Ad Populum Awarded with PEA Soup Prize

Good news! The opening salvo on this esteemed blog, Syrian Refugees and a Bowl of Skittles has been awarded runner up in PEA Soup’s External Online Ethics Prize. Thanks to all involved.



Immigration, Population, and Public Services

In yesterday’s BBC leaders’ debate for the upcoming UK general election, in response to a question about immigration, the UK Independence Party’s (UKIP) leader Paul Nuttall raised the well-known concerns of his party.

Last week it was announced that a city the size of Hull came to this country, net. […] That’s going to be a Birmingham over a five year period. It’s unsustainable. What we need to do is we need to reduce immigration, and we do it by having an Australian points-based system, so if you’ve got the skills that this country needs: yes, please come here and work. But beyond that, beyond that, we have to get the population under control because if we carry on on the road we’re on, we’ll have a population of 80 million by the middle of this century. Now you just think what’ll happen. There’ll have to be a huge school building programme; there’ll have to be new hospitals, new motorways, a new rail network, new houses–we’re already having to build a house every seven minutes just to keep up with the numbers of people coming into this country.

According to Nuttall’s claims, UKIP are concerned about the contribution immigration makes to population growth and the strain this allegedly places on public infrastructure and other resources, and therefore wish to further curb it. Other parties, including the UK’s Conservative party, have made the same arguments.

These parties like to invoke worries about strained public services, as well as gluts in the labour market, as a way of addressing immigration. Doing so helps them avoid the appearance of relying on any xenophobic premise. Resource concerns provide a rhetorically powerful veneer, for those wishing to shed a xenophobic image, of an ideological neutrality acceptable to many voters uneasy with other forms of anti-immigrant discourse.

Luckily, there seems to be a way to test whether this discourse truly reflects an abandonment of xenophobic premises, or merely provides cover for them. You can do so by comparing the attention given to immigration and any similar phenomenon that would place public resources under comparable strain (granting, for the sake of argument, that immigration places any strain on public services in the first place).

Nuttall is correct that net immigration to the UK per year is equivalent to about the population of Hull—248,000 people in 2016. Interestingly, when you compare domestic, non-immigrant population growth—by subtracting deaths from live births in the UK (for the last year for which I could find UK-wide data, 2008)—you get a similar figure: 214,703. A Portsmouth rather than a Hull. Yet, one does not hear Nuttall or UKIP demanding action on domestic population control. This appears to reveal an inconsistency suggesting something other than a concern for public services underlies the desire to further curb immigration to the UK.

Of course, the cases are different. One question concerns the rights of foreigners to settle in the UK; the other concerns the rights of citizens to reproduce and pass that right onto their offspring. And granting (though I take no position on this issue here), that nation states have a right to grant citizens rights that they deny to foreigners on grounds of sovereignty, it may seem simply obvious why laws prohibiting foreigners’ freedom of settlement are more acceptable than laws restricting citizens’ reproductive rights.

However, this reply is only a temporary fix.  First, granting the legitimacy of distributing rights differently to foreigners and citizens, this differential distribution must obey some ethical constraints, however loose. It might be okay to require foreigners but not citizens to apply for a visa; but it’s not okay, for instance, to permit the torture of foreigners entering the country, while forbidding the torture of citizens. In short, foreigners cannot have all rights afforded to citizens forfeited simply for being foreign. So, for any given case, there is a live question as to whether denying entry to the foreigner in question is acceptable or not given these constraints—i.e. it doesn’t simply follow from national sovereignty that the receiving country can do as it pleases with foreigners.

Second, relatedly, denying the very fundamental freedom to any foreigner to settle where she pleases requires justification—the burden is on whoever wishes to restrict the freedom, not on whoever wishes to exercise it. This justification may be forthcoming on the grounds, for instance, of strained public services. But if so, part of this justification for denying the foreigner her liberty must include the fact that strained public services cannot be avoided in less draconian ways. For instance, to take a fanciful example, if the UK denied settlement to Germans on the grounds that the UK’s data entry systems couldn’t handle the umlauts in German names, then the obvious fix would be to either change the data entry system or ignore the bureaucratic requirement for exact spelling. Denying Germans the liberty to settle in the UK on such grounds would be unjustified. So, any claim that denying freedom of settlement to foreigners is less severe a denial of freedom than denying the freedom of citizens to reproduce, or reproduce as much, requires support, even if it’s easy to come by (the same applies if we consider the choice as between granting settlement to foreigners and granting it to citizens’ unborn children). Again, favouring the citizens’ freedoms over foreigners’ doesn’t simply follow once we grant national sovereignty.

