Saturday, March 18, 2023

The Problems of Equity Language


As an old hand with social justice language use, I've always had an ambivalent relationship with the concept.  I've recently come across the term "Equity Language", which describes the concept of changing language to ostensibly create more positive and affirming associations.  Words clearly matter, but how much? 

In the 1990's, the term Politically Correct went mainstream.  Starting as an in-joke on the left to critique over-sensitivity and group-think, it was soon taken up on the right as a convenient cudgel not only for overly-sensitive progressives, but for the ideas and theories which they promoted.  It was not only "PC" to say "People of Color", but also to bring attention to racial identity and the ways in which marginalization of those groups persisted.  In a handy bit of jujitsu, an association was made between a cynical lack of good faith in both the morality and intelligence of others (you are guilty of not recognizing the suffering of others at best, or harboring prejudice at worst), and a dismissal of any concern that such suffering or prejudice exists.  The term was also quite fungible - it could come to mean any manner of progressive social movements: race, feminism, environmental concerns, inequality, etc.  So not only could you shift the discussion from a critique of serious ideas to a critique of personal social obnoxiousness.  Further, when highlighting the "groupthink" component of political correctness, detractors could also undermine any serious discussion of underlying progressive critiques by attacking the epistemological foundations of their beliefs as motivated not by reason or social analysis but rather mere adherence to arbitrary protocols of group membership.  PC language was less an attempt to instantiate progressive thought but a way to signal in vs. out groups and personal moral performance.

If I recall correctly, in the 2000's, PC, possibly having lost its cultural cache though overuse and abuse, it reappeared in newly-online discourse under the term "Social Justice Warrior", or SJW.  This highlighted an online political correctness that not only sought to correct language, but to actively promote progressive thought with a similarly obnoxious, smug and arrogant demeanor.  

In the 2010's, a transition again occurred, this time into the concept of "woke", reaching an explosion onto the cultural stage with the Black Lives Matter movement.  The term itself wasn't new, tracing back to the civil rights era as a black vernacular description of "awaken consciousness" - in a decidedly positive and progressive direction.  But now the term woke made a swift transition to a near identical stand-in for the previously used PC and SJW.  "Woke politics" referred again less to actual ideas and theories, but rather to something rather recently coined as a "mind virus"- in which one's capacity for serious thought is hijacked by a rigid ideology that serves not legitimate discourse or social change but signaling and out-group slander.

Interestingly, there does not appear to be a similar critique in the other direction, from the left to the right, despite the fact that conservatives themselves are just as guilty of group-think, and personal obnoxiousness.  However, the reason we don't notice it as much has to do with the basic differences between conservatism and progressivism.  

Progressivism is defined by an ongoing deconstructing of social traditions, most notably the human tendency towards hierarchy and power relations of social control and how it functions to limit personal freedom and equity.  Conservatism is defined by an ongoing defense of social tradition and hierarchy - or, more charitably, that hierarchies and power relations are much more equal than progressives make them out to be.  Thus, the cultural momentum is always tilted in favor of the status quo, which already serves to define in and out groups, and is fed by a larger and more pervasive "group think".  The progressive observes, defines, compares, analyzes, and then proposes new ideas and social forms.  This starts at the micro level and expands outward to effect broader social changes to varying degrees.  The conservative stands on tradition, which is partly defined by an explicit absence of observation, analysis and deconstruction.  While the progressive often pushes a "radical" agenda that takes risk in new modes of cultural practice, the conservative stance is Buckley "standing athwart history yelling stop" and a cautious appeal to the wisdom of avoiding "unintended consequences".  Both of these stances create their own identities, the progressive as always on the attack, with the conservative always on defense.  
When everyone is wearing white at the party, and a small contingent shows up in red, it is the red group who seems suspiciously "out of place" and reasonably presumed to have conspired amongst themselves to take a bold action: the conditions ripe for something like group-think to take hold.  So too does their provocative red attire seem to imply a critique of those in white.  Why red?  Is there something wrong with white? When one of them overzealously makes obnoxious assumptions during conversation with a guest wearing white - perhaps instead of emphasizing that wearing different colors is perfectly fine, they instead make accusations about the character of those in white, suggesting they are ignorant of color, or harbor secret ill-feelings towards the color red, you might be inclined to define this behavior as overly sensitive or antagonistic, or simply wearing red to "be cool".  While we can imagine in this scenario such critiques to be accurate, we could as easily imagine some of those in white to be no less susceptible to obnoxious and acrimonious reaction.

In taking these dynamics into account, I'm always torn in sympathizing both with legitimate progressive social critique and its entailment of active social pressure towards change, but so too the understandable exhaustion by those on the receiving end of unreasonable, misguided, or downright anti-social progressive cultural discourse.  From within the left, I have my own progressive social critiques of traditional social behavior, but so to have seen progressives resorting to dialogue in which bad-faith arguments, ad hominem attacks take the place of substantive engagement of what are almost by definition complex moral and political questions about power, equality and freedom.  My most pointed observation may be that the historical schism between so-called "liberal" and "progressive" - the discrepancy in rate and magnitude of structural change being advocated - informs this subject such that in preferring a more mild and less radical approach, liberals might find an emphasis on language preferable to an emphasis on action.   To hear many liberals, talk, it would seem that many social inequities have their root in language (and belief), rather than deeper structural forces that give rise to language and belief in the first place.  Equity language requires one to merely learn new vocabulary, a process that can be accomplished without doing the laborious work of deep observation, analysis, and, harder still, advocacy and engagement in a larger social and political process. 
To illustrate, in a town where segregation is widespread, and pay is unequal, much of the language used might reflect a demeaning association towards the poor and segregated.  But what good will enforcing more equitable language do if the economic on political systems in the town serve to perpetuate disparity.  As Equity Language guidelines appear to be flowering in prominent organizations across the country (e.g., the Sierra Club, American Medical Association, etc.) one has to wonder if - as good-faith as they may genuinely be - this project might not serve as a useful smokescreen for avoiding more radical restructuring of actual policies and practices that tangibly impact the subject of the terminology, they are advocating alteration of.

