A Silent Pass?

Introduction: This quote appears expresses theme commonly appearing in progressive rhetoric of late, namely, the notion that phrases like “not all white people” are disingenuous and unnecessary responses to statements critical of whites. Similar arguments are made in other contexts of social justice advocacy and debate (e.g. sexism with “not all men.”)

Key Facts: The meme itself appears to be a quote from @chloemadaleine. I found a twitter account matching the name in question, but it is protected. So, I do not know of any particular details regarding the context in which this statement might have been made. As the meme is circulating about the net these days, it does occur to me that many will experience the argument with no more contextual than I have myself at this point.

Text: “If you’re white and not racist, you will not give a fuck about black people calling white people racist now. Because you know that what you’re saying does not apply to you. If you’re offended, you’re racist. It’s simple.”


Comments: The quote above arises out of a problem in the rhetoric of modern progressivism, namely an effort to address concerns about larger, systemic, patterns of social injustice (in this case racism) while retaining rhetoric that still calls out specific people for specific forms of behavior. The notion that some people are racist and some people aren’t hearkens back to more conventional definitions of racism, treating it as a toxic personal orientation whereas the tendency to produce sweeping generalizations is driven largely by an interest in racism as a larger social force which by definition functions to benefit white people. Either definition of racism works just fine on its own, but contemporary social justice advocates (at least in popular circles) tend to invoke the individualized model as accusation even as they insist on larger systemic models when defining what does or doesn’t count as racism. There may be scholars who handle this with more consistency, but the rhetoric of social justice seems caught between its own paradigm and those it disavows without quite leaving behind.

Critics of contemporary social justice advocates typically have a much easier time of it, often insisting on personal models of racism as the only ones that count, thus rendering discrimination against white people pretty much the same as discrimination against persons of color. This too distorts a lot of important issues.

Statements: I am treating item ‘b’ as adding emphasis rather than as a substantive part of the argument. It was tempting to think of a missing assumption in the form of a biconditional statement to the effect that such statements are objectionable/offensive to white people if and only if the white people in question are racist, but this doesn’t seem necessary. The actual text from the meme itself is sufficient to make sense of the argument.

[1] If you’re white and not racist, you will not give a fuck about black people calling white people racist now.

[a] Because

[2] [If you’re white and not racist] you know that what they’re saying does not apply to you.

[3] If you’re offended, you’re racist.

[b] It’s simple.”

Diagram: Unfortunately, the text only gives us one inference indicator [a] which tells us that statement 2 is a reason for something (surely, statement 1). Statement 3 is thrown in without any guidance as it to its relationship to the rest. So, we end up with several possible diagrams. We can start with an inference from 2 to1. Statement 3 is then either irrelevant commentary (diagram I), a second reason to accept statement 1 (diagram II), or a conclusion drawn from statement 1 (diagram III). Alternatively, statement 3 is a separate inference from statement 2 (diagram IV).

I’m inclined to think diagrams 3 and 4 are the most plausible, leaving us with either her last point as her main point or two separate conclusions, one suggesting that non-racists should not be threatened by statements about white racism and one suggesting that anyone who is threatened is guilty as charged, so to speak. Statement 3 packs a Hell of a punch, making it unwise to treat as irrelevant and also unlikely that the line was meant as a mere reason to think of something else. It either shares the stage wit the author’s first point as a final conclusion in its own right, or it was the whole point all along.

Discussion: This topic raises the following issues; Ad Hominem, False Alternatives, Interactional Eclipse, Masked Man Fallacy, Micro-Reasoning, Motte and Baily Doctrines, Bo True Scotsman Fallacy, Satire, Thought Policing, Transposition.

Ad Hominem: The suggestion that any whites who object to generalized statements about white racism must therefore themselves be racists is a classic ad hominem. It effectively refutes any concerns they might offer on the basis of a direct personal attack. Whether this is best thought of as a simple ad hominem (abusive) or the more complex ad hominem (circumstantial) is another question. As it does effectively comment on the motives and biases that whites bring to the issue, it is probably best to consider it a circumstantial.

False Alternatives: Insofar as this argument asks us to distinguish between white people who are racists and those who are not, this argument presents us with false alternatives. In fact, it does so on terms which should not arise at all in account taking the possibility of systemic racism seriously. Simply put, if racism is a feature if society as a whole, then the issue is not who is or is not racist; it is whether or not their specific words and deeds are contributing to racism in any way. It should go without saying under such a view that anyone could fall into racist patterns of thinking and talking. We can even suggest that white people might be more prone to this than others, or at least that we may plug into these patterns in particular ways. What we cannot do with any consistency is divide people (white or otherwise) into a simple binary set of those who are racist and those who are not.

