Posted in Political Philosophy

On Arguing About Racism

My purpose in writing this piece is to try to offer a way to move beyond a current impasse in anti-racism dialogue. The problem arises when the question of whether or not white people can experience racism is asked. On one side are those who argue that white people can not experience racism because racism involves “power plus privilege”, and as we live in a “global white supremacist hegemony” then by definition it is impossible for white people to suffer racism. On the other side we have people pointing out fairly regular occurrences of white people being targeted for abuse simply for being white, which to them is ample evidence of white people actually suffering from racism. The two sides are locked in disagreement, which often descends into nonsensical arguments and accusations of the other side “being part of the problem” of racism. As a result, genuine action against racism is almost zero while student types control the discourse demanding that everyone else accept their definition of a word and verbally abusing anyone who disagrees with them.

I’ve experienced the arrogance of these (usually) white middle class anti-racists recently. The type who with no sense of irony demand that we adopt the definitions they learned on sociology degrees at white middle class first world universities, while simultaneously accusing anyone who rejects these definitions as being part of the “global white supremacist hegemony” problem. For full disclosure, I think white people can suffer from ‘racism’, but that is just because I recognise a rather mundane aspect of the English language – words can have more than one definition. So when we say a black person in America suffered from racism and then also say a white person in Scotland suffered racism, although we have used the same word (racism) we are not equating the two situations. Unfortunately this is not enough for some. I was previously told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome in either the SSP or RISE because I identify as a Marxist. That has now been followed up with me being told by members of the Executive Committee that I am no longer welcome because I don’t share the stance that the “power plus privilege” definition of racism is the only acceptable definition. So as it stands I am currently in a state of limbo, I don’t actually know whether I’ve been expelled from SSP and/or RISE for not thinking in the way dictated that I should. I await an official communication from them to settle this one way or the other.

As I said above, I think white people can suffer racism. What usually happens when I say that is I’m then challenged to explain how this can be so, when white people have the privilege. This response misses the point, I tell them, I’m speaking from a different definition of racism. Call the “power plus privilege” definition racism-Φ, and call white people being abused for being white racism-Ψ. We can then see the mistake more clearly: I say “white people can suffer racism-Ψ”, to which it is argued “white people have privilege so can’t suffer racism-Φ”. It misses the point, they are talking passed what I said. When I point this out, that there is more than one definition in play here, they challenge me to explain why my definition should be used instead of theirs. Again, this misses the point. Words can have more than one meaning. These meanings don’t compete with each other, neither is independently more valid than the other. Competent users of a language can more often than not easily deduce what meaning of a word is being used based on the context. If we are talking about a black person in America we are using the racism-Φ meaning; the power plus privilege meaning. If we are talking about a white person in Scotland we are using the racism-Ψ meaning.

My hope here is that we can start to make progress, and get beyond this artificial barrier created by an inability of certain people to accept that others use language differently. Neither side is right or wrong in their usage of the language, they are just different. Certainly, if someone interrupts a discussion about police racism against the African-American population of the USA by saying something like, “yeah, but white people also suffer racism”, then that person is mistaken. Their mistake, however, was in the use of the word ‘also’ not in the use of the word ‘racism’. The word ‘also’ here conflates the different meanings of the word racism, it deliberately equivocates racism-Φ with racism-Ψ in order to shut down a discussion. These people need to be challenged, but it does not follow from this that every person who says that white people can suffer from racism also need to be challenged. To do so just leads to a situation where various injustices are competing with each other to demand our attention, with certain people claiming that only the genuinely ‘racist’ injustices should be tackled. We should reject this position, and to paraphrase Che, we should shake with indignation at EVERY injustice, not try to be clever about which ones deserve our attention and which ones don’t.

