“I’m the REAL Skeptic”: On Begging the Question

Things you need to stop doing in debates: framing your position as “rational/skeptical” and the opposing position as not “rational/skeptical.” What I’m talking about specifically are rhetorical moves like these: “Some hysterical people think sexual harassment is a huge problem, but I’m going to be rational about this.” or “I’m an actual skeptic, so I’m not going to whine about some so-called ‘rape culture.’”

Of course, some positions are truly anti-skeptical and/or irrational, but in that case, you can show why they’re not with evidence. For instance! “Anti-vax is an irrational position because all the evidence shows that vaccines are really useful, and no credible study shows that vaccines cause autism.” Or! “It’s not very skeptical to say that mental illnesses are just made up by Big Pharma. Have you spoken with people who have mental illness? Have you researched its neuropsychological correlates?”

But it’s not sufficient just to say something like, “I’m a Real Skeptic so I believe X.” or “You only think Y because you’re being irrational.”

First of all, even assuming for a moment that you, personally, are thinking rationally/skeptically, the fact that your opponent disagrees with you does not necessarily prove that they are not thinking rationally/skeptically. Shockingly enough, rationality and skepticism, when applied to the same issue, can still lead to wildly different conclusions! Some people have studied the evidence and think religion is good for mental health in general. Other people have studied the evidence and think religion is bad for mental health in general, or that its good effects are moderated too much by other factors. Some people have studied the evidence and think that it depends. All of these positions may be products of rational thinking. However, one or more of them may still be wrong, because rationality is not a panacea. It’s just a useful process that often produces good results.

Second, by painting yourself as a True Skeptic/Rationalist and your opponent as a hysterical over-sensitive irrational whiner, you’re engaging in a cheap rhetorical ploy that doesn’t actually 1) prove your point or 2) falsify your opponent’s point. It simply attempts to curry favor to your side through the use of buzzwords like rationality and skepticism.

What you are doing, oh person who probably loves to bloviate about logical fallacies, is begging the question. “I am a rationalist and you are not because my position is right and yours is wrong. My position is right and yours is wrong because I am being rational and you are not.”

Somewhere within whatever issue you’re attempting to needlessly obfuscate lie falsifiable claims that you’re simply ignoring. For instance, if rape culture does not exist, you would not expect rape to be treated more leniently than other crimes. But it is. If rape culture does exist, you might expect rape victims to be blamed for their rapes more frequently than other crime victims are blamed for the crimes committed against them, and they are. If rape culture does not exist, you might not expect people to feel sorry for rapists who have their “lives ruined” by being accurately accused of rape, but they do. If rape culture does not exist, you might expect all rapes to be treated as equally “legitimate,” but they are not. The point is not which of us is being “rational” about this and which of us is a “True Skeptic.” The point is, in which direction does the evidence generally go?

And when scientific evidence has not been accumulated yet, there are still ways in which you can think rationally about the issue. Someone yesterday demanded me to find them statistics on the frequency with which white people touch the hair of people of color without their permission. First of all, if you expect such a study to come out of an American research university, you simply don’t understand how underrepresented people of color are as university faculty, and how unlikely white people are to just spontaneously choose to study an issue such as this (although perhaps it’s happened, I’m not a human research database). Second, riddle me this: if it is not the case that white people frequently touch the hair of people of color without their permission, why does basically every person of color say that this has happened to them? Why have many of them written blog posts and articles about this? Do you think people of color just got together in some secret cabal to plan a conspiracy in which they accuse white people of constantly touching their hair without permission? If so, what motivation do they have for doing this? You’re a Skeptic/Rationalist, aren’t you? By all means, propose an alternative hypothesis to explain this!

Calling yourself skeptical/rational is not enough to make you so. Calling your opponent anti-skeptical/irrational is also not enough to make them so.

P.S. This is only tangentially related, but if you’re a man arguing with a woman and you’re leaping to call her “hysterical” and “irrational,” pause for a moment and consider the historical and cultural implications of this.

On Useful and Not-So-Useful Definitions of Racism

[Update 10/22/13: If you've found this post through a racist hate forum, don't bother commenting. Your comment's going straight to the trash and nobody will ever read it. :)]

Richard Dawkins, whose Twitter feed never fails to amuse, has lately been discussing racism–specifically, against white people:

[Here's the link in case you can't see this]

 

Dawkins sounds eerily like my high school self here–desperate to stick to his own definitions of things and reject the definitions of others, all while claiming that everyone needs to be using the same definition in order for a discussion to be productive. Dawkins assumes that a dictionary definition is by default more legitimate than a definition provided by people who actually study the subject in question and presumes that what is written in a dictionary is “true” in the same sense as, say, the periodic table or the speed of light. Consider that dictionaries have historically been written by those least likely to understand what racism actually is and how it actually works, because if you’re a white person, racism isn’t something you’re ever forced to give serious thought to.

It is true that if you define racism as “not liking someone based on their race,” then people of color can be just as racist as white people. If you define racism this way, then it is true that the person who dismissed Dawkins’ opinion at the beginning was being racist. If you define racism this way, then it is true that a white person who is treated rudely by a Black person is a victim of racism, and it is true that, strictly speaking, affirmative action is racist.