In linguistic terms, we see a futility in equity language in the absence of structural reform in the concept of the "euphemism treadmill", technically termed "pejoration".  This describes the process by which terminology with negative associations are discarded in favor of fresh new words with no negative associations, and yet after a period of time the new terms simply take on all the old negative baggage.  The term "imbecile" (from the Latin "weak-minded", used to refer to people with mental disabilities) at the beginning of last century was replaced with "retarded", which was then towards the end of the century replaced with intellectually disabled, and which now in the early 21st century is being re-evaluated for replacement yet again.  Evidently, the negative associations arose when users of the new terms - their motivations and beliefs apparently unchanged - simply used the words in the old, unfortunate ways.

This seems an empirical question, albeit a difficult one: what impact does changing language really have?   The last century has seen a great change in social perception of mental disabilities, owing to a wide array of movements.  Most notably, a long series of legal cases have changed our laws surrounding how society treats the disabled, from access to services such as IEPs in school, to physical alterations to the infrastructure of sidewalks, busses, and places of business, to laws banning discrimination in employment and housing.  How much of this was due to not to changing the associations of the words we use to describe disabilities, but rather how much individuals and groups have mobilized to argue for better treatment?
It may be helpful for us to begin by assessing how the language itself is used.
An inequitable word or phrase is commonly referred to as a slur, in that it implies a derogatory claim or implication, or otherwise disrespect for its subject.  ("Slur" is generally evocative of the harshest terms, but for our purposes the degree of derogation in any particular term is in question, so I'll use it to refer both in its strong sense as well its weaker, more contested senses.)  

A slur can be used in different ways, and with subtle difference of meaning.  In its most explicit form, it is used to express strong derogation of its subject.  The N-word is the clearest example.  But a similarly strong sentiment - of dehumanization or devaluation - can be expressed in similar service as a humorous punchline (this provides the speaker a benefit of possibly avoiding accusations of personal moral failure if he simply argues he was "only joking", and misdirects the listener to examine his own, different moral rectitude with the admonition to "lighten up."
However, more commonly slurs are uttered without derogative intent, but without the speaker's knowledge of a particular historical context of the subject's position or that the subject might take offense at the term.  A recent example of this is the public apology by Whoopie Goldberg, who on her "The View" television program used the term "gypped" to describe being taken advantage of monetarily.  In her apology, she admitted to having not been aware of the historical origins of the term as a derogatory slur against the Romani people, previously referred to as "Gypsies", with a bigoted insinuation of dishonesty and thievery.  A stronger example of this - and a term of which it is much harder to claim ignorance of, might be the antisemitic "Jewed", with (historically notable) similar connotations of dishonest financial exchange.

However, another category of slur usage might be more relatable to conservative speakers.  This would be examples of usage in which the speaker actually disagrees with the connotation and would argue the basis upon which the claim that the term is in fact a slur is contested.  An example here might be the recent appeal to change "homeless" to "unhoused".  The claim that the former is a slur while the latter is not rests on the larger claim that the position of people living "on the street" have a legitimate claim not to be viewed as being either morally culpable for their failure to find housing, or that society has a particular moral culpability in their predicament.  One might disagree with one or both claims.  Furthermore, these speakers might feel that even if the subject (or a plurality of which) takes offense at the term, their ire is misplaced as it doesn't accurately reflect any derogatory sentiment on the part of the speaker.  "Don't be so sensitive" is a refrain here that echoes the "can't you take a joke" line previously mentioned.

Proponents of Equity Language usually make an additional claim about the social implications of slurs.  Apart from the degree to which a slur expresses the speaker's own internal motivations, it is also claimed that a slur serves to normalize and reinforce both attitudes towards its subject as well as modes of thought and assumptions that give rise to inequitable treatment of the subject.  This is a harder case to make from an epistemological standpoint, as isolating the independent variable in a slur's effects on society at large, or even across a small community, is nearly impossible to measure.  It stands to reason however, at least with stronger forms of slur (e.g., the N-Word) not only does the term cause offense and harm in black listeners, but so too does it normalize dehumanizing and negative associations with black people by members of other racial categories.  However, with weaker forms (e.g., homeless versus unhoused) this proposition seems to rest on much flimsier ground.  While certainly plausible, it is harder to imagine.
It may be helpful now to turn from use of the slur to use of the euphemism, for it too can have different uses by different speakers.  

Primarily, the motivations of the speaker of the euphemism can be categorized in 4 uses.  First, by a desire not to offend the terms subject.  Secondarily, by a desire not to misidentify the historical context, position or status of the subject.  Third, the speaker may want to actively make an association that actively highlights a particular nature of the subject, its historical context, or a specific political relationship.  A good example of this might be the preference of "person-centered language", in which the subject is teased out to illustrate a particular social dynamic.  An instance of this can be seen in "Autistic person" versus "Person with Autism.  The former centers the diagnosis as a prominent, defining feature of the individual, while the latter seeks to illustrate autism as only one among many possible features that define the individual.  The stress here arises from a historical context in which an autism diagnosis has served to marginalize, limit and dehumanize the individual, overshadowing all of the other more salient and positive aspects of their personhood.  

