Cordial and Sanguine, Part 60: Strong Words and Large Letters

[cross-posted at BHL]

When a descriptive term carries a negative connotation, there is a widespread tendency to associate the term with its worst referents. When critics of Obamacare call it “fascist,” for example, they are regularly accused of absurdly likening Obamacare to the Nazis’ campaigns of mass slaughter. Yet “fascism” is a word with a meaning, and the kind of expansive business/government partnership represented by Obamacare seems to fit that meaning fairly well.

To be sure, the critics of Obamacare use the term “fascism” because it has a negative connotation, and it is the extreme forms of fascism that have played the largest role in giving it that connotation. But the point of using the term, as I see it, is not to give the misleading impression that Obamacare is equivalent to more extreme forms of fascism in the scale of its badness, but simply to point out that they’re bad for similar reasons. (Of course some idiots do seem to regard Obama and Hitler as equivalent in degree of evil, but they’re a different problem.)

Another example is the term “slavery.” When libertarians call taxation or conscription forms of slavery, their claims are often dismissed, on the grounds that taxation or conscription are hardly comparable in thoroughgoing awfulness to antebellum American slavery. But while this is certainly true, it is also true that antebellum American slavery represents one of the worst forms of slavery that has ever existed. Compare, for example, the much milder form of slavery that prevailed in medieval Scandinavia. In the 13th-century Icelandic Gisli’s Saga, we’re told that Gisli’s slave Kol owns a sword (!) which his master must ask permission to borrow (!!). This was obviously a less thoroughgoing form of slavery than the one that reigned in Dixie. Given the many and varying degrees of awfulness that slavery can take, treating all comparisons to slavery as comparisons specifically to antebellum American slavery is historically myopic.

That’s not to say that such comparisons don’t often mean to invoke antebellum American slavery. Often they do; consider Robert Nozick’s “Tale of the Slave,” or this more recent parable by Larken Rose, both of which invoke the image of the plantation. But the point of such references is not to show that political democracy (the target of Nozick’s and Rose’s parables) is as bad as plantation slavery, but rather that it rests on the same principles.

As Plato writes in Republic II:

Suppose that a short-sighted person had been asked by someone to read small letters from a distance; and it occurred to someone else that they might be found in another place which was larger and in which the letters were larger – if they were the same and he could read the larger letters first, and then proceed to the lesser – this would have been thought a rare piece of good fortune.

In the same way, one reason it’s useful to invoke the Nazis or the antebellum slavers is that it’s easier to detect mistaken ethical principles in a clear and vivid case, from which the appropriate moral can then be transferred to cases where the wrongness is more moderate and thus harder to see. Parables like Nozick’s and Rose’s are doing precisely this: pointing first to slavery written in large letters in order to help the reader recognise slavery when written in small letters.

(This, after all, is why moral philosophers use thought experiments. To take another of Nozick’s examples: if you have trouble seeing why it’s wrong to kill cows for food, try looking at a case where the pleasure you get is not from eating beef but from bashing a cow on the head with a baseball bat, since the wrongness in that case is written in larger letters, as it were, and so is easier to grasp.)

It’s common to charge that comparisons involving fascism or slavery trivialise the latter evils by linking them to phenomena that are obviously much less bad. But the charge of trivialisation seems to me to apply only when the evils are claimed to be comparable in degree. It is not trivialising the Black Death to point out that it and the common cold are alike in being infectious diseases.

I think the widespread resistance to comparisons involving fascism or slavery is functional; it serves to immunise advocates of mild degrees of fascism or slavery against recognising the true nature of what they are advocating, and thus enables advocacy of fascism and slavery to survive and prosper. (When I say it’s functional I don’t mean that it is consciously employed for this purpose; spontaneous-order mechanisms can produce and maintain bad orders as well as good ones.)

The same dynamic can be seen in common reactions to the charge that one’s ideas are racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or transphobic, and so on. The term “racist,” for example, tends to conjure up the image of the Ku Klux Klan or something of that sort. Thus if people know they don’t share the ideas and attitudes of the Klan, they presume that they must not harbor any ideas or attitudes legitimately describable as racist.

As I’ve written previously:

There is a tendency … to treat racism and sexism as equivalent to hostility toward persons of a different race or gender. Thus where such hostility is absent, racism and sexism are presumed to be absent also …. For example, Walter Block argues that because heterosexual male employers are attracted to women, they are more likely to be prejudiced in their favour rather than against them.

