Why We are Throwing a Tantrum  

 

Imagine I asked you whether you like Coke or Pepsi more. You have 8 months to decide. Then during those 8 months, I launched a successful campaign branding Coke as the “racist soda.” I convinced millions of people that Coke stands for racism and misogyny. When it comes to decision day, it doesn’t matter if you like Coke more. It doesn’t matter that your preference for Coke is purely based on taste and that it’s absurd to think Coke has anything to do with racism (it’s a freaking soda!). All that matters is that I succeeded in rebranding it as racist. “Coke” is no longer an option; your choices are between Pepsi and Racism. Yes, it’s not fair that I took this tactic, but all that matters is that I succeeded in convincing enough people of it. You must now vote for Pepsi.

Likewise, liberals succeeded in creating the “myth of Trump” (although Trump’s rhetoric easily lends itself to this strategy). If you vote for Trump, you yourself are a racist, whether you actually are a racist or not. All conservatives succeeded in doing was brand Clinton as corrupt. If I vote for Clinton, I may be stupid for supporting a corrupt person, but I myself am not corrupt. This is what made this election different. Before we voted for people and we argued about personal flaws. In 2012, conservatives posted their Facebook rants on how Obama’s policies will harm the nation, and in 2004, liberals complained that Bush would keep us in an unjust war. But it stopped at their policies. We only disputed things on the margin; whether this policy tweak or that small change was better. This election however, has not been driven by much policy considerations. The issues were not marginal and technical. We were fighting over what we want the nation to represent. We voted for symbols and ideas, not people and policies.

And this is why we are throwing a tantrum. I couldn’t care less if Trump is president. If Trump won back when he campaigned as a Democrat, I’m sure him winning wouldn’t be as surreal. Looking at his goals for his first 100 days, his policies are mainstream conservative (in strict policy, I think Cruz would do a much worst job). What matters is how Trump was elected. He spouted racism and sexism, and he still won. I can accept that many of his supporters aren’t more racist than the rest of us, and therefore supported Trump for reasons other than his bigotry, but the fact that they are willing to accept a little racism to fix the economy does make them racist. It’s a reminiscence of European fascism – conservatives who promised a strong economy and even a welfare state if you promised to look the other way in their bigotry. I can’t help but to recall Hannah Arendt: “in order not to overestimate the importance of the propaganda lies, one should recall the much more numerous instances in which Hitler was completely sincere and brutally unequivocal in the definition of the movement’s true aims, but they were simply not acknowledged by a public unprepared for such consistency.” Sounds like, “Trump won’t actually do what he said. Don’t worry.” The reason Trump voters are racist is not because of what they are willing to do, but because of what they are willing to accept in order to achieve what they want. One may defend them, saying I misunderstand how much they suffer. Well, the German hyperinflation surely constituted worse suffering than many in the American working class deal with today, and yet when we look back, we don’t think the German bargain was justified. An American genocide is unlikely, but racism is racism is racism.

The premise we operate on is that symbolism matters. When you elect a president surrounded by racist symbolism, then that will matter. If you say racist thing, I will assume you are capable of racist actions; there’s no such thing as “just talk.” The election revealed that America had an apolitical bigot base that the mainstream was unaware of; as Arendt wrote, “they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” And it turned out that PC culture worked in holding off the tide. Racists were afraid to be publicly so, as it would risk their careers and open them to social judgement. They were so afraid that they lied on anonymous polls to such a degree that we mispredicted the results by huge margins (called the social desirability bias by social scientists). But there’s no greater signal that it’s ok to be openly racist again than a president who is perceived to be racist (all that matters is that he is perceived to be, not that he actually is). Trump’s ascension lowers the social costs of racism, and even if only 10% of his followers are fundamentally racist, that’s still a lot of Americans. We protest because we want to signal that the social calculation has not changed; it is still not acceptable for bigots to be bigots, and we want them to know they will be punished if they do so. If we reject Trump’s legitimacy, then that means not even their president can help them if they resort to bigotry. We also want to signal that America has not rejected minorities. We want to emphasize that the nation is divided, and there is a large group of people willing to fight for minority rights. There is a large group of people who do not think racist words don’t matter if they aren’t backed by concrete actions, and that many of us value human rights so much that we are willing to accept a cost to ourselves to uphold it.

