Tag Archives: Bigotry

On Racism and Linguistics

Richard Dawkins recently described the headline of an Independent article by Yasmin Alibhai Brown (“I like Corbyn, but let’s face it: we don’t need another white man at the head of a political party”) as “disgustingly racist & sexist.” Alibhai begins the article by sharing an anecdote about her assertion that “the politics of identity are as important as the politics of politics.” She then goes on to make a case for the rising importance of forwarding a minority candidate for the Labour party who can be a force for change in a time when the white male power structures are neglecting and marginalizing the value and importance of diversity. She points to the acknowledgement in American politics of the importance of race, religion, gender, class, etc., and then to the upturned noses of the British elite in the face of a similar demographic makeup:

The UK is the same but most of our deluded leaders – the majority of them white, middle-class men – push the myth of homogeneity and seem to think difference is inconsequential or a damned nuisance. They need to wake up.

The rest of the article discusses examples of how identity politics has influenced the UK and how things could move forward for the better.

Obviously the headline is intended to grab attention, and it was certainly successful in that regard. For Dr. Dawkins, though, it was “disgustingly racist & sexist” because it advocated for avoiding a candidate on the basis of his race and sex. For Dawkins, and for millions of angry white males around the Western world, racism and sexism refer generically to any and all prejudice based on race or sex. Little incites more rage and protest from this demographic than asserting these concepts have primarily to do with prejudices played out within structures of power and oppression, and when I pointed that out, Dawkins predictably appealed to the old “words have meanings” canard:

Setting aside the obviously brilliant tautology of “Duh, racism means racism,” “words have meanings” really means “I don’t understand linguistics, but feel very strongly about what this word can and can’t mean.” (In the interest of space, and because it was the way the discussion proceeded, this post will just address the usage of “racism.”) In subsequent responses to my concerns, he doubled down on his opposition to sound semantic principles:

Here Dawkins is using his celebrity and the authority over all disciplines that his degree in biology clearly affords him to enforce his understanding of the term “racism” over and against the conceptualization agreed upon and promoted by millions and millions of English-speaking people around the world. He demands this definition hold because it protects his position of privilege. If non-white women can be racist and sexist, then he has grounds for rejecting as “disgusting” a demand for minority candidates. Thus white candidates are not as threatened and the minorities are excoriated as racist and sexist troublemakers. Everything defaults to the white males already occupying the default power structures.

It serves the interests of these powerful groups to preclude oppressed minorities from objecting to their oppression on grounds of sex or race. If oppressed minorities are not permitted to single out the oppressing class for criticism because to do so is to discriminate on the grounds of race and/or sex, the oppressed classes can never fight back. We’ve actually found a way to keep oppressed classes in their place by framing their fight against oppression as an expression of the very tool of oppression we used against them in the first place!

So the definition Dawkins pushes is a tool of oppression wielded by powerful groups to maintain their positions of privilege. To confirm this, one need only look at the race and sex of the numerous defenders of Dawkins’ position that rushed to his side. They are overwhelmingly white males, and a disproportionate number of them are #GamerGate kids. In short, Dawkins is engaging in identity politics, even as he denigrates an article about the importance of identity politics for engaging in identity politics.

But what about that definition? All the white males who criticized me for daring to challenge Dawkins’ linguistic acumen immediately cited “The Dictionary” as defining “racism” as prejudice based on race. The Dictionary defines it as generic racial prejudice. Boom. QED. I pointed out that dictionaries do not adjudicate meaning but just try to describe it, and in response I got a lot of creative ways to say, “Nu-uh!” Dictionaries arrive at these descriptions by analyzing usage and trying to isolate the smallest possible set of conceptual features manifested in that usage that sets the concept apart. This is methodologically problematic not only because it presupposes underlying conceptual substructures govern usage (they don’t), but also because it is chasing after meaning, not establishing, governing, or adjudicating it. Appealing to a dictionary to prove what words do and don’t mean is middle school-level rhetoric. Words mean whatever people use and understand them to mean. Dictionaries follow behind trying to figure out what’s going on.

