Archive for category critical thinking
I harp quite a bit on our comfortable Canadian myth that Canada doesn’t have a race problem. While I disagree with it in principle, in practice it is true provided you are grading on a curve. Canada doesn’t have nearly the same problem with racism that places like South Africa, South America, or even many places in Europe do. Canada’s history is one of comparative tolerance… aside from the initial displacement and subsequent repeated betrayals of its indigenous peoples… and the internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war… and the treatment of black settlers in the Maritimes… okay this is distracting me from my point.
Our many failures aside, Canada does not have the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred that our neighbour to the south does. Well we do, but ours is less apparent/violent. Because of our non-identical histories in this regard, we have often compared ourselves favourably to Americans. The open question, one that may never be adequately answered, is the size of that difference. With large sociological and demographic differences between our countries, and due to the diffuse nature of the variable of interest (how do you quantify how racist someone is?), it’s a question that may be beyond our capacity to answer scientifically.
However, thanks to the short-sightedness of our federal government, we may have a shot at estimating a facet of it:
More per capita marijuana arrests are made in [Washington DC] than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.
But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.
If that graph doesn’t shock you, then you’re either completely heartless, or just as cynical as I am. While the rates of consumption of marijuana are roughly equal*, the arrest rate is tipped grotesquely in favour of arresting black people for marijuana possession. Now I can (and often do) speculate about the more indirect or obscure methods by which racism manifests itself, but this one is pretty clear cut: police officers are stopping and searching black people more often than they are white people. The idea of black pot smokers is more apparent in the minds of police than the contrasting idea of good, honest white folks being druggies. As a result, it becomes far more commonplace to look for drugs when stopping black District residents than white ones.
I was once invited to go to Washington, D.C. for a vacation. I politely declined, pointing out that statistics like this are why, despite my love of history and politics, Washington D.C. stands forever on my list of places that I will not visit unless I have to. Of course, most of the U.S. is like that for me, so perhaps that isn’t a big deal. Stephen Colbert once accurate described the city as “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center” – a tiny nucleus of white residents surrounded by a vast sea of unrepresented and underserved black residents. A place like that would render me incapable of functioning.
However, this does point the way to an interesting natural experiment. Now that the Republican North Party has announced its intention to pass a wildly unpopular and ineffective anti-crime bill that includes mandatory minimums for possession of marijuana, we can draw some comparisons. A few years back there was a great to-do about racial profiling in Toronto police. Many hands were wrung and pearls clutched over the fact that we, too, might be racist. With the introduction of mandatory minimums for possession, we can draw some direct comparisons between criminal justice in the United States and in Canada – are charges dropped less frequently against whites compared to blacks? Are black people stopped and searched more often, leading to a disproportionate level of sentencing? Do arrests break down by postal code?
Now it must be said that having this one statistic will not give us a measure of racism across the board. Obviously Canada has a very different rural/urban mix than the U.S. does, and segregated communities are something of a foreign concept to us, with perhaps the exception of certain suburbs. Our demographic makeup is also quite different in terms of ethnic groups, both in terms of size and in terms of sheer numbers. That being said, it will allow us to scrutinize the way we practice law enforcement, and point to areas that need our concerted attention. It is to our detriment to have one segment of our population disproportionately represented in the prison system, since it prolongs the effects of wealth and access/achievement disparities to make them into trans-generational problems.
While I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re heading backwards in terms of crime, or that racial profiling is a tool used by law enforcement, this new bill may provide us a unique opportunity to measure the effects of both. Hopefully only for a little while, when the next government scraps the stupid legislation and spends our money on something useful. Like ponies.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
*I am sure that some pedant will whinge about the self-report nature of the scale. The absolute size of the pot-smoking population is irrelevant. You would have to provide some pretty overwhelming evidence to get me to believe that black people are 8 times as likely to lie about smoking weed than white people, which is what that nitpick implies.
Being a liberal is often associated, rightly or wrongly, with smugness or an air of superiority. For example, oftentimes this ‘superiority’ is the product of a comprehensive education in the humanities and sciences (dare I say a ‘liberal arts’ education)? When someone makes a reductive claim – attributing outcome A solely to input B – liberals often point out that there are causes C-Z to consider as well. What the reductive claim-maker hears is “you’re stupid and I’m better than you because you didn’t know that”. It is no accident that the forces of anti-intellectualism line up almost exclusively on the right.
But beyond the explanations for why there are reasons why liberals might be seen as arrogant when in fact we aren’t, there certainly does exist some legitimate arrogance that comes from the same source as conservative arrogance, or the sense of superiority manifesting itself in any group. When one associates with only those (or primarily those) that share your group monicker, one begins to believe one’s own propaganda. Tea Party groups really do believe, for example, that they are true patriots who only want government off their backs – that’s because they don’t read the polls that reveal them to simply be the new face of the religious right. Religious groups really do believe, as another example, that theirs is the ‘true’ interpretation of the holy books – that’s because they don’t recognize that their ‘proofs’ of their deity are the same as those of a competing group.
With liberals, the most vexing of these myths is the one about racism being ‘their’ problem. Namely, that being liberal makes you vouchsafed from racist thoughts or ideas. I can understand where this myth comes from. Conservatism, particularly when it comes to immigration and civil rights, is always on the side of the status quo – hence the name. Because an argument against allowing immigrants (which is often an argument against allowing certain immigrants) access to citizenship always carries with it the stench of anti-brown bigotry, those on the conservative side end up holding the bag for racism and xenophobia. The same goes for civil rights and access – it was conservatives opposing the Civil Rights Act, it was (and is) conservatives opposing lesbian/gay marriage rights, which leaves them tagged with repeated instances of bigotry.
