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Please stop trying to blacklist ‘blacklist’

Posted in: Personal and misc

In addition to words like ‘master’ and ‘slave’, which are perceived by some to be racist, some people have added ‘blacklist’ to our ever growing blacklist, and no doubt more are on the way. I am sure this is well intentioned, but misguided and I believe ultimately damaging. Here’s why:

  1. If you are going to ban words, or anything really, you need sound arguments. There is a bare minimum of things you need to know about words before you try to ban them (long read — this post is the short version). Words matter, and so understanding words matters.

  2. There are several linguistic fallacies involved in this (and other) debates about words.

    One is assuming a connection to race (in the case of blacklist there is none).

    A second very common mistake is the etymological fallacy of assuming that the origin of a word determines its meaning today.

    A third is assuming that our brains can’t sort out differences between morphologically similar words, when in fact they are experts at this. This is why, for example, in US culture the words “people of colour” and ”coloured” are very different despite the obvious connection, and similarly in UK culture, “black” and “blacky”.

    This is due to the context dependent way our brains process words. The positive associations of “black belt” do not contradict the negative associations of “black deeds”, or colour our usage of “black” when used racially or in any other way.

    So we have no absolutely reason to believe that using “black” or some derivative in one context where it has a negative meaning has necessarily come from racism in the past, or even it if it has, that it will contribute to racism in the future.

  3. The real reasons for “dark/black“ and various derivatives often having negative meanings, and “light/white” often having positive meanings, are found in fundamental physical realities about light and darkness and their affects on our physiology (e.g. darkness leads to lack of visibility and fear), and the way that across history and across the world we seem hard-wired to use analogies. This last point, along with various historical accidents, also explains various counter examples (such as “in the black” financially, “black belt”, “white with rage”).

    If you find yourself in a war with physics, biology, hard-wired human psychology, and facts of history, you should stop and think if this war is actually sensible.

  4. If we train ourselves to find offence when none exists then we condemn ourselves to a lifetime of misery and conflict.

    I suspect that the vast majority of people campaigning for these kinds of changes are white, but there may be some non-whites, and there may be some people who genuinely feel upset. But while our emotions may be real, it doesn’t mean they are justified.

    I live in Turkey, and the Turkish word for ‘ugly’ is ‘çirkin’ (chirkin). One day, I was in a park where a Turkish lady came up to me and, gesturing at my son, called out “Çirkin, çirkin!”

    This is blatantly offensive, right? Given that I was in a park full of darker-skinned children, none of whom had received this treatment, while my very pale-skinned, red-headed boy is singled out, it’s pretty obviously racist, too, right?

    I could easily have gone home very hurt and upset. However, the kindest thing you could have done for me, and the fairest thing you could have done for other people, would not have been to agree with me that the world is awful, or that Turks are racist, but to re-educate me. Because in fact, the lady’s words should be interpreted as something like “what a beautiful child you have!” [1]

    This is a true story, by the way — the lady, after exclaiming “Ugly! Ugly!” about my child, immediately looked up at me and added “He looks just like you!” Thankfully I was already aware of this quirk of Turkish culture and understood it as the compliment it was.

    Unjustified emotions need to be re-educated, not pandered to. Being oversensitive is a vice, not a virtue, and one that increases misunderstanding and hostility on all sides.

  5. If you still want to ban these words, you’ve got a lot more work to do. Fuelled by good intentions, white guilt and a few linguistic fallacies, the only limit is your imagination.

    Next on your list will have to be “blacken” (in the sense of reputation), and “denigrate”. Also “people of colour” (racist-adjacent with “coloured”). You also need to rewrite history books that use phrases like “Black Tuesday”. You can keep going — niggardly, blaggard and so on. Wait! I hear you cry, those don’t even have proper etymological roots to anything racist. True, but that didn’t stop you so far, and it didn’t stop people being offended by imaginary connections to the point of people losing their jobs.

    You’re also going to have to “fix” everyone with depression, because they insist on saying things like “black feelings”, “black thoughts” and talking about their “black dog”.

    The only way to win this game is stop playing now.

  6. As someone from coming from the conservative side of the political spectrum, I can assure you that this kind of thing gives very strong ammunition to those who believe, or suspect, that the Black Lives Matter movement and other attempts to deal with racism are ill-informed, illogical, reactionary, culture-destroying, authoritarian or just plain ridiculous, and for good reason. This is not helping.

