Ignorance Vs Malice

twohead_viaolegshpyrkoI have long held the position that one should never attribute to malice that which is explainable by incompetence or ignorance. Inherent in that position are two presumptions: first, that intentions and actions can be judged separately in the same cases; second, that most people are selfish, but not malicious. In most situations, that means presuming good intentions even when a person’s actions cause harm or damage common goals. With most people, I find that presumption is justified and leads to better relationships and easier problem-solving.

Yet I have been struggling lately with where to draw the line. At what point is the explanation of incompetence or ignorance no longer plausible? How much foolishness must I allow to cover over blatant harm? Yes, I can believe that many people act on specific priorities to benefit themselves, and without anticipating the consequences.

But what do you do when someone has been given every chance to uncover their own errors, and refused? At what point does willful refusal to consider different perspectives cross over from ignorance to malice?

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The Complicit Majority

It’s easy to say members of the fringe aren’t part of the group. We’d prefer that they not be, at least we it comes to public perception. The fringe is an uncomfortable reminder of the flaws in our beliefs: as the Westboro Baptist Church is to Christians, as PETA is to environmentalism, as racist Trump supporters are to Republicans, as GamerGate trolls are to gamers, and so many others. We want to say these people are not really Christians, or environmentalists, or whatever group they claim to be part of.

But that’s rarely true—more frequently, these are the members we uncomfortably ignore, espousing views we have left carefully unstated inside our communities. They are bad actors we tolerate in our midst because, somewhere, we decided that solidarity trumps civility. When they finally become the loud voices, we suddenly want to distance ourselves from them, but it’s too late. Our complicity is already established.

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No Reason to Lie

Pinocchio_ViaJean-EtienneSometimes, in the course of a debate or discussion, a secondhand statement comes under consideration. The actors in the debate must then evaluate how relevant that statement is to the their discussion. This happens in media during interviews, in class discussions, on the internet, with friends and family, and beyond. Wherever it happens, you are as likely as not to hear a particular phrase—“no reason to lie.”

“Look, he has no reason to lie.”

“Why would he lie?”

“She doesn’t get anything out of lying about this—she has no reason to.”

However it arises, the implication of the argument that someone “has no reason to lie” is that having no reason to lie is, itself, evidence for truth.

And our understanding of logic and evidence is so bad that we often accept that.

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Bathrooms, Bigots, and Bad Logic

transflag_viaTorbakhopperThe anti-trans bathroom bills legislatures have been passing or proposing lately are obvious discrimination—yet, for an apparently significant group of people, they seem to be about protection. For weeks now I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around how anyone could think these bills did anything useful; how anyone could see them as something other than an assault on the liberties of trans people specifically. The flimsy rationalization that we have to keep people “safe” from “predators” seemed farcical—could anyone actually believe that?

Of course, part of the answer lies with bad logic. It’s easy to play the game of spotting logical fallacies in other people’s arguments, but what I sometimes forget is that bad logic feels convincing, even when stopping to think about it clearly would destroy it. The argument that we need to protect people from supposed trans predators is nonsense, but it doesn’t feel like it. Until you stop to think about it and realize that there are zero incidents of trans people doing anything untoward in public bathrooms (unlike, say, republican legislators).

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Racism, Sexism, and the Fundamental Attribution Error

Lookingout_viaAllenLaiWe all know racism, sexism, and similar –isms are things we shouldn’t admit to; even those who embrace them ideologically would rather express them in different words. The disclaimer mad lib is simple: “I’m not _____, it’s just that _____.” Islamophobia? No, no, it’s just that there really are Muslim terrorists, so my fear is justified! Sexism? Are you kidding? Women just choose lower-paying jobs than men do. Racism? Don’t make me laugh. Black people just commit more crimes, so of course the police need to pay more attention to them. For Americans, for white people, for men, for those on the inside, an –ism is easily explained away by external factors.

From the outside, it looks a bit different.

If you’re a woman in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from men who didn’t want to take no for an answer.

If you’re black in the United States, you have probably gotten attention you didn’t want from police who assumed you were guilty of something.

And you’ll notice that what these things have in common is not, necessarily, some internal core quality (which is how many white people think about racism, how many men think about sexism, etc.). Instead, what they have in common is behavior, and a system that says that behavior is okay.

