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This post is set up to float to the top. I'm getting a bunch of new readers lately, so I figured a welcome/orientation post is appropriate.

Welcome to my journal! (Yeah, yeah, I know, the cool kids call it a blog these days.)

I post intermittently, sometimes at length, usually about personal topics, sometimes about controversial ones. I love thoughtful comments, even (sometimes especially) when they disagree with me. Anonymous comments or private messages are OK, too.

I expect politeness, though -- especially to my other commenters. If you can't be civil, be silent. If I start getting a wave of hostile anonymous commenters, I will likely change my policy.

Some links I keep here for convenience:
"There are times when we're fifty states and there are times when we're one country, and have national needs. And the way I know this is that Florida didn't fight Germany in World War II or establish civil rights." (Aaron Sorkin)

When I had my stroke, I was on a hospital bed within 15 minutes. That's a big part of why I'm not dead right now, or in a wheelchair, and able to form coherent sentences and complex thoughts and earn a living. When they let me out of the ICU there were several rehabilitation clinics to choose among. When they discharged me there was an outpatient rehab centers a fifteen-minute drive from my house.

And it makes enormous sense to me that if I live somewhere where medical services are conveniently accessible in this sense (not that my stroke was in any sense convenient), being able to afford their services is more salient to me than if I live somewhere where getting to a hospital takes an hour or three hours.

What good is having affordable medical care if I can't get there to use it? Why should I pay for medical insurance that will cover bills for services I don't expect to ever use?

And I recognize that this is in large part a function of population density. Where there are 25,000 of us living in a square kilometer, it's a lot easier to establish rapid transportation, ambulances, etc. than where there are 15 of us, and the U.S. encompasses both of those extremes.

Similarly, I understand that as the average response time by police (1) increases, and as the frequency of threats requiring armed response increases, my unencumbered access to firearms becomes a more compelling concern. If I live a half-hour drive from the nearest police precinct and mountain lions routinely wander through my property, I'm more likely to get in the habit of going around armed.

Also, I can understand why controlling who gets to carry firearms around, and where they get to carry firearms around, becomes a more compelling concern as population density (or, more precisely, interaction frequency) increases. I mean, it's one thing, when I interact with fifty people a day, most of whose names I know, to deal with their being armed. It's a different thing when I interact with a thousand people a day.

Similarly, I can understand how if I interact with lots of people every day who present themselves very differently than I do, how those people are treated can become more salient to me than if I rarely interact with them.

Similarly, I can understand how mandating that all cars and buildings have modern anti-pollution equipment seems more compelling when I live surrounded by cars and buildings, than when I can't see my nearest neighbor.

Or how high-speed rail doesn't matter so much if I live a 90-minute drive from the nearest train station.

Stated more generally: for all that we like to talk about our political spectrum as being "liberal" vs "conservative", in practice many the issues we are most contentious about have less to do with political philosophy than population density. And our political struggles are basically about whether the high-density cities or the lower-density rural areas get to set the rules that both groups have to follow.

And none of this is particularly insightful, or even news. I was most recently inspired to think about it by this article, but it's a pretty basic idea. I think I first explicitly started thinking about it in response to this article over a decade ago, and it wasn't remotely new then.

So... OK.

I've been reading a lot lately about the need to reach across the aisle and be nice to our political opponents, and how people like me alienate our political opponents with my insistence on, you know, being treated like a person and stuff like that. To which I mostly respond "get over it," admittedly.

But, OK, thinking about it: what happens if we explicitly take population density into account in our legislation... have different rules for urban and rural areas, rather than trying to write rules that apply to both?

What happens if we pass federal gun control legislation, but that legislation explicitly has different rules for counties whose population density as of the most recent census is less than vs greater than N people/square km., such that rural dwellers get to fire their guns however they like, while urban dwellers aren't forced to live fifty feet away from their neighbor's machine-gun collection? Ditto federal health care legislation... if you live inconveniently far from medical care, you are exempted from the individual mandate. Ditto environmental regulation. Ditto quite a few contentious issues.

I acknowledge that not all contentious issues will be addressed this way. It won't help much with racism or sexism or similar problems, which are ubiquitous, for example.

