Friday, 19 January 2018

Sam Harris, Identity Politics and Valid Argument

A white female commentator on Sam Harris's statements regarding identity politics had this to say:
I get very annoyed with Sam Harris whenever he speaks negatively about “identity politics.” Please understand that the suppression of what is thought of as “identity politics” is used to maintain the status quo of white supremacy and patriarchy. It mainly suits white men in power, and only works to silence and dismiss women and minorities further. 
Here is an example of what I’m talking about: In order to understand the serious problems of systemic racism and abuse within police departments, you have to listen to and validate the experiences of black people. You cannot simply value the data that is written down and reported, considering that it’s written down and reported by the police themselves, so it’s always biased in their favor. You should never simply assume that they are reporting every interaction objectively and honestly. If you assume that they are, you are incredibly naive. 
Additionally, think about everything that is never actually reported. Many black individuals describe a lifetime of being targeted and harassed by police officers, from the time they were young children. They often describe the disrespectful, rude manner in which many cops have spoken to them. There is no data that would describe this. But just imagine how a lifetime of being harassed and mistreated by rude cops might affect you and your reaction to the police. It would make sense to be a little angry and defensive with them, if you’re fed up with being harassed and mistreated. It also helps to paint a picture of the problem of systemic racism. 
The same can be applied to women as victims of sexual assault, rape, and sexual harassment. There is so much that we never report. The numbers don’t tell you the whole story. It’s far more common for women to be victimized by men than one might think.
When Sam Harris says in this video that speaking about your experiences related to your identity is “not the sign of clear thinking,” he is gaslighting minorities and women. He is making a judgment about their rationality and is implying that they’re somehow crazy and less rational than him. But this is easy for him, a white man, to say. He is speaking from a place of privilege. 
This is an example of white supremacy and patriarchy in action. Sam is not a bad person. He doesn’t realize he’s perpetuating white supremacy and patriarchy. But he absolutely is. He is in the dominant majority, so his experiences are in line with those of the people who overwhelmingly have power, write our laws, and make the rules throughout our society. 
Here is more gaslighting from Sam, painting women and minorities as crazy and irrational: 
“If you’re reasoning honestly about facts, then the color of your skin is irrelevant” —(Easy for a white person to say!) 
“Not being emotionally engaged usually improves a persons ability to reason about the facts.” — (But of course you’d be “emotionally engaged,” if you’re speaking of how you’ve been abused and victimized. That shouldn’t make your experiences any less valuable! He is dismissive because he doesn’t have to be emotionally engaged. He comes from a place of privilege, so he doesn’t feel the same emotions about these topics. He hasn’t experienced the abuse, discrimination, marginalization, etc firsthand.) 
“The color of your skin simply isn’t relevant information. Your life experience isn’t relevant information. And the fact that you think it might be is a problem.” — (This is a very privileged, white supremacist, heteronormative, cisnormative thing to say.)
Sam's views on identity politics that are being discussed here are outlined in the below video


I think what Harris is trying to say here comes down to this: Either there is or there is not systemic discrimination against minorities in America. Whether that's true or not does not depend on whether the person making the claim is white or black. Above, a white female commentator, is making the claim that there is systemic discrimination against minorities in America. This is a claim regarding the status of minorities in America. Is that claim rendered false by the fact that the commenter is white?

The answer is obviously no, and that's what Sam Harris is really saying here.

The irony of a white woman invoking identity in this manner to defend identity politics should not be lost on us. Were she to discount the claims made by Black Lives Matter activists regarding police treatment of minorities, her own logic allows for the invalidation of her claims on the basis of her race. So why wouldn't this be the case since she's agreeing with them? Ditto for male feminists who discount male critics of feminism on the basis of they're being male? Funny how identity only seems to matter when it's a defense of a feminist or critical race theory from criticism, but becomes suddenly irrelevant when those theories are being defended. This is precisely the kind of rhetorical slight of hand that has led Sam Harris and many others, myself included, to distrust identity politics.

