You Want a Space for Political Incorrectness? You Got It

Last Sunday, I laid out what I thought a proper space for “politically incorrect” questions and opinions would look like, because such a space can go drastically, cruelly, wrong. Now, I’ve decided to make one. I’m making a subreddit where those questions and opinions can get answers.

There are many reasons people might have a question about race, sex, disability, or related issues they’re afraid to ask their friends, family or teachers. They may not know how to phrase it respectfully. They may have a question that they know will offend but that they’re desperate to know the answer to. They may actually be bigots who are looking to make people mad. For whatever reason, I think there should be a space where, if they abide by principles of respect, civility and good faith, they should get their questions answered. The subreddit I intend to create will be an educational and discussion-based place. Questions will be answered without judgement. Answers will explain how and why some actions or word are appropriate or not, and place questions of bigotry or prejudice in their proper academic, sociological, political, economic and historical context. They will inform and educate while minimizing harm to the relevant marginalized groups. They will include concrete tips, approaches and scripts, so as to really help people move forward in the world. They will be respectful, civil and charitable, perhaps far more charitable than what is deserved. After all, charity can be totally badass activism.

This will be its own space, with its own rules. I do not think these rules make sense elsewhere, nor should people have to abide by them elsewhere. But I like the idea of a place where everyone agrees to be just ridiculously civil and respectful, to use their emotional energy or their privilege or their desire to educate to great effect. This is not the only form of education and activism. There are many others, which are crucial and vital and must exist as well. But this is a form that I think there isn’t enough of. Tumblr upon tumblr will tell people that it is their job to educate themselves about social justice issues. That may be right. So this is one place they can do it.

Some of the rules:

  • No slurs unless you’re asking about them
  • Disrespectful/cruel/obnoxious questions and comments get deleted
  • Unhelpful/uncharitable/not-intended-to-educate responses get deleted, even if they’re completely correct
  • The mods enforce these rules and give users suggestions on how to be more respectful or helpful.

You can find more of the rules here and at the actual subreddit when it goes live.

If you think this is important and useful, if you agree largely with what I’ve written here, and you want to get involved, look out for the link when the subreddit goes live! And if you want to be even more involved, I want you to be a moderator for the subreddit. Just answer a few questions here, and if you have the same vision I do, you’re in!

I think this could do some real good. Here’s hoping!

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P.S. If anyone is wondering why I think this is so important, here’s something I wrote in a blog post about Social Justice education some time ago:

I do not deny for a second that it can seem like a waste of time, that it can be painful, and that rather more often than we might hope, the people we’re arguing with are not arguing in good faith. That is why we leave it to individuals to decide whether it is worth their time and effort. But those not willing to do this kind of work should not stand in its way. They should not base their arguments on assumptions others do not share and be surprised when they are not understood. They should not make it more difficult for others to do the challenging work by interrupting ongoing conversations with jeering and mockery. And most of all, while there are perfectly good reasons to stop being able to have a conversation or to not enter one in the first place, no one should engage in arguments with people who might be persuaded if they have no intention of taking the process seriously. Ideas rise and fall every day in the public sphere, and there’s no reason to lose arguments or adherents because some don’t think the work of public reason is worth doing properly.

If you want to know more about my take on activism, social justice, better arguing and charity, check out these links:

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Why Politically Incorrect UChicago Confessions Sucks

There is a new UChicago-related facebook page created expressly for the purpose of sharing “UChicago-related, politically incorrect thoughts and feelings.” As any rational person might expect, the page sucks. It asked (in its original description) for racism, homophobia and sexism, and it got them. I learned, through perusing this page, that as a woman I’m bad at math and as a Jew I have taken over the University and advocated murdering palestinians. As a liberal Jewish math major often critical of Israel, I was pretty surprised to learn these things. And those comments were far from the worst. As also might be expected, the vast majority of the disgusting comments were about people of color. People of color not being quiet enough, smart enough, English-speaking enough. But I don’t need to explain the precise fashion in which all these comments are offensive. The people who wrote them wrote them because they were offensive, and the people reading them are largely rightfully horrified. What I do feel the need to explain is why the page is terrible, causes harm and should be taken down by any entity with the right and power to do so.

