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.

Guest Post: The Comedian as Philosopher, David Chappelle on the Election of Donald Trump – Michael L. Thomas

The announcement of Donald Trump as president elect of the United States left vast rumblings of confusion in its wake. Particularly among self-identified Democrats and staunch Hillary supporters, there is a shared concern that despite all the analytics and political knowledge at their disposal, they simply misunderstood the USA. Thus, news outlets are reporting a new divisiveness in the country. A deeper division than we’ve ever seen. Sadly, this is far from the case.

The response from the African-American community is humor at shock felt in response to Trump’s election. The weekend after the election, Dave Chappelle hosted SNL and used his monologue to express this precise sentiment:

“I didn’t know that Donald Trump was gonna win the election,” he says in the opening, “I did suspect it. It seemed like Hillary was doing well in the polls. Yet, I know the Whites. You guys aren’t as full of surprises as you used to be.” The reference to “the Whites,” is meant to be jarring. Of all the demographics mentioned throughout the election, “the Whites” are typically not one of them [though were we looking before the post mortem?]. Thus, besides making reference to Trump’s inappropriate terminology towards marginalized groups, Chappelle here signifies that the discord felt is a problem particular to “White America’s” own self-understanding.

The genius of Chappelle’s invocation of “The Whites” is that it positions him as an anthropological expert with knowledge to share, from an African-American perspective. The lesson is that, “We’ve been here before.” Though racism and division in America strikes the experts as new. It’s been a fundamental part of African-American experience, shaping their understanding of life in the United States.

The first sketch of the show dramatizes this difference in experience. Here, Chappelle, later joined by Chris Rock, watches the election returns with White friends in what’s presented as an upper class New York condo. Throughout the sketch, Chappelle balances cynicism and knowing detachment against the early confidence and slowly developing fear of his friends.

The sketch plays on two different forms of knowledge that separate Rock and Chappelle from the rest of the group. On the one hand, there’s the knowledge that comes with an analytic perspective grounded in traditional political analysis. In the first chain of dialog, for example, each White character has a scenario for how Hillary wins the election, by how much, and about the end of the possibility of a Republican president. All these scenarios are drawn from common media outlets offering sure data on the election results. Thus, as the night continues, there’s always another permutation on the election results that would allow their prediction that Hillary Clinton would be elected to seem true.

On the other hand, there’s Chappelle and Rock’s knowledge of the culture of the US.  Chappelle, “knows the Whites,” and that “it’s a big country.” Thus, as his friends move through election scenarios and point to demographic shifts that should swing the election for Hillary, Dave is stoically aware that these statistics ignore US cultural dynamics. Chris Rock’s first line is “I mean, of course,” in response to the idea that Trump might win. For each scenario their friends offer, Rock and Chappelle have a piece of wisdom about the US that proves why their friends’ understanding rests on false assumptions. While the analysis may be correct, the data sources are not.

What Rock and Chappelle know, and their friends don’t, is that racism continues to exist in the United States. Cecily Strong declares, shocked, “I think America is racist!” To which Chappelle responds, “I think my Great-Grandfather told me something like that, but he was a slave or something.” The cultural knowledge of the continued existence of racism trumps demographic knowledge of the US because it’s more directly tied to the dynamics of US politics. The juxtaposition between Obama, “a charismatic 40 year old black guy,” and “Hillary,” the “70 year old White woman,” shows that the rally behind Obama went beyond policy to appeal to American cultural life. It’s not enough to be experienced and qualified. Candidates win through their appeal to the popular narratives surrounding national life. This knowledge is missing from an experience of the country mediated by a vacuum chamber of statistics and abstract political wisdom.

Through both his monologue and the opening sketch, Dave Chappelle aligns himself with the tradition of African-American pragmatism which has always understood that experience in the United States is fundamentally racialized. In the wake of the Trump election, for example, the media response has focused on the proliferation of “fake news” and social media as sources of disinformation and a way of amplifying the sense of one’s own rightness and the superiority of each social groups’ position. This response echo’s John Dewey’s contention in The Public and its Problems, where he laments that the media isolates individuals into their own political communities, giving an incomplete portrait of American Life.