That is a very different thing from saying that the voices of minorities should not be considered when determining whether such discrimination is occuring or not. I don't think that's what Harris is claiming. He does admit in this clip that there are times when a person's identity and experience can be useful in determining whether a claim pertinent to that identity is true or not, as his example of Catholic theology exemplifies.  To fail to take into consideration what feminist or BLM activists have to say regarding the status of their groups would ultimately be guilty of the same kind of fallacy as these activists themselves would be when they shoot down their opponents for being white males. It assumes a-priori that the arguer has a vested interest in their claim and uses this to discount the claim. While either or both sides may indeed have a vested interest, and that should be noted, that does not make the claims made true or false in and of themselves. 

Blacks either are or are not subject to a greater degree of police harassment than white people are. Women either are or are not subject to a greater degree of street harassment and workplace sexual harassment than males are. The truth of those claims does not depend on the identity of the person making the claim, though actually listening to the testimonials of blacks and women is essential to establishing those truths.

As such, I think we certainly should listen to what women, minorities and so forth are saying about the realities of being what they are in America at present. We should be mindful, however, that the dean of women's studies or black studies at Harvard may not be the best exemplars of the typical woman's or black person's experience. Quite often, the loudest purveyors of feminist and/or critical race theory are light years away from the typical experience of their respective demographics and do have an ongoing vested interest in the claims that they make being accepted entirely at face value by the broader society. I worry that a self appointed vanguard of quasi intellectual activists are going to exploit popular movements in order to seize institutional power (as we see in academia, in Silicon Valley, in a lot of media outlets, Hollywood, Disney and so on) and then use those positions of power to impose their will on the broader population and the postmodern academic ideologies they fabricate within the very privileged and cushioned walls of the ivory tower as legitimizing rationalizations for their own very real power and privilege. That's been happening a lot and is a major driver in the online backlash against social justice warriors. 

So we should be mindful of issues like that. The voices of women and minorities who do not uphold the oppression narratives cannot simply be dismissed. When concepts like false consciousness or internalized racism and/or misogyny get raised, that should raise red flags for critical readers and listeners. What's worse than actually arguing from identity consistently is cherry picking arguments from identity, and assuming them to be valid if and only if they conform to preexisting ideological narratives. This is quite obviously intellectually (and ultimately morally) dishonest.

But we should, if we want to reason honestly about the status of minorities in America, actually listen to what minorities are actually saying life is like for them and considering that when making the evaluation. Not all will say it's tougher being black - blacks have no way to know what it's like to be white so if identity is to be the basis of our arguments, it merely puts them back at square one for this reason. But many more blacks than whites, on a per-capita basis, will describe harsher treatment at the hands of police, I would suspect. I do think women and minorities face issues that white males do not, or face to a far lesser degree, and I do worry about the tendency to handwave their claims as mere SJW pearl clutching, and that tendency has grown online in the last few years. What's crucial to understand, though, is that their claims are true if and only if their claims are, in fact, true. Not merely because they belong to minority demographics. The distinction is subtle yet crucial.

Additional Commentary from the Alternative Left
Identity Politics: Pro Social Justice, Anti SJW
Socrates Talks Class and Identity
Why You Should Not be an Intersectional Feminist

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Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Sexual Harassment Hysteria: It Isn't New

I think it would surprise people following the controversy surrounding the outing of Aziz Ansani's bad date with "Grace" just how old this story and the controversy surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct really are.  Clarence Thomas anyone?  Just a little reminder, from October of 1991, that this is not a new issue:




It goes back farther than that. In its present form, not surprisingly, to the radical feminism of the mid 1970s. The notorious Catherine MacKinnon - she of "politically, I call it rape whenever a woman has sex and feels violated" legendry, made the case that sexual harassment constituted a form of sex discrimination, which was banned under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. MacKinnon's line of thought was adopted by the Equal Employment Opportunities Commision in 1980, and upheld by the 1986 Supreme Court ruling in Meritor Savings Bank vs. Vinson, ruling that sexual harassment was indeed a form of sexual discrimination.  Educational institutions were covered under title IX of the educations amendment, adopted in 1972 and rather infamously amended by the Obama administration in 2011, lowering the standard of proof applicable to on-campus harassment allegations from "clear and convincing" evidence to a "preponderance of evidence", a considerably lower bar. These amendments have been recently revoked by Trump administration education secretary Betsy DeVos, out of fears that due process for the accused had been largely circumvented by the Obama era changes. The backlash has been, to put it mildly, notable, despite many successful lawsuits by expelled male students alleging violation of their own civil liberties.

Twenty years ago, I was reading a number of books that were trying to raise the alarm over what they considered to be a puritanical and Victorian sexual culture being promoted by feminist theorists in academia. These include:


The foundations for the MeToo movement, what we've seen of feminism on tumblr and twitter and the changes to title IX that occurred during the Obama administration  - these foundations were already largely set both ideologically and in the legal system by the late 1980s. The feminist date-rape narrative was even then well established, and something you'd have heard had you gone to college. The problem is that you had to pretty much major in women's studies, or be of the feminist old guard from the 1970s to be exposed to much of the underlying theory beyond just a public service announcement level of analysis. Activists such as Mary Daly, Andrea Dworkin and the aforementioned Catherine MacKinnon were even then quite controversial for views that now seem to be treated as if they came out of nowhere on social media circa 2013 or so. 

The works of Christina Hoff Sommers and Daphne Patai especially stand out in my mind. C.H Sommers, because Who Stole Feminism quite clearly outlined the influence feminist theorists had acquired in Academia and how their ideology rationalized acquiring that influence and spreading it into other areas of human endeavor - law, media, and so on.  Daphne Patai outlines in Heterophobia the precise contours of feminist theory's take on male heterosexuality, why a guilty even if proven innocent lynch mob mentality towards the accused is justified and how, at bottom, a core premise of what would become third wave intersectional feminism was to delegitimize heterosexuality itself. Details emerge in these works over harassment allegations made due to unwanted compliments and gazes that lasted just a little too long.

Make no mistake, many of the allegations of sexuall harassment to have emerged over the years, including that of Harvey Weinstein and the MeToo movement are harrowing. Feminist theory notwithstanding, there's no shortage of male behavior that runs the gamut from cringeworthy to abusive to downright criminal, and even Aziz Ansari's conduct strikes me as deeply problematic, to borrow a term from the twitter crowd. The need for legal protection against sexual harassment is very real. 

As I've said elsewhere on Facebook:

The dunderheaded twitter mob accuses #MeToo skeptics of trying to "silence women's voices" or something such. This is not true. Women who have been sexually harassed at work absolutely must come forward and file complaints. As an advocate of worker's rights, I believe that the workplace should be harassment free. 
As an advocate of worker's rights, I also believe that workers that are accused of misconduct on the job are also entitled to a fair hearing. Those of us who clamor for due process in the face of sexual misconduct allegations do not do so because we think women are all scheming liars vis-a-vis men. A handful are, the majority are not. Rather, due process is what protects the integrity of the anti-sexual harassment movement. It stops allegations of sexual harassment from being weaponized and abused. Without due process, what stops someone from fabricating an allegation to take out a competitor, or to take out someone whose job they want, or in retaliation for some real or perceived personal slight or another? Historically, during witch hunts and inquisitions of all kinds, accusations were abused in this manner all the time. What will stop it happening now? 
The more sociopathic among the SJWs - and they're out there, since the abusers of power are drawn to communities without formal structures of procedure or authority - have no problems with women fabricating false allegations of rape or sexual harassment against men. Men deserve it, after all, because privilege and patriarchy. The ends justify the means. An eye for an eye. While I'm fairly sure most women reject this kind of barbaric thinking, some don't and I'd expect those who don't to be drawn to the forefront of the women's movement. Let's not enable them. Let's not respond to past injustice with injustice now. It is future generations of women, as well as men today who are not responsible for the sins of the past, who will pay the price for this. Is that how the advocates of women's rights want history to remember their cause's moment?