I acknowledge that this won't make a difference to the folks on the right who primarily want to defeat the left, and vice-versa. (To say nothing of the folks on the more-left who primarily want to defeat the insufficiently-left.)

But if they are the majority, then all of this "reach across the aisle" stuff is crap anyway. Hopefully they aren't.

And I acknowledge that this explicitly throws to the wolves American citizens who live in rural areas and need protection from things that their neighbors either don't care about or actively endorse. Perhaps we can fund their relocation to higher-density areas.

Still... it seems like a way to laterally slice across this entrenched "blue-state-red-state" power struggle we're locked into. Whether your electorate is majority-urban ("blue state") or majority-rural ("red state"), perhaps its residents can all agree -- and agree with one another -- about laws that differently represent the different needs and preferences of rural and urban areas.



(1) I recognize that for a lot of people police aren't a response to threat so much as a threat themselves, and that has nothing to do with population density. I don't mean to disregard that here, it just isn't what I'm talking about right now.


I'm not exactly sure why I wrote this all down.

But, well, I did.

So, a couple of days ago the new leaders of the departments of Education and Justice announced that they were retracting the previous administration's guidance regarding Title IX and how it applies to student access to sex-segregated facilities.

For those who aren't following this: the previous guidance had been, in a nutshell, that students who identify as female should have access to facilities to which female students have access, and students who identify as male should have access to facilities to which male students have access. Cf http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2017/images/02/22/colleague-201605-title-ix-transgender.pdf.

The new guidance is that there is no clear guidance in this area, pending the ED and DOJ's consideration of the issues involved. Cf http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2017/images/02/23/1atransletterpdf022317.pdf.

This is consistent with a recent injunction barring federal agencies from taking action under Title IX against schools that deny students access to sex-segregated facilities based on the school administration's judgment about their gender.

The administration's press secretary has said in this context that “this is a states’ rights issue and not one for the federal government,” so it seems unlikely that the ED or DOJ will provide further guidance on the question of student access to sex-segregated facilities... basically, it will be left to individual states to decide whether and how to respect an individual child's gender identity when applying Title IX.

States vary widely here. Texas, for example, is so opposed to respecting individuals' gender identity that it sought the injunction above to provide its schools with legal protection when they refuse to do so. By contrast, Massachusetts law recognizes the significance of individual's gender identity in several different ways. Cf http://www.mass.gov/mcad/docs/gender-identity-guidance-12-05-16.pdf.

Which is to say, if Sam was assigned female at birth, identifies as male, is living as male, and travels (e.g) from Massachusetts to Texas, Sam goes from being legally regarded as male to being legally regarded as female. (And of course, if Sam lives in Texas, he is always legally regarded as female.)

That seems really stupid to me. It really isn't up to the Texas Attorney General to decide whether I'm male or female.

Now, I get that many people think that whether I'm male or female is an objective fact about my genitals, about my hormone balance, about my chromosomes, etc.

Many of those people don't quite know which of those things my gender is an objective fact about, and become confused when those things don't all align (which is true of many people, though not of me). But in any case, they are quite certain that it's an objective fact about my body, somehow-or-other, and in no way a function of how I think, how I feel, how I experience the world, what makes me happiest and healthiest, what feels most comfortable and natural.

Oddly, many of the same people assert that changing my body (taking artificial hormones, for example, or surgically reconstructing my genitals) doesn't and can't possibly change my gender. As though the most important thing for them is that my gender is something they get to be definitive about by inspecting me as an object, rather than something that I as a subject am definitive about.

So, there's that.

I said at the start that I'm not sure why I wrote all of this down. I'm still not sure. But, having done so, let me add that if you want to know whether I'm male or female, you have a choice.

You can examine my body: my shape, my hair, my breasts, my genitals, my hormones, my chromosomes, whatever it is about my body you think is determinative.

Or you can examine how I present myself, how I describe myself, how I behave.

Which of those you do will express what you think is important about me.
Which of those you do will express whether you think of me primarily as an object, or primarily as a person.

And I will judge you accordingly.

For the record, I prefer to be regarded primarily as a person, and I think less of those who regard me primarily as an object.

