Thoughts on rationalism and the rationalist community from a skeptical perspective. The author rejects rationality in the sense that he believes it isn't a logically coherent concept, that the larger rationalism community is insufficiently critical of it's beliefs and that ELIEZER YUDKOWSKY IS NOT THE TRUE CALIF.

Lawsuit Demanding Students Be Barred From Accessing Offensive Content

Do We Really Want To Stop Victims of Harrasment From Learning What's Being Said About THem?

I pretty much agree with everything Prof. Volokh says in this post but I would add that is is particularly disturbing and dangerous that these claims not only made it to the lawsuit stage but also that sufficiently many people in the Feminist Majority Foundation (not mainstream but not tinfoil hat nutters) thought this was worth pursuing.

Sure, demanding censorship of mean, hurtful and demeaning comments about your group or identity isn’t anything to write home about. However, what really sets this situation apart is that the demand wasn’t to punish the anonymous individuals responsible but to stop students from choosing to access an information source because it might allow them to read these awful things.

Demands for censorship in response to hurtful/mean/awful comments is nothing to write home about (from either side of the political aisle) but I think something is particularly distasteful about demanding policies that would allow all the assholes in a 5 mile radius to continue attacking, degrading, spreading hurtful gossip about and otherwise making life bad for some women on campus while barring those very women from keeping abreast about what is being said about them so they can refute malicious gossip, take threats to the police and otherwise protect themselves (reputationally and physcially).

Sure, I know those filing the suit no doubt intended to discourage people from posting such hateful and derogatory remarks in the future by eliminating the on campus audience for them. However, this line of argument could equally well be used to deny students access to a contrarian blog (say by a former student) making an extended argument that, because of innate ability differences, the schools affirmative action policy was driving reductions in academic rigor/performance. Even if the students visiting the blog were driven by simple curiosity and desire to evaluate the claims for themselves, if the continued posts were clearly motivated by the blogger’s desire to reach so many students with his message there would be an equally strong argument for barring students from accessing the site. With the predictable result that it would probably only increase the extent to which students agree with those unpopular views (the feeling that a view is being suppressed is far more alluring than poor arguments for it).

In a different context I would be far more charitable. If a private university were being asked to ban the platform I’d still oppose the suggestion but it wouldn’t really be fair to suggest the proponents would be responsible for denying victims a chance to (easily) make themselves aware of attacks against them so they can respond. After all, the advocates would be presumably be suggesting that in the particular case the benefits would outweigh the costs. However, the plaintiffs were asking the courts, an institution designed to apply predicatable precedent not case specific balancing, to rule that such an outcome was required. As such I do think its fair to point out the plaintiffs are asking for a rule which, in many of its applications, would deny the victims warning and an ability to respond without substantially reducing the torrent of hate and insults.

The fact that this resulted in a full court case with published opinion makes me worry that the argument was either plausible enough that reasonable lawyers thought it had a chance of prevailing or, perhaps more likely, those advancing the suit felt the risk of enduring such a lawsuit would discourage universities from being quite so protective of free speech in the future. Particularly so for private universities who aren’t bound by any need to comply with the first amendment.

Opinion | Court rejects Feminist Majority Foundation’s demand that public university block access to Yik Yak

University of Mary Washington had no obligation to “ban Yik Yak from the campus wireless network ,” because such a ban “may have exposed the university to liability under the First Amendment” (and in any case wasn’t required by Title IX or the equal protection clause.

Gender Neutral School Uniforms

Leave Schoolgirl Outfits To The Adults

Regardless of your views on transgender children how is this not a no brainer? The competing interest in allowing girls to wear skirts is only that it lets them express themselves as identifying as female but if you believe that self-expression is more important than the uniformity and equality conveyed by having all students wear the same outfit you shouldn’t be having students wear a uniform in the first place.

I mean something is seriously weird about a policy which tells children that generally conformity and equality are more important than expressing your individual features except for your gender. At best it suggests that gender is a particularly important division, more important than interests, abilities or other personal characteristics. At worst it encourages teachers to apply gender based stereotypes.

Perhaps you are skeptical that the mere symbolic differentiation between boys and girls would have any real effect. Maybe not. But if you don’t believe these kinds of symbolic distinctions make real differences what are you doing insisting on uniforms in the first place1? If you don’t believe that uniformity sends any important message but are willing to suppress the full range of individual student expression just for disciplinary convenience then surely the issues raised by girls wearing shorts (skirt length etc..) alone are enough to justify eliminating this last, much less valuable, irregularity even ignoring the extra concerns raised about gender.

School bans skirts to make uniform gender neutral for transgender students

“But when it was explained to us, it was about inappropriate dressing, I think it was the right decision to make.” The new uniform only applies for Year 7s but students in Year 8 to Year 11 are welcome to adopt the new uniform.


  1. One might try and suggest that uniforms are important to disguise income differences between parents but that this concern doesn’t implicate any strong symbolic value to the uniformity of the outfit. However, it certainly acknowledges that wealth differentiation based on student outfits make a big difference. Moreover, as someone who had to wear uniforms at school growing up I’m skeptical of this justification. It is still easy to tell who has money as expressed through haircuts, backpacks and other accessories (and tailored higher quality uniforms at some schools) and the uniforms themselves must be purchased in addition to casual outfits (except perhaps at some boarding schools) and differentiation based on parental income is generally less intense than differentiation based on style/interest. 

Reevaluating Police Shootings

Racial Justice By Universal Justice

Anyone who has been paying attention to US media should be aware of the problem of police shooting unarmed black men. There is no doubt these shootings are unacceptable and reveal deep problems in the way police function in the US but stories like that linked below raise the question of whether the most pressing problem is really racial bias or the way we’ve trained our police to shoot first and ask questions later.

Of course, we want a society in which whites and blacks can expect equal treatment from the police. However, given the deep racial differences in socioeconomic status (exacerbated by the rural/urban divide in where poor whites and blacks live) and the human psychological vulnerability to stereotypes it’s not obvious that there is anything we can do to ensure police don’t develop an unconscious perception of minorities as more threatening. Studies, such as this, suggest that the different treatment that whites and blacks can expect from police aren’t the result of animus as black officers are equally guilty of it. That points to other effects such as stereotypes developed as a result of policing economically disadvantaged minority communities as the cause.

Hopefully, there are strategies we can implement to counteract these stereotypes. Maybe rotating officers into positions where they interact with more high socioeconomic status minorities (or low socioeconomic status whites) would be helpful. I don’t know. This is an area in which more research is desperately needed. However, in the near term, rather than focusing on race and racial bias, we may want to instead focus on the kind of police culture and training that leads to incidents like the one described below. Even if our only concern was racial justice reducing the number of unjust shootings may be the most effective way to reduce the unfair burden of extra risk that minorities bear.

Good Friends And Bullets, A Grimm Tale

What are friends for? Shooting, when the cop brain goes into survival mode. Andy Grimm, who knows Shaw, said he does not want the officer to be fired, the paper reported. “I know Jake,” he said. “I like Jake.” And Deputy Jake Shaw likes Andy Grimm too. “We know the deputy.

Free Speech Slip and Slide

In the past I’ve written at length about my concern that the newly invigorated attitude that we must outlaw, or at least severely socially punish the speakers, racist/sexist/etc.. speech is a mistake. I have doubts about the efficacy of such punishments and believe that pushing racism adjacent views into a hidden underground where they fester and mutate1 creates more hate. However, the primary thrust of my concern was the usual slippery slope argument (importantly serious harms arise as soon as well-intentioned people start to fear that an epistemic mistake could land them in trouble). Unfortunately, evidence for a steep slippery plastic slope with extra soap arrived all too quickly.

Superiority of Western Culture

First we had this really stupid opinion piece that I would have guessed was written by a machine learning algorithm trained on 1980s era conservative values pieces if it had only mentioned crack (still managed a shout out to the pill for destroying our perfect 1950s society). Personally, I thought it was just as stupid this time around as I did in the late 80s and early 90s except these authors should have seen how that went and known better. However, as far as offensiveness goes it rates as a “kids these days…have no … always on their..” but somehow it has become the subject of accusations of racism and the subject of serious controversy (yes, that last article is written by a friend of the original author so take its slant with a grain of salt).