But the fact is that this isn’t a very useful definition. You might as well make up a word for “not liking someone based on the color of their hair” or “not liking someone based on whether they wear boxers or briefs.” I don’t deny that it’s hurtful when someone doesn’t like you based on something arbitrary like your skin color, but when you’re white, this doesn’t carry any cultural or institutional power. When you’re not white, it does. Because then it’s not just a random asshole who doesn’t like your skin color.

I have had a person of color express prejudice towards me because I’m white exactly once in my life. Once. (And for what it’s worth, it was a stranger on the train who apparently just felt like yelling at people that day.) I have never been denied a job because I’m white. I have never been followed around or stopped and frisked by the police because I’m white. I’ve never been told I’m ugly because I’m white. I have never been told I’m stupid because I’m white, and I’ve never been told that I’m unusually intelligent for a white person.

Disliking someone based on their skin color is not enough for it to be racism. In fact, it’s not even a necessary condition. You can like people of color a lot while still maintaining that they’re just different from white people or that they need protection or that they’re perhaps better suited by nature for servile roles (this was an attitude commonly expressed during slavery). Likewise, you can just loooooove women while still supporting patriarchal laws and cultural norms, which is why I have to laugh when someone’s all like “But how can I be sexist? I LOOOOVE women! ;)”

As a scientist, Dawkins must realize how difficult it is when people take technical terms and use them too generally. For instance, a “chemical” is any substance that has a constant composition and that is characterized by specific properties. Elements are chemicals. Compounds are chemicals. Basically, tons of substances are chemicals, including water. Yet most people use “chemical” to mean “awful scary synthetic substance put into our food/water/hygienic products.” You see products being advertised as “chemical-free,” a laughable concept, and people talking about how “chemicals” are bad for you.

So yes, it’s important to recognize that many people use the word “chemical” in a particular way that conflicts with the definition used by chemists. But that doesn’t suddenly mean that this lay definition becomes the “real” definition and the chemists are suddenly “wrong.” And if you want to rant about the dangers of chemicals with your friends (I’d advise you not to, but whatever), it doesn’t matter if you use the lay definition.

But the way the lay public uses the word “chemical” is essentially meaningless, because they basically use it to mean “substances that may or may not be dangerous but we don’t really know we just know that we can’t pronounce them.” It doesn’t even necessarily refer to synthetic substances, because most people would probably say that cyanide is a chemical, it’s naturally occurring (in fact, it’s produced in certain fruit seeds). So if you want to discuss chemicals with a chemist, you’d better use the actual definition, because the terms used by chemists are more precise and useful.

Of course, when it comes to race it’s not quite as benign as people taking chemistry terms and using them haphazardly. It’s important to remember that white people have a vested interest in ignoring the structural causes and effects of racism–the kind that are best encapsulated in the definition of racism preferred by sociologists and activists. It’s uncomfortable to talk about racism this way. It’s painful and guilt-inducing to acknowledge that you (as a white person) have benefited from unearned privileges at the expense of people of color. It’s awkward to admit that affirmative action is not “bias in favor of people of color”; it’s an attempt to correct for the fact that college admissions and hiring practices are actually prejudiced in favor of whites, and this has been shown by controlled studies over and over again.

What’s significantly more comfortable is claiming that “everyone can be racist” and “Blacks can be racist too” and “some Blacks are even more racist toward whites than whites are toward them.” That is a definition of racism that white folks can deal with. But that doesn’t make it useful for actually talking about the things that matter.

 

 

 

Richwine and the Inherent Goodness of Intelligence

[Content note: racism]

In news that should surprise absolutely no one, conservatives have once again embarrassed themselves by attempting to “prove” with “science” that people of color are stupider than white people. Yup, again.

You’ve probably read this story elsewhere so I’ll make my recap brief: It has come to light that Jason Richwine (I’m not making this name up, folks), the lead author of a study on immigration from the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote his 2009 PhD dissertation on…why Hispanics are genetically stupider than whites and will therefore continue to have children who are stupider than whites:

Richwine’s dissertation asserts that there are deep-set differentials in intelligence between races. While it’s clear he thinks it is partly due to genetics — ‘the totality of the evidence suggests a genetic component to group differences in IQ’ — he argues the most important thing is that the differences in group IQs are persistent, for whatever reason. He writes, ‘No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.

In case you’re wondering at which podunk school Richwine wrote such a dissertation, well, it was Harvard.

(Awkwardly, the very next day after WaPo broke this story, a Pew Research Center report was released that showed that Hispanic students’ rate of college enrollment is now greater than whites’. LOLZ. [However, note that Hispanic =/= Latino.])

Why are conservatives so goddamn obsessed with trying to “prove” that people of color are stupid? Zack Beauchamp at ThinkProgress has a great analysis:

These spats don’t generally endear conservatism to the general public, so it’s not like this is a political move. So why is it that the right-of-center intelligentsia keeps coming back to this topic? I’d suggest two reasons: first, a link between race and IQ moots the moral imperative for public policy aimed at addressing systemic poverty; second, it allows conservatives to take up the mantle of disinterested, dispassionate intellectual they so love.

One mistake that all of these people make–aside from the glaring one of being racist, that is–is that they treat the distinction between “IQ” and “intelligence” as completely irrelevant. Scrupulous research psychologists are quick to acknowledge that the measures they use are imperfect and can only provide an approximation of the actual abstractions they are trying to assess. So if you score higher on a scale of depression, we don’t say you are “more depressed”; we say that you “scored higher on the Such-and-Such Depression Scale.” If you score higher on a scale of extroversion, we don’t say that you are “more extroverted”; we say that you “scored higher on the Blah-Blah-Blah Extroversion-Introversion Scale.” At least, that’s what careful, conscientious psychologists do.