The economist Arnold Kling predicts: “I also think that those progressives who are predicting that the election will have dire consequences for women, gays, and people of color are making a tactical error. They are setting a very low bar for Mr. Trump and the Republicans. When four years from now we still have civil rights laws in place, mostly-legal abortion, and widely-legal gay marriage, these putative victim communities will be wondering what all the fuss was about.”

I’d rather look back to that world than one in which racism prevailed while we did nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

Zen Policy: America, the Philippines, and Singapore

Although satisfying, scolding and shaming people into proper behavior is certainly a futile policymaking strategy. It’s merely an escapist illusion from our powerlessness in the policy process; individuals cannot easily enact large infrastructural projects or sweeping social change, but we can tell our neighbors that they are at fault for our national grievances. This form of rhetoric – the “personal responsibility model” (PRM) of politics – reared its head in the wake of the Great Recession. From the Left, we are told that the crisis could have been avoided if bankers followed their fiduciary responsibility, while the Right says the problems came from ordinary people irresponsibly borrowing beyond their means. They should have known better. Even many of those who are more sophisticated in their postmortem find ways to bring personal responsibility into it. They blame Christopher Cox’s lax attitude towards enforcement during his time at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ben Bernanke’s poor decisions as head of the Federal Reserve, and of course Obama. In the Philippines, I hear this argument from those frustrated by their environment. They blame Manila’s infamous traffic on “discipline” rather than urban planning, which implicitly draws a false equivalency between their country and the West in everything except culture. Even Benigno Aquino, a national hero and leader, said, “they profess love of country, but love themselves – individually – more.” In Europe, the sovereign debt crisis brought cultural critiques. Many economists and politicians argued that the problems stemmed from the incompatibility between southern European culture and the northern supranational institutions governing it. When Greece became bankrupt, it was the Greeks fault for spending more than they could. ‘Why can’t they be more like the Germans,’ they asked? ‘The Greeks are irresponsible. The Spanish are lazy. The Italians are chaotic.’

Alan Watts once said that to be “Zen” is to help people without them realizing you had helped them. It’s a philosophy that applies to politics as much as personal conduct. This contrasts with PRM, which grandiosely demands people be accountable for their mistakes even though they were just following incentives like the rest of us. The American public for instance, is frustrated that the recession saw few Wall Street executives jailed. However, the most surreal realization of the crisis is that it was mainly created through legal means; few people were jailed because few people did anything illegal. They merely followed the structural incentives presented to them by the system. By criticizing them rather than the system itself, the public signals that self-regulation is a valid policy tool. Talk about moral hazard. I am not willing to rest my fate on the kindness of strangers, and I see no value in looking for blame in individuals.

We ought to be “Zen” in the sense that we manipulate policies in order to control how people behave, instead of relying on the public’s moral adherence through their own will. This needn’t take the form of direct government intrusion, but involve subtle adjustments to incentives so that people are more likely to behave in ways beneficial for society – as Richard Thaler called it, “Libertarian Paternalism.” An often-mentioned example of this is making “organ donor” the default choice, but allowing people to switch if they so choose. It turns out most people do not really care whether they are donors or not, so making it the default increases the donor population. In fact, in opt-in countries (like the US), only 15% of the population are organ donors, but in opt-out countries, 90% of the population are donors. If these countries followed the PRM, then they might have just unsuccessfully ran ad campaigns with pictures of dying children waiting for new organs.

The implicit theory of PRM is that culture is conscious and free-floating. However, a materialist would argue that all culture precedes from economic realities and formal structures. If we want to change “deviant” cultural practices, we ought to address these underlying realities rather than shame people into compliance. This approach however, is difficult because it requires the creativity and ingenuity to see the relationships between seemingly unconnected features of life. Take the Philippines. It has been 70 years since its independence from America and over 100 years from Spain, but colonial norms still dictate its direction. In Filipino politics, corruption and patronage are rampant. The system is plagued by political dynasties to such an extent that Filipinos are willing to elect the same people that they had revolted against. The current mayor of Manila is Joseph Estrada, who had been ousted as president during the EDSA II revolution. He also finished second in the 2010 presidential race. And “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is a former senator and was second in the recent vice presidential election. Despite their histories, these people are able to remain in public office because of their name and regional allegiance. In explaining this, many Filipinos follow PRM by blaming their fellow countrymen for their ignorant electoral choices and politicians for their disregard of the public good. But if we take a structural approach, we can see how subtle incentives promote this state of affairs.

