viewpoint diversity”—and not just about racism. (My own favoring of diversity and affirmative action derives not from seeing diversity as an inherent good that improves education—the Bakke rationale—but as a form of reparations to try to make good on generations of racial discrimination. I simply don’t know if different groups have, on average, different ways of thinking that can improve university education.)

And indeed, what really rankles McWhorter about Kendi’s book is the suggestion not that there are cultural differences between races, but cultural differences that lead to different but equal skill sets:

[Kendi’s] philosophy founders especially on education in this way. Kendi subscribes to the notion getting around these days, from the contingent fascinated with white privilege, that things like close reasoning, the written word, and objectivity are “white” practices, the imposition upon black people of which is “racist.” Hence another passage that many readers will find stirring, but that others will find disturbing and even, in Kendi’s terms, “racist”:

What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from – and not inferior to – the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know?

But what does this mean, as counsel from Kendi, who is the head of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research? Just how would we measure “desire to know”? What student would deny “wanting to know”? And just what would “wanting to know” yield in terms of skills or reasoning power?

More to the point, if it’s “racist” that there are so few black professors pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and math—a common opinion it is reasonable to assume Kendi espouses—then how does suggesting we assess black people’s intelligence via their street smarts, capacity for emotional empathy, and “spunk”—which is essentially what Kendi and others mean with suggestions like these—help solve that problem? None of those traits will be of much use in laboratory work or higher mathematics. George Washington Carver’s miracles with the peanut were not driven by some kind of “authentic” alternate science—he worked within the conventional scientific method he learned at Iowa State. The snazzy-looking little View-Master of our memories was designed by a black man, Charles Harrison. He used the same skills as white designers of his time; savory black spontaneity and in-touch-ness would have done nothing to help him.

This comes close to the claim that white and black cultures are different in ways that don’t reward black people in American society, presumably because our society has privileged “white” traits over black ones as prerequisites for success (see the famous Smithsonian poster controversy).

In the end, though, McWhorter gives Kendi’s book a stronger endorsement than DiAngelos’s, though the endorsement is one of faint praise.

Kendi’s is, in the end, a simple book. One senses little interest in engaging questions. The text works in basic colors, not shades; splashes, not brushstrokes — perhaps because he thinks the roots of all black problems in white perfidy are too clear to require complexity. But his directness, pragmatism, and societal focus is certainly preferable to White Fragility’s psychological torture sessions in the guise of sociopolitical commitment.

. . . it is worth finding the value in it that we can. In truth, if How to Be an Antiracist increases the number of Americans committed to activism that makes life better for black people who need help, its substance becomes a background matter. Out doing the real work, people will, as have generations of concerned people before them, immediately encounter and seek their way through the complexities that Kendi cannot perceive.

But I shall have to read it. Given the currents in American society, it behooves us all to essay at least the most widely-read antiracist books.

WaPo editor emits bigoted and hateful Tweets, but will she be disciplined as others have been?

June 29, 2020 • 12:30 pm

Here we have Karen Attiah, a major editor with the Washington Post, spewing out stuff on Twitter that’s even more vile and bigoted than the stuff Trump emits regularly. It’s racist, full of hate, and exactly the kind of stuff that got New York Times tech writer Quinn Norton fired. (Sarah Jeong, her replacement, wrote the same kind of bigoted nonsense, but was defended by the NYT because she was Asian-American and supposedly just returning Twitter hatred “in kind”. But the different fates of Norton versus Jeong show a fundamental hypocrisy at the paper. [Jeong appears to have been quietly jettisoned since then.])

Here’s Attiah’s bio at the Post (click on screenshot), and because the lettering is tiny, I’ve reproduced it below the screenshot.

Global Opinions editor, writing on international affairs and social issuesEducation: Northwestern University, BA in communication studies, minor in African Studies; Columbia University, master’s in international affairsKaren Attiah is the Global Opinions editor at The Washington Post, where she

commissions and edits commentary on global issues from a variety of international writers. She joined The Post in 2014 as a digital producer in the Opinions section. Attiah often writes on issues relating to race, gender and international politics, with a special interest in Africa. Previously, she reported as a freelancer for the Associated Press while based in the Caribbean. Attiah was a Fulbright scholar to Ghana and holds a master’s degree in international affairs from Columbia University. She received her bachelor’s degree in communication studies from Northwestern University.Honors & Awards:

  • Fulbright fellow, 2008

Foreign languages spoken: Spanish

So what did Attiah say? Here’s some of it, and at least one of these—the first one—was taken down. (Screenshot from twitchy):


That tweet, from yesterday, has been deleted, but screenshots were saved. (Note the superfluous apostrophe in “Karen’s”.)  It’s palpably unfair to blame contemporary “Karens” for all of this, much less to raise the threat of “revenge.” Note that Attiah’s first name is “Karen”!

