Against Contrarianism

by Tim Sommers

Philosophy’s original contrarian hero was, of course, Socrates. He believed in Truth and the Good and refused to back down from the pursuit of the these – even when his life was on the line. He had no patience for ‘just whatever people tend to say about such and such’. The unexamined life, for him, was not worth living. And that examination requires being ready to question even your most cherished beliefs.

Socrates also hated democracy and was against writing.

If you haven’t heard that second bit before, it’s not a euphemism. Socrates opposed reading and writing – the things that we are doing right now, you and I. Writing was the new big thing at the time. Their internet. Or to put it in more scholarly terms, Athens was transitioning from being primarily an oral culture to a literate one. But writing fails to capture the truth, Socrates said. It leads writers and readers to be forgetful and to “be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality”. (Which does sound a lot like the internet, come to think of it.) Anyway, presumably, this  is why Socrates didn’t write anything down, and why we have had to learn most of what we know about him from Plato – who was also against writing, but then wrote a lot anyway. Really. A lot.

Although I haven’t done a scientific survey, academic philosophy still seems to have more than its fair share of contrarians. This is not an unmitigated good. Sure, when they are relentlessly pursuing what you think is the truth, contrarians seem great. But when they are arguing that we shouldn’t read and write, or that democracy is bad, well, maybe, not so great.

Here’s a lively contemporary philosophical contrarian. Michael Huemer at his blog “Fake Nous” takes issue with, among many, many other things, the conventional wisdom that we should take pains to ensure that future generations remember historical evils, including the Holocaust. “[H]istorical amnesia is undervalued,” he argues. “With that in mind, there’s a case to be made that children in the Middle East shouldn’t learn history… Or more precisely, they shouldn’t learn their own history. The history of the rest of the world is fine…To take another example, perhaps we should stop teaching American students about the history of slavery.” (https://fakenous.net/?p=1565) (Just to be totally crystal clear, personally, although I don’t want to hide in the herd, I disagree with this position. I think we should teach students about Slavery and the Holocaust.)

Compare this to a more public bit of contrarianism of which you are probably already well aware. In a desire to address both sides of the issue of whether or not people should be allowed to assemble (mostly) peaceably to protest the fact that a Minneapolis policeman stood on the neck of an unarmed person of color until they died, The New York Times recently solicited and published an editorial from Republican Senator Tom Cotton. Cotton urged the President to “employ the military ‘or any other means”” necessary to “subdue” the “insurrection”. (Again, I don’t want to court controversy for controversies’ sake, but I don’t think we should deploy federal troops to subdue protesters.)

One last, more complicated, example. Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago has one of the most influential blogs in philosophy – Leiter Reports (https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/). Leiter is a thoughtful, interesting scholar known for his contentious (though not necessarily contrarian) politics.

However, at least since Ferguson, Leiter has periodically devoted space on his blog to addressing “the ‘cops are racist’ blather” (his words) surrounding “Black Lives Matter” and its allies. (https://leiterreports.typepad.com/blog/2020/06/the-sociology-of-police-violence.html)

The academic he cites in support most often is Adolph Reed, a political scientist who thinks that contemporary “antiracist politics is in fact the left wing of neoliberalism” and is fond of referring to Ta-Nehisi Coates (“for whom (he says) every sideways glance from a random white person while waiting on line for a latté becomes an occasion for navel-gazing lament and another paycheck”) primarily as a “college drop-out”. (https://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence)

Anyway, Reed acknowledges that: “Available data (see https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings/?tid=a_inl) indicate, to the surprise of no one who isn’t in willful denial, that in this country black people make up a percentage of those killed by police that is nearly double their share of the general American population.” And that “[T]he evidence of gross racial disparity is clear…”

So, what’s the beef? Reed says, “This disparity is the founding rationale for the branding exercise called #Black Lives Matter and endless contentions that imminent danger of death at the hands of arbitrary white authority has been a fundamental, definitive condition of blacks’ status in the United States since slavery…” But why think this is a “branding exercise” – as opposed to just being the truth? Again, what’s the Reed/Leiter complaint?

Police killings are not about racism, Reed says, instead the cause is the “policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working-class populations produced by revanchist capitalism….” I am not a Marxist scholar. But I think he’s saying that in the course of enforcing the existing capitalist economic and political order police are more likely to kill (and otherwise mess with, not just black, but also) poor people. Which seems plausible. And this also explains why it’s especially challenging to be black and poor. But it leaves me a little confused about why Reed is so angry about people thinking that racism is an important factor in police violence (when his own numbers seem to say it is).  And why is Leiter so dismissive of the relevance of racism that he calls the position “blather”?

More recently, Leiter cited sociologists Randall Collins who explains that it’s not (just?) about racism. Among other things, sociological research has made the shocking discovery that “Police dislike defiance” and that (for mysterious reasons) the “Inner-city black code of the street emphasizes defiance.” (https://sociological-eye.blogspot.com/2020/06/seven-reasons-why-police-are-disliked.html)

Now, I’m no sociologist, but I don’t think that the “code of the street” that “emphasizes defiance” is a black thing, per se. And there is some available evidence that the kind of defiance police dislike the most is, specifically, defiance by people of color.  After all, just a month before peaceful protesters (many of whom were people of color) took to public streets to protest the death of George Floyd, racism, and police brutality and were met with brutal, (mostly) unprovoked violence; an all (or almost all) white band of protesters, heavily-armed with military grade weapons, didn’t just march down the street, but instead forced their way illegally into Michigan’s State Capitol building and screamed into the faces of stoic, stock-still police while legislators fled out the back. Yet, at that protest, there were no reported incidents of police responding with excessive force. (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/apr/30/michigan-protests-coronavirus-lockdown-armed-capitol) Puzzling. But let me try to take a larger view.

Police violence against people of color has many causes. And police violence is not committed only against people of color. And police violence (except, maybe, during protests) is overwhelming committed against poorer people. But a lot of people of color have been murdered by police out of fear and hatred of them as people of color. I don’t see how anything other than sheer contrarianism leads someone to dispute that.

Meanwhile, right now, police across the country are running riot through our streets committing violence against pretty much everyone they encounter. To me, it seems like a particularly inopportune moment for some “racism isn’t the real problem” contrarianism.

I don’t think it’s worth even responding to people who think the solution is to stop teaching kids about slavery or to launch a full-scale military assault on our cities. But I can’t help but respond to intelligent people of good will who think it’s more important to focus on parsing the exact contribution of racism – as opposed to classism as opposed to the deliberate, fascistic militarism of police training as opposed to the decision to supply police with military hardware – rather than focusing directly on the police violence that would seem to be the problem at hand.

Even while decrying the (supposed) claim by anti-racists that “racism and white supremacy are…capable of making things happen in the world independently, i.e. magically”, Reed acknowledges that the gains of the civil rights movement have led to a decline in police killings of black people. But apparently, I draw a different conclusion from that than he does. To me it suggests that anti-racist politics have, and could be, productive. I also don’t  think it’s surprising that such gains have intensified the focus by reformers on the racial part of the equation even while there have been some gains made. If it’s working, you double-down. You don’t change course. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that the demise of the capitalist system is eminent – or that anti-capitalism is going to be a winning strategy for police reform any time soon.

On the other hand, who knows?

My point is just this. Philosophers (and The New York Times) seem to take the attitude that spirited contrarianism is always welcome. It’s not.

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