“Out of 2.6 million anti-semitic tweets sent from Aug 2015-July 2016, 70% came from just 1,600 accounts”. So Ezra Klein tweeted recently, with a link to Mathew Yglesias’s Vox.com discussion of a new report from the Anti-Defamation League containing this finding.
According to some, the inference to draw is that while the surge in anti-Semitism is troubling and not to be minimized, the fact that such a high percentage of the offending tweets was written by such a comparatively small group of people (just 1,600) is encouraging. It suggests that those writing anti-Semitic tweets are “not exactly a mass social movement” according to Yglesias. Julia Galef, cofounder of the Center for Applied Rationality, described the result as “good news”.
But I didn’t find the statistic very informative. For one thing, I have almost no intuitions at all as to whether the 70%-1,600 statistic is unusual. How few accounts are responsible for 70% of all Seattle Seahawks tweets, or 70% of all Ghostbusters tweets, or 70% of all Libertarian Tweets? Is the 1,600 figure for such topics unusually low, about average, or fairly high? Without such comparisons, I have no idea what to infer.
Or, cutting more deeply, imagine the following. Start with a scenario in which there is a distribution of anti-Semitic tweets you regard as troubling—I’ll leave it up to you what the distribution is exactly. Now add to the scenario a single person, a remarkably proficient anti-Semite. This anti-Semite matches the total quantity of anti-Semitic tweets written by all other people, and then writes one more. Has adding this proficient anti-Semite made the scenario better, made it less troubling than it started off? After all, it’s now the case that more than 50% of all anti-Semitic tweets are written by just a single person, and one person is “not exactly a mass social movement,” in Yglesias’s words. But this is absurd: surely we haven’t made the scenario better in this way.
More realistically, a scenario in which lots and lots of people are writing occasional anti-Semitic tweets while a few people are writing tons of them (70% worth) doesn’t seem like much of an improvement on a scenario with the same overall number of people writing anti-Semitic tweets but with a more equal distribution. If this is right, the 70%-1,600 figure seems like the wrong way to try to get a handle on the extent of the problem.
All that said, I do find somewhat plausible the hypothesis that the recent upsurge in Twitter anti-Semitism is mostly due to a limited group of people. Even prior to looking at any serious evidence, I think there’s a decent chance this is true. My claim is only that when we do look at the serious evidence, I would like to have something more informative than the statistic in question.
Justin Tiehen is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Puget Sound who works primarily in the philosophy of mind and metaphysics. He also maintains an impressive list of Trumpsplanations on Twitter.
Recently, I went for a run through Mexico City, where I live. The route took me around the Olympic Stadium, home of the 1968 Games. Among that Olympiad’s more notable incidents was a protest staged by 200m gold and bronze medallists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos. 48 years ago today, while the US anthem played during the medal ceremony, shoeless in black socks, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists to protest a number of injustices, including the plight of African-Americans. There are obvious parallels between that protest and Kaepernick’s, which has consisted of sitting or kneeling during the national anthem before football games to protest the same plight in its 21st Century guise. Both protests form part of a long tradition of athletes racialized as Black standing up against racial and other injustice (for examples, see here, here, here, here, and here).
Thinking about the Olympic protest got me wondering: how might responses to it in the popular press have differed from the kinds of criticisms aimed at Kaepernick? I briefly explore this question here, having looked at tens of related articles in important newspapers from the period. But I’m also interested in how persuasive some of these criticisms (of Smith and Carlos and Kaepernick) even are. Regarding this last question, I’ll look at Brooks and Albom’s central arguments.
Let’s start with David Brooks. Brooks expresses sympathy with the object of protest (oppression of US people of colour) but concludes that the protest method is inappropriate:
His main worry is that shunning nationalistic rituals such as anthem-singing degrades the national unity required to address collective problems, such as unjust race relations. Protesting as Kaepernick does is, therefore, not merely disrespectful according to Brooks. It is also instrumentally flawed because it undermines the conditions needed to address the injustices against which Kaepaernick is protesting.
Brooks’ argument relies on the claim that failing to participate in nationalistic rituals undermines national unity. This might seem obviously true. But it’s obviousness stems from a tempting assumption that nationalistic rituals effectively serve the purpose of encouraging community among a nation’s citizens. But this is far from obvious. If some such rituals are divisive or exclusionary, then the claim looks dubious. And there’s good reason to think this is the case with respect to the singing of the Star-spangled Banner. Indeed, the point of Kaepernick’s protest can be fruitfully thought of as pointing out the painful irony of engaging in rituals proclaiming that “we’re all in this together”, when the facts on the ground—obscene inequalities of various kinds—show this is far from the case. In short: a hollow or disingenuous ritual of solidarity-building is probably worse for fostering solidarity than no ritual at all. And the same can be said for participating in such rituals.
The other claim Brooks relies on here is that national unity (above a certain degree, presumably) is needed to address injustice. But no evidence is offered for this assertion. Moreover, given that important and successful protests sharply divide public opinion as a matter of course, the worry that a protest would disturb national unity and therefore fail, or be more likely to fail, in its aims is dubious. Consider the moral disgust millions of Americans felt throughout the early 20th Century towards the aims and means of the civil rights movement (it’s worth recalling that even roughly a year after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, nearly half of Americans believed the law was being implemented too quickly). Yet, that movement secured numerous forms of at least formal equality. That Brooks’ criticism could be made of virtually any nationally significant protest appears to escape his attention.
