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October 2017

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A Kind of Logical Fallacy.

A long time ago I was having a conversation with my father (who is a very intelligent man I have a lot of respect for) and I said something about Jewishness being both a religion and a race.

A great many Jews are religious and practice the Jewish faith. Which is has very clear rules and practices. They literally wrote The Book on it. But many Jews do not practice the faith and consider themselves "secular" even "atheist" but still Jews. Many of these secular Jews are ethnically American, or whatever country they live in, even Israeli, but still consider themselves Jews because their ancestors were Jews. The only word for that is race. Which goes against the popular argument that there is no such thing "race", that "races don't exist".

But my father's response to my suggestion, that Jews are a race, was to say that I was taking the side of the Nazis. The Nazis, rather famously, rounded up and tried to kill all the Jews they could find (as well as any Gypsies and homosexuals). And they did it under the argument that Jews were an inferior race. Not for the traditional European Christian argument that Jews were the wrong religion.

I think there is something very wrong with that argument. Just because the Nazis used race as an excuse to killed the Jews doesn't mean that anyone who says that the Jews are a race is participating in anti-semitism.

I know there are "dog whistle" covers, where anti-semites claim some other basis for their hurtful behavior. But I think that in order to accuse someone of advocating the oppression of others, or even causing them harm, that their actual behavior has to be harmful in itself.

What I mean is: that while race has in the past and still is used as an excuse to disenfranchise and even kill people. Saying that races exist is not in itself necessarily harmful. If there is no upside to belonging to a race no one would voluntarily admit to it. And yet people do chose to use race as part of their identity. And race is only one of the many kinds of group identity class that people have used as an excuse to kill others. Human beings like to form groups, groups tend to be integrated into identity, and any group identity can be used as an excuse for another group to persecute you. It's a fact of human nature and it isn't going to change unless humans stop having identities.

The most useful fact I learned about race was from an essay by Samuel Delany. The word race was first used to describe "Ethiopian races". In that context a "race" was a "run" of people. Where a "clan" is all the living members of an extended family (a lateral census of a genome), a "race" was a historical record of an extended family (a vertical history of a genome). In the US the definition of race has expanded to very broad continental collections of genomes (i.e. African, European, Asian, Native American). The Jews are unusual in the U.S. in managing to maintain their small batch biological identity, against the pressure of assimilation. Although, if you travel to Europe, Africa, Asia, or the Middle East, you will quickly find out that other people still maintain their ancestral races in their native lands.

But I digress.

The reason I am thinking about this tonight is that I just had a very unproductive argument with a friend about the Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie issue. And as near as I can figure out it comes down to the same issue; i.e. Because making a distinction between trans-women and cis-women has been used by some people to disenfranchise and even kill trans-women, therefore anyone who says that trans-women are different from cis-women is guilty of harming trans-women, simply by making that distinction.

In the case of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, she has actively worked for the rights of trans-women and continues to do so.

I think there needs to be some kind of generally applicable standard for when anyone claims that someone else owes them an apology, or any recompense, for an injury. I believe that some actual harm, or intent to harm (even if no harm occurs), must be proved before anyone can claim the right to be compensated for an injury. "I feel hurt by what you said" is not enough (unless it is an argument between people in a personal relationship). I believe that some trans-people feel hurt by her statement, because they have said they do. But having read her statements I can only conclude that they are reading something into it that she didn't say. And that is not her fault. You can't demand an apology from a stranger for something you thought they meant. If you tell them what you thought they meant and they say "No I didn't mean that" then unless you can prove they are lying about what they meant, by pointing out their actions or some other statements by them that clearly support your interpretation, then what you have to say is "oh my mistake then". Saying "You own me apology for the mental pain I caused myself by misunderstanding you, and you are compounding the injury by refusing to apologise!" is not an option.