A fourth motivation of the euphemism's speaker is less flattering (and ironic), if true.  As previously mentioned, a common critique of equity language use (political correctness, SJW, Woke, etc.) is that it can function as a "performance", motivated by a desire to signal one's moral rectitude.  In this way, the concern is less about the subject, but rather the elevation of speaker himself - either in his own imagination, or to others.  The signal can highlight different forms of speakers desire.  It can serve to validate one as a card-carrying member when speaking to the in-group, or as possessing a powerful, morally superior knowledge when speaking to the out-group.  (This former usage brings to mind the curious role embrace of conspiracy seems to have in individuals who find in it a sense of empowerment that comes from possessing a secret knowledge that mere "normals" have yet to discover).  

A final motivation of the speaker is also less flattering, in that it arises from a desire to avoid either the actions involved in political mobilization, or the difficult internal thought processes involved in more clearly understanding deeper mechanisms at work in social structures that perpetuate the inequities the euphemism seeks to overcome.  In this sense, the critique would be that the speaker is "taking the easy way out" by over-emphasizing the role language plays in social change.  This critique depends on the degree of change euphemism use has on social relations, which as noted previously appears an unsettled question.

I'm not a linguist, but it seems fair to say that a salient feature of language is that change is constant.  As society changes through history, our behaviors and relationships with one another change.  The systems within we organize ourselves change.  Equity Language is an attempt to intervene and put some degree of pressure on that change, such that it conforms to our ever-evolving world views.   In the case of a handful of words, their harm appears obvious, but for many more the case for harm is difficult to assess.  As humans, our motivations for use of particular terms can be complex, as are the interpretative frameworks listeners bring with them when they hear us.

In the social media age, it is easier than ever to rapidly send out unfinished, malformed or otherwise "throw away" language.  This makes discourse even more slippery.  Frequently, miscommunication arises over differing interpretations of both speaker intent as well as listener interpretation, and the actual meaning of the subject under discussion takes a backseat to superfluous debates over meaning in which lengthy dialogues pass likes ships in the night and no one is the wiser.  Rigidity with language can have its place, such as when evidence of intent and meaning is clear, and both parties can debate with equal understanding at least of term usage and can move on to discussions of deeper assumptions about social preferences.  I'm still less convinced about the extent to which most terminology actually affects broader culture; however, I am open to cases being made.

Saturday, September 10, 2022

Deconstructing Deconstruction

What follows is a paragraph-by-paragraph response to a piece on Deconstruction I came across on the Coffee Thoughts web blog, by Collin Brendemuehl.  

Deconstructing Deconstruction

Collin Brendemuehl answers what deconstruction is and why it should matter to Christians.

For the past several years the popularity of Critical Race Theory and some of its companion ideas have become popular topics of discussion. They are also, at times, popular whipping boys for conservatives. It’s not that conservative criticism of these things is wrong. I think their conclusions are, in general, right and important. But what is missing is a substantive discussion of the idea itself.  The term “deconstruction” gets bandies around as though everyone knows what it means and some of the best teachers on the subject never get around to defining it. (Some may have, in books or pieces that I’ve not yet read.)

Deconstruction: What is it and why is it important?

At the core of deconstruction is something quite simple:

“a method of critical analysis of philosophical and literary language which emphasizes the internal workings of language and conceptual systems, the relational quality of meaning, and the assumptions implicit in forms of expression.” (Oxford Languages)

This is pretty simple. First pick a subject. Then break it down into its components. Then find what drives it, what are its motivations. That will tell you its meaning.

That doesn’t seem to be a problem. In fact that sounds like a useful tool. And it is. It is, after all, used in every field as a diagnostic method for approaching problems and finding solutions.

This it begs the question: Why all the fuss?

The reason is this: The term should always be prefaced. There are types of deconstruction. Using the term without stating what type it is can leave the educated person wondering what is being talk about and the average person confused was to why such a useful tool might prove problematic. In other words, by being too general in our language we’re creating two problems. We’re telling both groups that we don’t really understand the issue. It can, and does, sound like we don’t know what we’re talking about.

If deconstruction is a useful tool, then has it been used in theology? Yes, it has. And its results are known to every evangelical. Back about 500 years ago, right after the Reformation, there was another movement called the Radical Reformation. In this movement was one very critical component. It was to move back to “what the Bible says” as a more primitive, a more Biblical theology. From this assumption we moved away from the liturgy of the Reformers and to the basics of (Ana)Baptist thinking: Call the individual to faith and baptize the adult on confession of faith. The teachings of the Bible were broken down to basic elements. Developed theology was, at least in part, rejected.

This was indeed deconstruction, in the sense that it was questioning the authority of the churches, and seeing them as a product of particular social, political and economic relations.  What is left out here though, is that evangelicals were also a particular product of time and social circumstances.  The story they tell themselves, (and us - as they'll proudly admit in "sharing their gospel"), as Brendemuehl points to here, is that their interpretation is simply based on a literal reading of the bible.  This is the antithesis of deconstruction, as instead of turning to the larger context around a text or belief, it goes directly into the text to find ultimate truth.  As a faith, this might be fine, however an initial move must be made to establish that text as authoritative.  Faith has a sort of epistemological "get out of jail free card" in this respect as no other idea in the human project is allowed to be its own authority, without relationship to history or the natural world around it.  As a supernatural system, one might grant this.  However, not all faith traditions make this move, or at least to this extent.  The one's that do we tend to refer to as fundamentalist.  A non-fundamentalist (liberal, reformed, etc.) point of view, while allowing the text to indeed express supernatural religious truths, does so with a bit more epistemic complexity and nuance.  It takes the text as divine, however also the product of human creators who were unable to escape their own social environments.  They will point to certain parts of the text as flawed and even sometimes outright wrong or even immoral.  Fundamentalists term this a "cafeteria style" activity, in which the word of God is being supplanted by humans merely picking and choosing what they "want to believe".  