And apparently Attiah didn’t regret that odious tweet:

I’m not sure what “squidward running away” means, unless its fleeing rapidly out of fear, but without regrets.

Want more? Here Attiah uses her term for Democratic women: the “Axis of Shevil”:


Dowd, of course, writes for the New York Times. Both she and Pelosi are apparently guilty of racism.

But wait! There’s more:

If that’s a joke, it’s not funny. And I doubt it’s a joke.

The there’s this, which tars all white people with taking pleasure in lynchings. Of course those horrible spectacles were treated as entertainment by many in the South, but I seriously doubt that many of us “enjoy dominating and destroying black bodies.”

As a free-speech hard-liner, I’m not calling for Attiah to be fired, and of course she won’t be, though she would were she white and said this kind of stuff about blacks, Hispanics, or Jews. But we should expect a consistent standard in the media, so that hate and bigotry against one group is treated just like hate and bigotry against any other group.  Nobody gets a Bigot Pass because of their race.  Still, we know that that isn’t the case, because it’s always open season on some groups. You don’t even need a duck stamp.

I’m starting to regret having recently subscribed to the Post.

h/t: Ben Schwarz

A philosophical analysis of the “n-word”

November 9, 2019 • 11:15 am

This article in Quillette by Matthew Small, a graduate student at Western University (formerly the University of Western Ontario), raises a question I hadn’t though much about: what if a word is considered offensive to some but not all members of a minority group? (Actually, that holds for “majority groups” as well: some southern whites may be offended by the term “cracker” and others may not.)

I’ve discussed many times whether words—most prominently the “n-word”—might be okay to use in a teaching situation, for example as it’s used in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. About two years ago it seemed to be okay if it came up in literature and could form the basis of a productive discussion. But now it seems it cannot be used by non-blacks at all, and I do not use it.

But what if the word offends some members of a group but not others? Many Jews, for instance, might be deeply offended by the use of the slur “kike”, and while I see it as a form of bigotry when used to denigrate Jews, I have no objection, as a secular Jew, to it being used, read or discussed in books like The Catcher in the Rye or Babbitt. Perhaps other Jews would, although “kike” hasn’t attained the taboo status of the n-word. So is it never okay to say “kike” if some Jews object to the word being uttered even when it’s not meant to denigrate Jews, but rather for a genuine educational purpose? Is a handful of objecting sufficient to make it immoral to utter the word, even in the classroom? This is the topic of Small’s essay (click on screenshot to read):

Here’s the precipitating incident at Small’s university:

Over the last week, Western University (where I am currently enrolled) has been mired in scandal over an instructor’s decision to utter a racial slur during a discussion of popular culture in his English literature class. More specifically, the instructor (Andrew Wenaus) suggested that Will Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler,” in a 20-something year old episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, may have been a subtle reference (sanitized for consumption on syndicated television) to the phrase “house nigger,” which was, during the pre-emancipation period, used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household.

It is, I suppose, debatable whether Smith’s use of the phrase “home butler” was in fact intended by the show’s writers as a reference to the aforementioned slur. [JAC: I think it’s pretty clear that’s what the phrase meant.] It is not, however, debatable whether or not this slur was used to refer to black slaves who worked in the household. That is a straightforward historical fact.

For daring to articulate this fact in his classroom, Wenaus has been dragged on social media (and by the local press) as racially insensitive at best, and a racist at worst. He has had to issue a public apology, along with promises to undergo additional sensitivity training, and Western’s president has established a specialized task-force aimed at combatting systemic racism on campus (of which Wenaus’ utterance apparently constitutes evidence). Meanwhile, Western’s Ethnocultural Support Service has issued a statement reminding the university community that it is always inappropriate for a white person to utter the offending term, “regardless of intent or how they said it.” This preempts any possible appeal to the presumptively anti-racist intentions behind Wenaus’s lecture, or to the crucial distinction between the use and mention of a term.

