Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Ruling out sexual relationships with transsexuals is not bigotry

Someone on my Facebook feed recently argued that an unwillingness to even consider having a transsexual romantic partner amounted to transphobic bigotry.  This was my response to them.

To give you the benefit of the doubt, I will assume the strongest version of your argument: that it would be bigoted to terminate a relationship you had already begun, with someone you found PERFECT IN EVERY OTHER WAY, solely because you learned that they are transsexual.  This is what you’re saying, right?

If so, my question to you is this: why is transsexualism morally distinct from any other factor that people commonly identify as “deal-breakers” in relationships?  And if it isn’t any different, is it really bigotry to be more attracted to some characteristics in people than others?

If I recognize I would never marry or date somebody with severe, low-functioning autism, does that make me ableist? Is it immoral to be sapiosexual?  What if I am only attracted to short women?  What about gentlemen who prefer blondes?  What if someone was perfect in every way, but when I got their clothes off in the bedroom I noticed they had these horrible burn marks on their skin, which – sympathize with them though I may – were just an immediate turn off for me?

I know lots of people, of every race, who simply are not sexually attracted to members of another race.  I know black women who would never date a white, guy, white guys who would never date an Asian woman, and Asian men who strongly prefer Asian women.  Does this make them racist?

No. Not being sexually attracted to X does not amount to bigotry against X.  

Sexual attraction is such a fickle, subjective, idiosyncratic thing.  The smallest details about a person can shape whether we find them attractive, in different ways for different people. How they style their hair, how they dress, whether they cross their legs when they sit, whether they have freckles or “beauty marks”, how assertive they are when they speak – I could go on.  Tiny, tiny things matter even for people who don’t have a bigoted bone in their body.  And you’re telling me the fact that someone’s genitalia was artificially assembled by a skilled surgeon can’t possibly matter? That bigotry is the only explanation for making that a deal-breaker?  You’re saying the fact that somebody cannot biologically procreate should be irrelevant, because you can have a sperm donor, so a preference for birthing one’s own children = prejudice?

I’m no expert on the science behind this, but I know enough about how the MTF procedure works that even visualizing it would prevent me from enjoying sex with that person.  No amount of tolerance or privilege checking or “confronting my bigotry” will change this, and I guess that’s what I find most offensive about your position here: the idea that I could even control this.

For years, homosexuals have fought against the myth that their sexuality is a choice.  Progressives have rightfully insisted that nobody chooses who or what they are sexually attracted to – that gay people were “born this way” and needn’t feel ashamed of things they cannot control.  They won me over to their side of the gay marriage debate in part because that message resonated with me. I sure know I never made a choice about what I like, so I can only presume others don’t either.

By accusing anyone who is turned off by transsexualism of bigotry, you are completely reversing that stance: shaming people for their sexual preferences, as if they had any say in the matter.  You imply people presently repulsed by the thought of sex with a transsexual could instead choose to be aroused by it, if only they’d try hard enough to undo some sort of bigoted socialization that perverted their “true” desires.  That is nonsense. Just as bastardized interpretations of Christianity do not justify giving gay people “therapy” to “convert” them back to heterosexuality, neither does the increasingly cult-ish religion of egalitarianism justify trying to shame people into liking something their minds and bodies insist they don’t want to touch.

I have nothing against transsexual people.  I would hang out with them, befriend them, chat with them and invite them to my barbeque.  I am not afraid of them, and not “transphobic.”  But I have no desire at all to have a sexual relationship with one, and I will never feel the slightest bit guilty about that.  Equal rights does not mean they are entitled to my equal sexual desire or attention.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Response to an article aimed at white people (like me!)

Derrick Clifton has a bone to pick with white people, so he oh-so-thoughtfully wrote us a letter listing 17 gripes he has against us.  About 2/3 of the complaints are perfectly valid, and I would be much more sympathetic to him were the entire thing not written in one of the most condescending tones I have experienced on the internet.  But it is, so as I've made my policy, I will return the favor.  To tease out the good from the bad argumentation, I will limit my response to numbers 1, 4, and 10-12 on his list.

1) #YesAllBlackPeople contend with whites dictating to us how we should talk about racism, instead of taking our lead in the conversation. (Yes, that includes Tim Wise.)

We are not obligated to “take your lead” in the conversation. You can be wrong. You often are. It is not oppression to disagree with you and say so – nor even to say so repeatedly, whenever you express that opinion with which I disagree.

4) #YesAllBlackPeople know better than Webster’s Dictionary what racism actually means. We’re living it. Don’t whitesplain it to us. (Webster’s and Oxford English Dictionaries are largely white-controlled purveyors of language.)

Lmao, no you definitely don’t.  It is impossible to know better than the dictionary what a word means.  If you find the dictionary’s definition for a word unsatisfactory for the idea you are trying to convey, you can invent a new word, which – if used often enough by enough people – may eventually find its way into the dictionary.  Or, you can outline an additional meaning for the word, which – if used often enough and by enough people – may also find its way into the dictionary alongside the original.  But you cannot communicate effectively if everyone is using a different meaning for the words being communicated.  If two people have a disagreement about what a given word means, the dictionary is what solves that dispute.

I don’t know how many words Merriam Webster’s dictionary holds, but whatever number that is, that’s how many examples I could give you of the absurdity that would result if everyone were allowed to make up their own definitions.

