Tuesday, November 10, 2015

"Are Races 'Real'?" (Philosophers Magazine)

   This is not very good.
   I'm not going to address the specific arguments here. We've seen almost all of them before.
   It's pretty disappointing to see philosophers making many of the same patently fallacious arguments that you see in the social sciences and in the popular press. When you see a relentless parade of bad arguments all aiming to push the same implausible conclusion, it become harder and harder to resist the [inclination to conclude] that political preferences are in the driver's seat.
   I'm really starting to wonder how this will all play out. I'm kind of starting to think that things might go roughly like so:
We start off--up until five or ten years ago or so--with a fairly uncontroversial biological conception of race, with all its warts. That's the conception of race that everyone understood through my whole life. The conception of race that prevailed on all sides during the civil rights movement. You know--race. Then we get the convergence of (a) the social constructionism fad, and (b) political correctness. A big mass of semi-coherent efforts to insist that race is (and, in some cases, has always been) a social category result. Of course, anyone who speaks English and lives in the U.S. knows that we've never meant that, nor come close to meaning that. 'Race', in contemporary American English, very clearly refers to something biological. People have many false beliefs about race, many bigoted beliefs about race, and so on...and of course we could be wrong about just about anything...but what we are talking about when we talk about race is biology. That is to say: physical features of people.  However, folks on the intellectual left simply insist that this isn't so, and that we're talking about social categories (they say a lot of other things too...). Of course people--especially liberals who tend to see the kinds of people who are doing the insisting as admirable--start to parrot what they hear from alleged experts. Slowly, people do start using 'race' to mean something social. After some more time has passed, the relevant social scientists, literary theorists, philosophers et al. can plausibly claim: "See? 'Race' really does mean something social!" And then: "And it has all along--just like we said!" The former can, of course, end up being true. But the latter won't be. What will have happened--if this happens--will be merely semantic. People will have tricked people into changing what they mean by a word. They'll have done largely because they have good moral (and corrupt intellectual) goals...but that's what they will have done. If it works.
   People wonder why the PC crowd likes to police language so ruthlessly. Well, there are several reasons, but one is: it's fairly easy to bamboozle people with semantics legerdemain.
   There are political goals in all of this, and the main one is a good one: they want to undermine any biological arguments for racism. Now, any clear-thinking racist (if there is such a person), won't be fooled by any of this. He'll just stop using the term 'race' and start using a new term to refer to the cluster of biological properties that 'race' now actually refers to. 'Schmace' or whatever. But who knows? If good people can be tricked by these linguistic shenanigans, perhaps bad people can be too... But I doubt it. Good people want to be fooled in this way; racists do not. And there is a certain kind of power associated with some words. This is why leftish folks want to re-define words like 'woman' and 'racist.' Consider the latter. Re-defining 'racism' in terms of social institutions means, among other things, that non-whites cannot be racist (in the U.S.) in the new sense of the term. And the left has always disliked the fact that non-whites, too, can be racist. Of course the redefinition doesn't actually mean that only whites can be racist (in the U.S.)--what it means is:  if the word 'racist' is re-defined so that it (counterfactually) no longer means what it actually means, then only whites (in that counterfactual) circumstance can be properly called 'racist'. If we re-define 'dog' so that it refers to trees that won't mean that poodles are not mammals. Semantic futzing around doesn't change facts.
   Of course one might say that we should just relax our intellectual standards in this case and go with the fallacious philosophical flow, because the goal is a good one.
   In my opinion, that's a really terrible idea.


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