However, the liberal will counter this by pointing to the fact that this is an inescapable reality of human limitations.  None of us can escape our social environments.  Further, this is easily demonstrated by fundamentalists' own obvious shaping by a social and political culture they both are created by and in turn attempt to create.  In this way, one might say that just as the liberal might be "playing God" by their own textual interpretation, so to the fundamentalist is playing God by insisting their interpretation is the only real word of God, after they have inserted themselves into their interpretation.  Yet, they will argue, they are merely reading the literal text.  But this isn't actually the case.  For instance, Evangelicals routinely highlight certain areas of the bible.  They often do so with general lines of scripture that could objectively be read in a significantly large number of ways - very specific political or moral claims.  e.g., "love your neighbor", or "thou shall not kill", are fine phrases, but what is "love" or is it ever OK to kill?  Inevitably, additional verses are required to compare and derive deeper meaning, and yet in the very act of choosing which verses to compare one has begun interpreting.  This becomes even more challenging when some verses appear to outright conflict.  One can either choose to deconstruct (interpret), but one cannot choose to be unconstructed.

Later on, when the revivalists started, men like Wesley not only called individuals to salvation but left the church with this: Get people saved. That’s all there is to salvation. Salvation was reduced to the individual’s salvation. The covenant demands of the liturgical churches were rejected. What mattered was the individual.  This way of thinking continues today where the theme is merely to “get them saved” and then deal with the rest later as time allows.

This is still with us. Many para-church organizations have their student participants go do beach evangelism, lead someone to Christ, and then leave the flounder. Tract-based ministries lead people to decisions without commitments. The ticket is punched and that’s what matters most.

In all of these situations the doctrine of salvation was deconstructed to its most basic, core components. The rest that surrounds it is generally ignored. The Christian faith has been deconstructed and not always for the better.

Here, Brendemuehl points to an example of this process of selective interpretation, by adding his own interpretation - that core components of the bible's truth have not been given enough attention.  What those components are and how true they are reflect his own consideration based on his own values. 

The Origin Story

But … what’s going on today that’s so important?

The current movement has been around since the 1930s. There was a group in Frankfurt, Germany. These were philosophical Marxists. They differed from Marx in a number of ways. Their goal was to take Marxism as a philosophy and affect social structures


Or, more precisely, they found Marxist critique of epistemological value - as a tool to get at deeper truths - and generalized it to further analyze not just economic but social and cultural systems.  

To do so they introduced a variation on deconstruction that views the components through the lens of Marxism. They reformulated “truth” and “reason” to become “authenticity” and “imagination” so that the new ideals could easily alter perceptions of reality.

Granting this incredible simplification, what they started with was epistemic skepticism, that is they recognized that we are all social products, and that truth requires bringing to light the cultural, etc. assumptions underlying truth claims.  And that as culture is such a vast web of entangled social relationships, getting at truth requires seeing the myriad connections behind all claims.  Some went so far as to claim that truth itself was non-existent, however the greater majority of deconstructionists have always emphasized that whether or not this is true, what matters is the social analysis if we are to even hope of seeing even a piece of truth.  In the scientific arena, this is easier because we are usually able to take measurements and thus have a way of separating the dependent from independent variables, replicating results, having other experts do peer review, and often to put technologies into practice that demonstrate effects.  In the social arena, this is far more difficult. As a behaviorist, my claim on the measurability and "functional analysis" of human behaviors (including thought) is likely higher than most, but I readily acknowledge that beyond simple behaviors, the environmental relations quickly become too complex to properly measure.  In large social relationships, our empiricism is diminished, and we must rely on many more subjective measures, and a such the opportunity to insert our own biases, etc. increases.

Ok, that sounds strange. You heard an example of this during the 2020 campaign when then-candidate Biden said, “we choose truth over facts.” By “truth” he didn’t mean accurate information (because if he did then he would have no reason to make such a statement). What he meant was that truth is the lens through which facts are assessed. This is how reimagines facts in the light of the truth.

I'm honestly not sure what is going on here.  Is he saying Biden is a relativist in the derogatory sense that no truth exists, and he wants to create his own?  This is a classic slur on the project of deconstruction itself, owning to a more specific argument about "cultural relativism", in which one is purported to believe that truth and more specifically morality - doesn't exist - and therefore "anything goes".  Like stated previously, morality may not actually exist, but rather social relations do, and you can measure things like pain, depression, etc.  If one is to claim that a moral truth exists, they must then demonstrate a framework showing from where, if not why.  Is it from a textual authority?  Then we arrive at the beginning in having to examine the authority of the text.  If it comes from man, or reason, then we must examine the social relations therein.  It is no accident that immorality of the past - say, slavery (which plenty of fundamentalist evangelicals actively supported) was at the time justified religious textual grounds, as well as by others on appeals to reason and social relations.  In the end, one will argue a moral point by appealing to the best analysis one can muster.  There were abolitionists who did so hundreds of years ago, and current debates about racism, bigotry, etc. will continue.  

What’s Happenin’!

Part of the work of these men in Frankfurt was to break down power structures. While Marx was about economic power and conflict, the Frankfurt Group went about tearing down more than just economic classes. They went after all forms of dominion. So just as Marx made some general comments about the family and how it should serve the state and the collective, these men took another tack, another direction to the same ends. A man named Foucault applied deconstruction to power structures.