But third, and most crucially, these worries only apply to the severe case of introducing legal prohibitions, whether on settlement of a foreigner, or on the reproductive rights of a citizen. But, of course, acting to control the UK’s domestic population need not take the form of legal prohibitions; it might take the form of informal measures such as more comprehensive reproductive health education, publically funded advocacy for living with no or fewer children, an easier adoption process, expanded access to contraceptives or abortions, or reduced prices for such, etc. Indeed, given the difficulty the UK government has had with its repeated attempts to reduce immigration, even with the severe instruments of legal prohibition at its disposal, I’m far more confident in the potential of informal measures to reduce the ratio of domestic live births to deaths in a way that preserves rights and freedoms than I am in their potential to similarly reduce immigration.

Assuming this is right, the large amount of attention given to immigration as a source of alleged strain on public services, and the total lack of attention given to domestic population control, calls out for explanation. Here’s my preferred explanation: UKIP, the Conservatives, etc. don’t really care about the number of people in the country; they care about the number of foreign people in the country (I submit as further evidence this highly xenophobically framed article on the same topic by former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage). Or, more cynically, they care about neither but recognize on pragmatic grounds that they must appear to care about them.

So, former UK Labour Party leader Ed Miliband may have been right to claim that it’s not prejudiced to be concerned about immigration. But, if I’m right, as long as your concern is framed in terms of population pressures, it probably is prejudiced to be concerned about immigration while remaining unconcerned about domestic rates of reproduction.

Terrorism and Responsibility

Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of blaming the recent terrorist attack in Manchester and attacks like it on the U.K.’s foreign policy. The Telegraph ran the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn Suggests Britain’s Wars to Blame for Manchester Suicide Bombing’; the normally more sympathetic Independent went with ‘Jeremy Corbyn Blames Terrorist Attacks such as Manchester Bombing on UK Foreign Policy’. Less subtly, Prime Minister, and Conservative Party rival, Theresa May claimed that “Jeremy Corbyn has said that terror attacks in Britain are our own fault“.

To those who listened to or read Corbyn’s speech, these claims will have appeared at best uncharitable, at worst, dishonest. What exactly did Corbyn say on this topic? He said:

Many experts, including professionals in our intelligence and security services have pointed to the connections between wars our government has supported or fought in other countries, such as Libya, and terrorism here at home.

That assessment in no way reduces the guilt of those who attack our children. Those terrorists will forever be reviled and implacably held to account for their actions.

But an informed understanding of the causes of terrorism is an essential part of an effective response that will protect the security of our people, that fights rather than fuels terrorism.

Protecting this country requires us to be both strong against terrorism and strong against the causes of terrorism. The blame is with the terrorists, but if we are to protect our people we must be honest about what threatens our security.

Those causes certainly cannot be reduced to foreign policy decisions alone. Over the past fifteen years or so, a sub-culture of often suicidal violence has developed amongst a tiny minority of, mainly young, men, falsely drawing authority from Islamic beliefs and often nurtured in a prison system in urgent need of resources and reform. And no rationale based on the actions of any government can remotely excuse, or even adequately explain, outrages like this week’s massacre. But we must be brave enough to admit the war on terror is simply not working. We need a smarter way to reduce the threat from countries that nurture terrorists and generate terrorism.

Corbyn is quite clear: among the causes of terrorism is the U.K.’s foreign policy. However, he is equally eager to stress that this fact “in no way reduces the guilt” of the perpetrators of terrorism and that the “the blame is with the terrorists”, sentiments he repeated when pressed in a BBC interview after the speech (alternative link here).