An LA Times article from the 20th October, 1968 collects the opinions of foreign sports correspondents on the Smith and Carlos protest in Mexico City. “Most of those questioned”, it reads, “think that the black man in America has legitimate grievances”, but that the protest “was not a proper expression of these grievances”. The reasons given as to why it was improper are a mix of instrumental worries about effectiveness and concerns about sullying the sacred custom of honouring the flag. A reporter for Bild remarks that raising their fists was “not the best way” for Smith and Carlos to protest, and that “a man should give honor to his flag”. A reporter for football magazine Kicker claims that the protests undermine the conditions needed to address the problems they highlight, specifically, by being so “ridiculous” that “they can never get the sympathy they need”. A Daily Express journalist agrees with his Bild colleague that ignoring their own flag was “unforgivable”. These arguments bear a striking similarity to Brooks’. The article is reproduced in full below.
Returning to the present day and the Detroit Free Press, Mitch Albom makes a different criticism to Brooks’ that shares the unfortunate property of being applicable to any protest whatsoever in a politically liberal context. He argues that the fact that Kaepernick is entitled to protest is the very reason he shouldn’t protest at all.
The underlying premise in this argument seems to be that being able to protest without official repercussions against a country makes that country sufficiently excellent to effectively exonerate it from whatever charge the protestors bring against it. But since freedom of protest is only one virtue of a political system, and doesn’t guarantee all others, this premise is clearly false; a country can quite obviously merit protest despite being excellent in other ways. And Albom’s appeal to the shortcomings of other political systems is a red herring. The fact that my shit soup tastes better than your diarrhoea soup tells us nothing about the quality of my shit soup, except as it relates to the quality of your diarrhoea soup. You certainly need not eat it without protest on this account. (I should mention, however, that I make a mean shit soup).
Returning to Smith and Carlos, we find the same reason appealed to in a Washington Post article, also from the 20th October, 1968. “The mere fact” that Tommie Smith “dared to demonstrate” his negative feelings towards the United States, the writer tells us, “underlines the greatness of the nation in which he lives”.
As it happens, Smith and Carlos were banished from the ’68 Games and faced abuse back home. So their stand didn’t go unpunished; it came at considerable personal cost. But the argument would have been just as terrible had they been welcomed back with ticker-tape parades.
Albom’s piece also argues that if Kaepernick’s cause is enough to warrant protesting the national anthem, then so are a host of other causes. But since those affiliated with these other causes do stand for the flag or anthem, unlike Kaepernick, so should Kaepernick. The form Albom’s argument exhibits is a kind of botched example of what philosophers call modus tollens. The form is this: if p then q, not q therefore not p. That is, the argument states a conditional (if p then q), then denies the conditional’s consequent (q), and from this denies its antecedent (p).
In this case, the argument is that if Kaepernick needn’t stand for the flag, then nor need Native Americans, Mexican Americans, etc. But Native Americans, etc. should stand for the flag. Thus, so should Kaepernick.
The straightforward problems with the argument are twofold. First, Albom needs to establish that Native Americans, etc. should stand for the flag. But all he establishes, or aims to establish, is that they do “manage to stand for the flag”. But the fact that someone does or doesn’t do something tells us nothing about whether she should or shouldn’t do it (that I offer you diarrhoea soup for instance, doesn’t mean I ought to—I could offer you a stipulatively tastier shit soup for instance!). Second, the claim that, say, Native Americans (all) stand for the flag is false.
But there is another problem with the argument. Modus tollens is only a powerful argumentative strategy if rejecting the conditional statement’s consequent (q) is more plausible than accepting its antecedent (p); in the case under consideration, the argument is only persuasive if the claim that Native Americans, etc. should stand for the anthem is more obviously true than the claim that African Americans (e.g. Colin Kaepernick) needn’t. But if we take Kaepernick’s protest seriously, it seems that things are the other way around: the fact that African Americans needn’t stand for the anthem is more compelling than the claim that Native Americans, etc. should.
If that’s right, then we ought to “ponens Albom’s tollens”. Instead of denying the consequent and using this to deny the antecedent, we need to affirm the antecedent and use this to affirm the consequent. That means, since Kaepernick needn’t stand for the flag, we conclude that nor should Native Americans, etc. (I call this “ponensing the tollens” because the argument form I’m proposing we substitute in is called modus ponens).
These argumentative problems also befall a 1968 L’Equipe journalist quoted in the LA Times article above:
The questions at the end of the passage are meant to be rhetorical. What if everyone with a grievance started protesting!? The Horror! But we can legimitately retort: Well, what if they did? After all, maybe athletes ought to be making such protests, at least as long as those protests are reasonable.