Because liberals have been on the other side of these fights (by and large), liberals have become comfortable with the assumption that adopting this political stance is impervious armour against accusations of thoughtcrime. Indeed, when having drinks with a colleague and discussing politics, he made some offhand remark about how as liberals, we had to overcome racism from the right. He was visibly first confused, then alarmed when I suggested to him that, in fact, liberals are racist too. It might not look the same as conservative racism, but it still has the same effect.
It was with these thoughts in the back of my mind that I read this piece in The Nation:
Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. This form of racism was a standard feature of American politics for much of the twentieth century. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest that such racism is no longer operative. His re-election bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it.
In it, Dr. Harris-Perry (who I follow on Twitter) lays out an argument for why white voters, who supported Barack Obama in the first election, may be abandoning him now at a greater rate than they did President Clinton in the 90′s – despite the many political and situational similarities between the two. Given that so many of the ostensible reasons for withdrawing support are balanced between the two administrations, racism may explain, at least in part, any differences in voter support and approval. It’s hard to argue that race and racism have not played a role in this particular presidency far more than in others.
Because I liked both this article and a related one that more closely explored the racial attitudes of Bill Clinton more specifically and liberals more generally, I fired a quick message to Dr. Harris-Perry in support, because I knew that she was taking quite a bit of flack for her audacious temerity to suggest that liberals weren’t the immaculate paragons of fairness that we make ourselves out to be. Basically, just a “hey, I liked your piece in the Nation.” Didn’t even get a reply. No biggie.
It was a few short hours before a friend of mine sent me a seemingly-indignant message, asking me to defend my support for Harris-Perry’s article. She/he had procured statistics suggesting that all presidents lose favourability in their first terms (which the article doesn’t dispute), and that she/he saw more differences between the two presidencies than the article had pointed out. When I replied, briefly, that the article was more about the attitude I have described above, she/he challenged me to provide data demonstrating the racism at play. It was at this point that I simply gave up, as I wasn’t really interested in defending someone else’s work while trying to eat my dinner, and the article in question talked about the next election, not the current polling.
This exchange wouldn’t be unusual, except that I happen to know that this person is a regular reader. I say all kinds of unsubstantiated shit on these pages pretty much every day. While I do my best, I don’t always provide full citations for my conclusions or speculations, leaving it up to the reader to dispute them. Most of the time, this particular friend chooses not to dispute, even when I am talking about racial topics. However, this particular statement – a throwaway line of congratulations in a Tweet – stuck in her/his craw long enough that she/he went stats hunting.
So in the same way that Harris-Perry has done, I am openly speculating here that this kind of “prove it” attitude from liberals who spontaneously become skeptical whenever they have a dog in the fight (which, by the way, Harris-Perry wrote another piece about), comes at least in part from the cognitive dissonance at play when they are accused of racism. “I couldn’t possibly be racist,” they say, as though being liberal means you were raised on a different planet. We are all products of the same system. If someone points out that a behaviour has racial connotations, instead of reflexively reaching for counterexamples, perhaps take the time to consider the possibility, and engage in the argument that person is making, rather than the one you hear through your rage.
I will close with Dr. Harris-Perry’s words:
Racism is not the the sole domain of Republicans, Conservatives or Southerners. Not all racists pepper their conversation with the N-word or secretly desire the extermination of black and brown people. Racism is complex, multi-layered, and deeply rooted in the American story. Name calling is not helpful in uprooting racism, but neither is a false sense of moral superiority.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
My friend Brian once used an argument that has stuck with me ever since I heard it (it’s super effective!). Imagine yourself at the deathbed of a loved one – say a spouse or a child. You are approached by someone who tells you that if you give him your life savings, he will be able to secure YahwAlladdha’s personal intercession to save the ailing party. Would you do it, even if you knew the chance of success was remote? If your answer is ‘yes’, then that is an argument in favour of atheism. Faith healers are a dime a dozen (actually, far more expensive than that), and none of them do what they claim to do. Someone who knows that intercessory prayer does not work, no matter how devout the petitioner, is forever protected against this specific type of huckster.
The fact is that this is not, for many, a hypothetical question.
An evangelist who claimed to have created miraculous pregnancies through prayer is to be sent back to Kenya to face child abduction charges. Gilbert Deya, who has held services in Peckham, south London, has fought a legal battle to stay in the UK since 2007, arguing anything else would breach his human rights.
Infertile or post-menopausal women who attended his church in Peckham, South London were told they would be having “miracle” babies. But the babies were always “delivered” in backstreet clinics in Nairobi. The Tottenham MP, David Lammy, had a husband and wife turn up at his constituency surgery who had been through it. ”The couple went to Africa, came back into the country with a child that the authorities found out was not theirs through a DNA test.
When asked how he explained the births of children with DNA different to that of their alleged parents, he said: “The miracle babies which are happening in our ministry are beyond human imagination. It is not something I can say I can explain because they are of God and things of God cannot be explained by a human being.”
I can’t read this story without being absolutely disgusted by how low members of our species are willing to stoop. This is evil, pure and simple. I don’t think anyone would look at what this man has done to his parishioners and say ‘well his heart was in the right place’. He engaged in a scheme that was equal parts fraud and child trafficking – no amount of justification can possibly excuse this, except in his own mind. I can only sympathize with the heartbroken people who were lied to, and the others who were desperate enough to need to part with their newborn children (for reasons I can only guess at).
