The Journal of Applied Impossibility
Kant has a point worth acknowledging about the function of lying with respect to truth telling. He points out that in order for a lie to work the way its speaker intends, most people have to be telling the truth most of the time.* This is sometimes expressed by saying that lies are parasitic upon truth. Habermas will talk about strategic discourse (i.e. telling you what it takes in order to elicit certain outcomes I prefer) and how it makes use of communicative discourse (i.e. telling you true things for the sake of clear and accurate communication). Strategic discourse (parallel to, but not exactly equivalent to lying) depends on communicative discourse, but the reverse is not the case. If there's something I don't like about "the wokism" it's this: It
appears to me to be parasitic upon truth, yet is also appears unconcerned with truth.
Identifying something as "white supremacy" is meant to be an attack upon that thing. That is, being an example of white supremacy is a sufficient condition for rejecting a policy, product, or institution. Despite Kendi's assertions that we should treat the label as an objective descriptor, rather than a moral judgment,† his proposals do not work unless the moral judgment associated with white supremacy is smuggled in alongside the term.
Bret Weinstein has identified a move in which there is an equivocation and shift between what he calls "the assessment phase" and "the penalty phase."‡ Weinstein observes that there is a new definition of racism that is used to assess whether something is racist. This definition is very broad, and many things fall under its auspices. When we have once identified a practice as 'racist' under this definition, we shift to the 'penalty phase' in which we determine, among other things, how to treat someone who has engaged in this practice. But under this phase, the penalties are assessed according to the old understanding of racism.
An example might help. Rightly or wrongly, it is now considered racist (in the new sense) to say things such as "I don't see race." Racists (in the old sense) are shunned from polite society, and I would never want to be friends with or work next to a racist (in the old sense). Thus, anyone who says, "I don't see race" gets shunned from polite society, and ostracized by his friends and coworkers. If you're too busy to pay careful attention to what happens to others, the elision may escape your notice.
Philosophy-types will use subscripts in their writing to help themselves pretend that what they're doing is more like a difficult math problem than it actually is. But in this case, it may help to resort to this convention to clarify what's going on. Only subscripts don't format well on my blog, so I'll use parenthesis. Just pretend it's a subscript and convince yourself that it makes me look smart. There is the old, classical definition of racism/racist that includes things like Klansmen, people who use the N-word, or people who name give their children middle names like Adolf Hitler. I will use racist(o) to denote the old understanding of racist/racism. In similar fashion, I will use racist(n) to denote the new understanding of racist/racism in which something like, "I try to treat everyone the same, regardless of their race" is racist. When you specify your terms in this way, it's a little easier to see what's going on.
What Weinstein calls the 'magic trick' might be considered as a special case of what I'd like to carry on about for a bit. Take the highway system. Secretary Buttigieg is supposed to have remarked that the history of America's transportation system, and indeed the system itself, is racist. ❦ When he says this, however, we are supposed to carry our moral sensibilities about racism(o) over to this claim about the highway system. We are most certainly not supposed to evaluate the outcomes of the highway system on their merits.
My interlocutor might take issue with this (it does sound rather sweeping). My interlocutor might claim that the decision to put highways where they are -- as opposed to some other place where they might have been -- was racist. To this, I can only say that highways are vast, and there was no one decision, but myriad choices bound up with the totality of human life. Ever single person responsible for each one of those decisions was morally weak. I don't believe that there was a one of them who loved every one of his neighbors as much as he loved himself. I could also readily agree that the greatest degree of harm was done to non-white communities. I could even agree that the greatest degree of benefit was to white communities. But I will not agree that it is ever possible to make a decision that harms no one, or even which does not harm everyone in some respect. Nor will I allow that the highway system has not benefited everyone, however disparate one might take those benefits to be. I don't insist that it has been an unalloyed good, nor that it has been equally good for all. But I do deny that is is an unalloyed evil, and I do deny that there is anyone in America who has not benefited from it in some way.⸶
When someone says something to the effect that the U.S. Highway system is an example of 'white supremacy,' one simply cannot imagine another responding, "well then, it looks like white supremacy has done some good in the world!" And this is the point I want to insist upon. The idea that there are upsides to white supremacy, such as the highway system, is beyond the pale. It is not up for debate, because the possibility that white supremacy has an upside is not up for debate. It might be that for this reason, the term 'white supremacy' is an overstatement, and we should temper our words. Another possibility is that this is precisely why shocking terms like 'white supremacy' are being used.
The loaded use of terms that are fraught with emotional content for the purpose of smuggling moral judgments into a debate is parasitic upon the ordinary use of these terms. I wish I had a way to convey just how dangerous this kind of equivocation has the potential to be. I am not alone in sounding an alarm that expanding concepts like this will lead to a diminished concern with those concepts. When everyone gets labeled a Nazi, what do you call actual Nazis? And when you call everyone a Nazi, folks are much less likely to be concerned about someone you call a Nazi.
* Cf. Kant's Groundwork, for example -- (especially Ak. 403)
† Citation needed - Kendi: How to Be an Antiracist.
‡ www.youtube.com/watch?v=bz0oxIZ3xIg -- I should really find a time stamp for the precise point at which he explains the shift, but I think that the entire talk is worth your time, if you get a chance to watch it.
❦ Citation needed.
⸶Consider simply that the food we eat and the technology we depend on are not produced in the same parts of the country. Now ask yourself which one you'd like to be without. If the answer is food, please feel free to do so now. If the answer is neither, consider how easily we could transport those things back and forth without the highway system. If you live in the U.S. and have used both food and a computer this year, you have benefited from the highway system.
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