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Sam’s Thoughts on Identity Politics

 
no_profundia
 
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no_profundia
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08 September 2017 23:17
 

Thank you After_The_Jump for your post and for providing examples. I admit I had a hard time finding anything in the interview with Dr. Harry Edwards that I would consider toxic or even misguided. What he had to say seemed totally reasonable to me. Was it just the fact that he lumped Trayvon Martin in with Michael Brown and Eric Garner that you found objectionable?

I think Trayvon Martin gets lumped in because many people believe there was a miscarriage of justice since George Zimmerman was aquitted. This is also the reason so many people were outraged by the Eric Garner and Michael Brown shootings. Not just that they were shot by police officers, but that no one was punished. Whether these were actually miscarriages of justice is a very difficult question to answer but I don’t find it strange that these cases all get lumped together.

The point is that all of those cases are fundamentally different, but the pull of toxic identity politics causes some people to immediately know what position they’re going to take before they even know the details.

I am not convinced this has anything to do with identity politics. This is just how human beings are. They have all sorts of group loyalties, prior intellectual commitments, and life experiences that effect how they are going to interpret a given situation. I don’t think there is a single human being on this earth that is free from these biases.

It is also important to recognize what people’s true grievances are. People did not riot in Ferguson simply because they believed there was a miscarriage of justice in the Michael Brown shooting. The rioters had a whole laundry list of things they were angry about, including a system that they felt was unfair and biased - and based on the studies I have seen I think they were right:

https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

In the light of this report I don’t think it was irrational for people in the community to side with the witnesses who claimed that Michael Brown had his hands up or was shot while running away. Those witnesses might have turned out to be unreliable but I don’t think the “biases” that led the members of that community to side with Michael Brown were the result of a prior commitment to identity politics. I think it is much more likely they were biased in that direction by their everyday dealings with a racially biased police force and criminal justice system.

Buress’s entire position was premised upon ‘being a black man’ and Harris’s statements not being credible because Harris wasn’t a black man. And as both Harris and Rogan pointed out, the police officer in any given situation could use the same argument - you don’t know what it’s like to be a police officer.

I did not listen to the Buress podcast, or rather, I listened to a little bit of it a long time ago but I did not find it worth continuing. Was Buress claiming that his status as a black man afforded him special insight into whether a particular police shooting was justified or not?

If Buress was simply claiming that “being a black man” gave him access to information that Sam would not have access to then I agree with Buress. Statistical studies are a great source of information if you want to see the big picture and spot correlations that it would be impossible to detect within the blooming buzzing confusion of our individual experience.

But, we also have access to a lot of richly textured information in our individual experience that it would be difficult or impossible to summarize in a statistical study. There absolutely are things about “being a black man” that Sam Harris cannot know anything about and he cannot learn them by picking up a sociology journal. And yes, the same would be true of being a police officer. I don’t think there is anything illegitimate in drawing on that richly textured information when making an argument. But I don’t really know the context or what arguments Buress was making.

I still think this is a strange use of the term identity politics though and I don’t think Sam is as circumspect as you are when he criticizes identity politics. When Sam says “all identity politics is detestable” or “I think it is the wrong move for African Americans to be organizing around race now. It is obviously the wrong move, it’s obviously destructive to civil society” I find it very hard to believe that he has the very limited definition of identity politics in mind that you are presenting.

Usually, when people use the term identity politics, they are referring to organized political movements that promote the interests of a specific group, like BLM or the transgender rights movement. The notion that movements that attempt to promote the interests of a specific group - racial justice, equal rights, etc. - are “all detestable” is extremely bizarre to me. If this is not what Sam means when he criticizes identity politics then he should use a different term, because this is what the term actually means, and continuing to use it is only going to cause confusion.

 
 
Igawa
 
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09 September 2017 07:59
 

If you’re OK with Buress complaining to Sam about him not knowing and/or not being able to understand what it’s like to be a black person, are you ready to accept a white person saying the same thing? Because if you don’t, you are being racist. Better to reject both than be a racist hypocrite.

For me, a specific case of identity politics becomes objectionable when one or more of the following three aspects appear: Subjective,  group oriented or group derived truth, goals that are certain to cause harm to another, and claims to victim status or oppression as justification for behavior that would not be socially acceptable by the groups around it.

The thing about identity politics is that it is very likely to cause these aspects to appear in people that engage in it, unless you have the discipline and self awareness to steer clear. The Civil Rights movement did this much better than say, the Black Power or BLM of today. That’s why we find it much less objectionable overall.

 
no_profundia
 
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09 September 2017 09:21
 
Igawa - 09 September 2017 07:59 AM

If you’re OK with Buress complaining to Sam about him not knowing and/or not being able to understand what it’s like to be a black person, are you ready to accept a white person saying the same thing?