There is more than enough real racism out there to be tackled. I believe that, no matter how good our intentions, we both distract from and discredit the vital work that is being done by the Black Lives Matter movement when we attempt to ban these completely inoffensive words. Let’s move on and do something useful, there is lots to be done.

Thanks so much for reading.

Part 2

Just a few hours after posting this, this amazingly appropriate incident came up on my Twitter stream. Someone had asked for a Black Lives Matter banner to be removed from vuejs.org, and here is a response from a team member:

  1. It is Vue team’s freedom to show the message.
  2. It is your freedom to disagree with the message. But this banner does not prevent you from reading the docs so it doesn’t create any practical inconveniences to you.
  3. Using an Ad Blocker when browsing Vue docs blocks some of our sponsors and ads - which is what makes the project financially sustainable, so we are not interested in entertaining any request related to Ad Block usage.

How you look at BLM depends on how you interpret it. If you think it means “only black lives matter” or “black lives matter more than others”, then I can tell you that is not how the Vue team or most supporters of the movement interprets it. The motto emphasizes black people because they are the race that is currently suffering the most from racial discrimination, but we intend to use it as a message against all forms of racism. The reason why “all lives matter” should not be used isn’t that it’s wrong, but is because under the current context it has been appropriated by actual racists to use as a weapon to detract from the voices against racism. It would be more productive to focus on the shared spirit against racism rather than on why the motto only includes a specific race.

If you live in a place where there are racism against non-black people, the Vue team firmly stands against those types of racism too. If you are lucky enough to live in a place where racism does not exist, all it takes from you is a little bit of empathy to ignore the banner and move on. If you insist on interpreting it in a way that offends you after the above explanation, it is your freedom to stop reading our docs until we remove the banner.

I absolutely agree with the sentiments here. But let’s break it down:

  • The author (Evan You representing the team) affirms free speech.

  • He admits the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is open to misinterpretation (as everything is).

  • He assumes at least the possibility of good faith.

  • He listens to the complaint, and decides if he thinks it is valid or not.

  • He concludes it is based on their misunderstanding.

  • Having done so, he explains their mistake, giving a reasoned explanation that appeals to context and authorial intent.

    Of course, it is possible that claims about authorial intent are wrong, due to deception or self-deception, but the reader does not get to make up whatever they want. If there is offense, it is entirely possible that it is due to the reader’s mistake.

  • If this explanation does not convince, he assumes bad faith — the readers are insisting on interpreting the words in a way that offends them, despite being given the reasons why they should not, and he refuses to pander to them.

    In such cases, the problem is not the words used, but the people who insist on taking offence. Affirming their attitude will make them worse. It may hurt their feelings to be told they are wrong and need to change their opinions, but they clearly need practice in that.

This is, of course, directly analogous to people complaining about “blacklist”. In this case it is also overwhelmingly clear that the reader is mistaken to assume a racist connection, as I have explained above.

If you are unwilling to apply the same principles demonstrated here across the board, with the different groups of people who are likely to object to these different cases, you expose your ethical stand for what it really is — a hypocritical sham, nothing more then virtue signalling to your crowd.

If your tremendous courage at saying “No, you are mistaken” to people you don’t like and don’t care about mysteriously evaporates when you need to say exactly the same thing to people whose good opinion you crave, and potentially hurt their feelings, your courage is exposed as bravado.

The problem we are looking at is tribalism — when we say “There is a group of people over there who are Not Like Me, they are a bad lot, feel free to assume bad faith; but this group over here are Like Me, I’ll make sure I don’t upset them.”

If that is your attitude, to understand the systemic racism in America and in our world you need to go no further than the mirror.

I’m not asking a big thing — just that you say, “I’m sorry, you have misunderstood”. If you are not able to do this very little thing, how will you fare when you need to do something bigger — like tell your friends that they are morally in the wrong? How will you handle the situation when it is your friend’s knee that is on someone’s neck, and you are one of the few people who could do something about it?

Updates

  • 2020-06-07 Added part 2
  • 2020-06-12 Small updates to wording.

Footnotes

[1]In Turkish culture, and probably other middle eastern cultures, there are old superstitions about the “evil eye” and evil spirits. Children are especially vulnerable, and if you compliment a child, you risk drawing the attention of evil spirits. So, any compliment must immediate be followed up with “Mashallah” (In the name of God, i.e. may God protect). Often the compliment is missed out entirely, and understood as implied, and quite often an insult is put in its place (“Ugly! Germ!”). Use of these idioms doesn’t actually imply belief in the superstitions, or even in God, it has become mainly cultural.

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