Many believe that intelligence is a much more concrete (and therefore measurable) quality than extroversion or how depressed you are. They may be right; I’m not a cognitive psychologist so this is not my specialty. However, serious criticism of IQ as a measure of intelligence has been made–and by “Real Scientists,” too, not just by Bleeding-Heart-Tree-Hugging-I’m-Mixing-Metaphors Liberals. And in terms of race, some researchers have suggested that IQ tests are biased against Mexican Americans because the tests contain “cultural influences” that reduce the validity of the test when assessing these students’ cognitive ability.

Back to Beauchamp’s analysis of conservatives and why they’re so obsessed with race and IQ:

This vein of argument was pioneered by Richwine’s mentor, Bell Curve author Charles Murray. Murray’s research focused more on the purported unintelligence of African-Americans, but his conclusions about its role in sustaining poverty were similar. Murray has taken this conclusion and used it to argue against everything from affirmative action to essentially all policy interventions aimed at reducing economic inequality. It’s easy to see how this argument works — if some people are less intelligent than others, as a consequence of either genetics or “underclass culture,” then government programs aren’t likely to help equalize society — creating an economically more level playing field will only cause the most talented to rise to the top again. Inequality is thus natural and ineradicable; poverty might be helped at the margins, but helping the unintelligent will be fraught with unintended consequences.

Moreover, this framing allows conservatives to explain the obviously racial character of American poverty without having to concede the continued relevance of racism to American public life. If it’s really the case that people with certain backgrounds simply aren’t as smart as others, then it makes sense that they’d be less successful as a group. What strikes progressives as offensively racial inequality thus becomes naturalized for conservatives in the same way that inequality and poverty writ large do.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? People of color are disproportionately likely to be poor compared to white people. People of color are stupider than white people. Ergo, there’s no need to try to alleviate poverty and economic inequality because it’s natural.

Hopefully you noticed the big honkin’ naturalistic fallacy in that argument. Even if it’s natural for people of color to be poor (because they’re stupid and therefore can’t get off the couch and get a job), that doesn’t mean that this is a good way for society to be. It does not follow that we should just allow things to continue this way.

The other big flaw is that these conservatives are also succumbing–as, to be fair, most people do–to the notion that people with higher IQs/more intelligence are inherently better than people with lower IQs/less intelligence. It is okay that people with little intelligence should struggle just to get by, should be unable to give their children a better life (whether those children have low IQs or not), should be unable to afford basic healthcare, should have to eat cheap, unhealthy food, should have to choose between dangerous, dehumanizing, low-pay work (or none at all) and breaking the law to make money, should have to live as second-class citizens. All because they are “less intelligent,” which is supposedly mostly genetic and therefore not something they chose.

I wish liberals talked about this more. I wish that when conservatives started trotting out these reprehensible arguments, that liberals would, rather than simply emphasizing that there is no proof that people of color are “naturally” dumber than white people and that this is a racist argument, also ask why it is that intelligence should determine whether or not you have access to food, shelter, and healthcare.

There are, of course, many other important things to discuss here. We could talk about how there are so many different types of intelligence and IQ tests only measure a certain type. We could talk about how growing up in poverty drastically reduces one’s opportunities for intellectual enrichment and growth. We could talk about how you don’t necessarily need to be “smart” to contribute to society; we do need service-sector workers and types of unskilled laborers and they should be able to live on what they make, too.

