Anti-blackface columnists lacked rational argument

These days, argument ad hominim is, unfortunately, how work gets done in the realm of debate. It’s been around forever, and our ability to disguise it with reason and rhetoric has outpaced our ability to recognize it. In order to work, ad homonims must not be recognized, for as soon as they are, they lose their force.

A textbook case comes in Joshua Cox and Sharifa Love’s editorial “White Yalies in blackface reveal racism on campus” (11/1). What makes this case so tragic is that the general message — that blackface is offensive — gets overshadowed by poorly constructed debate from the opposition.

The strategy of the article is simple (and effective, if you’d rather castrate your opponent then reason with him). Cox and Love seek to disqualify positions that differ from their own rather than engage them in logic. Instead of identifying counter-arguments to their position (answering charges that blackface is, in fact, inoffensive), they seek to show that anyone who holds a different view doesn’t count. After all, why would you listen to someone who is unqualified to speak on the matter?

We demonize our opponents by diagnosing some mental defect that prevents them from being completely rational. Often, we borrow medical terms, like “phobia.” Labeling someone as “phobic” paints them as being mentally diseased: xenophobia is like claustrophobia, homophobia like arachnophobia. If someone else’s opinion disgusts you, don’t treat it as an opinion at all, but as an illness. If it’s an opinion, they are entitled to it, but if it’s a disease, we can (in fact, we are morally obligated to) cure it.

The sneakier thing is to call your opponents ignorant. It is completely condescending to say, “well of course if you knew everything there was to know, you’d agree with me.” In this way, it seems as if you are giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt. His reasoning is invalid not because he suffers from impaired reasoning skills, but because his perfect reason operates on imperfect data. It seems kind, but it’s really “I’ll call you uneducated rather than stupid.” The effect is the same: Your views simply don’t count. The commonality of these cases is that rather than answering the argument, we simply dismiss our opponent as incapable of valid reasoning. The only difference is whether we look on that cognitive defect with scorn or pity.

With this in mind, Cox and Love’s article seems more devious. If you don’t agree with us, we’ll make you look uninformed, stupid, Pollyannaish or cognitively deficient in some other way. While the historical information may in fact alter someone’s opinion, to say that it must is to rob one of the ability to choose his own values (it is no longer about values at all, but cognitive defects). The fact that the authors give a taxonomy of ignorance is very telling. If you disagree with us, your particular mental defect can be scientifically categorized based on your knowledge and emotional disposition. Creating a systematic way of classifying error is yet another attempt to move the dialogue away from personal opinions and toward diagnosis, rendering any perspective different from Cox and Love’s as something to be cured, not something to be taken seriously.

The interesting thing is the third category of the taxonomy: purposeful ignorance. This includes people who commit offenses knowingly and deliberately. Ignorance has been emptied of its meaning (it’s important that Cox and Love avoid rigor at all costs) and only retains its stigmatizing emotional effect. The words they really mean instead of “ignorance” come later in the article: “tasteless” and “despicable.” These words reveal that this issue isn’t about cognitive defects (which the “ignorance” would entail if used properly), but about taste and individual values. In using these words, the facade of psychological objectivity slips away and the true meaning becomes clear: personal opinion.

It’s confusing why Cox and Love reverse their “diagnose-the-enemy” strategy in their last sentence. By saying “the divide between black and white” will remain until the opinions of the “majority” change to be “the same as the minority,” they contradict everything else they have said. It would be more coherent to say “until the majority has been cured.”

The most tragic part about all of this is that I agree with Cox and Love. I think blackface is offensive through and through. But calling things disgusting isn’t politically correct, so Cox and Love have to use the back door because they can’t get their opinion through the front. They disguise subjectivity by calling it scientific. I just wish they would be honest and direct with their true feelings, rather than pathologizing those who disagree with them.

Michael Wayne Harris is a junior in Branford College.

Comments

  • Anonymous

    I think the author makes an excellent point here in stating that whether something is offensive or not is largely a matter of opinion, and that any attempts to change someone's opinion about whether something is offensive or not should be done by logical argumentation and persuasion, not by qualifying the other person's opinion as baseless or ignorant.