But racism and sexism are found in more forms than simply that of hostility (not that there isn’t plenty of that form around too ….). A white male employer who feels no hostility toward women or minorities may still be inclined to pay them less or deny them positions of authority if he holds, say, prejudicial expectations about their likely capacities.

But what if these expectations are rationally justified? The problem is that they generally aren’t. And the arguments on behalf of such expectations are so shockingly sloppy (as, e.g., Anne Fausto-Sterling shows [and today I would add Cordelia Fine]), and the historical track record of such arguments is so wretched, that an employer’s indulgence in such expectations is overwhelmingly likely to be the result of an irrational bias, most often one unconsciously absorbed from the culture. In such cases we will say that the employer’s decision is shaped by racism or sexism – but in saying that, we are not (necessarily) saying that the employer is an evil, hate-filled person. After all, by analogy: most people are statists, but that doesn’t mean that most people are filled with hatred for individual liberty.

And indeed racism, sexism, etc. are quite a bit like statism in being typically acquired by “semi-conscious osmosis” rather than “forthright embrace.”

Someone may hold the view that blacks are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent or less provident than whites – or that women are genetically predisposed to be more risk-averse and less scientifically talented than men – and quite sincerely disavow any racism or sexism because their views are not motivated by hostility to women or blacks. But terms like “racism” and “sexism” are not words for emotions. They denote interlocking networks of beliefs, practices, assumptions, and institutions. The view that women or blacks tend to be innately inferior to men or whites is, straightforwardly, racist and sexist in the descriptive sense; it is so in virtue of its content, not in virtue of its motivations. And the additional pejorative sense is warranted because the case for such views is generally so bad that only some distorting factor can explain their adoption. But the distorting factor needn’t be hostile feelings. It can just as easily be a set of assumptions so ingrained that they have retreated into the background of the mind so as to become invisible – as happens with statism too.

People tend to hear the accusation “your ideas are racist [or sexist, or etc.]” as equivalent to “you are a racist – and therefore a bad person.” The accusation can also sound as though it is being delivered from some height of purity, by those who could never be guilty of such evils themselves.

Of course the accusation is often delivered in such a way as to reinforce both impressions. But such impressions, whatever their cause, serve to mask the nature of racism (or sexism etc.) and so help to perpetuate it. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other such malign patterns of thought and action – including statism, I would add – are so pervasive in our culture that it is very dangerous for those who charge others with committing them to assume themselves free of such contamination. But that is not a reason to refrain from criticising racism, sexism, etc. where we find them, any more than the fact that we ourselves may stray from a trail is a reason to refrain from pointing out when others are straying from the trail. As Ayn Rand writes, the right rule in such matters is not “Judge not, that ye be not judged,” but rather “Judge, and be prepared to be judged.”

13 Responses to Cordial and Sanguine, Part 60: Strong Words and Large Letters

  1. ieiunus May 19, 2014 at 8:07 am #

    I mostly agree with your argument here, though I believe the people to falter on such quandaries of logic are those more likely not to review their beliefs as thoroughly as we would like. For although you are a good knight at the roundtable of truth, justice, and the life examined, and I wanting to squeeze in some how on that fun however not quite fitting the mold yet (could you possibly pass on a good word for me to get into Cornell grad school, your nourishing mother?), which type of person most likely, do you think, will read this good post in its entirety and reflect on the argument therein? Unfortunately, only by a minority of weirdos like me.

    Also, politicians seem to thrive on this sort of false equivalency, so much so you would think the general consensus of such a group is that it is incumbent upon themselves to engage in the practice in order to be successful in the largely forsaken “profession.” And this is so, perhaps, because it is rational for an individual, who is ruled by another and does not gain sustenance from a churning of the dark malaise of shadowy falsehoods, to be generally ignorant of politics.

    • Neil May 19, 2014 at 10:47 pm #

      Disagreement with Roderick Long is prejudicial.

  2. Irfan Khawaja May 19, 2014 at 10:51 am #

    I always hesitate to say that I agree 100% with anyone or anything, to give myself wiggle room for the 0.01% of disagreement I may discover later. But in this case, I’m inclined to think that I actually agree 100% with this piece. I think it’s the best thing I’ve seen on this topic.

    I particularly like the point about the different forms of slavery (and by implication, forced labor): “Given the many and varying degrees of awfulness that slavery can take, treating all comparisons to slavery as comparisons specifically to antebellum American slavery is historically myopic.” I’ve followed “slavery talk” within libertarian circles over the years, and have been surprised at the historical myopia involved. I’ve also been surprised at how difficult it’s been to find a historically-informed libertarian discussion of the varieties of forced labor (slavery, serfdom, indentured servitude, specific performance, corvee, conscription, etc. etc). Can anyone recommend one?