PS - Don't blacksplain to me.  Tee hee!  See how productive this is?

10) #YesAllBlackPeople would love to have anti-racist white people in their lives, who listen and support their leadership, and not as savior-esque allies.

Well sure, I’d love it too if everyone just deferred to my judgment on my most passionately held opinions. But they won’t, and it would be neither fair nor sensible to expect that they do so, so I have to deal with them being skeptical towards my “leadership” even in movements we both care about deeply.  You are not my leader.

11) #YesAllBlackPeople live for authentic cultural exchanges with whites, without appropriation, mockery, or wanton theft. (Hello, Iggy Azalea.)

See here about cultural appropriation, here about white gay people, and here about Iggy Azalea.  There is no such thing as cultural theft, because culture is not property and ideas cannot be owned.  White people are allowed to enjoy, listen to, and perform hip-hop, using whatever voice inflection they like, whether or not black people are present.  I heartily implore you to get over it.

12) #YesAllBlackPeople can say the n-word if we want to or not, and white people still can’t and never should. Blacks own the conversation on that word's signification, not you.

No, chief, nobody “owns the conversation” about anything.  See above about ideas not being property.

I would never call anybody a nigger.  I would never use that word in any context where it could be reasonably interpreted as offensive, because I understand its history and its power and I don’t wish to offend anybody.  But as Louis CK explained well, the entire concept of referring to words as “the __(insert letter here)__ word” is just mind-numbingly stupid.  Language is just a tool to communicate ideas from one person’s mind to another’s.  Words are vehicles for those ideas, and saying “the n-word” communicates the exact same idea as saying “nigger.”  You just make the other person think nigger!  Every time someone says “the n-word” every single person in their presence is thinking to themselves “oh, he means nigger” silently in their head.  There is no mystery to it!  Making audible that shared thought cannot possibly be evil.  My skin color doesn’t change that.

Eliminating racial oppression does not involve preventing cultural osmosis

Sierra Mannie does not like how white gay men sometimes imitate black women, because she thinks it amounts to “stealing” their culture.  She explains why this is bad:

“extracurricular black activities get snatched up, too: our music, our dances, our slang, our clothing, our hairstyles. All of these things are rounded up, whitewashed and repackaged for your consumption. But here’s the shade — the non-black people who get to enjoy all of the fun things about blackness will never have to experience the ugliness of the black experience, systemic racism and the dangers of simply living while black.”

I agree with her that non-black people do not have to deal with systematic racial oppression or the ugliness of the black experience in America that results. I sympathize with this, because it sucks, and I can never empathize with it, because I will never personally be able to appreciate how badly it sucks from first-hand experience. But…

…the fact that the downsides of blackness exceed the downsides of whiteness in this country does not mean black people get to somehow call dibs on the good parts of blackness as some sort of retribution.  Does she expect me to stop listening to jazz, and rock and roll, and rap and all these other wonderful, largely black inventions in music?  Should I have to pretend I don’t like them because her ancestors invented them?  That’s Ludacris!

Thankfully, she tries to clarify that this is not what she means:

“Appreciating a culture and appropriating one are very, very different things, with a much thicker line than some people think, if you use all of the three seconds it takes to be considerate before you open your mouth.…If you love some of the same things that some black women love, by all means, you and your black girlfriends go ahead and rock the hell out. Regardless of what our privileges and lack of privileges are, regardless of the laws and rhetoric that have attempted to divide us, we are equal, even though we aren’t the same, and that is okay. Claiming our identity for what’s sweet without ever having to taste its sour is not. Breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes that reduce black females to loud caricatures for you to emulate isn’t, either.” [emphasis added]

If this is what she means by drawing the thick line, she’s done so in mighty vague terms. We white guys can “rock the hell out” to things black women love, but we cannot “claim [black female] identity” in the process?  Ok…what the hell does that mean in practice?  How does one go about claiming an identity?  If a gay man were to literally check the boxes that say “black” and “female” when filling out a government form, I think we could all agree that counts as claiming their identity.  But what Mannie seems to be lamenting at the top of her article are a rather different set of activities, namely...

-quoting Madea
-talking about how large your butt is
-talking about having sex with black men

Does twerking mean you are claiming to be a black female?  NO!  It’s just a dance move, and you don’t get to the exclusive rights to it.  Nor can you claim Madea, nor large buttocks, nor the discussing the many pleasures of screwing black dudes.  Culture is not property, and cannot be stolen. You do not own it. You do not get to call dibs on it, any more than I get to call dibs on all the awesome stuff white people invented.

Eliminating the sourness of the black experience does not involve hoarding the sweetness.

Mannie makes the same bad argument Ruth Tam used in a different article about appropriating Asian food.  She wrote:

“This cultural appropriation stings because the same dishes hyped as “authentic” on trendy menus were scorned when cooked in the homes of the immigrants who brought them here.”

Maybe so, but that doesn’t make hyping dishes wrong in 2016.  The scorn is what was wrong. The fact that the scorn for foreign foods is gone now is a good thing – a positive change, not some big hypocrisy.  I can sympathize with the sting Asians faced back then, but we have to distinguish between what caused it, and what merely reminds her of what caused it.