Family is a power structure. The family has been deconstructed to power-submission structures that are to be eliminated. What are these structures? Patriarchy is about power. Motherhood is about power. Fathers should have little or no say over wife and children. Mothers have been reduced to birthers. Parents would have no say in the public education of the children. 

One cannot deny the role of power in a family, if one is to define power as the ability to influence the actions of another.  The degree to which power is distributed is the question here.  Underneath this small description of the deconstruction of atomic family dynamics, there exists a vast body of thought.  I'm not even sure where to begin, however I'll start with the critique that Brendemuehl is offering up a very unfair depiction of what a deconstructed view of the family actually looks like.  Most who disagree with patriarchal dominion of the family (as in, the believe women have just as much a right to autonomy as men) themselves tend to live in atomic units (even LGBTQ families).  They do believe power is important window into analyzing social relations as we continue toward a (hopefully shared goal) of human flourishing.  For instance, if both parents work 40 hours a week, maybe the father should also help out with the cleaning and child-rearing, right?  Or at least talk to their partner about equitable power sharing.  Is this something anyone would disagree with?

Regarding public education, this is a lot more complicated.  Sets of assumptions about the role of government and religion in society, are extensive. The basic premise of public education is the right of a child to an education.  However, it becomes murky when we disagree about what gets taught, especially as the classroom is a microcosm of the very topic of deconstruction itself.  Teachers, curriculum committees, Textbook publishers, professors, parents, and children themselves are all stakeholders and must come to some consensus in heterogenous communities in thousands of schools in as many cities across the countries.  All of them have their own ideas about what should be taught.  C'est la vie democracy.

This is the popular language of today. You can read it almost daily. These statements follow the theme.

Race relations and historic social structures are power structures. Economic class is a power structure. You’ve heard of that notorious “1%” gang. To be white is to inherit the guilt of abusive white people even if they’re not your ancestors. Just because you’re white. To be a person of color is to be a permanent victim, not a person with free will and unity. 

This is a lot, but just going to jump in here as a behaviorist and say that free will is something we actually can measure and have never found it.  We've found instead huge amounts of data and a theoretical framework built upon it that demonstrates empirically that we are all products of our genes and our learning history.  The environment forms a 4-term contingency in temporal space: the motivating operation (MO) > the environmental discriminative stimulus > behavior > the environmental consequent.  We are at all times subject to countless schedules of reinforcement and punishment which drive us in a deterministic manner through time and space.  There is no alternative explanation as demonstrable, replicable, and empirical.  

Darkly, the notion of free will has been used throughout history not just to justify oppressive social conditions, but as well vast power imbalances.  If one has a magical ability to simply "rise above" social conditions, the social conditions no longer possess as much valence.  Oppressive conditions, unless one is physically trapped in bondage, can be risen above in this view.  To the financially powerful - say a millionaire business owner with influence in government, the groups he supports, and large numbers of employees, etc. - this view would support more self-serving actions, instead of those that might otherwise focus more on his own moral requirement to distribute his power more equally if he also believes in equality of opportunity.  The behaviorist view states that equality of opportunity is not enough to the extent that we are all products of social circumstance and genes.  (I will leave it to others to elaborate on the ugly history of racist justifications for lack of opportunity based on genes).


(Critical Race Theory, aka CRT, is merely the application of this method of criticism to questions of race and it’s the only one where the purveyors of the movement were honest enough to use the term “Critical Theory” and thus reveal its origins.) To operate a store is to be exploitive and greedy, so that theft must be encouraged by the state. These things, too, are happening daily and you can hear about them like clockwork.

This is absolutely not a thing beyond the most radical or radical communists and anarchists.  However, there is a logic rooted in Marx's critique of capital, just as there is in the capitalist notion of private property.  Again though, nut-picking unrepresentative examples of people who adopt view X is not a substantive critique of view 


These critical theorists did not ignore religious power structures. When a pastor speaks of “white guilt” or uses language that is consistent with it, he is compromising. When a church says women may be pastors, elders, or deacons, they’ve broken down the power structure to something small-d democratic and would allow anyone in based on skill set, not according to the typology of Ephesians 5 or the instruction of I Timothy 3. These are compromises of truth in light of today’s movements. It’s not just an alternative interpretation.[italics mine]

I refer to my argument above re: religious interpretation.  Brendemuehl is making a claim about social behavior based on the authority of a scriptural text, which is his own interpretation involving many assumptions about politics, economics, etc.  Does he claim we must follow it precisely?  For instance, it says to not drink wine for it leads to debauchery.  OK, but what if I just like a glass of beer with dinner?  Anyway, if he wants to take a fundamentalist reading, that's his choice, however as I argue above, even in so doing he is applying his own socialization to his decision to take the text literally. 

All of these things share the same theme. In technical terms it’s “neo-Marxist deconstruction” (also known as “Critical Theory”) from the Frankfurt school. But unfortunately, most people will get lost when you make such a precise statement. But at least you’ve got one here.

This is a thought patters which is inconsistent with Christian theology. The mission of the church is not to be a change agent intended on diminishing power structures. The Kingdom of God is a power structure built on His character and person. There is nothing higher or better. There is no other justice.

This just makes zero theological or historical sense.  I mean did Jesus not say plenty about overturning power structures?  Was he not crucified by actual Roman power structures?  Brendemuehl seems to be arguing that we, or the church, should not question power structures because it is part of God's power structure.  So secret North Korean Christian churches shouldn't oppose the North Korean government?  Should we not oppose our own government?  Earlier, he says parents should have say in their child's education (which I agree with!), but this is a power structure!  In grappling with this issue, he seems to have tied himself in knots and I personally can't disentangle them.  But I do appreciate the opportunity to do so.  I'm glad he's doing his best as well.