    Though Roderick doesn’t mention it, the same sorts of issues arise for the term “apartheid.” The controversy over the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement against Israel involves disputes about whether or not Israel is in some sense an “apartheid” state. What often happens, however, is that the debate gets sidetracked onto the question of the degree of resemblance between the Israeli occupation and apartheid South Africa, where “resemblance” is understood in a very imagistic and concrete fashion. I’ve actually encountered people who think that Israel cannot possibly be an apartheid state because the West Bank is occupied by Israeli soldiers who happen to be black Jewish immigrants (e.g., from Ethiopia). The assumption seems to be that it’s a contradiction in terms to ascribe apartheid to a regime whose policies are enforced by black soldiers. But of course South African apartheid was itself enforced by (a small minority of) black people. And even if it hadn’t been, the skin color of the enforcers is beside the point. What matters is the principle that undergirds the policy.

    An added semantic problem is that “apartheid” has come to function both as a proper name for the old South African system, and for what Rand called an open-end concept for a political system that discriminates systematically on the basis of ethno-nationalist considerations. What then happens is that people take apartheid in the first sense, focusing on the worst aspects of South African apartheid; they then focus on the least South African features of the Israeli occupation, and see nothing but difference between the two cases. They then conclude that the only motivation for using “apartheid” in the Israeli case must be anti-Semitic. I wonder whether “slavery” has come to function in the same way in American discourse. It’s come to be a proper name for antebellum slavery in the United States.

    Anyway, Roderick’s post suggests that we need more work on this issue. Someone ought to come up with a CFP.

    • djr June 1, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

      I likewise agree with Roderick (though not nearly 100%, because I am a dirty statist, though I at least take myself not to be a fascist). But I have a hard time escaping the thought that the rhetorical deployment of these terms is often not only intended to obscure any differences of degree, but simply functions to move discussion away from the kind of nuance and clarity that Roderick so nicely supplies. I teach on a campus where attitudes about gender and sexism are often highly polarized, and in my experience many of the students who hold the views I take to be right nonetheless do not express them with due acknowledgment of the distinctions that Roderick draws, and many of the students who wrongheadedly oppose them nonetheless understandably react against the hyperbole; when the other side really does so often talk as though believing that men and women have biologically determined psychological dispositions is equivalent to outright misogyny, it’s no surprise that intelligent and thoughtful people come away thinking that their opponents are irrational. I’ve encountered the latter attitude particularly among libertarian and libertarian-leaning conservative students, who seem to imagine that what the feminists in the women’s & gender study program think is that believing in a biological basis for gender differences is exactly equivalent to physical aggression and violence against women. When I offer a more nuanced account, the typical response is that my view is reasonable, but it isn’t the view that the “radical” students who try to shout them down hold. In light of that kind of incivility among dissenting groups, I can’t bring myself to endorse using terms like “fascism” and “slavery,” or even in many cases “sexism” and “racism” in sloganeering ways; the qualification and nuance required to use the terms without being misunderstood can’t get off the ground when disagreeing parties start off by alienating one another with needlessly provocative epithets.

      Then again, I don’t much like slogans of any kind. So perhaps I’m just griping.

      • Irfan Khawaja June 8, 2014 at 7:32 pm #

        Counterintuitively, I agree with all that, too. So the bottom line turns out to be that while there is a legitimate function to the use of “strong words,” it’s often inadvisable to use them. Either one has to qualify them so much that there is no point in using them, or one fails to qualify them sufficiently, in which case they’re misinterpreted. But since those two possibilities aren’t exhaustive, there can still be contexts in which their use is clarifying (like: Roderick’s blog).

        A couple of days ago, I watched an interview on CNN (with Don Lemon) in which Benjamin Carson tried his best to backpedal his claim that Obamacare is “like” slavery. He came across as an evasive idiot. I think you can agree with Roderick and still think that.

        Having said that, I think it’s unfair to saddle Carson (as Lemon does) with the view that Obamacare is worse than World War II, Vietnam, or 9/11. Carson’s point was that Obamacare is the worst policy since slavery, not the worst event to befall the country. Not that he managed to say that in defense of himself.

        Ultimately, though, the whole “debate” is debased and stupid. Carson was playing to the peanut gallery. Lemon is in “gotcha” mode. Neither of them is really interested in the principles that inform either side of the debate, and neither (I guess) is a large part of CNN’s audience. What we have here is just another case in which discourse trundles forward, motivated by anything but knowledge.