Yes, I would accept this. Everyone has a lot of local tacit knowledge based on their own experiences that is often difficult or impossible to put into words or convey to another person. Being a particular race, living in a particular neighborhood, having a particular job, having a particular sexual orientation, etc. all provide a person with lots of information that people of a different race, from a different neighborhood, a different job, a different sexual orientation will not have. This is just a fact and I don’t think it should be controversial.

group oriented or group derived truth

Give me an example of “group derived truth.”

goals that are certain to cause harm to another

Like what? In most political policies there are groups that win or lose. Sometimes there are policies that help everyone but this is not the norm.

and claims to victim status or oppression as justification for behavior that would not be socially acceptable by the groups around it.

Sometimes it is necessary to act outside established norms to effect change. Give me an example of radical social change that did not involve some groups acting in ways that violated what some other groups considered social norms or acceptable behavior.

The thing about identity politics is that it is very likely to cause these aspects to appear in people that engage in it, unless you have the discipline and self awareness to steer clear.

There is no reason to think that your causal story: identity politics -> bad behavior is true. You have just invented a story in your head that all the “bad behavior” you don’t like is being caused by “identity politics”. I don’t think your causal story is true.

To use the example from my last post, there is no reason to think that an adherence to identity politics is what caused the rioting in Ferguson. I think it much more likely that the systematic harassment outlined in the DOJ study created a lot of anger which eventually erupted in Ferguson. My causal story would be: widespread racial discrimination and harassment -> riots and identity politics. I think identity politics is just one of the effects that might be correlated at times with what you consider bad behavior but I don’t think it is the important causal factor.

The same goes for all the examples of bad reasoning that After_The_Jump has pointed out. I don’t think “identity politics” is a causal factor that explains why people do not adopt a scientific attitude to the Michael Brown shooting. Rather, people are just biased in general and they have lots of personal reasons (all that tacit local knowledge) for siding with a particular story.

The Civil Rights movement did this much better than say, the Black Power or BLM of today. That’s why we find it much less objectionable overall.

You are whitewashing the Civil Rights movement from a perspective of historical distance. To give just one example, there were African Americans who shot at the buses during the Montgomery bus boycott but this is not what you read about today. Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, etc. There were plenty of people who claimed to be sympathetic to the goals of the Civil Rights movement but who made all the same criticisms that you are making of BLM and related movements today.

 
 
After_The_Jump
 
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09 September 2017 10:00
 

@ no_profundia

Yes, I would accept this. Everyone has a lot of local tacit knowledge based on their own experiences that is often difficult or impossible to put into words or convey to another person. Being a particular race, living in a particular neighborhood, having a particular job, having a particular sexual orientation, etc. all provide a person with lots of information that people of a different race, from a different neighborhood, a different job, a different sexual orientation will not have. This is just a fact and I don’t think it should be controversial.

It seems clear though that granting primacy to this premise essentially kills any opportunity at an actual resolution to conflict.

Consider: If Buress’s being a black man gives him special insight, then being a police officer would too. So, now what? A black person (or their family) cites their special insight as their justification for demanding charges against an officer in a shooting. The officer cites his special insight as his or her justification for claiming he or she acted in a lawful way. We’re still left to figure out what actually happened.

It is also important to recognize what people’s true grievances are. People did not riot in Ferguson simply because they believed there was a miscarriage of justice in the Michael Brown shooting. The rioters had a whole laundry list of things they were angry about, including a system that they felt was unfair and biased - and based on the studies I have seen I think they were right:

https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

Agreed 100%. And that’s where I believe this concept meets the pavement of functionality. The focus of movements like BLM, in my opinion, should be on the broader macro level reports like the one about the Ferguson police department and CJ system generally, because at that level the existence of racism is provable. However, demanding Darren Wilson be charged and convicted of murder? At that micro level, it’s nearly impossible to prove racism played a role and given the forensic evidence, it’s nearly impossible to prove Wilson was in the wrong. *If* Brown did engage in a physical confrontation with Wilson and *if* Brown did turn and run back toward Officer Wilson (and the forensic evidence made clear he did - the blood stains from Brown tracked a path away from and then back to Wilson) then it’s entirely plausible that the shooting was defensible.

So, focusing on Wilson - to me - distorts the message. Instead of the focus being on the provable racism outlined in the DOJ report about the Ferguson Police Department, the focus gets caught up in a gray area of unfalsifiability. Bridging the argument from “Ferguson Police Department - on aggregate - was engaged in racist behavior” to “Darren Wilson’s actions must have therefore been because of racism” is a legal no-go, and it grants cover to those individuals who want to act like racism in policing doesn’t exist at all.

I think Trayvon Martin gets lumped in because many people believe there was a miscarriage of justice since George Zimmerman was aquitted. This is also the reason so many people were outraged by the Eric Garner and Michael Brown shootings. Not just that they were shot by police officers, but that no one was punished. Whether these were actually miscarriages of justice is a very difficult question to answer but I don’t find it strange that these cases all get lumped together.