Like other developing nations, the Philippines still grapples with its colonial history. Unlike the British, the Spanish Empire was very hands-off. They opted to rule their colonies with indigenous proxies through the Catholic Church or selected officials. In the Philippines, the Spanish appointed Filipinos to be tax-collectors. Being in a privileged position within the colonial bureaucracy, these appointees consolidated power and became the landed-gentry, the ilustrados. When America took over after the Spanish-American War, they continued using the ilustrados as bureaucrats, further increasing their power. The Americans also transferred land from the Catholic Church to the ilustrados in the Philippine Organic Act of 1902. Japanese occupation followed a similar structure. When the Philippines gained independence after the war, they had a chance to reorganize power. Since the Japanese had used the ilustrados, there was legal grounds to prosecute these elites as national traitors. However, in the interests of national healing, newly-elected resident Manuel Roxas absolved them. Thus, the road was paved for these colonial elites to form modern political dynasties. If Filipinos are looking for someone to blame, they ought to point towards their colonial oppressors rather than themselves. But of course, blaming Spain, America, and Japan is much less personal than blaming themselves, so many opt for the latter. The relationship between modern problems and colonial histories is much too complex to be intuitively satisfying. But it is by recognizing these relationships, even if they are frustratingly complex and hidden, that public policy can be used most effectively.

As a model against PRM, we can look to Singapore. The nation’s “father,” Lee Kuan Yew, was a great practitioner of Zen policy in that he focused on structures and incentives to control the way his people behaved. As a multicultural nation, Singapore experience race riots early in its history. Lee Kuan Yew however, realized that people were less likely to spread mayhem if they risked their own property. Through government subsidies, he increased home ownership, which consequentially mitigated the damages of race riots. It became too risky to riot; your property may be damaged. The link between housing policy and racial tension is obscure, but in finding the connection, Lee Kuan Yew addressed the problem much more effectively than scolding the public would. Singapore also has one of the least corrupt governments in the world. To achieve this, Lee Kuan Yew changed the incentives of officials so that corruption would be less attractive. He understood corruption to be cultural, saying Asians “openly accept it as a part of their culture.” But rather than attacking the culture itself, he attacked the factors that created it. The government placed low caps on campaign finances so that officials would not be incentivized to solicit kickbacks in preparation for the next election, and civil servants were given salaries that rivaled corporate executives so that they would not need to seek alternative sources of wealth.

Furthermore, Lee Kuan Yew wanted to distinguish Singapore from the rest of the Third World in its cleanliness. One of the ways he did this was through a tree-planting program. If the environment people live in appears clean and ordered, then their behavior will reflect that. Singapore does have strict pollution laws, but I am unconvinced that it makes much of a difference. Many other countries have harsh laws for civil violations, but it does little to curb the deviant behavior. And anecdotally, urban parks in Southeast Asia appear to be much cleaner than the rest of the city.

Policymakers ought to take Zen policy more seriously. We like to believe we make choices from our own accords, but the evidence is strong that our environment dictates what we do. Recognizing this offers a more efficient and effective way to conduct policy. It may receive criticisms as overambitious social engineering, but PRM is much more ambitious in this respect. How can we expect to change the behavior of a national population simply from blame? We should work with the tools nature has provided, which are human responses to incentives. I suppose the case could be made that shame is a disincentive; no one likes to be blamed, so the social exile that comes from widespread shame will discourage bad behavior. I think history has proven this not to be effective. It is also unreliable to expect society to consistently distribute blame in a socially beneficial way. More effectively, we should work to change incentives.

My Thoughts on UChicago

My alma mater, the University of Chicago, is under fire for the controversial welcome letter it sent the Class of 2020. The most damning passage is: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from the ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

My initial impression is that nobody knows what anybody is talking about. Phrases like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are too vague for pedagogy, and no one is attempting to formalize them. More importantly, the phrases are imbued with political meanings that transcend their literal meanings, and so when one speaks of “trigger warnings,” there is often an implied charge that may have little to do with actual trigger warnings.