But if foreign policy decisions cause terrorism, are they not to blame for terrorism? The question is a little tricky because being ‘to blame’ is ambiguous between a causal and a moral reading. Dissecting this ambiguity is the best way to understand Corbyn’s claim. Though he doesn’t put it this way, I think Corbyn’s claim is that U.K. foreign policy is (partly) causally but not morally responsible for an increased risk of terrorism in the U.K.

On the morning of the 19th September, 1985, a massive earthquake struck off the coast of Michoacán, Mexico, killing over 5,000 people in Mexico City. The earthquake was causally responsible for those deaths. But it was obviously not morally responsible for them—earthquakes aren’t capable of moral agency.

Consider another horrible case. Suppose we are having a water fight. Unbeknownst to you, I replace the water in your gun with lethal chemicals. You fire at a friend, killing her unwittingly. You are causally responsible for her death. But, to the extent that your firing the chemicals at her wasn’t the result of negligence, culpable ignorance, or malicious motives, you are clearly not morally responsible for her death.

In much the same way, if U.K foreign policy (relevant aspects of it, anyway) does on the whole raise the probability of terrorist attacks (a claim, incidentally, for which there is considerable evidence), then this fact alone does not mean that the U.K. is morally responsible for such an increased risk, even if it is (partly) causally responsible for it.

It’s worth noting in closing that just because someone’s actions are (partly) causally responsible for an awful outcome, this need not provide sufficient, or indeed any, grounds to refrain from those actions. Someone may be more likely to be mugged in virtue of leaving the house, for instance. We might even list leaving the house as among the mugging’s causes. But given that such a person should not have to alter this perfectly acceptable behaviour to avoid such an horrific outcome, we may deny that such a risk gives the person any reason to not leave the house, except perhaps a merely pragmatic one. Indeed, it may give her a reason to leave the house—as an act of defiance, say (those who have thought about victim blaming in other contexts will see connections here).

Similarly, that a foreign policy causes the harm of increased domestic terrorism may not by itself provide a compelling reason to conduct that foreign policy in a different way. If the foreign policy is just and the response it triggers wholly unreasonable, then the all-things-considered thing to do may, like the person leaving her house, be to continue in the same vein, especially if there are no equally just, risk-decreasing alternatives. So any demand that the U.K. change its foreign policy can’t merely hang on the increased risk of terrorism; it also needs to consider whether that policy is just, and the other kinds of outcomes it causes. Luckily for Corbyn, criticisms addressing these other considerations aren’t hard to come by.

Trump, Russia, and Causation

There’s an NBC Meet the Press report doing the rounds on social media today purporting to establish an interesting causal connection between reporting on Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and Trump’s attacks on the mainstream media. In the video, Meet the Press’ Chuck Todd draws on the following evidence:

It’s a tactic with a pattern. The president’s attacks on the media repeatedly have directly followed reporting on Russia. On January 5th, NBC News reported on the intelligence community’s report on Russian influence in the election. On January 6th, President-Elect Trump tweeted, “I am asking the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top-secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it.” On February 13th, 14th, and 15th, news outlets reported on Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. On February 16th, President Trump spent much of a 77-minute news conference attacking the press

The video then goes on to point out ways in which White House officials cajoled FBI officials and conservative lawmakers into trying to snuff out the ongoing news story concerning Trump’s connection to Russia.

That one kind of event frequently follows another is not of course definitive proof of  direct or indirect causation. There are coincidences, for one, and sometimes the events will be independently caused by a third factor. In the northern hemisphere, there’s a strong incidence of people dressing up warmly shortly after birds migrate south; but it’s implausible to think that bird migration causes this sartorial behaviour; instead, both are caused, in part, by the changing seasons.

The repeated succession of two types of events is, however, defeasible evidence of a casual connection and at first sight, the timing of news stories about alleged connections between Russia and the Trump administration, on the one hand, and Trump’s attacks on the media, on the other, looks quite alarming. This appearance disappears, however, once one comes to appreciate that both kinds of events–the reporting and the attacks–are incessant.

What Todd’s report misses is that the mainstream media have reported on ties between Russia and the Trump administration, either explicitly or by innuendo, every single day in recent weeks. This reporting and editorializing spans the breadth of the corporate news media. Below is a non-exhaustive sample of reporting on this theme since Trump’s inauguration.