And you have the same choice about other people, and in some cases it will be more obvious which one you are doing.

And I will judge you accordingly.

Learning about creepiness

A friend asked whether I was encouraged to think that male desire is creepy by definition. (And also where I got that idea.) My answer got long, so I move it here.

Yessish and noish?

I mean, I picked up early the idea that male desire (from both sides) absolutely had the potential for being creepy... for that matter, absolutely had the potential for being threatening... and that this could be initiated unilaterally from either side.

That is... I could behave in ways that were unquestionably creepy (or threatening) in isolation, and so could others. But also I could respond to others' behavior by feeling creeped out or threatened, even in the absence of any specific behavior I could identify or object to, and so could others, and that was also legitimate.

And of course this was in the 80s and early 90s, so all the same-sex variations had their own special this-is-not-OK harmonics. (Not that they don't now, but it was different and much more fraught then.)

But also, interwoven with all of this, was the idea that male desire in and of itself was attractive, desirable, sexy. (By contrast, for example, with a pose of studied indifference.) So while any specific expression of male desire could be creepy (or threatening) in the context of some specific partner or class of partners, that was not necessarily generalizable to other partners... the same thing could be near-mandatory in other relationships.

So, I think my answer in the context of your question rounds to "no" but... it's complicated. And I'm looking back on it with a lot more perspective than I had at the time.

As for where it came from... geez, that's hard.

I mean, the messages themselves? From the usual sources, I guess. Media, and watching my peers and my elders interact with each other.

But an awareness of the complexity and context-dependence? I don't know.

I mean, it feels like it was "just there" in the data to be seen... but clearly it wasn't. I mean, I know a LOT of people, smart observant people who are not in general unable to process nuance, who miss that part even as adults... whose response to a relationship where they are seen as creepy for doing X is that its _never_ OK for them to do X, for example. (In particular, I see this a lot when men criticize "feminism" for insisting that it's never OK to do anything and that men are always wrong.) Clearly there's something else there.

I guess the best way I can say it is that I was raised bicultural and conversant with code-switching. There were things I could say and do in a Jewish community that were weird or NOT OK in a Gentile community, and vice versa. Ditto Hispanic and Anglo communities. Ditto child and adult communities.

So when I started receiving messages about how sex and relationships work, I was already primed to notice different contexts and categorize the rules into different buckets.

That doesn't seem to be universal.
To say the least.


What are they thinking?

When I shared this story a friend commented that they didn't understand the thought process behind this letter.

The thought process behind this letter doesn't seem all that opaque to me.

I mean, we queer folks -- in part by existing, but certainly by insisting on our fundamental equality -- we challenge the Proper Order of Things on which some people have structured their moral understanding of the world.

If it turns out that we're just as good as they are, that we're just as moral and decent and worthy of love as they are, that God values us just as much as them, that our families are just as much the core of society as theirs... well, if they accept that, then on what basis can they defend any other piece of the Proper Order of Things? It's all one tight self-reinforcing structure.

What can one do with such a challenge but fight it or give in to it?

It was easier once. They didn't have to fight it, really, any more than they had to fight foreign enemies. They could rely on institutions to do it for them, and just support the institutions, and it was as if they were doing it themselves.

Then the world went crazy, what with the Liberals twisting everything around and recasting the Proper Order of Things as some kind of enemy, and suddenly they were fighting a guerrilla war in their own churches, their own schools, their own towns. Maybe even their own families.

So all of a sudden it was up to them to fight it.

Can you imagine? Having your homeland invaded and occupied by the enemy like that? Discovering the enemy were among you all along?

Maybe they stood up and fought that, and have the battle-scars that come with that. More likely they didn't... they hid, kept their mouths shut, allowed us to desecrate the Temple with our sex and our marriages and our inappropriateness, and felt bad about not fighting back.

Except now they have a champion. Not just Trump, but the millions of real true Americans who stood up and fought for him. So now they can fight back against our incursion, they can defeat us and take America back, reinstall the Proper Order of Things... and they can do so the way they prefer, in safety and comfort and secrecy, without personal risk.

(shrug) So, no, the thought process doesn't seem strange to me. I've been their enemy all my life.