True, there is no credible effort to have the author fired from her position in the law school but it has generated enough outrage for students to get up in time to picket Wax’s class as racist and its not just some hasty people with signs. At least a non-trivial segment of the Penn campus left is willing to call this piece racist, sexist or otherwise suggest it isn’t just dumb and wrong but deserving of open moral scorn.

While one might try and charitably reconstruct some argument based on the text of the oped2 what is going on is what is always going on with accusations of racism/sexism/islamophobia etc.. Rather than parsing the literal content of a piece and asserting those claims amount to racism (or providing evidence that the author was being disingenuous) people decide to call something racist if it feels like the things racists would say. In this case there is no doubt this oped has that feel. Indeed, it hits many of the points that one would expect from a racist dog-whistle: glorification of European/western culture, suggestion that something associated with whites is superior, a nostalgic comparison to the 1950s, reference to some aspect of black culture the author disapproves of (“anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks”) and even the obligatory focus on whites that have the traits you are criticizing.

The problem with taking this as grounds for accusations of racism is that it confuses being the sort of person whose strong affinity for traditionalism and reverence for long lived institutions and practices may make needed reform more difficult with actual racism. However, we are generally quite willing to let the earnest man who is such a strong believer in feminism that he frequently gives a piece of his mind to men who he views as pushing an aggressive male-centric approach on women and thereby does more to perpetuate the stereotype of women as unable to handle these situations than anyone he criticizes. This case is only different in that it is harder to imagine genuinely feeling that these old school conservative values are the secret to a better life and wanting to help minorities by sharing. Also in that often people who feel this way about morals and newfangled social innovations also feel this way about minorities but that’s just a stereotype.

Most importantly, it renders the standard for racism uselessly subjective. If it is no longer necessary to have overt animus or believe in some particular stereotype then it is insanely easy to apply the term to virtually anyone you want. Especially given that as the sphere of things that have been labeled racist expands fewer and fewer non-racists say anything in that sphere so just imagine the same dialog in 20 years about pieces supporting free speech. It would be something mostly racists talk about as a cover, anyone like me writing about it would explain that we believed in it for everyone (while detractors would point out that we kept focusing on the free speech of the racists as they don’t see it from the context in which that is the right place to make one’s stand), one could raise analogies to the contract rights arguments offered in the civil rights movement (yes its bad but the constitution…we just can’t do anything). The only thing this lacks is the subjective feel that comes from hearing lots of racists say something that sounds similar but we can’t cede to racists the power to decide what is and isn’t considered.

Also, as a practical matter this kind of use of the accusation of racism isn’t productive. The reason to use the term at all is to invoke our shared disapprobation of certain behaviors to change people’s behavior. Telling someone ‘suggesting that blacks only eat fried Chicken or look like Gorillas’ is racist usually results in an immediate change and the world is a better place but when you say that some vague thing about the gestalt I get from your article is racist doesn’t. If I were the author and was willing to sell out my views so I wouldn’t be racist how would I even know where to start?

Call these ideas out as stupid or even the kind of progress phobic thinking that perpetuates racism that’s great but its just not racism.

University of Tampa’s Impolitic Twitter Firing

Also, we have the University of Tampa firing a visiting professor for the following poorly considered and bumblinging inappropriate tweet

I dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.

This is obviously just a case of someone not realizing how what he said would be taken in context. When he did he apologized. That should have been the end of it.

While at first glance one might feel that this isn’t really relevant to the broader picture at the moment. However, while it wasn’t exactly an academic paper this tweet is fundamentally nothing but an expression of a political sentiment. Indeed, suppose the author really believed this was some kind of divine vengeance on Texas for voting GOP. Surely that is core political-religious speech if anything is so its hard to see how this is anything but a direct attack on the idea that Professors get to comment on current events and broader social issues without fear of being fired for controversial views (assuming they don’t bear on their academic qualifications…mathematicians probably shouldn’t say $\omega$ and $2^\omega$ have the same cardinality).

Mistakes

We need room for people to make mistakes! Even mistakes about what to believe on controversial issues because only when people feel they won’t lose their jobs or be shunned if they get it wrong can they allow themselves to explore the issue and reach the right conclusions.

I know its really hard in these discussions to imagine any other perspective than your own but rarely is it the case that someone just wakes up out of the blue filled with hate and the desire to see another race suffer. Sure, sometimes the reasons are just visceral (your gang is white they are black) but in most cases there is some chain of thought and emotion that made every step they took seem reasonable so if you suspect the target of your criticism of simply reasonless hate you should probably reevaluate that view.

However, that is what makes the situation so dangerous as well. Given that even racists think they have good and sound justifications for their beliefs an atmosphere which imposes severe penalties for even minor infractions allows only one safe response: parrot back the official dogma.

But, if we are going to fix the remaining barriers and harms inflicted by problematic stereotypes and structural racism/sexism we need to find them in non-obvious places and that takes open speculation. We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit so more looking for white or male ‘perpetrators’ (if it could have been fixed easily that way we would have) we instead need to look at the less examined reservoirs of stereotypes such as members of the group themselves or the well-intentioned helper3. That means we need to walk on the edge and consider possibly offensive or unpleasant possibilities if we are going to figure out what is really going on so we can do something to fix things.


  1. I’ve seen any number of scenarios in which the perception that certain topics can’t even be discussed doesn’t erase those ideas from people’s minds. Rather, it pushes them to form groups (the ones that go silent when a woman or minority comes by and we work so hard to eliminate) in which they feel they can comfortably express views they are sympathetic to but are too controversial for general consumption. Unfortunately, when people gather together for the purpose of feeling safe sharing controversial views creates a strong social pressure not to call anyone else’s views in that group out for sexism/racism/etc.. even in a polite friendly way. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly both such groups form and how quickly they descend to the lowest common denominator and serve as a breeding ground where hateful ideas can infect good people because there is no opportunity to apply the corrective of a good counterargument and criticism. 
  2. Taking their complaints at face value would seem to suggest the problem is that suggesting WASP culture (not so named) is superior is racist or at least unacceptable and bad. While those of us immersed in liberal sensibilities naturally flinch a bit when the suggestion is made that one culture is superior to another that doesn’t make the claim wrong or racist. Indeed, we all believe that, at least in the modern context, modern western culture is superior to the violent revenge culture in some New Guinean tribes all things considered (of course cultures have so many traits surely we could cherry pick a few improvements but the original piece doesn’t deny this). Hell, the very idea of tolerance and equality that those on the left are fighting for is a rare value for a culture to have and we are right to identify it as something good and important. But I think this “can’t say one culture is better than another” line isn’t a very charitable interpretation. 
  3. Everyone knows that a great deal of slut-shaming and outfit policing is done to women by women and we’ve learned recently that it is other women who do the majority of interrupting women and may very well be the ones preventing more competitive female involvement. This matches both my experience at caltech (women who had few if any female friends their whole lives were way more likely to just blunder in and shot their load on the conversation or dismiss someone else’s contribution as stupid) and what evolutionary psychology would suggest (men have little interest in policing women but each gender needs to police rivals). Of course, men aren’t on the hook they are just on the hook for something else perpetuating harmful male stereotypes which can harm women as much as they do men (say by men not being willing to become primary caregivers). 

No Way Doxing Racist Marchers Can Go Wrong!

So apparently in the wake of Charlottesville a campaign has formed to identify and dox the people who marched in support of white nationalism. No way this could end badly!

I’m sure white nationalists and their sympathizers we see spending all day posting on parts of 4chan and reddit have neither the time nor inclination to respond in kind. And if they do I’m sure they’ll restrict themselves to simply publishing the identities of those in antifa movements or anti-racist marches. No way they will expose gay people in the closet living in repressive regimes or name individuals anonymously sharing their experiences of sexual assault/violence. Surely they would never stoop so low as to reveal the identities of women who live in religiously conservative communities or work for conservative religious employers who seek advice about dealing with the emotional aftermath of an abortion.

Also, I’m sure that giving those who might be sympathetic enough to go to a march but not really committed a really good reason to hold a grudge and making sure they can’t hold a normal job will help them see the error of their ways. No way it will turn them into hardened extremists.

And certainly the groups who form to dox these white supremacists will understand that nazis are a special case and, after receiving a bunch of praise, will just pack up rather than going after another group they see as having unacceptable views or if they do it will surely be one you also see as unacceptable.

