What’s the opposite of ad hominem?

by John Holbo on March 25, 2010

No, I don’t mean: arguing fair. I think it should be ab homine. A moving (irrationally) away from the man. It’s a fallacy.

Here’s the context. Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait have a diavlog in the course of which Chait takes the scrupulous high-road position that, when it comes to charges of racism, you really have to be slow to accuse. He rolls out the standard fair-play-in-debate considerations: if the person is saying something wrong, but not explicitly racist, you can just point out the wrongness, without speculating, additionally, that they said the wrong thing out of racism. There is, he implies, no real loss in not being able to delve into dark motive.

But here’s the problem with that. In an environment in which creative and speculative accusations of bad motives are, otherwise, flying back and forth in free and easy style, a social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular is actively misleading. It inevitably generates the strong impression that this bad motive – out of the whole colorful range of diseases and infirmities of the mind and spirit – is an especially unlikely motive. Which, in the sorts of cases Chait and Yglesias happened to be discussing, is not true. So, contra Chait, an inconsistent semi-norm against ad hominem arguments encourages an ab homine error that may be less angry (that’s not nothing) but is significantly more confused that what excessive – but even-handedly excessive! – hermeneutics of suspicion would produce.

Yglesias makes this point, mostly by saying that you have to ‘tell narratives’, and the narratives have to attribute motives. But I think ab homine is snappier.

UPDATE: On reflection, ab homuncule might be still better. The aversion of the gaze from one possibly semi-autonomous, agent-like module of the overall man, conjoined with cheerful willingness to shed light on every other part of the man, motive-wise.

{ 117 comments }

1

dsquared 03.25.10 at 9:55 am

2

ogmb 03.25.10 at 10:17 am

You might be thinking about “controlling with the instrumentality of glad thoughts”, although I have no idea what the Latin translation would be…

3

John S. Wilkins 03.25.10 at 10:40 am

It is a long standing point that ad hominem is not always a fallacy. Whately points it out in his 1827 Elements. Is it necessary to give a name to not making an appropriate argument?

4

Mark R 03.25.10 at 10:43 am

This is more than a little irksome in light of Chait’s (and especially his employers’) looseness with a certain bad motive accusation. You know the one.

5

harry b 03.25.10 at 10:44 am

A norm against accusations of racism in this context is based on the assumptions that i) racism is especially wicked and ii) is not at all unlikely and therefore quite believable (by people who have any clue at all about what contemporary America is like). In the current political environment most accusations of bad faith are, themselves, instances of bad faith, not seriously believed by the accuser, but made in the hope that others will believe. The harm to the person who is wrongly accused is therefore significant.; the benefit to the person who is, in fact, racist, but escapes accusation isn’t that great because it is usually something that plenty of people are thinking anyway.

It may still be that what you say about the effects of having Chait’s norm is right; in which case that would count against having the norm Chait proposes.

That said, I’m particularly sensitive about this. In debates about education there isn’t a single sensible position you can put forward seriously that won’t get you accused, either openly or under someone’s breath, of being racist. This is not especially helpful to open and free debate, especially because for many young people thinking about education racism is by far the most stinging accusation they could receive (so a norm allowing the insult to be thrown around generally is very effective in preventing just about anything being said).

6

Chris Waigl 03.25.10 at 11:12 am

Uh, sorry if I’m mistaking your jocularity for a serious question and stating the obvious, but what’s wrong with simply ad rem?

7

Barry 03.25.10 at 11:16 am

Seconding MarkR here – Peretz and the TNR crew throw around accusations of anti-semitism to all and sundry to who toe the Likud line.

8

Adam Roberts 03.25.10 at 11:18 am

Ah, the ablative of place from which.

Should this be ‘ex homine‘, though?

9

belle le triste 03.25.10 at 11:19 am

In terms of direction and relationality, I suspect “ex” is more plausible latin in this instance than “ab” (which when it means “from” means the wrong kind of “from”…)

(IANAClassicist)

10

Martin Wisse 03.25.10 at 11:21 am

It confuses your Dutch readers, who take that as a compliment of being quickwitted/witty.

11

Martin Wisse 03.25.10 at 11:22 am

(Ad rem that is.)

12

Matt McIrvin 03.25.10 at 11:22 am

especially because for many young people thinking about education racism is by far the most stinging accusation they could receive

In the fight over this that consumed the literary-science-fiction community last year, it seemed to be more the opposite. Older participants, say Baby-Boom-to-Gen-X aged, were extremely defensive about charges of racism precisely because they identified it as the worst character flaw one could be accused of, a property of, say, Klan members; whereas the younger cohorts were more likely to think of racism as a product of social conditioning that everyone harbored to some extent, and that needed to be pointed out if we were to make any further progress in fighting it.

13

belle le triste 03.25.10 at 11:26 am

Non Graeci, sed Gaeci.

14

Martin Wisse 03.25.10 at 11:28 am

Chait’s position of having to be oh so careful before “we” accuse people of racism is of course purely motived by the simple fact that it’s largely/almost exclusively his side who engages in that sort of dogwhistle, not quite open racism but we know what you mean speech. It’s therefore even worse than just making racist motivations behind dodgy remarks look unlikely; it benefits one party much more than the other.

There already is a climate in which complaining about dodgy remarks is belittled , no matter how obvious it is that these are motivated by racism, there is no need to make it even more difficult to point them out. ( For proof, use your search engine and look for threads about the backlash against Obamacare.)

15

John Holbo 03.25.10 at 11:40 am

I actually suspect that Chait feels pained by the ridiculous Marty Peretz and that this suggestion of total abstention from charges of racism – which would include anti-semitism, I think – is an attempt to nullify the sorts of bad moves his own publication makes. But it would probably be impolitic for him to say so in so many words.

Ad rem is perfectly fine but less fun and specific. Ex homine is probably better. (Excuse me. I have a cold in my nose. My ‘ex’ must have come out as an ‘ad’.)

16

Martin Bento 03.25.10 at 11:48 am

I don’t have time to listen to the debate right now, but how about we just hold all the TNR writers to this – but your own guy Chait says to be deeply reluctant to attribute racist motives! This may end up being the most bookmarked bloggingheads ever. I suspect the counter argument will involve putting antisemitism in another category than other sorts of racism, but maybe they’ll be more creative than that.

17

Glen Tomkins 03.25.10 at 12:08 pm

Don’t get out much?

Look, I share the affliction, with my undergraduate degree in Classical Languages, so this is commiseratory advice. Hate to break it to you, but nothing in Latin has been the snappier choice of public rhetoric in at least three centuries.

18

John Holbo 03.25.10 at 12:13 pm

By ‘snappy’ I meant something more like ‘ponderous’ or, possibly, ‘turgid’, or maybe it was more like ‘top-heavy’, like an inverted ziggurat about to tip onto you. Or ‘soggy, but in a well-meaning way, like a puppy come in from the rain, that sneezes wetly when you pick it up.’ Sorry for confusion caused.

19

Glen Tomkins 03.25.10 at 12:25 pm

Well, then

You should have expressed it in Linear B.

20

politicalfootball 03.25.10 at 12:50 pm

The problem with discussing racism is that racists have succeeded in making the discussion toxic. Peretz, for example, is a pretty straightforward, textbook racist, but by flinging the charge of racism around heedlessly himself, he and others like him make it very difficult to have a genuine conversation about race.

