In Response to “Against Murderism”

This is my response to AGAINST MURDERISM, a presumably well-intentioned essay by Scott Alexander that unfortunately suffers from some false assumptions and reasoning errors. Excerpts from the essay in quotes, the original essay can be read here:

A set of questions, hopefully confusing: Alice is a white stay-at-home mother …Is Alice racist?

Not enough information is provided here. Alice is very typical, for sure; cultural norms are very uncomfortable to stray from.

Bob is the mayor of Exampleburg, … Is Bob racist?

Again, too narrow a field of vision. Was Bob in politics when red-lining was used to create these neighborhoods in the first place? Maybe there are valid reasons to try and balance the availability of opportunities; maybe people in government are sharing that information with Bob, and maybe he doesn’t want to hear it. Bob’s denial of the legacy of racism is racist, and it perpetuates racist harm.

Carol is a gay libertarian who is a two-issue voter: free markets and gay rights…. Is Carol racist?

Well, either that, or Carol is one hell of a mind reader. See, what Carol happened to “notice” is the race of the person whose opinion she noted (and disagreed with). Based on false (and racist) assumptions, Carol assumes that race will correlate to those opinions in the vast, overwhelming majority of immigrants who she will never meet. Her worries are called “racial anxieties” and they are a common feature of racism. In America, none of this matters anyway, as there is literally no one on any ballot who supports gay rights and immigration bans. Carol is not able to support both causes, at least not through voting.

Dan is a progressive member of the ACLU and NAACP who has voted straight Democrat the last five elections. He is studying psychology, and encounters The Bell Curve… Is Dan racist?

Dan is ignorant, and likely to hold a number of racist views due to his susceptibility to ignorant positions. The problems with The Bell Curve are legion, and well-debunked in countless pieces of scholarship. The larger problem is well summarized by Joseph L. Graves, who observes that the book contains all of the important characteristics of scientific racism (which has a well-documented history): claims that are not supported by the data given; errors in calculation that invariably support the hypothesis; no mention of data that contradict the hypothesis; no mention of theories and data that conflict with core assumptions; and bold policy recommendations that are consistent with those advocated by racists. If Dan never encountered criticisms of this work, or if he did and still considers the work reliable, then Dan’s critical evaluation is impaired. Maybe he already holds racist views, and so is predisposed to view uncritically “science” that supports his assumptions. Or maybe he’s just bad at reasoning. Either way, the door is wide open for the kind of reasoning failure that racism represents.

Eric is a restauranteur … Is Eric racist?


Fiona is an honest-to-goodness white separatist. … Is Fiona racist?

Fiona is the best example, because she illuminated the point that the author doesn’t seem to get. At it’s core, racism is based on a mistake. Or a lie, or something people believe is true but is actually false; frame it how you will. “Race” is not a characteristic of how human beings are physically or genetically shaped at all; it’s a characteristic of how human beings *think about* other human beings. There is nothing biologically that divides human beings into races; and any racial grouping of humans is completely arbitrary from a scientific point of view. Instead, race is a concept, one that doesn’t really track well with reality, but one that we nevertheless try to filter our experiences through. It’s a belief, a false one, and one that almost unfailingly leads to harm.

Fiona is very explicitly racist: she believes that you can divide people into white and black, and that those groups represent something *other than* an arbitrary category that Fiona participates in creating. This is a deeply confused situation, and while it’s admirable that Fiona isn’t hateful, that doesn’t mean that her racism isn’t harmful. It is, in myriad real-world ways, no matter how much we try to sanitize these thought-experiments. For one thing, Fiona lives is a society that is white supremacist. She will almost certainly never accomplish her goal of racial separatism, but she will undoubtedly help perpetuate racial injustice just by enforcing and supporting the lie at it’s root: that there is a biological reality corresponding to the system of white supremacy. Without the framework of racial differences, white supremacy would collapse from erosion; explicit racists like Fiona do the most to prevent this progress, whatever their motives.