And, of course, all these vigilantes will exercise great care and verify that every last person they dox is really a white supremacist. No way they will accidentally mistake some passerby or blogger covering the event. I mean this is totally different than the situation will real life crimes like rape or murder where we think vigilantism poses far too great a risk of getting things wrong.

Yup, no reason to worry about this at all. Lets get those nazi bastards.

Skepticism About MIT’s Gender Balance Win in MechE

If it really is true, as MIT suggests, that the gender ratio in their department is convincing a substantial percentage of women to enter MechE who otherwise would have avoided a STEM field its a big deal. However, upon reflection there are some aspects that are troubling.

First, as the article suggests, they engage in fairly extensive recruitment and some degree of affirmative action for female students in STEM fields. This calls into question the existence of any such effect as for all we know MIT is just recruiting women interested in MechE away from other schools. Indeed, even just considering the benefit MIT is suggesting (women are more attracted to programs with a reasonable gender balance) one should expect MIT’s efforts here to be worsening the gender balance at other schools like caltech

But if you really believe that gender imbalance both makes life worse for female students and repeals them from the field it seems downright irresponsible to attrach female MechE majors from other schools (without a better understanding of how these effects work). If, as seems quite plausible, the discomfort (and willingness to drop out/not major) is most extreme when the percentage of women is the least (e.g. superlinear as percent goes to 0), then this could be a substantial net harm as the gains from greater gender equality at MIT are more than offset by the decreased gender equality at other schools. It all depends on the specific numbers but its concerning that people seem convinced this is a good thing without even having an intuition about the size and direction of this cross school interaction.

Before anyone applauds these results we really need some good studies checking that MIT’s efforts really are bringing more women into MechE. I hope they are but I fear that they may be doing the exact opposite. If I had to guess I’d bet that any positive effect of gender balance is offset by the fact that MIT is harder/more competitive than the other schools who would otherwise get many of the women MIT recruits and I expect the harder/more competitive a science class the more likely people (of either gender) are to drop out to a less quantitative subject (but that’s just speculation).

Also, I’d like to know what people whether MITs affirmative action efforts create a situation in which men tend to noticeably outperform women. As much as I hated the huge gender ratio at caltech I very much appreciated the fact that they were obviously equals. Now, like everything else, what I appreciated isn’t what matters but it does seem like we should at the very least have a pretty firm grip on what kind of effects on subsequent attitudes affirmative action has before we praise the policy. Even if, this effect doesn’t appear at MIT right now (e.g. they most just steal girls from caltech and cmu) it might if more schools try to implement such a policy.

I find it pretty crazy when MIT is congratulating itself when they don’t seem to have any grip (or at least are hiding it) on what they are trying to achieve or whether their policies achieve it.

Now, of course, most social programs will depend greatly on priors and I’d be happy with a short little explanation about why they think the net benefit of achieving gender balance in their departments is worth the effect it has on other schools. Are they suggesting their policy would and could universalize and benefits would be seen from that? Some words about why would be nice. Also some words about why they have the intuition any blowback is worth the cost. As it is it kinda makes one feel like you are being scammed with a meaningless advertising statistic.

I think its quite possible MIT’s policy is net beneficial but I’ve yet to see any cogent account of why I should think that so if you have one I’d love to hear it.

As an aside I’d add that while I don’t think there is any inherint moral value in making sure men and women are equally represented in every discipline, only in making sure they are equally welcome and have equal access, but I do think there would be substantial societal gains to increasing the number of women in STEM fields. Not only would this make scientists happier (and less socially isolated and less likely to accidentally harass) but merely making it clear that quantitative, systematic thing oriented reasoning isn’t anti-female.

Microaggressions And The Feedback Problem

Or When Do Attempts To Make Things Better Backfire?

I was reading an interesting and insightful post by theunitofcaring offering a useful perspective on microaggressions and what is going on with them (she identifies them with the actions/statements that create the subtle sense one isn’t welcome in some group). I very much urge everyone to read the whole thing since her point about what microaggressions really are is probably more important than the quibbles/speculation I have to offer here but once you’ve done that I want to call your attention to the following passage in her post:

But I think the actual thing with microaggressions is that feeling of ‘people like me are not welcome’ or at least ‘people like me are only conditionally welcome, welcome if we’re friendly and careful and unthreatening and reassuring and match other peoples’ narratives about us and aren’t angry and don’t make anyone uncomfortable and toe the party line’. It’s really helpful for people to collect and corroborate and discuss and complain about all of the little cues which add up to that impression, but scrupulously memorizing the list of cues and avoiding the things on your list won’t actually make spaces where people feel welcome. The problem is the ‘this space is not for people like you’ thing.

Now I certainly agree that the feeling of being unwelcome is at least part of what is going on with micro-aggressions. I also understand why people want to hash out their experiences and complain about bad treatment. We all do this when we complain to our friends “Can you believe he did blah?” and it serves a useful emotional purpose. However, in face to face interactions our friends will also tend to encourage us not to dwell on it if we keep going on about it to and getting more angry and upset. However, when instead of sharing an experience with a friend we share it with a group that identifies itself with concern about the treatment of some (or many) underprivileged groups or that explicitly exists to share such experiences the dynamic is likely to change. For one, there will be considerable disincentive to tell anyone that they are overreacting or to encourage someone to just let it go and stop thinking about it. After all, the group norms explicitly favor such sharing and other group members are unlikely to be willing to take the flak for discouraging your participation just out of the concern that you are exacerbating your suffering.

While the risk of further exacerbating a hurtful event by focusing too much on it is something that people can decide how to deal with on their own this isn’t the only such risk posed by this kind of sharing. When we encourage this kind of sharing with a (social justice sympathetic) group there is the very real danger that by making these microaggressions so salient and creating lists of behaviors that in some circumstance qualified as unwelcoming makes people who would otherwise not have felt unwelcome conclude that they are.

I mean suppose I’m considering joining the ballroom dance club at my school. If I know nothing about it and go when someone says “Ohh, you’ll need some shoes with a such and such soul” I think ‘Ohh great, thanks’ and don’t feel unwelcome.

In contrast, suppose I’ve read a great deal about how ballroom dance clubs are horribly elitist, populated by rich snobs who think they are better than the rest of us and read detailed accounts by a guy who was treated badly by a ballroom dance club including the way in which they used the fact that he lacked the same 1000 dollar shoes they had to exclude and belittle him. Now, when I get up the courage to go to the club I’m full of trepidation, constantly on the look out for the expected insults based on my middle class background. Normal human communication is filled with little quirkys, misunderstandings, accidental offenses which I would have just passed over in the normal course but now I obsess over them and examine them for evidence I’m unwelcome. Now when I hear the perfectly friendly suggestion that I need shoes with a different kind of soul I don’t just think they are being helpful but instead assume that its a jab at me for not having super expensive shoes.

Note that, even if the salience/likelihood of being unwelcome doesn’t itself incline me to unwarrantedly assume friendly comments are really unwelcoming the mere fact that I’m aware of the way in which certain comments could be a microaggression makes me interpret them as such. After all, I will think (falsely assuming other people share my cultural context and knowledge of microaggressions) that given the charged nature of comments about shoes in the ballroom scene the mere fact that a club member brought my shoes up without showing great sensitivity to its aggressive nature is itself a slight against me. After all, if this group really cared about having people like me as members they would exercise much more care to avoid comments that so obviously risk offense.

I’d like to be clear that I’m not trying to minimize the real suffering that this kind of sense of being unwelcome can create. Indeed, it is precisely the fact that it matters which makes it so important we don’t accidentally increase the incidence of people feeling unwelcome in such a way.

Speculation About Social Justice Acrimony

So far everything I said is relatively obvious. Of course there are reasonable disagreements about the benefits offered by such sharing (which I barely touched on) as well as the risk of these harmful effects. However, I don’t think it should be particularly controversial that there is at least some such risk. What follows is much more speculative and while I think it is true but I could well be wrong (which hopefully someone will point out to me if I am). Also I think it is important to emphasize that I certainly am not trying to lay any blame or make any claims about who is in the right as not only do I not believe in blame/guilt as moral concepts but I think concern with such notions is a substantial contributor to much of the worlds suffering. Thus, the following account should not be understood as an attempt to say anything about whose behavior is or isn’t reasonable but just to hypothesize about what’s happening (which will hopefully guide us in finding ways we can make things better).

