Avoidable Perceptions of Bias
I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses the teaching of philosophy, and every once in a while someone says something that I really want to comment on, but it would move enough away from the conversation and be very long and just feel out of place. I found myself writing a very long comment this morning about something that I think should be preserved, but I ended up not posting it to that conversation, because it’s really off point and probably wouldn’t be appropriate to pick out one side comment and turn it into a lengthy issue. But I think what I have to say about it is worth posting, so here it is.
The conversation was about a student who engaged in inappropriate behavior in class to support (but not actually defend) his view that morality is connected with religion. He actually stood up and looked around at the class to assert his view, as if he could win people over by the sheer force of saying it. One of the commenters pointed out that movies like God Is Not Dead probably fuel perceptions of a liberal and secular bias in philosophy classes, and to someone who has seen that movie and has no familiarity with philosophy they might think philosophy classes are actually like that and see this kind of behavior as an appropriate response. (Hint: philosophy classes are usually nothing like what that movie portrays, and this kind of behavior is totally inappropriate in a philosophy class.)
Someone else came along and mentioned a case where her insistence on using proper terminology led to a student’s parents accusing her of inappropriate bias in her teaching. That’s unfortunate when that happens, and I actually think in the case these parents were pushing back against they were wrong. But the case started from something preventable that I think would predictably lead to that perception in a lot of people.
Implicit Bias, Fear of Hoodies, and the Hypocrisy of the Political Commentariat
Several politically right commentators have criticized Hillary Clinton's recent remarks about implicit bias, charging her with expressing her own bigotry in the process. See, for example, the Federalist and the Weekly Standard. A quick Google search turns up several others. When I first saw this, I thought it was a big of a lapse, given how quickly the right turned to the defense of Juan Williams when he was fired by NPR for basically saying the same sort of thing about people dressed in Muslim garb in airports. (See similar Google search for him.)
Williams admitted to an unconscious bias at airports when he sees people who he expects to be the more common demographic to be terrorists. He expressed some regret about this, clearly indicating that he thought something was unfortunate about being that way, but he said it's sort of understandable how people end up being fearful in that way. He was fired from NPR for being a bigot.
Clinton comes along and describes the implicit bias many white people have against young black men in hoodies. She says it's honest, open-minded, well-meaning people who have this fear, which is certainly true. That's what makes it implicit bias. It happens even among those who don't want it to, who oppose racism with every moral fiber they have. In context, it's clear that she's saying this is something that needs to change. She's not saying this is a good thing. But these critics latch on to it to insist that she must feel this fear herself, as if that somehow would make her hypocritical and a complete bigot worthy of condemnation (in a way that Williams apparently was not, at least the way many of the right acted at the time).
The point of both Williams and Clinton is that this is something unfortunate that our psychological makeup leads us to do, and it's something that ideally we should seek to change, but it's nonetheless part of how we experience race in this country. There's bad there, and there's something normal about it. Both are true. There might be slightly different nuances between the two cases, but I find it hard to believe that there's enough difference between the two cases to justify such radically different treatment. (And I'd be shocked not to find the mirror image of the right's treatment as the left begins to defend her, despite many of them having criticized Williams for saying the same thing.)
It's not hypocritical for an anti-racist to point out that they probably have implicit bias and wish that were otherwise, expressing a desire to try to find ways to deal with that. I don't have a lot of confidence that either Juan Williams or Hillary Clinton would have a lot of good things to say about what a positive response to it would be, and that's not because of their political views or anything like that. I don't expect politicians or political commentators to have much to say of value on the subject. Psychologists and psychologically-informed philosophers might have some things to say that are worth listening to, but no one has a lot of interesting and helpful suggestions about this particular problem. The best work on it shows that it forms at a very young age and doesn't really go away. Most of the ways people come up with to deal with it are very temporary or very gradual, and the best help for it is to have a more integrated society (especially at the most intimate levels of friendships and relationships). That's a good reason not to make a speech about it, as if there are a bunch of policies politicians can implement that will change this. But it's not hypocritical to do so. What is hypocritical to treat these two differently unless you can point to something that explains why he's heroic and she's evil for saying the same thing (or vice versa, for any who might defend her after having seen Williams as a bigot).