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False Categories: Black-on-Black Crime

Photo Credit: Flickr user Phil CrisologoI maintain that doubting and refining (and sometimes rejecting) one’s ideas is a fundamental part of knowing. Without those habits, ideas become brittle and dogmatic, and demagoguery becomes common. Without those habits, we can develop entire concepts with ready-made distortion built in. I think of these concepts as false categories: words or phrases where peripheral qualities are used to define a convenient set of things regardless of relevance.

Have you ever had someone ask you a rhetorical question that just made you think “that’s a stupid question,” but you couldn’t put your finger on why? Did you find yourself reluctantly pulled along by their logic, knowing full well that there was a flaw somewhere but unable to find it? This has been my experience when I encounter false categories—I recognize that there is a specious premise in the question, but it take a while to parse it out because it was hidden in the language instead of stated outright.

Of course, categories are useful and effective shorthand for thought and debate. This is why we rely on them so much. But human beings are also too enamored of categories; we think too little about them, and we overlook false categories that contain questionable implications. You can draw a circle around any convenient thing and call it a category, and we do, especially when there is an ideological motive for doing so.

Case in point, the phrase “black-on-black crime.” For white people, racial tensions they had mostly ignored have become much less ignorable in the recent past. For those white people motivated to dismiss the idea that racism still has any role in American society, “black-on-black crime” is a refuge. “Look!” these people can say, “there are proportionally more murders by black Americans of black Americans! Black-on-black crime is the real issue you should focus on, not [insert topic here].” Black Lives Matter? Then why don’t they focus on Black-on-Black Crime (and stop picking on George Zimmerman, or white people, or police officers)?

On the face of it (ignoring the false choice idea that you can only focus on one thing at a time) the category of “black-on-black crime” is apparently real. FBI crime statistics bear out that there is, indeed, more crime within races than across races, and more crime overall in black communities. So one could be forgiven, after a cursory glance at the data, for thinking the category of “black-on-black crime” is a natural category with real implications. Which is where a lot of people would stop, so let’s not.

The phrase “black-on-black crime,” especially when used in discussions about structural racism, implies a false equivalency between crimes motivated by racism and crimes motivated by poverty. To suggest that the Black Lives Matter movement should focus on “black-on-black crime” instead of structural racism in police departments implies that because more poor black people kill other black people than do racially motivated police, the latter should be somehow less important. Even the premise that you could focus on one and not the other implies no chain of causality between a community unable to trust its police force and the levels of crime within that community.

The phrase “black-on-black crime” carries with it the implicit limit of violent crime, the sort of crime where one or two people have one or two victims and there is direct interaction between them. If one includes fraud, embezzling, tanking the world economy, or various other kinds of white-collar (and mostly white-person) crime, the question of who counts as a victim becomes altogether muddled. White people often talk about white-collar crimes as “victimless,” but I think all the people who got stuck in foreclosure after being bamboozled into bad mortgages would disagree on that point.

The thing that bothers me most about “black-on-black crime” is that it is fundamentally a bait-and-switch. The category acknowledges that race is an important factor in the discussion, but then uses that importance to divert attention and avoid responsibility. It betrays a deeply separatist view of American society and carries the deep conviction that races are just different, which leads treacherously to the idea that some races are more criminal. Crime in white communities is painted as an aberration, but the implication of the phrase “black-on-black crime” is that crime in black communities is inherently tied to the racial makeup of those communities. Never mind that we know crime is actually tied to the density and socioeconomic makeup of communities, and societal structures and history have conspired to make poor urban communities more black than white.

This is why I believe “black-on-black crime” is a false category. Like many false categories, it takes an incidental factor and paints it as causal. Usually that’s just a mistake, a cognitive shortcut that we take so often that it’s tough to avoid. In this particular case, though, it echoes a long and shameful history of white people judging other races as inferior.

Some white people try to convince themselves that they no longer do this. Some try to convince themselves that racism isn’t a real part of society. “Black-on-black crime” does have something real to say about race, but what is has to say is that uncomfortable white people are trying very hard to look away. Racism, though, will not be buried in so shallow a grave; it will keep rising to the surface until we deal with it honestly, and structurally, and humbly.