This problem finds it roots in the identity politics which currently infects most of the left. As with many modern feminists, the modern anti-racist movement has also lost any sense of class consciousness. This common problem between the two is most visible in the question of domestic labour, which is now largely understood in terms of “unpaid labour” and income for housework. Income is a matter of consumption; class is a question of production. Rarely do modern feminists or anti-racists struggle against the existing labour relations based on the hegemony of global capital. The few exceptions were the historical-materialist feminists and anti-racists of the 70’s and 80’s, who engaged the class consciousness of gender, race and sexuality. Unfortunately this work has largely been abandoned and cut off by the modern feminists and anti-racists due to the rise of identity politics amongst the left.

Racism, contrary to Foucauldian theory, is not simply a matter of asymmetrical power relations. Nor is gender, nor is sexuality. Racism (even understood as only racism-Φ) is not simply oppression, it is not simply the exercise of power by whites over blacks. There is a lot more going on here than simply white versus black. Power is the social and political manifestation of the ownership of the means of production. Clearly the means of production are overwhelmingly owned by whites, but it is a failure of logic to conclude from this that all white people are therefore part of the “global hegemony”. The vast majority of whites don’t own the means of production either. This gives the modern anti-racist a problem if they get this far: it appears that if they are intent on demanding the “power plus privilege” definition of racism be the only one permitted then they are going to have to accept that the vast majority of whites can not be racist, as they have neither the power nor the privilege that comes with ownership of the means of production.

At this stage they play what they believe to be their trump card. All dialogue, they claim, is created by the “global white hegemony” to protect itself, so by taking part in this dialogue all white people are in fact talking from a position of power and privilege as they are talking from the position of the white supremacists. Now I’m no stranger to the argument that the media and politicians use language in a certain way to protect the power of the ruling class, I made that very argument in a previous contribution to this site. However, in claiming that it’s not only the media and politicians but the population at large who take part in this sort of power preserving dialogue, the ‘white middle class-ness’ of these sorts is painfully apparent. Remember, the people I’m talking about here include EC members of the SSP and prominent members of RISE (Scotland’s Left Alliance). They are supposed to represent Scotland’s working class, but comments like these create the impression that they have never actually conversed with anyone from the lower classes. Our language in no way whatsoever resembles the language of the ruling class. If a Rupert Murdoch or Prince Charles were to find themselves in a housing estate in Glasgow or Inverclyde or Dundee they would find the locals totally incomprehensible. The language used by the working class has often evolved through conflict with the ruling class, not to protect it. The language of the working class is rooted in our working class communities, not in some hidden conspiracy to protect the capitalists. And this language which evolved independently and in conflict with the capital hegemony also includes the way many working class people use the term racism (i.e. racism-Ψ). Nothing could be more hegemony protecting than demanding we drop our working class usage of the language in favour of a usage supplied by first world white middle class university students.

Posted in Book Reviews, Political Philosophy

The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys

Below is a book review I wrote a few years ago, although I think the topic remains just as important now so decided to give it a share.

David Benatar; The Second Sexism: Discrimination Against Men and Boys. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell 2012

For many, the idea that men and boys are (or even could be) the victims of sexism appears entirely wrong-headed, even preposterous. This is perhaps understandable. The vast majority of discourse on the subject of sex discrimination has been from the feminist perspective, which has served to bring to the public consciousness the unfair practices, policies and social norms that have obstructed women’s right to equality with their male counterparts, and where necessary to implement remedial action. From a position within this social discourse, it becomes natural to view males as the privileged sex and females as merely the ‘second sex’ or under-privileged gender. The fact that males are actually unfairly treated due to their sex, then, has become a sort of invisible discrimination, the “Second Sexism”.

What is excellent about this book is that David Benatar provides both the evidence for the existence of this hidden sexism and also an account of why it has been overlooked and largely unnoticed. Further, this is first and foremost a work of philosophy, liberating the topic of sex discrimination from the ideologies of social scientists and gender studies. As a work of philosophy, time is taken to clearly define the concepts utilized and to carefully and rigorously examine these concepts. For example, Benatar draws a very clear and important distinction between disadvantages as a result of one’s sex on the one hand and wrongful discrimination based on one’s sex on the other (discrimination lies somewhere between the two, as some discrimination may in fact not be wrong).