Garner wasn’t shot - he died about an hour after being placed in a chokehold by an officer. And you’re right that whether or not those were actually miscarriages of justice is a very difficult question to answer. But the questions about the racism found in police departments across the country isn’t a difficult one to answer. It’s there, it’s provable, and there’s no logical way to dispute that fact. Which is, again, why I think movements like BLM lose credibility when they demand outcomes for the unprovable micro cases.

I am not convinced this has anything to do with identity politics. This is just how human beings are.

I see no need to draw lines of mutual exclusivity between these things.

They have all sorts of group loyalties, prior intellectual commitments, and life experiences that effect how they are going to interpret a given situation. I don’t think there is a single human being on this earth that is free from these biases.

Sure. But human beings don’t have to be blind to the effects of those biases. That’s the primary utility to identifying and acknowledging one’s bias - doing so allows oneself to not get sucked into the wind-stream of losing all objectivity on certain issues. It’s the difference between making fact based arguments about widepread racism in policing to making conjecture based assumptions about any one instance of police violence being because of racism. The capacity to do this - to see one’s own biases and then work backward to mitigate their impact on one’s position - is what it means to be a rational person.

[ Edited: 28 September 2017 10:31 by After_The_Jump]
 
no_profundia
 
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09 September 2017 20:34
 

Consider: If Buress’s being a black man gives him special insight, then being a police officer would too. So, now what? A black person (or their family) claims their special insight as their justification for demanding charges against an officer in a shooting. The officer claims their special insight as their justification for claiming they acted in a lawful way. We’re still left to figure out what actually happened.

As a black man, Hannibal Buress has access to information that Sam Harris does not and vice versa. Whether that information is relevant to a particular issue or discussion will depend on the issue or topic that is being discussed. This is why I tried to make it clear that I was not sure what the context of Buress’s argument was.

If he was claiming that being a black man gave him special insight into whether the shooting of Michael Brown was justified then I think he was wrong - and I would claim the same thing if a police officer thought he had special insight into a particular case or event.

However, if we are discussing systemic racism in general, or if we are discussing possible policies that we might adopt that would reduce racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, or would reduce the use of lethal force while still keeping police officers safe, then I think Buress’s experiences and the police officer’s experiences become relevant.

It seems clear though that granting credence to this premise essentially kills any opportunity at an actual resolution to conflict.

Not necessarily. There do seem to be conflicts - like the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians - that wind up in an endless deadlock but this is not a foregone conclusion. Simply admitting that African Americans have a unique perspective, and police officers have a unique perspective - which is simply a fact - does not mean that there is no possible solution that will satisfy both parties, or that it will be impossible to reach “the truth of the matter.”

The focus of movements like BLM, in my opinion, should be on the broader macro level reports like the one about the Ferguson police department and CJ system generally, because at that level the existence of racism is provable. However, demanding Darren Wilson be charged and convicted of murder? At that micro level, it’s nearly impossible to prove racism played a role and given the forensic evidence, it’s nearly impossible to prove Wilson was in the wrong.

I think movements like BLM are focusing on the broader macro level issues. If you go to their policy sites and look at the actual policies they support they are all general proposals for reducing what they consider to be the unfair biases of our current system. I don’t remember reading anything about Darren Wilson in particular.

Particular cases like this might get the most media attention but I don’t think it is what the actual political movements are focusing their energies on. That is another reason I find Harris’s dismissal of BLM so bizarre. Perhaps his dismissal is based on the fact that lots of BLM members reached a different conclusion about the Michael Brown shooting than he thinks they should have based on an objective weighing of the evidence.

But is this a reason to dismiss the movement, and all identity politics as “detestable” or claim that they are going to set race relations back half a century? Because they have a different interpretation of a single event?

I would also point out that the question “Was Darren Wilson justified in shooting Michael Brown?” is nearly impossible to reach an objective answer on. Based on the report you linked to I don’t think it would have made sense to prosecute him but that is different from saying that the shooting was fully justified and African Americans have no reason to be angry about it.

If we wanted to reach an objective answer to that question we would need to know the answer to questions like: In what precise situations is a use of deadly force morally justified? If Michael Brown had been white would Darren Wilson have shot him? What other possible courses of action might Darren Wilson have taken? Was his training sufficient to prepare him for that particular situation?

Do you have answers to those questions that you are one-hundred percent confident in? Even if Darren Wilson had enough cause to be within his rights to shoot Michael Brown do we know that racial bias (not necessarily racism) played no part in the actions he took? Is it totally unreasonable for someone to be angry that an 18 year old was shot and killed?

So, focusing on Wilson - to me - distorts the message.

I do agree that we spend way too much time debating whether a particular shooting was justified or not. I think that energy would be better spent coming up with policies that would be likely to reduce future shootings and that would be seen as legitimate by police officers and the communities they police.