Now, Dawkins knows race is a social construct, but the relevance of that fact to this issue entirely escapes him. If race is a social construct, racism can only be a product of the same. Since that construct is governed by a society’s powerful groups and serves their interests, the entire concept of race is itself an agent of those power structures. Irish people were considered a different race in a period of American history, but through the acquisition and exercise of social power, particularly in relation to blacks, they became “white” and are no longer distinguished from other whites by our society’s conceptualization of race. Race itself, as a concept, structures power. Any prejudices based on that social construct are operating within that structured power; it is either aimed upstream or down. So when Dawkins says “some sociologists . . . have to have an additional polarity of ‘oppression’ & ‘privilege,'” he’s betraying his ignorance of how race and racism function. It is simply impossible to “keep these meanings separate,” and to insist that we do so makes use of that power structure while demanding everyone ignore it. It’s staring at the Wizard while he shrieks at you to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. It’s rank and unthinking racism, and it’s a devastating indictment of Dawkins’ humanity and intelligence.

So why insist racial prejudice aimed downstream is “racism” and is just “racial prejudice” when it’s aimed upstream? Because the former has vastly more destructive and harmful effects when it is aimed from a position of power toward a position of less power than when it is aimed the other way. Compare the way Dawkins’ followers brutalized Alibhai on Twitter (to the degree that Dawkins had to try to stem the tide) to the way Dawkins condescendingly scoffed at criticism. Who’s exercising a disproportionate amount of social power? The acknowledgement of that difference in effect has existed throughout the history of the usage of the word. All early usage occurs in the context of privilege and social power (for instance, see first known usage here). I challenged every one of Dawkins’ followers to show me an example of “racism” being used to refer to prejudice aimed from an oppressed class at an oppressing class prior to the last few decades. No one ever even acknowledged the challenge. Why was it necessary to coin the term “reverse racism” following the Civil Rights Movement to refer to putative racism on the part of minorities if “racism” didn’t always fundamentally refer to prejudice based on systemic power? Crickets.

To suggest our use of “racism” is not allowed to acknowledge the difference of those effects is simply to ignore them, and that’s precisely what Dawkins is doing. If racism does not refer to power and oppression, power and oppression are never discussed, and that’s just what white males would prefer. Dawkins wants all the negative rhetorical baggage that comes along with a powerful word like “racism,” but he doesn’t want the reasons for that baggage, since it undermines his use of it. It doesn’t adequately vilify and undermine and marginalize Alibhai to say she’s being “racially prejudiced.” No, he needs the full force of the word “racist,” but he refuses to accept the full semantic load of its usage. I responded with this tweet:

Obviously Dawkins couldn’t respond. He is interested precisely in reifying and legitimizing those structures, since they serve his interests. He’s not concerned with social responsibility, he’s concerned for maintaining his position of privilege and the structures in place that preserve it. He also doesn’t understand the concepts. All he can do is leverage his celebrity and privilege against the arguments of less privileged people like Alibhai and count on his enormous army of white male bootlickers to rush to his defense. Until he learns to check that privilege and take responsibility for the effect it has, his ignorant bigotry is going to continue to be called out while he expresses shock and outrage that anyone dare challenge his whiteness social and intellectual authority over everyone.

Advertisements

Richard Dawkins Needs to Check His Privilege

Dr. Richard Dawkins recently linked to an article about a woman at a UK university who challenged the UUK (Universities UK) regarding guidelines allowing for voluntary gender segregation during certain kinds of gatherings. Fair enough, but a Muslim woman replied to his tweet with the following:

Many people have expressed the same concern with a very, very wealthy and influential white male telling minorities how they’re supposed to feel about their worldviews and religious community, and one of Dawkins’ sycophants (the white male to whom Salya was responding) decided to make it worse:

In other words, unless her position on the matter matches that of these two white males, yes, Salya absolutely does need to be told how to feel about Islam. Salya returned the volley:

To which Dr. Dawkins replied with his characteristically naive rhetoric:

What Dr. Dawkins apparently doesn’t know is that racism and sexism are about power and oppression, not about judgments and insults. When Salya says you cannot be racist to a white person, or sexist to a male, what she’s saying is that those comments cannot reflect or reify oppression. Salya’s words can never oppress Richard Dawkins, but Richard Dawkins’ words can absolutely oppress Salya, particularly when he insists that the right to represent Muslim women belongs in the hands of white atheist males. Just look at how many of his 879,500 Twitter followers came out of the woodwork to rhetorically brutalize her. Who has more social leverage in this situation? Who needs to be aware of the effects of that leverage? This is made all the more ironic by the fact that it’s just that power and oppression against which Dr. Dawkins ostensibly fights. That he’s willing to leverage his white male privilege directly against the perspective and integrity of one of those for whom he pretends to advocate in the interest of defending the inerrancy of his own broad characterization of Islam shows his interests lie not in the people, but in his own opinion. His conceptualization of Islam is the priority, not that of actual Muslims, and certainly not that of a Muslim woman, who evidently needs to be told how she’s supposed to feel about her religion by these white males, who—in their etic and antagonistic perspective—know better.

