Saturday, August 12, 2017

Defending racism

I have to ask, is defending racism (and sexism, religious bigotry, etc. ad nauseam; all the arguments here apply mutatis mutandis to other forms of discrimination), even if not in substance but only procedurally, the hill that liberals want to die on? Should we extend the most robust free speech protection to racists?

As far as I know, the state has not in recent memory put anyone in jail, has not fined anyone, has not permitted anyone to be sued in civil court, has not used any direct state power to punish anyone for racist speech. The state has not disbanded or punished any organization, publication, or association for racist speech, or forbidden any organization to publish racist speech. And, as far as I know, any demand for such state suppression of racist speech has been with nothing more than bemused refusal. I think the state shouldn't do these things, and they seem to agree: they're not doing these things. So, strictly speaking, racist speech is just not a First Amendment issue.

However, the "hammer of the state" is not the only form of coercion. Employers can coerce their employees by threatening to fire them and would-be employees by refusing to hire them. Universities can coerce students by suspending them, expelling them, altering their grades, or refusing to graduate them. A social group can expel or shame a member. I can coerce my friends by threatening to withhold my friendship. (I've done so, unapologetically: there are some views that disqualify someone from my good opinion, regardless of their other qualities). I disagree with how coercion is structured, but I am not an anarchist: I do not argue for the abolition of structures of coercion, but for the establishment of different structures. But that's an argument for another day. Our liberal democratic-republic capitalist has set up these structures of coercion, so how should we use them? Should we use the actually existing non-state structures of coercion against racism?

Any time we employ coercion, we will ruin some people's lives. That's the whole point: if you do X, we'll ruin your life, so don't fucking do it. I don't think anyone has actually starved to death because they've been denied employment for racist speech, but I'm sure that some people have been relegated to the hell of low-wage employment that liberal democratic-republican capitalism has set up to punish deviants.

The state itself should not regulate the "marketplace of ideas" (beyond the usual prohibitions of libel, slander, incitement to riot, conspiracy, and treason), but that doesn't mean that the marketplace should be absolutely free. To extend the metaphor, the marketplace of ideas requires an "entry fee", especially when we're talking about ideas in academia, because the intellectual function of academia is to legitimize ideas. And the entry fee is that you have to establish at least a foothold of evidence and argument.

Because we are a society founded on slavery, we grandfathered in racism. Academia has exhaustively examined the idea of racism. And we have found that not only is racism oppressive, it is absolutely, completely, thoroughly, totally, without intellectual and evidentiary merit. It has not paid the entry fee, and thus does not deserve inclusion in the marketplace of ideas. Racism not does not deserve (further) critical inquiry because there is literally nothing there to critically engage with, just a steaming mound of fetid horseshit.

And, because racism is actually oppressive, racist speech should not only be excluded, but actively punished.

So too for sexism, for homophobia, for transphobia, for religious bigotry. These are not even ideas, these are just ignorant superstitions, without a shred of intellectual merit. If someone holds these ideas, he or she should express them only with the blinds closed. Say them in public, and they should be well and truly fucked in civilized society.

If that makes me a heretic against liberalism, well, I'm not a liberal, I'm a communist. If the liberal ideal of free speech requires giving a free hand to racist assholes, who want drive people of color off campus and out of good jobs, to drive them out of the labor aristocracy, the professional-managerial class, and the capitalist class and confine them to the exploited working class, then liberals can go fuck themselves.

7 comments:

  1. As a liberal and not a communist, I have not problem punishing people in the workplace for racist (or sexist, etc.) speech if that speech is done on the job.

    Here is where I probably differ from you:

    1. I personally think it gets dicey when one goes from "it's okay to punish racist speech" to whether a particular instance of racist speech should be punished or to how much punishment should be meted out. I'd prefer progressive discipline, from a first warning, to a second warning, etc., up to termination. (Of course, it would depend on the context and how egregious the violation is.) I also don't want to ruin people's lives, or would want to set a much higher bar for ruining others' lives than that they engaged in racist speech. I believe in redemption and rehabilitation.

    2. If the speech is extramural (outside of work), I'd want to see a connection between the extramural speech and job performance. I don't wish to make an idol (my word for what Marxists call "fetish") of the separation between work time and leisure time, but in practice it strikes me as more fair to draw the line that way. None of this means I believe punishing extramural speech is off-limits, just that the employer should have a greater burden to show why that's his/her/its business. (I do realize that the liberal-capitalist order in the US assumes "at will" employment is a default (except in Montana), but I would like to change that to a "for cause" default.)

    3. I would carve a partial exception for academic speech, which is probably where you and I disagree most. (I suspect protections for academic speech are largely what you're aiming at in your post, but correct me if I'm wrong.) I would say that as long as one is engaging in academic speech--which I define more narrowly than I imagine most academics do, as engaging in the questions made possible by one's academic discipline, in forums recognized as legitimate for discussing those questions--I'm inclined to trust to the self-regulatory practices of the academic discipline. That means, Charles Murray style racism gets criticized, but that Charles Murray doesn't get fired from his university (I actually don't know if he's a university professor, but if he is, I wouldn't support firing him for writing The Bell Curve). I don't say this because I think it's okay to be racist or because the academic disciplines will always call it out when it chooses, but because the ability of Murray to write what he writes and not get fired for it helps ensure the ability for non-racist academics to write what they write. (If we were dealing with, say, a holocaust denier who has tenure in a holocaust studies program--or a KKK member in a black studies program--I'd find it much harder to stick to my position. But I'd guess I'd have to and offer super strict scrutiny of their classroom interactions to make sure they're not harassing students, which I would say they could still be fired for.)