“Ferguson Police Department - on aggregate - was engaged in racist behavior” to “Darren Wilson’s actions must have therefore been because of racism” is a legal no-go”

Agreed. Grand juries, or courts, or however the decisions are made on whether to bring charges, and whether a defendant is found guilty, should be based on the individual case. I doubt there are very many people who disagree with that. People might disagree about whether a particular case was an example of racism or not, or whether a particular shooting was justified or not, but I doubt very many people disagree with the idea that individual cases should be decided on their individual merits.

Garner wasn’t shot - he died about an hour after being placed in a chokehold by an officer.

My mistake.

I see no need to draw lines of mutual exclusivity between these things.

Well, let me explain the problem I have with an analogy. Let’s say I do a study of violent behavior in two populations - Caucasians and African Americans -  and I find that the incidence of violent behavior in each group is exactly the same. Now imagine someone reads a few stories about African Americans being violent and claims “There must be something about African American culture that causes violence. They need to change their culture.”

I am sure you see the problem. I think Sam is doing something analogous with identity politics. He has a few examples of groups that he associates with “identity politics” engaging in reasoning that he considers suspect, so he concludes that there must be something wrong with identity politics in general that gets in the way of thinking clearly and rationally, so we have to do away with identity politics. Do you see the problem?

If he is singling identity politics out for causing something that is really a universal human trait, and If the incidence of “biased thinking” is the same among people who engage in “identity politics” and the general population, then it makes no sense to claim that “all identity politics is detestable” because it causes biased thinking.

I do believe that group identities bias thinking. I think there is scientific evidence to support that. But we all have group identities whether we engage in identity politics or not. I come from a Catholic family. I gave up my Catholicism long ago but I still find a part of myself rooting for the Catholics when I read history books and I probably tend to give them more leeway than I would other groups. Blaming this trait on “identity politics” I think gets the causal story wrong. It would be like singling African Americans out for their violent behavior even if other groups were just as violent.

Sure. But human beings don’t have to be blind to the effects of those biases. That’s the primary utility to identifying and acknowledging one’s bias - doing so allows oneself to not get sucked into the wind-stream of losing all objectivity on certain issues.

Of course. It is certainly good to become aware of our biases and make an effort to correct them. I do not object to Sam’s critique of biased thinking. What I object to, as I tried to explain above, is his blanket dismissal of identity politics based on his belief that identity politics is uniquely responsible for biased thinking.

Let me try putting it another way. Sam’s argument in a nutshell seems to me to be this:

1. The Michael Brown shooting was justified
2. BLM members did not think the Michael Brown shooting was justified
3. Therefore, the members of BLM are guilty of biased thinking
4. BLM is an example of identity politics
5. Therefore, identity politics causes biased thinking
6. Therefore, we need to do away with identity politics

I think there are a lot of problems with this chain of reasoning but my primary complaint would be with step 5. Members of BLM are guilty of biased thinking, therefore, identity politics must cause biased thinking. If biased thinking is a universal human trait then this step (potentially) becomes invalid and so the whole reason to do away with identity politics falls to the ground.

I agree biased thinking is a problem, and it is great for individuals to make an effort to correct it, but I think Sam misdiagnoses the problem and offers the wrong cure. I think political movements organized around particular identities have an absolutely essential role to play in our political system and in the promotion of social change and I don’t think we should dismiss them on false (I think) causal stories.

 
 
Igawa
 
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Igawa
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09 September 2017 22:52
 

Are you personally involved in identity politics?

 
no_profundia
 
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10 September 2017 09:16
 
Igawa - 09 September 2017 10:52 PM

Are you personally involved in identity politics?

No, I am not personally involved.

 
 
Igawa
 
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Igawa
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10 September 2017 23:52
 

Why do you think you are not involved?

 
no_profundia
 
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no_profundia
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11 September 2017 10:25
 
Igawa - 10 September 2017 11:52 PM

Why do you think you are not involved?

There are lots of reasons. Here are a few:

1. I work full time and I am in school so I have very little free time to devote to political causes.
2. I am quiet and introverted and do not enjoy crowds. I would rather stay at home and read.
3. I am a free-rider. Most people are. Everyone agrees that medical research is important but most people are not personally involved in medical research. They are able to reap the rewards of medical research - better medical care - without incurring the costs - investment of time and money.

It is not clear to me what you are driving at. Perhaps you could explain.

 
 
Igawa
 
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11 September 2017 12:44
 

You’re a good apologist for identity politics, that’s all. I’m trying to understand what kind of person you are so I can help you understand me.

Let me try putting it another way. Sam’s argument in a nutshell seems to me to be this:

1. The Michael Brown shooting was justified
2. BLM members did not think the Michael Brown shooting was justified
3. Therefore, the members of BLM are guilty of biased thinking
4. BLM is an example of identity politics
5. Therefore, identity politics causes biased thinking
6. Therefore, we need to do away with identity politics

#5 is where you’re misinterpreting Sam and others here. Biased thinking is universal, since everyone experiences the world subjectively, and their biases are both formed by and create their experience. Identity politics is more caused by biased thinking than the other way around. However, it is not a one-way street, so to speak.