    I guess what I would add to the discourse on this and other recent, and not so recent, "racial" incidents (not including the "nigger school" graffiti incident, which I think we'd all agree is quite clearly a malicious act of vandalism) is that perhaps not every single event, piece of writing, etc. should be scrutinized and treated with extraordinary seriousness. Halloween is a night, almost by definition, for exactly the opposite: silliness and no-hassle fun. It's a night when it is socially acceptable for girls to dress as skimpily as possible and inappropriate costumes abound just for the sake of having a laugh. Honestly, I feel bad that whoever was offended by the blackface costumes let such a frivolous thing ruin their night -- although my guess would be that they kept on drinking and partying and it wasn't until the day after that all this righteous indignation hit them. That's usually the way it goes.

    Finally, I'd just like to say that, just like if a teenager watches wrestling on TV and kills his little brother with a pile driver we should blame the stupid kid and his stupid parents, if someone sees a blackface costume and thinks that means it's ok to be racist we should blame stupid him and his stupid parents as well, not the people in the costumes. We shouldn't censor people's speech because some idiot might get the wrong message, we should censor the idiot if he does.

  • Anonymous

    In celebration of Halloween, some white students were dressed in blackface, mocking stereotypes of black people. If Harris thinks such actions are appropriate and that these students are not reprehensible, he is welcome say so. However, if he agrees with Josh Cox and Sharifa Love that these actions are unacceptable, then his attack on the structure of their argument is ridiculous and only serves to distract from the issue at hand. These two students expressed that the white students who were so dressed must have lacked historical understanding of the painful memories that they were evoking, acted in spite of understanding the implications because they cared not to exercise better judgment, or deliberately intended to cause offense. I think that they covered the possible explanations, as I certainly cannot think of any other reason a person would do something so blatantly racist. To dismiss the greater point of their original piece—that these actions directly contribute to the feeling of isolation and antagonism that black students experience at Yale—on the basis that their argument wasn’t a “rational” one is petty and stupid. Cox and Love were not writing their senior thesis assignments. They were sounding off on a very negative experience and hoping to spark a public discussion over how to remedy the situation. It will require courage as a community to recognize hurtful actions, humility on the part of offenders to apologize, and conviction as individuals to take steps to eradicate the bigotry that leads to these actions in the first place, but none of this will happen if we begin to pay more attention to how a plea is constructed than we do the substance and validity of the plea itself.

  • Anonymous

    Forgive me if I'm not convinced that, just because you "cannot think of any other reason a person would do something so blatantly racist", there can be no other options. Frankly, that seems terribly arrogant, and the assumption made by both you and others that you have complete knowledge of the intentions and thought process behind certain words or actions is precisely what deprives these arguments from the rational discussion that they may deserve.

    To state, even, that students wore blackface "[to mock] stereotypes of black people" is simply a guess on your part, and perhaps a rather narrow-minded one at that. While I hesitate to engage in the same arrogant 'I know what the discourse behind this was' game that I'm denouncing by offering my own list of other possible interpretations, I can think of the following example: if a student (black or white) had been wearing a Klan hood on Halloween, many would've immediately branded it a statement of racist hatred. But, isn't it possible that the student may have wanted to ridicule stereotypes of racist redneck white people? Improbable, maybe. In poor taste, definitely. But possible? Absolutely.

    As for the rest of your comment, I don't think Harris dismisses the greater point of the original article at all; how could you think that when he opens and closes his column by agreeing with its premise? It appears to me that he is simply attempting to elevate the discourse on these issues by steering it away from the path that you seem to be trying to lead it down with your comment: calling someone who disagrees, not even with the article's message, but with the way it is presented, "petty and stupid".

    I think this is a fundamental problem with the minority groups on campus (and I should know, because I am a latino who was involved in that community before graduating recently) is that they often treat the discussion over these issues as a zero-sum game in which they have to be right about everything, the 'offending party' has to be wrong about everything and anyone who may even partially disagree with the 'party line' is treated with disdain, their often valid points ignored and their support (such as it may be) disregarded -- the three things that it seems like you do to Harris above. Until we rid ourselves of that attitude and realize that, when it comes to determining the offensiveness or appropriateness of anything, nothing is absolute, our discourse on these issues is going to keep being as bad as it has been for the last few years.

    I applaud this column's author for trying to bring some subtlety into the discussion, and shame on those who would shout him down because there is little place for subtlety amongst angry mobs.

  • Anonymous

    In response to the second poster's last sentence, I think that was the point of Harris's column. He was saying that the argument wasn't valid because it tried to disguise subjectivitiy as objectivity. The substance of the article that the second poster would have us focus on is, according to Harris, opinion disguised as fact. As to why people dressing in blackface would do something blatantly racist, it's exactly that point which is up for debate: Was it racist or not? That, too, is a matter of opinion. This isn't to say that because it is an opinion it isn't valid, but it is to say that because it isn't an opinion, it isn't a fact. And to call names at people who don't share your opinions isn't the correct way to solve any problem.

