Written in 2014.
This is about an old friend of mine. I’ll call her Violet.
Violet is in her mid-30s. She is married but has no children. She is Chinese. Her parents were immigrants to Canada. She grew up in an area that is very racially diverse, where at least a third of the population is Chinese, and whites are a minority. She is now a professor of communications.
A while ago, Violet came to my city for a conference. We arranged to meet up and go for coffee (it ended up being tea instead). We met at her hotel. It was a bit awkward at first, as these things usually are. We hugged and exchanged the typical greetings. I suggested that we go to a little tea shop nearby. She agreed. So, we left the hotel and started walking to the tea shop.
As we walked, she told me about her recent struggles moving to a new city and starting a new job as a professor. We started talking about her research. I made a remark that academia is dominated by politics rather than truth-seeking, which is why I didn’t pursue an academic career. She paused for a moment, and then said “Yeah, Derrida and Foucault would have a hard time getting tenure today”.
I found it odd that she picked Derrida and Foucault as examples. They were part of the general mish-mash known as “post-modernism”.
We arrived at the tea shop, got a pot of tea, and sat down at a table.
She told me that she was considered a radical in her department. I said “You, a radical?”. I’ve known Violet for a long time, and she is not a radical. She’s the kind of person who dots her “i”s and crosses her “t”s and runs for student council.
I think she was slightly miffed by my reaction. She said she was considered radical because of her critiques of capitalism and consumer culture. I didn’t say anything, but I couldn’t help noticing that she was wearing nice clothes, carrying a nice little purse, wearing makeup, etc. She obviously partakes of consumer culture.
“What is the alternative to capitalism?” I asked.
She said that she didn’t need an alternative to critique it. She didn’t believe in grand “totalizing” theories. I recognized that as a postmodernist cliché. They reject all grand theories, except their own, of course.
I said “Well, you do need an alternative, because otherwise you are comparing reality to a utopian fantasy”. I don’t remember her response to that.
At one point in the conversation, she mentioned Marcuse as one of her influences. I said “Oh, wasn’t he part of…”, and she said “Yes, the Frankfurt school”.
I didn’t know that she had become so left-wing. I should have guessed, because communications is probably the most left-wing academic field after gender studies and ethnic studies. But I was still surprised, because it didn’t seem to fit the person that I had known years ago.
As I was digesting that, she dropped the P-bomb on me. She sat up very straight in her chair and said, “You know, white men have privilege in our society”.
Up to this point, I had been very calm, but that remark annoyed me. I frowned and leaned back in my chair.
“What privilege do I have that you don’t have?” I asked.
She said “When you walk into a room, you start from zero”.
It was a propaganda slogan and a claim of invisible privilege.
I said “Well, it depends on who is in the room, and it depends on the person walking into the room. Not all white men are the same. Some are tall, some are short, some are ugly, some are handsome. Of course, some people are going to have advantages or disadvantages in certain situations. But so what? Should all differences between people be erased? A tall man has an advantage over a short man, because women find tall men more sexually attractive. Should tall men be surgically shortened to take away their advantage? Should short men be made taller? Should women be forced to go out with short men to equalize outcomes?”
She didn’t respond to the points I had made. Instead, she said “That reminds me of a poster that illustrates the difference between equality and equity”.
She described it to me, and I will describe it to you.
There are two panels in this comic. Each shows three men trying to see over a fence. The men are different heights: tall, medium and short. In the first panel, each man is standing on a box. This is supposed to represent equality. The tall man can see easily over the fence. The medium man can just barely see over the fence. The short man can’t see over the fence. In the second panel, the tall man has no box, the medium man has one box, and the short man has two boxes. Now they can all see over the fence. This represents “equity”.
I was stunned that she was giving me propaganda slogans and comics, instead of making rational arguments.
I explained the problems with the metaphor in the comic.
First, the boxes are just conveniently lying there. Presumably, they represent advantages such as wealth. But where did the boxes come from? Who made them? If each man made his own box, should you take the box away from one and give it to another? Even if you think that is the right thing to do, redistributing the boxes would eliminate the incentive to make them. It is very typical of leftists to simply ignore how wealth is produced, and focus exclusively on how it is distributed.
Another problem is the fence. It represents outcomes, and there are only 2 that matter: seeing over the fence (good) and not seeing over (bad). The tall man does not suffer by having his box taken away, because he doesn’t need it to see over the fence. The metaphor is contrived so that redistributing the boxes can give everyone the same good outcome. Suppose that the fence was one box higher, so that the medium man needed two boxes to see over and the tall man needed one. What then? Should the box be taken away from the short man and given to the medium man, so that two people could see over the fence instead of one?
