Careful Who You Call ‘Racist’

Imagine that you manage a restaurant, and suddenly during the evening shift a middle-aged woman stands up, points to another diner, and yells “Murderer!” She loudly appeals to everyone to help her restrain and punish this supposed murderer. (Think Catelyn seizing Tyrion in GoT.) When other diners are shy, she demands that you expel this murderer from your restaurant. She says that in a civilized society it is every good person’s duty to oppose murder, and explains her belief that her husband went to an early grave because this older man, her boss, worked him too hard. Sure her husband could have quit his job instead, but he just wasn’t that sort of person.

Will you expel this customer as requested? Probably not. Yes there is a plausible meaning of the word “murder” that applies, but the accused must satisfy a narrower meaning for such an appeal to move you. In this post I will suggest that we take a similar restricted attitude toward “racism” in politics. Let me explain.

Humans have many ways to persuade one another. We can make deals, or we can appeal to self-interest, mutual reciprocity, or shared loyalties. In addition, we can appeal to shared moral/social norms. This last sort of appeal draws on our unique human capacity to enforce what Boehm calls a “reverse dominance hierarchy.” Foragers coordinated to express norms, to monitor for violations, to agree on who is guilty, and then to punish those violators. Such norms covered only a limited range of behaviors, those worth the trouble of invoking this expensive, corruptible, and error-prone mechanism.

With farming and civilization we have introduced law. With law, we added a formal specialized process to support a subset of our especially shared, important, clear, and enforceable norms. Foragers would entertain most any argument against most anyone that most any behavior was a norm violation. For example, a band could declare a disliked forager guilty of using sorcery, even if no concrete physical evidence were offered. But farmer law usually limited accusations to clearly expressed pre-existing law, and limited the kinds of evidence that could be offered.

For example, multiple witnesses were often required, and instead of relying on median public opinion a special judge or jury looked into more detail to make a decision. Negligence levels are made extra forgiving due to the chance of honest mistakes. To be a good candidate for enforcement by farmer law, a norm needed especially wide support, and to be especially clear and easy to prove even by those unfamiliar with the details of a particular person’s habits and life. And the norm needed to be important enough to be worth paying the extra costs of legal enforcement, including a substantial expected level of error and corruption.

In the last few centuries governments have mostly taken over the “criminal” area of law, where it is now they who investigate and prosecute accusations, and punish the guilty. Because such governments can be more corruptible, error-prone, and inefficient, the criminal law process is only applied to an especially important subset of law. And even more restrictions are placed on government law, such as juries, statutes of limitations, prison as punishment, proportionate punishment, and a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof. To avoid costs of error and enforcement, we often try to catch fewer violators and punish them more strongly to compensate.

Today, many kinds of political arguments are offered for and against people, organizations, and policies. While many arguments appeal to self-interest and shared loyalties, others demand priority because of norm violations. The claim is that whatever other different interests we may have and pursue, it is essential that we set those aside to coordinate to punish key norm violations. And since many of these norms are, for various reasons, not enforced by formal law, we depend on other good people and organizations to respond to such moral calls to action.

And this all makes sense so far. But in the last half century in the West, preferences against “racism” have risen to at least near the level of moral norms. (We have related feelings on “sexism” and other “isms” but in this post I’ll focus on racism for concreteness.) Whatever else we may disagree on, we are told, we must coordinate to oppose racists, boycotting their businesses and drumming them out of public office. Which could make sense if enough of us agree strongly enough to make this a priority, and if we share an effective way to collectively identify such violations.

One problem, however, is that our commonly used concepts of “racism” seem more appropriate to ordinary conversation and persuasion than to usefully enforceable strong norms and law. Some favor concepts where most everyone is at least a bit racist, and others concepts based on hard-to-observe dispositions. But while such concepts may be useful in ordinary conversation or academic analysis, they are poorly suited for enforcing strong norms and law.

For example, many today claim that Trump is clearly racist, and invoke a shared norm against racism in their appeal for everyone to oppose Trump. No good person, they suggest, should cooperate in any way with Trump or his supporters. A good person can’t treat this as politics as usual, not when a norm violator stands among us unpunished! It is even hinted that people with positions of influence in important institutions, such as in media, academia, journalism, law, and governance, should deviate from their usual practice of following institutional norms of political neutrality, and instead tip the scales against Trump supporters, now that everything is at stake.

But as Scott Alexander recently tried to argue, the evidence offered for Trump racism doesn’t yet seem sufficient to hold up in a legal court, not at least if that court used a “racism” concept of the sort law prefers. If your concept of “racist” applies to a third of the population, or requires a subjective summing up of everything you’ve ever heard about the accused, it just won’t do for law.

Yes, people are trying Trump in a court of public opinion, not in a court of law. But my whole point here is that there is a continuum of cases, and we should hold a higher more-restrictive more-law-like standard for enforcing strong norms than we should in ordinary conversation and persuasion. Higher standards are also needed for larger more varied communities, when there are stronger possibilities of bias and corruption, and when the enforcing audience pays less attention to its job. So we should be a lot more careful with who we call “racist” than who we call “hot” or “smart”, for example. For those later judgements, which are not the basis of calls to enforcement of shared strong norms, it is more okay to just use your judgement based on everything you’ve heard.

Now I haven’t studied Trump or his supposed racism in much detail. So maybe in fact if you look carefully enough there is enough evidence to convict, even with the sort of simple clear-cut definition of “racism” that would make sense and be useful in law. But this appeal to norm enforcement should and will fail if that evidence can’t be made clear and visible enough to the typical audience member to whom this appeal is targeted. We must convict together or not at all; informal norm enforcement requires a strong consensus among its participants.

Maybe it is time to enshrine our anti-racism norm more formally in law. Then we could gain the benefits of law and avoid the many costs of informal mob enforcement of our anti-racism norms. I really don’t know. But I have a stronger opinion that if you are going to appeal to our sense of a strong shared norm against something like racism, you owe it to us all to hold yourself to a high standard of a clear important and visible violation of a nearly-law-appropriate concept. Because that is how law and norm enforcement need to work.

Yes we are limited in our ability to enforce norms and laws, and this limits our ability to encourage good behavior. And it may gall you to see bad behavior go unpunished due to these limitations. But wishes don’t make horses, and these costs are real. So until we can lower such costs, please do be careful who you call a “racist.”

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