Fighting the Battle of Ideas

from a conversation with Coleman Hughes

Last year, I was invited by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute to participate in a discussion on race and racism alongside Coleman Hughes. I hadn’t realized it at the time, but Coleman put the entire conversation up on his excellent podcast, Conversations with Coleman. We each took questions posed by the moderator in turn. I think there’s a lot in it that’s worthwhile, so I pulled some of my own choice responses for you below.

It’s worth noting that we were speaking in September 2020, fresh off the demonstrations, protests, and, yes, riots that followed George Floyd’s death. Donald Trump was still president, but he had not yet gone all-in on his attempt to delegitimize the election, and the January 6 riot had yet to occur. The present debate over critical race theory was really just getting started.

So time has passed, some things have changed a little. But I still believe in what I said. Stand by your convictions. Resist the temptation to essentialize. Strive for a colorblind world, even if we don’t happen to live in one right now. Eschew violence and destruction, but fight the battle of ideas. That’s still my plan.

Let me know what you think in the comments. And if you feel so moved, please share this post on social media. Let’s keep doing the work together.

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How would you advise conservatives who oppose anti-racism as a movement in the way we’re seeing with White Fragility or critical race theory but who are truly anti-racist and want to fight racism when it exists today? How would you encourage them to enter these conversations?

We're college people here, right? Intercollegiate Studies Institute. So we read books. And you can learn some lessons, I think, by comparative study, by looking at other times and places in which similar kinds of dynamics have been at work. Read George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” reflecting on the debate on the left of British politics in the 1940s about communism and so on.

Or read Vaclav Havel, the Czech politician playwright about the samizdat-producing Eastern European intellectuals during the time of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, when people were trying to break out of—how does Vaclav Havel put it? He talks about living within the lie. He asks us to envision the dilemma of a simple man, a grocer who every morning puts a sign in the window next to his tomatoes and his lettuce that says "Workers of the World Unite." And he inquires, why does this gentlemen do this when everyone knows it's a fraud? Everyone unite? The party lies constantly. Everyone knows that the official ideology of the state is completely bankrupt. And yet this goes on for decades of people reproducing and reinforcing this idea.

And he talks about how some intellectuals come to see the imperative of living within the truth. And this is really a tribute to a kind of courage and a kind of heroism, if you like. Some of these people paid with their lives. I'm not saying that the current mania about anti-racism and cancel culture, political correctness is anything like totalitarian rule. But I am saying the personal challenge of, do I adhere to my convictions and live within the truth? Or do I, by degrees, submit myself to a kind of tyrannical domination by others? This is bullying. I mean small-b bullying. This is a kind of domination of a person, to feel like you have to withdraw within yourself and you can't even say what you're actually thinking.

So I didn't answer the question. The question was what to do. My advice was read what the Eastern European intellectual dissidents do, in Vaclav Havel's telling in his book called The Power of the Powerless. And then think about your own situation.

Are the ideas of white fragility and white privilege useful in understanding and addressing racism? Why or why not? 

I suppose you could say that there's some value in asking people to put themselves in the other person's shoes. So if you're an organization that's mostly white and there are relatively few people of color in it, it's not unreasonable to ask, if you're a white person in that organization, that you imagine yourself to be this other guy. Imagine yourself to be the odd person out, the only woman on the team or the only black in the department or something like that. How do you think it feels? How do you think it feels if people look at you and they impute to you certain views or expectations or whatever just based upon the fact of the way that you look? How do you think it feels to be in that position?

That's what people have in mind when they talk about privilege. Be aware of the fact that whiteness actually matters in certain circumstances and that people who are not white in those circumstances may have to bear certain burdens or meet certain challenges. I mean, I can go that far.

Of course, you could also ask the person to imagine what it's like to be the white person in that circumstance. For example, to imagine being a cop confronted with a recalcitrant citizen who might be dangerous and armed, and you're white and you have to deal with that situation and you might be afraid and you might do whatever you do. I could ask a person to imagine and put themselves into that situation. In a way, that's just a kind of human empathy. And you can ask it of people depending on the circumstance, whether they be white or nonwhite. And so far, I'm willing to go.

But I think there's something really important to what Coleman just said, which is that often there's emphasis on "white silence equals violence." This idea of "check your privilege" presumes a certain kind of black fragility. It’s predicated upon the idea that black people have to be treated with kid gloves in all situations, otherwise offense is given to them, discomfort is imposed upon them. They are made not to feel welcome. What's the new term of art? "Inclusion and belonging." You know, inclusion and belonging, we have to make sure that people feel that they belong. And this infantilization of black people on the supposition that the least off word said, the smallest gesture might be somehow threatening to their very sense of wellbeing is, I think, what's at the root of a lot of this emphasis on white privilege and so on.

