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Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Dissenting from Black Lives Matter

I enjoyed Sam Harris's recent conversation about racism police violence  with Glen Loury, a prominent black centrist/conservative whom I associate with the perspective of John McWhorter of Columbia.

They dissent from Black Lives Matter in eloquent and compelling ways, though as often happens, I was frustrated with the limits of Harris's rhetoric and introspection.

But Loury's rhetorical rigor and fairness are a revelation. He truly practices the "steel man" rule of articulating your opponents' case as well as you can.

So while I don't agree with most of what the conversants conclude, their articulation of the perspective of their political opponents is impressive and rare.

One of the aspects that frustrated me was Sam Harris insisting that (paraphrase) "people have to understand that these cops are not trained well in deescalation and how to use guns responsibly", as if that's not one of the main complaints BLM makes.

True, BLM does not admonish people to comply with police, and I think that is a valid criticism. But that decision comes rationally from the nature of their critique. They are not focused on short term harm minimization that might make a marginal difference to the level of violence that black people face, they are focused on demanding fundamental changes in the escalatory violence that often comes with impunity and is the police's default.

This is the story of critique that Harris would be happy to make, were it his cohort bringing the challenge. He is happy to focus with passion and reflection on anecdotal cases when it comes to jihadist violence, and rightly so. But the cases where police seem more ready to attack or kill a black person than to talk to them get only the quickest passing mention by Harris on the way to finding statistics to suggest holes in the BLM perspective.

I do agree that BLM and the left are making a huge mistake in not giving more attention to violence by black people, both as a meaningful danger to black lives in and of itself, and add a contributor to police violence. Certainly the single biggest change that would reduce police violence against black people would be for black people to stop committing violent crimes. When Ta-Nehisi Coates and others are presented with that type of argument, I find that they do not challenge its accuracy, but instead challenge the motives behind it and the validity of saying it. That is a rhetorical combo that I always consider intellectually flimsy, unfair and counter to understanding. I believe BLM is weaker for its inability to bring that fact to bear within its broader critique.

But returning to Harris, I also think it's intellectually flimsy to be as certain as Harris is all the time. He breezes by his "granted..." concessions, but it never occurs to him to actually focus legitimately on something like racism or police violence in and of itself... it's always only in service of dismissing criticisms of his racial, gender, political and economic cohort.

The fact that Harris always concludes that his cohort is being wrongfully criticized should raise a skepticism that he is arguing pragmatically in search of his prior beliefs, and not so much from first principles, like he thinks he is.

Harris so frequently lauds the winners for their moral superiority. He sees a sort of civilizational meritocracy, and I don't entirely disagree. But there's also a strong element of being born on third base and thinking you've hit a triple--but also, third base is on top of a mountain of used up people whose pain you consider either unavoidable or too far in the (recent) past to be worth doing anything about.

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