I think the kind of dynamic I describe above explains some of (but not all) the multiplying accusations of racism, insensitivity etc.. including in contexts that previously were genuinely not seen as racially/gender/etc.. charged by either side1 as well as the the increasingly militant and angry anti-privilege rhetoric and the equally angry and bitter snowflake accusations from the other side. The cultural bubble that individuals on the progressive left (including those members of underprivileged groups that high socioeconomic status people tend to encounter2) carry with them, especially online, includes extensive focus on emotionally charged stories about slights experienced by members of underprivileged groups at the hands of visible members of privileged groups. Just like nationwide news reporting about crimes creates a false sense of both the danger crime presents and the likelihood that minorities are criminals the continual focus on outrageous treatment of members of underprivileged groups gives rise to an inflated sense of how common such behavior is within the relatively elite social content of these college educated liberals. Continued interaction with a community in which the discriminatory/aggressive nature of certain phrases/subjects/etc.. is taken for granted encourages people to assume that its hurtful/offensive nature is obvious to anyone who considers it. This attitude is reinforced whenever the community comforts members who feel unwelcome at some event by assuring them they are in the right and its those awful men/whites/straights/TERFs who are subjecting you to aggressive attacks. By copying a trick from religion and adopting the explicit view that expressing doubt/skepticism itself betrays the community and allies one with the enemy the brakes that might otherwise keep attitudes from drifting too far from the mainstream are disabled3.

When members of such a community go out into the world they implicitly assume (just as they correctly criticize privileged people for doing) that their experience is representative-ish, i.e., they know its not representative but underestimate the extent to which other people’s experiences vary. As a result of the mechanisms discussed above these individuals genuinely feel unwelcome and see behaviors non-initiates don’t think anything of as a constant stream of aggressions or at least deliberate intolerance but when they do so they aren’t being particularly sensitive or demanding special treatment. They are acting no differently than blacks who justifiably view anyone using the n-word as engaging in racist speech no matter how much they insist they have no animus against blacks. Culture determines that certain behaviors, regardless of intent or motivation, are unacceptable attacks and members of the community in question are simply applying the same rule. Unfortunately, the cultural gap between those with social justice sympathies and unallied white men who they then interact with is far larger than either side intuitively appreciates. Lacking the same culture background those without social justice sympathies don’t even suspect that the phrases/arguments/subjects which get them in trouble are even unusual or controversial. Unfortunately, the resulting interaction only serves to further reinforce the views on both sides. Members of the underprivileged community feel hurt and attacked confirming the narrative they hear from their community while the members of the ‘privileged’ group unsurprisingly are upset when what they see as perfectly friendly behavior is met with anger and accusations of micro-aggressions. Making the same mistake about the representativeness of their experiences as members of the underprivileged community made they infer that all these people whining about microaggressions, privilege etc.. etc.. are either just absurdly sensitive ‘snowflakes’ or deceitful manipulative jerks. Everyone feels extremely justified, righteous and is absolutely certain they are the wronged party.

If this hypothesis is valid and we want to make things better, its absolutely critical that we do something to fix this dynamic. Social media self-selection makes it worse but facebook isn’t going away. Ideally, more contact and interaction between individuals from different backgrounds would be enable mutual understanding and let each side can see where the other is coming from. However, a variety of memetic defenses have made such progress particularly difficult. Social justice allies on the left explicitly reject the idea that they have any responsibility to educate/teach those they see as privileged and morally culpable4 and viewing any attempt to even convey the situation from the perspective of members of ‘privileged’ groups as itself an attack on the legitimacy of their complaints. Similarly, those on the right (or who are pushed that way by this dynamic) see any attempt to convey the situation from the perspective of underprivileged groups as an attempt to use guilt and emotional pressure to silence them and regard the race/gender based terminology that permeates social justice discussions as crossing a line into overt racism and moving beyond the realm of legitimate discourse. Sadly, bad behavior in the past by both sides means that these suspicions aren’t unreasonable and can’t be easily pushed past.

Obviously, the right answer probably isn’t to deny people who are honestly suffering from rejection (especially on account of their race/religion/etc..) a sympathetic hearing but I do suspect there may be things we can do to break apart the useful and beneficial aspects of shared community and support through shared experiences and the outrage feedback loop. In particular, I think we ought to strongly advise people (for their own good and societies) looking for such support and sympathy to find it somewhere other than social media or groups with an over social justice or partisan agenda. Indeed, I strongly suspect the best solution would be if those in need of sympathy/support as a result of micro/macroaggressions were encouraged to receive it from others who share their ethnicity/orientation/race/etc.. but aren’t specifically organized as a social justice cause. The alternate purpose prevents the unfortunate feedback created by focusing on slights and aggression while also providing an audience who can be both appropriately sympathetic and skeptical in turn. Moreover, by encouraging this to happen in groups with some other focus it would hopefully ensure cultural diffusion of the experiences presented, e.g., if women who have been assaulted or treated badly share their experiences with their basketball team or the women in their dorm then those accounts reach both those sympathetic and unsympathetic to social justice concerns rather than creating the two disjoint worlds that cause the problems above. The question is just how to make this happen.

On the other hand, perhaps I’m exaggerating the role that first hand accounts play in this whole process and it is really driven primarily by media accounts of bad behavior. If so then the only recourse is probably to work hard at convincing people that, for all the reasons that normalizing racism/sexism/etc.. is bad and others, by spreading such accounts and further reinforcing fears of mistreatment one is actually perpetuating the very harms one is so upset about. I realize this is a hard sell, no one wants to snub someone standing up and advocating for them, but that’s the best idea I’ve got at the moment.

Another Factor

One reason I’m hopeful that moving such commiseration and bonding away from groups with an explicit liberal or social justice agenda would solve the problem is that I suspect there is another important factor in this whole affair.

Ironically, I think (and I’m sure I’m not the first) much of the dynamic on the left is driven by privileged white liberals who, far all their verbal obeisance to the less privileged, have become both the face and the voice of a movement which is supposedly not about them often by wielding the norms barring skepticism into claims of oppression as a weapon to prevent any inquiry into whether or not lesbian academics with high status jobs and international speaking gigs really should count as underprivileged. Exactly as their own theory predicts, they use institutional power to delegitimize any attempt by those who, despite no belonging to a recognized underprivileged group, nevertheless suffer under socioeconomic conditions far worse than many of the white academics pushing the ideology that cis-hetero-men always count as privileged regardless of personal circumstances. Despite what many on the left assume, most (but certainly not all) people, even those who identify as strongly conservative are quite willing to listen to credible accounts from minorities about what it feels like to grow up poor and black and be marginalized on account of your skin color. They just aren’t willing to be lectured about their privilege or be told that, on account of their race/gender/orientation, their opinion is illegitimate by someone dripping with social status, institutional power and (relative) wealth.

I’m not going to argue at length for this position here but I will make two quick points. First, at least in my anecdotal experience, those social justice advocates which, while quite possibly the victims of some unfairness, haven’t (on the basis of group membership) experienced true need, oppressive violence or threat of imprisionment are the quickest to make accusations, call people names and disengage from well meaning skeptics. In contrast, those who have experienced more serious oppression don’t feel the same need to protect their position by calling attention to their zeal nor find the standard criticisms of the focus on group properties so threatening. After all, it isn’t their status that is threatened if everyone has to stand on their own rather than laying claim to the mistreatment of others who share a property with you. Second, notice that this theory explains the puzzling behavior of social justice advocates in prioritizing ideological purity over good will (if you are genuinely worried about oppression, e.g., a Jew in 1930s Germany, any friend/ally is desirable even if they use words that are disrespectful or are strong critics of your movement) and in antagonizing individuals disagree or criticize but express a genuine willingness to listen to their facts and arguments. It also explains why words like mansplain or whitesplain aren’t, as one might expect, get applied against men or whites who spend the most time discussing matters of social justice, i.e., community members who talk the talk, because they are ultimately a means to block challenges to the power/legitimacy of relatively privileged members of the social justice community not a true concern over whether or not whites or men speak on the subject.

This theory, if true, is a compelling illustration of why it is so bad to roll back legal and traditional rules that protect unpopular groups from prosecution and other penalties despite all the noise about them protecting oppressors. Humans are social creatures with intensely strong drives to gain power, influence and status which can be easily used to subvert groups and institutions supposedly dedicated to helping the worst off and instead using them to maintain their own power.