But I think we need to talk about this idea that having a lot of “intelligence” (whatever that even means) makes you better than those who do not have a lot of it. So much better, in fact, those without sufficient “intelligence” do not deserve to live above the poverty line.

~~~

Edit: Not quite related to the main point of this article, but the conservative response to this controversy and Richwine’s subsequent firing/resignation from the Heritage Foundation is veeery interesting. I won’t link to any because you can Google it yourself, but it’s all about Richwine’s “crucifixion” and how liberals are trying to “destroy” him and so on.

Conservatives have this interesting theory in which, when someone does something wrong, it is the fault of the person who calls attention to it that the wrong-doer experiences negative consequences. It’s not that Richwine did something wrong, it’s that the meanie liberals are trying to destroy him. Similarly, when someone accuses someone–say, up-and-coming football players–of sexual assault, many conservatives accuse the victims of “ruining” their rapists’ lives by bringing what they did to light.

The fact that people’s reputation suffers when they do something terrifically stupid or harmful is not a bad thing. That is, indeed, society working as it should. It is a feature, not a bug.

Argumentum Ad Third World: Or, “Think of the Starving Children in Africa” Redux

One way you know you’ve won an argument about social justice is when your opponent says something like, “YEAH WELL you don’t see people in the Third World whining about their preferred pronouns/racist Halloween costumes/the use of the word ‘retard’!”

There is a pervasive idea out there that people in the Third World only have Big Terrible Problems like poverty and genocide, and people in industrialized countries only have Stupid Silly Problems like getting toilet paper stuck on the bottom of their shoe or having to wait in traffic or whatever. There are, apparently, no problems between those two extremes in severity, and no problems are worth talking about besides the Big Terrible Problems.

“I wonder how many people identify as genderqueer in Somalia,” one Tumblr user declaimed. “Oh, wait. I forgot. Those people have actual problems.” Another made a list of “social justice issues that are extremely important” and “social justice issues that Tumblr users think are extremely important.” The former list contained poverty, human trafficking, human rights violations, and genocide. The latter contained white privilege, cultural appropriation, and gender pronouns.

A particularly egregious example of this was a recent cartoon in the Daily Northwestern, which was published in the wake of continuing conversations about racism on our campus:

The argument, of course, is simple: Look at you silly “social justice activists,” bitching about “racism” at Northwestern while people are dying on the South Side of Chicago.

While I will never understand privileged NU students’ utter fascination and obsession with Chicago’s South Side, I do understand where this argument comes from. It comes from the idea that these two types of oppression–poverty and murder versus microaggressions like racist costumes–are different not only quantitatively, but qualitatively. They are not different amounts of oppression; they are different types of oppression.

But really, they’re not. All oppression stems from the idea that some groups of people are worth less than others, that some people deserve fewer rights and less respect than others. All oppression relies on silence and ignorance to continue, and all oppression is based on the notion that the feelings of oppressors are more important than the rights, autonomy, and dignity of the oppressed.

As I mentioned when I wrote about transitioning from conservatism to progressivism, one of the main reasons I have the political ideology that I have is that I believe that psychological, sociological, and political phenomena are all interconnected. There is a connection between the white dude who calls Obama a “dumb n*****” and the bank that refuses to give a loan to a Black family. There is a connection between the person who shudders and crosses to the other side of the street upon seeing a Black man, and the cop who shoots and kills that Black man without provocation. There is a connection between the man who refers to rape victims as “lying bitches” and the man who rapes.

And the connection is this: all of these things continue because our culture prescribes ways for people to “be” and punishes those who don’t follow them, even though these ways to “be” involve factors that we can’t choose, such as race, gender, class, and sexual orientation. And then, Western societies impose these ways of “being” onto other cultures, whether through media, colonialism, or military interventions.

That doesn’t mean that all forms of oppression are equal, but it does mean that discussing which oppressions are “worse” than others is pretty pointless.  Besides, people in Third World countries definitely have problems that are less severe than poverty and genocide. To suggest that they do not is to suggest that they aren’t fully human, because, guess what–humans have all kinds of problems, whether they’re rich or poor or somewhere in between.

Oh, and by the way–unless you are actively working towards ending poverty, genocide, human trafficking, and so on, you lose all legitimacy when you make this argument. When I hear people who really don’t give a crap about social justice using argumentum ad Third World, I know that they’re not arguing in good faith. They’re just using this well-known derailing tactic.

And, in fact, most writers and activists I know who do work on large, global issues like poverty and genocide are also the ones who are most passionate about fighting microaggressions, because they understand that these things are all interconnected.

After all, even these “big” problems start when people allow themselves to view entire groups of people as “Other.”

There are many different ways to do activism, and they have varying levels of effectiveness depending on who does them and how. Some people are great at raising money. Others want to go build houses, teach, or grow food. Some work within political systems. Others educate their peers about how not to be a complete asshole to people of color, LGBT folks, and other marginalized groups. Some write. Others speak. Others make art. Some want to work in African villages. Others want to work in American cities.

You can argue about the effectiveness of one type of activism over another, but you can’t–at least, not in good faith–sit on your ass and demand that we focus on nothing but poverty and genocide.

Affirmative Action Rant

A few days ago, the Daily Northwestern published a column called “Affirmative Action Dangerously Shortsighted.” It was predictably awful and spawned 269 (mostly dissenting) comments as of now.

Some excerpts:

I oppose the use of affirmative action in college admissions, the workplace and essentially any other setting. I am pleased that Fisher had the courage to revive this discussion, given the almost certainty that our hypersensitive, obsessively-politically-correctsociety would be quick to brand any white person willing to challenge this biased system of admissions as racist. In its effort to remedy the lingering effects of a more racially segregated past where one skin color was preferred over another, affirmative action has become its own insidious form of discrimination where the preference is not for one skin color over another, but for skin color over merit.  And merit be damned as the country continues to self-medicate with affirmative action to relieve its guilt over a history of which most living today were not even a part.