21

bastet 03.25.10 at 1:40 pm

If a great philosopher told me I must wake up at 7 and then gave me the reasons why I should do that, the question is not if he also does this (someone could claim that it is reasonable for me to use here ‘ad hominem’ and ask him if he also gets up at 7), but if his arguments for it are sound, yes?

22

loonunit 03.25.10 at 1:53 pm

It is possible, of course, to point out that a person said or did something racist without actually accusing the person of having intrinsically racist underlying motivations. Difficult, certainly, since people usually assume you’re talking about intentions, or intrinsic leanings; but racist words can be measured and judged solely by the effect they have on their audience, rather than by some hypothetical intention-to-perpetrate-real-racism by the speaker.

23

Ben Alpers 03.25.10 at 1:56 pm

I’ve often heard the opposite said: that the right response to a racist statement is to call attention to the statement itself rather than to get lost in a fruitless argument over the person who said it and his/her motivations. Here‘s Jay Smooth with the classic online statement of this point of view, focusing on “the difference between the ‘what they did’ conversation and the ‘what they are’ conversation.”

24

Rich Puchalsky 03.25.10 at 2:45 pm

I’m in favor of just calling racists racists. If they wail about how unfair it is that you’ve called them a racist, then they’re exposed as a whiner as well as a racist. And the people looking on who gasp about how uncivil you’re being for calling them a racist are themselves exposed as whining, feebleminded, Broderite twits.

25

Sebastian H 03.25.10 at 3:14 pm

“I’m in favor of just calling racists racists. If they wail about how unfair it is that you’ve called them a racist, then they’re exposed as a whiner as well as a racist. “

Which is a great rule when you are infallible. Much like the ticking clock torture hypotheticals, it falls apart when you aren’t always right. If you are merely arrogant rather than infallible, it might be better to design social norms with that in mind.

So the rule may be good for you, but what should we recommend for everyone else?

26

Rich Puchalsky 03.25.10 at 3:22 pm

If they aren’t a racist, they can make an actual argument about why what they’ve said or done isn’t racist. If they don’t think it’s arguable, but instead just gasp that oh my god you just called them a racist, then see above.

And, by the way, saying that people dealing with GOP racism in the U.S. are just being arrogant? Also see above.

27

CJColucci 03.25.10 at 3:25 pm

Could we also start a campaign to educate people that criticizing a person who takes a position without addressing or implicitly criticizing the position itself is not an ad hominem argument? In a recent discussion, I was told that X had recently issued a study claiming Y. My response was that X was not worthy of belief (for reasons known to us both) and that, having no views on Y myself, I’d be happy to look at something by someone reputable. I was accused of making an ad hominem argument even though I hadn’t made any argument at all. I explicitly did not try to connect X’s lack of credibility to the truth or falsity of Y. I was just (rightly) slamming X.

28

bianca steele 03.25.10 at 3:30 pm

It’s possible that the generational change mentioned in @12 is a result of the overcoming of overt racism, so that younger people never happen to meet people who are overt and unpersuasively annoying in their racism. But it’s also possible that the cultural change has rather been in the frequency with which those racists openly express their racist ideas.

I try not to read Peretz. There is certainly a Herderian strand to some of the ideas behind Zionism (as behind pan-Arabism): that diverse societies cannot work and that history moves towards national states. And although there were certainly socialists among the founders of the Israeli state, and 19th century Zionism as an ideology can probably be considered a kind of leftism, it was a distinct movement to which people might choose to devote their time: in other words, they may have been untouched by the hard left’s taking up of causes like, for example, the Scottsboro boys.

As for John H.’s suggestion, I haven’t had a chance to listen to the bloggingheads yet, but it sounds good to me.

29

mds 03.25.10 at 3:48 pm

You should have expressed it in Linear B.

|\
|/
|\
|/

30

mds 03.25.10 at 3:50 pm

Oh, well, it was worth a try. Didn’t realize that backslash would get eaten, though I should have.

31

mds 03.25.10 at 3:52 pm

…and by “backslash,” I naturally meant “reverse solidus” in keeping with the snappiness theme. Okay, I’ll stop now.

32

alex 03.25.10 at 4:06 pm

All ‘nationalists’ of any kind are pretty close to being racists by definition. Unless your ‘nationalism’ is such weak stuff that it doesn’t actually embrace the idea that your ‘nation’ is better than others [and in that case, what funny kind of ‘nationalist’ are you?], you’re making a basically racist claim. That it’s trivially stupid oughtn’t to obscure the problematic implications.

33

politicalfootball 03.25.10 at 4:09 pm

I was just (rightly) slamming X.

A quote from the famous dsquared essay seems appropriate here.

There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of “giving known liars the benefit of the doubt”, but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world.

34

politicalfootball 03.25.10 at 4:33 pm

Discussing racism is fraught because the charge is so inflammatory and the subject matter is so ambiguous, there’s a lot of opportunity for a person of goodwill to be wrong, and for that error to be intrinsically racist.

If I’m wrong about a matter related to science or economics, well then, I’m just wrong. But if I attempt, for example, to say that black insults of white people are racist in the same way that white insults of black people are, then I’m not merely a bit of a dope, I’m a racist dope.

So I have some seemingly contradictory beliefs on the subject of invoking racism. Like Chait, I think it should be avoided wherever possible, but like Rich P., I think it’s frequently unavoidable.

35

mcd 03.25.10 at 4:38 pm

I’m sure it’s atrocious Latin, but non hominem oughta be the opposite of ad hominem.

The reluctance to refer to racists is , I think not a principle but a fear of rightwingers (they have guns, so don’t piss them off). As a result, in the US, when someone calls someone else racist, there’s a good chance the caller is a rightwinger. (“don’t you know, liberals are the real racists” “oh, blacks are the real racists”)

Similarly, during the Bush reign, despite him doing all kinds of fascist things, everyone said, oh don’t call anyone fascist or nazi, and pretended there was a principle (“Godwin’s Law”) that forbade it.

36

Stuart 03.25.10 at 5:38 pm

Unless your ‘nationalism’ is such weak stuff that it doesn’t actually embrace the idea that your ‘nation’ is better than others [and in that case, what funny kind of ‘nationalist’ are you?],

How about a form of nationalism where you believe your nation is better at sport (any that is well funded/taken seriously, naturally, although that all too easily becomes a bit of a “no true scotsman” fallacy), but average otherwise?

37

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.25.10 at 5:58 pm

Could someone who bothered to watch the video tell if they mention any specific examples?

Is it, like: you might be a racist if …you’re waving a little confederate flag? …talk about state rights?

38

Tom Hurka 03.25.10 at 5:59 pm

Or how about a form of nationalism that says all members of all nations, or at least all members of decent ones, should care more about their nation than about others? That’s a perfectly common form of nationalism, allows lots of extra attachment to your own nation, and is nothing at all like racism.

Should I now say that the charge that all nationalism is racist is itself obviously racist?

39

john c. halasz 03.25.10 at 6:37 pm

“Unless your ‘nationalism’ is such weak stuff that it doesn’t actually embrace the idea that your ‘nation’ is better than others [and in that case, what funny kind of ‘nationalist’ are you?],”-

Er, they’re called “Canadians”.

40

Substance McGravitas 03.25.10 at 6:48 pm

I laughed.

41

ajay 03.25.10 at 6:56 pm

How about a form of nationalism where you believe your nation is better at sport (any that is well funded/taken seriously, naturally, although that all too easily becomes a bit of a “no true scotsman” fallacy)

No true Scotsman would actually believe that his nation was better at sport. Certainly not at football.
(though apparently we pwn the world at elephant polo.)