Those that support trigger warnings make the simple argument that these warnings already exist in everyday life, and so it is natural to extend them to traumatizing events like rape and racism. The argument is intuitively appealing to me; I am willing to accept rape is as traumatizing as the war horrors that underpin PTSD. But the problem I face is one of social cost. I suppose there are three types of people we are dealing with:

  1. Those who knowingly exaggerate the effects of triggers
  2. Those who perceive triggers as more essentialist than they are, and are therefore “curable” with tough love
  3. Those who sincerely experience trauma with triggers to a level that may rival death

I believe all three categories exist, but I am unsure what proportion they make up of trigger warning claimants. Intuitively, I think (2) represents the majority of claimants, as I would expect more public breakdowns if (3) were the majority and I don’t think the world is wicked enough to have a significant number of (1). So the question is how large must (3) be to justify the use of trigger warnings. Does the benefit of helping (3) outweigh the costs? It’s not like we warn PTSD victims of potential triggers (if you are thinking of movie ratings, that’s meant for children not PTSD victims. It’s only by coincidence that it’s a trigger warning).Although in fairness, I imagine many forms of trauma, like rape, is significantly more common that PTSD.

Activists may argue two things: that the effort of putting a simple label is so negligible that the mere existence of (3) justifies trigger warnings and that the traumatized do not seek to inhibit the freedom of the privileged, but only to make their world a little bit more bearable. I think these arguments ignore the social cost of enabling (1) and (2). If we create trigger warnings for (3), then we are allowing (1) to free ride society and reneging on our moral duty to drag (2) out of the cave. Although such costs do not necessitate that we sacrifice (3), it does mean that the actions activists demand are not consequential only to the traumatized. But I’m not prepared to solve this value calculation.

Another problem is that there are different ways trigger warnings are understood. In my experience, they are generally taken in two ways:

  • A) Warnings that allow traumatized people to prepare for triggering materials
  • B) Warnings that allow traumatized people the opportunity to avoid triggering materials

If we suppose (A), I think the activists are correct; surely the cost of informing people about what lies ahead is negligible, and since everyone is still forced to confront the issue, we avoid enabling (1) and (2). But if we suppose (B), then I vehemently oppose the activists. The value of truth accepts psychological trauma.

A similar divergence is found in safe spaces. If by “safe space,” we mean

  • C) A place where the traumatized may retreat to after a day of stress,

Then it is reasonable to provide such spaces. But if we mean

  • D) A place where people can avoid the harshness of life,

Then I do not believe they should be created. The latter is an argument I hear in the form of, “it is not my duty to teach others. I am not a warrior. I just want to relax.” Although I accept it is tremendously unfair that minorities and the traumatized must contend with racism and bigotry on a daily basis, it is their moral duty to “teach others” and to be warriors. All of us have a moral duty to teach the ignorant, and as Kant would say, we cannot let our empathy cloud us of that duty.

A criticism I expect against me is that (B) and (D) are strawmen. For instance, the historian Kevin Gannon wrote on Twitter, “Safe spaces are NOT some sort of hermetically-sealed place where students can ask to go and hide forever from ‘scary stuff…’ Rather, safe spaces are an environment where students can go sometime, if needed, to be with others who share their experiences.” He thinks that portraying the activists’ demands as (B) and (D) are caricatures. Well, I can only speak to my experiences, but I have heard some crazy arguments from SJWs. My favorite of these is a Johns Hopkins Feminist member telling me that using reason and logic is a tool of the Patriarchy. Perhaps they only represent a vocal minority in a mostly rational movement, but I do not think they are as minor as Gannon thinks. There are so many instances of universities cancelling speakers for being too controversial. Is Gannon to have me believe that the protesters only meant this to be temporary, and that the speaker would be allowed back later? Let me know when that happens.

But the important question is, what did the University of Chicago mean when they used these vague terms? I believe they were referring to (B)-type trigger warnings and (D)-style safe spaces. It is clear in their language, prior actions, and advocacy for academic integrity. For instance, the university continues alerting people of nuts in their food, so clearly they do not literally oppose all trigger warnings. And the university has a program that is called “Safe Space,” with a mission to foster “an inclusive environment that challenges oppression and provides support for LGBTQ students.” So clearly, the administration doesn’t literally oppose safe spaces. Furthermore, the research is clear that those who are comfortable are better participants of the market of ideas, so why would the university advocate stressing them in the name of academic freedom? Is it because the University of Chicago, a major research institution, failed to notice the academic research that established this?

Rather, the letter is a political opposition to a certain style of activism. It opposes the (B)-style methods people use to avoid uncomfortable truths. Rhetorically, such is the function of using quotations around “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” – to signal that it is a specific approach that the university opposes. The quotations also sarcastically challenges the vagueness, and therefore corruptibility, of these tools. For instance, what exactly constitutes a “safe space?” Can a space truly be free from judgement and trauma as to be safe?