It is worth noting at this point that this book is not an attack on feminism, in fact Benatar believes himself to be an advocate of a feminism based on equality between the sexes. Benatar points out at various stages throughout the book that he would expect feminists (or at least those feminists whose primary concern is equality, ‘egalitarian feminists’ in Benatar’s vocabulary) to agree with the arguments he puts forward. If this is an attack on anyone, it is only towards ‘partisan feminists’ that it should be seen to be directed; towards those whose sole priority is advancing the interests and protecting the rights of females only.

It is also important to note that this text is only designed to be relevant within “the West”, i.e. the English speaking world and most of the European Union. This is important as acknowledging this early on will help to head off an obvious objection to the idea of a second sexism. This objection would point to cultures such as Saudi Arabia or India as apparent evidence that men are indeed the privileged sex and women merely subservient. By restricting the debate to an account of largely liberal and ‘enlightened’ societies, examples such as the ‘rape culture’ in India that has become headline news recently, while still an important issue that needs addressing, is not relevant in the context of the “Second Sexism”.

The book itself consists of seven chapters, and each chapter deals with its own issues related to the book’s central theme. The first chapter serves as an introduction, and Benatar uses it to clarify much of the terminology that he will use throughout the book. As well as distinguishing between disadvantages, discrimination and wrongful discrimination, Benatar also uses this chapter to define exactly what he means by sexism. For Benatar, sexism is simply wrongful discrimination on the basis of sex. He immediately considers and rejects an objection to this definition. The objection being that many will argue that sexism must be ‘systematic’; it must “involve the domination of one sex by another”. The force of this objection is felt when we note that any existing discrimination against males does not satisfy this stricter definition, and therefore males cannot be the victims of a second sexism at all. Benatar successfully dismisses such an objection. On such a definition, we would have to conclude that most Western democracies are ‘post-sexist’, and this is a position that no-one, let alone those raising the objection, would be prepared to endorse. Regardless, what is important for Benatar is to establish that males suffer from wrongful discrimination. Whether or not society is universally prepared to accept that this is ‘sexism’ is not of central importance to this endeavour. For Benatar, this discrimination is worthy of moral opposition whether it is labelled as ‘sexism’ or not.

Benatar uses chapter two to consider a (fairly extensive) variety of ways in which males are disadvantaged as a result of their sex. Importantly this chapter does not discuss discrimination, although many of the disadvantages of being male that Benatar identifies here will resurface again and again throughout the book as we move from disadvantages to discrimination and finally to wrongful discrimination. Some themes that continually re-emerge are combat and conscription (historically it has been almost exclusively males who have been forced to fight in wars due to conscription), and violence (males are much more likely to be the victims of violence). Obviously not every male suffers each of the disadvantages that Benatar lists, but as he points out, not every female suffers each of the well-known disadvantages associated with being female. What is important in this chapter is that Benatar establishes that there are substantial disadvantages in various important ways that males can suffer from in virtue of being male.

In the relatively short chapter three Benatar examines possible causes of male disadvantage as well as beliefs about males that have contributed to these disadvantages. Although short, there is a lot of interesting philosophy going on in this chapter. For example, Benatar distinguishes between descriptive beliefs (beliefs about the way males are) and normative beliefs (beliefs about the way males should be). Although there is undoubted overlap between the two (descriptive beliefs are often cited in support of normative ones) the distinction is often ignored and people simply slide between the two. Benatar uses the belief that female life is more valuable than male life as an example here. The apparent difference in value comes about because where a man may father thousands of children (provided an adequate supply of females) women can only produce roughly one child per year or so. In this sense, a society requires more women than men to ensure its survival into the next generation. Although this may explain why male life is believed to be less valuable than female life, it is far from an explanation of why we should believe this. After all, given the make-up of today’s societies, and the relatively small number of soldiers used in combat compared to the past, it is clear that our society could survive intact even if we were to increase the number of females used in combat.