[...]The presumed racism of upper-middle-class white people is drastically misaligned. In fact, today, in terms of direct statements of discrimination and disdain, one is more likely to hear disapproving sneers about “rich white people” than anything derogatory about minorities. There certainly is no shortage of people who identify Mitt Romney and “his people” as disgusting, horrible people who deserve no respect but rather a plethora of unflattering associations.

[...]UT rejected Abigail Fisher based on merit, but she says merit that was racialized – that is, merit categorized by racially motivated academic skews in a way that rejected Abigail in favor of lesser-qualified minority applicants with lower standards to meet.

I won’t try to pick apart all the baseless claims in this article; my friend Mauricio has done that quite well.

Here’s the thing. Nobody likes affirmative action. I would call it a necessary evil except I prefer to save the word “evil” for things like Todd Akin.

I don’t like affirmative action. But you know what I like even less?

That’s right, racism. (Total buzzkill, that.)

Racism has two definitions–the popular one and the academic one. The popular definition is that racism is disliking another person based on their race. By this definition, white people who dislike black people are racists, and black people who dislike white people are racists.

This is the only definition of racism that Zink seems to know.

The academic definition of racism is much more complex. It’s a system of societal inequality based on race, in which non-white people are not afforded the same opportunities for education, employment, housing, justice, or respect as are white people. By this definition, white people are racist if they support this system explicitly or tacitly. People of color, however, cannot be racist under this definition, because there is no structural oppression of white people in this society.

This–not the first definition–is what affirmative action is designed to address.

Although this system of racial inequality intersects with classism, or class-based societal inequality, people of color of any class still face certain disadvantages compared to their white neighbors. For instance, they are more likely to be pulled over (and beaten) by the police for “looking suspicious.” They are more likely to be followed around by store employees who are concerned that they’ll steal something. If they choose to keep their hair in an afro or wear traditional dress from their culture, they may be looked down upon in the workplace. Even their “ethnic-sounding” names can make it more difficult for them to get jobs. If that’s not discrimination, I really don’t know what is.

But where racism intersects with classism, the disadvantages are even more apparent. People of color are much more likely than whites to be poor, which means that they are much less likely to have access to good schools and jobs, be able to afford college, and live in safe neighborhoods. Poverty is thought to contribute to the disproportionately high incarceration rate for African Americans (along, of course, with racial profiling), because it means they’re much less likely to be able to afford legal counsel.

All of these factors–and so many more–make it more difficult for students of color to be accepted into universities, especially top-tier universities. All that stuff I did as a teenager that helped me get into college–extracurriculars, SAT prep classes, gifted summer camps, AP classes, a research internship in Israel–are things that a poor student of color is very unlikely to be able to access and afford.

That’s why we need affirmative action.

People like Zink keep complaining that whenever anyone speaks out against affirmative action, they get labeled either ignorant or racist. Nope. You could, for instance, make the argument that affirmative action should be based solely on class, not on race. I suppose you could even make an intelligent case against affirmative action in its entirety, although I haven’t personally seen one. But that’s not what this Daily column did.

If you make a coherent argument based on actual evidence, people may disagree with you, but they won’t call you ignorant or racist.

However. If you argue that affirmative action is unnecessary because there’s no racism anymore, then you’re ignorant, because racism is demonstrably still an issue.

This broken fire hydrant is the best visual representation of Mitt Romney’s privilege.

And if you argue that affirmative action is wrong because “I had this one friend who was like super qualified but didn’t get the job she applied for and some black chick got it instead,” then you’re racist, because you’re assuming that there’s no possible way “some black chick” could be more qualified than your one friend.

And don’t even get me started on Zink’s ludicrous assertion that people who make “disapproving sneers” about Mitt Romney are somehow being reverse racists. We don’t criticize Romney because he’s rich and white. We criticize him because he spews his privilege around like a broken fire hydrant.

You're a Racist

And a sexist, and probably a homophobe, too.

But it’s okay, so am I.

In fact, research shows that almost everyone shows signs of prejudiced attitudes. The Implicit Association Test, a psychological test designed to measure the strength of subconscious associations that people have, suggests that even people who openly profess not to be racist or sexist actually are, deep down.

When you take an IAT, you use a computer program to categorize words into two different categories, usually by pressing one of two keys as quickly as possible. For instance, the categories might be “Black” and “White,” and the words you have to categorize might be either pleasant or unpleasant in nature–such as “safe” and “unsafe.” In one round, you’ll be asked to categorize the pleasant words as “black” and the unpleasant words as “white,” and in the next round you’ll do it the other way around. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

The software measures how long it takes you to press the right key to categorize each word, and research shows that people are quicker to categorize unpleasant words as “black” rather than “white.”

IATs are extremely valuable tools for psychological research. They’ve been used to study stereotypes and prejudice in all sorts of categories, including race, gender, weight, and others. The IAT seems to be difficult (if not impossible) to fake or “game” in any way. You can try it here.

There’s other evidence aside from the IAT that suggests that prejudice is shockingly common and deeply ingrained. You know that racist trope about not being able to tell people of another race apart? Well, apparently, that begins at the age of nine months. A recent study shows that while five-month-old babies could still distinguish faces just as well whether they belonged to their own race or to another, by nine months, they had become much better at distinguishing faces of their own race.