Group-oriented/derived subjective truth: This is my name for truth that is inherently based on common experience (or perceived common experience) of a group. Most of these are also built upon other truths that the group reinforces. ATJ had a great example of group-derived truth:

if I’m black, my having been treated differently must have been because of the color of my skin

In some ways this is a universal trait of human experience, since we all belong to some groups to varying degrees, and all have subjective experience. However, some subjective truths are more damaging than others (Jews are destroying society), and some are based on too many layers of subjective truth that ignore many much simpler potential causes (My manager didn’t give me a raise because she has internalized misogyny caused by the patriarchy that runs society). If your group espouses beliefs that reinforce these lines of reasoning, I think that is harmful. The thought processes that drive identity politics risk creating feedback loops of bias that generally brings you further and further away from facts or useful truth.

That’s why we should be skeptical of identity politics, and try to keep from straying too far into valuing subjective experience of ourselves and others as truth. Humans have demonstrated this tendency to create systems that reinforce bias, of which identity politics is a subcategory. While it’s impossible to avoid these systems overall, we should be skeptical of them, and be able to critique them fairly, openly, and often.

 

 
no_profundia
 
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11 September 2017 18:42
 

I apologize in advance for the length of these posts which I have broken up into two posts to (hopefully) make them more digestible. I realize it is asking a lot of a person to actually read through all of this so as penance I will try to make this my last post on this topic for a bit and let others take over the conversation if they so choose. These posts come pretty close, I think, to giving my definitive views on identity politics, so I may not have much to add to this anyway.

You’re a good apologist for identity politics, that’s all. I’m trying to understand what kind of person you are so I can help you understand me.

Fair enough. I appreciate that you are making a sincere effort to understand where I am coming from. I will do my best to return the favor.

some subjective truths are more damaging than others (Jews are destroying society), and some are based on too many layers of subjective truth that ignore many much simpler potential causes (My manager didn’t give me a raise because she has internalized misogyny caused by the patriarchy that runs society).

So, I don’t like analyzing individual situations because there is way too much ambiguity. It is very difficult to decide, in an individual case, whether a woman was denied a raise because of internalized gender norms or for some reason that had nothing to do with gender. However, it is possible to say something about whether women in general are less likely to get a raise because of those internalized norms and there are studies that suggest women are less likely to get a job - given equal qualifications - and are likely to be offered a lower starting salary.  Political movements are - and should be - focused on the general question rather than proving misogyny was a factor in a specific case.

Setting my reticence about individual cases aside for a moment, would you agree that there are cases where women really are denied a raise because of misogyny? If so, what should they do?

The thought processes that drive identity politics risk creating feedback loops of bias that generally brings you further and further away from facts or useful truth.

If I am understanding you correctly, you are saying something like this:

Engaging in identity politics implants a narrative in people’s minds that leads them to interpret their everyday lives in terms of that narrative. So, if I am an African American, and I engage in identity politics, I am more likely to interpret a cop’s rudeness as a result of internalized racial bias then if I was not engaged in identity politics. This process reinforces itself in a positive feedback loop until every perceived slight is interpreted as racism.

Is that a fair summary of your argument?

I think this is likely true although it would be difficult to determine objectively how much of the increase in perceived racism is the result of a greater awareness of racism and how much of it is the result of misinterpretation based on a pre-established narrative.

I would just make two points about this:

1. If there really is systemic racism what other option do we have than to accept that sometimes people are going to misinterpret situations as racial when they are not? What are you actually proposing African Americans who live in Ferguson, and are genuinely the victims of systemic harrassment and racism, should do? Should they refrain from even admitting that there is systemic racism for fear that it might lead them to misinterpret some of their personal encounters? What, concretely, would you recommend the people of Ferguson do in order to seek redress for the racism they face?

I don’t think it is realistic to ask African Americans to refrain from admitting they are the victims of racism when they really are nor do I think it is desirable. There are trade-offs in everything we do and I think political movements are essential vehicles of change. The Civil Rights movement might have made African Americans more likely to misperceive themselves as victims of racism in certain situations but it also ended Jim Crow and segregation and led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act. I am not convinced that would have happend without some organized movement and I think the benefits far outweighed any possible risks.

2. One thing we should keep in mind when talking about cognitive bias is, our ability to measure cognitive bias is based on our ability to know the truth. In cases where it is difficult or impossible to know the truth it becomes difficult or impossible to measure cognitive bias. It is always possible the person claiming bias is the one who is actually biased. That is why psychological studies of cognitive bias tend to be based on examples where the truth is unambiguous.