So safe spaces are political tools for certain groups, who frame it in a way to attain legitimacy. It is understandable why these groups need and deserve these spaces, but what the university won’t tolerate is for these spaces to be excuses. The danger is that these malleable spaces will be redefined whenever it serves an ideology, or that trigger warnings will be reshaped whenever the need arises. The history of the Red Scare and similar hysterias underpin the fear. One may argue that certain things are so self-evidently wrong that protection from it is warranted, that comparing it to historical mistakes like censuring communists or abolitionists is a false equivalency. But how do we know that? It is often useful to clearly state an extreme position to illustrate a point, and this is one of those times: we should never be so sure that the Holocaust is immoral as to not give it the opportunity to be advocated for in a public space. We must always allow the possibility – no matter how insignificant and infinitesimally quantum that may be – for slavery to return. We must never say “never again” when we have a market of ideas. Fiat veritas et pereat mundus.

The charge the University of Chicago makes is for truth. It is their view that truth is so sacred and important that the chance of trauma is an acceptable cost. Reading between the lines, I do not believe the university thinks allowing the traumatized to suffer is conducive to ideas. Reading between the lines, I think the university is clear in opposing permanent escapism. One may temporarily retreat from their demons, but one must eventually confront them. While a strictly-defined set of trigger warnings and safe spaces do not hinder the eventual goal to attain truth, the popular political use of these tools in a carefree way does. It is the latter, not the former, that the university opposes. Of course, it would have been nice if they rigorously explained this, but I guess it wasn’t rhetorically-appealing to include a philosophy thesis in a welcome letter.

 

TLDR: Trigger warnings that let one prepare for a traumatizing lesson and safe spaces that allow respite are good. Trigger warnings that allow one to avoid a traumatizing lesson and safe spaces that allow permanent shelter are not. It’s ambiguous which style most activists desire, but I believe they want the former. It’s ambiguous which style the university meant, but I believe they meant the latter.

 

 

At What Cost Did We Triumph?

There you have it. Brexit has won. Trump is the nominee. And in the rest of the world, from the triumph of the soon-to-be-dictator Duterte in the Philippines to the stunning success of right-wing European parties, outsiders are challenging expectations. To the supporters of these unconventional outcomes, the political narrative is one of corrupt interests, globalist control, and useless democracy. Their sentiments however, are more emotional than ideological, which manifests as a strategy of taking extreme positions in order to dismantle the political machine at any cost. Take Sanders supporters. It appears as if their energy comes from die-hard progressivism, but in a survey conduct by the American National Election Studies, Sanders supporters are less likely to support a minimum wage increase, an expansion of health care, and an increase in social benefits than those “moderate” Clinton supporters. Doesn’t seem so unlikely that Trump will draw in Sandernistas now, huh?

However, it seems to me that their success only serves to undermine their motivating rhetoric. If the world was truly as rigged as they believe, then how could the underdogs claim such victories? In their effort to dismantle vested interests, populists have confirmed that the powers-that-be aren’t as powerful as they thought, and if any good can be gained from their choices, it’s that democracy is more-or-less functioning as it should. Of course, one could make the argument that it took a devoted cause – nay, a political revolution – for the people’s will to be expressed. More likely however, the people are merely realizing that in order to have their desires expressed, one must actually care. One cannot sit at home expecting that politics will play out in her favor, then call foul and fraud when it doesn’t. One must actually take the reins in her own hands, make demands, and most importantly, vote.

Forging a movement with political energy does not constitute a drastic effort by the oppressed to reclaim their nation. Rather, such was intended to be a daily experience of a functioning civic society in a stable democracy. If the devil’s greatest trick was to convince humanity that he doesn’t exist, then the political puppeteer’s greatest trick was to convince the people that she does exist. From there, people conclude that no matter what they do, they will be undermined by corporations, lobbyists, and Hilary Clinton, and so the prophecy inadvertently fulfills itself. But as recent history shows, the people are more powerful than the myth foretold. However, I am unsure if its any better knowing that democracy is functioning when living in a society of once-apathetic racists and bigots.

Can Islam be Feminist?

 

“Their Lord responded to them: ‘I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female – you are equal to one another’” [3:195]

Progressives are crippled by a fear of Islamophobia. We recognize the historical dangers of moral absolutism, and so we are wary to criticize outsiders. But this fear can blind us to the reality of ideologies and forces us to take for granted the ability to criticize without hate. I do not believe Islam is that incompatible with the West, and as a materialist, I’m obligated to say that there is no Clash of Civilizations, a mere byproduct of colonial rationalizations that caste the East as monolithic and the West as dynamically diverse. None of this however, precludes me from criticizing aspects of Islam, and one of these criticisms is against the attempts of liberal Muslims to frame their beliefs as feminist.