Cultural appropriation is not (usually) oppression

For those new to the term, cultural appropriation is defined as “the adoption or use of elements of one culture by members of a different culture.”  In far-left circles, it is most often used to describe a dominant/majority culture’s use or “taking” of elements of a subordinate/minority culture, usually without much understanding of those elements’ significance. Wikipedia defines it as follows:

“Cultural appropriation is the adoption of some specific elements of one culture by a different cultural group. It denotes acculturation or assimilation, but often connotes a negative view towards acculturation from a minority culture by a dominant culture. It can include the introduction of forms of dress or personal adornment, music and art, religion, language, or social behavior. These elements, once removed from their indigenous cultural contexts, may take on meanings that are significantly divergent from, or merely less nuanced than, those they originally held. Or, they may be stripped of meaning altogether.

The term cultural appropriation can have a negative connotation. It generally is applied when the subject culture is a minority culture or somehow subordinate in social, political, economic, or military status to the appropriating culture; or, when there are other issues involved, such as a history of ethnic or racial conflict between the two groups.

Cultural and racial theorist, George Lipsitz, outlined this concept of cultural appropriation in his seminal term “strategic anti-essentialism”. Strategic anti-essentialism is defined as the calculated use of a cultural form, outside of your own, to define yourself or your group….Lipsitz argues, when the majority culture attempts to strategically anti-essentialize themselves by appropriating a minority culture, they must take great care to recognize the specific socio-historical circumstances and significance of these cultural forms so as not the perpetuate the already existing, majority vs. minority, unequal power relations.”

That’s a mouthful; what does it mean in practice?  To me, the nugget of truth in the concept lies in the realization that deliberately mocking or misrepresenting an aspect of a culture you don’t understand is in bad taste, especially if those people are historically oppressed.  Jeering marginalized people as a group is unacceptable, and even accidentally misrepresenting them can contribute to ugly stereotypes that perpetuate oppression.  So blackface, for example, is just mean.  It serves no purpose besides taunting blacks, which is the most obvious example of what some call “punching down”: leveraging unearned social status to ridicule those without it.  And even if you don’t intend to offend, dressing up as an obviously condescending caricature of another culture, like Chief Wahoo, has essentially the same effect.

We already have other words to describe these activities besides cultural appropriation (insensitive, racist, demeaning, being a jerk, etc). But whatever you call it, I wholeheartedly agree this behavior is awful and should be decried.  If such unkindness is all you mean by cultural appropriation, read no further.

Most of the people who talk about cultural appropriation today are still reading, though, because most modern allegations of cultural appropriation are much less obvious than blackface.  In fact, the online allegations are often hurled at things so trivial that most people (minorities included) barely even notice them.  Here are ten examples:

1.  The student body at the University of Ottawa has banned yoga classes as an example of "cultural genocide" and "Western supremacy".

      2.  Dartmouth University banned white people from using the word fiesta, in response to a sorority “Phiesta” fundraiser aimed at raising money for charity on Cinco de Mayo.
      3.  Similarly, student unions at the University of East Anglia have targeted Mexican sombreros for "discriminatory or stereotypical imagery".

4.  Ruth Tam has a series of articles in The Washington Post and Everyday Feminism arguing it is hurtful, oppressive and wrong for white people to sample foreign foods from tourist-friendly restaurants in the States without actually traveling to that country, buying the individual ingredients and preparing it themselves for a deeper understanding of all that goes into the dish. Bitch Media agrees.  Additionally, Tam lists the following things as immoral on account of being culturally appropriative:
a.      Seeking “authentic”, “exotic” or “ethnic” food
b.     Asking non-white people for advice on foods from their culture
c.      Trying to be “adventurous” with your food options
d.     Making money from preparing other culture’s foods
e.      Liking Mexican food without also having strong progressive opinions about “labor equity and immigration policy that impact members from that community.”

5.  Maisha K. Johnson has a series of articles on that make me want to puke from their tone alone (at one point she hyperlinks to her own opinion article as something white people should “research” before daring to even discuss the subject…) Rebuttals to some of her arguments will follow in a future post.

      6.  Back in 2013, a site called Racialicious lamented “The Problematics of the Fake Harlem Shake” on the grounds that the viral video meme appropriated an original 1980’s dance form from Harlem. Never mind that most people who watched the viral version had no idea there was such thing as a “real” Harlem Shake, as the viral version made no reference to the black Harlem inhabitants it was supposedly stigmatizing.  Also never mind that going crazy when the beat drops to an EDM song is an innovation original to my generation and EDM culture, not a copy of anything from the 80s’.  But I digress.

7.  Enormous portions of the internet apparently think Iggy Azalea is some kind of demon because she tries to act, look and sound too black, and that this amounts to white people “stealing” hip-hop. Like Ruth Tam on the food issue, these articles argue Azalea at least has an obligation to publicly agree with black people on issues of criminal justice in exchange for permission to make money off a type of music they enjoy.

8.  Twitter's favorite white villain may be the ever-threatening Taylor Swift, whose massive hit “Shake it Off” made the inexcusable error of featuring twerking black women for a few seconds, as part of a montage of dancing methods in which Taylor Swift is not adept.

9.  Salon (which can always be counted upon to publish ridiculous clickbait) published an opinion piece titled “Why I Can’t Stand White Belly Dancers.” The crux of the argument is simply “belly dancing is Arab!”  My hero, Eugene Volokh, offered this fantastic rebuttal, titled “Why I Can’t Stand Asian Musicians who Play Beethoven. His response is much more worthy of a read than the original.