I’m not trying to step in and protect Salya. She’s capable of doing that herself, and she knows much more about this than I do. Dr. Dawkins, however, appears to know as little about racism and sexism as he does about the sociology and psychology of religion, and I suggest he learn to check his privilege.


Another Update to “Religious Bigotry in a University Classroom?”

For the background to this story, see here and an update here. To bring everyone up to speed, just a couple of weeks ago Paul Derengowski decided to post an update regarding his situation to a blog dedicated to “Defending Christianity from Mormon Doctrine.” By way of summary, Paul is trying to sue those he considers responsible for forcing him to resign from his post at Tarrant County Community College, but all his efforts to find legal representation have been unsuccessful. I think it’s clear enough why that is.


More Religious Bigotry

James White recently brought up an event he describes as indicative of bigotry against Christians. He states:

The anti-Christian left cares nothing about truth, or freedom of dialogue, or thought. It cares only that you agree and follow. Today’s example. This one hits home with me, as my daughter faced similar anti-Christian cowardly bigotry in her community college.

That link takes you to an article about a 15-year-old high school student who was “threatened with suspension and called ignorant by the superintendent of the Shawano School District,” according to the student’s attorney. Basically, the student was invited to write an editorial taking the “con” side of a pro/con piece about allowing homosexual partners to adopt. As a result of the editorial, he was summoned to the superintendent’s office and apparently berated for “hours,” with the super ultimately threatening suspension and calling the student “one of the most ignorant kids.” Read through the article for a more detailed account of the events. This struck me as a bit of an overreaction, since the paper came up with the topic and invited the submission. However, the article links to the editorial itself (here), and it is remarkably disturbing. Besides the fact that it appeals exclusively to religious fundamentalism and misrepresentations of the science and sociology of homosexuality, it states the following:

In a Christian society, allowing homosexual couples to adopt is an abomination. Leviticus 18:22 clearly states “You shall not lie with a male as one lies with a female; it is an abomination.” God made man and woman with the intention of them getting married to each other and having children. As Christians, same-sex partnership is against many Christian beliefs so why would it be okay for them to adopt children? Through Moses, God says in Leviticus 20:13 “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads.” God also says homosexuality is a perversion not a life choice. In today’s world, many Christian people generally base their values and beliefs on the Bible, and using that guideline, homosexuality is wrong, which leads us to the conclusion that homosexuals adopting is wrong because a child should not be raised in a sinful environment.

I’m going to ignore the fallacy and the ignorance of the majority of this paragraph and focus on the bolded portion. This paragraph is about how Christian base their ideas about proper society on the Bible, and in it this student quotes a scripture that advocates for the execution of homosexuals! He didn’t have to include the entire verse (there’s a sentence break), but he did. For some reason, he thought that it was necessary to specify that God himself, through Moses, calls for the execution of homosexuals. This is just horrific, and the superintendent’s reaction is much more understandable to me now.

The article fails to highlight this portion of the editorial, but I wonder how James White would feel if his daughter came home from her community college and said their paper ran an editorial in which a Muslim student wrote that a Muslim society follows the Quran, quoting a verse they understood to mean infidels should be executed. Would he say anyone who got upset “cares nothing about truth, or freedom of dialogue, or thought,” or would he be incensed? Would he call it “anti-Muslim cowardly bigotry” for the administration to threaten suspension, or would he demand it? I think the answers to these questions are obvious, and I think the student’s appeal to a biblical text legislating the execution of homosexuals is far more bigoted than the response of the superintendent. White has absolutely no room to complain.


Update on “Religious Bigotry in a University Classroom?”

A little over two years ago I published a post sharing comments made by an adjunct professor at Tarrant County Community College (Paul Derengowski) regarding his final exam for his World Religions class. He was highlighting something a student wrote in response to one of the questions. Here are that teacher’s comments:

As part of the Final Exam in World Religions I have all the students answer two short essay questions at the very end. 1. What did you enjoy most about the class? 2. What lesson did you learn that made, or will make, the greatest impact on your life?