Monday, June 25, 2018

Hiding in Plain Sight

One of the oldest misunderstandings about racism (and bigotry in general) is that it must be explicit to exist.  If you are not walking around in a clan robe or posting swastikas on your facebook profile, you must not be racist.  If you are not explicitly stating that black or brown people are less intelligent, or aggressive, or lazy, etc. by nature, you are not a racist. 

The problem with this is that it ignores 99% of actual racism.  If you look at the things that explicit racists say and do, most of it will not be explicitly racist.  However, one can infer the attitudes behind the thinking.  For instance, take a look at this random twitter feed from an explicit racist:

They go by "White Rights Activist":

They routinely retweet posts from non-explicit racists.  But their interest in the dehumanization of minorities is clear.  They seek portrayals of them as unhinged:

Sexually dangerous and/or diseased.

They glorify cruelty.

But it's easy to write them off as "one of the baddies" because they are honest and explicit about their racism.

But what if they didn't?  What if they said the same things, posted the same pictures, and advocated for the same policies?

The modern Republican party is filled with people who do just this.  None of them admit to explicit racism, yet say, post and advocate for policies that are identical.

In the past couple of days, Trump calls Rep. Waters "low-IQ".  Huckabee tweets scary picture of MS-13.  Rep. King tweets picture of immigrant kids and brings up MS-13.  Andrew Sullivan decries the demographic change that (brown) immigrants will bring.

All the while actual policies are being enacted that are extreme violations of human rights.

I could go on, and on, and on.  But there's really no need.  The point is that racism does not need to be explicit to exist.  It can smolder slowly, softly in the background, a quiet voice that whispers the same old song: fear them, distrust them, they are less important than you.  It can always be plausibly denied.  Each instance merely a hint.

But when you take a step back, line up the comments, line up the images, perspectives and emphasis, a pattern emerges that cannot be denied.  It is a cacophonous beast that is well alive and snorting within the hearts of our fellow Americans.

Monday, May 28, 2018


There is a comic version of your life,
the way you fumbled through Aisle 2.
There is tragic version,
those things he did to you.

It is glorious and gilded,
would say the Apostles,
each breath a cosmic thread.
It is mundane and pointless,
as written by Camus.

In a scene today,
you reflect upon a line,
By tomorrow,
you'll have forgotten to take the time.

Famous and gifted players,
as if doing favors,
drift in and out of view.
Strangers fill in here and there to make things rhyme.

"Life", you type furiously,
But then you realize you had been daydreaming,
through two whole paragraphs.

"I don't read the reviews", someone once said to you.
"Thanks, I'll take that under advisement",
you say as you watch the falling rain make the ink run.

There is aversion of your life that no one will read,
written in an alien tongue by a castaway on a desert planet,
orbiting a star of one,
a star not unlike the sun.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Mapping Race

It occurred to me that it might be interesting to observe the correlation between voting patterns and ethnic geographic integration.  The results are not going to be completely in-obvious.  As we all know, there is a deep partisan divide between rural and urban regions.  Given that urban areas are more diverse than rural areas, one might expect to see a similar partisan pattern. 

What if there existed a number that identified one's level of proximity to diversity, a diversity number if you will.  You might have various breakdowns:

- proximity to non-whites in a 10 mile radius
 - proximity to non-whites in a 50 mile radius

But you might also add some weights, such that:

- depth of diversity (types of non-whites)

Or you might take class into consideration as well:

- proximity to annual income < $30k per family
- proximity to those with college degree

I browsed google for a bit but didn't come up with anything quickly.

However, I did come across this from 2015 in the NY Times.  A project called "Mapping Segregation", it is a tool that allows you to view geographic maps of the US by ethnic concentration.
Ethnic Groups in Coachella Valley, CA, 2015
It's quite fascinating.  Noting one of the sources, "", I'm off to gather more data in hopes of creating some of my intended weights.  Wish me luck.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Talking About Ideas

On the podcast To the Point today, Warren Olney interviewed Ibram Kendi, who had an op-ed in the New York Times recently titled The Heartbeat of Racism is Denial.

I took issue with very little of what he said.  But near the end of the conversation, he made a statement reflective of a common view among my fellow leftists.

“Evidence of racial inequities (whites have more wealth, are incarcerated) are explained by: Either those disparities that are all around us are the result of black inferiorities or they’re they are the result of racist policies.... the only other explanation for all these inequalities is that our country is racist.”

This is the false dichotomy I've been decrying on this blog for years, and unfortunately informs a view shared by both the right and the left when discussing racism.  Minority disparities are either genetic or caused by racist policy. 

The right-wing response is to argue that because very few people are explicitly racist, and no explicitly racist laws are on the books, that the cause must be be black people themselves.  However, they don't want to admit to any genetic inferiority, so instead say it is "cultural".

The left wing response is to agree that no genetic inferiority exists, but that no "cultural" problem exists either.  Instead, the answer must be racism.

Now, there are at least three words that need unpacking here: racism, culture, and policies.  Because each could be interpreted different ways.

Racism could mean explicit, active racism (not hiring a black sounding name, not moving to a black neighborhood, etc.).  But it could also be passive (not supporting policies with disparate impacts, not feeling as "generous" towards minorities, developing prejudices, etc.).  But it could also be historical racism, which is not currently active, yet has previously occurred and left a mark (discriminatory hiring, policing, red-lining, etc. could have happened a generation ago yet still be impacting family members today).  Or it could be all of the above.