The Supreme court released a bunch of opinions yesterday. One of them isn't all that interesting to me, but a little exchange on a side point caught my attention. From the SCOTUSBlog writeup:
In a five-page concurrence, Justice Kennedy went out of his way to raise concern over the proliferation of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, bemoaning the extent to which "the conditions in which prisoners are kept simply has not been a matter of sufficient public inquiry or interest," even though "consideration of these issues is needed." Thus, he concluded, "[i]n a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required . . . to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them." Justice Thomas responded in a rather curt, one-paragraph opinion, noting that "the accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims . . . now rest," and that "Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth."
I'm not interested in adjudicating that particular dispute, but I'm interested in (1) its very existence and (2) the particular reasoning used in each case. There's a correct moral principle behind each justice's point (just retribution for a heinous act and ensuring we don't ourselves do evil in how we treat those who do evil). It seems as if this might be a case where we can't satisfy either concern without going against the other concern, so we have to decide which principle we'll give more importance to. These two justices end up on opposite sides on that question.
I've long thought that whether something is terrorism is independent of the motivation. You can be a terrorist for financial gain, such as the villains in 1970s spy movies. You can be a terrorist because of political ideology, striking at those you view as your political opponents. You can be a terrorist for an environmental cause. You can be a terrorist to achieve goals in an otherwise legitimate war. You can be a terrorist seeking to achieve legitimate goals of justice. You can be a terrorist purely to get revenge. It isn't tied to religion or especially to any particular religion. It isn't tied to whether the goals are good. And it isn't tied to whether the ultimate target is bad. Terrorism to achieve an overthrow of an oppressive government is just as much terrorism a kidnapping the kids of rich people to get a ransom, blowing up supermarkets to continue a long-standing conflict, or threatening to use bio-warfare on innocents if your fallen comrades don't get acknowledged by their government as heroes (as in The Rock).
I also don't see how it matters who the actor is. A legitimate government can engage in terrorism just as much as a group of dissidents can. The United States military can use terrorist tactics as easily as a militant revolutionary group. Individual people acting on their own, political organizations out of power, and criminal organizations are no more deserving of the term than governments who oppress their people through terrorism or governments who wage war on others through terrorism.
What is distinctive about terrorism is the use of violence or at least some kind of threat to produce fear in a third party, typically someone innocent of the conflict but at least someone who isn't the primary target. The ultimate enemy is someone else, and this person or these people who are receiving the threat or who are actually being harmed are innocents or relative innocents in comparison to the real conflict going on. It doesn't matter if you're threatening to poison the water supply if you don't get money from the government or if you're burning down homes in Long Island communities because a few manufacturing facilities there are polluting. It doesn't matter if you're flying planes into buildings because you see the majority of the people who work there as complicit in an evil system or blowing up entire cities with nuclear weapons to end a war. The real target is someone other than the immediate victim. It sends a message to someone else, and that's what makes it terrorism.
A lot of people in my Twitter feed are saying the church shooting last night is an act of terrorism and that hardly anyone is acknowledging it because the victims were black. If there is a message that this shooting was intended to spread, then I would say that it is terrorism. It's mainly people on the left who seem interested in pointing out this kind of case as terrorism. Most people wouldn't think of it that way, but it seems like it might be. I don't have a problem with that, provided that the perpetrator really did this so that a larger audience would come away with a certain message. That would indeed count as terrorism, I think.
At the same time, the very same people who are quick to call this terrorism were very hesitant to say anything negative about the Baltimore protestors engaging in terrorist acts. On the above analysis, it's pretty clear that it's terrorism to burn down a home for poor black retirees built by a black church, just to send a message about an unjust system of justice and law enforcement. This, of course, happened in Baltimore. The right called it rioting, and the left called it protesting, but it's terrorism. Those outraged about calling the church shooting terrorism are inconsistent if they don't think that was terrorism too. And the difference is that we knew the motives in that case, since it was part of the larger protesting/rioting phenomenon, which was a reaction to a particular incident we already knew much about (and certainly knew the protestors' view on), while in this one it's still a breaking story, and we need to be hesitant about making hasty judgments when we don't know all the facts. But I think it's clear that both sides of the political spectrum need to realize that there are certain kinds of terrorist acts that they're more inclined to recognize as terrorism and certain ones they're less inclined to recognize as terrorism, and it would be nice if we could be more consistent.