To demonstrate this, let’s ask ourselves why this page should exist. What good does it do? By and large, the answers given are: free speech is important, it’s good for people to have a place to express these emotions so there can be discussion and education, and that it’s good that people express offensive opinions openly so that they don’t go underground and get worse.

First, the ever present free speech argument. Everyone has a right to free speech, at least as far as the federal government is concerned. We do not have a right to the existence of a facebook page, if it is against their policies, nor do we have a right to our university not taking action against such a page, if that is in their policies. So far, my hope is that University of Chicago students are sophisticated enough in their thinking to be on board. The question that follows, then, is, do we want facebook to be a place where such pages exist? My answer is assuredly not, though others’ may differ. Similarly, do we want this page to be part of and affect the University community? Again, in my opinion, no. I will defend both of these opinions later. All that matters here is that everyone agree that these are the relevant questions, and if the answer to them is no, it is entirely reasonable for either facebook or the University of Chicago to take the page down, and if the answer is yes, it is wrong of them to do so. But none of this really has to do with free speech, so much as the question of what the reasonable bounds of discourse in a university community are. That is a much more interesting question, though as far as I’m concerned this page still clearly falls outside of it.

Second, that it’s good for people to have a place to express these sentiments, so that we know who the racists and sexists are, or so that we can shoot down their arguments together as a community, or so they don’t repress their opinions and become more racist and sexist.

Ok, this is where is gets interesting. If anyone said most of the things on the Facebook page in person, most of us would, at the very least, give them a shocked, irritated or disgusted look. We might say something critical or negative about their remark. We might get into an argument with them. All of these actions are ways of indicating the moral paucity that such a comment suffers from. They express social and moral disapproval of the comment. They make use of shame and condemnation to change the behavior and belief of the person making the comment. This is to the good. This is how morality works. We teach and enforce morality through social means. It starts when our parents tell us that hitting is wrong, and it continues every. single. time. we give someone a dirty look for saying something racist, sexist, bigoted or otherwise awful. Because we want people not to say or think such things. This is the way we stop people from saying or thinking such things. And all of us do this entirely naturally, without giving it a second thought. This is how social disapproval makes the world less bigoted.

This social disapproval is what people are referring to when they talk about political correctness and the lack of free speech. What they mean is that they can’t express morally bereft opinions without someone pointing out how morally bereft it is. That, I’m afraid, is what it is to live in a social community with moral standards. What’s the point of moral standards, after all, if we don’t make them known? No one is exempt from disapproval by dint of being part of a community. In fact, it is by dint of being part of a community that you make yourself subject to the moral standards of that community. And in this way, we have already made it clear (so we don’t need to do so again on a Facebook group) that the community does not approve.

Of course, there are other tools, like education and other social pressures, to fight bigotry, and I am in favor of using them, but I think social disapproval is the one with the widest-ranging effects, since everyone is immersed in it their whole lives. I also think that social disapproval does not merely stop people from saying things they believe, but also affects their thinking and attitude towards the world. Community standards have a huge effect on how we are taught to think, and so good community standards can improve a community through changing how it, for instance, sees people of color and women, in addition to removing the harm from people saying or doing sexist and racist things.

But I do care that people have a chance to give opinions that might add something new to the community, even if they are wildly unpopular. Even if they are racist or sexist or awful. But a public facebook page that presents itself as representative of the University of Chicago is 100% not the place.