Just to be clear... I am totally in favor of human dignity.

And I understand that some people's dignity depends on exchanging their labor for currency, and then exchanging that currency for goods and services. AKA "Working for a living."

More than that, that their dignity further depends on a belief that the exchange rates are established adversarialy -- that those paying for their labor are not paying more than they have to, for example, and that the people who provide the goods and services are not charging less than they have to. AKA "charity."

So as their ability to adversarialy compel those things dwindles... either due to personal changes such as illness, or social changes such as automation or globalization, or whatever... their dignity dwindles in proportion.

And I'll admit that my instinctive response to that is essentially that they should get over it.

Which, I realize, is not an especially compassionate response.

Still, it's where I am.

And I am not sure what *is* a compassionate response.

I mean, Lord knows there's plenty of other ways for dignity to work.

In particular, from where I sit, this situation has a clear fix: as automation and globalization reduces the need for our physical and intellectual labor, we switch our focus to emotional labor. I mean, there remains an enormous need for that emotional labor to be performed... more than enough, I suspect, to profitably occupy the full labor output of the population. We can keep the traditional "working for a living" framework of selling that labor for currency, if we like, or we can keep the traditional "family" framework of providing that labor through an informal network of relationships, or we can do something else.

But that's made more difficult by the way we approach gender.

As I understand it, cultures that have this model for dignity also gender-code it... "working for a living" is what men do, not women. Women gain dignity in this system through "family" - that is, through marriage and through performing the emotional labor associated with maintaining relationships and community. And many of the people whose dignity depends on selling their labor also feel that men performing emotional labor ("women's work") is demeaning, and that exchanging currency for emotional labor is demeaning.

So... I don't quite know how we move forward from there in a way that permits these people to retain both their dignity and their rules through which dignity is managed. Mostly it seems to me that those rules have to change.

Which sounds an awful lot like "they should get over it."

Which, I realize, is not an especially compassionate response.

Still, it's where I am.


Or, well, maybe there's a conflict.

I've seen there’s no conflict here pop up on my feed a few times, and as usual, I'm capturing my thoughts here so I don't keep derailing other people's discussions.

My primary concern with this "there is no conflict" school of thought is that, well, there sure does seem to be.

I mean, sure, in theory, there is no conflict between the rights of religious Christians to worship as they see fit, and the rights of queer people to obtain goods and services, rent apartments, etc. What do the two have to do with each other, after all? I can support both (and, indeed, I have done so at some length in this space before).

But to simply assert that they don't conflict and I support both, given some of the established context of 21st-century social relations between Christians and queer people, seems naive to the point of being deceptive. The reality is that legally protecting the civil rights of queer people is seen by many as a violation of religious freedom, and those people vote for poltical representatives who campaign on that point, and laws get passed or repealed based on that. For me to ignore those campaigns and elections and laws and simply say "Well, I don't see a conflict" is an importantly flawed analysis.

More generally, sometimes needs -- whether actual or perceived -- conflict, not because of some in-principle incompatibility, but because of the historical and contingent facts involved. I'm sure we can all come up with tons of examples. To ignore the historical reality and insist there is no conflict in these cases based on in-principle compatibility is, well, at best naive.

So, when Freddie et al assert that theory there is no conflict between the needs of POCs in Michigan and the needs of out-of-work coal miners in Alabama (e.g. to have full-time good-paying jobs and be treated with respect and so forth), and that he supports both of those things and anyone who doesn't support them both is his enemy... well, sure, I agree that there is no in-principle incompatibility.

But when they conclude by saying "People deserve their suffering or they don’t. I say they don’t. That’s it, that’s all there is"... well, I get off the bus before that point. Sometimes that's not all there is. Sometimes there are other things that matter as well... at least to me.

And if they don't matter to you, or Freddie, well, OK... you get to choose what matters to you. But if we're going to ignore real-world conflicts because they don't matter to us, we should be unsurprised when the people involved in those conflicts end up continuing to do what they do despite our assertions.


A comment elsewhere, captured with modifications here, triggered by a review of The New Minority.

One idea here that's important if true is "the political culture of the white working-class Midwest is pervaded by a nostalgia that reveres, and seeks to reinstate, a bygone era.”