For example, the conjunction fallacy is based on asking people questions like “Is Traci - who is described as possessing some of the stereotypical characteristics of a feminist - more likely to be a bank teller or a bank teller and a feminist?” There is an unambiguous right answer to this question because the probability of a conjunction being true is always less than or equal to the probability of one member of the conjunction being true on its own. People tend to get this question wrong and that is a clear example of a cognitive bias.

When we are talking about whether a particular interaction was the result of racial bias, there is no unambiguous way to reach the truth, so it is difficult to say whether a particular person was biased or not. There is a great book called Blindspot by Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald where they summarize a bunch of studies that have been done to show the presence of unconscious biases even among people who are not racist in any overt sense.

For example, people naturally have an easier time associating African Americas with “guns” or “violence” then they do white people. These cognitive biases are unconscious but they do influence our behavior. These biases are also nearly universal. I have a feeling the higher incidence of African Americans being shot has less to do with overt racism - people who genuinely believe African Americans are an inferior race - and more to do with these unconscious priming effects in our brain that effect even well-intentioned people.

But the point I am trying to get at is, it is possible these unconscious biases effect a person’s behavior without them realizing it. Since even the people who are making a decision - like whether to give a woman a raise or not, or whether a person is dangerous and I need to draw my gun - are unconscious of all the biases that might be effecting their decision it becomes nearly impossible in an individual case to determine whether a woman was denied a raise because:

1. She is genuinely not qualified for the raise (or some other reason that has nothing to do with gender).
2. Her boss is a genuine misogynist who consciously believes women are inferior.
3. Her boss has internalized norms and/or associations that are unconsciously affecting his behavior.

If it is impossible, at least in practice, to determine what the actual truth is, then it becomes impossible to measure bias or deviation from the truth. Often, when we accuse a group like BLM of bias we are measuring their bias based on our perception of the truth when it is just as possible that we are guilty of being biased. It is very dangerous to start accusing people or groups of bias when we are not in a position to know the truth with any real degree of certainty. A study of psychological bias would never dream of trying to measure bias by asking whether people thought the shooting of Michael Brown was justified or not because there is no unambiguous right answer.

That’s why we should be skeptical of identity politics, and try to keep from straying too far into valuing subjective experience of ourselves and others as truth. Humans have demonstrated this tendency to create systems that reinforce bias, of which identity politics is a subcategory. While it’s impossible to avoid these systems overall, we should be skeptical of them, and be able to critique them fairly, openly, and often.

I agree we should be skeptical. We should be skeptical of everything. I don’t think saying we should be skeptical justifies saying that “all identity politics is detestable” (Sam Harris) or “Identity politics is surely one of the great evils of our age” (Richard Dawkins). When I want to do some research on whether racial bias exists in the criminal justice system, there is no way I am going to rely on BLM as my sole or primary source of information and data. I recognize that they have a specific viewpoint that is going to effect the data they choose to provide.

However, admitting that we should be skeptical of sources of information is way different from claiming that those same sources of information are “one of the great evils of our age.” It is the latter step I object to and find bizarre. I actually did not know much about identity politics before I started posting on this forum. When I first came here I was much more sympathetic to Sam than I am now. So, when I heard people criticizing identity politics I tried to do some research on what identity politics actually was.

I could not find any definition of identity politics that seemed to me to justify the extreme statements made by people like Sam and Richard. As I have tried to point out many times, this is how I define identity politics:

A political movement that attempts to promote the interests of a particular group.

I do not find anything objectionable about that in principle. No one objects when a political movement tries to further the interests of the working class or the poor. How else would we further the interests of these groups? Political movements organized around particular issues have been essential in moving us forward politically. There may be some dangers or negative side effects but I think the gains far outweigh the costs.

[ Edited: 11 September 2017 18:51 by no_profundia]
 
 
no_profundia
 
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no_profundia
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11 September 2017 18:47
 

I know my previous post is already ridiculously long but I wanted to quickly explain one philosophical difference I have with Sam Harris that I think goes a long way towards explaining our different positions on identity politics. Sam and I agree that human beings are not very good at “objective” or “exploratory” reasoning. That is, reasoning that is not biased by our group loyalties, experiences, prior intellectual commitments, etc. We are very good at post-hoc justificatory reasong, i.e. at coming up with arguments to support positions we already hold.

While we agree about this, Sam and I seem to disagree about what the proper solution is to that problem. Sam seems to adopt a didactic approach. By making everyone aware of their biases, and exhorting them to do better, we will eventually overcome our biases and become rational. I am more pessimistic than Sam regarding this particular solution. I don’t think it does any harm to exhort people to be less biased but I am not convinced that human beings are really capable of overcoming their biases to any appreciable degree. However, I am more optimistic than Sam in another respect, because I believe it is possible to design institutions that actually harness our biases for good.