The Incandescent Light Bulb Ban
The imminent ban on 40-watt and 60-watt incandescent light bulbs is going to impose a significant cost on our household. This is an interesting case of a somewhat bi-partisan attempt to save energy while imposing what they took to be only a small cost on most households. But it is a cost, and it's cost that poorer households will be more burdened by. So, like New York's recent bottle bill that adds 5 cents to the cost of a larger variety of bottles, people with lower income will be more burdened by it if they continue to buy products in those bottles, while more affluent households will not notice as much of an effect of the increased cost. Our household, however, will be much more burdened by this than most.
The alternatives to incandescent bulbs don't seem to me to be genuine alternatives for our household. LED bulbs really are the best you can get. LED flashlights fail when the flashlight itself fails. It's never the bulbs that are the problem, and the batteries should last a very long time unless you leave them on all the time or never turn it on (in which case the batteries will corrode). But LED bulbs for ordinary household lights are still very expensive. The prices I'm finding for them online are something like $10 per bulb. This might be fine if they last forever and will never need to be replaced, and the energy savings might also help make up for it, but that's for a household where you won't need to replace them except when they fail on their own. We have a child who actively seeks to smash light bulbs whenever people forget to turn the lights on when he's home or when we let our attention turn to deal with anything but him, allowing him to climb on something to reach them. I think we lose a light bulb or two every week, and we can't be spending $10 per bulb at that sort of replacement rate.
Compact fluorescents are not a viable alternative either, for two reasons. Fluorescent bulbs do last longer than incandescent bulbs if you simply measure how many hours they can be left on before breaking, but that's not how most people use them. For businesses that leave the lights on for long stretches of time, they make sense. But if you turn them on and off regularly, they break far, far sooner than incandescent bulbs. They often don't last more than a few months with the kind of use they get in our house. I've seen them last a day or two more than once. They might save energy if you're willing to eat the cost of constantly replacing them, but they're not cost-effective unless you keep them on all day. This is not easy if you have been conscientious enough to develop a muscle-memory habit of turning the lights off when you leave the room, and it's next to impossible if you have children who will turn lights on and off all the time. I have to remind myself constantly not to turn the lights off in my office at work and in the classrooms I teach in, because it will cost the college too much money to keep turning them off and on again and replacing the bulbs regularly. The bulbs in our office are constantly in need of replacement, because people often turn them off when they leave the room, either not knowing of this problem or not thinking about it when they leave. And those are adults. There's really no way to control for what small children or children with autism will do with lights, and we've got both.
Even worse is the health hazard given the amount of mercury inside compact fluorescent bulbs. It's not a huge amount of mercury in a given bulb. It's about the size of a period in standard-size type. But even that amount is not a good idea to have around small children, and the EPA's recommended precautions for cleaning them up are simply not possible in our household. When you add in an autistic child who goes out of his way to unscrew them and smash them on the floor, it's simply not viable to have them in any bulbs he can either reach or stand on something to reach, which means none except in lights with closed cases.
Fortunately, the law doesn't ban incandescents altogether, just ones that are below a certain energy efficiency. The market provided a solution in the first phase of the ban. The light bulb industry managed to produce some 100-watt and 75-watt bulbs that met the standards that the first phase imposed, and we've been buying those bulbs (and will have to buy exclusively those bulbs until the industry produces similarly more-efficient 60-watt and 40-watt bulbs). We're not actually going to see incandescent bulbs disappear. We'll just see more expensive ones. This is an expense we'll have to absorb without seeing as much benefit as most households would get from it, since our the bulbs will have a shorter life than in most households. But it seems to me to be the best alternative for us.
There are several different things someone might mean when they speak of imposing religious beliefs on those who don't hold them. There are two different axes to pay attention to. One is what is meant by "imposing", and the other is what is meant by "religion".