Feminists Muslims argue Islam has been misunderstood by the West, and that its perceived patriarchal nature is due to erroneous interpretations upheld by global sexism, a force that affects the West as much as the Islamic World. I agree with this to some extent. For instance, it is clear that the hijab is a pre-Islamic convention forced on women by Arab traditionalists, not divine decree. In fact, before the institutionalization of patriarchal Islam, Muslim women enjoyed progressive freedoms, including participation in warfare, wealth accumulation, and sexual freedom (relative to the West at the time). Feminist Muslims are correct in saying that the Quran is an interpretable text that needs to be placed in a social context, rather than read literally; it may be the literal word of God, but God speaks in poetry as much as He lays down commands.

Progressive Muslims however, don’t fully understand Western modernity (by which I mean, the norms of the Enlightenment). When we call for gender equality, we implicitly desire an egalitarian society. Muslims deviate in their definition of equality, which they treat broadly. Specifically, Islam primarily calls for equality in worth, while the West requires equality in rights.

Let’s consider three forms of feminism:

Liberal Feminism: Gender is a social construct, but biological sex isn’t. As such, we can continue categorizing humans dichotomously as a general rule, although we should acknowledge that there are small deviations (i.e. intersex). Practically, men and women differ in physiological ways that affect their psychological and physical beings, but beyond those natural differences, all sexes should be given the same opportunities.

Postmodernist Feminism: Gender and biological sex are social constructs. Instead, humanity is organized as a spectrum that we shouldn’t force into neat categories. Just as we don’t classify humans by their belly button type since we don’t think the differences are important, so too we shouldn’t classify them by sex. For instance, we should not say that “women are able to give birth,” but simply that “some humans are able to give birth,” since the latter does not cast barren “women” as anomalies. This approach relies strongly on language.

Islamic Feminism: Both gender and sex exists, and they are tied together. This means that men should live in a particular social realm that women cannot enter, and men possess certain rights only available to them. Likewise, women also live in a unique realm. This however, does not mean that they are unequal. Since God loves both genders equally, they both have equal spiritual worth. As an analogy, compare the Canadian dollar to the US dollar; both are relatively equal in worth, yet each can only be used in their own countries.

Admittedly Postmodern Feminism isn’t a mainstream position in the West, but I do believe that’s where Liberal Feminism is headed. Even if it isn’t, Islamic Feminism is still very distinct from liberalism. The barrier that Islam is unable to cross is its semi-naturalistic worldview – that things are the way it is just because it is, because God says so. God may be a poet, but there is a limit to His symbolism. As such, it is misleading when progressives tell us that Islam is actually feminist. What they actually mean is that Islam doesn’t have to be as sexist as it is, but by Western standards, Islam is necessarily sexist. This is because no matter how far left Islam is pushed, its worldview will always require two distinct realms. This is something that modernity cannot accept, as it calls for equal worth, opportunities, and outcomes.

There is a caveat however. While Islam is innately sexist when compared to Western modernity, it is not exclusively so. The racism of the Clash of Civilizations argument is that it ignores how many ideologies within the West exhibit the same norms we criticize in Islam – in other words, how many native ideologies are themselves not “Western.” For instance, like Islam, it would be difficult to find Christian clerics who will accept Liberal Feminism. Despite this, many lay Christians are able to rationalize their Christian identity with their Feminist one, sometimes in contradiction. Why are we so reluctant to believe that Muslims can too?

 

Is It a Big Deal If the Paris Attack Gets More Coverage?

There is a distinction between “sadness” and “shock.” Most people have been assuming “sadness” is the motive for the international community’s condolences towards the victims of the recent string of global tragedies, since few other emotional responses seem reasonable. The obvious political implication from this narrative is that only Western lives matter. However, what if shock were the motivation for the world’s responses? Does that still mean there is a double standard?