        It’s kind of amazing that we live in an advanced civilization in which people deploy arguments by analogy all the time but almost no one knows how to evaluate one. It’s almost like…living in a lunatic asylum.

        Just to be clear, I said it’s like living in a lunatic asylum. It’s just an analogy.

  3. D. F. Linton May 19, 2014 at 12:26 pm #

    Despite the risk that I will be tarred with the label “Rushism”, I say “ditto.”

    BTW: I am on the amazon wait list for your forth coming book. I hope it publishes soon.

  4. Ayrton Parham May 23, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    “The view that women or blacks tend to be innately inferior to men or whites is, straightforwardly, racist and sexist in the descriptive sense.” Granted. But what about the view that various genders or races have unique strengths and weaknesses? I’m not saying this is the case but I have no good reason to assume its not the case (and it seems that any research along those lines would be shot-down as “racist” or “sexist” by mainstream society). If, however, it were true that certain races and genders are more capable than others in some endeavors, would it be sexist or racist to take that into account when, say, hiring for a position?

    Food for thought/cage rattling.

    • Roderick May 24, 2014 at 5:44 pm #

      Those who claim to be taking that position nearly always end up in practice valorising one side. The same applies to gender differences; see my discussion here, here, and here.

      Moreover, such views are a) a priori implausible, and b) a posteriori generally defended in incredibly sloppy and half-assed ways, with only the most perfunctory gestures at controlling for environmental factors. For example, they think they’ve controlled for environmental factors by studying blacks and whites raised in the same household!

      • Irfan Khawaja May 25, 2014 at 2:52 pm #

        I basically agree with Roderick on this, but since there are obvious phenotypic and genotypic differences between the sexes and between ethnicities, what we ultimately need is a biologically informed account of why it’s plausible to think (e.g.) that some groups (men, those of African descent, Jews, etc.) are more susceptible to some diseases than others (heart disease, sickle cell anemia, Tay Sachs, etc.), but implausible to think that some such groups are smarter or more virtuous or (in non-moral terms) more able than others. In general, the more anatomic or physiological the difference, the more plausible the reliance on race or sex in research (when it’s reliable at all); the more behavioral or intellectual the difference, the less so (to the point of total unreliability). But it’s clearer that that’s the case than why, and generally, when we have knowledge of that but not why, our claims remain more-than-usually vulnerable to challenge.

        Having said that, the vulnerability on one side of the debate underscores a vulnerability on the other. In my experience, if you push hard on people who think that they have iron-clad genetic evidence of the superior/inferiority of one group over another, even apart from the sloppiness Roderick mentions, you run into handwaving reductionist assumptions about the relationship between genes and the mind. The tacit argument is: well, since the mind is just the brain, and the brain is just a physical organ, why not reduce ethics to epidemiology? So (e.g.) if Jews are more susceptible than non-Jews to Tay Sachs’ disease (a brain disease), isn’t it plausible to think that Jews can be more susceptible than non-Jews to mental illness generally? Etc. Actually, it isn’t plausible, but to get at why it isn’t, you have to be willing to raise metaphysical questions that are often dismissed as “irrelevant” to the “strictly scientific” issues.

        • Neil May 26, 2014 at 1:23 am #

          “since the mind is just the brain”


          “isn’t it plausible to think that Jews can be more susceptible than non-Jews to mental illness generally”

          I don’t understand. Even if one has a mental illness, it doesn’t in any way change one’s constitution with logic. Morality is inescapable as it is bound up in logic, but the notion of irrelevancy is misplaced. Setting it aside entirely changes nothing.

  5. MBH May 30, 2014 at 7:03 pm #

    Hey Professor,

    I love the way you treat racism and sexism.

    I’ve come across an interesting defense of the state in The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. Pinker demonstrates that Leviathan was and is crucial in, and a central cause of, the historical and ongoing decline in world-wide violence. Assuming his empirical data and causal relations are correct (at least for the sake of argument), do you still defend anarchism at the expense of an increase in aggregate violence?

    • Roderick May 31, 2014 at 8:47 pm #

      It would depend in the details. In order for Pinker’s thesis to be correct, human beings would have to be very different critters from the ones they are. How would ethics be affected by such a change? I’d need to know more about the respect of change.

      In the real world, though, Pinker a) paints an implausibly rosy picture of recent history, and b) ignores the possibility that the state is a parasite on peaceful society rather than a cause of it.

      • MBH May 31, 2014 at 9:52 pm #

        How would ethics be affected by such a change?

        At some point a weak consequentialist filter would kick in. No?

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