I don’t know if effects like these are caused by nature, nurture, or a mix of both (probably the latter). There’s evidence that prejudice is taught to us by society, but there’s also evidence that it’s an inborn trait that we evolved in order to distinguish friends from foes.

However, even if prejudice is completely biological (which I doubt), it doesn’t really matter. In addition to our tendency to sort people into groups, we’ve also evolved brains that can override our basic instincts. We are capable of going on hunger strikes for a cause, resisting the urge to have sex with someone we find attractive, overcome phobias of heights, snakes, and elevators, and ignore our natural revulsion for blood and disease and become doctors.

There’s no reason, then, that we should not also be capable of unlearning prejudice.

Research like this is why I think that we should take some of the stigma away from words like “racist” and “sexist.” Most people don’t want to be branded as bigots, even if they knowingly hold some attitudes that are bigoted. So the response that most people will make when accused of racism or sexism is “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE I’M NOT A RACIST/SEXIST SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK/WOMEN.” The response should really be, “Wow, I guess I haven’t really worked on getting rid of my prejudice.” After all, prejudice is something we all have at least a little bit of.

We should acknowledge that fact rather than pretending otherwise. Even people who write constantly about bigotry and how to end it–such as me–hold subconscious (or even conscious) bigoted attitudes. The difference between people who care about social justice and those who don’t is not that we’re not bigoted at all and they are; it’s that we consciously work on correcting our bigoted views and they do not.

For instance, when I’m walking down the street at night and I see a black man and I involuntarily get scared, I force myself to ask why. And whenever I ask myself that, the answer is always that I’m scared because I’ve been taught to be scared, not because there’s anything to be scared of. And I don’t cross the street to the other side.

So when you realize that your mental image of a scientist is always a man, or that you feel disgusted when you see a fat person on the bus, or that seeing a man holding another man’s hand or wearing a dress (or both!) makes you uncomfortable, don’t just let that feeling be. Don’t assume that your feelings are always true. Question them, and you might be surprised at what you find.

We are all bigots in some ways. But some of us are more bigoted than others.

You’re a Racist

And a sexist, and probably a homophobe, too.

But it’s okay, so am I.

In fact, research shows that almost everyone shows signs of prejudiced attitudes. The Implicit Association Test, a psychological test designed to measure the strength of subconscious associations that people have, suggests that even people who openly profess not to be racist or sexist actually are, deep down.

When you take an IAT, you use a computer program to categorize words into two different categories, usually by pressing one of two keys as quickly as possible. For instance, the categories might be “Black” and “White,” and the words you have to categorize might be either pleasant or unpleasant in nature–such as “safe” and “unsafe.” In one round, you’ll be asked to categorize the pleasant words as “black” and the unpleasant words as “white,” and in the next round you’ll do it the other way around. (It’s actually a bit more complicated than that, but you get the idea.)

The software measures how long it takes you to press the right key to categorize each word, and research shows that people are quicker to categorize unpleasant words as “black” rather than “white.”

IATs are extremely valuable tools for psychological research. They’ve been used to study stereotypes and prejudice in all sorts of categories, including race, gender, weight, and others. The IAT seems to be difficult (if not impossible) to fake or “game” in any way. You can try it here.

There’s other evidence aside from the IAT that suggests that prejudice is shockingly common and deeply ingrained. You know that racist trope about not being able to tell people of another race apart? Well, apparently, that begins at the age of nine months. A recent study shows that while five-month-old babies could still distinguish faces just as well whether they belonged to their own race or to another, by nine months, they had become much better at distinguishing faces of their own race.

I don’t know if effects like these are caused by nature, nurture, or a mix of both (probably the latter). There’s evidence that prejudice is taught to us by society, but there’s also evidence that it’s an inborn trait that we evolved in order to distinguish friends from foes.

However, even if prejudice is completely biological (which I doubt), it doesn’t really matter. In addition to our tendency to sort people into groups, we’ve also evolved brains that can override our basic instincts. We are capable of going on hunger strikes for a cause, resisting the urge to have sex with someone we find attractive, overcome phobias of heights, snakes, and elevators, and ignore our natural revulsion for blood and disease and become doctors.

There’s no reason, then, that we should not also be capable of unlearning prejudice.

Research like this is why I think that we should take some of the stigma away from words like “racist” and “sexist.” Most people don’t want to be branded as bigots, even if they knowingly hold some attitudes that are bigoted. So the response that most people will make when accused of racism or sexism is “WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT OF COURSE I’M NOT A RACIST/SEXIST SOME OF MY BEST FRIENDS ARE BLACK/WOMEN.” The response should really be, “Wow, I guess I haven’t really worked on getting rid of my prejudice.” After all, prejudice is something we all have at least a little bit of.

We should acknowledge that fact rather than pretending otherwise. Even people who write constantly about bigotry and how to end it–such as me–hold subconscious (or even conscious) bigoted attitudes. The difference between people who care about social justice and those who don’t is not that we’re not bigoted at all and they are; it’s that we consciously work on correcting our bigoted views and they do not.

For instance, when I’m walking down the street at night and I see a black man and I involuntarily get scared, I force myself to ask why. And whenever I ask myself that, the answer is always that I’m scared because I’ve been taught to be scared, not because there’s anything to be scared of. And I don’t cross the street to the other side.

So when you realize that your mental image of a scientist is always a man, or that you feel disgusted when you see a fat person on the bus, or that seeing a man holding another man’s hand or wearing a dress (or both!) makes you uncomfortable, don’t just let that feeling be. Don’t assume that your feelings are always true. Question them, and you might be surprised at what you find.

We are all bigots in some ways. But some of us are more bigoted than others.

Outraged Beyond Your Understanding: On Listening to Minority Voices

This whole Tosh thing is making me think about how, in our culture, we discuss problems that disproportionately affect a certain group of people.