A Buddhist monk has been charged with raping an underage girl in the 1970s, the Metropolitan police has said. Pahalagama Somaratana Thera, chief incumbent of Thames Buddhist Vihara, Croydon, has been charged with four counts of sexual abuse, police said. The alleged rape and three counts of indecent assault occurred in Chiswick, west London, in 1977 and 1978.
I don’t think I have to provide a sophisticated argument or compelling statistics to have you agree that rape is horrible. While we collectively have this myth that rapists are leering perverts hiding in dark alleys and jumping on unsuspecting women (who are dressed too slutty, donchaknow), the truth is that the vast majority of rapists are known to the victim. Oftentimes they are family members or close, trusted authority figures. The sense of betrayal can only serve to turn the physical violence into a full-blown existential crisis. To be raped by a religious teacher – a person who commands absolute trust – must be horrible beyond imagining.
So these are the stories. They’re both about awful people who did awful things. There are awful people who do awful things that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. A NYPD supervisor pepper-sprayed a peaceful protester point blank in the face, then laughed it off while checking his text messages. I doubt he did so with the Psalm of David on his lips. This isn’t the point. The question that popped immediately into my mind when I read both of these pieces was why on Earth did people trust them in the first place? An unbelievable level of faith (wording intentional) was placed in these men – far more than an adult places in their employer or their elected representative or doctor or college professor – people who arguably can demonstrate the reason why you should trust them.
Even if you are a theist (and would you please de-lurk so I know you’re out there?), I think we can build a consensus around the merits placing absolute trust in individual people. There is no shortage of examples of religious leaders who have demonstrated the capacity to lie and distort theological claims to dupe unwitting followers. Those examples include violence against self and others, betrayal of family, complete inversion of ethical principles – any thing that one might describe as ‘sin’. Even if you do believe that some kind of god exists, surely we can get together on the premise that trust should not be given to those that claim its favour.
But this is my main gripe with religion: I don’t really have to speculate what the mechanism is for these kinds of slime to gain the unquestioning trust of their followers. Religion is built on the promotion of unquestioning trust. Trust in the absence of evidence is the fundamental stuff of theistic religion – without faith, religion is simply philosophy (and pretty lazy philosophy to boot). Part of this trust has always been directed at those god-men who claim special insight into the whims of the almighty. A layperson who claims to have had direct communication with an extraterrestrial intelligence is rightly seen as a bit of a nutcase. A politician who claims to have divine direction rockets to the top of the polls. We cannot ignore the encouragement of faith as a major explanatory mechanism for this disparity.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
Yesterday I mentioned that I don’t have a specific goal for these writings. Mostly they are a signpost for me to be able to look back and see how my thought process is evolving over time, much like writing one’s self a letter to be read in the future. That being said, people are reading this stuff (and thank you for that, by the way). This means that my ideas must stand up to third-party scrutiny in a way they wouldn’t have to if they were just my random, private thoughts. One of the more contentious ideas I have is my operational definition of racism. I fully recognize that the way I use the word – to describe the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals – is subtly different from what most people think when they use the word. My position remains that my definition is superior because it adequately encompasses the ‘classic’ definition, whilst also describing the reality of contemporary ‘polite’ racism.
However, there are occasions where I can go beyond simple rhetorical demonstration and actually bring evidence to bear on why we must shift our understanding of what racism is:
A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck’s conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial.
Some quick housecleaning here:
- I am not calling Rick Perry racist. I don’t know anything about the man’s personal beliefs when it comes to issues of race, or his track record of treatment of visible minorities. Even if Perry were an open and notorious member of the KKK, it would be completely irrelevant to my argument.
- I am also not interested in debating capital punishment at this time. I am personally against it, and have found all arguments in favour of executing convicts to be lacking in validity. That being said, my personal stance on the ethics or pragmatics of capital punishment are entirely tangential to the issue at hand.
- I am also not trying to make the argument that Duane Buck, the inmate in question, is innocent and should be freed. By all accounts, he’s guilty and his conviction is a good one. Again, this has nothing to do with the point I wish to make here.
The point I wish to make lives in these lines:
The issue at hand isn’t Buck’s innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck’s guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove “future dangerousness”—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck’s race (he’s African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future.
This is about as stark an example of racism as one could ask for. If Duane Buck had been white, he would have received a sentence of life in prison rather than execution. The psychologist testifying against him made it a matter of science (or at least clinical opinion) that black people are inherently more dangerous, and more likely to reoffend. This declaration pushed the jury to decide against him when deciding sentencing. One can certainly fault Dr. Quijano for abdicating his ethical responsibilities both as a medical practitioner and as a human being by offering racist claptrap as sworn testimony – there’s your classical racism. However, and this is significant – the jury believed him.
Imagine sitting in a juror’s box and having to decide on a land dispute between two neighbours. A shaman is called to testify, and offers his expert testimony that when he consulted the entrails of sacred chickens, they clearly indicated that the border between the two properties should be redrawn so that Mr. Ortiz can expand his garage as planned. When considering the evidence, would you include the shaman’s remarks, or rightly dismiss them as complete nonsense? Because you’re a reasonable person who knows that one cannot derive municipal zoning law from the gastrointestinal tract of domesticated animals, you’d probably ignore the insane ‘evidence’ offered in the courtroom.