Note that, I’m not suggesting that those relatively privileged individuals in social justice communities are particularly morally blameworthy. While they may be aware of the danger here in a theoretical sense they honestly believe they are doing good not harm. Moreover, they are merely behaving in the same way that we all do unless we work very hard to catch ourselves doing it and change our behavior: adapting seamlessly to function in the culture you find oneself in and unconsciously learning what it takes to draw praise and guard against criticism. AS someone filled with an passion for social justice, excitement about what you and likeminded compatriots can do and anger at the unfairness of the system it is very hard to notice that by acting in the ways that draw praise and congratulations from your fellows you are merely promoting yourself and your compatriots at the expense of your cause. Indeed, if I could only say one thing about this whole issue it would be that righteous conviction, outrage and even empathy directed at particular narratives/accounts are all dangerous temptations leading to unintended consequences and that only careful studied consideration can be counted on to improve the situation.


  1. Yes, of course, there is always the (almost universally counterproductive) charge that unless you are a member of an underprivileged group your skepticism merely reveals your privilege. Now for those who have chugged the kool-aid and are ready to totally upend our usual epistemic framework (or even the idea of mind-independent, scientifically discernible reality) in service to the idea that whatever (the relatively privileged representatives of) underprivileged groups assert about what is or isn’t discriminatory/aggressive/etc.. then you might as well just skip to leaving angry comments on this post or holding me up for ridicule. But everyone who isn’t an extremist should accept the fact that personal experience is neither necessary to believe a claim nor a particularly reliable way to get at the truth generally. Thus, lacking personal experience in now way prevents one from talking to those who do have it, evaluating their credibility and degree of bias and looking at what people said and did in the past. Of course, I could be wrong and it could be that bias and kneejerk defense of my privilege blinds me to the truth. But this kind of deeply skeptical worry is a problem for everyone and ultimately we can only act based on our best guess about the truth despite whatever biases and shortcomings we may have. 
  2. My misspent youth spent in sketchy parts of Oakland hanging out with various IV drug users left me with an intense awareness of just how much the concerns and focus of rich white liberals on college campuses and the educated, relatively privileged members of ‘underprivileged groups’ they associate with differ from what matters for people in actual poverty and those minorities who are more likely to be the victims of police violence than rant in outrage on facebook about it. Spending time being outraged, particularly about merely verbal slights or behaviors, is a privilege that requires comfort and free time. While poor minorities are intently aware of discrimination and often very angry about unfair treatment their anger is directed at policies that directly make their life worse and overt animus against them. Indeed, coming from a rich well-educated world I was constantly shocked by willingness of poor whites to unselfconsciously make claims about race that would draw condemnation even from conservatives on campus in front of black friends. I was even more surprised by the willingness of poor blacks to not only laugh or agree but even encourage such conversations though in retrospect I shouldn’t have been. When life is tough and you face real animus and discrimination you don’t have the luxury of caring if people comply with the norms rich white liberals have adopted. What matters is who will stick up for you when shit goes down and who won’t and it makes all the concern over propriety seem viscerally absurd and even immoral insofar as it takes concern away from the poorest neighborhoods that are really suffering one group of rich white people (and a few minorities) who claim to care about the underprivileged can poor all their energy into alienating another group of white people (further discouraging them from helping) rather than actually making a difference on the ground. Sadly, humans are tribal creatures and it is far more motivating to get out and attack the other side’s outrageous behavior than it is to simply focus on making the daily reality of life for the worst off slightly better or try and work out how to reform the system and stop the kind of horrible abuse by bad cops, prison guards etc.. that everyone will admit are problems. Conservatives are no less guilty. Indeed, I’m arguably engaging in exactly the practice I criticize here right now though I do think there is real value in trying to work out a way to lesson animosity and redirect energies to fixing problems. 
  3. Of course, these are human flaws not liberal flaws and a similar process explains how groups on the right made up of otherwise pleasant, friendly and morally conscientious people can urge each other own to every more impressive heights of cruelty directed at those who are unable to defend themselves. The people on the right who end up sending women rape threats just for expressing their concern about gender equality or similarly charged issue (whether or not they are right) aren’t subhumans. They are caught up in the same spiral of reinforcing stories representing the other side as the enemy, discouraging doubt and moderation and prioritizing standing up for the moral righteousness of the community over kindness and compassion. However, as a liberal apostate rather than a conservative I’m more interested in convincing/arguing with people who identify as liberal simply because those are the people I tend to associate with and not because I in any way believe they are doing more harm. Indeed, just the opposite. 
  4. I find this attitude particularly absurd given the supposed goal of social justice advocates is to enable peaceful change eliminates structures of privilege. Given that, by hypothesis, its members of privileged groups who have the power and influence what the hell do they think they are doing if their job isn’t educating/persuading those with privileged? Are they really saying that for all their posturing when push comes to shove their visceral dislike of engaging with those they see as unsympathetic privileged assholes is more important than actually improving the lot of the less privileged? Yes, I realize there are perfectly defensible versions of this belief which simply amount to the attitude that individuals, particularly less privileged individuals, have a personal obligation to explain/persuade at any one time in the same way that a random Catholic you stop on the street doesn’t have a personal obligation to explain or defend Catholic beliefs to you. However, to extend the metaphor, they do (on the assumption their beliefs are correct) have an obligation to do their part in the communal effort to save souls by politely responding to anyone expressing a genuine desire to know about the faith and avoiding alienating them (even if they have a very skeptical attitude) while directing them to resources/people who are better equipped to persuade them of Catholic doctrine. Of course, sufficiently deep disagreement can’t always be bridged but if you aren’t even going to try how do you hope to prevail? 

Does Anyone Really Object To Normalizing Racism/Sexism?

Or Reasons Not To Call Trump Racist

When it is revealed that a public figure said something with racist/sexist overtones criticism piles on fast. Even if it is clear that the figure doesn’t really have these racist/sexist attitudes the common refrain is that its still extremely harmful because it normalizes racism/sexism/etc.. Presumably the theory being that if other people believe that high status people commonly behave this way they will think its ok for them to as well.

Is this just a lie (or self-deception) for partisan purposes? I mean consider the implications if you really believed the following back when Bush was President (No one will plausibly believe Trump isn’t saying sexist things whatever you do):

  1. G. W. Bush isn’t really a racist/sexist (replace with Clinton if you prefer) but he sometimes uses racist/sexist language without thinking in the privacy of the white house.
  2. If people realized the president was saying these racist things they too would think that racism was ok and it would have bad consequences.

First, you should be much more angry at whatever staffer leaked the fact that the president used racist language than at the president himself. The staffer who leaked it had time to contemplate it and still choose to make the country think the president uses racist slurs while the president has a slip of the tongue from time to time. Indeed, you should be most angry if the staffer is a minority themselves who claims to be leaking the information because of his concern for racial justice. Even if you give the leaker some kind of pass for ignorance1 at the very least you should be trying your damnedest to (quietly) discourage any future such leaks.

Second, you should be archenemies with the liberal activists and members of the social justice community who spin stories about how racist/sexist the president is even, perhaps especially when it is true (excepting perhaps the very rare case where you believe it will do enough to affect the balance of power to outweigh the harms to race relations). Even with Trump it should be inexcusable to make allegations about dog whistle racism without absolutely rock solid evidence such as staffer testimony of intent and recognition in the community.

Third, you should be worried about maximally racist/sexist interpretations of a public figure’s comments. Even if it is plausible they meant them in the worst possible way you should favor the least racist/sexist interpretation that is plausible just so you don’t further normalize racism/sexism.

Yet, while I see people make the ‘this normalizes X’ argument all the damn time I’ve yet to see them get angry upset or even remonstrate people who are working to push marginally plausible theories of racist/sexist intent or dubitable claims of racist/sexist language. I’ve certainly never seen anyone making such an argument even suggest that it was bad/wrong for someone to leak that information. To the contrary they usually suggest it was in the national interest.

So how should one understand such claims? They can’t really believe the harm from normalization is that big a deal or they wouldn’t be on board with accusations that offer only minor political benefit at the cost of normalizing such behavior. My best guess is what they really mean is: how dare you break this social norm which I feel is very important. Even though your action only had a really tiny harmful effect the norm is really important because without it people would come to believe it was normal and acceptable to engage in racism/sexism.