January 20th: Vanity Fair, Salon

January 21st: Politico, Financial Times

January 22nd: Salon, Huffington Post

January 23rd: CNN, CBS, NPR

January 24th: Newsweek

January 25th: Politico,

January 26th: NPR, NPR

January 27th: New York Times, GQ, Business Insider

January 28th: Politico

January 29th: Huffington Post

January 30th: The Atlantic

January 31st: Voice of America, The Daily Beast

February 1st: Wall Street Journal

February 2nd: The Hill

February 3rd: GQ

February 4th: NPR

February 5th: The Hill, NBC

February 6th: ABC

February 7th: CNN

February 8th: Washington Post

February 9th: New York Times,

February 10th: NPR, Boston Globe

February 11th: NPR, Business Insider

February 12th: Washington Post, Washington Times

February 13th: The Hill, LA Times

February 14th: New York Times, CNBC

February 15th: The Independent,

February 16th: MSNBC, The Atlantic

February 17th: Fortune, Bloomberg

February 18th: Miami Herald, Reuters

February 19th: LA Times, New York Times

February 20th: Vanity Fair, MSNBC

February 21st: PBS, Slate, Newsweek, New York Times

February 22nd: Vox, Reuters

February 23rd: Vox, Politico

February 24th: NPR, Guardian

February 25th: The Guardian

February 26th: Newsweek, The Guardian

This makes the claim that Trump’s attacks against the media come directly after reports connecting him to Russia trivially true, because any time at all comes directly after such  reports. That those attacks have “escalated” recently, as Todd puts it in the same segment, conceding that they have, is also poor evidence of any interesting connection for the same reason.

It’s worth mentioning that Trump’s attacks on the media are also a virtually daily occurrence, even if we restrict our attention to his Twitter feed and ignore the various speeches he has given and comments he has made to the same effect. Provided there were sufficient news stories connecting Trump to Russia to make sense of “repeatedly” (a presupposition of Todd’s claim), this would also make Todd’s claim that Trump’s “attacks on the media repeatedly have directly followed reporting on Russia” trivial.

So the fact that Trump’s attacks on the media follow reports on his administration’s alleged ties to Russia appears to be either a coincidence (in the broadest sense of the word), or else derivative of a more plausible causal relationship. For instance, it seems likely that a causal relation exists between the media’s (mostly justified) general antipathy toward Trump and Trump’s criticisms of the media. This more general claim is supported at least by the fact that Trump’s “FAKE NEWS” accusations respond to a number of news themes, not just those concerning Russia.

I suppose that, in some sense, this more plausible causal connection would entail the one Todd means to establish, since the reports connecting Trump to Russia are an instance of the news media’s more general antipathy toward Trump. But the point of Todd’s claim is to distinguish the Russia-focussed reporting as uniquely reliable in eliciting Trump’s ire, since this is a way of supporting the claim that Trump is working on behalf of the Russian government (because, presumably, he would be especially sensitive to reporting that would reveal this fact). But there’s nothing here to support that unique causal relationship, even if it is true.

Humour and Solidarity

On his HBO show that aired on Friday the 17th February, Bill Maher interviewed Milo Yiannopoulos, senior editor at reactionary news outlet Breitbart. The interview attracted some attention not only because of Yiannopoulos’ far-right views, but also because invited guest Jeremy Scahill had declined to feature in the broadcast for this very reason.

There were many things to object to in the interview. Among them was one exchange in which Yiannopoulos discussed the way humour brings people together, arguing that this is a fundamental truth about human psychology that the modern progressive left has forgotten.

Milo Yiannopoulos: It’s a characteristic of the modern left, I think, requiring, you know, this absolute consistency and forgetting that people are messy and complicated and forgetting also some obvious other, um, human truths, I think, some realities of human psychology. Like, for instance, you know the reason they want to police humour, you know, which is very important to both of us, is that they can’t control it. Because the one thing that authoritarians hate is the sound of laughter, because they can’t control what people find funny.

Bill Maher: And also because when people laugh they know it’s true. Because laughter…

Yiannopoulos: Yeah, of course. Nothing annoys people or amuses people like the truth

Maher: …laughter is involuntary.