In chapter four, Benatar hopes to show that differences between the sexes (including beliefs about the sexes) do not justify discrimination, and so any such discrimination must be seen as wrongful discrimination. This is perhaps the key chapter in the book, as Benatar uses it to revisit each of the cases of disadvantages he identified in chapter two and to show why and to what extent they should be understood as examples of wrongful discrimination. For each example, Benatar takes the time to respond to many possible views and replies, including positions held by many reputable scholars and positions found within western ‘pop-culture’.

In chapter five, Benatar responds to objections raised against his argument, and to this extent he groups the objections into three kinds. The first kind he calls the “inversion argument” which is a tactic used by some opponents whereby discrimination against males is ‘inverted’ to look like discrimination against females. He uses many of the examples first discussed in chapter two to show how the inversion argument works in relation to each, and provides convincing replies each time. The second kind of objection is the “cost of dominance argument”, which claims that the supposed disadvantages of being male are in fact just the costs of being the dominant sex. One strategy that Benatar successfully uses here is to show that given the concepts in play, even if men are the dominant sex it does not follow that they cannot also be discriminated against. Finally he considers what he calls the “distraction argument” which is held by those who while they accept that males can be the victim of wrongful discrimination are opposed to drawing attention to this fact as they believe it takes attention away from the supposedly more serious issue of discrimination against women. Amongst Benatar’s replies here is the convincing argument that wrongful sex discrimination is wrong irrespective of the victim’s sex and as such merits our attention.

Chapter six is devoted to a discussion of affirmative action and its justification. It is important to understand that what is being discussed here is the justification of sex-based affirmative action only, and not affirmative action in general. Benatar does not believe that affirmative action for either sex is justified, as what should be promoted is equality between the sexes rather than the advancement of one particular sex.

The final chapter serves as a conclusion which Benatar uses to summarise his position and to consider some questions about related issues. Such issues include the question of whether or not feminism causes wrongful discrimination against males (it doesn’t although may make matters worse according to Benatar), and whether males are worse off than females with regards sexual discrimination (it doesn’t matter, wrongful discrimination is wrong regardless of comparative claims).

Overall this is a piece of work that is hard to find genuine fault with. Certainly it will not be the final definitive word on the subject, but neither was it intended to be. Whereas there are thousands of articles and books regarding discrimination against women, Benatar’s book is one of a very few pieces of work that treat seriously the issue of discrimination against men. With this in mind it would asking too much for Benatar to have provided an exhaustive discussion of wrongful discrimination against men. Rather, Benatar has succeeded in the more modest goal of showing that the second sexism is real and that it deserves far more attention than it currently receives.

Bearing in mind the number of examples that he utilises, it is also worth noting that Benatar is not always successful in the transition from disadvantages to wrongful discrimination (chapter four). This is most pronounced when we consider his treatment of the fact that males are the most likely to be the victims of violence. While statistically this is correct, Benatar fails to show that this statistical difference is linked to wrongful discrimination of men. There is no evidence, for example, that upon examining non-gender related violent crime (such as murder) we will find the victim’s sex to be a factor in determining who will become a victim. In fact, in cases of violent crime that are gender related (such as rape) we find that it is women and not men who are more likely to be the victims. Although there are a number of strategies that Benatar might employ to explain away the statistical problem (such as claiming a link between non-gender related violence and indirect rather than direct discrimination) it is worth pointing out that Benatar does not need to be successful in establishing wrongful discrimination in every example that he uses. It is enough for his purposes to show only that some of the disadvantages that males suffer from are a result of wrongful discrimination, and he is successful on this more modest understanding of his project.

Throughout the book Benatar manages to build a well crafted philosophically sophisticated argument. The philosophical tasks of honestly and accurately understanding and representing the issues at hand, even if this is politically inconvenient, are undertaken in such a way that any reasonable reader couldn’t fail to see the importance of Benatar’s conclusions. Benatar’s argument therefore deserves to have as wide a readership as the Simone de Beauvoir work that the title echoes.