What do these passages tell us about how much the attitudes of newspaper pundits have changed since the 60s? Well, the examples here are hand-chosen to illustrate a point, not to provide a comprehensive survey. Accurately gauging how far US and other opinion-makers have come with regard to their thinking about race-relations and related protests since 1968 would require extensive media analysis. That said, the fact that major newspapers are still trotting out arguments almost indistinguishable from terrible ones offered in the poisonous racial atmosphere of the US in the 1960s should raise some doubts about how much progress has been made in the collective moral imagination since then. If not that, then it should raise doubts about any claimed improvements in the editorial hiring practices of major news outlets.
“If I had a bowl of Skittles, and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem.”
So runs the graphic posted by Donald Trump’s son, Donald Trump on Twitter.
There are various ways to criticize the argument it expresses, or implies. We can criticize it as an argument originating in National Socialist literature. We can criticize its eccentric use of a full stop in the middle of an interrogative second conditional. Or we can mock Donald Trump Junior for making 1980s Wall Street traders look like avuncular 1930s shopkeeps. All three criticisms attack the argument’s implied author’s intelligence or credibility.
But suppose we looked at the argument itself, rather than its origins or how it was formulated. After all, even Hitler had some true beliefs—that snow is white, say—and an argument is no less true for being ungrammatical, or even for being pitched by soulless corporate Brylcreem devotees (within reason, obviously).
“That’s our [the US’s] Syrian refugee problem”. Is it? The argument is an argument by analogy: no sane person would take a handful from a bowl of Skittles if they reliably believed that three of the Skittles were lethal, it says, so no sane person would (and by implication should) accept Syrian refugees among whom are those bent on violence once they arrive.
A good place to start when thinking critically about arguments by analogy is how close the analogy is: how similar in relevant respects are the two things being compared? The answer in this case is: not very. Let’s list three relevant dissimilarities.
A bowl of Skittles contains a relatively low number of Skittles. Unless we’re talking novelty bowls, we’re probably looking at around 100 or less. If three of these are fatal, then even taking one Skittle gives a relatively high probability of dying: 3% or more. Taking a handful, which might be anywhere between 5 and 20 Skittles, makes this probability higher still. Syrian refugees, however, number in the millions. There are some 4.2 million Syrian refugees and another 6.5 million internally displaced Syrians. In order to achieve a similar probability of harm to the Skittles, it would have to be the case that at least 126,000 to 321,000 of the displaced Syrians (depending on how we count them) would guarantee certain harm. Such a number of harmful agents among the Syrian refugee population is not merely doubtful, but literally incredible. So the Skittle bowl would have to be extremely large to make the comparison relevantly similar. At this point the risk of eating a lethal Skittle by eating a handful from the enormous bowl will begin to approach the probability of eating one by eating several random packs of Skittles bought from regular shops. Sane people do this all the time.
There is only one agent whose life is threatened by the Skittles. When we turn to thinking how this is supposed to compare to the case of permitting refugees to enter the US, however, things get murky. Is one bad agent among the refugees supposed to guarantee the destruction of the entire US, as one bad Skittle destroys the entire person? More plausibly, even a superlatively evil refugee, (granting, controversially, that there even is one among the millions and, furthermore, that she is guaranteed to succeed), would kill at most several hundred Americans. Given the over 300 million Americans there are, this would be more akin to having three “death lottery” Skittles in the bowl which each give the consumer a one in a million chance of dying (multiplied by the low probability of getting one of the death lottery Skittles in the first place). Again, we’re looking at probabilities of death (one’s own at least) every sane person accepts willingly every day.
Skittles are inanimate food items without needs. Refugees are human beings who not only have needs, but profound needs; they are suffering in one the direst kinds of situation known to anyone. I am not obligated to a Skittle to eat it, whether it might harm me or not. Nation states, or their inhabitants, are so obligated to refugees—not merely legally because of treaties, but morally. Part of why the Skittles bowl analogy seems to work but in fact doesn’t is that not taking any Skittles carries no cost; at least, it carries very little cost, I suppose one is missing out on the enjoyment afforded by non-lethal Skittles. Refusing to help refugees, however, carries considerable cost. Many sane people would eat a handful of Skittles from a bowl in which three were poisoned if this meant saving or vastly improving thousands of lives—or even one life. This goes all the more for our enormous bowl with death lottery Skittles.
There are other criticisms here, too. There is the risk such cavalier propagandizing poses to stoking undue anti-immigrant sentiment or even violence, for instance.
There is also the often unquestioned assumption that among the Syrian refugee population there are inevitably bad actors. Perhaps that’s right (though perhaps it’s wrong). The relevant question as concerns assessing the various relevant probabilities, however, is whether there are proportionately more bad actors than in the pre-refugee US population, or whether the bad actors are sufficiently worse than their US counterparts. Perhaps there are and they are (though, again, perhaps not). Even so, within any reasonable parameters, the risk of harm from allowing Syrian refugees into the US will fall wildly short of that presented by the poisoned Skittle bowl. Indeed, it may, for all we know, be lower than if they are denied entry.
Since the Skittle bowl case is sufficiently unlike the case of the Syrian refugees in relevant respects, the argument by analogy fails.
 UNHCR, Protecting and Supporting the Displaced in Syria: UNHCR Syria End of Year Report 2015, p.9 – available here.