Interactional Eclipse: Insofar as the argument accuses any white person objecting to statements about white racism of being racist in their own right, its interactional significance is rather high. It effectively sends a signal to white people that they should think twice before expressing disagreement. Drawing this line in the sand, so to speak, may well prove more significant than any of the intellectual merits of the argument.

Masked Man Fallacy: One of the more interesting angles to this argument lies in the way it uses definition by extension to answer problems arising from definition by intention. Many of the problems alluded to here arise when statements about white racism appear to implicate whites as a universal class. This can be done explicitly (by saying “all whites” or something to that effect) or by implication (e.g. “white people are like…), which suggests a universal implication without explicitly asserting the quantifier. Either way, a good portion of the objections here come directly from concerns about the possible unfairness or inaccuracy of such categorical assertions. The argument then asks those concerned about such problems to think of themselves as the exception and hence to drop their objections. The problem with this approach lies in the fact that the objections arise precisely because such statements do not admit of exceptions. In effect, the argument answers a question about the intentional meaning of an assertion (everyone?) by virtue of an unspoken extensional consideration (well, not me!).

It should also be said that some white people might object to categorical assertions about white people without necessarily thinking of themselves as the exceptions.

Micro-Reasoning: This was likely a tweet to begin with, and the argument is certainly short. There is only so much precision that can be expected of reasoning presented with such brevity.

Motte and Baily Doctrines: I think it’s fair to see this argument as an attempt to shift between motte and baily (perhaps to defend the bailey from the motte). If we imagine a qualified statement (e.g. ‘some white people do x’) as the motte and a categorical assertion along the same lines (e.g. ‘white people do x’ or even ‘all white people do x’) as the bailey, this argument appears to be a case of someone trying to defend the bailey from the confines of the motte. In effect, the author is saying that there is no need to assert the existence of exceptions because you can just imagine yourself as one of them.

No True Scotsman Fallacy: Normally this fallacy is applied in an effort to defend a positive generalization, but you could see this argument as an invitation for people to imagine themselves as the obvious exception to a negative generalization. You may fit in this awful category, but you’re not REALLY one of them. You get a pass! And since you get a pass, there will be no need to question the generalization, which I won’t be rethinking, because anyone who doesn’t fit the narrative also gets that free pass and we are all good, right?

This too is the NTS fallacy.

Satire: I’ve been dumping on this argument pretty hard, but there is at least one way of thinking about it that might redeem the argument a bit, as a sort of satirical ladder which must be pulled up after one has climbed it. It is as if the author is entertaining the prospect of an exception, only to suggest that that is in itself absurd. What if I really do try to imagine myself as a non-racist? Sure, I’m liberal. Sure, I have black friends (and other clichés). Sure, I disavow racism, and try hard not to discriminate, but can I really say that I am completely free of racist thoughts and deeds? What about that one thing I said last year that I’m still kicking myself about? And then there was that one time, …I mean, I didn’t mean to, but… The point here is that while we can distinguish between people whose personal orientation is more or less consciously racist, we probably cannot point to a person whose thoughts and deeds do not reflect racist assumptions under any circumstances. This is at least one of the implications of systemic racism.

By this approach, the point of the argument would be to let the would-be exception struggle with their own self-awareness a bit, and in the end hopefully conclude they are not so free of racism after all. In effect, the argument starts off by letting people try to make a distinction between racist and non-racist white people only to realize the distinction is untenable.

Whether or not this is what the original author had in mind, I cannot say. I do think that much of the rhetoric for which this kind of argument could be offered as a defense is far more personal and far less subtle than would be consistent with this approach. Simply put, when someone is called racist, the implication is virtually always about their own personal orientation and even moral characteristics. Such accusations are not (normally) about abstract connections to large-scale patterns of social inequity.

Thought Policing: Insofar as the argument effectively stigmatizes any dissenting views, this does suggest a degree of thought policing. That will work better in some contexts than others, but then again it also appears more in some contexts than others.

Transposition: In diagram 2, the inference from 3 to 1 would work by transposition. This is also true of the inference from 1 to 3 in diagram 3. Suffice to say that those inferences are deductively valid.