10.  In 2014, Time posted an opinion piece called “Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing from Black Female Culture.” The author insinuates that such crimes as twerking, quoting Madea, talking about how large your butt is, and talking about having sex with black men amount to “claiming the identity” of black women.

Here are six reasons I think these complaints are unfounded.

1.  Culture does not belong to anybody. A recurring theme in these articles is the allegation that white people are “taking” or “stealing” elements of minority cultures.  It is almost as if the left has finally come around to the notion of property rights!  Culture is portrayed as collectivized property which belongs to one race or ethnic group, sometimes expressed by saying “[X part of black culture] isn’t FOR YOU” or “isn’t YOURS to take.” Almost every modern accusation of cultural appropriation uses rhetoric along these lines.

But this is wrongheaded, because culture is not property.  Property is a means of allocating scarce resources, and culture is not scarce: it is infinitely replicable.  Those wishing to use a culture need not take it from anyone else in order to do so.  Like air or germs or online media files, everyone can have it at the same time without seizing it from the possession of others.

Accordingly, a people can have culture, but they cannot own it.  Culture is just a set of shared ideas, experiences and customs, and ideas cannot be owned; they are just floating around on the ether for anyone to use, forever being modified and reapplied to new uses. Sometimes ideas die out, or are reinterpreted by outsiders and changed into something new. That’s okay!  None of this is unjust, whether or not those traditions originated from historically marginalized peoples.  The cultural legacy of humanity belongs to humanity.

Despite academic debate on the merits of assimilation, I think most people understand that experimental cultural intermingling can be healthy.  They recognize the tremendous benefits that can come from fusing foreign cultures, and that it is futile to try to prevent or undo this fusion.  Take this sampling of comments from beneath Volokh’s article on white belly dancing, for example:

·       When I see Arab businessmen and politicians wearing "western" style business suits and
ties I always cringe. I immediately think "who are these posers" trying to appropriate a tradition they have never lived? Or when "whites" meeting Asians bow, it really seems like whites are appropriating too. Conversely, seeing Asians shaking hands makes me shake my head.  
Once when visiting Texas, I put on cowboy boots and hat and went to a country western dance club. It was fun but I'm pretty sure the "real" cowboys couldn't stand me appropriating their gig.

·       Native Americans should stop using that electricity hocus pocus magic, and what in the world are Europeans doing drinking that weird coffee beverage?

·       Are "Arab women and brown women" who use indoor plumbing practicing cultural appropriation? They didn't invent that, did they?

·       In other news, with the exception of native American cuisine and possibly cooked wild game, the entire American menu is now racist (especially offensive is the notion of pizza, Cajun, Tex-Mex all take out not prepared by native cooks of that particular nationality of that cuisine.  

·       Salon clearly was engaged in the performance of the fine art of "click bait" with that article. That's an art form, by the way, that originated with low class computer technology web sites written predominantly by white males, and thus would not be appropriate for a Magazine-of-Color like Salon.

·       Are you going to demand S. Americans stop having Spanish and Portuguese derived holidays and language? Should Arabs stop using Arithmetic (derived from Roman -who got it from the Greeks- and Indian maths)? Should we as a society, since we rediscovered it through invasions of Europe and then Crusade? Should we stop using our current number system since it was developed from Arab sources? What do we use then, because Roman Numerals are, well, Roman, and were spread through invasion and cultural osmosis and trade. Should the Arabs stop belly dancing because they appropriated it from earlier, now dead, cultures? Should the Muslims give up their religion since it's an amalgamation of Christianity, Judaism, and Arab Paganism? Should Christians give up because it's an offshoot and appropriation of cultural aspects of Judaism and various Roman regional pagan groups? Should Jews give up on their religion because it's an apparently an amalgamation of a variety of old pagan religions and tales (most notably ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian)? Should we give up the entire English language because it's an amalgamation of languages -mostly from other white cultures, or is that okay because it's from other white cultures? Should the French stop speaking French because it's a combination of Frankish, Latin, and languages of several other now long dead cultural groups? Who gives up what between the Chinese and the Mongolians, since their cultures have long traded and exchanged ideas, and from time to time invaded and imposed their politics and cultures on the other? What cultural practices do the Filipinos keep? Their culture is a mishmash of everything that's ever crossed the Pacific; including Spanish and Moorish.

·       The funniest bit about it is that belly dance is older than the Arab Culture, which means they appropriated it too, by her standards. Everyone's invaded and occupied everyone else throughout history so much -and this ignores cultural osmosis through trade and peaceful migration-, it's impossible to find out true origins for something so ancient, so she can go suck eggs.

·       “This woman hilariously writes about belly dancing in Egypt without ever once wondering how it is that the ancient land of the Pharoahs suddenly became an "Arab" country. Maybe the indigenous people of Egypt (that would be the Copts) aren't too happy about the way this stupid cow's ancestors "appropriated" their entire country? Maybe the Berbers (the indigenous people of North Africa) are kinda upset at how this moron's ancestors "appropriated" their countries as well. Last I heard, they weren't getting along too well with the descendants of their Arab colonizers.  
…you come from a culture that was not too shabby itself at imperialism and colonialism in its hey day.

·       Virtually every existent culture is an amalgam of other cultures with a new bit added in. Even Jesus was a Jew for goodness sake.