42

Michael Ferguson 03.25.10 at 9:45 pm

I am completely mystified by an apparent acceptance that ad hominem is ever proper, whether attributed hastily or only after deliberation. It is always improper in intellectual discourse. Once a statement leaves your mouth, it is no longer yours. The statement is either well substantiated or not. If, in the course of a discussion, someone asserts that all blacks are stupid, they have asserted something that is not supported by the evidence. Whether they asserted it because of animosity toward the group or because they either are ignorant of the evidence or have misinterpreted it is completely irrelevant. In all cases the assertion should be refuted on its merits. If a person repeatedly makes assertions that are not supported by the evidence don’t engage them. Their arguments are not worth your attention and why that is so is not important unless you are their therapist or are entertaining the notion of befriending them.

43

Michael Ferguson 03.25.10 at 9:55 pm

An addendum. Your assertion that virtuous behavior, not engaging in ad hominem, is suspect because bad behavior abounds around it is even more peculiar to me. Now if an individual engaged in ad hominem generally, but then refused to assign motives in one specific instance, I would simply applaud them on their new found objectivity and leave it at that. Turning the uncharacteristic absence of ad hominem into a justification for ad hominem is, well, bizarre.

44

Heur 03.25.10 at 10:08 pm

In the context of evaluating the logic of an argument, accusing someone of racism is normally a fallacy even if true.

In the context of speculating about motives, which is what Yglesias and Chait are discussing, it’s simply a possibility (the notion of fallacy has nothing to do with this).

Accusing someone of racism, absent strong evidence, is frowned upon because it immediately transforms the discussion into an informal trial as to whether the accused is guilty. And since it is a charge that is incredibly difficult to disprove (“I think you secretly harbor bad beliefs x, y, and z. Prove me wrong!”), the resulting trial is usually inconclusive at best.

The idea that we are somehow serving the cause of equality by allowing debates about any racially related subject to devolve, again without strong evidence, into accusations of racism, is unsupported at best.

45

Dan Simon 03.25.10 at 10:48 pm

I think we have another irregular verb here:

I am being silenced by vulgar ad hominem accusations of racism/anti-semitism.
You are committing the ex homine fallacy.
He is a Zionist fascist racist imperialist war criminal-murderer-liar/apologist for same.

46

Philadelphian 03.25.10 at 11:04 pm

Ben Alpers at 21 highlights one of the key issues: People who make racist comments often try to derail complaints into a “But you called me a raaaaacist!” whines rather than acknowledge that what they said was racist, and their intent is in some key respects irrelevant.

A recent Stuff White People Do post is apropos. The issue is why white people often shy away from using the term racist, even to describe explicitly racist acts or statements.

In my experience, arguing about whether something is “really” racist is rarely a good-faith discussion. Instead, it’s overwhelmingly used as a shutdown tactic. It’s used against people of color to say that their impressions and experiences aren’t valid (“I know better than you, and I know he/she didn’t really mean to be racist”), and it’s used against white people to try to impose social conformity (“Why do you have to be so humorless?”).

I say all this even though I have observed Henry’s 5.3 to be a real problem, albeit in relatively narrow circumstances.

47

Antti Nannimus 03.25.10 at 11:41 pm

Hi,

When we finally understand that “race” isn’t a real thing, then “racism” won’t be either.

When I was asked recently for my race on the U.S. Census form, I replied, “Homo sapiens sapiens.” Actually, I’m not sure I could even prove that if push comes to shove.

Have a nice day!
Antti

48

Salient 03.25.10 at 11:53 pm

rather than acknowledge that what they said was racist

It seems there’s a three-month cycle, which isn’t consistent from place to place, regarding whether we’re going to use the word ‘racist’ to signify “an expressed belief in the inferiority of another race to one’s own” or to mean “intended to be exploitative of stereotypes regarding racial inferiority” or to mean “could be sensibly interpreted as exploitative of stereotypes of any category” or to mean “implicitly expressive of white privilege,” and about 2/3 of Internet fights revolve around competing definitions.

As someone who interprets the word “racist” in the first sense above, it’s usually best to keep my head down. But that SWPL article irks. In the case of Sambo’s, why not use the word “exploitative” instead of racist? If you feel there’s something wrong with their choice of restaurant name, you feel that way because it’s exploitative, not because it’s marking out Indians as categorically inferior to other folk.

The taboo is interesting, though.

Example: I remarked of an acquaintance (in a contextually sensible response to a query about something), “She’s racist.” (Mild disapproval and discomfort.) “Well, the thought of a black man being President is horrifying to her.” (Nods of ready agreement.) To me, that’s bewildering, but it’s because the folks I was talking to interpreted “racist” to mean something more like “explicitly expressive of white privilege” and would respond defensively with, “it’s not that she hates black people, it’s that they make her uncomfortable.” And I guess she doesn’t feel black people are inherently inferior, she just doesn’t like being around people with black skin. She doesn’t feel that black people ought to be lynched, she just feels that black people ought not be too nearby her, in work or neighborhood (unless they’re in service positions). She (according to her) doesn’t mind if black people get insurance or charity (welfare), so long as she doesn’t have to contribute financially to it — specifically, she asserted her tax money should not be spent in this way, but black people’s tax money could be spent in this way “if it suits them.”

Is she, based on the characterization above, a racist? I would say so, despite having an aversion to the word that’s almost as strong as Harry’s, but most of my more Southern-fried colleagues would disagree. To them, ‘racist’ means you’re active in the KKK or similar (not just a member, but one who participates), and you actively perceive yourself as a soldier in a race war, and you express this perception vocally, and you would probably lynch a black person if you could get away with it. Anything short of this is not racist (in their view), because ‘racist’ literally means what I just typed out there, no less.

49

Salient 03.25.10 at 11:56 pm

So: is racism a kind of act or statement, a belief, or a lifestyle?

I don’t think that last interpretation gets enough attention or acknowledgment…

50

Philadelphian 03.26.10 at 12:04 am

about 2/3 of Internet fights revolve around competing definitions.

Maybe this is true online. This is one area, though, where I think the Internet and real life are pretty distinct. The awful, vicious interactions I see in daily life are generally not about having competing definitions. They’re about seeing how far you can push the line in expressing hatred without being called out on it.

In the case of Sambo’s, why not use the word “exploitative” instead of racist? If you feel there’s something wrong with their choice of restaurant name, you feel that way because it’s exploitative, not because it’s marking out Indians as categorically inferior to other folk.

What? No, I think their restaurant name is wrong precisely because it insists on using a term that is widely understood to evoke a racist stereotype. And because that stereotype absolutely does “mark out ___ as categorically inferior to other folk,” and allowing it to continue in common usage is a slap in the face.

Either I’m misunderstanding you, or we totally disagree. In my mind, exploitation is something like not paying someone the legal wage, or using them as a political prop without their permission, or coerced to do things that they wouldn’t otherwise be willing to do.

51

Philadelphian 03.26.10 at 12:05 am

And just to be very clear, I linked to the anti-racist blog Stuff White People Do, not the parody blog Stuff White People Like.

52

Antti Nannimus 03.26.10 at 12:17 am

Hi,

Couldn’t we just agree that “racism” is a sub-category of “stupidity”, or is it necessary to parse it further into specific classes, genres, and degrees of stupidity? After all, when we know that stupid is stupid, and ugly is ugly, what more do we need?

Now about “sexism”, I would be more interested in the dialog.