Consider an analogous situation in your life. Would you expect your friends and family’s response to you being attacked in your own house compared to on a high-crime street late at night to be similar? For myself, being attacked in my own house would be more noteworthy, since I expect my home to be much safer than the dangerous street. This doesn’t mean that my life is valued differently in each situation, and I presume my friends and family would feel equally sad no matter where I am attacked. But surely an attack in my home would garner a greater reaction. This is because “shock” is determined by the violation of an expectation, not by valuations of the tragedy’s magnitude. Although it is unfair, Europe is meant to be a safer and more stable place, so an attack comes at a greater shock. Let us compare France with Lebanon for instance: Wikipedia lists 59 attacks in Lebanon since 2004 to France’s 13. In saying this, I do not mean to compare suffering, but only to illustrate expectations. This theory would also predict that an attack in Japan, where violent crimes are largely non-existent and radicalized demographics are uncommon, would receive wider coverage than France.

When unstable regions are attacked, we understand the tragedy, but we only see it as a representation of an existing trend of violence that we expect to continue. However, when the West is attacked, we are disturbed that such events could even occur. The West sees extremism as something we have already defeated, a remnant of weak governance that our strong democracies have overcome. Even the rest of the world shares a similar view, in which they look to Western political structures and stability as models for theirs. The shock of a Western attack is surprising to all. Does this mean that we are saddened more by destruction in the West? I don’t think so. We can still show equal sympathy to all sufferers.

One may make the argument that the loss of human lives is such an atrocity that all instances of it should be received with the same level of outrage. I find this unrealistic, as the psychological strength of desensitization is too strong for us to will away.

But the West is not completely off the hook. The disparity in coverage also reveals things about the underlying structures of the international system and West. First, it reveals our pessimism. In order to be outraged, we must first be able to conceive of an alternative. But the neglect of Beirut and Iraq underscores the belief that nothing could have been done, that the Middle East is destined for violence, and that only the West has control over history. To shield ourselves from the guilt of this perception, we retreat from the global world so that the daily suffering of others do not faze us. And it is only when this shield is breached, such as through a terrorist attack, that we are forced to confront the world. Even those outraged exhibited this bias; if they were truly as conscientious as they claim, then we would have seen social media bombarded by images of Beirut before Paris. Yet, not even my international or Arab friends did so. Instead, it takes an offensive against the powers that be to motivate cosmopolitanism.

Next, it shows how little the international system is based on rational design and institutions. Perhaps in a more self-conscious world, the same precautions and effort taken in the North would be applied to the South, but the international system has faith that it could rise to the occasion without much institutional force. The problem isn’t in our ideas however, but our institutions. The actions of many would have you believe that cultural shifts are what make or break the world, and that somehow we can end global oppression through heavy introspection. If we want to change the world though, then we must think materially. We must ask what policies and incentives make Beirut expected and Paris shocking, not what ideas do so. International forums for discussions and soft power are not sufficient. Put more bluntly, sovereignty makes us complacent to our allies, and internationalism – the belief that equal, but separate nations can create utopia through cooperation – is innately flawed.

Finally, the disparity in coverage further confirms the West’s dominance. Counterterrorism has not always been a science, and for the longest time, it was governed through intuition. But 9/11 was the beginning of a new regime. Since then, the War on Terror became an innate feature of the world order, in the same way poverty or climate change is. That is to say, terror is not something we think we can realistically defeat, but only manage. So, through the backing of the US, counterterrorism became technical and precise. This showed that only the great powers of the West can fundamentally change the system and realign every single other nation’s goals. This is necessarily frustrating for most. Here lies the motivation of China, Russia, and the developing world: greed for sure, but frustration that they cannot control their own destiny as well.

How to Intellectualize the Yale Protests

Progressives are having a difficult time justifying the Yale protests, as well as similar events such as the Black Lives Matter interruption of Bernie Sanders and the Baltimore Uprising. These “social justice warrior (SJW)” movements often lack overarching consistency and intelligible discourse, and so it is difficult to academically rationalize them. The consequence of this difficulty appears to be a split in the Left’s support. However, I think the Yale protests represent two mutual forces in progressive politics: identity politics and emotional suffrage.