·       Muslims “appropriated" the basic design of their mosques from Christian Byzantine churches. They also "appropriated" much of their Islamic religious doctrine from Jews and Christians. A basic belief of the Muslim religion is that all Jewish Prophets, plus Jesus and the 12 Apostles, were Muslims, not Jews or Christians. Talk about "cultural appropriation"

·       cultures are not and never have been either static or hermetically sealed. Borrowing goes in both directions, and there is nothing more patronizing than to suggest that X,Y or Z group should remain "pure" in their "own" cultural tradition. Math and Science advanced over the millennia through multiple borrowings from multiple sources -- Chinese, Indian, Arab as well as European. Over a period of centuries, the violin has become so fully assimilated into classical South Indian music that it would be impossible to have a concert without one. You haven't seen cultural appropriation until you've seen that. But it is magnificent and so utterly a part of the culture that it would be foolish to see it as alien.

·       They want us to embrace multiculturalism, but if you're in the white majority don't embrace it too deeply. That's appropriation and appropriation is racist.

2.  The people I hear complaining about cultural appropriation are usually not the *actually oppressed* in our society.  When I think about the victims of American racism, the editors at Everyday Feminism are not who come to mind.  I think of the people in jail for a little marijuana, or dead from a wayward drone strike, or shot for looking at a policeman the wrong way.  And frankly, I reckon the people trapped in the ghetto or jail don’t give two shits about how Miley Cyrus has been dancing lately.  Outside the manufactured outrage of the left-wing social media echo chamber, ordinary folks are thoroughly unoffended by yoga or Taylor Swift.  The ones who do care are normally people privileged enough to encounter “Phiestas” at Dartmouth fraternities and then write about it on mainstream feminist blogs – which is to say rich suburban professionals, using their skin color to lord some ethos over their white peers.  At best, they’re punching sideways, which makes for a futile sideshow distraction to the actual issues faced by the minority community.

If there is a connection between cultural appropriation and the real-world abuses I’ve described, I’d be very interested to see it.  But nobody’s been able to show it to me yet, and until such time as they do I will continue to roll my eyes at all the outrage.  Even as a privileged white guy, I retain the right to decide for myself which lamentations I give the time of day.

3.  No matter what white people do, those convinced that racism permeates every facet of our society will find a way to construe it as an example of that racism. Cultural appropriation is just one more instance of this phenomenon.

For decades, white people who did NOT sample minority cultures were portrayed as narrow minded and uncultured and ethnocentric and oppressing. Now, white people who throw themselves into those cultures wholeheartedly are apparently appropriating and stereotyping, and therefore oppressing.  White people who refrain from jumping in all the way, but seek to merely understand those cultures, are now said to be micro-aggressing with their nosy questions, and therefore oppressing.

When minorities do not assimilate elements of the white culture, they are said to be excluded by fearful whites who erect systemic barriers to intermingled communities in order to preserve segregated social circles.  But when minorities do assimilate elements of white culture, it’s viewed as an example of whites imposing their worldview upon them through “respectability politics,” which only causes blacks to internalize racist values.

When the cultures remain wholly separate, people bemoan that our “melting pot” is more like a “salad bowl” where nobody trusts one another and everyone is hostile and skeptical about things unfamiliar to them. But when the cultures do melt together, they lament that the distinct identity of historically oppressed groups is not being respected or cherished or preserved, and that minorities face an unfair burden to change their ways of living.

When white people move into a predominately white area, they are accused of redlining and choosing “good schools” as a code word for minority aversion.  But when white people move into predominately minority areas, they are accused of gentrification and pilfering black neighborhoods.

Apparently, no white course of action is not an example of white people oppressing black people.

Meanwhile, every black course of action is portrayed a heroic struggle against oppression, even when it’s the exact same action they just called problematic for whites. When Taylor Swift subtly pokes fun at women with different body types or dancing styles than her own, she’s blasted as being racist for money. When Nicki Minaj does the same thing, only in openly disparaging terms like “fuck you skinny bitches”, she’s lauded as an anti-racist feminist genius. When Robin Thicke makes videos alluding to naked women’s obvious desire for him, he is pilloried. When Nicki Minaj does it in reverse, it’s hailed as gloriously empowering. When Robin Thicke tells a female “I know you want it”, he’s called a literal rapist. When Beyonce tells a man the same thing, she’s hailed as a model feminist.

When your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And when the only thing you know how to do is blame the patriarchy, or blame white supremacy or some other form of systemic oppression, everything looks like an example of that oppression. No matter what the status quo is, those engaged in identity politics have made up their mind that it is wrong. That makes articles like the ten I listed above much easier to understand.  If you’re clever enough with words, and sit there long enough, and do enough torture to the English language, you can formulate convoluted rationales that seem to demonstrate just about anything you want.  That’s what cultural appropriation is about.  The term has gone viral not because it produces any clear victims, but predominantly because some people simply demand something to rail against, so they can validate their self-identity as a rebel fighting the system.

4.  There is only so much empathy I can dish out in a day, and there has to be some criteria I use to dish it out – some minimum threshold of suffering which need be surpassed before I start changing my preferred behavior and calling out other people who refuse to do the same.  Cultural appropriation of the sort described above doesn’t meet that threshold.

