A Predator of Information

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Calling Out Dogwhistles Is Bad Praxis

30 December 2018 11:52 PM (politics)

I like Contrapoints. I think Contrapoints is intelligent and thoughtful. She does the important work of trying to understand people with whom she disagrees, even when they are advocating for horrible things that will bring great misery to the world for basically no reason. However, there's one thing I think she got wrong. (Well, okay, there are several things she got wrong. The 'liberalism tends toward fascism' meme is garbage, especially since hard-line Marxists in Weimar Germany preferred the Nazis to the liberal socialists and social democrats as they believed the redistributive policies of the latter would erode class consciousness and revolutionary drive. That's just a minor, throwaway line.) You can see the video here.

Now, there are many parts I don't disagree with. I agree that one should defend people against bad laws. One should defend folk against discrimination and bad laws. And, while I don't subscribe to 'platform' ideology, I will say that 'debates' are professional wrestling for the intellectual set and if you are actually devoted to the ‘marketplace of ideas’ not actually a useful thing to engage in. I will also say that one should avoid enacting the fallacy of spurious balance. You know the one. “Every credible climate scientist says changes to earth's temperature likely to millions, displace hundreds of millions, and make life harder for billions. The CEO of Peabody energy, a cosmologist recently made Vice President of Communications for Arch Coal, and a professor of Homeopathic medicine say ‘Come on. Why do you have to be like that?’ Stay tuned for more on this burning controversy!” As Peter Singer once said, the main reason not to invite a speaker to talk about why we should mistreat Aborigines is that all their arguments were discredited a hundred years ago and they've not come up with any new ones.

Here's the first point of disagreement: Fascists are not that important. (“That sounds like the voice of privilege to me!” says the somewhat dim straw-man.) More specifically, I think fascists are as important as school-shootings (“That sounds like the voice of someone who doesn't care about children!”) and terrorism (“That sounds like someone who hates America!”).

School shootings are bad. I think we can agree on that. All other things being equal, it would be really good if we could make them stop happening. However, if we could wave a Magic Wand and make all school shootings stop immediately, it wouldn't actually affect the rate of violent gun deaths in the US. Furthermore, many things we have done in the name of trying to stop school shootings are both ineffective and harmful. Building schools along the lines of prisons, instituting lock-down procedures, insisting students stay in and don't explore and interact with the world, all of these are harmful to children while offering little or no protection. The spectacle of the problem throws people into a long-term panic, and policymakers hear voices (often those of their aids) saying things like “If you don't do this and there's a school shooting, how will you live with yourself?”

Terrorism is a bad thing. Terrorism is terrifying. It would be great if terrorism stopped happening, but the amount of time people spent worrying about terrorism is not well calibrated to the likely harm from terrorism. Many of the things done in the name of fighting terrorism made terrorism worse and had many other harms. The world would have been a better place if nothing had been done about terrorism and the entire effort against it had been spent on global warming, instead. (This doesn't mean I think it's wrong to do anything about terrorism, just that our response to terrorism was so bad, nothing would be lost if the whole war on terror had been cut from history with a shimmering blade of anti-time.)

So. Let's talk about fascism, and its friends white supremacy and the alt-right. We'll just be inaccurate and lump them all together as ‘fascism’ for now. I think you can guess where I'm going with this. White supremacy is quite harmful. Hate crimes kill people. Even without being killed, harassment, threats, and intimidation are harmful. However, if we could wave a magic wand and get rid of all the hate groups, authoritarians, what have you, it would be…not that consequential. Black children would be subject to lead poisoning, other forms of pollution, malnutrition, failing schools, and poverty. The school to prison pipeline would still exist. We'd still have unequal sentencing laws. We'd still have police forces acting like occupying armies, brutalizing, and executing people. There's a reason we have the term “structural racism” to refer to the forms of oppression that just keep happening and ruining lives and killing people without anyone having to be invested in ‘hating’ anyone else.

Trump may well have still been elected; given that he lost the popular election him being in office is a thin thing and if Steve Bannon didn't exist his campaigning may have been less effective. While fascists and white nationalists like Trump very much and Trump is loath to denounce anyone that showers him with sycophantic adulation, there's little evidence that Trump himself holds white nationalist or supremacist positions (given that Trump basically has no positions). Similarly, the idea that Trump's election shows there's some vast plurality of white nationalists is fanciful at best. (Trump voters seem to be much more tolerant of racist language and insinuation and more bigoted overall, however.) Trump's election did embolden fascists and make them feel free to be visible.

So. I think that while fascism is bad, the level of concern about fascism is completely disconnected from the actual harm it brings into the world. There may still be things worth doing against it, but I think much of what falls under the rubric of ‘vigilance against fascism’ is not actually effective or positively aids fascists. One of those things is the discourse around dogwhistles.

In general, the question of whether a policy proposal comes from someone who has Fascism in the Heart does not matter. If I'm talking to someone, and they tell you that they were listening to a speaker who got them really thinking about illegal immigrants living here and made deporting them all sound like a good idea, the first thing I'd focus on is just how expensive that would be, how it would harm the economy, and how we'd be ripping families apart. This seems the most important issue. Nativist policies aren't bad because they're nativist, they're bad because they squander resources and harm economic development while making some groups terribly miserable. If I knew that the person I was talking to was a white nationalist I probably wouldn't bother, since they'd view recession and vast expenditures of wealth as a price worth paying.