  1. Firstly, it hurts the people of the community. It hurt me, and all the other women here in math, to learn that some calculus TA doesn’t think women are good at math. And I don’t mean just that it offended us, though it certainly offended me. Stereotype threat is real, and it definitely hurts women in mathematics to learn that they’re not considered good at math. That’s why it’s great that saying that women are bad at math is socially unacceptable. And I really cannot begin to imagine the harm done to the people of color at UChicago to be hearing these opinions, for these opinions to be given a soapbox, so they can hear all of the ways their community doesn’t want them or like them or appreciate them. That is real, tangible, harm, and the creator of this page, as well as the commenters, is responsible for that harm.
  2. Second, public pages like this normalize bigoted opinions. Even with all the critique in the responses to them. We know that having opinions like this publicly and shamelessly expressed makes it seem to others who hold these opinions that they are acceptable and reasonable. That’s not ok. We don’t want people to think that the opinions are acceptable or reasonable. That’s why we have such a thing as social disapproval. I, Chana Messinger, hold bigoted opinions. I have racist thoughts, and sexist thoughts, and all kinds of other thoughts. It is a good thing that I don’t feel comfortable saying them in public. That means that (re: #1) I’m not going to go around hurting people as if it doesn’t matter and doesn’t have an effect, and it also means that I’m going to learn that those opinions are unacceptable.

But I might never know why, right? I might not learn, or get the chance to be educated about my prejudices, right? That’s possible, so here’s where we get back to the part where I do care that people have a place to learn.

  1. Now, firstly, people can always learn on their own. I typed into google “why is it bad to say” and the first thing that popped up was “why is it bad to say you look tired to a girl” and the first result was this yahoo answer with some excellent responses! Hooray, self-education!
  2. Secondly, yes, I am in favor of spaces where people can go and ask “offensive” questions and get charitable, thoughtful, educated responses. Some do exist. They are very clearly very different from this page. Spaces like that have moderators (because speech causes harm!), they have educated people giving educated answers and lots of links to valuable resources. They are places to talk, to discuss, to be educated. They are again, not this page. They are places where the harm from the speech is minimized so that the benefit from educated discourse can outweigh it.

Not only are there online spaces of this kind, but many social spaces as well. Parents, teachers, friends, advisors, people who might think differently but are willing to talk. What’s the difference? The difference is that the person with offensive questions doesn’t end up hurting a whole university community, the atmosphere is much more conducive to productive discussion and most importantly, the person is forced to ask questions in a thoughtful and useful way. They would have to say,

“Look, I’m a calculus TA, and I notice the women don’t do as well in the class. What should I be taking from that?”

instead of

“After TAing for calc 130s for years I can safely say that women, gays, and premeds are terrible at math.”

And then someone could say, “Well, historically women are told that they’re not as good at math, they are pushed away from the field, you’re tutoring the lowest level math which might give a selection bias, it’s bad to say this to others because it will perpetuate stereotype threat etc. etc. etc” and then everyone would learn something. Or they’d have to say,

“Look, I notice that people of color in the library tend to be louder. Is that just my perception? Is there a cultural explanation? What’s going on there?”

instead of

“Not limited to just this subset, but if I direct this at the black girls in the MacLab: shut the fuck up. It’s not a place to socialize, watch american idol, and be loud as fuck. Go back to your dorm/apartment/whatever. Of course if I tell you in person, I’m a ‘racist white bitch.'”

And then an educated person can explain what’s going on. Think that’s a weakened form? Well, I’m happy to have people kowtowing to empathy and accuracy.

And thirdly, anyone is always welcome to express their opinions, even anonymously, on facebook or twitter or elsewhere. The difference is, when there’s not a page encouraging you to express whatever comes to mind in the edgiest, most attention-getting way possible, and especially when your name is attached, you actually have to make an argument. You have to present data and ideas. You have to show humility. You have to admit you don’t know the answer. All of that is good for everyone, and anyone who expressed their opinion that way should be afforded all the charitable and thoughtful responses we can muster.

