Friday, June 23, 2017

Racism, Liberalism, and avoiding Civil War

Scott Alexander is frustrated with liberals who keep trying to end political debates by crying "racism". So he wrote a long, long post that begins with an extended discussion of what the word "racism" means, and proceeds to a discussion of what the word "murderism" would mean, takes up the difficulty of understanding people from other cultures, and concludes with a plea that we need to try harder "because it’s the only alternative to having another civil war." An extract:
There are a bunch more frameworks like this, but they all share the common warning that cross-cultural communication is really hard, and so a lot of the concerns of people who aren’t like us will probably sound like nonsense. And most of them say that our demographic – well-educated people proud of our commitment to logic and reason – are at especially high risk of just dismissing everyone else as too dumb to matter. The solution is the same as it’s always been: hard work, renewed commitment to liberal values, and a hefty dose of the Principle of Charity.

Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization. It’s not that other people have a different culture than you. It’s not that other people have different values than you. It’s not that other people have reasoned their way to different conclusions from you. And it’s not even that other people are honestly misinformed or ignorant, in a way that implies you might ever be honestly misinformed or ignorant about something. It’s that people who disagree with you are motivated by pure hatred, by an irrational mind-virus that causes them to reject every normal human value in favor of just wanting to hurt people who look different from them.

This frees you from any obligation to do the hard work of trying to understand other people, or the hard work of changing minds, or the hard work of questioning your own beliefs, or the hard work of compromise, or even the hard work of remembering that at the end of the day your enemies are still your countrymen. It frees you from any hard work at all. You are right about everything, your enemies are inhuman monsters who desire only hatred and death, and the only “work” you have to do is complain on Twitter about how racist everyone else is.

I guess it sounds like I’m upset that we’re not very good at solving difficult cross-cultural communication problems which require deep and genuine effort to understand the other person’s subtly different value system. I’m not upset that we can’t solve those. Those are hard. I’m upset because we’re not even at the point where someone can say “I’m worried about terrorism,” without being forced to go through an interminable and ultimately-impossible process of proving to a random assortment of trolls and gatekeepers that they actually worry about terrorism and it’s not just all a ruse to cover up that they secretly hate everyone with brown skin. I’m saying that when an area of the country suffers an epidemic of suicides and overdoses, increasing mortality, increasing unemployment, social decay, and general hopelessness, and then they say they’re angry, we counter with “Are you really angry? Is ‘angry’ just a code word for ‘racist’?” I’m saying we’re being challenged with a moonshot-level problem, and instead we’re slapping our face with our own hand and saying “STOP HITTING YOURSELF!”

People talk about “liberalism” as if it’s just another word for capitalism, or libertarianism, or vague center-left-Democratic Clintonism. Liberalism is none of these things. Liberalism is a technology for preventing civil war. It was forged in the fires of Hell – the horrors of the endless seventeenth century religious wars. For a hundred years, Europe tore itself apart in some of the most brutal ways imaginable – until finally, from the burning wreckage, we drew forth this amazing piece of alien machinery. A machine that, when tuned just right, let people live together peacefully without doing the “kill people for being Protestant” thing. Popular historical strategies for dealing with differences have included: brutally enforced conformity, brutally efficient genocide, and making sure to keep the alien machine tuned really really carefully.

And when I see someone try to smash this machinery with a sledgehammer, it’s usually followed by an appeal to “but racists!”

You say we must protect freedom of speech. But would you protect the free speech of racists?

You say people shouldn’t get fired for personal opinions that don’t affect their work. But would you let racists keep their jobs?

You say we try to solve disagreements respectfully through rational debate. But would you try to rationally debate racists?

You say people should be allowed to follow their religion without interference. But what if religion is just a cover for racism?

You say we need to understand that people we disagree with can sometimes have some good points. Are you saying we should try to learn things from racists?

You say there’s a taboo on solving political disagreements by punching people. Are you saying that we can’t punch racists?

The argument goes: liberalism assumes good faith and shared values. It assumes that, at the end of the day, whether you’re Catholic or Protestant, you can still be a basically good person. . . . Some people prefer liberty to safety, other people prefer safety to liberty, but if the voters choose the wrong one then at least they’ve erred in an understandable way by preferring one real value to another.

But if there’s some group out there who aren’t connected to normal human values at all, some group that’s deliberately rejected reason; if they’re willing to throw liberty and safety under the bus in pursuit of some kind of dark irrational hatred which is their only terminal goal – then the whole project falls apart. Dialogue based on mutual trust may be all nice and well when it’s supposed to help us choose the optimal balance between liberty and safety, but if you give a platform to the people whose only value is hatred, then they’re just screwing over everybody. . . .