For example, one thing I noticed as I read as many articles about Toshgate (and their accompanying comments) as I could stomach is that the people defending Tosh were almost always men. There were a few women scattered in there, to be sure, but that number seemed almost negligible. In fact, there were many more men decrying Tosh than there were women defending him.

What I wonder is why this basic demographic disparity did not seem to give any of Tosh’s defenders any pause. Given that Tosh’s comment was targeted at a woman, and given that his “jokes” dealt with rape–which disproportionally affects women–shouldn’t women’s voices be given extra attention in this debate? Can men reasonably tell women how to feel about a terrible situation that they are much more likely than men to face?

Here are some more examples.

1. When the viral Kony2012 campaign sprung up this past spring, many people jumped on board despite strong criticisms from people who know what they’re talking about. Specifically, as I mentioned when I wrote about it back then, tons of African writers and activists were speaking out against the campaign and explaining how Invisible Children had misrepresented the conflict in Uganda. Yet the founders of the campaign and the people who donated to it seemed to think that they knew better how to solve the problem.

2. It would be difficult not to notice the fact that, in this country, men seem to dictate women’s reproductive rights. Most of the anti-abortion legislation being introduced all over the country is drafted by men and signed by men. The panel of witnesses testifying on the issue of mandating insurance coverage for birth control was almost entirely male. The journalists and commentators who discuss reproductive rights are overwhelmingly male. Men are obviously, ahem, part of the reproductive process and are entitled to have opinions on it. But shouldn’t the people who actually use the birth control, obtain the abortions, and birth the babies have the final say?

3. Embarrassingly enough given what century we’re living in, there are still people who insist that gay, lesbian, and bisexual folks are somehow out to “convert” everyone to homosexuality as if it were a religion, that they’re more promiscuous than straight people, that they make terrible parents, and that they’re asking for “extra” rights that others do not have (for instance, you know, hospital visitation rights–never heard of anyone who has those!). Aside from being appallingly bigoted, such people have clearly not spent any time interacting with–and, more importantly, listening to–actual LGB people.

4. And here’s an example from my own life. When I was a freshman in college, two students painted their faces black on Halloween and dressed up as African American celebrities. In other words, they wore blackface. The campus erupted in controversy, with some people decrying the costumes as racist and others wondering what all the fuss is about.

I was initially in the latter camp. I just didn’t think that this was racist. Yeah, it was kind of stupid and insensitive, but so what? People do stupid things all the time, etc. etc. Furthermore, it seemed to me that all of the students who were furious about the incident–including many African American students–were making a big deal out of nothing.

But then I realized that, to be blunt, my opinion doesn’t matter. It’s not my history that was being painfully brought up. It wasn’t my culture that was being mocked. Once I took the time to listen to the people who did have a personal stake in what happened, I understood why it was a big deal. I also realized that my ignorance about blackface and the fact that it didn’t personally offend me was not because I’m “stronger” than the people who were offended or because I’m more “rational” and “don’t take things personally.” It was simply because I’m white, and blackface wasn’t something I ever had to think about.

I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to have an opinion on an issue that doesn’t directly affect you, or that you shouldn’t share it. I’m saying that, before you solidify that opinion (and especially before you share it), you should listen to the people who are affected by the issue. You should try to figure out why they disagree with you and find out whether or not there’s anything you might be missing. Even if you don’t end up changing your mind, at least you’ve made your opinion more informed.

It’s also good to keep in mind that the members of a particular group are never a monolith. I certainly know African American students who didn’t think the blackface thing was a big deal. I read about women politicians who seek to limit their fellow women’s reproductive rights. There must’ve been Ugandans who liked the Kony2012 campaign. That’s why it’s good to familiarize yourself with all of the arguments about a particular issue before you choose what to think about it.

What seems to be lacking in our culture is the willingness to listen to the voices of people who are actually affected by the issues we’re discussing. We claim that people of color are just “playing the race card.” We claim that women just need to “learn how to take a joke.” We claim that LGBT folks just want “special rights.”

Why don’t we trust that people who belong to marginalized groups understand their own situation better than we do (or at least just as well)? Why do we assume that their interpretations are necessarily colored by a “victim mentality” or a desire to extort some sort of unearned benefits from the rest of us.

There probably are some people who think and act in ways that keep themselves feeling like victims. But they tend to be people who have been pushed down so much that they no longer know how to pick themselves up. The psychological term for that is “learned helplessness.” Experience teaches such people that none of their efforts make any difference, and even if they reach a point at which making an effort would help, they’re already convinced that it won’t. Incidentally, this acquired trait is correlated with depression. (And it is an acquired trait–people aren’t just born with it. Yes, not even women and minorities.)

In short, most people who have been dealt a fair hand in life have no reason to feel and act like victims. Those who do have probably not been dealt a fair hand. Such people don’t want extra rights or benefits that others don’t have. They want–to use that dreaded term–a level playing field.

It is also true that most people tend to act in their own self-interest. Women and minorities do have a vested interest in advocating for rights and fair treatment, because everyone does. People who oppose social justice causes tend to fixate on this as a reason not to give them said rights and fair treatment, as if wanting to improve your lot in life somehow makes you more “biased” than the rest of us.

But what these opponents ignore is that they themselves have a vested interest in ignoring the demands of women and minorities. Because it’s easier to ignore them. It’s easier not to care about what comedians say on stage because it’s “just humor” and if you don’t like it you can just walk out. It’s easier not to bother drafting, implementing, and enforcing legislation that makes workplace discrimination illegal. It’s easier to ignore racist acts on campus than to find the students responsible and discipline them. It’s easier not to think of yourself as a contributor, even a minor one, to systems like racism, sexism, and homophobia.

