“DWB: Debating While Black” Response

A new form of systemic racism has been discovered. Thanks to the brilliant detective work of Hansy D. Piou, an op-ed writer over at The Harvard Crimson, we now know that minorities have yet another mountain of inequality to climb.

Piou published a piece entitled “DWB: Debating While Black”, in which she articulates her concerns over the unfairness of the “rules of debate”. Her basic concern is this; us white people, in an attempt to keep minorities and women out of intellectual discussion, have developed informal rules that one must follow if they are to engage in legitimate discourse. This includes shunning the use of ad hominem (attacking the speaker instead of the argument) and argument from authority (declaring that your opinion is worth more because of your experience). The academic insistence that anecdotal evidence is inferior to objective arguments, to Piou, exists to weaken the arguments of minorities and maintain systems of oppression.

Piou believes that because “an argument’s strength is evaluated independent of its speaker”, she can’t use her “identity” for “good rhetorical fodder”, and this is not fair. Us whites have arbitrarily constructed “an ideal debate” within our minds, one which focuses upon “presenting the most objective evidence the most strongly”. But this insistence upon objective evidence is oppressive and racist, because it takes away Piou’s ability to just tell stories about her experience and win hearts instead of minds.

Now, I’m really glad this article exists. It spells out the actual position of the social justice camp that I had believed existed for some time. The refusal of SJW’s to engage in the “ideal debate”, as Piou puts it, has been perhaps the most frustrating thing I’ve encountered within that group, with refusal to accept evidence coming in close behind. If you ever watch a debate about feminism, or affirmative action, or black lives matter, you will notice a startling difference in manner and style between the two debate participants. One is objective and speaks in the third person, the other uses anecdotal evidence and rhetoric almost exclusively.

And the anecdotal evidence used by SJW’s doesn’t even have to be genuine, first hand experience. They just feel its okay to pretend that they themselves have experienced the oppression they are speaking about, even when they have never had those experiences! Piou actually opens up about the debate this causes within her conscious. She has “never been the direct target of racist speech or violence”, yet feels it’s okay for her to tell stories about her “racist encounters” because it makes good rhetoric in a debate. She admits it makes her “feel a little disingenuous”, but that won’t stop her from stereotyping herself for the sake of debate.

The problems with this sort of thinking is difficult to unpack, if only because there are so many. Let’s start with her implicit assumption here; it’s okay for you to attribute mindsets, experiences and attitudes to people solely on the basis of their skin. Piou is black, so she’s allowed to act like she’s been through the stuff some black people have gone through.

Obviously, this is an incredibly consequential idea, as the sinkhole it opens is inherently insatiable. If its okay to assume some things about black people, what is okay and what’s not okay? So it’s okay to assume that they’ve been harassed by police, but is it okay to assume that don’t have a great education, or that they’ve been involved in the drug business, or that they’ve been racially rejected at interviews? Doesn’t Piou seem like she is actually encouraging racism? She seems to think it’s fine to treat people of a group differently just because of the stereotypes about that group. She refers to MLK Jr in her article, but it’s obvious that his famous ‘judge a man by his character’ mantra didn’t quite sink in with her.

For someone who knows the latin phrase “argumenta ad auctoritatem et ad hominem”, Piou really doesn’t know much about history. If the onus is on me to defend the “rules of debate”, than I’ll just go back to the beginning.

The Socratic method, a dialectical method of discussion designed to find flaws and underlining assumptions is popularized by Plato. This method is important because it aims to a) make sure arguments can withstand criticism, b) discover the more important axiomatic presuppositions supporting such claims, and c) allow us to exercise our logic and reason in the pursuit of the truth. This is a method of dialogue that would shun both of the methods of debate Piou is trying to defend (ad hominem and ad auctoritatem), and yes, it was designed by old white men, but it was created so that our most reliable cognitive systems can be exploited in pursuit of the truth.

The assumption here is that the truth is something which lies beyond our mere intuitions, and we can access it dialectically. Since the days of Socrates, and renewed with a fervour during the enlightenment, consistency, scrutiny, and coherency have been respected elements of an argument. Only if your argument survives careful, honest, relentless dialectic then the truth is to be discovered.

And just to be clear, this insistence upon the system of dialectical thinking is not racist. Piou objects to this statement because stripping arguments of their subjectivity takes away her ability to make up a story about meeting a racist person at the supermarket, thus adding rhetorical weight to whatever argument she’s presenting. But if stripping subjectivity away from the pursuit of objective truth is racist, then what is the scientific method?

The scientific method is founded upon the dialectic model, just with a couple tweaks and modifications. The fundamental claim of science is that our experience is not enough to determine the truth, so we develop processes of assumptions, evidence, and peer review that filters out anything which is not coherent or factually accurate. No one is willing to claim that science is unjust, or racist, just because it’s strict methodology gets rid of personal experience. But apparently when the same insistence upon a dialectical method is applied to political discourse it’s racist.


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