Ambiguity, Silence and Complicity

How Good People Make It Impossible To Discuss Race, Gender and Religion

Listening to the Klein-Harris discussion about the Charles Murray controversy affected me pretty intensely. I was struck by how charitable, compassionate and reasonable Klein was in his interaction with Harris. Klein honestly didn’t think Harris was a bad guy or anything just someone who was incorrect on a factual issue and, because of the same kind of everyday biases we all have, insufficiently responsive to the broader context. Indeed, it seemed that Klein even saw Murray himself as merely misguided and perhaps inappropriately fixated not fundamentally evil. How then to square this with the fact that Klein’s articles (both the ones he wrote and served as editor for) unquestionably played a huge role in many people concluding that Harris was beyond the pale and the kind of racist scum that right thinking people shouldn’t even listen to?

Unlike Harris I don’t think Klein was being two-faced or deliberately malicious in what he wrote about Harris. Indeed, what Klein did is unfortunately all too common among well-intentioned individuals on the left and academics in particular (and something I myself have been guilty of). Klein spoke up to voice his view about a view he felt was wrong or mistaken about race but then simply choose to keep silent rather than explicitly standing up to disclaim the views of those who would moralize the discussion. This can seem harmless because in other contexts one can simply demure from voicing an opinion about controversial points which might get one in trouble but key ambiguities in how we understand notions like racist/sexist/etc and accusations of bias or insufficient awareness of/concern for the plight of underprivileged groups has the effect of turning silence into complicity.

The danger is that someone in Klein’s position faces strong pressure from certain factions on the left not to defend Murray’s views and those of his supporters as being within the realm of appropriate discussion and debate. Indeed, as Klein thinks that not only is Murray wrong but wrong in a dangerous and potentially harmful way it’s understandable that he would see no reason to throw himself in front of the extremists who don’t merely want to say Harris is mistaken but believe he should be subject to the same ostracism that we apply to members of the KKK. So Klein simply presents his criticisms of Harris and Murray and calls attention to the ways in which he thinks their views are not only wrong but actively harmful in a way that resonates with past racial injustices but doesn’t feel the need to step forward and affirmatively state his belief that Harris is probably just making a mistake for understandable human reasons not engaging in some kind of thought crime.

In other contexts one could probably just stand aside and not engage this issue but when it comes to race and racism there is a strong underlying ambiguity as to whether one is saying a claim is racist in the sense of being harmful to racial minorities or in the sense that believing it deserves moral condemnation. Similarly, there is a strong ambiguity between claiming that someone is biased in the sense of having the universal human failing of being more sympathetic to situations they can relate to or is biased in the sense of disliking minorities. These tend to run together since once everyone agrees something is racist, e.g., our punitive drug laws, then only those who don’t mind being labeled racists tend to support them even though there are plenty of well-intentioned reasons to have those beliefs, e.g., many black pastors were initially supportive of the harsh drug laws.

Unfortunately, the resulting effect is that failing to stand up and actively deny that one is calling for moral condemnation for having the wrong views on questions of race (or gender or…) one ends up implicitly encouraging such condemnation.