That’s a fair statement but notice the implication: since any particular incident only does minor harm to this norm and barely nudges people’s sense of what is normal only a minor penalty is appropriate. After all, the benefit to the speaker is presumably virtually nothing from the slur and its sufficient if everyone takes relatively weak action to ensure they don’t utter any slurs so a small deterrent should suffice. In other words we still can’t interpret the speaker as making a cogent complaint as their intent in raising the specter of normalization was to show why this kind of behavior was so serious we couldn’t just let it go with a slap on the wrist but the speaker’s own disposition to prioritize a modicum of political advantage over avoiding further instances of normalization shows that he can’t coherently believe that the possibility of normalization shows the seriousness of the offense.


  1. Shouldn’t the speaker get the very same pass if he hasn’t worked harder to control his occasional slips of the tongue because he isn’t aware that it has any negative effect on others? Often racist phrases are picked up simply from hearing them said so the speaker isn’t in any way morally more responsible than the leaker…indeed arguably a better position as the leaker has to sit down and think over if he should leak while the speaker may have never even done that regarding his slips of the tongue. 

Racial Bias in Police Stops

Bias Science Done Right

In a previous post I was very critical of a study claiming to show gender bias in journal publications in political science. Like too many studies of this kind the data only supported the judgement of gender bias to the extent one was already inclined to believe gender bias was the appropriate explanation for gender disparities in the field. However, not all studies suffer from these flaws so when I heard about a recent study in PNAS examining how an individuals race affects how police treat them at traffic stops and saw that it was well done I thought I should post an example of the right way to engage in this kind of study (and the important/unexpected information one gets when one studies bias rigorously).

What the authors of this paper did was take body camera footage from Oakland police officers in April 2014 and examine vehicle stops they made. They had human raters (I presume college students) examine transcripts of the interactions (without knowledge of officer or civilian’s race) and rate them based on respectfulness, formality, friendliness, politeness and impartiality. After determining that such ratings were repeatable (different raters tended to agree on scoring) they then trained a computational model to predict both respect and formality which they verified against human ratings. I’ll let the paper’s authors speak for themselves about the results.

Controlling for these contextual factors, utterances spoken by officers to white community members score higher in Respect [β = 0.05 (0.03, 0.08)]. Officer utterances were also higher in Respect when spoken to older [β = 0.07 (0.05, 0.09)] community members and when a citation was issued [β = 0.04 (0.02, 0.06)]; Respect was lower in stops where a search was conducted [β = −0.08 (−0.11, −0.05)]. Officer race did not contribute a significant effect. Furthermore, in an additional model on 965 stops for which geographic information was available, neither the crime rate nor density of businesses in the area of the stop were significant, although a higher crime rate was indicative of increased Formality [β = 0.03 (0.01, 0.05)].

Note that the authors themselves raised the possibility that geographic region might play a confounding role, e.g., people in high crime areas might be treated more suspiciously, and rejected it. However, one still might worry that any effect we are seeing is a result of minorities being more inclined toward criminal behavior and thus more frequently pulled over on suspicion of serious infractions but that too is considered and rejected.

One might consider the hypothesis that officers were less respectful when pulling over community members for more severe offenses. We tested this by running another model on a subset of 869 interactions for which we obtained ratings of offense severity on a four-point Likert scale from Oakland Police Department officers, including these ratings as a covariate in addition to those mentioned above. We found that the offense severity was not predictive of officer respect levels, and did not substantially change the results described above. To consider whether this disparity persists in the most “everyday” interactions, we also reran our analyses on the subset of interactions that did not involve arrests or searches (N = 781), and found the results from our earlier models were fundamentally unchanged.

Finally, the paper authors are careful to acknowledge limitations of their analysis. In particular, they acknowledge the limitations of their study in identifying the cause of these disparities in treatment/language and with respect to the possibility that it is differences in minority behavior which itself causes officers to respond differently they say:

The racial disparities in officer respect are clear and consistent, yet the causes of these disparities are less clear. It is certainly possible that some of these disparities are prompted by the language and behavior of the community members themselves, particularly as historical tensions in Oakland and preexisting beliefs about the legitimacy of the police may induce fear, anger, or stereotype threat. However, community member speech cannot be the sole cause of these disparities. Study 1 found racial disparities in police language even when annotators judged that language in the context of the community member’s utterances. We observe racial disparities in officer respect even in police utterances from the initial 5% of an interaction, suggesting that officers speak differently to community members of different races even before the driver has had the opportunity to say much at all.

I feel that this analysis considered and fairly convincingly rejected all the plausible confounders. Of course others might disagree and suggest some other factor, e.g., expensiveness of car, is responsible but even if you are inclined to take such a line you have to admit that this study provides some pretty damn good evidence by ruling out many other plausible confounding variables.

Having said this one should still be careful (as the authors of this paper are) in interpreting the results. In particular, we don’t have a good sense of what the psychological reason for officers different behavior with minorities. Is it because they judge them to be less deserving of respect? Or maybe officers judge minorities to be less respectful to them so begin the interaction less respectfully? Or some other explanation? If the goal is making the world a better place and not merely assigning blame those answers matter and hopefully more good scientific studies will reveal them.

I’d like to close with what I take to be one of the most important reasons to do this research rigorously. While most people could have probably guessed that officers would be less respectful to minority drivers it wasn’t at all obvious that officer race wouldn’t play a factor in respectfulness to minorities. Nor was it obvious that we would see a difference in treatment from a broad swath of police officers not merely a few particularly biased officers. The reason this kind of research is important (in addition to validating minority claims of police treatment) is that we need to learn how and why minorities are treated differently if we are going to fix the problem. Without studies like this I think many people’s natural assumption is that hiring minority officers would address these problems. It doesn’t.

The Cancerous Concept of Cultural Appropriation

I’ve always been critical of the concept of cultural appropriation. The prima facia case for encouraging unfettered cultural remixing was so strong that I simply dismissed cultural appropriation as just another canard social justice extremists used to feel superior. The simple fact that each person in the borrowing culture now enjoys the benefits of that knowledge or other cultural practice (without taking that benefit away from the source culture) means that there is a huge utility upside to cultural sharing. Thus, not only must cultural appropriation be harmful to be a valid criticism it must cause more harm than the benefits borrowing provides. While those who condemn cultural appropriation would point out that not all borrowing is appropriation distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable borrowing (at least by the dominant culture) is sufficiently vexed that if people internalized a norm against cultural appropriation as desired it would deter them from borrowing even in many cases that wouldn’t qualify as appropriation. If people who want to build off something they see in another culture, e.g., incorporate aboriginal rhythms into their music, have to check with the source culture or a panel of experts before experimenting with it they won’t bother to do so.

Moreover, the fact that cultures don’t have sharp boundaries (or well-defined views on what is acceptable) makes the whole concept suspect. For example, a cultural practice could spread from India to England while every person in the chain of transmission only adopts practices from what they see as their own culture. However, the facts about the chain of transmission don’t seem to plausibly affect whether the practice is harmful as usually most people won’t even be aware of the chain of transmission.

However, when I saw an article claiming to explain why cultural appropriation is harmful I figured I should give the arguments against cultural appropriation a fair shake. Not only were they incredibly unconvincing they actually persuaded me that the concept/criticism of cultural appropriation actually works to exploit the very least privileged for the sake of the slightly more privileged. I tried to find other articles but they weren’t any more persuasive (at least unless you read the last article as redefining cultural appropriation to simply mean borrowing without citing that culture as an influence). I accept that the defenses of cultural appropriation I consider here may not be the best ones available so if you know of better arguments please inform me. However, given that these seem to be the best arguments generally available to the public I think it’s fair to say that, should they prove unconvincing, the public should repudiate the idea of cultural appropriation until a more convincing justification can be found.

The TL;DR version of this article is simply: feelings of frustration/resentment because the proceeds from borrowing aren’t distributed in the most fair way don’t actually identify any harm. You might think it would be better if we compensated cultures we borrowed from or if past injustices were rectified but, given that isn’t pragmatically possible, it doesn’t mean that we are better off not borrowing these practices at all. Moreover, many of these intuitions about compensation seem to flow from a pernicious modern attitude regarding intellectual property naively applied to cultures as if they were individuals. Ultimately, pursuing these feelings of aggrievement doesn’t actually right the wrongs of past oppression but does make things worse for those who are alive today, especially the least privileged members of the least privileged groups. For a more in depth refutation I will go through the arguments in the first (most complete) article point by point.