That’s simply not what’s going on on this page. This page is causing harm, and limiting, rather than expanding, discourse. It’s making our community worse. That’s why the page is terrible, and should be taken down as soon as possible, preferably by the creator themselves.

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UPDATE: The creator of the page posted on it, saying, 

Hello everyone,

It has come to our attention that this page has come under attack from numerous parties for “promoting hate speech.” This was surely not the original intent of this page, and we regret that there are many bigoted people out there who chose to abuse the service. We are currently conducting a review of all posts, previous and future, and will remove any that do not comply with the following rule:

“Any content that is considered hate speech or otherwise violates the Facebook Community standards will NOT be tolerated.”

Much appreciated, creator!

Call Harm, Not Foul

Note: The links in this piece are particularly good; I recommend clicking around.

Sexist. Racist. Homophobic. The all-purpose “bigot”. We have these words for a reason. They are used to label people, actions, institutions and ideas which exhibit the worst elements of society. They’re used when we want people to listen, to pay attention, to take us seriously when we are desperately trying to point out the inequality, the inanity, the inhumanity of punishing gender and racial and sexual and ethnic and religious minorities for being different. We want to push people to do everything they can not to be sexist, not to be racist, not to be the kind of person they shouldn’t be.

And we did it. Hooray! It is now the worst thing in the world to be a racist or a sexist or a homophobe. That’s why people will do everything in their power to make sure that their actions, ideas and institutions aren’t seen or construed that way. (Except, of course, change their actions, ideas and institutions.) It is offensive, now, to be called a racist. There is literally nothing in the world that cannot follow the words, “I’m not a racist but…” Everyone else is the real sexist/racist/etc for pointing out sexism/racism/etc. We ostensibly live in a post-racial and post-feminist age.

All of this makes it sadly true now that to call something or someone racist or sexist is often seen both as too charged to provoke productive discussion and too passé to warrant true engagement. This poses a problem for the people who are looking to point out and eradicate the various forms of bigotry, since people are no longer (if they ever were) willing to listen to their participation in the problem.

Now, there are obviously many times when the outright calling out of bigotry remains important and useful, even if it’s not met with the best of responses, both in terms of persuasive tactics and because it is often appropriate for marginalized people to express their anger the way they see fit. But I think there are also times when a different approach might be useful. When we’re engaging in conversation with people who are listening (that is, not criticizing public figures or public events) and we’d like to convince them of our point of view, we could drop the actual words of sexist, racist, bigot, misogynist, homophobe, etc, at least some of the time. Even if we’re right, and even if we’d very much prefer to call a spade a spade. Instead, we describe what we mean by those words. Why?

1. When we call someone something bad, especially when they don’t think of themselves that way (i.e. as a racist, sexist, etc.), their impression is that we are labeling them a Bad Person and The Enemy. It’s comes off like grabbing someone off the street, slapping green armor and an insignia on them and saying, “Welcome to Green Army. I hate you.” It makes further productive conversation almost impossible, because now they’re on the defensive. Even if it’s true, it is legitimately hard and uncomfortable to be told you’re  a bad person or doing something bad. So they feel they’re being personally attacked, and that they have no way out except to fight back. They’re going to want to win, not listen. We have killed their mind, and possibly our own as well.

2. The last generation of social justice warriors, anti-racists, feminists, outspoken atheists and activists of all stripes made the -isms and intolerances so abominable, that everyone has successfully convinced themselves they’re not it. Now, being called those things (racist, sexist, bigoted, etc) is so terrible that we end up arguing only about whether or not the label applies . And that’s a damn shame, because I have a lot of other things I want to talk about.

3. Sometimes the words make the discussion more muddled instead of more clear. In the social justice context, we mean totally different things by ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’ than other people do. Atheists well know how there seems to be a real disconnect on what different people mean by religious liberty. Gay rights activists often have experience of having religious conservatives swear up and down that their opposition to marriage equality and other legal action just. Isn’t. hateful. And everyone who’s tried to point out problematic language and been told that “offense is taken, not given” is similarly aware that offensiveness means really different things to different people.