Yiannopoulos: Exactly, exactly…

Maher: When you laugh, even if you don’t really agree and that kind of part of your mind goes ‘holy shit’…

Yiannopoulos: …exactly, exactly, and so at my college talks you’ve got the professors at the front who are there to kind of monitor me, to make sure I don’t go off the rails, and I make a joke about Ted Cruz or something and they’re, like, [makes snickering sound]. You know, you can see it, you can see it. And the other thing, the other thing that’s really important is not just, um, is not just that. The other thing is, you know, humour isn’t how you drive people apart. You know, these sort of policing humour for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded, not just because normally it isn’t there but because that’s how we build bridges not how we break them. You know, when you make a joke about, when you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody. You know, you make jokes at the bar, you make awkward small talk. Humour’s what brings people together not what drives them apart. And these basic, you know, fundamental human psychological insights the… the progressive left has just forgotten.

The discussion was interesting for mobilizing two popular tropes about the cultural left that Maher did not question. First, that the cultural left will sacrifice the truth for ideological reasons. A recurring idea is that certain “facts” (about purported racial or gender differences, say) are inconvenient to those committed to substantive forms of egalitarianism, and cause them to deny these “facts” on political grounds—including “facts” about what is and isn’t funny. The second (which lurks in the background of the interview, if not said outright, and which is in some tension with the first) is that members of the cultural left are humourless authoritarians who, not understanding what’s funny themselves, wish to police humour to bully those using it into conformity.

I don’t deny that there are people who identify themselves with the progressive left who fit these stereotypes, deaf to countervailing evidence and ham-fistedly domineering in their cultural criticism, including of humour. That said, the progressive left has no monopoly on these traits. Take, for instance, Republican Reps. Martha Roby and Susan Brooks’ insistence that brief moments of light-heartedness during the extremely long 2015 Benghazi hearing with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were not funny. And cases of the political right’s ignoring or denying claims on spurious ideological grounds are too abundant to list (the current U.S. administration furnishes us with many examples). But more importantly, the focus on these cases is unfortunate in that it involves attacking a straw-man version of serious left-wing criticism that is sometimes directed at humour. The result is that since the poorest weapons suffice to knock down a pile of straw, the arguments directed at mischaracterized positions tend to be pretty weak. Yiannopoulos’ interview offers a case in point.

Take this claim:

You know, these sort of policing humour for racism and sexism is utterly wrongheaded, not just because normally it isn’t there but because that’s how we build bridges not how we break them. You know, when you make a joke about, when you make a joke, that’s how you connect with somebody. You know, you make jokes at the bar, you make awkward small talk. Humour’s what brings people together not what drives them apart.

Yiannopoulos is here turning the tables on leftist critics of certain humour, arguing that in their attempt to include people and bring them together by “policing” humour they do the opposite, since “humour is what brings people together not what drives them apart”. This last claim has the air of the kind of homespun wisdom one might find on a Hallmark greeting card. It feels true, acceptable, but disguises something much darker (a metaphor for Yiannopoulos’ appearance on the show if ever there was one). Even conceding the point that humour brings people together—which is probably true of some people in most deployments of humour—this point overlooks the fact that this “bringing together” is not just a primitive fact or an unanalysable fuzzy feeling; it consists in fostering a sense of togetherness around something, be it an agreed upon claim, an attitude, a weltanschauung, whatever. And among the things around which one can foster a chuckling comradery —and here the darkness comes in—is the exclusion, denigration, and hatred of others.

So, when one of Yiannopoulos’ readers jokes to another:

Why do blacks have white under their feet and palms?

– Because everyone has some good in them.

This may help “build a bridge” between them. But it only does so by unjustly dismantling millions of other bridges, if they were ever standing to begin with. And like any other immoral act, telling such a joke in such a context merits criticism. So, the claim that criticizing it as unethical or offensive must reveal some failure to understand a fundamental tenet of human psychology, prudishness, or an authoritarian desire to compel conformity is quite obviously false.