I mean, me? I don't want to go back even 20 years. Why would I? What does 1996 have to offer me that 2016 doesn't improve on?

But for someone who looks longingly back to 1996, to 1986, to 1956... someone for whom going back _doesn't_ mean giving up their family, their civil rights, their status as a human being... someone for whom it means feeling more important, more secure, more successful... the equation is different.

So, sure. The idea that in order to secure the political backing of that powerful culture in elections, politicians need to appeal to that nostalgia makes sense, given the premise.

But if it's true, that's a problem for progressives, since that sort of nostalgia is a natural ally to reactionary politics. It's not an accident that the GOP has more success recruiting white working-class Midwest (and Southern) voters than the Democrats do.

I don't know what we do about that.

I mean, there's this pervasive idea (especially in the wake of Trump's 2-million-voter loss Electoral College victory) that Democrats need to shift our attention to being more inclusive and supportive of the white working-class, whose interests have been neglected. Leaving aside whether the premise is true or not, I don't know how Democrats appeal to "the political culture of the white working-class Midwest" without giving up to some degree on things like egalitarianism, or scientific research, or religious pluralism.

As I've said elsewhere: if we abandon the things that made me differentially support Democrats in the first place, why should I care whether Democrats win elections?

Of course, this isn't a novel position... many leftists have long since sailed on that boat. Just look at how many Sanders, Stein, etc. supporters in this election were strongly motivated by the idea that the Democratic party has already abandoned progressivism and was "no different than the Republicans." (Admittedly, many of those same people sure do seem to care about the difference now. Heck, Stein herself is pushing for a recount, almost as though it matters whether Trump or Clinton is president. Nevertheless, it was a popular refrain a month ago.)

So I dunno. Maybe this is just the sound of me becoming radicalized. Maybe by the time I reach 2020, I won't be able to bring myself to vote for a "centrist" Democrat who is just doing the things that are necessary to win elections in the U.S.

Then again, I look to 2008 and 2012, when a Black man was elected president... twice... and sure as hell not by appealing to the reactionary elements of "the political culture of the white working-class Midwest." To put it mildly. And I think maybe it's not as bad as all that.

On the third paw, I look to the general consensus in 2007, even among conservatives, that the GOP had screwed the pooch in a big way with respect to the economy. And I think maybe that was just a really special circumstance.

On the fourth paw, I fully expect a Trump administration to raid the treasury to provide financial incentives to Trump and his family and friends and social class, rather than invest in the country. In which case maybe that circumstance isn't as special as I hope.

Hell, I dunno.

Quite frankly, "burn it all down" is starting to feel like a much more plausible long-term plan.


"Identity liberalism" and all that jazz.

So, I've had a few people on my social media share "The End of Identity Liberalism" amidst rather a lot of concern about how it's really important to stop paying so much attention to diversity in our institutions and instead pay more attention to commonality.

Rather than keep derailing those conversations with walls of text, my thoughts here.

So, I respect the concern that a group based on a shared "identity" (that is, a common demographic trait such as race or religion or sexual preference or elevated risk of being denied a hotel room or of having your children taken away or of being shot in the street or something like that) will tend to ignore the interests of those who don't share that trait. And I agree that this happens, up to a point.

For example as I was growing up, I went to a Jewish school with Jewish teachers and Jewish students, and in addition to the usual school curriculum we also learned about Judaism. And no doubt we were excluding the interests of non-Jews.

For example, queer political-action groups that focus on getting queer-friendly politicians elected don't tend to pay a lot of attention to the needs and concerns of straight people.

And so on.

And my question to the first friend who raised this issue was:
Does this problem not also exist for a group reliably characterized by a common identity, but not based on it?

Like, for example... if a bunch of straight men get together (hypothetically) to form a Straight Men's Society dedicated to the interests of straight men, I understand the reasoning that says they can be expected to exclude the interests of other demographics.

But if a bunch of straight men get together (again, hypothetically) to form a Senate dedicated to passing laws, can they similarly be expected to exclude the interests of other demographics?

Or is calling themselves a Senate enough for them to avoid the problem?

