Elizabeth Liddle, who founded this Website, has recently declared that racist remarks on TSZ should be deleted. Moderator Alan Fox would like to additionally ban hate speech, incitement to violence, and discrimination, where these are proscribed by law. However, at the present time, nothing in the Rules of this Website prohibits racism or hate speech. And how does one define these terms, anyway? In this short post, I’d like to offer a few tentative proposals.
It seems to me that a rule that bans racism alone would be too arbitrary. Why ban racism but not sexism, ageism, ableism, homophobia or transphobia?
In any case, defining racism is no easy matter. The Oxford Dictionary provides two online definitions. On the narrower definition, racism is “the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics, abilities, or qualities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races” (emphases mine). However, it is highly doubtful whether anyone living in a Western country subscribes to such an extreme view today. Even the KKK would probably reject it: thirty years ago, I watched a KKK member publicly disavow the belief that people of African descent are inferior to whites, in an interview on the NBC Today show.
The belief that most but not all members of race X are inferior to members of race Y is more widespread in our society, but labeling everyone who holds this view as racist would be too broad, as the definition doesn’t specify what kind of inferiority we are talking about (physical? mental? moral? spiritual?). For instance, is it racist to assert that some races have certain physical advantages over others, on average? Surely not. The claim that some races have an intellectual edge over others is more problematic, but I don’t think discussion of this issue should be ruled out of court: it is an empirical matter that science should decide.
The broader definition of racism given in the Oxford Dictionary is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” That strikes me as a much better definition, as it highlights two key requirements which must be met for racism to exist: antagonistic behavior, and a belief in the superiority of one’s own race. On this definition, nineteenth-century politicians (such as Abraham Lincoln) who did not believe in racial equality, owing to the misguided attitudes that were prevalent during the time in which they lived, but who displayed no antagonism towards people of other races, would not be counted as racists. (It is true that for much of his life, Lincoln opposed giving black people the vote, but he changed his views on this subject shortly before his death.)
But what about President Donald Trump’s infamous diatribe in his 2015 Presidential announcement speech?
The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.
Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.
Many people have criticized these remarks as racist. I’m afraid I have to disagree. First, Trump was referring to Mexicans. Although the very concept of race is vaguely defined and highly problematic, it is generally agreed that Mexicans are a nation, not a race. Second, Trump wasn’t talking about Mexicans as a nation, but about a restricted subgroup: those who immigrate illegally to the United States. And he made it quite clear that he didn’t view members of this group as typical of Mexicans, as a nation.
President Trump would of course deny that his remarks were intended to stir up hate, and he was certainly not advocating any kind of discrimination in his speech. Nevertheless, there was something unmistakably ugly about it, all the same. “Antagonistic” seems an appropriate word to use here.
What about somebody asserting that illegal immigrants to the U.S. commit more crimes on average than other Americans? The claim is a contentious one, which studies don’t appear to back up, although it has its stalwart defenders (see also here). But whatever the truth of the matter may be, I really don’t think that making this claim could, by itself, be reasonably construed as hateful or antagonistic. There is a big difference between making such an observation and antagonistically calling illegal immigrants “rapists” who are “bringing crime” to America, even if you qualify your assertion by adding that “some … are good people.”
Likewise, there’s a difference between somebody pointing out, as a matter of fact, that Muhammad’s wife Aisha was probably nine or ten years old when her marriage to Muhammad was consummated (he was 53), and somebody roundly asserting that Muslims approve of pedophilia. I think it is fair to describe the latter statement as antagonistic. Moving from religion to gender issues, there’s a difference between respectfully suggesting that transgenderism may be a social contagion and that pushing children into transgenderism is tantamount to medical malpractice, and calling transgender individuals a menace to society. In a society governed by the rule of law, it is a moral axiom that nobody deserves to be bullied, no matter how odd or unsettling their behavior might appear to other people. Calling an entire group of law-abiding people a menace to society in a public forum increases the likelihood that such bullying will occur.
In recent days there has been been a spate of comments relating to Jews on a TSZ thread I’d rather not link to, which I find a little disturbing: sly denigration of their claim to be the chosen people, an assertion that Jews are more likely than other nations to steal other people’s land, and a heated discussion where one commenter told a moderator, “[Y]ou sort of align with Hitler.” Yikes. Is this antagonistic? In my opinion, yes.
I’ve never liked the term “hate speech” because it imputes a bad attitude to someone which they may turn out not to have, and because an accusation of hate warrants a high standard of proof. The term “antagonistic” is far less loaded: calling someone antagonistic doesn’t imply that you regard them as a bad person, whereas calling someone hateful does.
So may I make a suggestion? Before posting anything which is likely to arouse bitter controversy on TSZ, people should ask themselves: “Is there a less antagonistic way of expressing what I’m trying to say?” If there is, then try to say it that way. I realize that all of us will probably lapse from this standard of charity from time to time, but it is one we should aspire to.
A simple change in the Rules to reflect this new standard would be to introduce an additional rule covering material posted on TSZ, whereby any material deemed to be clearly antagonistic in the manner in which it is expressed would be deleted (there will, of course, be gray areas), while at the same time affirming people’s right to express any view, no matter how controversial, in a non-antagonistic fashion. Banning people, on the other hand, is a very drastic thing to do, and I’m leery of advocating it. Perhaps a persistent and long-standing habit of making comments which are clearly antagonistic might justify such a ban, but at the present time, I would advise against introducing a rule imposing such a ban, as it would be unwise in the absence of a solid consensus.
Well, that’s my two cents. And now, over to you.