On the first axis, what is meant by "imposing", I can think of a number of things in decreasing order of severity:
1. Forcing people with threat of force or imprisonment
2. Coercing people by some manner less severe than force or threat of imprisonment (e.g. giving them incentives like a right to vote, to drive, to hold an independent job) that most Americans consider rights or close enough to it
3. Incentivizing by some manner less severe than coercion (e.g. government influencing social acceptance, giving tax credits or deductions, criminal penalties of smaller sort such as a fine)
4. Calling on people to change their mind or behavior, perhaps with strenuous argumentation
5. Explaining one's attitude on the issue
6. Simply stating what one's view happens to be
On the second axis, what is meant by "religion", I can again think of a number of things, in decreasing order of centrality to religion:
A. espousing a statement of faith or unfaith (that they might not actually agree with)
B. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) merely by religious beliefs and not by any attempt at rational argument
C. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but also by some attempt at rational argument, even if it's not a strong argument
D. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but is held by most who hold it (even if controversially) by rationally-motivated arguments that, while disputed, at least are philosophically-driven in addition to or, for some, without the religious motivation
E. engaging in certain behavior that is motivated (on the part of those instituting the policy) in part by religious beliefs but is commonly held by most people, and for most people there is motivation that in their minds is on grounds entirely independent of religion
There are those who insist that even stating one's religious views counts as imposing them in an improper way, never mind preaching them. Fortunately, in the United States even 4A is protected speech by the first amendment. I'm not about to argue for 1 either, so we're really looking at 2 and 3. In the history of the world, we've certainly seen pseudo-conversions coerced at swordpoint or recantations of religious beliefs at the threat of martyrdom. In comparison with that, the idea that one is imposing one's religion merely by trying to make a case for it seems absurd. It's similar to the War on Christmas people complaining of Christians being persecuted in the United States just because schools are refusing to sing Jingle Bells in schools on the ground that the song is tied to a religious holiday. (In my experience, schools nowadays don't reduce Christian content at Christmas but simply include it alongside religious content for other religions' holidays too, so this complaint is getting even more stale than it was when I was younger, when such songs might have been excluded on the strange claim that they're somehow religious).
We do have some laws that are all the way down to 1E or sometimes 1D, however. For example, same-sex sodomy laws, bans on selling contraceptives, and bans on teaching evolution (all deemed unconstitutional now) were often religiously-motivated but did include arguments, often arguments widely accepted at the time, that didn't rely on religious premises. Evolution was thought not to be as well-supported as its proponents think. Creation science has insisted that evolution is just bad science. This isn't about whether their arguments are good but about what kind of arguments they are. Similarly, bans on same-sex sodomy were justified more by disgust at such acts than any biblical prohibition on them, and the Connecticut ban on selling contraceptives was supported by an argument about population control.
But there remain some laws at level 1E or 1D and some attempts at instituting laws at this level. Sodomy laws are deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court since 2004, but incest laws vary from state to state. It's not criminal in Rhode Island to have sex with a close relative, but you can't marry them unless you're Jewish (to allow for Levirate customs, I assume). In Ohio it's criminal to have sex with your children, but only the parents are criminal even if the children are adults. But in Massachusetts you can get 20 years in prison for having sex with your adult sibling, even if one of the two parties is demonstrably infertile or if it's a same-sex act, in either case removing any chance of genetic problems with offspring. Such a law is, as far as the courts have so far indicated, perfectly constitutional. Yet I can think of no easy argument against it unless you rely on beliefs that are either very controversial and often supported by religion or simply feelings of disgust. Arguments against pornography aren't all religious (see the feminist arguments), but we make distributing or producing certain kinds of pornography illegal in part because a lot of people have religious objections to it. (But I should say that this is clearly 1E and not 1D, since almost all religious people who object to pornography would agree with just about the entire feminist case against pornography, despite feminist claims to the contrary.)
In fact, 1E prohibitions occur all the time. Laws against murder or robbery fit into this category. People certainly have religious reasons for thinking such acts are wrong and ought to be given severe penalties. But the arguments for them are widely accepted by religious and non-religious people, and the secularly-accessible arguments are usually present even for religious people.