This is important as matter of praxis because we have a duty to fight oppression and pursue reforms effectively. Yelling at someone they have motivations and sentiments they know perfectly well they don't have is not effective. Explaining something that sounds an awful lot like, “No! You don't understand! That person and people who support policies like this have Evil in their souls! Don't you care?” just destroys your credibility.

It's similar for a lot of issues. Some people may well push tough on crime agendas because they hate black people and want to see more of them in jail. Most people who support tough on crime agendas do so because they buy into the stupid idea that the current day is terribly unsafe, particularly compared to the Mythical Past. They buy into it because they have a ridiculous mental image of criminals as Bad People and think in nonsensical terms about Moral Stains and Blights and punitive measures. (As you can see I am no fan of tough-on-crime policies.) Plus the 24-hour news cycle makes them feel scared and have levels of worry about crime completely unrelated to the risk crime actually poses them, so they support anti-crime policies that don't actually prevent crime. Tough on crime policies are bad because they drain state treasures, cause vast misery, destroy families, do little to affect rates of crime, rip people out of society and make it difficult for them to reintegrate, fall disproportionately on poor and minority citizens, and for whole hosts of other reasons. Yes! Tough-on-crime laws have a racist effect, but the idea that 'tough-on-crime' is “code for” racist ideas is demonstrably false. There's that structural racism thing again.

And again, opposition to tough on crime laws is best pursued by pointing out both why the problem they claim to address is less severe than may be believed, they do not address it well, and they have harmful effects. At no point does a successful resistance to them include “Aha! But have you considered that the people who support these laws may have the Evil of Fascism? Festering in their hearts?. This is the case for most things, even down to obvious evils like family separations and internment camps for children. 29% of Latin@ voters in the US supported Trump. This is not a majority, but it poses problems for the narrative that people who support Trump and his immigration policies hate Mexicans. (The entire ‘hate’ narrative on the left wing is garbage and needs to be excised if only because you can't convince people if your mental model of their mind is totally inaccurate.)

I am not defending family separation or internment. Both policies are loathsome and I think we should do everything in our power to have immigrants, including refugees, come here by the bucket-load for both humanitarian and economic reasons. But, most people who support them do not do so out of ‘hate’ or ‘fascism’. No, it's similar to the tough-on-crime nonsense. They've been made to feel irrationally scared because immoral, unprincipled politicians have discovered that you can get lots of people to vote for you if you make them scared about immigration. (Actual fascists are happy to jump on the bandwagon, though.) It's similar to people who voted for anti-Gay-Marriage initiatives. Very of them hated gay people, particularly. (Some of the backers may have.) They were stirred into action by Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt, and a pile of magical thinking of the form “Oh my goodness! If we redefine a word! But! Reality! It might fall apart!” and misinformation and a view of gay people as alien beings over there somewhere. Gay marriage was not won by shouting at these folk that they hated gay people, that would just make them think the person shouting at them was a lunatic, since they know perfectly well that they don't. No, it was caused by having gay people become visible, a group to be empathized with, the realization that the magical thinking was ridiculous, and a certain moral fury at the idea that someone was supposed to die alone in a hospital because of bureaucratic nonsense.

It's similar for separation and internment. You'll get nowhere going on about how you can tell the supporters of some policy have Fascism in their Heart because they dropped this or that line. Nor about telling people who disagree with you that they hate people they don't. Deconstructing the rationale for the policy, pointing out how it's turned parts of the United States into an engine for generating unnecessary suffering, and making its victims a point of moral concern is how you go about it.

Contrapoints sums up another reason to give up on worry about decoding dogwhistles and identifying fascists at the end of her video: the paranoia, the worry, the imposition of a low-trust atmosphere on oneself, the paranoia from the ‘gaslighting’ little of that is actually necessary. Fascists and white nationalists do us the tremendous favor of all having exceptionally lousy policies whose lousiness is easily identified without knowing whether the Evil of Fascism Lies Deep in their Hearts.

Now, that said, there may be reasons why you might want to know whether someone is actually a white supremacist. As mentioned above, if someone is actually a white nationalist then you'll waste your time talking to them about economics. It'll probably become pretty obvious if you try. It's also worthwhile to know what people's motivations are just to understand how the world works. Bannon's actions only really make sense if you consider his ridiculous worldview. In theory I guess you could have someone advocate good policies but be a secret fascist and then suddenly yell, “Aha! I campaigned on open borders and single-payer healthcare, but instead as my first act I shall start a campaign of mass deportation!”, but it seems a bit Captain Planet villain and not at all likely. Similarly, I can imagine a racist gaining the trust of a member of a minority and then doing something horrible to them, but I'm not aware of this really being a thing that happens; frothing racists don't really like to be around members of racial minorities.

In summary, if one wants to oppose the likely outcomes of fascist policies, like racial discrimination, authoritarianism, deportations, or the subjugation of women, antifascist action and ‘Spot the Fascist’ style rhetoric are not effective strategies. Focusing on criminal justice reform, ending the war on drugs, lead remediation, improvements in education, and pushing to end segregation are effectively anti-racist. Focusing on electoral reform so incompetent, authoritarian candidates don't win primaries and then get seen as The Lesser Evil is a good way to fight authoritarianism. Exposing people to immigrants (really! The strongest anti-immigrant sentiments tend to come from places where immigrants aren't!) is a good way to fight deportation. Pushing for universal healthcare and widely available childcare are effective ways to help women. There are lots and lots of good things to do, but the focus in any discourse should be on what policies we want, what their effects would be, and why we think so. It should not be on the content of anyone's heart.

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