Have a nice day,
Antti

53

vivian 03.26.10 at 12:41 am

Whether it’s better to call the person or the action racist depends on what you hope will happen. If the point is “you probably don’t realize it, but that remark was …” as a way to continue interacting with the other person, either to express your own reactions, or to warn a friend, then calling out the act serves a really useful purpose. If the point is to create a safe space ” talk like that is not welcome in my classroom” then, again, useful. If you mean “he claims to be reasonable but just faxed a noose to black members of congress” or “you tell me it’s about taxes, but when you spoke at the skinhead convention you said …” then calling out the person just is the point. This person is not acting in good faith, is not cooperating, and embraces racist actions.

It gets complicated when we reflect that a lot of change has followed from, basically, engaging with some of the worst offenders.

54

Salient 03.26.10 at 1:07 am

They’re about seeing how far you can push the line in expressing hatred without being called out on it.

See, that’s exactly what I was trying to address. If you would prefer that no blacks exist because they make you uncomfortable, but don’t want to actively kill or harm them, but do disapprove of any attempt to provide assistance to blacks again because they make you uncomfortable, is that racism (I would say yes), is that hatred (I would say no), or is that conservative and normal (which is what my Southern-fried white colleagues would assert)?

Hatred is, in its way, an even stronger word than racism. I guess I’ve been learning that, and learning to interpret “hatred” of X as nothing short of “would be thrilled and elated to cause bodily harm to X, and would enjoy the experience.”

Either I’m misunderstanding you, or we totally disagree.

Nah, it’s a third option — I’m ignorant. I was a bit bewildered by your interpretation, but it’s probably because I’m young and from Wisconsin and really blessedly/blastedly ignorant of a lot of these associations. I have since wiki’d Sambo, and… oh wow.

Originally I thought the concern was that the restaurant’s logo of Sambo with his tiger is rather stereotypical of Indians, what with the turban and all. I think the hard part for me is remembering Sambo as the clever, quick-thinking kid who outsmarted the tigers, just one of those countless campfire-category stories I’ve heard third-hand. Heck, I distinctly remember pretending to be Sambo one day in the park.

The fact SWPD noted, that a book existed with a horrible picaninny jacket cover, didn’t surprise me; probably countless old books of fairy-tales have similarly offensive illustrations. (Note the irony in my awareness of what a “picaninny” is and my total ignorance of what’s apparently the canonical historical example in Sambo. Topsy was my canonical example.) It had never occurred to me to interpret the character himself in a generally derogatory way, much less as a buffoon, because in the story I recall Sambo being so quick-witted and admirable. Anyway, I didn’t know that “Sambo” had long been a slur. Now I feel as uncomfortable typing the name as I do typing buckwheat.

Of course, there’s still the issue of whether it’s appropriate (in the technical sense of which-adjectives-apply-to-which-nouns) to call a speech act, even a slur, racist, which gets back to act-vs-belief-vs-lifestyle.

55

KCinDC 03.26.10 at 4:27 am

Shouldn’t it be ab homunculo, not ab homuncule?

56

Sebastian H 03.26.10 at 7:10 am

“If, in the course of a discussion, someone asserts that all blacks are stupid, they have asserted something that is not supported by the evidence. Whether they asserted it because of animosity toward the group or because they either are ignorant of the evidence or have misinterpreted it is completely irrelevant.”

But this isn’t the kind of thing we are typically talking about is it? I see it more in an insinuation of racism when one talks for example about believing there should be more policing in areas with high murder rates. Or when one suggests that there should be standards for teachers in schools that haven’t been doing well. Or something like that. Diverting those types of discussions with charges of racism is both common and unproductive.

57

John Holbo 03.26.10 at 7:26 am

“I see it more in an insinuation of racism when one talks for example about believing there should be more policing in areas with high murder rates. Or when one suggests that there should be standards for teachers in schools that haven’t been doing well. Or something like that. Diverting those types of discussions with charges of racism is both common and unproductive.”

It may be unproductive sebastian, but it is a different question whether the insinuation might not be valid, as far as it goes. You are assuming, for the sake of argument, that it isn’t. Which it may not be. (I grant – everyone else will, too – that false accusations of racism are unlikely to raise the discourse level much.) But the more interesting question is: what about when it is valid, or is likely to be valid? You might say: but such insinuations are mostly false. That’s one possible point of view. But even if it’s true: should one therefore refrain from attributing motives, just because most cases of insinuations of such motives are mistaken? It’s sort of a weird question, I think you should agree.

58

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.26.10 at 8:44 am

What exactly is your angle here, John? Does this have something to do with cartoons?

59

John Holbo 03.26.10 at 10:04 am

Honestly, I’m conflicted. I’m somewhat sympathetic to Chait’s position, but I am bothered by the fact that it doesn’t really make sense.

60

Henri Vieuxtemps 03.26.10 at 10:30 am

You think that not calling someone who says that there should be more policing in areas with high murder rates a racist doesn’t really make sense?

61

anonobot 03.26.10 at 11:18 am

It may be an irrational form of rhetorical charity, but calling it a fallacy really bends that concept. Even if your interlocutor is actually Hitler, saying so doesn’t answer his argument, unless that’s that he’s not Hitler.

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John Holbo 03.26.10 at 11:22 am

Sorry, Henri, I can’t say that I find your double-negative sentence completely clear, but here goes.

It depends. It certainly makes sense not to call someone a racist if they are, by hypothesis, not a racist, nor do you believe they are. (We are agreed on that much, I trust.) The question is whether to call someone a racist if you believe they are, or are likely to be, a racist. I don’t know how to assess the ‘there should be more policing’ case because, obviously, we would need more information: notably, whether there is evidence that this person is a racist. (The one fact we know about them hardly establishes it, but it could easily fit in to a suspicious pattern.) The dilemma about whether to call them racist won’t arise until we answer that first question in the affirmative. (See above. No intentionally falsely accusing those we have no good reason to believe are racists of being racists. That’s rule #1. Agreed.)

Is it possible that you (and Sebastian?) are just confusing the ‘should we call someone a racist if we think we have probable evidence’ question with ‘what sorts of things count as evidence’ questions. The latter are clearly separate from the former. Though they are both important.

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novus homo 03.26.10 at 12:27 pm

#56: yes, it should be homunculo, not homuncule. Homunculus is a second declension masculine noun and therefore has the ablative singular ending -o, not -e.

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roac 03.26.10 at 2:07 pm

56 seems to be correct. Homo is in the third declension, but adding the diminutive ending apparently shifts it into the second. Though I can’t find a source that says so explicitly.

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belle le triste 03.26.10 at 2:14 pm

Yes that’s right — I think the proliferation of diminutives was late-doors latin, and by then the Romans had got fed up of the fiddlier declensions and put everything new into the first and second.

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Gene O'Grady 03.26.10 at 2:27 pm

Latin diminutives are a good deal more complex than early/late (even remembering that “late” usually covers the popular/subliterary undergrowth that was always there and that Latin was historically spoken by millions whose native language was something else). The high end literary authors (Virgil and Cicero) use them very sparingly, and almost always for precise and significant effect. If you look at a writer like Catullus who writes in at least three generic ranges you’ll see that in some of them diminutives are all over the place and in others are avoided.

Glad to see that someone else got to correcting homuncule before I yielded to the temptation. Oh, and what is the thing with “ex homine?” a/ab/abs is set in an awful lot of phrases, my favorite being the cabinet positions like ab epistulis, and ab homine is one of them.

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belle le triste 03.26.10 at 2:38 pm

OK, but my story is easier to remember.