It seems like an important question to me, because I don't think calling themselves a Senate is enough.

So when I see a group of queer citizens getting together to promote getting queer advocates elected to political office, sure, I acknowledge that as "identity politics" in the sense Lilla means, but I also see it as an attempt to counter a pre-existing "identity politics" that has been running the show for years.

Ditto for POC citizens, female citizens, Jewish citizens, Muslim citizens, transgender citizens, immigrant citizens, all sorts of "identities"... I don't just look at their demographics, I also look at the demographics of the "mainstream" they're attempting to influence.

And when I hear people complain about "identity politics" in a way that obects to the former but not the latter... that expresses concern that the POC, queer, female, Jewish, Muslim, immigrant, transgender, etc. groups might exclude the interests of other groups, but is unconcerned that the straight, male, white, Christian, Protestant, etc. groups might do the same thing... well, that leaves me skeptical about just what exactly we're supposed to be concerned about.

Because, honestly, if I believed that the alternative to "identity politics" is that we include everyone's interests, I'd sign up in a heartbeat.

But I don't.

More than that -- I think if it were, we wouldn't see so much "identity politics" in the first place.

I think "identity-specific" organizations and spaces are a response to the perceived inability of "mainstream" organizations and spaces to address the concerns of marginalized communities. And if we want those sorts of spaces to fade away, the best way to do that is to improve on that inability.

And when we instead blame the marginalized communities for looking to each other for a support that the mainstream doesn't provide, we're making a mistake.

Speaking personally, for example, I've been really pleased by the ability of significant parts of the greater Boston area over the last decade or so to include my family in a civic life that includes both gay and straight men. Like, it's been years since I've personally worried about being denied service or beaten up for being queer. (As long as I'm careful where I travel, anyway.)

And not unrelatedly, I don't spend a lot of time in primarily queer environments. My world can be a lot bigger than that, a lot bigger than my counterparts from 50 years ago... not because I'm somehow different or better than they are, but because a lot of other environments have done a lot of work to become safe for me.

And I really hope that this will remain true moving forward, expand to other states, and encompass additional marginalized identities over the rest of my life.

I really do.

But if it doesn't? Well, if that happens, you can criticize me and my family for looking to queer communities, Jewish communities, Hispanic communities, communities of immigrants, to provide support.

We can't stop you.

But you'll be mistaken to do so.

Talking about talking about racism.

This is long and rambly and it doesn't get tied up in a nice neat bow at the end. It's just me, working through my thoughts about stuff. I don't promise to be interesting or novel or informative. Aren't you glad you didn't pay money to read this?

I'm finding myself reading a number of arguments right now to the effect that we shouldn't use the word "racist" to describe behaviors that differentially reward/punish people based on perceived race. This isn't new, but it's particularly active at the moment because of the election.

In the continuing spirit of not getting into a million different arguments with strangers that might be derailing their original point altogether, I am instead writing down my thoughts about that here.

Namespace conservation

One argument for that I see fairly often is that if we use "racist" to describe common behavior, we won't have anything left to describe truly outrageous behavior.

This kind of namespace-preservation argument has always struck me as bizarre.

If Sam kills and eats their parents, I might refer to that behavior as "monstrous." And, sure, if a few years later Pat grows long venemous tentacles and a bullet-proof carapace, it's true that "monstrous" no longer seems adequate to refer to them because I've previously used it to describe Sam, who is less prototypically monstrous.

So what?

I mean, yes, in that case I need to come up with different language to refer to Pat, whereas if I'd refrained from describing Sam that way I wouldn't need to.

But, again, so what?

We use common words to refer to things we commonly observe. When uncommon observations arise, we use different language to refer to them. It's not like namespace constraints are a primary concern... we make up new words for things all the time.

And, sure, that sort of ad-hoc solution is less efficient than a coherent strategy. So, sure, maybe we're working our way towards a working language that uses a dozen different words to describe gradations of racism when seven words would do. Maybe we end up with "racism" and "bigotry" and "discrimination" and "bias" and "prejudice" and "abuse" and "assault" and "battery" all having fine gradations of meaning on a continuum. Maybe we end up talking about explicit vs implicit racism, or overt vs. covert, or individual vs systemic, or quotidian vs exceptional, or legally actionable vs non-actionable, etc. Maybe we disagree about what these words mean and spend some time arguing about that.