People often argue that the “ideal scientist” is someone who is free from bias and just follows the evidence or the best argument wherever they lead. I actually think a scientist that followed the evidence wherever it lead, and was always persuaded by the best current argument, would be a pretty useless scientist. They would be like a bag blown around by the wind. They would have no position of their own and they would just go with whatever they heard most recently that they found convincing. There are plenty of scientific theories that seemed crazy at first, that seemed to be contradicted by solid arguments, and by the best current evidence, that turned out to be true, and it is only because there were some pig-headed, biased scientists who clung to theories for “irrational reasons” that we eventually discovered those theories were true.

I think good reasoning is a socially emergent property that exists when individuals are allowed to compete with each other and criticize each other. I think our biases actually play an important role in producing good reasoning at the social level because without them we would all be blown around by the shifting winds of the Zeitgeist and we would quickly reach dead ends where no further progress was possible.

So, it does not bother me too much that a group like BLM is biased. It would bother me if they were the only political actor on stage but they aren’t. They exist in a political and social ecosystem where their views are constantly being challenged by other political actors with different perspectives and biases. If they were to fold up it would not result in a victory for “objective thought”. It would just mean that different groups, with different biases, would no longer face any opposition and I think this would reduce our collective rationality. I think it is only through the clash of all these biases that we are capable of something like objective reasoning. It is not by eliminating bias that we reach objectivity but by allowing biases to have fair play.

It is possible this philosophical difference is the most important factor in explaining why I have a different perspective on identity politics than Sam or others on this forum.

 
 
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12 September 2017 02:11
 

no_profundia, I just wish to again let you know how much I appreciate your thoughtful and well-considered posts, on this and other topics.

 
 
Igawa
 
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12 September 2017 02:36
 

So, I don’t like analyzing individual situations because there is way too much ambiguity. It is very difficult to decide, in an individual case, whether a woman was denied a raise because of internalized gender norms or for some reason that had nothing to do with gender. However, it is possible to say something about whether women in general are less likely to get a raise because of those internalized norms and there are studies that suggest women are less likely to get a job - given equal qualifications - and are likely to be offered a lower starting salary.  Political movements are - and should be - focused on the general question rather than proving misogyny was a factor in a specific case.

Setting my reticence about individual cases aside for a moment, would you agree that there are cases where women really are denied a raise because of misogyny? If so, what should they do?

Sure, I’m not saying that such a case is impossible. My point is that buying into a narrative too strongly can cause people to believe that things happen for more unlikely (and often more dangerous) reasons than they actually do. As you say, political movements focus on the general question, but the individuals on both sides get affected in their individual ways.

Is that a fair summary of your argument?

I think this is likely true although it would be difficult to determine objectively how much of the increase in perceived racism is the result of a greater awareness of racism and how much of it is the result of misinterpretation based on a pre-established narrative.

Yup, that’s fair. And yes, you have a point about not being able to tell whether the increased awareness is real or misinterpreted. That is exactly why we should treat systems that ‘increase awareness of injustice X’ carefully and not take at face value. Misogyny, racism, classism, sexism, rape, oppression….these are all serious charges, and require serious evidence, something more than subjective experience.

If there really is systemic racism what other option do we have than to accept that sometimes people are going to misinterpret situations as racial when they are not? What are you actually proposing African Americans who live in Ferguson, and are genuinely the victims of systemic harrassment and racism, should do? Should they refrain from even admitting that there is systemic racism for fear that it might lead them to misinterpret some of their personal encounters? What, concretely, would you recommend the people of Ferguson do in order to seek redress for the racism they face?

They should address the situation in Ferguson specifically, without trying to tie it into some grand narrative of oppression. The vast majority of the police department and government were white, despite majority black population, right? Why is that? Was there some discrimination in the police recruitment process? What about politics? Were black candidates or their voters suppressed? Why is there so much tension between the police and the community? Is it because the police is a racist institution? Or is there some fault in the community they serve?

For example, people naturally have an easier time associating African Americas with “guns” or “violence” then they do white people. These cognitive biases are unconscious but they do influence our behavior. These biases are also nearly universal. I have a feeling the higher incidence of African Americans being shot has less to do with overt racism - people who genuinely believe African Americans are an inferior race - and more to do with these unconscious priming effects in our brain that effect even well-intentioned people.

Sure. I also have an easier time associating American whites with ‘cowardice’, ‘complacency’, ‘neuroticism’, and ‘perversion’. Asians (actual Asians, not Americans) are more ‘racist’, ‘sexist’, ‘supremacist’, and ‘collectivist’. I can actually claim firsthand experience for these negative stereotypes, unlike with African Americans where it’s mostly just media influence. But hey, it’s all subjective experience right?

Everyone operates on stereotypes. It’s just how we function. It seems more productive to me to have and promote in others a healthy relationship with your stereotype system than demonizing it or trying to banish it altogether. Treat it like Donald Trump. Amusing, occasionally correct, deals in massive oversimplification and broad generalization, and requires extreme skepticism when it tries to contribute to a real life situation. One problem with this approach is that I get the feeling that a certain segment of the population is actually biologically incapable of doing this. (Looking at you, ideological extremists!).