Coercion of sorts 2 and 3 is a little more commonly thought of as imposing religion, and there are some ways that can occur today in the United States with legal sanction (although for letters further down the list than happens with Islam). You're not going to find 2A or 3A in the U.S. today, but you will find both in Islamic countries. Most debates in the political context of the U.S. about imposing religion aren't even about 2B or 3B. The kinds of things that get labeled as Taliban-like behavior in the U.S. aren't about matters that have purely religious support. They at least make an attempt at rational argumentation. But that's also true of the Islamic laws requiring women to wear veils or prohibiting girls from being educated in any formal way. The supposed rational argumentation in both cases is extremely weak and based on false views of the capabilities of women or false priorities, elevating the concern with provoking male lust to a point where it overcomes eminently reasonable considerations about freedom in how women might dress and conduct themselves in public. Even the most stringent Christian concerns about modesty in women's dress are going to allow for much more freedom than you'll find in many Islamic prohibitions on female dress.
I think most cases I'm aware of on level 2 are actually all the way down to 2E. I'm thinking of laws that prohibit minority religious behavior, such as requiring a photo ID for a driver's license (which some orthodox Jews resist and even some Muslims, or like the Florida law requiring a photo ID not to have a face covered too much, which some Muslim women won't do). The attempted ban on peyote even in Native American religious ceremonies would have fallen into this category, but Supreme Court, in an opinion by Justice Scalia, overturned that. Banning certain kinds of political protests that someone might have religious reasons for insisting on doing, e.g. perhaps an abortion protest of a certain nature, amounts to a 2C imposition.
Level 3C is much more fair game for a lot of issues in the U.S. We don't imprison people for much at level C, but we do incentivize religious charitable giving by giving tax deductions, and we recognize (so far) a privileged position for opposite-sex unions to be called marriage at the federal level and in most states. That gives government sanction for something with some secular arguments but also based on religious motivation for many supporters of that policy, and it has an effect of cultural sanction or respect for certain behavior over other behavior. If we ban a certain religious act but without criminal penalty other than a fine, that would fall under 3C. There are religious and non-religious arguments for abortion protests that cross the line into illegality to a point of a fine but not to the point of imprisonment.
In the UK and Canada in the last couple years, pastors have been carted off to prison for preaching that same-sex sexual acts are immoral. This isn't quite an expectation of having a certain view, but it's prohibiting the speaking of such a view. It's a level 1 prohibition of level 6 behavior. Americans rightly deride such policies as contrary the value of debate as a basic, fundamental component of civil society. Speech codes that prohibit even stating your religious views if such views are considered offensive to someone, while indisputably unconstitutional in the United States, somehow manage to appear at most universities anyway. Even 4A is uncontroversially protected speech under the first amendment, unless it takes it to a level of actually provoking people to a fight or to the level of panic that would result by yelling "fire" in a crowded theater. Yet I've encountered a number of people who have considered it a clear case of immorally imposing one's religion, as if trying to persuade someone of a view you happen to find true is somehow wrong. Some take it to a further extreme, considering even the reporting of your view to be inappropriate when it's a controversial view that some might find offensive. Merely indicating that one believes Jews who don't accept Christ as the Messiah will go to hell would, to some people's mind, count as imposing one's religion in an immoral way. I find such an analysis so unhealthy that I almost consider it undeserving of a reply. But if pressed I would insist on the value of philosophical debate, the importance of understanding those who disagree with you, and the moral importance to certain religions of attempting to win people over to something they consider very urgent for all humanity, which prevents them from remaining silent if they're taking their own religion seriously.
What's the moral of the story? Mostly what motivated me to work through all this is that I think we should be wary of anyone who makes blanket statements about imposing religion, whether moral statements or simply factual claims that it has happened. It should be pretty clear from all this that it's never clear what people mean by that unless the specify, and the debate that might ensure once they do specify is probably worth having. Most people who make such comments haven't thought them through and could benefit from some effort to explore precisely what they mean. The term "imposing religion" is at this point so unhelpful as to be worth avoiding whenever we can, and in its place let's clarify the particular elements that we're concerned about, since the different items in both lists above certainly do involve different moral considerations.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.