As usual, the answer is that “racism” is a confusing word that serves as a mishmash of unlike concepts. Here are some of the definitions people use for racism:
1. Definition By Motives: An irrational feeling of hatred toward some race that causes someone to want to hurt or discriminate against them.
2. Definition By Belief: A belief that some race has negative qualities or is inferior, especially if this is innate/genetic.

This completely missed the point (see above). If you are talking about innate, genetic qualities, then it’s ignorant, at best, to be unaware of the meaning of the concept in scientific, genetic terms. More than that, it’s arrogant; this is a very long treatise on race, and it was written without any consideration of what sense the word was being used in, much less even a modicum of anthropological or genetic research. 10 minutes on Wikipedia could have explained this distinction…

3. Definition By Consequences: Anything whose consequence is harm to minorities or promotion of white supremacy, regardless of whether or not this is intentional.

In terms of these alternatives in general, the biggest mistake is the assumption that racism reduces to one of these simple options. While at it’s root, racism depends on false beliefs, it can without question lead to spurious motives, and it can equally lead to terrible consequences regardless of motive. All of them are aspects of the phenomenon of racism, and too casually dismissed below. An accurate understanding of the beliefs at the core of racism would show the author why it’s not a mess at all. And it would be a lot less messy if he didn’t lazily conflate race and religion, or race and nationality. The mess is his (the author’s).

Some thoughts:
Definition By Consequences Doesn’t Match Real-World Usage
I know that Definition By Consequences …

It’s hard not to roll one’s eyes here, since the author is making a grammatical argument to prove a point about race. I don’t find it all that confusing when some who means “this is a consequence of people holding and acting on racist beliefs and assumptions” simply says “that’s racist.” If you can accept a very common vernacular shorthand, then this entire paragraph is meaningless.

Definition By Belief Is A Mess
Is it racist to believe that…

See above; if you believe in “white people”, that is racist.

But None Of That Really Matters, Because In Real Life, Definition By Motive Usually Trumps Definition By Belief
After the London attacks…

What’s ironic here is that definition by motive is overwhelmingly the way *white* people understand racism, but far narrower than pretty much anyone who experiences racism would define it. Indeed, this is the central misfire in our national race discussion: white people need to define racism narrowly enough to personally avoid the label, while people of color are trying to communicate a reality in their lives that is far larger than that.

“Murderism” is the ideology that murdering people is good and letting them live… Back in our own universe, we recognize that “murderism” is silly: it confuses cause and effect.

Which is why it’s a tortured analogy. With racism, “race” isn’t the end result, its the beginning premise. People’s motivations, goals and intents are preceded by false notions of what race means, and what certain physical traits can tell us about the character of a stranger.

Daycare companies really want to avoid hiring …

This reasoning is mostly sound, but am I the only person who wonders why it doesn’t occur to the author to address the root problem of discriminatory incarceration? I mean, even just to acknowledge it as the true long-term solution?

Let’s take, uh, some guy who’s always ranting about how the Jews secretly control the world….

This is the best part of the essay, even though it undermines the author’s point entirely. The man was making a cognitive error, and correcting that was the solution. He didn’t respect the man’s delusions, he treated them as such and helped him correct them; creating positive outcomes both for the individual and for any Jewish people he will encounter in the future. Obviously not every racist can be treated with Seroquel, but that doesn’t mean that a little bit of racism is normal or healthy.

We should try because it’s the only alternative to having another civil war.

A nice dramatic turn! Not that he delivers on this promise, but still…

There are a bunch more frameworks like this, but they all share the common warning that cross-cultural communication is really hard

I actually agree quite heartily here, especially when it comes to the principle of charity. However, it’s not actually charitable to define away the phenomenon of racism; that’s simply avoiding difficult conversations in favor of superficial remedies. Charity is acknowledging that we are all racist to some degree; that it’s not our fault, but rather, our inheritance, and that no one who is willing to confront their own racism will be condemned for acknowledging it.