Again: so what? We have a dozen different words for the different ways baseball players send a ball across a field (I mean diamond) by hitting it with a stick (I mean bat). And, yes, one consequence of that is that if I try to talk about baseball, I quickly identify myself as a novice because I use the jargon wrong. Depending on the forum and my attitude people might be patient with me, irritated with me, or make fun of me for my demonstrated ignorance.

Nobody bats an eye (ow!) at any of that.

Why is racism different?

Racism is different, path 1

"But Dave, you said it yourself: 'we use common words to refer to things we commonly observe.' Racism just isn't that common anymore. So we shouldn't talk about it as though it were."

Except it's still pretty common, Imaginary Interlocutor.

"No it's not. We got rid of the overt behavior. We're not even permitted to use racist language anymore. You only think it's common because you've moved the goalposts."

Well, yes, of course we've moved the goalposts. That's how progress works. 12 seconds used to be an Olympic record-winning time in the 100-meter dash. Now it doesn't even qualify. As we get better at something, our standards change.

"Well, but, it's not reasonable to move the goalposts so fast. You're trying to make a century's worth of change in a decade and something will break."

Maybe. OTOH, maybe we've just gotten impatient with waiting a century to make a decade's worth of change. Maybe you're insisting on spending an extra ninety years operating under abusive standards, and it results in unnecessary suffering.

"Well, it's clear to me that you're just wrong about that. My expectations about the optimal rate of change are correct, yours are not."

(nods) I understand that. We have conflicting perspectives.

And I guess much of this boils down to which of our perspectives gets normalized, and which gets marginalized.

"Well, I endorse normalizing my perspective: racism is basically uncommon. Therefore, you ought not be labeling common events as racism."

Right. And I endorse marginalizing your perspective and normalizing mine: racism is pervasive and systemic, and most of us run into it routinely in everyday life, including in our own minds.

"I don't see how to reconcile those perspectives."

No, me neither. In practice we're going to implement some amalgam of the two, where how quickly we progress (or regress) depends on which of our views has ascendancy where. Which is what we've been doing for decades, and will continue to do for some time.

Racism is different, part 2

Of course, I'm being disingenuous. I know perfectly well that racism is different because it's emotionally salient. We've learned that racism is bad, and therefore we want to protect ourselves from being labelled racist, whatever it means. And the easiest way to do that is to agree to labeling rules that prevent it. This is hardly a novel observation, people have been saying this for my whole life. But since I'm seeing a lot of people making the namespace preservation argument in these kinds of abstract emotionless terms, it seems only fair to engage with it in those terms.

OTOH, I also see a lot of people making the emotional-salience argument explicitly, often the same people in the same paragraph... arguing that because calling people "racist" makes those people uncomfortable, we ought not do that, because we ought not be making other people uncomfortable.

These days, I most often hear that argument in the context of U.S. partisan politics. "The Left fails to make its case to American voters, which is why Democrats lose elections and Republicans win them. If we want Republicans to lose and Democrats to win, the Left needs to start making its case in ways that voters understand. It doesn't matter how we think about it, we have to use language that addressed their emotional needs if we're going to make any progress."

Often anything "the Left" (whoever that happens to be in the moment) says in response to this about anyone else's emotional (or logistical) needs is dismissed as tangential. "Yeah, sure, whatever, that'd be nice, but if you want to make progress, you have to deal with other people as they are, not as you want them to be."

Let me say, first of all, that I find this stance infuriating.

Which, I find, to the sorts of people who make this sort of argument, triggers a kind of eye-rolling strained tolerance. If I'm going to get all emotional about it then there's no point in talking to me. Which, well, all right. You get to choose whom you talk to, you get to choose whom you listen to. If you won't listen to angry people, that's your choice. It doesn't mean we're any less angry, it just means you aren't listening.

Let me say, second, that the reason it infuriates me is that it frames "the Left" and "American voters" as two different groups, where "American voters," who are aligned with Republicans and not Democrats, have the power, and the Left are supplicants to that power.