Maher’s point that laughter betrays a (sometimes reluctant) recognition of the truth is also implausible as a general claim. The two people laughing at the above joke (told in that context) don’t recognize a truth; they both merely acknowledge a claim about how racial essences relate to virtue that they take to be true, but which is false. And many jokes require no recognition of a truth so much as a recognition of a joke-internal convention. Someone who has no distinguishable opinions about English, Scottish, and Irish people might laugh at an Englishman, Scotsman, Irishman joke because they understand—in spite of its falsity—that a convention is in play according to which the Irishman is dense.

A final thought: criticizing such uses of humour, even as being “not funny”, does not even require the critic to find the joke unfunny. She may admire its structural features or cleverness in spite of its flaws. This is not merely because some other tellings of the same joke are funny (that is, as philosopher Noël Carroll argues, it is joke tokens and not types that often ought to be the object of evaluation). Sometimes, saying that something is “not funny” is akin to saying that Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will has no beauty; as philosopher Kendall Walton points out, it can be an oblique, figurative way of saying that the joke is unethical or flawed in some other way that may or may not redound to its merits as humour.

Guest Post: How Racists Are Made Into Unicorns – 廖顯禕 (Liao Shen-yi)

This post was originally published here.

People evolve a language in order to describe and thus control their circumstances, or in order not to be submerged by a reality that they cannot articulate. […] It goes without saying, then, that language is also a political instrument, means, and proof of power.

— James Baldwin, “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?

The “White Supremacy” Controversy

It’s a few Twitter outrage cycle past, so you probably need a quick refresher. Kevin Drum of Mother Jones wrote a post urging people to reserve the word “white supremacy” for Neo-Nazis and the KKK, and not for the underlying racist structures of which Neo-Nazis and the KKK are merely the most visible parts. Predictably, this misguided post received some pushback, especially from those familiar with the term’s origins.

More curious to me was Conor Friedersdorf’s defense of Kevin Drum:

It is awful to stigmatize people as cringeworthy for failing to speak in the vernacular of a tiny, insular subculture. Neither journalists nor academics speaking to a general audience can insist a term’s only meaning is a contested usage so little known that it confounds a longtime employee of Mother Jones and many residents of the Upper West Side. And it is deeply counterproductive to stigmatize those who use the common meaning of a well-known term with words like “embarrassing,” and “mortifying.”

There is the obvious, uncontroversial point that, all else being equal, people should not be stigmatized for not knowing a word’s meaning. On that I agree. But there is also the quietly controversial point about power and language engineering that Friedersdorf is making, wittingly or not. That, I want to explore more.

Friedersdorf seems to implicitly endorse a majoritarian view about language: a word’s meaning is the one accepted by the majority. So, in this case, the meaning of “white supremacy” is the one familiar to Kevin Drum and residents of the Upper West Side: it’s the stuff that only Neo-Nazis and the KKK are into, whatever those academics say.

As an academic, I don’t doubt that we deserve complaints about our jargons. But it’s worth noting here that the use of “white supremacy” to refer to structural racism is not only a part of privileged academics’ vernacular. Instead, as Chauncey DeVega notes, it goes back to WEB Du Bois and Frederick Douglass and, well, Black Americans developing the language to talk about their experiences. This subculture might too be tiny (compared to the white majority) and insulated (though not by their choice), but they deserve the credit for this vernacular.

Such precision about the subculture, though, is irrelevant to the majoritarian view about language. On this view, no subculture can ask the majority to speak the way that they do. The language is the one spoken by the majority, the vernaculars are spoken by the subcultures — whatever Baldwin says. As such, no subculture can insist on their vernacular meanings of a term. In fact, the meaning of a term accepted by the majority is — by definition!—the common meaning of the term in the language. And so the meaning of “white supremacy” is, and must be, the one familiar to Kevin Drum (who is white) and residents of the Upper West Side (who are very white).

And that is what Friedersdorf seems to be expressing. It is not the obvious, uncontroversial point that, all else being equal, people should not be stigmatized for not knowing a word’s meaning. It is in fact a thesis about who gets to decide a word’s meaning: the subcultures must not insist on their meanings, especially when they conflict with the ones accepted by the dominant culture. As such, it is a view about language that prescribes the recreation and reinforcement of existing power structures in our talks.