That’s not the case in Texas. In Texas, the idea that black people are simply more dangerous – that black skin and heritage is meaningful when trying to predict someone’s behaviour – is something that carries enough traction to carry the force of law. The fact that the jurors weren’t able to immediately dismiss Dr. Quijano’s arguments as meritless means that somewhere in their minds, the predictive power of race on behaviour is a real possibility. This doesn’t mean that they were necessary maliciously racist people, or that they were even consciously aware of the effect that their own nascent racism had on their decision-making processes. What it does mean, however, is that without a fuller understanding of what racism is and how it operates, legal decisions such as the one Mr. Buck is facing are a reality, and will continue to be in the future.
Luckily, for Mr. Buck anyway, the controversy surrounding the sentencing has led to a temporary stay of execution:
The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution Thursday of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial. Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without extensive comment, said they would review an appeal in his case. Two appeals, both related to a psychologist’s testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted; the other was denied.
But this brings to light a whole new series of questions. Suppose that, under Texas law, Duane Buck should be executed. Suppose that, without Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the decision would have gone the same way. It is entirely possible that a guilty person is being excused because of complication surrounding the way the justice system handled his race. It’s happened before. Justice has not been served, and it is because of our preoccupation with race, coupled with our seeming inability to chart the way forward when it comes to resolving what is evidently still an open and relevant question.
Racism is not a problem that our parents or grandparents had to contend with, and that we can consign to the annals of history. Racism is very much alive, and failing to understand it will continue to be a millstone around our collective necks for as long as it takes us to get serious in our discussion of it.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
As a member of the skeptic/freethinker community, I tend to associate with many people that share my views on things. I am somewhat spoiled by the fact that most people my age in Canada read from the same playbook, and have many of the same fundamental assumptions/conclusions about the world. It is therefore usually a pretty big shock when I meet someone who is a 9/11 truther or a climate change denialist or a hardcore libertarian making themselves known at a skeptic’s pub night or related event.
Many people use the term ‘skeptic’ to denote anyone who ‘opposes the status quo’ – saying that their conspiracy mongering over who really took down the World Trade Center towers is just them being ‘skeptical’. When organized skeptics talk about ‘skepticism’, they generally refer to methodological skepticism – a philosophy wherein all beliefs and truth claims are subjected to scrutiny and apportioned to the available evidence. While superficially those do seem to overlap, the problem with the positions I mention above is that they fail to doubt their own truth claims, instead relying on a combination of ideological rigidity and back-filling to “prove” their validity. As I’ve spelled out before, it is no good to decide something is true and then look for evidence – the human mind is capable of thus “proving” pretty much anything it likes.
Enter “racial realism”.
Regular readers may recall a number of months ago when I had a white supremacist show up in the comments section. It triggered a somewhat unusual and surprising reaction in me – one that I myself wasn’t really prepared for. That aside, while I stand by my characterization of that person as a de facto white supremacist, he would probably prefer the term “race realist”. Race realism is, generally, the position that observable racial groupings are biologically valid, and are so beyond simply superficial cosmetic traits. The video linked above was created by someone who describes herself in such terms.
It may surprise you (it certainly surprised me) to learn that there are many points of agreement between myself and the author. Insofar as race has a biological component, I am certainly happy to admit that genetic differences account for phenotypic differences. I will also agree with her assertion that many people (most often those on the political left) misuse the term ‘racist’, often in an attempt to introduce emotional weight to an argument, sometimes in lieu of actually refuting the claims made. I will finally agree with her closing statement that noticing racial differences is not, in and of itself, racist.
That is probably the beginning and the end of the places where the author and I would agree with each other. The rest of the video is (despite the catchy musical accompaniment) is utter nonsense. Her basic position is that because races are inherently different, that “noticing” racial differences is only natural. The problem with her position specifically, and racial realism generally, is twofold. First, the statement that racial differences account for the type and magnitude of differences in access/achievement seen between racial groups is unsupported by the scientific evidence, and fails to take into account the multitude of other demonstrated, observed factors.
Second, the video uses the word “noticing” in a profoundly different way than we would colloquially. When the author uses the word ‘noticing’, she means semantically what most of us would use the word ‘explaining’ for. Noticing that there are disparities between racial groups is, indeed, not a racist action. Explaining differences between groups by attributing them to something as demonstrably superficial as race certainly qualifies as racism – almost by definition.
I’m not going to spend too much longer on the myriad of reasons why I disagree with the author. Friend of the blog Will has done an unbelievably thorough job of skewering the specific claims about race that the author makes:
Ruka also demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of social constructivism. The fact that race is socially constructed does not mean it is not real. It means that it is not reducible to biological traits. Race is a very real idea and has real, tangible implications on peoples’ lives. So, of course racial hate crimes exist, but they are based on the way people define race (e.g., skin color), not based on biology. I will close with a typically anthropological discussion. The definition of “race” varies cross-culturally, across time, and across space. This fact is evidence for a social construction of race. An excellent example of this can be seen in the changes of the race category of the United States national census over the last two centuries and in comparing the American categories of race options to the race options on other countries’ censuses.
Tim Wise has similarly taken his quill to the position of racial realism, saying that even if it was true it would be morally inarguable:
In other words, in order to uphold the notion that people should be treated like the individuals they are — not merely as individuals in the abstract — considering the way that racial identity may have limited opportunities for job or college applicants (and thus, taking affirmative action to look more deeply at what goes into an applicant’s presumed and visible “merit”) would be morally requisite. And yet, making assumptions about individual IQ based on group averages, and then doling out the goodies accordingly would be morally repugnant. Both look at group identity, but for very different reasons, with very different levels of ethical justification, and with very different practical results.