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chris y 03.26.10 at 2:41 pm

Agree with the preference for ab rather that ex, although I wondered about de in context. Pedantically, the full opposite of ad hominem should presumably be ab australopitheco.

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belle le triste 03.26.10 at 2:55 pm

Might as well make this an instructive sonning: Gene, why ab rather than ex here?

(I’m sure you’re right — I learnt latin around the same time the Romans did, and have forgotten a lot of it; unfortunately not the bogus tale my teacher told me about diminutives!)

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Josh G. 03.26.10 at 2:58 pm

Michael Ferguson: “I am completely mystified by an apparent acceptance that ad hominem is ever proper, whether attributed hastily or only after deliberation. It is always improper in intellectual discourse.”

Meanwhile, in the real world, most of us do not have an unlimited amount of time on our hands. We are not all Renaissance scholars, well-versed in all fields of endeavor. That being the case, we must resort to various heuristics to try to figure out what is true and what is false. Calling these heuristics “logical fallacies” is pointless.

If someone has told a thousand lies, common sense tells us that their 1001st statement is also likely to be untrue. No, it doesn’t logically follow that it *must* be, but it’s the safe way to bet. Life is too short to debunk every lie in the world one at a time. Call that ad hominem if you want; I call it common sense.

If I want to know about chemistry, I’ll ask a chemist, not a theologian. Is that an “argument from authority”? Or is it just common sense? Much of the worst pseudoscience happens when people with some scientific training step outside their fields and try to meddle with things they don’t understand. Linus Pauling and W.M. Shockley are two examples that come to mind immediately.

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roac 03.26.10 at 3:21 pm

“Ab Homine” would be a great name for a protein supplement for bodybuilders.

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CJColucci 03.26.10 at 3:25 pm

Someone tells me “X says: ‘A,B, and C, therefore D.'” Either my interlocutor and I can independently evaluate the truth of A,B, and C and determine whether, if true, D follows, or we can’t. In the first case any qualities of X are irrelevant, and we should proceed to evaluate the argument. Slagging X is a classic ad hominem argument and — as long as the topic of discussion is the truth of D rather than the character of X — improper.
If, on the other hand, neither of us can evaluate the argument independently, then the statement is the functional equivalent of “X says ‘D.'” In that case, or in the case where the statement actually is “X says ‘D,'” the person pushing X’s view is relying on X’s authority</I, not his argument. In such a case, an ad hominem “argument,” if empirically sound, is a perfectly reasonable basis for, tentatively, rejecting “D.” It might still be the case that “D,” but just because a stopped clock is right twice a day, that’s no reason to rely on it as a timepiece.

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Stuart 03.26.10 at 3:27 pm

Call that ad hominem if you want; I call it common sense.

The other point (that has already been made a few times), is that calling this person a liar is not ad hominem. Saying that argument X is untrue is false because the person presenting it is a known liar would be ad hominem, and hence a fallacy. Saying that the person is a known liar, and therefore not to pay attention to things they say, is potentially entirely reasonable. The problem is that logical fallacies are misapplied to entirely inapplicable areas of argument based on ignorance, or for rhetorical effect (sidelining debate into discussions of what is/isn’t a logical fallacy as a common strategy).

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CJColucci 03.26.10 at 3:27 pm

Obviously, there should have been a “not X’s” between “authority” and “argument.”

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Sebastian 03.26.10 at 4:39 pm

John, “You might say: but such insinuations are mostly false. That’s one possible point of view. But even if it’s true: should one therefore refrain from attributing motives, just because most cases of insinuations of such motives are mistaken? “

Because if you are having a discussion about proper policing or educational standards, the probability of continuing to have a useful discussion on policing or educational standards has suddenly dropped to near zero when you accuse one of the people of racism. So if your goal in raising racism is to continue having a fruitful discussion of whatever else you are talking about, you have pretty much just ended it. And if you’ve done so without even a large chance of being right, what have you accomplished? End of discussion, nasty charges leveled, probably lots of exchanged ill will, very likely didn’t get very far in showing that the person is racist. Did you add to the discussion of educational standards? Almost certainly not. Did you waste lots of time? Probably.

Balance that with the good you just did. Ummm. You raised awareness that racism is bad? I mean what did you get?

Look, if someone wants to say that we shouldn’t bother with inner city educational standards because they believe that black people are generally too stupid to learn anyway, feel free to accurately and easily call them a racist. But other than that, it probably isn’t helpful to bring in racial history/insinuations into the discussion. Yes, slavery was incredibly damaging. Yes, it affected culture in nasty and horrible ways. And no, that doesn’t have much that helps us with the fact that we still need to form educational strategies and then test the kids and evaluate the teachers and the methods to make sure they work at some point.

If you think you can really show that someone is a racist, go for it. I’m less tolerant of racism than most liberal people I know. But normally you can’t. And you’ve just diverted the topic of whatever you were talking about into a nasty charge against them.

I guess I haven’t seen what you think you get out of it? What is the up side? That you’ll get a real racist every now and then so it doesn’t matter? Does that square with your views on torture (that so long as we get good information every now and then it is defensible to torture a bunch of innocents), punishment (that so long as we get real criminals every now and then who cares about punishing other people), or free speech (we might squelch truly dangerous ideas from time to time, so censorship should be broadly available and not very worried about)? To be honest I don’t have specific recollections on your views on such topics, but I suspect that your beliefs on those topics don’t go in that direction.

So I guess you haven’t made a case about what you think the conversation GAINS by having a norm where being quick to accuse someone of racism is fine. It is easy (at least for me) to see what it loses, but I don’t see what you gain.

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Barry 03.26.10 at 5:16 pm

Michael Ferguson 03.25.10 at 9:45 pm

“I am completely mystified by an apparent acceptance that ad hominem is ever proper, whether attributed hastily or only after deliberation. It is always improper in intellectual discourse. “

Bull; intellectuals do that a lot – whose arguments are to be considered true until proven false, whose are to be considered false until proven true, and whose are debatable. Whose writings are worth their time and effort, which go on the ‘if I am ever laid up for a month’ reading pile, and which are discarded without a moment’s thought.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.26.10 at 5:27 pm

@62: The dilemma about whether to call them racist won’t arise until we answer that first question in the affirmative.

If someone is a proven racist, then call them racist. What Chait is saying in that video: if you don’t know that this specific individual is a racist, then don’t call her that. Where’s the controversy?

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Philadelphian 03.26.10 at 5:31 pm

what you think the conversation GAINS by having a norm where being quick to accuse someone of racism is fine

I know you aren’t asking me, but off the top of my head, in addition to the obvious costs, there are important potential gains:

1. Other participants in the conversation, and witnesses to it, are put on notice that arguably racist statements are going to be called out by at least one person. This is important because absent that, there is immense social pressure not to name racism. Overlooking or tacitly endorsing it can have a powerful silencing effect on people who might otherwise want to participate in the conversation.

2. The person who made the racist statement is put on notice that coded language is not OK — they’re either going to have to straightforwardly defend their racism (which will probably lose them allies) or make a convincing case as far as what they said was not racist.

There are others, but my lunch break is over so I’ll have to come back to this thread later if it’s still going on.

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bianca steele 03.26.10 at 5:45 pm

It sounds good to make a person have to defend their position but ISTM what is often called “racist” is actually some small, perhaps peripheral aspect of an ideology that is being, perhaps controversially, identified as “racist” by someone other than the speaker. The speaker may have no idea that the ideology exists, and will sit there wondering why they have just been “called out” for “racism” when they made no reference to biological race or to notions of superiority/inferiority.