The No-Racist Phenomenon

While the majoritarian view of language is rarely explicitly stated, it is implicitly endorsed by many. To fully make sense of its implications, we need to consider another curious modern linguistic phenomenon: the word “racist” apparently cannot refer to any person in the actual world. That is, our language has been engineered such that there are no racists.

There is racism, of course. The word “racist” exists, obviously. And, without a doubt, the word is associated with the concept of a racist, which we certainly have in our heads.

But there are no racists.

The Neo-Nazi white nationalists refuse to be called racists. The KKK refuses to be called white supremacists. Trump ally Carl Paladino says “I certainly am not a racist”. And this guy, a member of the English Defence League, he’s definitely not a racist. (Content note: racism.)

Yes, these outright refusals to acknowledge the existence of racists, by the white extremists themselves, are extremely implausible. But they are not exceptional. In the same way that these extremists are just the most visible parts of the underlying racist structures, their claims about the word “racist” are just the most blatant attempts of engineering our language so that there are no racists. The white moderates have their methods of linguistic engineering that work more covertly.

Some go for the there-are-too-many move. For example, Nick Kristof says “do we really want to caricature half of Americans, some of whom voted for President Obama twice, as racist bigots”? It just can’t be that many. It must be built into the common meaning of the word “racist” that there are only very few racists in the actual world.

Others go for the it’s-politically-inconvenient move. For example, Drake Baer says the word “racist” is best not used, especially when you are trying to talk to someone who might be a racist (which, you know, could be anyone). The word “racist” can remain a part of the language in the abstract, but it must be excised from the way we talk. Whatever the common meaning of the word, it comes with a warning label that restricts its use.

(Baer suggests that we borrow an idea from some disability advocates and use person-first language. The thought is, I take it, that when we’d otherwise use “racist”, we should instead use “people with racism”.)

Vann Newkirk convincingly argues against these white moderate responses. As is often the case, he argues, such calls for civility fail to consider the people who suffer from the effects of racism. But I think the problem that underlies the no-racist phenomenon goes beyond civility. The problem, like the “white supremacy” controversy, has to do with power and language.

Semantics of Non-Reference

In The Racial Contract, philosopher Charles Mills introduces the concept of epistemology of ignorance. Normally, epistemology is concerned with knowledge. However, according to Mills, structural racism prescribes for the dominant group — the whites, in the actual world — an epistemology that purposefully eschews knowledge with respect to matters of structural racism. The concept thus refers to

a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions (which are psychologically and socially functional), producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world they themselves have made […] a cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of social realities.

Mills’s insight is that it is a central part of structural racism that it hides itself from our thoughts. I contend that the epistemology of ignorance has a counterpart in language. Call it semantics of non-reference: it is a central part of structural racism that it hides itself from our talks.

And now, finally, we get to how racists are made into unicorns. It is a case study of the semantics of non-reference that structural racism prescribes.

Unicorns? The word “unicorn” exists. And the word is associated with the concept of a unicorn, which we have in our heads. But there are no unicorns. The meaning of the word is such that it does not refer to anything in the actual world.

It takes two steps to make racists into unicorns.

First, the white majority insists on linguistically privileging their preferred meanings of words. Sure, the subcultures can continue to speak their “vernaculars”, but — in a convenient interaction with the epistemology of ignorance — their meanings of words will remain so little known by the white majority such that they can still confound a longtime employee of Mother Jones and many residents of Upper West Side. (And, subculture people, don’t stigmatize the common meaning!)

Second, the white majority — now with the power to decide a word’s meaning—engineers away the problematic words. Or, at least, it engineers away the words’ problems. They might build into a word’s meaning that it just cannot refer to the majority of the majority. Or they might simply place a do-not-use label on it.

There you go. Racists are now made into unicorns. Well, at least the word “racist” is made to be like the word “unicorn”. Of course, unlike unicorns, racists are still with us. But at least our language has been untethered from reality so that we can no longer talk about them.

Shen-yi Liao is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Puget Sound. His academic website is The post got help from Cassie Herbert, Sara Protasi, and Law Ware.

Does the UK Government’s Anti-Semitism Definition Discredit Legitimate Criticism of Israel?