What I notice a lot is that, in responding to an event that has offended someone else, people tend to go, “Well I’m not offended so why should anybody else be? I don’t think this is wrong, so why should anybody else think so?” Many people, it seems, have a very limited ability to put themselves into others’ shoes, let alone walk in them. But to assume that we all think and feel the same way–or ought to–is a huge mistake.

What I’m saying can be summarized by a sentence I once found in a comment on a mostly-unrelated but excellent blog post. It goes like this:

“Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.”

Those who are outraged beyond your understanding have probably been hurt beyond your experience.

Next time you are confused, skeptical, and dismissive towards someone else’s outrage, see if you can learn more about their experience.

***

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Why Dan Savage Shouldn’t Use Hate Speech Against Gay Republicans

I’ve got a post up at In Our Words today! Here’s a preview.

A few weeks ago, an organization of conservative LGBT folks and their allies called GOProud endorsed Mitt Romney for president. Surprise, surprise: a conservative group endorsing a conservative presidential nominee.

Dan Savage, however, was apparently irritated enough by this to comment on it. He tweeted, “The GOP’s house f*****s grab their ankles, right on cue…” with a link to the story, followed by the word “pathetic.” Except that he didn’t use the asterisks.

One could hardly design a more controversial and, in my view, offensive message. First of all, the phrase “house f*****s” is a blatant allusion to another offensive term, one laden with historical meaning: “house Negros” (or “n*****s”). In the antebellum South, slaves were divided between those who worked in the fields and those who worked in the plantation owner’s house. The house slaves were typically lighter-skinned and received better clothing and food, and the type of work they did was less physically taxing than that of the field slaves.

A century later, Malcolm X characterized the “house Negro” as a slave who is more likely than a “field Negro” to support—at least tacitly—the institution of slavery, because it has afforded him or her an easier life than it did to the field slave. Similarly, he described African Americans who wanted to quietly live and work among whites as “house Negros,” and himself and his fellow activists as “field Negros.”

[...]This is the complex and painful analogy—which I have probably oversimplified here—that Savage has, for some unknown reason, chosen to invoke. To him, LGBT folks who support conservative politicians are like “house Negros” because they are willing to support a power structure that others (rightfully) consider oppressive.

Read the rest!

Northwestern: Even More Racist than We Thought

Northwestern’s not known for being an oasis of tolerance. (Examples: here, here, and here.)

But a few members of our student body have decided to sink this school to a new low this past weekend by hosting a party/drinking game called the “Beer Olympics.” A student who saw the event described it this way:

[W]hat I saw Saturday afternoon was really just the “Racist Olympics.” In this backyard were at least 50 kids dressed up as some particular ethnic group or nationality. There were 6 teams: Canada, Ireland, Bangladesh, South Africa, Uganda, and Navajo Nation. All teams but Canada and Ireland signified via horribly racist and offensive mock-ups of these cultures. The noise I had heard came from the “Navajo Nation,” although almost every student in this yard participated in the “Indian call.” Moreover, these students are dressed up in headdresses, leather vests and other stereotypical indigenous garb.

Uganda was represented by students wearing tribalized Kony 2012 shirts. Students representing South Africa seemed to take a much simpler approach. In my presence, a passerby asked why the group chose to wear white t-shirts and black jeans. The response: “We’re South Africa! White on top, black on bottom!” Finally, the Bangladesh group simply dressed themselves in beads and painted red dots on their foreheads (the overwhelming majority of the population in Bengaldesh aren’t Hindi, but Muslim). These chants, the minstrelsy aimed at the expense of the dignity of non-Europeans and the sheer ecstasy of the partiers was sickening and traumatizing.

Apparently the group responsible for this has since released a “statement,” which you can read in the letter that I linked to.

Now, first of all. In case there’s any confusion, this is racist. If you don’t know why, here are some resources.

Second, I wish someone could explain to me this: why? Why do this? We all know college students need no excuse to get drunk, and there’s no reason why drinking games would be any less fun without racism involved.

Third, I feel that the Northwestern community needs to know which group was responsible for this. (Several people I’ve been discussing this with on Facebook have an idea of which group it might be, based on the apparent location of the photos and past traditions, but I won’t accidentally libel anybody.) It’s great that they’ve released a statement and have had “meetings” or whatever it is they’ve had, but ultimately, students who would like to avoid groups that hold big racist drinking games should probably be able to do so. (Yup, it’s the ski team.)

Fourth, when people are being drunk and doing shitty things, I often hear the argument that “Yeah well they’re drunk, what do you expect.” Okay, no. Once you’re an adult, you’re responsible for your actions–all of them–regardless of how much you’ve had to drink. This means that you need to either learn how to behave like a decent human being even if you’ve been drinking, or you need to stop drinking.

Finally, before anybody even goes there, yes, this is free speech. All free speech is legal. Not all free speech contributes anything to our society, and some of it actively harms that society. Let’s stop excusing terrible behavior simply because it happens to be legal.

Northwestern’s administration has been holding all sorts of “forums” on racial issues and proposing various “diversity initiatives,” but honestly, I don’t think any of it’s going to help. (Granted, that isn’t an excuse to just do nothing.) No matter how tolerant Northwestern’s environment is, it won’t undo 18 years of living in a society that perpetuates the stereotypes that these students poked fun at, and–even more insidiously–that teaches us that perpetuating these stereotypes is okay.

Unlearning these lessons is much harder than going to a required orientation program about diversity. After the infamous Northwestern blackface incident of 2009, Josh Feigelson, who used to be a rabbi here, wrote this:

I have long imagined a university in which every junior takes a seminar with a handful of others, drawn from diverse backgrounds, and whose common project is to learn to tell their own story and listen to the stories of others. What would it look like for Northwestern, or for other self-proclaimed secular universities, to actually enact the value of diversity–knowledge of oneself and others in a context of community–in not only its approach to student affairs, but into the heart of the curriculum itself?

I don’t know what that would look like. But I’d really like to know. I hope that Northwestern students, staff, and faculty keep talking about it and trying to imagine it. We shouldn’t abandon it just because it’s hard.