This is entirely different from making decisions based on skin color, because of implicitly racist assumptions that are mistakenly believed to be valid generalizations, and because of that fact not considered racist by the decision-maker–which I agree is racist, but also agree that you may not get far by calling them on it.

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Sebastian 03.26.10 at 5:58 pm

I guess I have a problem with the “coded language” formulation.

Yes, some people at some times have used discussions about school standards as racist codes to suggest that black people can’t learn. But so what? Many people at many times have used socialism as an excuse to be totalitarian, but that doesn’t mean that it is appropriate to force someone who is defending the idea of extending health care to the uninsured into a long discussion about gulags, Mao’s famines, and the evils of secret police.

And yes I’m aware that some people do that. But we normally recognize them as 1) not productive to the discussion, 2) nasty people who are engaging in smears, and 3) not very good intellectuals.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.26.10 at 6:06 pm

Yglesias calls this 71-year-old woman, Kitty Rehberg, a racist, because

She said the president’s policies would cost her “a lot from my pocket book” to help people who “just want freebies.”

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John Holbo 03.26.10 at 6:09 pm

Short response: attributing bad motives to your opponent is always an excellent way to derail any productive conversation, and certainly this is true of accusations of racism. But many people – Sebastian, for example; and Chait, and others; maybe myself – feel that somehow racism is different. But I don’t really think saying this will make the conversation unproductive is sufficient explanation of what makes this charge extra taboo. There are so many other things you could accuse your opponent of – being stupid, having missed something completely obvious, an insufficient love of liberty – that are also likely to annoy him so much that he will stop listening to you. But we don’t feel that making those charges is sort of taboo, just because it’s bad Dale Carnegie practice

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.26.10 at 6:11 pm

…in other words – can I say it? – Yglesias is a hack.

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Sebastian 03.26.10 at 6:24 pm

“There are so many other things you could accuse your opponent of – being stupid, having missed something completely obvious, an insufficient love of liberty – that are also likely to annoy him so much that he will stop listening to you. But we don’t feel that making those charges is sort of taboo, just because it’s bad Dale Carnegie practice”

It is because calling some a racist is a lot closer to calling someone a pedophile than it is to saying that he has bad hair. There are a range of potential bad things to say about someone, and the worse the thing is, the surer you should think that you are right. I wouldn’t insinuate someone was a pedophile in a typical conversation unless I had VERY strong proof. It is just really vicious, nasty, and (obviously) not usually helpful.

The taboo isn’t against calling pedophiles what they are. The taboo is against calling random people whom you are having other disagreements with pedophiles and forcing them to defend themselves against the charge. [Well you’ve been seen talking to children…. But that was innocent…. Of course you want us to think so…etc.]

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Heur 03.26.10 at 6:57 pm

It’s almost as useful as calling someone a “terrorist sympathizer” when he argues that military commissions do not provide sufficient due process. Attention is directed away from the argument itself and towards the accusation. Very convenient for cable-news shows, and very inconvenient for anyone actually interested in something other than personal conflict.

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Josh G. 03.26.10 at 7:58 pm

Henri Vieuxtemps @82: Matt didn’t call this person racist. He said that she was a hypocrite because she objects to “socialized medicine” while herself being a beneficiary of it.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.26.10 at 8:18 pm

Sure he calls her a racist. First in the video – drawing Chait’s objection, which is the subject of this post. Then again in the post that I linked, where she is identified as a typical “ethnocentric white”; and what do you think that means?

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roac 03.26.10 at 8:31 pm

But it is a quite common right-wing talking point that social welfare programs have more support in (e.g.) Sweden than in the US because Sweden is a “homogeneous society.” If that is not an admission that support for such programs among lower-class whites in the US is eroded by their perception that black people are the intended beneficiaries, then what is it?

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.26.10 at 8:49 pm

It’s not an admission, it’s a hypothesis.

Is Kitty Rehberg a racist?

90

Matt Austern 03.26.10 at 9:20 pm

Another answer to what you can get out of such an accusation, even knowing that it’s likely to end a conversation: sometimes it’s an effective and honest way of explaining why you are ending a conversation that you believe will never be productive. It all depends on what kind of conversation you’re having. I think some people in this discussion are implicitly imagining a one-on-one discussion of some abstract technical assertion; it’s good to make that context explicit, if it’s what you have in mind, and also to think about alternative contexts.

So yes, arguing that someone has bad motives isn’t a good way of refuting an argument according to the scholastic standards of deductive reasoning, but in some contexts that’s not the point. Sometimes what you’re doing isn’t a one-on-one academic discussion, but something more like a group discussion or a negotiation. Sometimes it’s more important to realize that one of the participants in a negotiation is not negotiating in good faith and that there is no reason to continue pretending that what you’re doing is abstract reasoning, and sometimes it’s important to make other people realize that too. And sometimes the relevant form of bad faith is indeed racism.

For a non-racism example, consider the Senate health care negotiations that took up most of 2009. I think it’s pretty clear that the Senate Republicans were not negotiating in good faith. You could (and people did) refute their arguments, but to some extent refutation missed the point. What would have been more useful was to explain why even the people making those arguments couldn’t have believed them, that the arguments were excuses rather than reasons, and that continuing to let the process drag on, pretending that it was a real negotiation, was a bad idea.

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roac 03.26.10 at 9:21 pm

I have no idea.

(She is not some random old lady, though; she is a Republican state senator. Bills she has sponsored over the years, as listed on her web site, include one commending President Bush for his “efforts to disarm Iraq,” and one urging Congress to adopt a constitutional amendment declaring marriage to be the union of one man and one woman. So I don’t find her politics very sympathetic, and most here would be likely to agree. But no, there is nothing overtly racist to be found there.)

(In fact, she sponsored a resolution to honor some Iowa State football player on the occasion of Black History Month!)

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Philadelphian 03.26.10 at 9:40 pm

Thank you to Matt Austern for saying more clearly what I was trying to get at. Certainly the context I was imagining was not limited to one-on-one abstract debates.

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hix 03.26.10 at 11:33 pm

Yglesias is comical when he plays all this ethnical, religious, class and geographic hate games, just to gon to complain that Republicans do it as well.

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Phillip Hallam-Baker 03.27.10 at 12:29 am

Most people do not understand the ad hominem fallacy. It is only a fallacy when it is applied to argument. It is not a fallacy when it is applied to evidence.

So the argument Dick Cheney claims that coal is black, Cheney is a proven liar, therefore coal is white is a fallacy.

So the argument Dick Cheney claims that coal is black, Cheney is a proven liar, therefore without further evidence from a trustworthy source we are unable to state whether coal is white or black, is not a fallacy.

In many political arguments, it is the conclusion that is to the man, and that is again perfectly valid. If Glen Beck is making one of his weird arguments that don’t make any logical sense but ‘just happen’ to arrive at the type of conclusions you might expect of a racist, I don’t see how it is a fallacy or unreasonable to conclude that the most likely explanation is that Beck is a not-so-closet racist.

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John Holbo 03.27.10 at 2:37 am

“It is just really vicious, nasty, and (obviously) not usually helpful.”

Sebastian, yours just isn’t accurate as a description of actual norms. Namely, the more serious the accusation, the slower people are to toss it around. There are many quite serious accusations that people are willing to throw around quite lightly, but not the accusation of racism. That gets put into a special box. Is it really more serious a sin to be (unconsciously) racist than to want to undermine the values of which this great nation was founded (perhaps out of unconscious hatred of freedom)? Not clear. But people are constantly accusing each other of betraying the basic values of the country. Maybe that isn’t helpful either. Probably not. But it is far from taboo.