Evaluation: Obviously, I do not consider this argument sound. Whatever the diagram, the main problem is the implausibility of the central notion that one might object if and only if she is racist. There are a few different ways to imagine this connection, but none of them really work, So, statement 2 doesn’t work as a starting premise for any version of this argument.

Final Thoughts: There is another problem at the root of all those associated with this argument. It’s choice people make in their rhetoric, and that choice involves a real trade-off in terms of the impact one makes on a conversation. Simply put, qualified statements don’t have anywhere near the impact that generalizations (even implied generalizations) can generate. Once people can imagine themselves as one of the good guys, it becomes all to easy to do just that and a nation full of people who know damned well there is a problem can’t seem to find anyone actually responsible for doing anything about it. Also, it doesn’t help that qualified statements are often quantified in vague ways. Changing “all whites are racist” to “some whites are racist” or even “many whites are racist” weakens the claim without actually adding much in the way of precision. Under these circumstances, the temptation to go with a generalization is certainly strong. Leaving out quantifiers altogether (e.g. ‘whites are racist’) still gives an author the strength of a generalization while reserving the possibility of admitting exemptions when pressed about it. So, this kind of quasi-universal language seems to have become a common solution to the problem.

Not surprisingly, a range of would-be allies and folks who fancy themselves as non-racist or even anti-racist are uncomfortable hearing statements that implicate them in racist thought and practice. Hence, the “not all…” rejoinders. Naturally, such responses weaken the impact of the claims in question and often serve to derail the conversation altogether as people haggle over the possibility that some white folks might not be so bad. Strong advocates of social justice thus have an interest in silencing these rejoinders, some of which might be thought of as sealioning or engaging in philosophy dude-bro behavior. Hence, we get arguments like the one presented here.

The problem is that the problem is real, just as the original problem is real.

Pardon me: The problem (with this argument and others like it) is that the problem (of exceptions to sweeping generalizations) is real, just as the original problem (racism) is real.

People have to decide which of these matters more to them and what they want to do about it. This argument reflects a clear choice of priorities; but it also reflects an attempt to force the issue in some very problematic ways.

David Silverman on Atheist Bilboards

Introduction: This is a tweet from David Silverman (President of American Atheists) defending the practice of placing billboards critical of religious views in public places.

Key Facts: David Silverman is the President of American Atheists which is a non-profit organization promoting the interests of nonbelievers in the United States. Under Silverman’s leadership, American Atheists have put up a number of public billboards promoting atheism and criticizing religion. These billboards have themselves drawn criticism from religious figures and in some non-believers as well. Some of the criticisms have been directed at specific themes and specific statements included in the billboards. Others have been directed against the general wisdom of putting such statements out into the public.

Text: This is the tweet in question.



Comments: Two general points come to mind when considering this argument.

One is the possibility of a double standard in reference to billboards expressing a stance on religious topics. Christians in particular have been accustomed to producing such statements for as long as some of us can recall. The placement of anti-religious sentiments on a public billboard is however a relatively new practice, and it may draw more criticism due in part to the unusual nature of the messages. Simple confirmation Bias may be another factor insofar as the bulk of the public is unlikely to agree with an overtly atheistic message.

A second concern lies in the potential obfuscation of specific concerns about specific billboards. While this particular tweet addresses the issue in the abstract, some of the concerns raised about these billboards have been about very specific details about specific billboards put out by American Atheists, This is particularly true of those raised by unbelievers – whom Silverman presents as the party he intends to answer here.

Statements: The argument is set out as follows. Two missing statements [4] and [5] have been added. [4]  helps to seal the relevance of statements 2 and 3 to the rest of the argument and [5] is most likely the intended conclusion of the argument.

[1] Atheists who object to billboards attacking religion are ALSO victims of religious indoctrination.

[2] Lies deserve death.

[3] [Lies do not deserve] Protection.

[[4]] [Religious claims are lies.]

[[5]] [Atheists ought not to oppose billboards attacking religion.]

Discussion: Issues raised by this argument include the following; ad hominem, Interactional eclipse, micro-reasoning, missing statements, the principle of charity, provincialism, and thought policing.

Ad Hominem: The assertion that critics (atheist or otherwise) of billboards promoting atheism are victims of religious indoctrination is an ad hominem (circumstantial). If there is a non-fallacious way to interpret that suggestion it would be to treat it as a simple explanation to be taken at face value. In others words, it would be possible to simply think of this as an empirical question about the motivations of a select group of people. The second statement in the tweet, however, belies this interpretation as it makes it clear Silverman means to argue with his critics. This is not simply a diagnosis; it is an attempt to undermine the credibility of billboard critics.

