Thursday, 24 November 2016

Patch 0.1

This post starts with pretty horrifying story that describes terrifying antisemitism.

Richard Spencer, a leader of the "alt-right" movement recently gave a speech to a friendly room that has been in the news because of a few "controversial" elements to it. For example, he said, "Hail Trump!" and some people in the audience made a gesture resembling the classic Nazi salute.

As part of this speech, Spencer said "one wonders if these people are people at all? Or instead soulless golems animated by some dark power to repeat whatever talking point John Oliver stated the night before." The "these people" in question were media talking heads who don't like Donald Trump.

CNN looked at this part of the quotation: "one wonders if these people are people at all? Or instead soulless golems" and interpreted "these people" as "Jews" then had a panel where they talked about whether Jews were people. Of course everyone thought Jews were people, but the way the question was treated was scary, as if someone with a different "opinion" on the "issue" could have had a seat at the table.

BoingBoing has a post describing CNN's treatment of the issue without any direct reference to Spencer. Somehow the discussion of that post morphed into a discussion of the fact that Spencer was misquoted. The point wasn't to defend Spencer - the BoingBoing discussion threads are hardly an "alt-right" friendly place. Rather it was to talk about how misquoting someone or quoting someone out of context is wrong and we want to be better than them.

If you care to look, you aren't going to have trouble finding people who think the media is run by Jews. The "golem" is a mythical creature made of clay or mud and brought to life by a rabbi by Hebrew incantations to defend Jews. The implication of the words in the context of the "alt-right" movement is that the media have sold their souls to Jews. Since we don't usually think of humans as being in the soul-buying business, I think the "Jews aren't human" narrative speaks lout and clear from the quote.

He didn't literally say it, though, and so we have a tedious discussion about our obligation to the truth.

I wrote recently about "elites" as a class of people where social status comes from putting reason before emotion. This kind of narrow analysis if typical of the educated/expert class. You look at a big broad situation, then drill down and offer the best critique you can of whatever narrative is forming. It's a bulwark against jumping on bandwagons and making emotional decisions.

But there is no perfect system, every system has defects. Once the code is written and the system is known, the hackers can find an exploit. This quotation is an example of an exploit.

Many or most people who are Jewish is going to hear Spencer's quote and go, "Whoa, that's crazy antisemitic!" Meanwhile the educated/expert analysis is going to say, "We can't jump to that conclusion." The analysis has been pitted against the anti-antisemitism when they ought to be on the same side - we are doing this analysis, presumably, because we believe it makes the world better and not, presumably, because we want to put the breaks on condemning bigotry.

This is the same exploit that has us discussing the particulars of every instance of police violence to see if we can prove from that instance alone that wrong was done. This is the same exploit that has us discussing the particulars of every instance of sexual assault to see if there is a gap through which we could fit a doubt.

We need to patch our reasoning, and the patch looks like this:

1. Listen to the people who are affected by what was said and done. Bigotry is about the effect on the people who are oppressed, not about the intention of the people saying or doing things. If the words someone said had the effect of scaring people who are Jewish because they are Jewish, then it was antisemitic in its effect.

2. People are people, not magical logic boxes. You can't escape humanity and human motivation. I'm the biggest proponent of the idea that people are unreliable sources of information on their own emotions and beliefs, but they are still sources, and are considerably better than your wild guesses. If someone says something threatened them because of their race, gender or religion, the most likely explanation is that the thing was threatening to people of their race, gender or religion.

3. Remember that not drawing a conclusion from a single point of data is fine, but you can't iterate that process because then it's not a single point of data anymore. If someone says, "But maybe this police shooting wasn't racist" for the twentieth time, the point becomes that it is impossible to believe that racism isn't a huge part of what is going on.

4. Double check if your worry about being wrong is racist. Do you worry more about being wrong about what a white man said than you do about being wrong about a minority group being hurt by it? That needs to be fixed.

5. Adjust your thinking about how bad it is to accuse someone of being bigoted. Saying someone's word or actions were bigoted is not as bad as actually being bigoted.

6. If you ever find yourself thinking, "Technically he didn't say that", remember, plain language is not technical, it has no one true meaning, and you are being a complete idiot.

I see a lot of well-meaning people running a lot of racist malware in their brains. It's time to fix this nonsense.

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