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Sebastian 03.27.10 at 5:14 am

But do you casually toss around the accusation of being a pedophile? A rapist? What about a charge that someone lusts after his own daughter? Why or why not? I’m not asking to be rude. I’m asking because I wonder why you might think it would or wouldn’t be ok to do so, and then wonder how it connects back.

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b9n10t 03.27.10 at 5:37 am

Racism has a subtle intensity as detected within certain market-based systems of power. Quantified social activities hide the ethnocentric motives of economic actitity -through both private and public transfers.

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Matt McIrvin 03.27.10 at 5:56 am

See also this old discussion. “Ad homonym” was probably not the greatest name, but it worked as a joke (not original to me).

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kid bitzer 03.27.10 at 11:30 am

“racist” covers a lot of territory, from jeff davis to any black person who shows a tendency to associate white with good and black with bad on one of mahzarin banaji’s iat tests. and almost all of us will show some racism of the latter kind.

but retaining negative racial attitudes that you disavow and work against is pretty different from devoting your life to the enslavement of non-white races. there’s some small truth in calling me and jeff Davis both racists, but not a lot.

so feel free to call me a racist; as a description of some of my lingering unconscious biases, it is alas true of me, as of nearly all other modern americans . (note, by contrast, that a vanishingly small number are pedophiles by any definition).

but that doesn’t end the conversation, it just starts it. yes, you and i are both quite likely to be racists in some of our attitudes, yes, we both disavow racist ideology and institutions. now let’s talk; which particular proposal that i made do you think was motivated by which particular attitude? why is that analysis of my motivations better grounded than competing theories?

my point is just that “he’s a racist!” seems to me so generally true as to be uninformative in fine-grained political debates ( tho still relevant for sociological overviews). the interesting and helpful judgments are the ones whose truth is not a foregone conclusion, eg this advocacy of this policy by this group of people is more likely to be explained by this racist attitude than by other competing explanations.
so my feeling is that there is no reason at all to avoid discussions of racist motivations for particular policy positions or broader platforms. it’s less useful as a person-level label only because so generally true. at the same time, its general truth means that the honest response to the accusation should not be an hysterical “am not neither!” but just a shrug and “sure, but tell me in detail how you think my racist attitudes are shaping my views here, and why the views might be different if we subtracted that component.”

viewed this way, the research that yglesias reviews looks like it makes a very good case that the views of certain groups about certain policies are better explained by racist attitudes then by other competing explanations. that’s not some sort of wild accusation, and it is far from unhelpful. it’s insightful.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.27.10 at 12:11 pm

Oh, I dunno; I haven’t read that book, but judging by the description on Amazon it might be bullshit. They talk about something they call “ethnocentric attitudes”, which sounds exactly like racism (and Yglesias interprets it as such), but according to Amazon it’s about

Ethnocentrism—our tendency to partition the human world into in-groups and out-groups—pervades societies around the world. Surprisingly, though, few scholars have explored its role in political life.

It doesn’t sound like this is about racism, does it?

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belle le triste 03.27.10 at 12:30 pm

the vieuxtemps three-step, on this and all similar threads

i: racism doesn’t exist so why are we talking about it?
ii: ok racism does it exist, but because it’s pervasive it has no consequences, so why are we talking about it?
iii: ok racism does have consequences, but everyone’s a racist so what can you do? why not let’s never speak of it
iv: reset and back to (i)

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Henri Vieuxtemps 03.27.10 at 1:43 pm

Is that what it sounds like? Damn. I better shut up, then.

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Philadelphian 03.27.10 at 2:13 pm

I don’t really agree with kid b., or more to the point, I think that there are some clear distinctions along the continuum of racism that we all exhibit to some degree.

It’s one thing to check yourself for assumptions or careless statements. You can address this with other people by assuming positive intent: “In editing your book chapter, I noticed several instances where a sentence contrasts ‘people’ and ‘Mexicans.’ Rephrasing this will make it easier for the reader to concentrate on your point, and of course you don’t want it to read like you don’t think Mexicans are people.” This is much more effective than yelling “RACIST!!11!!”

But when a person suggests napalm to deal with a large, largely peaceful crowd of black teenagers, an outright condemnation is appropriate. “Are you serious? We don’t use napalm on those big crowds of drunk white people at sporting events. And last year some of them beat a stranger to death. Sounds pretty racist to me.” It’s not going to change their minds, but it’s an important signal to the rest of the room.

OK, I’m repeating myself.

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kid bitzer 03.27.10 at 2:40 pm

phil, i don’t have a lot of problems with that stance, and could live with it. we differ in that i’m inclined to preserve the descriptive employments of “racist” even if that means reducing its emotivist impact, whereas you want to keep it in reserve in the emotivist toolbox for special occasions, even if that means forgoing it’s application when it would be an accurate descriptor. i think lots of folks would agree that it would be nice to have three or four words to do better what “racist” does badly. (eg one for the pik botha/ jeff davis style of political ideologue who wants to implement discriminatory policy; one for lincoln in the period in which he sincerely loathed the racial policies of slavery but liked a good coon joke and believed in racial inferiority; one for granny who is glad that jim crow isn’t law but still doesn’t like to be around those people; one for the black professor of af-am studies who still, to his embarrassment, finds that he trusts doctors more if they are white; and so on).

so long as we only have one word, it’s going to be hard to make those clear distinctions along a continuum, i think. i like your examples, by the way, but in each case i’d say: what’s the best hypothesis? what best explains the author’s contrasting “mexicans” with “people”? what best explains the divergent reactions about crowd control?

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bianca steele 03.27.10 at 8:08 pm

Double damn. I guess I won’t agree with what HV said then.

We’re supposed to just agree, “everyone knows what ‘ethnocentrism’ is,” and all that jazz? Really, I don’t get it.

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Antti Nannimus 03.27.10 at 10:15 pm

Hi,

How can anyone who really understands what goes on in this world be concerned about the so-called “race” of any person or group? Take a look, for example, at the “Genocides in History” entry in Wikipedia. If any significant ethnic group or culture has not yet been guilty of some kind of atrocity, it’s only a matter of time, and an accident of lack of means and opportunity.

As for me, I deny that I’m a racist in any way. I’m absolutely an equal-opportunity misanthrope. Until you prove otherwise, you can ALL go screw yourselves. And that goes especially for you Republicans and Tea-Baggers recently.

Have a nice day!
Antti

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Timothy Scriven 03.28.10 at 12:18 am

“In an environment in which creative and speculative accusations of bad motives are, otherwise, flying back and forth in free and easy style, a social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular is actively misleading.”

Surely the solution is to stop accusing people of having bad motives of whatever sort without very compelling evidence?

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engels 03.28.10 at 11:13 pm

Surely the real solution is for nobody to have any bad motives in the first place. Either that or ponies.

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Rich Puchalsky 03.29.10 at 12:04 am

A lot of this thread is full of the kind of posturing that says that what’s important about racism is the individual commenter’s precious opinion about it. As if it isn’t a fixture of American politics and still one of the most important factors in it.

Sorry to pick on Timothy Scriven in particular just because they’re the first one up from here. But “surely the solution” just happens to be one that completely ignores the history of politics in America, right? And one that just so happens to favor one party over the other? And that calls for a nice, civil, wholly one-sided foolishness weakness? Because the GOP sure isn’t going to stop calling Democrats socialists or traitors or whatever.