From this recounting of events, it doesn’t seem that Wenaus is a racist. Yet he mouthed a word that could be used as racist, and therefore is by default a racist. We all know of things like this happening, and not just with words, either. “Cultural appropriation” is a related issue. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ kimono display, in which non-Japanese were allowed to don kimonos, was the subject of protest by some Asians, but defended by others, including a group of older Japanese ladies who showed up at the Museum wearing kimonos. I suspect that most people here would defend the kimono exhibit but perhaps not the use of the n-word in non-racist contexts.

Small defines the claim that a word cannot be used if any members of the relevant group object to it—no matter what outgroup members think—as the deferential standard:

This deferential standard basically asserts that white people have no right to an opinion about what is or is not racist, and that to suggest otherwise is a mark of racial privilege. So, if a black student declares that Wenaus’s utterance was racist, then it was racist. End of discussion.

The deferential standard is self-defeating in at least two ways. Firstly, it is unable to account for the fact that there will inevitably be differences of opinion among black people about whether a given incident or statement is racist. Although several black people at Western have objected to Wenaus’s remark, I am personally acquainted with several others who find it to be unobjectionable, given the context in which it was uttered, and the intention of the speaker (which was presumptively anti-racist). They cannot all be right. But according to the deferential standard, both camps speak with equal moral authority by virtue of being black, which implies that the same incident must be at once both racist and not-racist. This is clearly absurd.

Well, this is a moral and emotional issue, not an objective decision about “racist or non-racist”. Clearly a word can be interpreted by some as racist, and by others as not. What Small is talking about here is how society in general deems the use of such words. Small continues:

If we are unwilling to accept this incoherent conclusion, we need to find some way of adjudicating which of our two disagreeing camps of black people has it right. [JAC: again, it isn’t a “right or wrong” issue; it’s an issue of what society as a whole deems to be racist versus non-racist.] The only way to do so would be to posit a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist. But by doing so, we have already abandoned the notion that we are obligated to defer to the opinions of black people, as this latter approach would be appealing to a subjective standard. And if we can agree that there exists a set of objective criteria governing what is and isn’t racist, there seems to be no good rationale for forbidding white people from participating in discussions about what those criteria are and the circumstances under which they are applicable. Thus, the deferential standard leads to a paradox, for which the only solution is to reject the deferential standard.

He adds that there are further complications because “The deferential standard. . . overlooks the fact that some black people find the standard itself to be racially patronizing.”

This is a conundrum I hadn’t thought of before. All I know is that I dare not use the n-word in any context lest I be demonized as a racist, even in discussing whether the word can be discussed in classrooms or mouthed by whites singing rap songs.

Small concludes that, by unofficially adopting the deferential standard, Western University is violating its motto of Veritas et Utilitas (“truth and utility”), because, in refusing to discuss phrases like the origin of “home butler”, Small argues that it’s become “inappropriate for us to utter certain indisputably true statements, because the value of truth is trumped by the emotional states of one or another demographic.”  He then draws the overly dramatic conclusion that this form of Social Justice Warriorism is a religious faith because it requires “suspension of disbelief [in an educational purpose] out of respect to the larger narrative”. Ergo, suggests Small, Western is no longer a secular institution. But this is a digression that makes his essay seem too tendentious. Still, the philosophical issue remains.

I’m not so interested in this comparison of SJW-ism to religion, or in a conflict between truth and utility, because one can always circumvent the n-word (granted, sometimes to the detriment of education and discussion). In the end, It’s clear that the denigrated group, compared to other groups, has the sole power to label a word “offensive.” But Small’s article brings up the issue of what one does when some group members object to a word but others don’t.  I don’t object to a discussion of the word “kike” or any of its companion slurs for Jews (“sheeny”, “Hebe”, “Yid”, or “Christ-killer”) IF the word is used in an academic and heuristic way, and is not intended by the speaker to denigrate anybody. But if, say, 5% of Jews do object, does the word then become taboo?

Weigh in below.


The end of the SPLC?

March 22, 2019 • 2:15 pm

I have the dubious honor of having criticized the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) many times before it recently start circling the drain. (Of course, real journalists starting going after the SPLC long before I did.) Once a reputable organization fighting for civil liberties and against bigotry, it’s devolved into a money-grubbing organization whose top dogs earned monstrously huge salaries, and an organization that took in far more money than it spent on the causes for which it’s famous, that stashed money in offshore accounts, and that spent its time confecting “hate lists”, one of which, the “field guide to anti-Muslim extremists“, included Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Maajid Nawaz. (Nawaz sued the SPLC for defamation and won, getting more than a million bucks and an apology, as well as the list’s removal.)