One of my student wrote in answer to the second question:

Going to visit the Mormons taught me that there are many counterfeits out there to beware of and they all sound very good to try and draw you in or change your own philosophy. Trust in your faith and don’t be trusting of that in the world that has been derived from man alone.

Please note that all my students are required to visit two religions outside their comfort zone, and it is purely up to them where they go. They write a five-page paper on the experiences, and then get up in class and briefly discuss their findings. It is one aspect of the class that the students repeatedly tell me how much they appreciate and enjoy.

The student’s comments above are priceless. Why? Because she made the visit to the local Mormon meeting house on her own, long before we ever discussed Mormonism as a religion in class. In her words the Mormon church is (1) a counterfeit, and (2) a worldly religion derived from man alone. I couldn’t agree more.

The neat thing about teaching World Religions is not the pay, the long hours of preparation and study, but the lives that are changed for the better when I read comments like those above. They “get it” in a postmodern world of relativism, narcissism, and nihilism, all of which Mormonism espouses at different levels of thought. And because they “get it,” they won’t end up in a cult like Mormonism. Thank God for that!!

Btw, the jury came back with a unanimous decision that Mormonism was not an accurate representation of Christianity, and that after I placed the only Mormon in the class on the side attempting to prove that it was. Unfortunately, after the trial was over, the Mormon quit coming to class (not that she had a stellar attendance record anyway), and she’ll end up failing, sorry to say.

Several people in the field commented that this was entirely and completely inappropriate. I  shared in the comments section some responses from the teacher and a year later shared another post related to his bigotry.

It  has now come to my attention that Paul Derengowski recently resigned from his position at Tarrant County Community College as a direct result of his bigoted approach to teaching. Apparently two Muslim students who had had enough (one of whom commented on my blog) repeatedly interrupted his class during a lecture and one made threatening remarks that made Paul and several students quite uncomfortable. Both students left the class a couple minutes early. Paul filed a report with campus police, and several students also filed grievances. In the end, however, the students don’t appear to have suffered any disciplinary actions. One of them sent an email around linking to a bunch of Paul’s comments about Islam, Mormonism, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses elsewhere on the internet, and the admin didn’t appreciate what they found there. You will find many different versions of the story from many different angles if you google the keywords of the story (often describing Paul as a victim of “Sharia Law”). A news report is here. Another report is here. Paul has posted a long letter on his own blog explaining his side of the story and his resignation. Read through it if you have the stomach, but note he suggests in one place that all mosques should be under 24-hour government surveillance and all Muslims should be profiled and immediately deported or executed for any crimes whatsoever, including spitting on the sidewalk (what if they were born in the US?). This is the tone that accompanies Paul wherever he goes. It simply defies logic that he does not consider himself bigoted in the least (although he defines a bigot only as someone who has dogmatically made up their mind without looking at the data).

Now, as far as I’m concerned, the actions of the students were completely and totally inappropriate, and the one who made the threat, if it did happen, should have been disciplined. There’s simply no call or excuse for continued interruptions or threats toward teachers or students. I disapprove of those actions unilaterally. They should have gone to an administrator. Having said that, Paul says they should have come to him with Quran in hand to prove to him he’s wrong. That illustrates how useless it would be to try to approach him directly about his teaching style or to at all reason with him. An outburst of some kind from students was inevitable. It appears the school did not take the action Paul wanted because it was made aware of Paul’s phenomenally bigoted approach to teaching about religions. They cancelled a class he was going to teach while they were investigating the matter and he felt they didn’t want him around anymore, so he resigned. He’s still angry and feels having his syllabus and approach left alone for three years indicates his syllabus and approach were perfectly legitimate, but that’s obviously because they just didn’t vet him very well or look at his syllabus. That’s the school’s fault, although they’ll probably shuffle the blame around.

I leave you with Paul’s parting words to the school administration:

To the TCC administration—Barbara Coan, Josue Munoz, and Rusty Fox—who mishandled this case terribly, what a disappointment you have been.  You all were given the opportunity to serve God, but chose to serve mammon instead.  And by choosing to protect your bellies, you jeopardized, and will continue to jeopardize, every other student and employee associated with TCC.  In fact, the precedent you set by failing to act appropriately in quashing this terroristic act of jihad by these two Muslim students may cost someone his/her life someday.  God forbid if that happens.  Nevertheless, if it does, you won’t have to look far to see the bloodletting, because it will already be on your hands.  But, then again, maybe it will be your head they will want next, so it won’t matter then, just like it doesn’t matter to you now.  You will have your reward and so will they.