MONDAY, OCTOBER 3, 2022
Clarity loses again: Dear friends, how about it? What was the correct answer to the question that survey posed?
Do you agree with the following statement? What would the correct answer be?
“White Americans today are not responsible for discrimination against Black people in the past.”
If you were asked to state your view, would you agree with that statement? What would the correct answer be?
Full disclosure! Drawing on the work of the greatest logicians, we've already given you the correct answer. According to the leading logicians, the exchange should go like this:
QUESTION: Are White Americans living today responsible for discrimination against Black people in the past?
CORRECT ANSWER: I'm not sure what you mean.
According to the greatest logicians, the person who poses a question is responsible for speaking with clarity. And in this case, these scholars all say, it's hard to know what that question actually means.
Presumably, no "white American" living today could be held criminally liable for various crimes of the past. Presumably, that isn't what that fuzzy question is intended to mean.
Literally, though, the question does ask something different. The question asks if "white Americans" living today are responsible for past discrimination, whatever the various parts of that question might mean.
How about it? Are "white Americans" living today responsible for past discrimination? Presumably, it all depends on what the meaning of "responsible for past discrimination" is!
Obviously, you can't exactly blame "white people" living today for the way Donald Trump's father refused to rent apartments to African-Americans back in the 1960s. But the questions asks something different:
The question asks if "white people" living today are "responsible for" such past behaviors. But what do we mean if we say that the answer is yes? In what way can such people be judged or held to be "responsible?"
If such people are deemed to be "responsible" for such past acts of discrimination, what will turn on this rather fuzzy assessment? What will those people now be expected or required to do? More specifically:
What the heck are we talking about when we agree to respond to this question?
As we noted last week, we're speaking about that (rather fuzzy) statement because of Jennifer Rubin's recent column for the Washington Post. Also, we're speaking about that fuzzy statement because of a recent survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), a presumably well-intentioned public interest group.
Somehow, people at the PRRI believed they could quantify the racism of the Others. They assembled a list of eleven statements, then asked several thousand respondents if they agreed with each.
Here are the first three statements on the list. You can see all eleven here:
Do you agree with these statements?
White Americans today are not responsible for discrimination against Black people in the past.
White people in the U.S. have certain advantages because of the color of their skin.
White supremacy is still a major problem in the U.S. today.
Based upon published numbers the PRRI doesn't explain, it looks like 72 percent of respondents agreed with the first of those statements. By way of contrast, it looks like only 26 percent of respondents agreed with this, the final statement on the list:
Racial problems in the U.S. are rare, isolated situations.
Only 26 percent of respondents said they agreed with that statement. That said, do you know what counts as a "racial problem" when you're asked to respond to that statement? Almost surely, different respondents had different ideas about what they were being asked.
In our view, our nation's brutal racial history is the source of all sorts of major problems and injustices in our nation today. That doesn't mean that we would know how to respond to the bulk of the fuzzy statements the fuzzy thinkers at the PRRI fuzzily decided to ask.
We'd also be slow to call someone else a "racist" based on the way they responded to those fuzzy statements. That said, declaring that the Others are racist is now a treasured bit of true tribal belief within our own flailing blue tribe.
In their report about their survey, the fuzzy thinkers at PRRI didn't include detailed data about the way different groups of respondents responded to each of their eleven statements. They were so slapdash that they didn't even make it clear that the numbers in question—numbers which seem to be percentages—were actually any such thing.
You'd almost think that a high-ranking journalist would call attention to such shortcomings in a survey of this type. Instead, Rubin ran with Storyline. The headline on her column says this:
Just how racist is the MAGA movement? This survey measures it.
Rubin's column promoted a bit of dogma—the Others are heavily racist. That's a sweeping, treasured belief within the tents of our failing blue tribe.
Future Anthropologists Huddled in Caves keep offering their own bits of dogma. They tell us that our human brains are wired to construct sweeping negative judgments about those in the Other tribe.
They say we're built for Storyline—for tribal Storyline. The later Wittgenstein came along and added another important point:
Clarity simply isn't us, that leading logician declared. According to that leading logician, clarity hasn't even been us at the highest academic levels!
At present, the red tribe spills with a wide array of unfounded beliefs and damning generalization. Our own blue tribe is all about branding the Others as racists.
We cling to our dogmatic assertions in much the way a drowning person clings to the side of his raft. We see a racist under every bed—but also, of course, a "book burner."
In closing, we ask you this. If you were confronted with the first of those eleven statements, would you say you agreed?
According to Future Logicians, Gallant would say he wasn't sure what the statement in question meant.
Gallant would ask for clarification! Goofus would simply rush ahead, dramatically stating his view.
Tomorrow: Books about the Holocaust. Also, gerrymandered by Blow