The truth is is that any American conservative, and any member of the Republican Party, should be considered to be racist by default. And I don’t mean racist in the sense that everyone is supposed to unconsciously have racist assumptions. I mean racist in the sense that they believe in the superiority of white people and act to disenfranchise non-white people. That’s how they hold and maintain power. So it’s up to any particular conservative to prove that he isn’t a racist. If he can prove that, good for him. But otherwise there is absolutely nothing wrong with holding him to account for the politics that he has chosen.

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John Holbo 03.29.10 at 3:13 am

“In an environment in which creative and speculative accusations of bad motives are, otherwise, flying back and forth in free and easy style, a social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular is actively misleading.”

Surely the solution is to stop accusing people of having bad motives of whatever sort without very compelling evidence?

Well, YES. But that makes it noteworthy that Chait does not in fact advocate this, per se. (Not that he isn’t in favor it it, but it says something that he doesn’t address the problem in this blanket way. He feels that it is appropriate to make a piecemeal approach.)

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Jamey 03.29.10 at 3:19 am

As a general rule, if you can demonstrate that someone is wrong, then getting at the motivation isn’t really important. The fact that you have demostrated that someone is wrong is, in strictly intellectual terms, good enough, without having to delve into motivations.

However, these things are seldom a matter of pure academic debate. Such discussions often come up in the context of electing someone to office, debating a judicial nomination etc. In such cases, you are not simply voting on a platform of positions. It not only matters if someone is wrong, but if they are wrong because they have racial or other prejudices. They will likely be called upon to exercise judgement on matters that have not been debated and whether they are racially prejudiced will impact on whether they continue to get things wrong on other matters.

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Sebastian 03.29.10 at 7:05 am

“The truth is is that any American conservative, and any member of the Republican Party, should be considered to be racist by default. And I don’t mean racist in the sense that everyone is supposed to unconsciously have racist assumptions. I mean racist in the sense that they believe in the superiority of white people and act to disenfranchise non-white people.”

Brilliant. Almost as smart as saying that all American liberals should be considered communist/totalitarian by default. And for like, the same reasons. [eyes roll]

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Rich Puchalsky 03.29.10 at 1:44 pm

Sebastian, the eye-rolling really helps your Broderism thing. The truth is that liberals are not in fact communists or totalitarians, and that conservatives and the GOP generally have relied on race-based politics in the U.S. Your fake desire for balance is a good pretext for setting yourself up as holier than thou, but it relies on a lie.

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Sebastian 03.29.10 at 4:00 pm

“The truth is that liberals are not in fact communists or totalitarians”

I’m well aware. It would kind of defeat the point of my statement if they were. :)

“and that conservatives and the GOP generally have relied on race-based politics in the U.S. “

this is only true for expansive values of ‘generally’ and ‘relied’. And certainly not enough to justify your ridiculous “any American conservative, and any member of the Republican Party, should be considered to be racist by default. And I don’t mean racist in the sense that everyone is supposed to unconsciously have racist assumptions. I mean racist in the sense that they believe in the superiority of white people and act to disenfranchise non-white people.”

And just for the record, in case you weren’t paying attention, the “Obama is a Muslim” meme was spread by Democrats during the Democratic primaries. Which is a data point on racism you might want to keep in mind.

I mean you can think want you want. People do all the time. If you believe your thinking is improved by ridiculously broad stereotypes, I can’t stop you. But I wouldn’t talk to many California Democrats about Mexican people if you don’t want your stereotypes to be problematized.

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Ted 03.30.10 at 9:33 am

.

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Ted 03.30.10 at 9:45 am

What an extraordinary historical text this thread will prove in decades to come. So many highly educated people fertilizing such a profoundly disturbing narrative. The problem starts with the initial premise: there is a “social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular” – racism.

To anybody who leaves their house more than once a week, or consumes the MSM, or habits the blogosphere, or has been to college, or works in a corporation, or works at all, this premise is at least problematic, and more likely completely silly.

What is going on here? A quick 2 step social deconstruction will help:

Step 1: How sincere are these narrators in their premise?
Step 2: Who are the narrators?

Step 1: There are two options as to why this narrative is so premised:

(i) The narrators are disingenuous, building a strawman in order to attack the particular people involved in the narrative’s engine room.
(ii) The narrators are sincere, and are reporting on their experiences in the world.

Now, these two might not be mutually exclusive, and might rationally co-exist.

Step 2: So, who are the narrators?

From the links to John Holbo’s post, and the subsequent CT posts, we can say this about the social context of the narrative. Its narrators are:

(i) Males of a certain age – 30 to 50 or so.
(ii) White
(iii) Upper-middle to Upper Class, prep and Ivy educated.

As some on this thread have noted, Step 2 on its own might be ad hominem. So let’s work a bit harder, and tie Step 2 to Step 1. We can show that 1 (i) and 1 (ii) are not mutually exclusive, and indeed in the context of the narrators (Step. 2), they are both true.

Upper and Upper Middle Class people are drilled from a very young age about how crucial one’s reputation is, and that you do not slight a man’s honor frivolously. White Upper Middle to Upper Class prep school and Ivy kids have mixed with scholarship and AA racial ‘others’ since infancy. They know the drill very well. To call one of their own a ‘racist’ is almost as bad as calling him a ‘welcher’, a ‘fraud’, or a ‘cad.’ The latter insults are aimed at the the insultee’s ungentlemanly, common, lower-class behaviour.

So, to the Upper Middle to Upper Class White Male prep school or Ivy student, what are the features of these lower class oiks upon whom their privileged life is built? Well, they are rednecks to be sure, oh and bridge and tunnel, fly-overs, evangelical home-schoolers, truck-driving, Joe Six Pack. And what are the discursive signifiers for these knuckle-draggers? Why racist of course.

So what we have here, is a highly nuanced discourse of extreme class privilege wielded to assert class belonging and representation over their foe. You’re a racist is substituted for you’re a welcher, fraud, or cad.

And thus, we now understand why such naice haute bourgeois types are loathe to drop the “R” bomb. The consequences for elite class belonging are far too great, and so all players lock and load at their peril. It is this sequestration, both geographically and discursively, that explains their belief that explains their ignorance of the ubiquity of accusations of ‘racism’ in not only the US, but throughout the elite Anglosphere.

These guys simply do not move in the less stitched-up circles that constitute 95% of the Anglosphere. If they did, they would realize that accusations of being not only a “racist” but a “minger”, a “fat slag”, a “fag”, a “skanky ho”, a “Nazi”, a “redneck”, a “terrorist raghead” are used just as much as punctuation as they themselves use “narrative”, “discourse”, “othering”, “misogyny”, and “white people”.

CT’s picking up this moronic, clueless, onanistic preppy/Ivy discourse created by the children of the white elite, has made the discourse somewhat more inclusive, so that we can revisit Step 2:

Inclusive Step 2: The people who believe honest and sincere dialogue is ruined by an insidious social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular- racism are:

(i) Males aged 30 to 55 + one woman (we know of).
(ii) Still White people
(iii) People with PhDs, who only attended magnet schools dammit.

In other words, this thread points us to only one ethical response. When a middle to upper-class white person pretends to “principle” when “calling out” their interlocutor for “racism”, we know that there is no dialogue. In fact, we have found ourselves the unwilling voyeur of the ignorant, argument-bereft, angst-ridden bed wetter, whom we should by rights spit at, before moving on to some more productive use of our time, such as clipping our nails.

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Antti Nannimus 03.31.10 at 10:53 pm

[behold the crickets]

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