And I agree with this chain of logic. Using violence to enforce conformity to social norms has always been the historical response. We invented liberalism to try to avoid having to do that, but you can’t liberalism with people who refuse reason and are motivated by hatred. If you give the franchise to green pointy-fanged monsters, they’re just going to vote for the “Barbecue And Eat All Humans” party. If such people existed and made up a substantial portion of the population, liberalism becomes impossible, and we should go back to just using violence to enforce our will on the people who disagree with us. Assuming they don’t cooperate with our strategy of violently suppressing them, that means civil war.
I think we're a long way from civil war, but as I keep saying it is the logical end point of our politics.


G. Verloren said...

"I think we're a long way from civil war, but as I keep saying it is the logical end point of our politics."

Time is probably on our side then.

Young people across the planet are remarkably less xenophobic than their elders, and the most hateful and virulent portions of the society are aging out of relevance. Fox News is facing a crisis of viewership, in that most of their audience is literally going to start dying off in a few years.

Given time, the situation will change dramatically, and the logical endpoint from that new vantage point will shift as well.

For example: the logical endpoint for Germany in 1939 was very different than the logical endpoint for Germany in 1969, which was itself wildly different than the logical endpoint for Germany in 1999, and the arc of things is totally different once again now, just two years shy of 2019.

And how, exactly, is civil war even the logical endpoint for this moment in time? Who would even fight in such a theoretical civil war? Who would the belligerents be? Are various racist elements going to form armed militias and stage an insurrection? How in the world would they expect to have any chance at all against the might of the US military, for whom the merest hint of treason is anathema?

In order for a war of any real substance to be waged, you'd need to somehow split the army, which would pretty much require the absurdly unlikely circumstances of a coup taking place - and a successful one at that. Anything else would just be idiots in pickup trucks waving their rifles around, then getting wiped off the face of the earth by modern mechanized infantry, armor columns, air power, massed artillery, and all the rest that they simply will not have any access to.

You simply cannot wage war in the modern age without the proper resources. And if it ever somehow magically turns into "Coastal Elites" vs "Fly-Over States", that's going to be a ridiculously lopsided fight.

David said...

I don't disagree that civil war is the logical end of our current politics, but the time is not yet when you can prevent this civil war by pretending an issue isn't there, or by pursuing some mythical "hard work of understanding the other," of which I can, at the moment, think of no example in history.

The wars of religion ended, not because Protestants and Catholics tried to understand one another, but from a combination of exhausted stalemate and important parts of European civilization (especially its upper political establishment) moving on to other issues that seemed more urgent, like dealing with French power and pursuing commerce.

Intolerant anti-racism is the result of a historical lesson perhaps a bit more pertinent, which is the twentieth century.

One could also point out that his example of the hard work of understanding others involves implying that drugs, family breakdown, the decline of old industries, etc., are the "real" issues someone is talking about when they say racist things. Which is a strategy of displacement that liberals have been pursuing for decades--remember Obama's "People don't have opportunity, and so they cling to guns and religion"? We saw how well that worked out.

I remember when it looked like racism was the province of a few scorned, bedraggled holdouts. Remember how Cliven Bundy got slapped down? I liked that. In such circumstances, I would be prepared to be patient with racists, as long as they have to hide away in disgrace in their little compounds. Then came Trump. He changed everything. I know you want to say that he didn't. It just isn't so.

David said...

Just to make clear, by "you" in the post I mean John. Verloren posted while I was writing.

szopen said...

"Time is probably on our side then"

Conservatives have more children than liberals. Religious people have more children than atheists. Attitudes like "spirituality" or "conservative approach to things", not to mention homophobia and so, are partially heritable. It means time is probably not on your side.

"The wars of religion ended, not because Protestants and Catholics tried to understand one another,"

Google Warsaw confederation 1573

G. Verloren said...


And yet, the world is constantly becoming more progressive, all around the globe, and has been for centuries. Religions are declining everywhere, and organized churches are deeply concerned about dwindling memberships.

There must be other greater forces at work than simple partial hereditability of select intolerant traits, because the historical trends are overwhelmingly clear, and appear to be accelerating in the modern age. We did away with slavery. We gave women the vote. We made huge leaps in civil rights, and are fighting for more. Homosexuality is in the process of becoming overwhelmingly accepted. Communism and Socialism are starting to lose their taboo status. Nationalism is in the early stages of eroding and giving way to globalism. Et cetera.

David said...

Yes, I know about the Warsaw Confederation, as I do the Transylvanian Edict of Turda, the refusal to institute Calvinism as the official religion of the Dutch Republic, and so forth. None of these is about "the hard work of understanding one another"--which is just fine. My quarrel is purely with the rather naive language resorted to by Scott Alexander--who is on record as himself not regarding religion as terribly important or even interesting. I'm not disagreeing with the idea that religious tolerance existed in pre-modern times, nor even that, in its early modern European form, it resulted from a desire to avoid the excesses of the Wars of Religion.