She listened politely to my critique of the metaphor, but she didn’t respond to it. When I was finished, she somehow shifted the discussion to black people and the legacy of slavery. Leftists often use race as a way to shut down debate. Race differences are a huge taboo in our culture, and so most people will just parrot acceptable views, for fear of being labeled “racist”.
She said “I think people underestimate the long-term effects of slavery”.
“How do you know that black people are disadvantaged today by something that happened generations ago?” I asked.
Instead of answering that, she described another propaganda comic to me. (I wish I had an audio recording of the conversation, because I don’t remember exactly how it went from point to point.)
The comic shows a white guy climbing onto a black guy’s back to get up on a ledge. The black guy then asks for a hand up, and the white guy says “Sorry, that would be reverse racism”.
Again, I was shocked that all her “arguments” were vague propaganda slogans or comics.
I explained the problem with the metaphor in the comic. It uses one black guy to represent all black people, and one white guy to represent all white people. That creates the misleading impression that white people acted as a unit to exploit black people.
The truth is more complicated. Most white people had no benefit from the African slave trade. Many Africans did benefit from it. There was slavery all over the world: in Africa, in the Americas, in China, in Muslim countries, etc. European slaves were being sold in the slave markets of the Muslim world at the same time that black slaves were being sold in the Americas.
There’s also the fact that many black people in the US had slave-owning ancestors, while most white people do not. Am I responsible for the fact that some black guy’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather owned his great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother??
How is one supposed to do this type of moral accounting? How do you make people accountable for the sins of their ancestors, according to today’s morality? Should Genghis Khan’s many descendants be rounded up and killed, because he killed so many people?
Some of Violet’s ancestors were probably slave-owners in China. There was slavery in China until the early 1900s. Is Violet responsible for that? Does slavery only have long-term consequences when it is done by whites to other races?
If you are going to play the race card, then let’s have a real discussion about race, biology and history.
I told Violet that people have always killed, raped and enslaved each other, because life is intrinsically violent. People of all races have done those things.
The tiny trickle of slaves out of Africa was nothing compared to the normal internal carnage of tribal warfare, endemic disease and starvation. Before modern times, most children born in Africa died young from war, disease and famine. Since 1900, however, the black population has been expanding rapidly, due to European civilization. Hundreds of millions of black people are alive today because of European civilization, not in spite of it.
Simply because we made it to adulthood, we are doing better than the average person born 500 years ago, or even 200 years ago in most parts of the world. If you are going to moralize about how people acted in the past, you have to consider that their lives were much harder than ours. It’s not surprising that they had different moral intuitions.
Her response to my extended lecture on reality was to label my views “Social Darwinism”. That’s a standard rhetorical tactic of the left. Science and history are only considered true if they support the left-wing narrative. Otherwise, they are dismissed as merely a justification for oppression.
“Was Darwin wrong?” I asked. “Do you disagree with evolutionary theory? Do you disagree with my account of history?”
She knew that she couldn’t win an argument with me on the grounds of science or history, so she shifted the ground to philosophy. She said “Don’t tell me that you believe in truth with a capital T!”.
That is another rhetorical tactic of the left: selective skepticism, also known as “tactical nihilism”. They make positive truth claims, such as the claim that white men have privilege. They treat their own claims as obvious and above skepticism, but they treat opposing claims with extreme skepticism to the point of nihilism regarding knowledge. They use general critiques of knowledge selectively, to protect their own beliefs from falsification. That is a fallacy. A general critique of knowledge applies to all truth claims, not just to the ones you don’t like.
Selective skepticism is effective as a rhetorical tactic, because it confuses the opposition. Most people have never thought about the philosophical problem of knowledge. But it didn’t confuse me. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the problem of knowledge. I am very comfortable getting into a philosophical discussion about truth.
I explained that, while truth is subjective and not absolutely certain, it is not arbitrary or random. I briefly explained how knowledge is induced from experience, based on information compression. (My academic background is in cognitive science and machine learning.) Since we have the same mental processes, we can arrive at similar models of reality, given the same data. So, we can have truth with a lower-case “t”, at least. Then I asked what her theory of truth was.
She said “I believe in standpoint theory”.
Standpoint theory is basically the belief that marginalized groups have special insight — that their experiences are more truthy, because they are oppressed or something. In other words, it is complete bullshit. Standpoint theory isn’t a theory of knowledge. It’s a rhetorical trick to “win” a debate by retreating into the swamp of relativism and solipsism. It’s like saying “You can’t see your privilege because you are a white male, so let me tell you about it”. Essentially, it is the demand that you shut up, listen and believe.
Back at her hotel, we parted on friendly terms. We said goodbye and hugged. Walking away, I felt a bit sad. I don’t think we will ever speak again.