BLM: A Missed Opportunity

The problem with the Black Lives Matter movement (BLM) in the US is the tone of its members. What is their tone like? Angry, accusatory, self-righteous, smug, and the list goes on. But wait, you might say, everyone—not just active and protesting BLM members—ought to have this tone about these issues. We know there are unjustified racial disparities in criminal sentencing, police behavior, housing opportunities, and in countless other domains, and we should not stand by, all apathetic or meek about what is rightfully owed. If you are not angry, accusatory, self-righteous, and smug about this, something is wrong with you!

This perspective certainly has an element of truth to it. I’m certainly not going to deny that some of these racial disparities exist. However, it misses the point. You have to ask yourself: what is the goal of BLM? Well, obviously, to solve the sort of problems mentioned above. But who does the movement need to convince and rally in order to solve them? Here’s where things get more complicated. There are two main candidates. The first is black people. I doubt this is the right answer. Why? In short, black people are already convinced that these problems are problems, and they are powerless to solve them. They are already convinced because most of them have been experiencing these problems firsthand their whole lives. And even if they themselves are fortunately unaffected, they know people who aren’t so lucky or they are descended from people who weren’t. The purpose of BLM couldn’t be to convince black people because they already know what’s up.

As for the point about power: what better proof of black people being largely powerless to solve these problems could there be, if not the existence of the problems themselves? Assuming, as I have suggested, that black people are—by and large—convinced of the existence of these problems, if they had the power to solve them, then why haven’t they done so? It’s the same reason that the problems exist in the first place: black people don’t have the means to solve them. Hell, this is almost a premise of BLM. Black people are systematically discriminated against because they are systematically excluded from controlling their own lives.

Still, one might object that the point of BLM is to rally black people in such a way that they have never been rallied before, such that they can finally solve the problems themselves. The past is no guide to the present, one might say, because never before have black people been so woke. I don’t know what world this objector lives in. If you think the solutions have much to do with the actions of governments, then you must realize that black people will never remotely be a majority in this country, excepting some very limited locales. You can convince all the black people you want and they won’t be able to substantially change the laws or the way the laws are enforced. Alternatively, if you think the solutions must largely flow from changes in the way people treat one another or, more specifically, treat black people, then surely it’s not black people who need to change. Maybe there is some black on black injustice, but this isn’t really the problem at hand.

We are left with the second candidate for who needs to be convinced and rallied to solve these problems: the society at large, including many white people. And so we come to the tone of BLM members. It takes little social observational skill to see that there has been, in many non-black quarters, a negative response to BLM. BLM members will say that this is because racism has deep roots in the US, and when racism is noted, racists (whether they are conscious of their racism or not) respond negatively. I would like to suggest that this explanation is a poor one. It is certainly an uncharitable one. A better explanation is that the tone of BLM members is not the appropriate one even if they are completely right about the nature of these problems. The fact is that humans of all shapes, sizes, and colors do not respond well to condemnation, particularly if it is conveyed with an angry, accusatory, self-righteous, and smug tone. It is good that BLM members are calling attention to the aforementioned problems, but they must realize that if these problems are problems, then they are to some degree problems with the people who constitute society at large. There is no police brutality without police being brutal. People aren’t stupid—they realize that you are condemning them, and they don’t like the way you are going about it.

One reason they don’t like the tone of BLM members might be that they think that they are not personally responsible for any of the noted problems. Surely this is true in some cases. But I think the main reason they don’t like the tone is that they are humans. No one likes to be talked to in that way and bristling is a natural response to it. Whether it is right in this case to bristle or not, people are bristling. This fact alone means that the tone needs to change. People respond better to a more conciliatory tone, so BLM members should assume one. Supposing, that is, that the BLM members actually are seeking to solve the problems that concern them, and they are not merely signaling.

The issue is that it is much too late. BLM came out the gate with the wrong tone and will be forever associated with it. Indeed, the name ‘Black Lives Matter’ is the ironic embodiment of this issue. The name itself is exclusionary and divisive. No matter how loudly BLM members insist that the name has been misinterpreted, no one will believe them because of their tone. It might be true that the name was not intended to be taken in an exclusionary or divisive sense, but that is how it will be seen because of how the members of the movement have conducted themselves. It seems almost designed to make people bristle. It’s no surprise that other response movements called ‘All Lives Matter’, ‘Blue Lives Matter’, and so on were formed in response—the BLM movement has never tried to portray itself as seeking unity, so why should others meet them halfway? They might as well rally together to defend their own interests.