The fact is that given its origins in postmodern feminist theory and the rejection of liberal notions such as private/public distinction, the importance of due process, free speech and sexual freedom that these origins imply, the preference for college kangaroo courts and trial-by-social media that we see employed by feminist activists to decide sexual harassment allegations shouldn't come as a surprise. The potential for abuse is only now being recognized, and steadfastly resisted and denied by even vaguely "liberal", let alone far left social media mobs.

Warning people online of the dangers posed by postmodern feminist theory was, suffice it to say, a thankless task during the Bush years when the public fears were, not illegitimately, of the erosion of civil liberties at the hands of a militarized neocon establishment, the religious right, and an increasingly radicalized "conservative" movement that was less and less interested in listening to reason than it was in conspiracy theories. Yet it was concerning even then to witness the Obama coalition coalesce around the self flattering narrative that as liberals, they were by definition for fairness and nondiscrimination, and it was therefore inconceivable and a mark of ignorance and bigotry that concerns should be raised about a culture of repression coming from the left.  The issue likewise flew under the radar of a conservative movement much more concerned with dismantling government protections for the poor and working classes and eroding civil liberties in the name of fighting terrorism. Sad that the monster was not dealt with when it was still relatively small.

It was awfully late in the day by the time the skeptic community responded to atheism plus and gamergate as the earliest attempts at an organized pushback against feminist theory's influence. As we've since seen, "social justice" ideology is now deeply embedded in the culture of Silicon Valley. Later still in the day since concerns raised over the excesses of the MeToo hashtag have begun to emerge in sources ranging from Spiked to the New York Times and even with the venerable feminist author Margaret Atwood, whose dystopian vision of a totalitarian theocracy oppressing women in the name of saving them was even upon its 1985 publication trying to warn us.  Suffice it to say, the backlash against all of these outlets for calling the sanctimony of feminism into question has been fierce.

Feminist theory's forty year hegemony in the realm of sexual politics is now paying very real dividends for feminist activists: Millennials are far less sexually active, far less inclined to form heterosexual relationships or marry, and are more likely to consider even invitations to coffee dates and male compliments on a woman's appearance as being harassment, regardless of context.  Heterosexual romance and eroticism have considerably faded from popular culture. Absurd and untenable notions of "enthusiastic" consent for every kiss, touch or caress between adult men and women have widespread support among the general public and are even law of the land in some places. It is not thought unreasonable by many that men should just 'know' in advance when a sexual advance is wanted and when it's not and therefore abusive and criminal.  Many women respond with knee jerk anger at the very notion of a male finding them physically attractive and complimenting them on it. While they deny holding this view, feminists have been largely successful in equating sexual attraction with sexual objectification in the minds of a considerable portion of the population. And due to a well cultivated siege mentality, they are no more amenable to reasoned argument than the religious right or the Tea Party were.

We've seen online and on college campuses what those who would argue for due process and the retention of the gains of the sexual revolution are up against: an entire generational cohort convinced that any deviation from intersectional social justice, including the centuries old liberal democratic tradition are little more than apologetics for power, privilege and patriarchy.  Decades of inactivity, complacency and appeasement across the political spectrum in the face of even the most wretched extremes of feminist theory come at a heavy price: equivalent decades of effort required to push popular attitudes and public policy back to a more even handed stance on the delicate balance between sexual freedom and protection from harassment, not to mention a more effective antidote to the very real scourge of sexual harassment than the proliferation of feminist theory.  But it is decades of effort that we have no choice but to invest.

Additional commentary from The Alternative Left:

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