    And also, do we really want to say that because they weren't writing their senior thesis, they don't have to be rational? I think the point of education is that any argument we make should be rational, whether it's 800 words (the aproximate length of a YDN editorial, according to their web site) or 25 pages.

  • Anonymous

    For the individual who posted the comments "Finally […] if someone sees a blackface costume and thinks that means it's ok to be racist we should blame stupid him and his stupid parents as well, not the people in the costumes. We shouldn't censor people's speech because some idiot might get the wrong message, we should censor the idiot if he does." Your argument added a lot more to the discussion before you added that rather incongruous metaphor and that rather incoherent last sentence. Next time, stick to clear language and elevated dialogue so that we know what you are saying, or just don't say anything at all and let someone else express it for you.

    Thanks.

  • Anonymous

    Frankly, I don't see what was so incoherent or incongruous about it; I'm sorry that you weren't able to understand it. My point was that, too often, people make the argument that we shouldn't make offensive jokes, wear offensive costumes, etc. because somebody might take away from that "example" that it's alright to think, say or do certain truly wrong or inappropriate things. And I think that, if and when that happens, we should blame the person who made the wrong and stupid assumptions and connections, instead of blaming the Herald cartoon or Rumpus article or Halloween costume or whatever it was that surely wasn't meant as a serious example of how people should think about or act towards minorities or, anything, really.

    I hope that's a little clearer for you, and rest assured I can speak for myself just fine.

  • Anonymous

    Do we know how the students were dressed, i.e., whom they were depicting? "Historical figures," as I recall: while perhaps not the optimal choice, is it now beyond the pale for a group of friends to dress as, say, the Supreme Court (to include Clarence Thomas), or perhaps Bruce and the E Steet Band?

    Which would be sillier: portraying Clarence with a white or a black face…

    Theater companies often suffer criticism for either casting blacks as blacks (e.g., Othello) or for NOT casting blacks as whites; why, then, is the reverse equally reprehensible?

    What if Martin Luther King Jr is my hero (secondary condition: that I am not black); am I, then, precluded from portraying him MERELY because my skin is the incorrect tone?

  • Anonymous

    Yes, much clearer and intelligible. I still disagree with you in that I worry that any statement, no matter how potentially hurtful or detrimental to the sense of community we share on campus or in life can be made as long as, ex post facto, the perpatrator can claim neutrality on the subject because his/her statement was made 'in jest'. Imagine a Halloween next year with all of the worst literal imagery and figures from our common histories marching around "heil Hitler"-ing in black face saying "oh isnt it funny how horrilbe these images are". It's so unneccessary to bring these images and references up in our costumes and if someone sees that gesture as intended to hurt, then that does not, by necessity make him/her "Stupid" - another word that you should leave out of your argument so that it's more salient and less middle school.

  • Anonymous

    "if a student (black or white) had been wearing a Klan hood on Halloween, many would've immediately branded it a statement of racist hatred. But, isn't it possible that the student may have wanted to ridicule stereotypes of racist redneck white people? Improbable, maybe. In poor taste, definitely. But possible? Absolutely." -- yeah, no. I'm sorry it would have been ridiculously offensive. Let's face it, people don't usually make deep political messages on Halloween and I'm guessing this student wouldn't (as I would assume the students in black face didn't) sit down and have a deep conversation about race relations in America.

    Additionally, many comments have said that the graffiti incident was obviously racism and of course everyone is offended by it, but somehow claim that black face is different -- why? I think the fact alone that most of the black community and many others are outraged is proof enough that it's not OK. I don't think people are asserting that those students are racist. They are simply trying to educate all of Yale that it IS racist. That it's not OK to do and that it's hurtful. It's Yale -- education is good.

  • Anonymous

    is it racist if black students wear whiteface costumes on halloween?

  • Anonymous

    First, if you'll read carefully, you'll realize that I did not call the people who would be offended by blackface, racist jokes, etc. stupid. I said that anyone who would take an, arguably, mostly harmless expression as an example and follow it up with truly incendiary words or actions is stupid.