I don’t think I could do a better job than they have of taking on this absurd position. My utter contempt for it is such that I am loath to run the risk of elevating it above the adolescent brain-fart it is. What I would like to do is offer some perspective on why I think the author, and those like her, should be particularly addressed by the skeptical community.
Smart vs. intelligent
Back in early 2009, I re-posted a brief essay I had written delineating the concepts of “smart”, “wise”, “intellectual” and “intelligent”. I have a tendency to redefine terms for my own purposes, and I wanted that page to serve as a reference in case I ran into someone who objected to my describing of something as ‘stupid’. Simply put, “intelligent” refers to one’s ability to adapt to novel situations, “wise” includes the application of previously-held knowledge, and “intellectual” refers to one’s willingness to process things cognitively and through the application of logical processes. “Smart” is the confluence of all three of these attributes, whereas ‘stupid’ is its polar opposite.
I have no doubt that Ruka, the author of the video above, is intelligent. I am sure that, in her own way, she is “intellectual”, except insofar as she ignores contradictory evidence and refuses to address the flaws in her position, preferring instead to bloviate about how mean everyone is to her when she’s ‘just asking questions’. None of her intelligence, however, protects her from being profoundly stupid. I cannot really speculate about whether she is intentionally introducing straw man arguments and red herrings into her position, but I can conclude that, intentional or not, her arguments are sloppy and borne of an unbelievably arrogant reliance on her own perception of her cognitive abilities.
This kind of unwarranted self-assurance is also what is at play in 9/11 truthers, climate skeptics, Holocaust deniers, and other non-methodological ‘skeptics’. While it is most often an unfair straw man characterization foisted upon us by our opponents, it is also occasionally true of those who call ourselves ‘freethinkers’. Skepticism, as I’ve mentioned variously in previous posts, is an ideal to be pursued; not a goal to be reached. The only reliable path to truth is to test our beliefs against observed evidence, and (more importantly) to change them when necessary. While this can be done without ridiculous hang-wringing and false modesty, one must always keep in the back of their mind the statement “what if I’m wrong? How could that be demonstrated?”
Failing to do this, or only pretending to do it, as Ruka does (she apparently blocks comments unless they agree with her or insult her – presumably so she can paint her opponents as lunatics as she does in the video I link above), will inevitably lead us into positions like hers, where our inherent beliefs about the world are ‘justified’ through a convoluted process of back-filling and denial.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
I’m not sure how much background everyone reading this has had in the concept of privilege. I recognize that atheists, for example, have been recently introduced to the term as feminist voices within organized atheism have become more vocal. Those of you coming from anti-racist or feminist blogs could probably teach me a thing or two about privilege and how it manifests itself. Those who stumble on this blog from somewhere else may be facing the term for the first time (if that is legitimately the case, you should probably start with this article). Privilege, briefly, describes the set of advantages that one has merely by being a member of a group, operating through how society perceives that group. So if, for example, you are a man who is firmly trying to make a point, you are seen as ‘assertive’; if you’re a woman, you’re ‘bitchy’. Those two evaluations for identical behaviour put one group (men) at a significant advantage compared to those others, due to nothing more than how we stereotype that group.
One of the most insidious aspects of privilege is that, if you have it, it’s practically invisible. Privilege is most often held by the majority group, meaning that it is simply seen as ‘normal’. Whenever you look around, your explanation of the way the world works matches pretty much everyone else’s. It’s what’s in the media, in the classroom, it’s the way your friends and family see things – there’s very rarely any disconfirming evidence. Unless someone takes the time to point it out to you, there’s really no reason to suspect that there’s any other way of looking at the world.
On its own, privilege might not be so bad. Yes, it represents an inaccurate and nuance-free view of the world, but that on its own isn’t necessarily a problem. Where the negative aspect arises is when we use our privileged position to explain the world around us. If we’re trying to construct a narrative about how we came to be where we are, and by extension where we are headed or how we should behave, we need to ensure that we have our facts straight. When all of our facts come from a single perspective that necessarily neglects the number of other valid perspectives in existence, we get an incomplete picture. Thus, any narrative we build is going to neglect big chunks of information.
Even that on its own isn’t that dangerous. Any narrative is going to be missing pieces of information. After all, we can’t possibly know everything. What’s the big deal if we’ve missed a couple of perspectives, so long as we keep our facts straight?
Earlier this year [Michelle Bachmann] told an audience that the United States, at its founding, was a bastion of fairness and opportunity for “different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions.” She went on to say (in an awkward sort of way) that the U.S. was a “resting point from people groups all across the world. It didn’t matter the color of their skin … [or] language … or economic status.” She was on a roll: “Once you got here, we were all the same.” Even assuming that she was talking only about the men, I still say, uh, no.
It’s easy (and fun!) to pick on Michelle Bachmann, because her relationship with reality is one of those late-night booty call arrangements where they don’t see much of each other, and when they do there’s nobody else around. It’s fairly unnecessary to pick on her specifically, since I’m sure everyone reading this already more or less agrees with my stance on her. What I will do, however, is use her as an illustration of exactly how dangerous it is to be so blissfully unaware of your privilege.
Bachmann’s positions are polluted by ‘research’ from ‘historian’ David Barton, who had an idea fixed in his head and then went out and found evidence to support it. Her approach is the same as his: decide what is true, and then backfill an explanation for how it came to be. Of course, my position on backfilling is pretty clear: if you do it, I stop listening to you. This is something we all do from time to time, out of convenience. After all, we’re not all historians, and we don’t always have all the facts. It’s a useful heuristic when used sparingly and only in cases where the stakes are low. However, when trying to decide national policy that will affect millions of people, it’s probably a good idea to make sure you presuppositions are accurate.
