Imagine if… (On the reaction against celebrating the minorities)

Preliminary remarks

In the next paragraphs, I hope to provide a plausible and non-polemic argument against a polemic claim about a sensitive subject. I start exposing the provocative comment that elicited the reflection. Then, after refraining from my first reaction, I try to take it seriously and provide a non-polemic line of answer that should be commonsensical enough to persuade, including those who would make this type of commentary.

The context is a video-reportage about the lifestyle of a professional skateboarder. At some point, he shows the books he is reading. There were many books about black histories, including one about the history of black-American easy riders.

The comments section had a couple of dissatisfied comments (not the majority, of course). Their general gist was on the lines of “imagine how people would react if he was showing off his books about white people and the things white people accomplished”.

The polite but outraged answers from the channel that posted the video reflected my first reaction: “No place for ignorance and racism here”. Nevertheless, after the first impulse, I forced myself to try to understand the comments more charitably, that is, without assuming that they are (consciously) racist beforehand. The exercise proved to be useful also for me. The effort to pinpoint the problems in this type of comment gave me a clearer understanding of the matter. Once I understood it more clearly, I tried to provide an answer that the authors of such type of comment should accept (if they abandon their defensive sarcasm). Without further self-analysis, here is what I came up with.

Non-polemical claims

Anyone should agree that

(a) In the books about easy riders tout court, that is, in the books that adopt an unmarked1 approach to the subculture of easy riders, most of the featured characters will be white characters. This is an empirically verifiable claim. One can just go to their preferred library or online repository of books and make a quick research. It is also generalizable to many subjects and minorities, but not all, of course.

It is also easy to agree that

(b) There is no problem with these unmarked books, not only with the ones concerning easy riders but any other subject as well. There would be a problem only if

© In these books there were claims suggesting that the described accomplishments provide evidence for the superiority of the portrayed characters race.

I believe that these are non-polemical claims. Both the people who make comments like the ones paraphrased above and those who feel offended by them would accept them.

The reply

I believe that the claims above suffice to solve the disagreement described in the preliminary remarks. Anyone who takes (a) into consideration can understand why it is justifiable to have books that make the conscious choice of restricting its subject to the role played by characters that are part of some minority. Once this justification is accepted, it becomes clear that these books will be just as unproblematic as those described in (b).

More importantly, the distinction helps us grasp the underlying ambiguity guiding the type of comment described above. The commentaries equivocate between (b) and © in a very selective way. Equivocation means that they use (b) in one part of their argument and © in another as if they were the same thing. Here is how I read it.

Making the argument explicit

Their argument could be reconstructed as:

(i) People think that books about black accomplishments are OK.

(ii) People think that books about white accomplishments are not-OK.2

Hence,

(iii.a) Either the author of these comments has the right to think that books about white accomplishments are OK

or

(iii.b) the author of these comments has the right to think that books about black accomplishments are not-OK.

If OK and not-OK were contradictories, that is, if one was the direct negation of the other, the argument would work. However, I believe that by OK we would mean something like (b). On the other hand, not-OK requires a much stronger condition such as claiming the superiority of a group of people based on their race as seen in ©. Thus, since they are not perfect opposites, the argument does not work. The negation of one does not imply the affirmation of the other. Now, we are ready to spot the equivocation.

Those who make the comments above are thinking of books about white people as in (b), which is OK. And they are not wrong, since most of the books in the editorial marked are like that. On the other hand, when they see people showing books that are focused on a minority, they imply that these books are doing something closer to ©, and that is why they think they have the right to think that this should not be OK. However, they are wrong since most books in the editorial market are not like ©. By using one sense in one premise and the other in another they commit a fallacy of equivocation.

Conclusion

A final point might be necessary. There is, of course, a historically justifiable asymmetry in the situation. Imagine someone explicitly labeled a book on the white history of whatever subject. Given the historical fact that Western societies were explicitly racist for most of their history, such an attitude is offending while the reverse is not. This guides the first reaction of those who get angry against the type of commentary paraphrased above. However, I believe it is worth understanding the confusion of those who made the commentaries in the way described above. In this way, one will be able to better grasp their own position, and that of the others as well. Hopefully, this better understanding will allow the authors of this type of commentary to recognize their mistake and the others to engage with them more constructively.

1 Of course, unmarked means only not explicitly marked. One could claim that there is a biased selection of non-minority characters. Nevertheless, this is not necessary and adding it would make the claim cease to be non-polemical.

2 I use OK and not-OK to use the less loaded terms possible. One can substitute OK with empowering and not-OK with racist, but this would only cause more confusion.

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