John said...

Scott Alexander doesn't know much about history, as we have discussed before. He does not really understand how religious tolerance came to Europe. But it did come; somewhere along the line governments stopped burning people at the stake for their theological opinions. People decided that putting up with neighbors of different faiths was better than trying to drive those people out or forcibly convert them.

This strikes me as a very big deal.

Celebrating that state of affairs came later, after tolerance had already been settled on for instrumental motives. But it did come; by 1776 Americans were getting sore arms from patting themselves on the back about their religious tolerance. To me this refusal to punish each other for having the wrong ideas is one of humanity's most important achievements.

In practice, of course, there are limits. Especially in a democracy you need a certain amount of agreement to make things work. Many American conservatives worry that we are conducting a grand national experiment, testing the boundaries of that agreement. They worry that letting in too many Syrian Muslims and Guatemalan peasants while simultaneously discarding religion and rewriting the rules about identity and sexuality will create such a diverse society that we can no longer agree on enough to have a functioning democracy.

Like Alexander, I worry about partisanship. I worry that if our society continues dividing into two mutually hostile, mutually unintelligible sects, which get their news from different sources and come to radically different conclusions about the world, then eventually our democracy will cease to function and one side or the other will have to install a dictatorship. I do not think a democracy can function in the partisan nightmare scenario. Whatever it was that led to the decline of religious partisanship in the 17th century, I think that what would work best know is the principle of charity.

John said...

Just came across this from Jonathan Haidt:

"We are all immersed in a river of outrage, drowning in videos of the other side at its worst. I expect hundreds to die. Things are going to get a lot worse."

I think fear political violence, and not exactly fear of but maybe apprehension about the possibility of civil war, are on the rise in America.

David said...

I'm not much inclined to accept race-baiting a la Trump as the price of peace. I find it unacceptable. As you have repeatedly acknowledged, there are limits on tolerance.

David said...

I discussed our thread with my son, and his comment was "Racism is not a story with two sides."

Actually, his full comment was "Racism is not a story with two sides, any more than flat earthery is. One side is just wrong."

John said...

Part of Alexander's point is that "racism" has become a term for everything liberals hate, applied to things like being unhappy about illegal immigration or worried about crime that have other roots besides simple racism. Remember those anarchist protesters in Portland who vowed to keep any Republican from marching in the city because they are all, said the anarchists, racists and Nazis. The actual issues in American politics are not Jim Crow laws but things like police shootings that have a racial component but are about much more than that. The problem is that when you look at the whole sweep of American politics and say "Republicans are just racists" you radically oversimplify all of those issues and turn any opinion you disagree with into racism, which as Alexander says is in this context just a word for "being bad." If you respond to every question about how much immigration we should allow with "you're just a racist and I won't talk to you" you are turning a political disagreement into a moral outrage. Which, as Alexander and I agree, is exactly the problem.

David said...

It's Trump that changed everything. Compromise was possible in the days when Republican race appeals were a set of more or less embarrassed dog whistles. And liberals did compromise. As is pointed out repeatedly, Obama was a champion expeller of illegal immigrants. It wasn't enough. What Trumpism wants is a full-throated, joyous, unashamed hostility. It's not acceptable.

I guess, for the sake of certain things, I'm willing to be part of the problem. An armchair-hugging, rather inactive part of it, but a part nonetheless. The country is divided, and I will be part of the division.

szopen said...

@G. Verloren
THe world is getting more progressive in last 200 years or so; before that there were also periods when world was getting more regressive. There is no guarantee that world will be going still in one direction.

You should read some rightwing blogs. Their point was basically: "whatever our candidate will do, he will be called evil racist powermonger. So why bother?" You can also read "you are still calling wolf" by Scott Alexander - after all, trumpism is not open unashamed hostility, though increasing number of people voting for Trump are all for that.

Now, I am not in USA, but I can see analogies to what is now in my country, when "progressives" are hysterical, and keep seeing evil in pretty much everything, starting from "there were always those Poles, who were worse kind of Pole: schmaltzowniks, volksdeutsches" translated to "they think you are worse kind of Poles". It's pretty much the same in USA.

David said...

And really, is there anything wrong with giving them hell, in the Harry Truman sense? When they pass "voter fraud" legislation, take 'em to court--again and again. When they try to take away people's health insurance, thwart them--again and again. When there are suggestions of illegality, investigate them--again and again. When they make a gaff, hype it--again and again. When an election comes, make 'em fight for every office and district--again and again.

If we are not to do those things, what's the point of being an American?

David said...


For me, Trumpism is open and unashamed enough that I find it unacceptable. I won't give on this.

Of course, I have plenty of pro-Trump friends. We've just made a tacit agreement not to discuss politics. And we don't.

I guess, at bottom, on certain issues the only compromise I have to make is to pretend they're not there.