From the perspective of African-American Pragmatists, such as W.E.B. Dubois, this analysis doesn’t go far enough. The culture of the U.S. is always already divided through the continued marginalization of African-American and other perspectives, which are excluded in most popular media coverage. When DuBois mentions that the “Negro is…gifted with second-sight in this American World” (“Of Our Spiritual Strivings”), he means precisely that African-Americans have a particular cultural knowledge of the country by virtue of their marginalization. In the wake of the election, news outlets have focused their attention on the White underclass to understand why they would vote for something or someone that isn’t in their “rational interest.” This search results from a disconnect between media and experience. One could argue that the proliferation of alternative forms of media and “fake news” is part of a response to sanitized forms of reporting that bracket or isolate their facts from the lived experience of most of the country through the lens of presumed objectivity. As the experts scramble, we should hear Dave Chappelle’s message that “we’ve been here before.”

The thought behind, “we’ve been here before,” is that we’ve never completely left the social and racial dynamics that divide the United States. The laugh that Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock share after Beck Bennet’s character claims that “this is the most shameful thing that America has ever done,” is a knowing one. Bennet’s statement ignores the history of slavery, the continued annihilation of the Native American population, and all the other various colonial actions throughout the history of the country. It’s the ultimate “out of touch” moment. At the same time, it’s a subjectively justified statement as this character has not had to undergo the types of experience that would make the presence of racism present for him. The same is true of media coverage and expert analysis in many cases.

The end of Chappelle’s monologue lets us know that all is not lost. His retelling of a hosting of African Americans, and “Bradley Cooper for some reason,” in the White House reminds us that African-Americans have made strides towards equality despite the indication that there’s still more work to do. Through his comedy, he’s also continuing the exercise in cultural education given through African-American art as a form of philosophical social engagement. African-American music, art, literature, and media have served as a vehicle for Black American economic empowerment as well as delivery system for the knowledge that comes through encounters with social inequality. Through his comedy, Dave Chappelle is once again playing the roles of philosopher, anthropologist and cultural critic, making us aware of the fact that racism isn’t isolated in Kentucky. It’s woven into the fabric of life in the United States and cannot be addressed without taking the African-American experience seriously as a part of the United States’ national history.

Michael L. Thomas is a lecturer in the Structured Liberal Education programme at Stanford University whose work deals with process philosophy, aesthetics, and the philosophy of race.

Guest Post: How Statistics on Anti-Semitic Tweets might Mislead – Justin Tiehen

“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 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.

Raised Fists and Dropped Knees: Considering Criticisms of Kaepernick’s Protest on the 48th Anniversary of Another.

Tommie Smith and John Carlos Protesting in 1968
Tommie Smith and John Carlos Protesting in 1968 – photo John Dominis.

Preeminent New York Times editorial writer, David Brooks, recently argued that high school students should not emulate American football player Colin Kaepernick’s now widely-known protest. Brooks is not alone in this kind of criticism. A 9/11-addled contribution by Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free Press, a superlatively awful piece by John Kushma, and an earlier piece remarkably similar to Brooks’ by retired Major General Larry Stutzriem, both on The Hill, all accompany him on a tour of tortured reasoning. Most recently, US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added to the criticisms, calling Kaepernick’s protests “dumb”, “ridiculous”, “stupid”, and “arrogant” (comments she has since walked back).

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 groundobscene inequalities of various kindsshow 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.

Correspondences Smith Carlos.jpg

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 toI 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.

I’ll end by noting that, in a rather fortuitous closing of the circle, John Carlos and Tommie Smith have come out in support of Colin Kapernick’s protest.

Syrian Refugees and a Bowl of Skittles


1474331972-syrian-refugee.jpg“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.[1] 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.

[1] UNHCR, Protecting and Supporting the Displaced in Syria: UNHCR Syria End of Year Report 2015, p.9 – available here.