Yet, some degree of unity is needed to solve these massive problems. As I argued above, black people alone cannot solve them, for otherwise they wouldn’t be problems. So where does this leave us? Well, it looks like BLM is a movement that has irrevocably damaged its effectiveness due to its tone, and there’s no going back. BLM members may have gained from the existence of BLM. It may cause future movements that are more effective. Nevertheless, the main goal of a sociopolitical movement like BLM is to have an immediate effect on the problems that it identifies. It’s hard not to conclude that BLM was, in essence, a missed opportunity.

Ben Carson’s Comments on Poverty

United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson caused a hubbub amongst Democrats and Democrat-leaning political commentators this past week. Here’s what he said on SiriusXM’s Town Hall hosted by Armstrong Williams:

I think poverty, to a large extent, is also a state of mind. You take somebody who has the right mindset, you can take everything from them and put them on the street and I guarantee you, in a little while, they’ll be right back up there. And you take somebody with the wrong mindset, you can give them everything in the world, they’ll work their way back down to the bottom. So, a lot of it also has to do with what we teach children because parenting is a very difficult job. You have to instill into that child the mindset of a winner if they’re likely to become a winner. If you’re always telling them they’re no good, they’re rotten, they hear that constantly, they see that around them. Then, it shouldn’t surprise anybody that that’s where the majority of them are going to go.

That this statement caused a hubbub should not come as a surprise to my American readers. The divide between Democrats and Republicans (and those who affiliate with each party) corresponds to many ideological divides. The one that governs responses to Carson’s comments runs quite deep. This is the divide between those who see agents’ actions as largely out of their control and those who see them as largely under their control. The divide is deep because control is generally seen as a necessary condition on responsibility, blame, and all sorts of normative attributions. Either an agent has control of some action, or they are not responsible for it, to be blamed for it, and so on.

People on both sides of the aisle took Carson’s statements as an indication that he sees agents’ actions as largely under their control. This, however, is to assume two things:

1) That Carson believes that states of mind or mindsets are under agents’ control.

This is a natural assumption, but neither is it explicitly confirmed by Carson nor is it implied. It isn’t implied because he immediately indicates that a large (perhaps the largest?) factor in explaining a child’s mindset is the way that it is parented. Perhaps Carson thinks that mindsets are largely out of agents’ control and his main message here is that parents need to do better to instill the right mindsets in their children. If Carson holds that mindsets govern actions, mindsets are out of agents’ control, and control is a necessary condition on responsibility, blame, etc., then Carson is not asserting that agents’ actions are largely under their control.

2) That Carson is not speaking as an advocate.

What do I mean by this? Well, people in positions of power will often make claims that are not intended to be taken literally. Instead, they are meant to be taken as encouragement. In Carson’s case, if he is speaking as an advocate, we can’t infer that he believes what he says. He may deny that agents’ actions are largely under their control. Still, Carson might speak as if he thinks agents’ actions are largely under their control to effect changes in agents’ beliefs about their control. Parents express strong blame to their children when they do wrong–while knowing that the children have no control over the actions in question–because the expressions of blame (whether warranted or not) change the incentive structure surrounding that action. Carson may believe that whether agents have control over their actions or not, it is better if they believe that they have control.

On the basis of the above analysis, I would like to suggest that the hubbub surrounding Carson’s comments potentially obscures his true intentions or meaning. But the possibility of a plausible and more charitable interpretation of his comments also reveals the reason for the hubbub. Democrats and Democrat-leaning political commentators aren’t trying to be charitable when they interpret and respond to people on the other side of the aisle. Rather, they are encouraging themselves and others to have negative attitudes about Carson, and to believe that he is “the enemy”. Of course, this isn’t unique behavior. Everyone does it. It’s called signaling.