Two weeks ago the SPLC fired, for causes that weren’t clear at the time, Morris Dees, its co-founder and the major figure and fundraiser of the organization. There was talk about harassment and bad behavior in the office, but what really happened wasn’t clear. It’s still not, but it now appears, ironically, to involve racism and misogyny—two behaviors the SPLC has battled.

This article in the recent New Yorker gives more details, and leads me to believe that the organization is now not only outmoded, but is going to die. I hope it comes back with its original mission, but they’ll need good leadership.

Read on:

Author Bob Moser worked for a while at the SPLC, and observed some of its dysfunctional culture before leaving. In fact, the racism and sexism was a standing joke at the operation:

Cameras were everywhere in the open-plan office, which made me feel like a Pentagon staffer, both secure and insecure at once. But nothing was more uncomfortable than the racial dynamic that quickly became apparent: a fair number of what was then about a hundred employees were African-American, but almost all of them were administrative and support staff—“the help,” one of my black colleagues said pointedly. The “professional staff”—the lawyers, researchers, educators, public-relations officers, and fund-raisers—were almost exclusively white. Just two staffers, including me, were openly gay.

During my first few weeks, a friendly new co-worker couldn’t help laughing at my bewilderment. “Well, honey, welcome to the Poverty Palace,” she said. “I can guaran-damn-tee that you will never step foot in a more contradictory place as long as you live.”

“Everything feels so out of whack,” I said. “Where are the lawyers? Where’s the diversity? What in God’s name is going on here?”

“And you call yourself a journalist!” she said, laughing again. “Clearly you didn’t do your research.”

. . .The great Southern journalist John Egerton, writing for The Progressive, had painted a damning portrait of Dees, the center’s longtime mastermind, as a “super-salesman and master fundraiser” who viewed civil-rights work mainly as a marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals. “We just run our business like a business,” Dees told Egerton. “Whether you’re selling cakes or causes, it’s all the same.”

Co-workers stealthily passed along these articles to me—it was a rite of passage for new staffers, a cautionary heads-up about what we’d stepped into with our noble intentions. Incoming female staffers were additionally warned by their new colleagues about Dees’s reputation for hitting on young women. And the unchecked power of the lavishly compensated white men at the top of the organization—Dees and the center’s president, Richard Cohen—made staffers pessimistic that any of these issues would ever be addressed.

And the bigotry?

The official statement sent by Cohen, who took control of the S.P.L.C. in 2003, didn’t specify why Dees had been dismissed, but it contained some broad hints. “We’re committed to ensuring that our workplace embodies the values we espouse—truth, justice, equity, and inclusion,” Cohen wrote. “When one of our own fails to meet those standards, no matter his or her role in the organization, we take it seriously and must take appropriate action.” Dees’s profile was immediately erased from the S.P.L.C.’s Web site—amazing, considering that he had remained, to the end, the main face and voice of the center, his signature on most of the direct-mail appeals that didn’t come from celebrity supporters, such as the author Toni Morrison.

. . . The staffers wrote that Dees’s firing was welcome but insufficient: their larger concern, they emphasized, was a widespread pattern of racial and gender discrimination by the center’s current leadership, stretching back many years.

Morris Dees (from CNN)

For me the sign that the SPLC was plummeting earthward was its demonizing of Hirsi Ali and Nawaz, who were certainly not anti-Muslim extremists: Nawaz is a Muslim and Hirsi Ali’s last book was a plan to make Islam less extremist. This smacked of mission creep: an organization that now had less to do because of the moral improvement of America still had to find a way to spend its money. It has in fact about half a billion dollars in endowment, more than does the American Civil Liberties Union.

Moser’s piece, while giving these details, is a bit marred by being more of a personal mea culpa, in which he wonders how his good intentions could have been coopted by such a dysfunctional outfit. The SPLC is, however, undergoing an outside review, and I wish them well. My advice: stop paying huge salaries to the top dogs, walk the walk by giving minority employees real power, get rid of those offshore money stashes, and, above all, concentrate on real issues of poverty and law and stop making the “little lists”.

h/t: Laurance