    Second, I really don't see where I state that absolutely anything is fine as long as it's done "in jest"; I think there are probably certain lines that should not be crossed (although I'll admit that, personally, I believe it's alright to joke about anything, I understand that not everybody shares that view). I would think we could all agree, however, that more should be allowable in a stand-up routine than in the State of the Union address. And while it's true that (as you state) it's unnecessary for anyone to do anything remotely controversial or potentially offensive, is that really how far we want to go? I guess we can all dress like Teletubbies next Halloween and, even then, there will always be someone who is made uncomfortable by "the gay one", whichever that one supposedly is.

    Let me also point out that, from what I can gather and by the original columnists, Cox and Love's own admission, the blackface they saw during Halloween was not part of some "jigaboo" costume meant to imitate the old minstrel shows which portrayed black people as little more than animals. That, I would find much more offensive and reprehensible than what was, apparently, actually the case: "They sought to mimic various black figures and decided that in addition to their garments and props, painting their faces jet black was a great way to complete their costumes." Painting your face black because you're dressing up as OJ Simpson or Shaquille O'Neal or Nelson Mandela is, contextually, about as far from the historical "blackface" so associated with discrimination and racism and I think the distinction should be made. It was a Halloween costume! And, as the next poster stated: "people don't usually make deep political messages on Halloween".

    Speaking of that comment, I wasn't trying to say that a Klan costume would not be offensive, I was trying to say that the intended message behind it (if there was any at all!) could plausibly not be the one most people would infer from it. And, as far as "the fact alone that most of the black community and many others are outraged is proof enough" that something is not OK, I find that terribly unconvincing. As, I think, Harris would suggest, we should strive to all be outraged about something because it is offensive, not to consider something offensive because we're all outraged about it.

  • Anonymous

    yes

  • Anonymous

    It's really cool to read all these comments. They've been thoughtful and interesting, and I never thought that an article of mine would generate any comments (mostly because they get plain titles like "In search of profit, press self censors" instead of sexy ones like "U.S. Cannibalizes itself.")

    I hadn't planned on responding, but the last sentence of one of the comments got me thinking, and I hoped to clarify things I might not have (and I also don't want to compete for space with a letter to the editor). The comment was "As, I think, Harris would suggest, we should strive to all be outraged about something because it is offensive, not to consider something offensive because we're all outraged about it."

    One of the things that underlies my editorial (I didn't make it explicit) is that the category of "offensive" is neither an objective nor a stable category; it is necessairly a social construction that varies from interpretive community to interpretive community. In short, it's an opinion. Cox, Love and I all have the same opinion, but something doesn't stop being an opinion just because a lot of people agree with it. It follows that striving to be outraged at things because they are offensive is a fool's errand because, before we can get out of the door, somebody has to enforce his vision of what is offensive. Competition over who gets to decide what's offensive is a lot of what's been going on over the past few years. My memory only goes back as far as "Yellow Fever," but I’m sure it’s been going on longer.

    To respond to the comment, I think we should strive not to be outraged at all (an impossible task), or at least to the point where we can bracket our outrage. What I would really like to see (and those who have talked to me about the issue for 5 minutes get tired of hearing it) is that we should remove words like "offensive, bigoted, racist, ignorant, sexist, -phobic, etc" from our social discourse (even though I use "offensive" in my article to indicate that I share Cox and Love's opinion). Those who would tolerate me for 5 more minutes would know that I would also like to ban the words "rights, free speech, right to free speech, expression, free expression, Constitution, First Amendment, academic freedom, market place of ideas, exchange of ideas, liberalism, tolerance, etc" from discussions of these matters (as well as all references to John Stuart Mill, John Locke, John Rawls, and any other advocate of free speech except John Milton). It's not just that I've yet to see any of them used correctly, it's also that using words and ideas from the two lists I've mentioned simply doesn't help the situation.

    I'm a closet Dr. Phil fan, and on every show, after someone describes his problems and how he has tried to deal with them, Dr. Phil asks "How's it working for you?" (The answer is, invariably, that it isn't working; if it were working, they wouldn't go on the Dr. Phil show.) At Yale, all sides of the debate haven't really changed how they've been dealing with this issue in the past 2 1/2 years. Recent comments from Deans Salovey and George and from the News' Views indicate things aren't going to change any time soon (although, given their job titles, Deans Salovey and George had no choice but to say what they did).

    If all sides were honest with themselves, the answer to "How's it working for you?" must be "Not at all." And if what you're doing isn't working, why keep doing it?
    --
    Michae Wayne Harris

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