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What is the path forward, as people who are grappling with the real data about police shootings when it comes to issues of race? When you have the riots and the looting and mass hysteria? Is there a path forward? Do you see this continuing on indefinitely?  

I was just going to observe that the same question could have been asked, it was asked, in the 1960s during the period of civil disturbances and the long hot summers of the 1960s. The Kerner Commission on civil disorder. Big report. I think it came out in 1968. It chronicled what was going on and tried to give some advice about how the country might get to a better place.

There was 1965 Watts, 1967 Detroit, if I'm not mistaken, 1968, a lot of cities with the assassination of King. That was over 50 years ago. Fast forward to 1992, you had the Rodney King riots and uprisings, as you would have it, in Los Angeles and so on. That was a quarter-century ago. And here we are. I don't see any reason to think that we're not going to be here in another 50 years. I see no reason to anticipate that somehow things are going to get better. Things can get worse. You could have widespread civil unrest. We're already seeing something of an inkling of that in the the reaction amongst white nationalists. There are a lot of guns in the country. It's possible to organize small factions of very devoted people to do very horrible things, because our methods of communication and connectivity are so much more powerful than they were just a couple of decades ago. I'm very concerned. I would not have an optimistic forecast.

I think if we can't find some ways of countering some of the underlying problematic ideological commitments, like the commitment to race itself … I mean, I know this is going to sound pie-in-the-sky, but after all racial identity is a very superficial aspect of human existence. It's not very deep. It doesn't go all the way down. King had the right idea with this colorblind stuff. I mean, I know it's a microaggression now. It's regarded as a microaggression to say that I don't see color. Of course, it's impossible literally not to see color. But we definitely don't have to give it the overarching significance that we now do. So maybe there's a way out. But I think it's going to require very deep rethinking about some of our basic conceptual social commitments. I don't see that happening, so I'm not optimistic.

Do you see points of agreement between conservatives and liberals on race that could help move the discussion forward? Are there any points of accord that we can find? 

I used to be a Christian, and there's a passage in the Bible where the Apostle Paul, in one of the epistles—I can't remember which one, I wasn't that good of a Christian. It might be in Romans—he says our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but it's against powers and principalities or something like that. Anyway, if there's a serious person out there who knows their Bible, they will know the passage that I'm referring to.

Here's what I'm getting at. The bad ideas in the heads of people is the problem. And they need to be combated and replaced with good ideas. So racial essentialism is a bad idea. I'm against Black Lives Matter as a political movement because it's a racially essentialist movement. You could even say it's a racist movement. I know that's a very, very radical thing to say. I don't mean to cast aspersions. I just mean literally, it essentializes blackness.

All lives matter. Now, I know you can't say that, because the meaning of those words now, in context, is freighted with a whole lot of other stuff. If you say it, it's like saying blue lives matter, it's like taking sides. It's like being anti-anti-racist. But it's just true. The notion that race is the central thing driving these outcomes is wrong. It's just an error. People should be disabused of it. Our political institutions ought not to be so organized that people who are actors in them think of themselves as representing races. That's racist. That's South Africa circa 1960. We should disabuse people of the idea.

You can't have a fetishizing of group disparity without implicitly indicting the groups who were successful. If you constantly view social outcomes in terms of racial differences in success, you've got some losers, some "victims" of the system who are on the bottom. Then you've also got some winners who are on the top. What about the Jews? How can you avoid antisemitism? I'm not here indicting any particular person or movement. I'm making a logical observation. If you think that the blacks and Latinos are underrepresented, I don't know how you avoid thinking that the Jews are overrepresented.I don't know how you avoid thinking that there are too many Asians in the STEM disciplines if you think there are too few blacks and Latinos in the STEM disciplines. Those fractions have to add up to one.

You can't have an under-representation without having an over-representation. Are the people who come out on top guilty of privilege? Did they steal their success? Do they owe their success to the denial of opportunity to someone else? Is that universally true? Is that a dictum that we have to adhere to? It's the wrong way to think about social outcomes, I think. So you know, I want to fight in the battle of ideas. I don't want to give up principles, even if it takes a long time to be able to persuade people of the correctness of the ideas.

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