Culture could mean the customs and traditions of an ethnic group (music, dance, conversation, style, etc.).  But it could also mean micro-level or family or neighborhood level norms (not cleaning up trash, engaging in risky behaviors, not doing schoolwork, etc.).  The latter type of culture is trans-ethnic, meaning it is less reflective of any particular ethnic group than a segment within that group, usually relating to class or privilege.

Policies could mean explicit laws pertaining directly to skin color, enacted for racist reasons, which actively target certain ethnicities for persecution (colored bathrooms, schools, profiling, etc.).  But they could also mean policies that create implicit effects through inaction, which cause disparate impacts.  For example, if majority minority neighborhoods are located next to polluting factories, and you pass laws eliminating regulations, the law is not explicitly discriminating, but the impact will be.

Now, to use the terms racism, policy and culture loosely is to cut conversation off at the kneecap.  And yet this is exactly what we tend to do.  I would argue that most conversations on race, policy and economics involve incredibly loose use of these terms.  Even when the subject is broken down, as Kendi did in the interview, his use of the term racism and policy were too loose as to be meaningful in any deeper, more functional way.

Because if we are ever going to get anywhere in understanding the divide between right and left on racism and poverty - two fundamental problems of history itself,  and to come together in our understanding of truth, we are going to need to dig into the weeds of what these ideas mean.  As readers of this blog will note, the question of why we behave the way we do is incredibly complex from an epistemological standpoint.  And how are we ever going to get to that if we can't agree on common language?  Furthermore, how are we going to take steps to solve the problem if we don't know how to properly discuss it in an objective, orderly fashion?

Friday, December 22, 2017

The Language of Poverty

Coates is again in the news as Cornel West takes him to task for his neoliberalism.  A portion of West's thesis deals with Coates' embrace of Obama, including the imperialism he finds distasteful.  While germane to a definition of neoliberalism, I'm personally more interested in how the two deal with minority poverty.  As a white man, I recognize the privileged view from which I sit.  However, with decades of work among poor and minority communities, and a life-long grappling both (literally and figuratively) with how to help understand and solve the wealth gap, I feel my critical engagement with these issues comes from a place of deep respect.  Further, I continue to feel that true anti-racism requires humanization, not objectification of minority thought.  That said, I welcome critique of my ideas should they veer towards offensive caricature, or any other reflection of my whiteness.  But onwards.
Critiques of West have been that he is too ad hominem - arguing Coates' hasn't "earned" the right to his pessimism.  That can be read as such - shouldn't Coates' arguments be taken on their merit, as opposed to the body that voices them?  But one could read West not as impugning Coates' personally, but rather - again in line with West's thesis - his lack of a developed theory of oppression.  West is a Marxist, and places oppression in the context of an accumulation of wealth and power that is  explicitly capitalist.  Coates spends very little time with this.  Coates' paints vivid and beautiful portraits of what oppression feels like.  And this is to be admired greatly.  And his effect has been great.  But much of this effect, arguably, can be attributable to his resonance with Whites' deep ambivalence between their neoliberal assumptions and their discomfort with their obvious privilege.  Coates paints a vivid portrait for them to hang on their wall, to give passing penance.  But nothing else about the room is required to change.  The walls of the building remain.
My problem with Coates’ neo-liberalism is that it rests snugly in the neo-liberal Whites’ allergy top real economic reform. If it is all about racist white behavior, then you don’t have to deal with the deeper economic assumptions that literally perpetuate minority poverty. Whites are, have been, and likely be racist in all kinds of ways. But imagine if you got them all to stop tomorrow: what would that really change about minority poverty? We have an economic system which requires low-skill labor be paid low wages. This means historically marginalized groups will inevitably be the ones doing that work.
Neo-liberals assume that if you simply make the playing field equal, that society with be equal. But capitalism simply doesn’t work that way: it REQUIRES an underclass. Take Coates’ reparations - I’m all for them, but they don’t demand better pay for low-skill work. In fact, the neo-liberal assumption of a meritocracy in which everyone gets a good education and goes to college, ACTIVELY undervalues and views moral failing in the poor. Yet when the poor make bad choices, don’t raise their kids right, misbehave, etc. - neoliberals have no answer other than to pretend it doesn’t exist and that the problem is not the system but rather white racism. What they cannot or will not grasp is that capitalism depends on a caste system of societal capital, in which financial, emotional, cognitive, neighborhood, property, etc. resources are leveraged by market values. These market values don’t care a whit about the immorality of privilege and historical advantage. It depends upon the individual acting according to self-interest, which will always be stronger than group interest unless larger contingencies are in place. The strongest contingency of all is a system of laws that grant privilege status to property above morality. Thus, high-SES and low-SES is allowed to exist.
Of course race will be a factor in this, but it is only the language that the system uses to describe the violence that the economic system perpetrates. West’s critique of Coates is that he is “all talk” in this sense - that he revels in the language of racism without looking deeper, into its economic  grammar, if you will. 
In my intellectual evolution over the years (documented for better or worse on this blog!), I've come to develop the notion of something I call Societal Capital.  Its an extension of the Marxist notion of the leveraging of capital in a capitalist society, but reaching more broadly to include not only financial but other forms of material wealth that can also be seen as commodities.  Essentially, anything that can be leveraged to help one develop for themselves more freedom is Societal Capital.  Likewise, the lack thereof of this development act to deleverage one's freedom.  For example, when a parent reads to her child and engages her in stimulating conversation, she improves the child's cognitive capacity, which the child will be able to leverage for increased access to freedom in school and peer relationships.  Similarly, the way a parent smiles at her child, hugs her and comforts her builds up a child's emotional strength, which then she will be able to leverage outside the home. 
The notion of Societal Capital is Marxist in that it eschews the static notion of libertarian free will that is presumed by classical liberalism.  Supporters of a "free market" imagine in individuals as free actors; if people are free to make decisions, all things being equal they will thrive according to their merit.  An inherent morality is thus derived in which personal circumstance is largely the product of one's "personal freedoms", without regard to past or future learning histories.  The ultimate product of this view is that people who don't do well in school, seek to better themselves, stay in low-wage jobs, or generally make choices that are less productive, have no one to blame but themselves.  