Definitions and Limitations

Helpfully, this article offers the following definition of cultural appropriation:

cultural appropriation also refers to a particular power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group.

There are several serious problems with this definition. First and foremost is that it describes an overall state of affairs that people would universally agree is bad (oppression is almost by definition morally bad) but it is invoked to criticize only one aspect of that behavior. To give an example of how this can be misleading consider the following definition:

Homicidal Familial Appropriation
Homicidal familial appropriation occurs when one man (or those acting on his behalf) murders another and then appropriates the dead man’s family (marrying the widow, raising the children as his own etc..).

I think we can all agree that Homicidal Familial Appropriation is a bad thing and ought not to occur. However, the moral harm stems from the murder and, while it might strike us as distasteful, its not clear that stepping into the dead man’s shoes is a further harm. Indeed, in times past where the widow and orphans might face serious hardship or even starvation in the absence of a male protector/provider it might even be morally unacceptable not to marry and care for the widow after the fact.

To make this point more clearly imagine that you and another man (sorry but if you identify as female you’ll have to come up with your own murderous hypothetical) are romantic rivals for the same woman but she marries him and bears his child. You’ve accepted your loss with dignity but when your rich, powerful father hears of the situation he has your rival assassinated without your consent. Now that would surely be a tragic situation but the harm has already been effected and it would simply compound the tragedy to refuse to marry the widow and raise your rivals child. Indeed, even your rival himself would (if he weren’t dead) no doubt prefer that outcome in such a situation. The point is that merely because the definition describes a situation in which one person/group unacceptably benefits from a wrong done to another person/group its not appropriate to infer that choosing not to eschew the benefit would have made the situation better.

However, apart from attempting to tie together the use of cultural material with past oppression it is noteworthy how little this definition does to either pin down what activity is objectionable or what makes it objectionable. Indeed, if anything it creates further confusion about why cultural appropriation might be wrong. After all, from an intuitive point of view, it is hard to imagine that somehow Americans adopting yoga is bad in a way that Japanese adoption of yoga in a similar fashion wouldn’t be despite the lack of any past Japanese oppression of the Indians. Indeed, this definition would seem to suggest that even if a false historical account had convinced every living person that the Japanese and not the British had been responsible for oppressing the Indian people it would still be wrong for British derived cultures to adopt yoga but not the Japanese despite the fact that the effects would be indistinguishable from those in a world in which it really had been the Japanese doing the oppression.

While it is not, in itself, an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation I think defining a concept to ensure it only applies to the group you feel warrants criticism is a red flag. If your goal in using the term cultural appropriation was to pick out some natural class of behaviors that are wrong in the same way such a restriction would be unnecessary and invite the kind of criticism I gave above applying the concept in counterfactual situations. It might turn out that cultural appropriation happened (almost) exclusively in such circumstances because that’s the only time all the preconditions for the supposed harms are present1. However, baking such a criteria into the definition itself suggests a recognition that the speaker will not be able to describe the practice they object to in a way that others will agree only applies to those practices they wish to condemn and is attempting to sneakily avoid tough questions about what morally distinguishes the apparently similar behavior of non-dominant cultures. Again, this isn’t an argument against the concept of cultural appropriation but it does suggest a degree of skepticism may be appropriate.

Allegations of Moral Harm

So setting aside the issue of a precise definition of cultural appropriation for the moment what arguments does this piece offer to show cultural appropriation is morally wrong?

  • “It Trivializes Violent Historical Oppression”

So here’s what’s at stake for the Native people: The term “redsk*n” comes from the time when the colonial and state governments and companies paid white people to kill Native Americans and used their scalps or even genitalia (to prove their sex), aka “red skins,” as proof of their “Indian kill.”

Yes, its wrong to offend native Americans by trivializing the long history of oppression and poor treatment at the hands of other (mostly white) Americans. But what this shows is only that its wrong to offensively trivialize violent historical oppression.

To the extent this is your concern it would be more effective to simply drop talk of ‘cultural appropriation’ entirely and simply tell people not to be dicks. Lots of people, like myself, who are strident opponents of the idea of cultural appropriation think that its offensive and unacceptable (morally not legally) to call an NFL team the redskins. The only reason to bring up the label ‘cultural appropriation’ in this context is to borrow the reprobation we rightly feel for offensive/insensitive behaviors and apply it to instances of cultural borrowing that we don’t feel are justifiably viewed as offensive nor think trivialize historical oppression. Thus we are still in search of any reason to view cultural appropriation in general as morally wrong.

  • “It Lets People Show Love for the Culture, But Remain Prejudiced Against Its People”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, I witness people taking what they like without wanting to associate with where it came from all the time. Here, recent transplants to the area write Yelp reviews in search of “authentic Mexican food” without the “sketchy neighborhoods” – which usually happen to be what they call neighborhoods with higher numbers of people of color.

This isn’t so much a moral argument as an expression of frustration/disgust. Of course seeing people openly enjoying the fruits of mexican culture while remaining prejudiced against Mexicans might be infuriating but that doesn’t show it is wrong. It’s not like those newcomers would be less prejudiced or Mexican-Americans any better off if white Americans didn’t eat burritos. Just the opposite in fact.

A major factor underlying many people’s fear/distrust of minorities is a lack of any positive setting in which they interact with minorities. If your only experience with mexicans is seeing videos of them running from the border patrol on fox news and seeing the mexicans lingering on the streets around 14th and mission to sell drugs2 of course you will be inclined to be scared of them. Indeed, a serious problem in policing is the fact that while on the job police tend to encounter people up to no good and if that is there only contact with minorities it can instill powerful biases. But every person who sits down at a mexican restaurant and has a pleasant interaction with a mexican waiter or owner of the restaurant is a little less likely to be racist and the owner and employees of that restaurant are a bit better off.

One might try and suggest this might justify enjoying mexican food purchased from mexican owned establishments but doesn’t defend the sale of burritos by non-mexican establishments. However, I need not prove that this actively benefits minority interests only note that it doesn’t contribute to racism or prejudice. Indeed, taken seriously, this complaint would be a reason to abandon language itself for that is the ultimate reason it is possible to express appreciation for a culture while being prejudiced against its people. However, I would argue that even eating burritos sold by whites makes some contribution to reducing racism (if nothing else it makes individuals who might never otherwise have considered going to a mexican owned restaurant do so).

More broadly, I would point out that if the public ever internalized the notion of cultural appropriation as the advocates desire it would eliminate many of these benefits. The mere uncertainty about whether something qualified as cultural appropriation would discourage them from eating at mexican restaurants regardless of who owned them. Even in the implausible case in which people aren’t too lazy to throughly check who owns the restaurant they plan to eat at insisting on mexican ownership of a restaurant serving burritos would substantially reduce the resale vale of mexican restaurants and make it that much harder for Mexicans to get loans to start them. In short, while the actual cultural appropriation doesn’t further any of the harms raised in the argument accepting cultural appropriation as a genuine harm does.

  • “It Makes Things ‘Cool’ for White People – But ‘Too Ethnic’ for People of Color”

For example, standards of professionalism hold back all kinds of people who aren’t white men. As a Black woman, there are many jobs that would bar me if I wore cornrows, dreadlocks, or an afro – some of the most natural ways to keep up my hair. So for me, wearing my hair naturally is a meaningful declaration that I believe in my natural beauty. It’s risky to make this declaration in a society that says I must aspire to whiteness have value.

Again we see the harm (behaviors/appearances identified with minority groups are viewed as unacceptable/unclassy) conflated with a behavior which merely makes that harm salient (white people borrowing it). Indeed, the most plausible way we will get to a society which accepts these minority behaviors/appearances as mainstream is by allowing whites to adopt them. That is unfortunate but what’s morally relevant is the results. Ultimately, which is the better world: one in which white people don’t adopt minority styles/behaviors and that difference continues to be used to oppress them or one in which white people borrow those styles/behaviors and they are no longer used to oppress? Furthermore, given the choice between sending the message to black girls that “the way you look is ugly and inappropriate” or that “the way you look is so good that white women are trying to adopt it” I’d choose the later.