    4. I'd be very concerned about defining what counts as racist (or sexist, etc.) The employee should have due process to contest an allegation.

    5. When we get to the point of punishing, we've lost something. Sometimes more can be gained by remonstrating and creating dialogues (yes, even with racists). I say this as a practical matter, but also as (for me) a moral matter: few people are wholly their bigotry. I think I might be able to make the case for you on the practical level, but perhaps not on the "moral" level. I'm okay with that.

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  2. I tihnk that's how it works. It's how we learn, while young hopefully, how to maneuver in society.

    We hit another kid in the nursery and the reaction is bad and we the negative reinforcement we receive instills in us an understanding that this might not be something we want to do again.

    On the more negative side, a little boy reaches for a Barbie doll and the other boys laugh at him and he becomes more gender conformist and doesn't do that again.

    Good and bad, it's how we socialize. I don't see anything wrong with negative reactions to racism. There should be negative social reactions to racism.

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  3. @Gabriel Conroy

    I personally think it gets dicey when one goes from "it's okay to punish racist speech" to whether a particular instance of racist speech should be punished or to how much punishment should be meted out.

    I agree. Getting the details right is both important and difficult. I disagree with those, such as Fredrik deBoer, who argue that punishing racist speech is inherently illiberal and wrong.

    I'm not particularly interested in the legal minutia of actually implementing bans on racist speech, and I actually mostly agree with you about the details.

    A few things pop out, though.

    [I] would want to set a much higher bar for ruining others' lives than that they engaged in racist speech.

    Well, if racist speech is wrong, there will be some speech so racist that the person uttering it is effectively barred from the higher ranks of society; to the extent that they would be otherwise entitled to such a position, their life would be effectively "ruined".

    If the speech is extramural (outside of work), I'd want to see a connection between the extramural speech and job performance.

    I disagree. If I steal outside of work, even a little, then my employer has good reason to consider me untrustworthy. More importantly, I work in academia, and I have academic credentials: anything I say in public has a certain degree of academic respectability, and I should be held accountable for what I say.

    I would carve a partial exception for academic speech, which is probably where you and I disagree most. (I suspect protections for academic speech are largely what you're aiming at in your post, but correct me if I'm wrong.)

    You are completely correct.

    -I'm inclined to trust to the self-regulatory practices of the academic discipline.

    So am I.

    That means, Charles Murray style racism gets criticized, but that Charles Murray doesn't get fired from his university (I actually don't know if he's a university professor, but if he is, I wouldn't support firing him for writing The Bell Curve).

    I wouldn't either, but that's not the controversy specifically regarding Murray: the controversy is whether he is entitled to speak on college campuses without regard to the opinions and preferences of the students. Students have coercive power over the university, and it is not wrong in principle for them to exercise that power to prevent a complete scientific fraud such as Murray or a racist asshole such as Yiannopoulos from speaking at their campus.

    I'd be very concerned about defining what counts as racist (or sexist, etc.) The employee should have due process to contest an allegation.

    No argument there.

    When we get to the point of punishing, we've lost something.

    I concur. However, that's the liberal capitalist mode of social control, which is the object of discussion. Indeed, it's not really possible under socialism for anyone but the state to materially punish anyone, since an individual's livelihood is a matter of right, and cannot be arbitrarily denied.

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  4. I have no problem with really awful speech. The old "think of the children" BS is pure cowardice of not having to face up it, & using others as excuse. Some fascist ahole is a learning experience, as I tell my G'Kids to listen, now what is he saying? Is it true? how do you know? do you feel the same? & we talk about it and define it. So don't really care. I judge actions! If a coworker speaks BS, but treats the target (black -woman-gay) fairly, then great his speech says he is an ahole so be aware, but his actions at work or in public are OK.

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  5. Hi L. Long,

    I don't have much of a personal problem with racist (or sexist, etc.) speech. However, I am a straight white middle-class man, dripping with social privilege.

    On campus, a lot of students of color, women students, trans* students, etc. are facing not just occasional offhand assholery, but active harassment and abuse wearing the cloak of "free speech." I think the harm of this harassment vastly outweighs the zero intellectual respectability of racism.

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  6. True Larry, but outright harassment & abuse is NOT just some dude speaking BS! There is no way to harass me if they are on a stage saying BS. They would have to physically block my path, that is a form of assault. And if I saw it done to a person I would align myself with the victim and stand with them, and urge others to surround the victim and face off the hater! Or I'd like to think I would, maybe someday I will find out, or better still never find out because it wont be necessary!

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  7. True Larry, but outright harassment & abuse is NOT just some dude speaking BS! There is no way to harass me if they are on a stage saying BS.

    You are universalizing your personal, contingent experience and preferences.

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