Racism-as-murderism is the opposite. It’s a powerful tool of dehumanization…

Ironically, the reason behind this phenomenon is the fact that *white* culture has so forcefully narrowed the definition of racism that it basically only applies to rabidly enraged Klansmen. Of course they will then bristle when they hear that word applied to themselves or those they identify with. However, there is no shortage of people of color, from the very beginning of this nation up to the present day, talking about race and racism in specific and concrete terms. It’s been observed numerous times that the fact that we notice the race of a non-white individual before any other characteristic, while that’s almost never the case with white people. This is an aspect of racism, the root beliefs and cognitive habits that we all inherit. And it’s not dehumanizing to point out to someone that it’s almost certainly true for them. In a rational perspective, this is a relatively mild observation, and one that can lead to tremendous insight. However, those who have strongly conditioned the word “racism” to mean “rabid klansman” are almost literally unable to process this. It’s a massive impediment to dialogue, but no, the solution is not to further pamper already delicate sensibilities. Ultimately, that approach is degrading.

You say we must protect freedom of speech. But would you protect the free speech of racists?

We do, emphatically.

You say people shouldn’t get fired for personal opinions that don’t affect their work. But would you let racists keep their jobs?

When it really doesn’t impact their job. But we recognize that racial harassment isn’t simply a negligent harm that we can ignore. If other’s in the workplace can’t safely and comfortable do their job, then we have competing goods. Welcome to the messy real world.

You say we try to solve disagreements respectfully through rational debate. But would you try to rationally debate racists?

Sure. Will you leave the table if we call racism racism?

You say people should be allowed to follow their religion without interference. But what if religion is just a cover for racism?

Sometimes it is. They should still be allowed to follow it.

You say we need to understand that people we disagree with can sometimes have some good points. Are you saying we should try to learn things from racists?

Sure, all the time.

You say there’s a taboo on solving political disagreements by punching people. Are you saying that we can’t punch racists?

I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone try to solve a political disagreement by punching a racist. I saw one white supremacist buffoon get punched for, I assume, purely entertainment purposes, and then a whole lot of hand-wringing over the loss of our civic discourse. I don’t think that individual represents any honest aspect of our civil discourse, nor do I think he wants to, so I’m not seeing the connection. But if it makes you feel better, I strongly agree that punching is no way to have civic discourse, even with racists. And aside from my two brothers, I’ve never personally punched anyone, so I’m walking the walk. :)

A few days ago, Noah Smith posted on Twitter about hearing some people say racist things…

Interesting that this example does not include any description of who is being talked about. Also interesting that the person being criticized explicitly says “no, we don’t shoot people for being racist”, and then mentions people with arms (presumably seen as potentially violent themselves), and yet the author still reduces it to “kill people for being racist.” I’m not saying I agree with the twitter poster (hard to know without context), but it’s pretty clear he’s not saying what the author wants him to be saying.

I don’t want civil war. I want this country to survive…

Yeah, this is a flop in terms of reasoning. It doesn’t help to “reject the murderism framework” because that’s just this authors complete misunderstanding of the race discussion. Indeed, it’s a description of the race discussion that only a white person could even think was accurate, because people of color live with the reality of racism every day. Yes, we need civic discourse; yes, we need to listen to those we disagree with; and yes, we need to apply the principle of charity in those conversations. But let’s reality check here: America literally enslaved 12.5 million Africans and their descendants over the course of four centuries, instituted brutal restrictions following abolition and enforced them with terrifying violence, and instituted a racial hierarchy in our civic, economic and cultural life that is still very much in force. None of this has lead to black Americans choosing violence, en masse, to oppose these actions, take over the country, form their own, or anything else. But now, all of a sudden, simply calling people and institutions “racist” is going to make that happen? Allow me to humbly submit that the biggest problem with racism is not how we talk about racism, but rather, racism itself. And that problem isn’t going to solve itself while we sit and ignore it.

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