In Bachmann’s case specifically, and in the case of privilege generally, there is the potential to do serious damage when employing this tactic. After all, if Bachmann’s assertion of fundamental equality upon arrival in America is true, then we have to assume that everyone who isn’t successful is that way through their own laziness (which is certainly the way those on the right explain racial disparities). And when you are as ignorant of history as Bachmann is, then you wind up saying really stupid stuff:
Bachmann says that European immigrants “did not come here for the promise of a federal handout … or a welfare payment.” Instead, they came here for the “limitless opportunity” that the “most magnificent country” in history afforded them.
Well, actually, European immigrants did get special federal handouts in the form of white-only citizenship rights: Germans, Greeks, Jews, Irish, Poles and Italians were never barred from the “white only” military, voter rolls, juries or federal jobs, unlike people of color. Keep in mind that citizenship itself was limited to “free white persons.” When more than 90 percent of black people were enslaved in the U.S., the Homestead Act of 1862 gave millions of acres of land to white immigrants. Yep, federal handouts.
The bootstraps myth is a pervasive and powerful one. Its appeal is that it removes the onus of having to do anything to reduce disparities from those who are at the top. Despite their repeated calls for “personal responsibility”, this myth requires everyone else to be “personally responsible”, while allowing the myth-holder to hang on to all the advantages they’ve gained through privilege. It permits us to crane our necks such that we don’t see the scales as tilted in anyone’s favour, despite all the evidence to the contrary.
So we can (and should) deride people like Michelle Bachmann and David Barton for their eager willingness to abdicate any professional responsibility to ensure their depiction of history is based in fact rather than ideology. But we should also use them as an example of what happens when we allow our own privilege to run away unchecked. The picture of the world that remains when we remove the blinders of privilege might be much different from the one we’re used to seeing.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
My dad’s side of the family is not entirely sure about our heritage more than a few years back. Whereas my mom’s side can trace our heritage to emigration from Germany and Ireland, my dad’s ancestors were not immigrants to the Caribbean; not voluntarily, anyway. While lamentable, this is a fairly common story. The truth is that we may never know where we are from aside from the generic ‘Africa’. Still, it is hard not to feel some personal sorrow when I read a story like this:
Gangs of armed youths in the Nigerian city of Jos attacked Christians as they gathered to celebrate mass, killing a number of them and burning their cars, witnesses and the military said…
Witnesses said Muslim youths set up road blocks and attacked Christians as they gathered in Jos’s Gada Biu and Rukuba areas, shooting a number of them dead. Muslims involved in the clashes spoke of revenge for a string of bombs that exploded in Jos at the end of Ramadan last year that left at least 80 people dead. Nigeria has a roughly equal Christian-Muslim mix.
I have friends who are Nigerian. I know Nigerians to be a peaceful people who are highly tolerant and loving. Nobody who was truly Nigerian would commit such an atrocity. It is inconceivable. Anyone who would do something like this may call themselves Nigerian, but it is abundantly obvious that they are not. There is more to being a Nigerian than simply being from Nigeria, or being a citizen of Nigeria, or living and working in Nigeria. The laws of Nigeria specifically outlaw this kind of violent attack, and if people simply followed the laws to the letter, there wouldn’t be any such immorality. The fact that some people claiming to be Nigerian committed these crimes is simply precluded by this fact: a true Nigerian would not do such a thing.
Okay, ham-handed and obvious. Obviously everyone recognizes the stupidity of this argument. And yet, we’re called to accept it as legitimate when pressed into the service of religion. We are reminded endlessly that Christian ethics specifically preclude this behaviour or that one, and therefore those who engage in those behaviours are thereby precluded from the label ‘Christian’. It’s not just Christians that try to weasel out of their bad deeds either. Following every terrorist attack in which the perpetrator is Muslim, we are ‘treated’ to a chorus of evasive language (often from non-Muslim politicians) telling us how this isn’t “true” Islam.
Daniel Fincke over at Camels with Hammers takes this idea on:
Can we make a similar distinction between normative “true” religions and historical “pseudo-religions” which should be acknowledged as truly existing historical manifestations of religions but not be confused for “religion itself”—just as we say a past morality was a genuine historical instance of a morality but is not “true morality itself” or that a past science was a genuine historical instance of science but is not “true science itself”? How could we do this with religion? How could we say there is any truth in something so historically enmeshed with ludicrous falsehoods?
His conclusion is to judge the validity of the existence of a religious traditions in terms of how well it aligns with positive morality and pro-social development. If the purpose of religion is to provide a framework upon which civilization can be built, then any religious belief or practice that undermines such progress is, by definition, not a true religion.
It is an interesting idea, but any religion that encourages ‘faith’ (which I put in quotes to distinguish it from belief supported by evidence) inherently undermines social order. Encouraging people to suppress their critical faculties, even if it is only for certain claims and not others, is the mechanism by which these atrocities are justified. I am sometimes tempted to simply agree that those who commit violent acts in the name of their religion are just ‘really shitty Christians/Muslims/Buddhists’, since they ignore huge swaths of their own scripture. However, I cannot get past the fact that while committing those acts, the perpetrators always feel the hand of God justifying their endeavour. They don’t see themselves as breaking their religious laws, and their subjective experience of ‘feeling’ the Holy Spirit is all the reality check they need to ‘know’ that their acts have divine license.