Interactional Eclipse: To the degree that this argument constitutes a form of thought policing, it is explicitly an attempt to subvert efforts to engage in critical thinking about the value of anti-religious billboards through appeal to social dynamics. Whatever the value of the argument, any resulting debate is more likely to generate more heat than light.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most (if not all) tweets, the brevity of this argument is a problem, hence the need to supply nearly as many missing statements as those clearly expressed.

Missing Assertions: The intended conclusion of this argument is most likely some statement intended to discourage unbelievers from engaging in criticism of billboards promoting atheism. I have accordingly supplied statement 5 as an attempt to express this missing statement.

I would also suggest an additional Missing Assumption (statement [4] that religious views are lies). If this assumption is not true, then both statement 2 and 3 fail to produce anything of value in the argument.

Principle of Charity: It isn’t entirely clear whether Silverman means to suggest this argument applies to all instances in which atheists prove critical of billboards attacking religion or simply those who do so on principle (I.e. those who object categorically to the creation of such billboards instead of those with particular objections to specific billboards). His wording could facilitate either interpretation, and it is likely those who agree with him will include parties adopting each interpretation.

For purposes of keeping the discussion thoughtful it is probably best to treat this argument as applying only to those who object to such billboards in general. The alternative would in effect amount to a blank check to produce any content (no matter how foolish) critical of religion without fear of counter-criticism from other atheists. That would hardly be a reasonable position, so it’s not the most productive interpretation of the argument to pursue here.

Provincialism: Insofar as this argument seems to be encouraging atheists to be less like religious people, it could be viewed as an appeal to provincialism. Essentially, the appeal here is something along the lines of; ‘this is how WE act” or even “this is how WE should behave.” Well, WE (i.e. atheists) may or may not typically fall prey to religious indoctrination, but that appeal isn’t very cogent.

Thought Policing: One of the more compelling features of this argument lies in its implied comparison with believers. It is not merely that Silverman is suggesting that his atheist critics have been indoctrinated; he is reminding atheists that the conduct in question is unbecoming for unbelievers..This is classic thought policing., which goes a little beyond the normal ad hominem to invoke peer pressures and trigger loyalties associated with group membership. Just how significant such loyalties may be for atheists is an interesting question, but the argument still works this angle. The social dynamics at issue thus overshadow the rational significance of the argument itself.

Diagram: I take it that 2 and 3 are intended (with missing assumption [4] to prove statement 1, which is in turn intended to demonstrate the truth of the missing conclusion (statement 5).

2+3+[4] -> 1 -> [5].


Evaluation: Let’s consider both inferences:

2+3+[4]=>1. The truth of each of the assumptions in this inference would certainly be debatable. It isn’t clear that religious claims are all untrue (much less that they are lies), nor is it clear that lies deserve death (which is presumably a metaphor indicating the discrediting of such claims and a hope that they will eventually cease to circulate). If we assume by protection that Silverman means only protection from criticism (and not protection from coercive sanctions, then perhaps statement 3 fairs reasonably well in the truth evaluation, though a creative thinker could probably find a reason to protect at least some lies.

The inference itself fairs no better. It isn’t clear that objections to the billboards are offered in an attempt to ‘protect’ religion. Nor is it clear that the billboards play any constructive role in advancing the demise of religious beliefs.

If one doesn’t assume the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s intent, the problem becomes still sharper insofar as specific concerns about specific billboards may well address the effectiveness of those billboards in advancing a critique of religion.

4 -> 5: This is arguably an ad hominem (circumstantial) and/or an argument from Provincialism, as outlined above. In either event, the inference would be fallacious. Also, the argument side-steps the possibility that atheists might have reasons to oppose the billboard campaign other than latent sympathy for religious sentiment.

Also, if we do not adopt the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s position, it seems clear that atheists (even those who genuinely hope to confront religion whenever possible) may have a number of concerns about specific messages contained on specifi billboards.

I think the argument has to be considered unsound.

Final Thoughts: In the end, this argument does strike me as a simple effort to engage in thought policing. It effectively urges atheists to support their own camp regardless of any concerns they may have about the specific messages placed on these billboards or the general effectiveness of public billboards as a means of challenging religious views.