Noteworthily, it does this asymetrically. For example, I don't find that the people making this argument were also arguing, in 2012 or 2008, that "The Right fails to make its case to American voters, which is why Democrats win elections and Republicans lose them. If we want Republicans to lose and Democrats to win, the Left needs to start making its case in ways that voters understand. It doesn't matter how we think about it, we have to use language that addressed their emotional needs if we're going to make any progress."

Indeed, that paragraph sounds pretty ridiculous.

Instead, I saw the argument made over and over that the Obama administration was illegitimate, failed to represent the American people, and that the way for the Right to win was to do everything it could to prevent that administration from successfully governing.

Which, well, OK. They're playing a zero-sum game where the win condition is controlling the government. Those tactics are a pretty good strategy for winning that game.

(I don't mean to suggest that this is the only game they're playing. I'm sure many of them genuinely believe that controlling the government is only step 1, for example, and that once they eliminate the pernicious influence of the Left they will improve the things that deserve improving.)

Dem's Da Rules

Anyway. Regardless of the reasons -- and I don't expect to find widespread agreement about the reasons -- the fact remains that I hear these arguments against the way anti-racists talk about racism fairly regularly, especially of late. I hear a lot about how the Left abuses innocent people with our language, hanging perjorative labels on them which they totally do not deserve because they're good people, through our talk about racism, especially about racism as it manifests in casual language.

Better writers than I have written at length about the absurdity inherent in this sort of "making people feel bad for the language they use is bad, and you should feel bad for talking in ways that make people feel that way" reasoning. If we were consistently applying some kind of consequentialist framework, we would condemn racist language the same way we condemn anti-racist language (e.g., "making people feel bad for the color of their skin is bad, and you should feel bad for talking in ways that make people feel that way"). But as far as I can tell, we don't do that. When marginalized groups complain that the way some people talk about them makes them feel bad, the people who condemn anti-racist language as verbal bullying don't feel particularly inclined to defend them.

But of course, that condemnation is proscriptive rather than descriptive, and proscriptive rules don't have to be consistent. They may be absurd, but they're still the rules. I may disapprove of tax laws but I should still pay taxes. If the rule is "Don't call people racist, it's not nice," then I may think that's absurd but I still shouldn't call people racist.

In my experience, proscriptivist positions are pretty much immune to any discussions about what the rules ought to be, what the costs of the rules are, etc. When the rules change, they change, but until then, the rules are the rules. So I try not to waste my time on such discussions. When I'm talking to someone who seems to holds a proscriptivist position on a topic, I ask questions, I try to understand their model, and then I move on. (Or try to, anyway. I don't always succeed.)

Pragmatism? Is that all you have to offer?

Of course, in writing that I've probably just triggered a wave of "But I'm not a proscriptivist! I just think calling people racist is a bad way of achieving our goals! I'm a pragmatist!"

Which, well, OK.

Let me try to sum up the pragmatist position as I understand it: I have goals. In order to achieve some of my goals, I need people to vote the way I want them to. In practice, telling people that what they're doing is wrong and bad and harmful, and suggesting that they themselves are wrong and bad for doing it, doesn't get people to vote the way I want them to. In fact, it alienates people and makes them more inclined to vote the other way.

So on pragmatic grounds, the argument goes, we should not call Republican voters racist, even when we think they are, because the result of doing that is they elect Donald Trump.

The evidence of which is that Donald Trump got elected. (Of note is that Barack Obama's 2 wins, McCain's loss, and Romney's loss are not counterevidence by this model, I'm not sure why. No doubt if we look at enough state-level polls we'll find reasons to believe it.)

I basically agree with this position, as far as it goes. If my only goal were to convince Republican voters to vote for Democrats, I would 100% endorse not just staying quiet about racism, but also more generally, not saying anything that offends Republican voters, and otherwise acting like a Republican.

But of course, it isn't my only goal. In particular, my goals also include doing the kinds of things that make me care which party wins elections, which includes mitigating the extent to which POC are differentially punished by the system we live in and manifest. And yeah, I think calling out racism is an important part of that, and any framing that just quietly ignores that part in favor of not making people uncomfortable misses that boat in some important ways.


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