This presents a problem for neo-liberalism, which fundamentally accepts the notion of merit and personal responsibility.  But hold on a second, you might say - I'm a Democrat and I don't blame the poor!  

Enter Coates and West.  I first began reading Coates many years ago, when he used to blog for the Atlantic.  I was interested in his take on education, especially how it intertwined with race.  But I grew frustrated with his embrace of ed-reform (a movement rooted in neoliberalism's assumptions), and the picture he painted of "poor" schools did not reflect what I knew to be the case - both from research as well as first hand experience in the classroom.  More so, I was annoyed with the what White readers - most of whom likely never spent much time in a ghetto in their lives -  seemed to conveniently elevate him.  Sure, there were racist teachers - I'll never forget one in PA who whispered a complaint to me about the "black ones".  But sadly, the racism in her words was not in the facts of the case, but rather her interpretation of them.  In Reading, PA, schools were filled with poor, misbehaved children.  And there, as is the case everywhere in America, a higher proportion of misbehaved kids were indeed minority, especially black.  But the racism dripping from her white lips was that she put the blame squarely ON THEM.  She did not understand the context of what she was seeing.  She did not see the historical marginalization, the wealth gap, and ultimately that poverty, not race was the determining factor in the behavior that she loathed.  And as a teacher, you can only imagine how infuriating poorly behaved, disrespectful, sassy, unmotivated children can be.  But poor white kids were hardly better (owing to their small privilege of being white and the modicum of Societal Capital that had allowed their family to maintain).  When I finally left the profession, it was because I simply could no longer take the daily confrontation of poor kids with no support in the rest of their lives.  I would end the day with a stack of notes to call home.  When I phoned, their parents had long given up on them, and had no advice for me.  These parents did not have enough support themselves.  And in Yucca Valley, CA, they were primarily white.
For decades now, since explicit racism has been written out of the lawbooks (segregation, miscegenation), and society has generally embraced the notion that all races should be in theory treated fairly, the persistence of the minority poverty gap has presented a problem for mainstream political thought.  The conservative Republican party views the problem as classical liberals might: free will in minority communities necessitates that the problem is individual.  Far right racists say this is biological, less far-right race "realists" say it is cultural.  The problem is not, that is, due to racism or economic structure.

The liberal Democratic party is too politically "liberal" (i.e. moderately progressive), to directly challenge the classical liberal assumptions of capitalism such free markets, property rights and individual freedom of action (free will).  Instead, (especially after the horrific example of communism's form of dismantling these assumptions) it has chosen to delicately tip-toe around these notions, avoiding direct confrontation.  Government is sold as a salve in the rougher edges of capitalism.  Supports such as public education and health care subsidies are promoted as morally necessary when individuals are unable to obtain services such as education and health care on the free market.  But when faced with the persistence of minority poverty, they are ill-equipped to confront the problem directly.  To challenge racism is old-hat.  This requires no actual challenge to any real norms.  Be nice to everyone and treat them with respect.  OK, fine.  We've all agreed that this is what you are supposed to do.  Of course, people are going to be racist in all manner of micro-aggressive, ignorant and mildly ugly ways.  But undoing any of this, no matter how hard we try, is... well, lip-service.  

Generational poverty is a product of capitalism.  If we take race out of the equation altogether, you still get economic segregation and broken communities, for the simple fact that low-wages inflict a violence upon families that is beyond compare.  It creates stresses, hardships, and instabilities that devastate Societal Capital.  It creates ghettos bereft of public capital such as parks, clean streets, role-models, nice stores, good transportation and basic safety.  It saps family capital as marriages are strained and children grow up unsupported.  Emotional and cognitive capital is deserted in early childhood, leading to schools filled with children far behind their higher-wage family peers.  Educational capital is thus hamstrung as the school-to-poverty pipe-line is reinforced.  Hope is depleted, short-term is prioritized, which reinforces behaviors that don't build long-term capital.
But all of this is to become skeptical of capitalism, of merit itself.  It is to become skeptical of  economic and social structures that are foundational to our country.  The moral portrait it begins to paint is one of inequity, specifically that the privileged no more earn their place than do those without privilege.  Inequity is not something you can simply "educate away".  All the schools in the world and lack of racism is not going to fill the vacancies of landscapers, dishwashers, maids, cashiers, line-cooks, waiters and the rest.  
This is what I took West to be saying.  Coates was his target not because he was black, but because he wasn't white.  In the neo-liberal mainstream media world, critiques of capitalism are verboten, but lip service to racism is always fair game.  And better yet, when a black writer like Coates, who so eloquently, poetically describes in rich detail the indignity of White Supremacy - yet without the deeper, revolutionary critique of capitalism, he is lauded.  Much like the erasing of Dr. Martin Luther King's pivot to poverty allows modern Whites a sort of moral cleansing, Coates' wallowing in the pessimism of a neo-liberal framework unsatisfied with its own inability to come to terms with its perpetuating forces too abets a process of toothless political meandering.

And while "woke" twitter throws shade over lattes and worn copies of bell hooks, people are still waking up at the crack of dawn to do dirty work for little pay.