The Yale moment provides damning evidence for the follies of identity politics. Such politics have been a staple of American liberals since the formation of the New Left in the 60s, to the dismay of Marxian Old Leftists. Identity politics fails because it assumes a static world of categories, and thus doesn’t attempt to liberate people from their identities. It refuses to acknowledge how identities have been shaped by capitalism’s elites, rather than being innate features of the human condition. As such, identity politics aims to elevate different groups to the level of their oppressors, ultimately establishing a world of inward-looking and alienated groups that shield themselves from any traces of discourse, criticism, and civility. Marxists and humanists however, see identity as arbitrary, constructed, and thus, irrelevant. Although they will passionately engage with the emancipation efforts of various perceived groups, these struggles are only on the sidelines. Materialist concerns – class, poverty, and even the concrete goal to attain full citizenship for Africa-Americans – remain central. To Marx, labor is the source of value for everything, and identity politics violates this by placing value on what one is perceived to be rather than what one actually does. While white males dominate the world, the oppressive framework is not the “white male power structure.” To socialists, oppression comes from the capitalist power structure, through which racism, sexism, bigotry, and yes, identity, arises. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that issues such as racism and sexism are secondary to economics, but that these forms of oppression are themselves forms of class struggles. Therefore, we shouldn’t compartmentalize various kinds of oppressions, but treat them as part of a cohesive unjust system. The difficulties of identity however, are not completely lost to the New Left, and so they fill the void with intersectionality theory. But, I believe we will soon realize that the problems of identity will not go away just because we further specify them.

Yale’s protests illustrate these problems in major ways. First, the protests demonstrate the twisted bargaining incentives of a politics based on identity. An identity group primarily cares for itself, and so it makes radical claims that best attain its narrow goals. The ends is to equalize groups, and the means to get there is not important. The consequence is that these groups can make inconsistent demands. For instance, Yale’s protesters demand administrative policing of student costumes since it aids their goals to end a racist culture, but simultaneously oppose actual policing as oppressive. Granted, police brutality has been harmful, but you would think that a community well-experienced with violations of civil liberties would be hesitant to extend the reaches of another official body into daily lives; as one Yale instructor noted, it is odd that the protesters at Yale decided to project their anger at administrators rather than at the racist fraternity itself. But such is not the case, because when administrators enforce political correctness, it becomes the will of the SJWs – the in-group – that are forced. This is not to say that bullying and oppression is protected under the guise of “free expression,” and thus free from official control, but that not all offensive acts should be considered bullying. And while cultural change requires top-down management, we must be careful not violate our right, although surely immoral, to be racist (in my opinion, Yale’s original email represents a valid approach to official management, while the extra provisions the protesters call for do not).

Second, the Yale protests show how identity politics highlights in-group/out-group distinctions. To SJWs, Leftist critiques no longer exists; all that remains is an “us vs. them” mentality. If you are not an ally, which is to say a non-judgmental and silent partner, then you are the enemy. Consider the video of Nicholas Christakis, which shows how he personally sympathizes with the views of the protesters; like them, he considers cultural appropriation immoral. Likewise, his wife’s email only sought to question the authority of the administration, not to challenge the obvious bigotry of racist costumes. I would imagine both of them share similar views, if not methods, with most progressives. However, since they do not adhere 100% to the beliefs of the protesters, they are cast as conservative bigots. But not even Marxism should gets a pass from emphasizing in-group identity, and when French Marxists began to do so, Marx declared, “I am not a Marxist.”

In some ways, identity politics wants everyone to be their mother: compassionate and irrationally supportive, tirelessly working to create a safe home. However, socialists see their comrades as siblings: on their side, but willing to kick their butts if they are being stupid. Leftism ought not to adopt the symbol of mothering “safe spaces” or the language of “solidarity” and “allies,” because such tactics presumes that our support of movements is only in name. In reality, at least to socialists, fighting oppression always helps us, no matter where that fight is held. There are no such things as allies. Only soldiers. To quote the aboriginal activist Lilla Watson, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

That being said, I do not think we should dismiss Yale’s SJWs. These movements are emotionally-charged, which you should know if you saw the confrontational Yale footage. As such, they represent a justified symptom of a corrupt system. They are irrational and emotional reactions to an oppressive environment, and they should be approached with sympathy, not intellectualization. It is akin to how one ought not to punch someone who insults her dying mother since it would lead to escalation, but it is still understandable if one does. Or I’m sure many of you have dealt with a frustrated friend, in which even though both you and your friend knew you were right, you still found it prudent not to bring it up.

Perhaps the emotional explanation not only underlies the SJW movements of the past few years, but of identity politics as a whole. After all, the 60s was characterized by a disillusioned Left vis-à-vis Stalinism. It appeared that the “rational” method for emancipation that socialism promised has turned into oppressive authoritarianism. Therefore, if intellectual progressivism doesn’t work, then fuck it, let’s yell and scream since that is all we have left. But while the reaction of marginalized groups are not only justified, but expected, they do not offer a practical way to achieve freedom. We would be wise to remember that ending oppression is not the only goal, because equally important is how we do it.