Oh shoot. I screwed up the quote from the news article earlier. Yeah… replace ‘Christian’ with ‘Muslim’ and vice versa in that paragraph. It was, in fact, a group of Christians that attacked a group of Muslim celebrants of the end of Ramadan in Jos. The point of this clumsy switch is to highlight my central thesis when it comes to religion: I don’t care what banner you fly or what label you ascribe to yourself – they’re pretty much all the same to me. Any philosophical position that asserts its superiority based on belief without evidence is destructive, and I will oppose it. Whether that’s a cult or a world religion, whether you are a fundamentalist practitioner or a ‘moderate’, they’re all the result of the same faulty thought process.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
One of the common statements made in favour of religion is that it provides us with answers to life’s deepest and most important questions: why are we here? how should we behave? what is the ultimate purpose of life? A commenter here once expressed dissatisfaction at my explanation of where morality comes from if not from a deity, saying that my naturalistic and philosophical explanations of the origin of morality were not going to provide “meaning” to people’s lives. I suppose the criticism assumes that religious-based morality does provide that kind of “meaning”. Atheism and science are, the criticism goes, not equipped to answer the ‘big questions’. A quote that I used to like, and would press into service in my own criticisms of atheism goes something like: Science tells you how; religion tells you why.
It’s a nice, pat phrase that allows believers to smugly assert that despite the fact that their beliefs have no basis in fact, they provide an existential framework that science simply does not address. Religious beliefs provide the kinds of answers that are ‘spiritually’ satisfying, allowing people to quiet the constant questioning that happens in the backs of their minds so that they can get on with their lives. This kind of thinking bothers me for three main reasons, which I will go to in detail.
1. They do not answer anything
Imagine for a moment you asked me why tomatoes are red, and I answer “because rain falls upwards in the southern archeosphere”. Technically, in a very shallow sense of the term, I have given you an ‘answer’. You have asked me a question, and I have given you a sentence in response that starts with the word ‘because’. The problem, immediately discernible, is that what I have told you is utter nonsense. First of all, rain doesn’t ever fall upward, regardless of where you are relative to the globe – the very concepts of “fall” and “up” are diametrically opposed. Second, the word ‘archeosphere’ is completely made up – it has no value semantically. Finally, even if my statement was valid, it has nothing at all to do with tomatoes. What I have given you is a completely useless answer.
It is the same with the answers that religion gives. “Why shouldn’t I kill?” “Because God says that it is wrong.” The definition of the word ‘God’ is vague and applied equally to any number of different semantic concepts. Saying that “God” says something in particular is in no way an answer to the question – it does not provide us with any information.
2. They presume uniformity of belief
But if we, for the sake of argument, grant a particular definition of a deity (and this is a major concession on my part), religious “answers” still do not reach the status of an actual answer. If you were to ask me why it is that European countries are far better off than African countries, I could give you a facile response: “it’s pretty obvious once we recognize that white people are genetically superior and predisposed to excellence.” Now, this would be an answer to your question provided that we agree on the genetic superiority of the white race. However, assuming that you aren’t a white supremacist, you’re likely going to (correctly) label my answer as non-legitimate.
It is the same for religious answers to questions. We have no reliable evidence that even if there were a deity, that your particular interpretation is correct. The response completely fails to give a meaningful answer to the question, because it is based on the assumption that all people believe in the same gods that you do. An earthquake and a hurricane on the eastern coast of the United States is an unlikely event, and many people have pronounced that it is evidence of their god’s judgment for some transgression or another. The problem, of course, is that there are a variety of imagined slights that are supposedly being punished or warned about. Not only that, but many people who agree on the basic concept of their god disagree that she/he would use such an oblique method as an earthquake and a hurricane to send her/his message. The response fails to address the question accurately.
3. They beg the question
Back in high school I took a course in philosophy (roughly the equivalent of a 1st-year university survey course). One of the assignments we had to do was to construct our own ‘argument, refutation, counter-refutation’ essay on a philosophical topic of our choice. I’m sure Mr. Peglar would be proud to know how much that class informed not only this blog, but my thought process more generally. One of the essays written by a classmate of mine concerned teaching an artificial intelligence to learn to use and interpret language. His basic thesis was that there are a number of ways that words in the English language can be arranged that are syntactically correct, but semantically meaningless – for example: penguins often ward intrinsically argumentative pacifism’. Sure, the words each make sense, and the way they are arranged is grammatical, but it doesn’t make any sense.
I feel the same way about many of the “big questions” we are supposed to turn to religion to solve. “What is the meaning of life” is perhaps the most egregious culprit for this one. The question entirely presupposes the existence of a ‘meaning’ for life, and then demands that we identify it. Why would we suppose that there is something at all like ‘a meaning’ for life? I could paraphrase and produce similarly faux-profound koans: “where does the sound a soul makes go?”, “who created sunlight?”, “why can’t we weigh time?” Yes, they’re all questions that make sense in English, but they don’t make anything even approaching sense. Assuming the existence of an answer bypasses the more important question: is there an answer?
So whenever people tell me that they gain a great deal of meaning from their religious beliefs, or that religion is how they find answers to the big questions in their lives, I am always mystified. Without exception, the ‘answers’ that religions provide are based on shaky evidence at best, and complete incomprehensibility at worst. We can develop ways of answering real questions, but as anyone who works in the sciences will be able to tell you, formulating these questions properly is 90% of the difficulty. We should never accept pat, simplistic, and evidence-free answers to complex questions, no matter how comforting we may find it to do so.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
As not only someone who believes in the usefulness of science as a way of understanding the universe, but who also tries to bring his limited understanding of science to bear in his day-to-day life, there is very little that irritates me more than pseudoscience. Science is elegant in its simplicity, but demands rigor and complexity of thought to implement properly. Pseudoscience is a bastardization of science. It requires nothing more than a smattering of understanding the results of the scientific process, and then the wedding of those concepts to draw a completely erroneous conclusion.