I agree we should be skeptical. We should be skeptical of everything. I don’t think saying we should be skeptical justifies saying that “all identity politics is detestable” (Sam Harris) or “Identity politics is surely one of the great evils of our age” (Richard Dawkins). When I want to do some research on whether racial bias exists in the criminal justice system, there is no way I am going to rely on BLM as my sole or primary source of information and data. I recognize that they have a specific viewpoint that is going to effect the data they choose to provide.

However, admitting that we should be skeptical of sources of information is way different from claiming that those same sources of information are “one of the great evils of our age.” It is the latter step I object to and find bizarre. I actually did not know much about identity politics before I started posting on this forum. When I first came here I was much more sympathetic to Sam than I am now. So, when I heard people criticizing identity politics I tried to do some research on what identity politics actually was.

I could not find any definition of identity politics that seemed to me to justify the extreme statements made by people like Sam and Richard. As I have tried to point out many times, this is how I define identity politics:

  A political movement that attempts to promote the interests of a particular group.

I think the crux of the problem is that your definition for identity politics is quite broad, so too many good things get hit with the blanket condemnation. It’s also worth pointing out that the people who are most violent and irrational in their critiques of Sam and Richard are involved in or driven by identity politics and identitarian thinking, so their distrust of identity politics is naturally greater than most. However, I think it is a justified critique and should be taken seriously.

I do not find anything objectionable about that in principle. No one objects when a political movement tries to further the interests of the working class or the poor. How else would we further the interests of these groups? Political movements organized around particular issues have been essential in moving us forward politically. There may be some dangers or negative side effects but I think the gains far outweigh the costs.

Just want to point out here that it’s not that hard to find extremely objectionable identitarian political movements whose main objective is to help the working class and the poor. If it’s called, looks like, or smells like communism, fascism, Maoism, or Marxism I’m not giving it the time of day.

It is not by eliminating bias that we reach objectivity but by allowing biases to have fair play.

Hear hear! Free speech and free expression forever! In some ways this is also at the core of the concern with identity politics though. If our biases play freely, some are going to lose. If you’ve tied your identity to these biases, however…I hope you can see what I mean by this. The classic Racist Sexist Bigot Homophobe label is an attack meant to shut you up, or shut you out from people’s ears

[ Edited: 12 September 2017 09:38 by Igawa]
 
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14 September 2017 08:17
 

@no_profundia

Not necessarily. There do seem to be conflicts - like the conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians - that wind up in an endless deadlock but this is not a foregone conclusion. Simply admitting that African Americans have a unique perspective, and police officers have a unique perspective - which is simply a fact - does not mean that there is no possible solution that will satisfy both parties, or that it will be impossible to reach “the truth of the matter.”

The point though is that “admitting both African Americans and police officers have a unique perspective” doesn’t get us any closer to solving anything. If we’re granting credence to one “unique perspective” then logically we have to grant credence to the other as well since both are based on the same subjective standard. In any scenario where two juxtaposed parties are both citing unique perspectives as their justification for their position, we’re left at a stalemate until and unless we find a different more objective way to evaluate the issue.

Particular cases like this might get the most media attention but I don’t think it is what the actual political movements are focusing their energies on. That is another reason I find Harris’s dismissal of BLM so bizarre. Perhaps his dismissal is based on the fact that lots of BLM members reached a different conclusion about the Michael Brown shooting than he thinks they should have based on an objective weighing of the evidence.

But is this a reason to dismiss the movement, and all identity politics as “detestable” or claim that they are going to set race relations back half a century? Because they have a different interpretation of a single event?

Part of the struggle with movements such as BLM is exactly this. I don’t see it so much as “having a different interpretation of a single event”. Rather, it’s that the message gets diluted into a binary philosophy. In that way, it’s a virtual guarantee that the BLM movement will be locked in a perpetual state of seeing every controversial police shooting of a black person as an obvious example of racism in policing. I believe this is why Harris thinks identity politics is detestable - because it inevitably clouds objectivity.

Consider it this way: I’m not black so I have no way to tap into the unique perspective of black people. I’m never going to truly understand it because I can never truly experience it. But I’m acutely aware of the myriad studies outlining mistreatment of black people based on the color of their skin. I’m very aware of all levels of those studies, including the ones which isolate factors down to race being the only one left. . We’ve marginalized black people for centuries, we systematically broke up their families and partitioned them off from economic and educational success, we literally and physically chained them to poverty, and now we’re blaming them for being disproportionately represented in crime and in poverty.

Acknowledging that and dedicating one’s self to fixing it doesn’t require “identity politics” of any kind; it doesn’t require losing sight of objectivity. Because when objectivity gets blurred, one’s ability to effectively address legitimate grievances is compromised too.

 

 
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