That is my position as a rational human being. I don't think cis-people should have special rights. But I think rational arguments should. I am very uncomfortable when anyone's arguments are dismissed because they don't belong to the right group. I have no problem with people being asked to "check their privilege" if their privilege is preventing them from seeing something. But the right to demand apologies without offering any evidence that you have actually been injured is about as privileged as you get. You need to be able to explain the problem better than "I feel hurt by what you said". There is a limit to how responsible total strangers are for your emotions.

I think Adichie is right when she said:
“What’s interesting to me is this is in many ways about language and I think it also illustrates the less pleasant aspects of the American left, that there sometimes is a kind of language orthodoxy that you’re supposed to participate in, and when you don’t there’s a kind of backlash that gets very personal and very hostile and very closed to debate."


A while ago I read an article (I can't find it now, despite searching) that talked about how poor, uneducated blacks were being shouted down for not using the jargon of the educated elite liberals. With no self awareness on the part of supposed liberals to the oppression they themselves were inflicting on people who had more pressing issues than keeping up on the latest trends in jargon.

Adichie is more educated than I am, and not poor, but she did grow up in Nigeria and still spends a lot of time there. I think that is reason enough that she can not be held to American standards of leftist jargon. The fact that mostly white Americans (the most privileged class in the world) are persecuting a Nigerian woman for not using the right jargon is frankly amazing to me.

The Rise of the Post-New Left Political Vocabulary
"First, the new vocabulary is used almost exclusively by the English-speaking Left in a few countries, especially Canada, the US, and (to a lesser extent) the UK. Elsewhere, such as in Latin America and southern Africa, the Left has its own distinctive vocabularies, which would have to be analyzed separately."

"There is no shortage of (usually older) critics who complain about the focus on “privilege” and “calling out” in the contemporary activist scene. But we should not be seduced by the broad-brushed dismissal with which these critics, whose political sensibility was shaped (for better and for worse) by the 70s New Left, reject the politics that pervades today’s activist subcultures. We should remain open at least to the possibility that some aspects of the new vocabulary may offer important insights, even if we retain our reluctance to embrace it wholesale.

Conversely, some partisans of the post-New Left will insist that any resistance to the new jargon must be rooted in an attempt to cling to privileges which, allegedly, the new discourse threatens. This, too, reflects a narrow-minded sensibility that renounces the very possibility of learning from engagement with perspectives that contest one’s own basic assumptions. It is this fundamentalist sensibility that has earned “the Twitter Left” and the “social justice blogging community” a sometimes well-deserved bad reputation, but it shouldn’t be allowed to insinuate itself into the real-world activist Left."

"A liberation focus and a systems focus share a common understanding: that the purpose of the Left is to defeat systems of exploitation and oppression. Challenging immediate impacts is important, but not enough. It is necessary, but by no means sufficient. Moreover, the way we challenge everyday impacts should be informed by our understanding that they are not produced simply by individual actions, but by the operation of large-scale systems. The Left needs a vocabulary, and a self-understanding, that highlights and foregrounds the importance of constructing and expanding anti-systemic movements that aim to defeat systems of oppressive and exploitative power. It is hard not to think that the older vocabulary better expresses this insight, even as it obstructs our access to other critical insights that are also indispensable."

"Both vocabularies have been formed to address indispensably important concerns, so we should be reluctant to give up on either one. The most important thing, I would suggest, is to refuse to allow either of these two ways speaking, writing and thinking about Left activism to evade the challenge raised by its counterpart. Personally, I would be reluctant to give up an expression like, ‘the people,’ and to take up ‘folks’ in its place. But I hope that the way I talk about the people is disciplined by a certain amount of sensitivity to the motivation that has led some activists to drop it from their vocabulary. On the other hand, I hope that people who have embraced the newer way of articulating Left politics will (begin to, or continue to) see the importance of highlighting issues of system dynamics, large-scale alliance-building, and ultimate liberation, rather than letting these urgently important matters disappear from view entirely."

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