I have personal friends who engage in pseudoscience professionally. I can’t talk to them about their jobs, or I will become so enraged that I risk doing harm to the friendship. Luckily for me, I can draw a bit of vicarious satisfaction from exchanges like this:
Leonard Mlodinow is a theoretical physicist who has devoted his professional life to translating the products of actual science into a form that can be grasped by laypeople. Because of how bizarre theoretical physics is, it can be really though to get a firm handle on what exactly the universe is. Theoretical physicist design intricate and brilliant methods for making things that happen far below the level of our comprehension, let alone detection, exert influence that we can see and measure. As someone whose scientific work is incredibly macro, I have nothing but the deepest respect for people who are willing and able to delve into the deepest mysteries of existence, and who are skilled enough to bring something back to share with the rest of us.
To contrast, Deepak Chopra is a mystic. He’s a witch doctor that takes phrases or slices of concepts and twists them 90 degrees to fit into his bizarre world view. One of the most infuriating things he does (all the time) is to attempt to redefine concepts in such a way as to completely divorce them from any coherent usage, like he does with “consciousness” in the video. Saying that “consciousness” is “superposition of possibilities” is a complete nonsense phrase, and Mlodinow aptly and deservedly skewers Chopra for his babbling. Regular long-time readers will know that I’ve had my run-in with Deepak before, and he’s still beating that dead horse of falsehoods that don’t quite reach the level of honesty required to lie.
Of course Chopra has flogged his sideshow of bullshit to the tune of several million dollars, and he has done this by presenting himself as a “deep thinker”, or a guru who is wedding the more esoteric aspects of physics and biology to the ultimate questions of life. What he’s actually doing is giving pat answers to complex questions that fall apart underneath even casual scrutiny. As Mlodinow points out, the phrase “superposition of possibilities” contains words that are comprehensible, but arranged in such a way as to completely negate any semantic meaning. This is a typical Chopra-ism – something he has in common with Ray Comfort.
It takes hard work and diligence to discover the truth. One has to enter with ideas that are open to being corrected by observation, and an ego capable of recognizing when you’re wrong. These are not things that come easily to humans, but are crucial if we want to find real answers to tough questions. Deepak Chopra has none of these – just a slick tongue and a gullible audience.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!
This morning I went on a bit of a tear about the ludicrous idea of a ‘culture of poverty’. I suppose calling it ludicrous is not fair, since on the surface, if you’re ignorant of a lot of facts, the idea at least has some superficial credibility. What I didn’t get around to is the illustration of what might be a better explanation. It will probably come as an eye-rolling lack of surprise to most when I point to racism as a potential explanation. I am not referring simply to the active kind of racism whereby black and brown kids are discriminated against by teachers, or wherein employers don’t hire people with funny sounding names. No, the kind of racism I am referring to is far more structural and ephemeral than that.
Imagine you were born with a limp. In our modern society, that’s certainly not a major hurdle to overcome. We have, through conscious effort as a consequence of advocacy, built mechanisms into our infrastructure to allow people with mobility issues to live fulfilling and productive lives. We have actively reduced structural discrimination against people who, through no fault of their own, have a disadvantage. Now sure, you’re not going to be an Olympic sprinter or anything like that – your physical condition precludes that. But, there’s no reason you couldn’t be a physicist or a spot welder or any other occupation that doesn’t require extraordinary leg strength or mobility.
Contrast what your life would be like if you had been born with the same limp in, say, ancient Sparta. Because you would need full mobility to participate in even the basic parts of your society, you’d be in serious trouble. Not only would you be unable to access things you need to live, but you’d be excluded from involvement in social and political life – not because you couldn’t do them, but because you’d spend all your time struggling just to keep your head above water. Your inability to thrive would likely be seen as some kind of curse from the gods, or worse still as your own fault. If you want to succeed, you have to work harder than your more able-bodied peers to achieve anything.
These are the two different models of society we can contrast – one that puts the necessary effort to ensure that physical traits like a limp don’t preclude you from engaging in activities for which a limp is not a real handicap, and one in which no attempt is made to overcome a disability in such a way as to make it essentially impossible to participate even in those things that your disability doesn’t apply to.
Which society do you think we live in when it comes to race?
Click image to enlarge
I put it to you that being born black or hispanic puts you at a disadvantage. That being in one of these groups, even before we get into issues like a ‘culture of poverty’, places extra hurdles in your way. Not hurdles that are actually related to your success, but hurdles that prevent you from reaching it nonetheless. This kind of systemic racism operates in the background without any kind of conscious intent or active discrimination on behalf of a secret cabal of bigots. It has the same force as active racism though, since your racial identity is a strong predictor of your chances of success, even though this connection is highly erroneous.
The question we must ask ourselves is whether or not we’re interested in fixing this problem. If we’re content to allow this state of affairs to continue, then there’s no reason to make any changes. Of course, as I suggested before, this ends up hurting everyone. It would be much better for all members of society for there to be fewer poor people. If we’re interested in seeing that happen, then we have to work to reduce these inequalities. Otherwise we’ll have a segment of society still stuck behind the 8 ball, with no hope of getting ahead.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!