Again, the choice isn’t between the world as it is and the magical world without discrimination where afros, dreadlocks etc.. on blacks are seen as appropriate professional dress but between the world as it is and the world where whites never borrowed these fashions and they never gained acceptability. While the message that mainstream acceptance depends on convincing whites to adopt your style isn’t great its a hell of a lot better than the message that mainstream acceptance is impossible. Indeed, given the social and professional roles occupied by whites insisting that they not adopt black derived fashions/behaviors would be to doom many important black cultural figures to niche influence not to mention impeding the slow steps toward less racial animosity.

  • “It Lets Privileged People Profit from Oppressed People’s Labor”
  • “It Lets Some People Get Rewarded for Things the Creators Never Got Credit For”

I take this to be the core of the complaint. It feels wrong when you see some white woman benefiting from selling some crap based on native american spirituality while native americans languish in poverty and suffer from discrimination. However, this doesn’t in any way show that the cultural appropriation itself makes anyone worse off.

It is often the misfits and oddballs who come up with the most important ideas. History is littered with stories of misunderstood genuis and people who were treated abominably during their lives only for their great cultural contributions to be recognized latter. Surely we don’t believe that the world would be better if we eschewed their contributions because they were treated poorly. So why would the situation be any different when the creator is a member of a racial/ethnic group that is oppressed rather than someone who merely happens to socially marginalized? More generally, I would simply dispute the very idea that whoever comes up with new ideas somehow deserves or is owed the profit on those ideas. It is a good way to incentivize innovation but doesn’t seem to have much going for it as a morally mandate.

Of course, we can all agree that one should give appropriate credit, e.g., if you’ve borrowed your musical style from black performers say so. However, that doesn’t in any way imply that it would be better not to borrow that style at all.

Lets consider for a moment what the world would be like if white musicians had never borrowed from black music culture or if white studio executives refused to profit from distributing black music. It would be a world even more divided than our world today. The many black artists who profited and have been idolized by teens of all races would never have gotten their chance. Rock music would have been relegated to a racial ghetto and used as further justification for racism rather than bringing folks together.

Yet again while cultural appropriation may make the unfairness of past oppression and continuing injustices salient if anything it works to ameliorate these harms not enhance them.

  • “It Spreads Mass Lies About Marginalized Cultures”

For instance, if you think about the real story of Pocahontas, having your daughter pretend to be her on Halloween is pretty disturbing. The real Pocahontas, whose given name was Matoaka, was abducted as a teenager, forced to marry an Englishman (not John Smith, by the way), and used as propaganda for racist practices before she died at the age of 21.

Ok, don’t spread misinformation about marginalized cultures. Got it. Now what does this have to do with cultural appropriation. When it is/isn’t ok to sugarcoat history is an important issue but it isn’t cultural appropriation.

  • “It Perpetuates Racist Stereotypes”

As Dr. Adrienne Keene of Native Appropriations puts it, “You are pretending to be a race that you are not, and are drawing upon stereotypes to do so.”

Umm, no. In virtually all cases of so called cultural appropriation no one is pretending to be a different race. But yah, if you see someone perpetuating a racist stereotype call them out on it but this has nothing to do with the issue of cultural appropriation. Indeed, the example cited in the article of Katy Perry dressing up as a submissive asian woman in her performance isn’t even a case of cultural borrowing at all.

Having a half-asian wife I’m well aware of the issues surrounding the fetishization of oriental women. It’s a complex topic that I won’t address here because its not relevant to the issue of cultural appropriation.

  • “White People Can Freely Do What People of Color Were Actively Punished for Doing”

Again, this explains why members of marginalized groups might get upset about cultural appropriation but doesn’t explain what makes it bad. The whole hope of a less racist, less bigoted future rests on abandoning a race based us versus them attitude and this complain stinks of race based score keeping. We should all be glad that we live in a better time now and no one is punished for the practice anymore. Of course its easy for me to say that and I don’t begrudge those whose cultures were oppressed their feelings but it doesn’t make the argument against cultural appropriation any more valid.

Indeed, I think the article itself nicely illustrates why cultural appropriation is a net benefit.

A touching moment in this discussion with South Asian yoga teachers from South Asian Art & Perspectives on Yoga and America (SAAPYA) shows one woman’s tearful explanation of how the elders in her community don’t have access to the yoga studios dominating the industry of a practice so important to them. As Susanna Barkataki writes, dividing yoga from its true roots and purpose, and from the people who had to fought to keep it alive, means “eventually eradicating the true practice, as was accomplished in many places under Britain’s occupation of India.”

Step back and think rationally for a moment. In which scenario do you think there is more money, space and interest devoted to keeping traditional yogic practices alive: the one in which California is covered with yoga studios and the Beatles travel to India to consult spiritual gurus or the one in which yoga remains some weird stuff smelly Indian beggars do? I think the answer is obvious. Indeed, the widespread enthusiasm for yoga around the world is generally viewed as providing India with considerable soft power. Unsurprisingly, members of oppressed groups have discovered the same thing that Americans did when they exported American entertainment: having your cultural products consumed by people in other countries grants you considerable power and influence.

  • “It Prioritizes the Feelings of Privileged People Over Justice for Marginalized People”

claiming that the dominant culture has a right to take freely from disempowered groups sounds a lot like the lie of the “white man’s burden” from the past. Colonizers used this concept to claim they had a “duty” to take land, resources, and identity from Indigenous people – trying to justify everything from slavery to genocide.

No, that isn’t what emphasizing the importance of feeling free to make use of whatever ideas/concepts/fashions are available communicates to me. Indeed, I don’t think white people consuming/producing rap, doing yoga or engaging in bullshit native-american spirituality generally sends any of the soul-crushing messages that those arguing against cultural appropriation take them to send. However, to the extent such messages/impressions are harmful then it seems convincing others that this is the message being sent whenever whites engage in cultural borrowing would be manifesting the very harm which advocates claim to be trying to alleviate.

More generally, this point simply can’t provide initial justification for the moral harm of cultural appropriation. Absent an initial showing of harm to marginalized people one can’t claim that accepting cultural borrowing is prioritizing anything over justice for marginalized people.

Practical Pronouncements

Ultimately, what would the effect of taking claims of cultural appropriation seriously. I’ve argued above that if we literally followed out the logic of their complaints we would live in a world with a great deal more racial suspicion missing many of the things which make modern life so good. Moreover, its not merely members of the dominant racial/cultural group who would suffer. Blacks would equally well be denied the fitness benefits of yoga if there weren’t yoga studies all over the US (the fact blacks currently make less use of yoga than whites doesn’t change the fact that they still benefit) and native-american teens would be just as lacking in rock-n-roll as white teens. More generally, the overall increase in societal wealth as a result of the non-linear interplay of freely borrowed ideas benefits everyone, those at the bottom often the most.

However, thats not really the world which those who raise complaints about cultural appropriation would bring about. Practically speaking whats at issue isn’t really when its ok to borrow from another culture but who gets to decide. Looking at the behavior of those who take cultural appropriation seriously (and who haven’t defined the concept not to apply to them) its not that they borrow any less from other cultures but rather that they give veto power to eminent members of the culture who accept the notion of cultural appropriation.

This is problematic for a number of reasons but most ironically because it fails to consider the interests of the least powerful members of marginalized groups. Simply dividing the world into privileged and non-privileged cultures and ignoring the power structures within marginalized cultures is an exceptionally privileged and narcissistic way to understand the complexity of human culture. As a practical matter adopting the vocabulary of cultural appropriation hands power over the use of cultural inheritance to the members of that culture who have already gained a substantial degree of power/acceptance by mainstream society, e.g., the native-american academic or the black activist, while yanking it away from those who could benefit from it the most. The unrecognized black rapper who can’t support his music by selling CDs to white teens and the impoverished native-american who can’t send their daughter to college on money earned from cheap Indian trinkets sold to tourists are equally entitled to the fruits of their culture but the narrative of cultural appropriation denies this to them.


  1. For instance, one might imagine a definition of cultural appropriation that identified the harm as stemming from a sense of loss of cultural dignity or self-direction/control. On such a definition it would be very difficult for a dominant culture to ever be subject to such a harm (though one might imagine some sci-fi scenario in which it happens) but that fact would flow naturally from the definition rather than being baked into the definition. 
  2. No, I’m not making baseless assumptions here about what they were doing. Based on personal experience I can attest that the majority of people who you see lounging about in that area are involved in some way in the illegal drug trade and many of them are mexican. As a past customer I can hardly hold that against them but it is understandable why people would view drug dealing gangmembers as scary.