Like everything else, empathy is subject to the law of diminishing returns. The relationship between how empathetic you are and how good of a person you are is not strictly linear. There exists a certain point where it sort of plateaus – where subsequent amounts of sympathy for people’s most minor afflictions doesn’t make you a worse person, but it does less and less to actually help people either. Further along the line, additional units of empathy become unserious – incompatible with human nature – and people claiming to have such empathy are likely just pretending or grandstanding.  And somewhere even further along the spectrum, subsequent amounts of empathy are probably even counterproductive, coming at the expense of other qualities or considerations.  What the left calls “cultural appropriation” too often falls somewhere between those last two points.

When I see video of Jim Crow era black people getting sprayed with fire hoses for trying to drink from a clean water fountain, I experience a visceral physical response to clear injustice.  I feel sad and angry, simultaneous urges to help the injured person and defend them from their assailants.  When Ruth Tam tries to convince me not to eat Thai take-out, I feel nothing remotely comparable.

The fact that Donald Trump is so popular nowadays actually makes the contrast I’m trying to illuminate all the more clear. We live in an era when leading presidential candidates are calling for mass deportations; when the war on drugs continues to imprison hundreds of thousands of morally innocent brown people for no good reason; when black families are torn apart by rampant police abuse and civil forfeiture law and over-criminalization – to say nothing of the murder and indignities which brown people in other countries suffer at our hands.  There are genuine victims of real injustice in the world that we should be fighting for, and Mexicans who don’t like it when I drink a Margarita that my ancestors didn’t fucking invent are not on my list.

I don’t know where the line is for being “too empathetic,” but sometimes we just have to go with our moral intuition.  Nobody who isn’t already brainwashed feels like they’re doing something wrong when they eat a taco on Cinco de Mayo, nor when they laugh at a Harlem Shake video.  People recognize it isn’t harming anybody.  They’re not enjoying it at anyone else’s expense.  When we say something is “funny at X’s expense”, we mean we are laughing at X.  Unlike blackface or racist jokes, Harlem Shake videos did not cause people to laugh at blacks; they caused them to laugh for the entirely separate and non-racial reason that people in goofy costumes were doing goofy things.  I will not feel guilty for laughing at funny Youtube videos just because, unbeknownst to me, the name of the video is borrowed from some earlier thing black people also liked.

Nor do people feel naturally guilty for getting wasted on Guinness and Jameson at the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Boston.  It doesn’t matter that St Patrick’s Day in Ireland, the way my father, grandfather and his entire side of the family understood it, is spent mostly in church. This day of pious Catholic reflection over a nice family meal of cabbage and potatoes has, in the US, been transformed into nothing more than an excuse to get rip-shit drunk.  If you were creative enough, you could even argue that this fuels hurtful stereotypes that the Irish are all raging alcoholics (the “Irish exit,” etc.)  When this happens, does the political left rush to the aid of the historically oppressed and marginalized Irish community? No – it turns out they see St. Patrick’s Day as yet another example of white privilege.  I should call this Doris’ Law: if there exists a thing white people like, somebody on the blogosphere will come up with a reason why it’s racist.

This is why I don’t care about cultural appropriation: it’s not about empathy.  It’s about rivalry and anger and tribalism and showing which team you’re on in the social justice flame wars.  I am proud to call myself socially liberal.  I support Black Lives Matter, and hold a whole host racially progressive political positions.  But I am not going to pause before every momentary decision I make in my life to consider the microscopic impact which the second and third order effects of this decision might have on all the various systems of power and domination in the world.  I won’t pressure others to do this either, because it is unbelievably out of touch with reality to expect that most people will.  If I can put up with it on St. Patty’s Day – and somehow I make do – you can put up with it on Cinco de Mayo and Halloween and Miley twerking and whatever other example of “appropriation” that so torments you.  My sympathy only extends so far.

5. Not even the smartest and most empathetic among us are particularly effective at identifying which modes of speech, dress or behavior further oppression, and which ones combat it.  The whole endeavor requires entirely too many assumptions about what the long term consequences of a given choice are likely to be.  What demonstrable good has a marginal reduction in cultural appropriation done for minorities in this country? You could argue that labelling white people racist for doing such seemingly innocuous things has done more to fuel the rise of Donald Trump than it has to advance the plight of oppressed races.  Political correctness has done less to help racial minorities than backlash against political correctness has done to harm them.  This does NOT make people on the left morally culpable for this backlash, of course, but it does mean there are more efficient places they could be investing their efforts for the good of the cause.

6. If our society is to be “free” in any meaningful sense of the word, there needs to be a certain sense of live and let live, which in turn requires a certain thickness of skin on the part of all involved.  The price of peaceful coexistence is that sometimes we have to put up with neighbors who conduct their personal life in a mode we find upsetting or offensive.  What music I play, dances I perform or clothes I wear fall within that realm of behavior which people should just have to deal with – just as I deal with their preferred music, dances or attire.  It’s simply nobody else’s business but the individual.  When we moralize these personal preferences, we only launch antagonizing culture wars that nobody really wins.  This does not advance social justice.

Historically, when prudish parents or grandparents have nosed into the younger generation’s preferred music, dance or clothing due to highly subjective moral qualms, the progressive youth have always objected – and rightfully so.  So when minorities tell me what I oughtn’t wear or eat or listen to because of their own highly subjective moral objections, I give them the same reply grandma gets: mind your business.