That means we’re using words that the people we’re talking to just don’t get or genuinely don’t feel apply to them. That means all we get for our effort is confusion, anger and offense. They really think our accusations are wrong or don’t make sense, so instead of the sting of a well-crafted attack, all they can sense is the barrage of bad feeling coming their way, to which they do not respond well. The complexity of the issues we’re tackling is manifesting as perceived imprecision and  inaccuracy. That’s bad news for a productive conversation.

4. That mess (described in #3) is just what we get for calling things and ideas and political positions sexist or racist or homophobic. It gets way more complicated when we think about calling people those things. What does it actually mean, to call someone a bigot? Is it a claim about what they ‘really’ ‘truly’ believe, about their internal psychology? Is it a claim that there is something fundamentally sexist/racist/anti-atheist/etc about them? Does it mean they will always be those things? Those are strange and difficult claims to make.

Luckily, we don’t need to assert anything about people’s essential qualities or hidden beliefs to criticize their thinking and behavior or talk about the effects they’re having on people, movements, communities and societies. The words can complicate a conversation that could be simpler and more focused.

5. Someone being sexist or racist is hard to prove in general, and especially hard to prove to the person in question. It’s not impossible, and in many cases it is absolutely worth doing. But why do the harder thing when it’s easier to prove things about harm? We know about stereotype threat and chilly climates and implicit bias and the erasure of atheists from public life and so many other things. Why get mired in definitions when we can prove the problem directly?

6. Finally, the big abstract nature of these concepts can remove our thoughts and our discourse from what’s actually at stake: Discrimination, violence, pain, unfairness, harassment, hurt.

What do we do then? We do what any good rationalist does when words are getting in the way: we Taboo them, which means getting our ideas across without the words themselves. Does that mean putting on kid gloves? Does it mean letting bad people get away with not getting called out on their badness? No. It just means we replace the words in question with what we mean by them.

When we say a policy is religiously illiberal, what we mean is that a powerful religious group is using its power to impose its ideas and beliefs on others. When we say someone is sexist, we mean that they buy and feed into harmful negative stereotypes about women that make it harder for women to be treated equally. When we say a group is homophobic, we mean that it supports ideas and policies that hurt queer people and deny them their rights. So let’s say those things.

As I said above (and elsewhere), this analysis doesn’t always apply. After all, we have these words for a reason; they can often convey precisely what we mean them to. But I think this approach is really useful for conversations in private or on the internet with actual people who might feel personally offended by being directly or almost directly called a bigot of some kind. It might even just be good as an exercise, so that we can make sure we know what claims we’re making and why. Furthermore, there is certainly room to combine this approach with the more traditional one, using words that have the rhetorical punch and emotional resonance we’re looking for but also defining them carefully and supplying ample evidence. The core element of this approach is simply that we consider the effects our words have on the people we’re looking to convince and change, and make decisions about our language accordingly.

When we do, the benefits abound. Our conversations get more productive, since everyone is using the same language to talk about the same things. We get to argue about the facts, and not about definitions. There’s less defensiveness all around, since no one’s character is being impugned. Our arguments are more accurate, since we’re talking directly about the subject matter at hand instead of proxies for it. Furthermore, harm and consequences are things we can have direct evidence for, which we can then demonstrate to other people. Best of all, our arguments get more compelling, since we’re pointing out the actual harm to actual people that comes from people acting badly, which makes it more emotionally resonant and harder to ignore.

We are people who argue. We want to convince people. Let’s not give anyone an excuse not to listen to us. Let’s make it as easy as possible for them to be convinced by us. Let’s give ourselves the best chance of making the world into something better.

Note: I wrote about this issue in a feminist context extensively on a pseudonymous blog. If you’re interested in reading it, feel free to send me a private message.

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