This morning, UK Prime Minister Theresa May announced that the UK intends to formally adopt an official definition of anti-Semitism in order to, as an earlier Downing Street statement reportedly put it “ensure that culprits will not be able to get away with being antisemitic because the term is ill-defined, or because different organisations or bodies have different interpretations of it”. The definition is written by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and is included in a press release from earlier this year.

It reads:

Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.

The UK government’s statement comes on the back of a widely reported “spike” in anti-Semitic hate crimes in the UK, which is borne out to some extent by figures collected both by UK authorities and the Jewish advocacy group Community Security Trust (CST). The data is summarized below and is available here (UK, 2009-2015), here (CST 2011-2015), and here (CST 2016).

  UK Authorities Community Security Trust
Year Anti-Semitic incidents reported Anti-Semitic incidents reported
2009 703
2010 488
2011 440 609
2012 307 650
2013 318 535
2014 1179
2015 786 924
2016 557 (first 6 months only)

The announcement has drawn criticism from prominent voices on the left. Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald, famous in part for his role in publishing documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden, described the definition as including criticism of Israel that “officials view as excessive”.

In another tweet, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR)’s Adam Johnson quoted the guidance included in IHRA’s press release, stating “In the U.K., it is officially antisemitic to claim “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor””.

In the Independent, Ben White claims that adopting the definition will stifle criticism of Israel (in White’s defence, this is a causal claim that may be true, though the claimed effect could not, as I will show, be fairly blamed on the definition).

I expect these kinds of worries will be raised repeatedly in the coming days following this announcement. In a broader context of attempts to conceptually tie criticism of Israel and its policies to anti-Semitism as such, nervousness about these kinds of government pronouncements is understandable. Consider, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s jab at the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement at the end of an article principally about fighting the use of violence against Israel. This article unfairly lumps BDS together with far more controversial forms of resistance to Israeli hostility and with attempts to achieve more nefarious anti-Israeli goals. Or consider Clinton’s speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in which she drew a direct, if (unsubtley) implicit, connection between the “alarming” BDS movement and anti-Semitism.

Relevant also is that these attempts are occurring in a further context of appalling Israeli policies toward Palestine, supported (albeit with occasional murmurings of dissatisfaction) by many countries in the Westprimarily the US but also the UK. (For extensive documentation of these policies and practices, see here). Tying opposition to Israeli policies and anti-Semitism together, therefore, has the menacing  effect of shielding oppression using the language of justice.

The definition, that anti-Semitism  may be expressed as “hatred towards Jews”, is hopeless by itself; is A an anti-Semite for hating B and C, who are incidentally Jewish (perhaps A doesn’t even know B and C are Jewish) but non-incidentally arseholes? Perhaps recognizing this, IHRA have supplemented it with illustrative examples of purported anti-Semitism. At least two of the examples would be worrying were they unqualified. First there is the example Johnson quotesclaiming that “the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor” (although saying ‘a state of Israel’  rather than ‘the state of Israel’ seems more plausibly anti-Semitic, if only because it implies that any attempt to create a culturally Jewish state, not just the current one, would be racist). The other debatable example of anti-Semitism the document provides is “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis”. It strikes me as a good default policy not to make such comparisons at least on grounds of tastefulness. But whether the comparison is anti-Semitic surely depends on the accuracy or avoidability of the comparison, as well as the circumstances in which it is made. Would comparing a Keynesian Israeli economic policy in this way, perhaps in the context of a sober historical discussion, be anti-Semitic? At the very least, such a potentially controversial case probably shouldn’t serve as a model illustration of one’s definition.

However, the document is quite clear that the examples are meant to illustrate cases that could constitute cases of anti-Semitism and which therefore, by implication, needn’t. Responses like Greenwald’s, Johnson’s, and White’s appear to ignore this important qualification, especially since the document also prefaces the examples by explicitly stating that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic”.

There are good grounds to think that various parties are trying to discredit legitimate criticism of Israeli policy by associating it or its proponents with anti-Semitism. There may even be grounds to think that people within the UK government are trying to do so too, perhaps even by adopting this definition. Still, the adopted definition (and examples) itself provides no obvious tools for doing so, even if it goes on to be misused for this purpose.