Some will no doubt dismiss my points here as mere defensiveness, or white identity politics, or an inability to emphasize with others.  I confess I hesitated to publish these thoughts, because progressives are so often on the right side of history regarding race. But being right about 90% of racial issues doesn’t give you a pass on the other 10%.  The biggest threat to the truth is not that it be skillfully attacked, but that it be improperly defended, so effective public messaging on racial privilege requires that we weed out the bad arguments.  Cultural appropriation is one of them.

Immediately upon completion of this blog post, I will be meeting some friends at a South African restaurant called Braai Republic, located by my home in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. Though it was recommended to me by a South African I met in a Seoul hostel, I have never been to South Africa myself, and haven’t the faintest understanding of how their delicious pies, stews and sausages are prepared.  I will never learn how to prepare them.  I will never be able to fully trace how South African cuisine was molded and influenced by the complex cultural trifecta of English and Boer colonizers alongside the original African inhabitants.  And of course, I will never even comprehend, much less personally relate to the infamous legacy of apartheid, nor have to suffer through the same oppression that most South Africans did and still do.  In all likelihood, the primarily South Korean staff of this restaurant won’t either. 

And when I return from this restaurant, and waddle into bed stuffed to the gills with overpriced, exotic and delicious meats, I will lose not a wink of sleep pondering what transpired, because I will understand that not a single person anywhere was in the slightest bit harmed by what I ate for supper.

If this bothers you, too bad.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Is wealth a good indicator of aggregate service to society?

Libertarian economist Antony Davies recently posted the following on Facebook.

Imagine someone who produces more value for society than he consumes of society's resources. Clearly, society is better off because of this person. But when you provide value for others, you receive dollars in return. And when you consume society's resources, you give up dollars to acquire the resources. So, in a free market, those who end up with more dollars do so precisely because they serve others more than they ask to be served in exchange.

It's in a government controlled economy that one can acquire dollars without providing value to others.

I met Davies at an IHS Learn Liberty conference last June, and asked him whether he thought inheritance might complicate this.  He said “Neither more nor less than charity.”  I took a couple hours to think this over and then got busy with other things, and by now too much time has passed for me to respond to his post without it being awkward.  So now that I’ve circled back around, I figured I’d respond here instead.

I agree inheritance complicates it no more than charity – we could even view inheritance as a mere subset of charity – but it complicates it all the same.  Many of the same people who demonize the rich believe most rich people were born into their wealth; if that’s true, those with the most dollars might well consume more value than they provide, or at least break even.  So this argument would not convince those people.

The fact that some people start out with more money than others complicates things in another way too: the inconsistent valuation of dollars themselves.  Dollars are a commodity, and like most commodities they are valued differently by different people due to scarcity and unique indifference curves.  Someone who is poor likely values $1 more dearly than you or I, and Bill Gates will more readily part with his dollars than we will.  This poses problems for the idea that how many dollars you acquire is proportional to how much you have served others, because in a world where people start out with vastly different amounts of wealth, how much you can profit depends as much on who you’re serving as it does on how much value you have provided them.

Suppose I produce one ice cream cone, and that two brothers named Ben and Jerry each like ice cream equally much.  Since they derive exactly equal utility from eating ice cream, I would be providing the same amount of “value for others” no matter which brother I sold the ice cream to.  But if they have different amounts of money – suppose Ben has $100 and Jerry has only $10 – Ben might give me $5 for the ice cream whereas Jerry might only offer me 50 cents.  While it is still true that “when you provide value for others, you receive dollars in return,” the ratio of value provided to dollars received is not consistent from one transaction to the next.

In practice, this allows providers of luxury goods, for example, to make profits out of sync with how much they have served others – not just in my opinion, but even in the opinion of people who buy luxury goods.  Suppose Casio produces 100 watches at a cost of $5 each and sells them for $8 each: they have a profit of $300.  Over the same time frame, Rolex produces one watch at a cost of $3,000 and sells it for $6,000: they have a profit of $3,000.  Of course the products are different: the Rolex consumer is purchasing a status symbol, not a timekeeping device.  But you’d be hard pressed to convince me that Rolex has “served others” 10 times as much as Casio has while selling only a hundredth of the watches.  And I think even people who wear Rolexes might concede – perhaps even at the moment of sale – that the utility they derive from owning one Rolex is not 750 times greater than the utility they would derive from a regular watch.  They just have more money than they know what to do with, so are willing to spend more of it per unit of utility received than others are.

None of this is wrong, it just makes it harder for me to see wealth as a clear barometer of service to others, even if we did live in a free market.  Wealth is an amoral characteristic.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Mentally-handicapped human beings are morally distinct from gorillas

A very smart libertarian acquaintance of mine recently asked the following question on Facebook:

“Let's say an intellectually disabled human adult has a lower IQ than a very intelligent gorilla. Would it be wrong to put him in a cage and charge admission for kids to come look at him? If so, why are zoos okay? (Please try to answer without "God thinks we're special." That's cheating.)”

This was my response…

Yes it would be wrong, and yes zoos are still okay, primarily because even mentally handicapped human beings deserve more respect, rights and freedoms than gorillas do (whatever their IQ).  Humans are categorically morally distinct from other animals, period.  I would be happy to defend that belief in a separate comment.

But suppose you disagree with me.  Suppose you think gorillas are so biologically similar to us that their lives deserve equal legal protection.  Fine.  Even then, zoos can be morally justified for gorillas, but NOT the mentally handicapped, from a purely utilitarian standpoint: the psychological impact of inclusion in a zoo would be much more detrimental and hurtful for the disabled human than it is for the gorilla.

Most mentally disabled people desperately wish to lead normal lives.  They recognize they are human, and that others around them are human too, and they yearn for inclusion and acceptance into human society.  More than anything, they want to be seen and treated as equals by other people.  This is why it strikes us as wrong to put them in cages and gawk at them. Even if their physical conditions were comfortable and their survival needs were met just as amply as they are in the outside world today, the cage would deny them this societal participation and devastate their psyche.  It would demarcate them as fundamentally different from and inferior to other human beings, and deprive them of the freedom and agency necessary to earn the respect of their peers.  We would essentially be quarantining them as objects of ridicule and laughter, and they would know it.

Gorillas, by contrast, have no illusion of equality with human beings.  They have no knowledge of human society nor any desire to be a part of it.  They do have emotions, and basic reasoning, and a relatively high degree of sentience, but they focus these gifts almost entirely on the single-minded pursuit of survival and base pleasures.  A well-crafted zoo enclosure can provide them with literally everything they want in life: abundant food, security, comfort, sex and companionship with other gorillas, and a plethora of toys and trainers with which to interact and apply their curiosity.  When people of a different species stare or point at them, they are unoffended and altogether quite unbothered.

TL;DR – Gorillas can be happy in a zoo, but mentally disabled humans cannot.


For those interested, here is that “separate comment” defending my belief that humans are “categorically morally distinct” from other animals…

I value human life more than I value gorilla life because human life has at least three things gorilla life does not:

1. The capacity for abstract thought.  Humans have written language – gorillas do not.  Even our spoken language is vastly more complex than the “language” of Gorillas, who do not have anything we would recognize as “words.”* 

*The most linguistically advanced gorilla ever trained is named Koko, who understands over 1,000 words of sign language (which she can sign herself) and over 2,000 spoken words (though she cannot pronounce them herself).  By comparison, the average adult native English speaker knows 20,000 words, so it’s conceivable that were Koko raised by humans she could approach that.  But that’s where the comparison ends.  Koko cannot use syntax or grammar or put those words together to make sentences.  She doesn’t initiate conversations herself except to sign for food.  And crucially, she does not truly understand the meaning of what she is doing; she has merely been conditioned to sign in a certain way because the researchers reward her for doing so.  Anyone who has ever heard of the Chinese Room thought experiment should know why this is important.  We can program computers to respond to a certain input with a certain output so efficiently that they could pass the Turing Test as a human being.  But the man mimicking Chinese characters in accordance with visual instructions does not actually speak Chinese, those computers are not actually human, and Koko does not actually understand English.

Humans can use this complex language to comprehend, articulate and exchange abstract ideas, and have been doing this for thousands of years. This pushes the boundaries of human knowledge exponentially further than any modern animal can fathom, which is morally important to me in how I value human vs. animal minds.

2.  Morality. Among those abstract ideas which humans can understand and discuss – but gorillas cannot - are those ideas necessary to develop a moral ethic.  Animals may feel evolutionary urges for self-sacrifice in service of their clan or species’ survival, but they do not have anything remotely resembling a human moral philosophy.  They cannot have conversations resembling the one we’re having now.  They do not understand “rights” or “justice” or most other human moral principles.  Their actions belie this; animals are ruthlessly violent with one another every day.  They have no respect for the lives of one another, much less those of other species than their own.  If they fight with one another within their species, the winner does not feel guilty, and the loser does not feel resentful, because their struggle was a purely pragmatic contest of strength; neither side claims a “moral high ground,” nor could even fathom one beyond “might makes right.”  Those animals which are peaceful abstain from brutishness only due to lack of ability or need for violence, not some conscientious objection to it.

So I treat animals in the same way they treat me, and the same way they treat one another – which is to say by killing them when I’m hungry, or they’re in my way, or they’re causing me the slightest inconvenience.  They cannot comprehend it as a matter of right and wrong, but only as a matter of winning and losing, so I play on their terms (and tend to win).

     3.  Meaning.  To all animals – including gorillas – continued life is the only real objective they pursue.  Everything they do is instinctively geared towards promoting their own survival as a species, or comfort as an individual.  This worry dominates the entirety of their existence.  Of course humans also have this instinct.  But to most of us, life is more of a means than it is an ends.  We see the meeting of our basic survival needs as merely the starting point, the launching pad to greater things – things like philosophy and literature and poetry and culture, like music and art and friendship and sport, hobbies and interests and bucket lists.  These things do not have survival value in an evolutionary sense; rather, they give value to survival.  Jeremy himself contributes to this rich pageantry with his comedy.  No gorilla could ever have the cognitive ability to comprehend his jokes, much less them on its own.  Humans have created and mastered these things independently, while gorillas can only perform severely limited versions of them (and only when taught by humans, and only in exchange for a treat, which even then merely proves how totally their minds are driven by the base search for sustenance).  This is morally important to me in how I value a human life against an animal life.

IQ tests are almost impossible to administer to gorillas anyway (Koko can only take infant IQ tests on things like motor skills, not the adult versions with things like inference or logic or math).  But even if they could be tested under laboratory conditions, IQ scores are a poor approximation for these differences.

A more compelling question, to me, would be “If alien life that far exceeds our own intelligence and capabilities discovers human kind, would it be wrong of them to put us in cages and charge other aliens admission to come look at us?  If not, why are zoos okay?”