One reason to stop signaling with regard to the issue Carson brings up is this: it’s hard to see how he is not at least–partially–right. Poor people aren’t simply leaves in the wind. They have some degree of control over their income and socioeconomic status more generally. We can disagree about the extent to which they have control over their poorness, but to assume that they have essentially no control would be hard to justify. After all, we assume that they have control in other domains, as when we rightfully imprison them for murder, rape, domestic abuse, etc. Why think that some subset of actions–those that generate wealth, broadly construed–are somehow special?

But the broader question is this: why not play both games? Why not simultaneously say that poor people have some control over their poorness AND assume that they have much less control than they should? Working on both ends of the issue at the same time wouldn’t hurt, especially if it is very useful to inculcate the belief that one has control, regardless of whether it is true.

Parties and George Washington

If, as Adam Sith reports, Duverger’s Law is true of the US, then it is in virtue of the US having a plurality voting system that we are stuck with two parties, regardless of all other factors. Since plurality voting systems do not reward those who fail to get the most votes in a given election, there is no incentive for candidates to get more than 51% of the vote. In fact, the vast majority of races will involve several candidates that each can garner a fair number of votes, so generally 51% isn’t even required. Only a plurality is needed to win. And the same is true of the parties, though with them there is great pressure for compromise and consensus so that they can consistently achieve 51% in the legislatures.

But who stuck us with this plurality voting system? Did they not know that it would generate two parties and all of the problems that they come with?

The odd thing is that many of the founders who devised this system (a few post-founding changes aside) were opposed to parties and thought that they have largely negative effects. In this post, I want to consider one of the concerns George Washington had about parties, or at least one of those that he expressed in his September 19, 1796 farewell address. In my next post, I will consider some reasons why the founders nonetheless created a system of this sort.

Perhaps Washington’s gravest worry was that parties would obstruct the will of the people:

All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and Associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, controul, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the Constituted authorities are distructive of this fundamental principle and of fatal tendency. They serve to Organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force–to put in the place of the delegated will of the Nation, the will of a party; often a small but artful and enterprizing minority of the Community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public Administration the Mirror of the ill concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the Organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common councils and modefied by mutual interests. However combinations or Associations of the above description may now & then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the Power of the People, & to usurp for themselves the reins of Government; destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

In short, the destructive nature of parties is owed to them influencing or controlling the government such that their wills–each of which always issues from a minority of the citizenry–supplant the will of the people. There are a number of interesting features of Washington’s concern: (1) he argues that all “combinations and Associations”, parties included, are generally destructive and potentially fatal to the nation; (2) he states that there is a “will of the Nation”; (3) he thinks that each party has a will which it attempts to impose on the nation; and (4) he claims that parties represent “a small but artful and enterprizing minority of the Community”.

Putting aside the question of whether there is a “will of the Nation” or not, I wonder if there is an internal inconsistency in this sort of view, at least unless it is articulated in a slightly different way. We could put it like this: what reason do we have, Mr. Washington, to think that parties exert a single unified will if your story about parties’ relationship to the nation is correct? Even if each party has a single unified will, shouldn’t it be undermined by factions internal to the party, such that the will that is exerted by a given party only represents “a small but artful and enterprizing minority” of the party’s members? And doesn’t the same go for this minority of the minority, and so on down the line?

The point of this objection is to encourage Washington to agree that the same mechanism that occurs at the nation-party level would have to occur at the party-faction level. This is a friendly objection, since it only reinforces–or perhaps amplifies–Washington’s concern. The net result is that even fewer people are wielding all of the influence! Either way, it seems plausible to me that Washington is right that this is roughly how parties work. Whether it is bad that parties work like this is less clear.

Where you end up on this issue probably depends on your views on procedural justice. If you think that our voting system is an attempt to provide a procedure that generates results that are by definition just, fair, reasonable, desirable, or whatever, then you are in favor of pure procedural justice in this context. Simply because the voting system is of a certain kind and is maintained without interference (e.g. without corruption or cheating), the candidates that it generates are the right ones. And if these candidates form parties, then that is a contingent feature of our nation that doesn’t undermine the moral status of the voting system–the procedure–and its outputs, unless it prevents the system from operating normally.

If, by contrast, you think that our voting system is only an attempt to consistently generate just, fair, reasonable, etc. results, and there is nothing necessarily right about its results however it is constructed, then you are in favor of perfect procedural justice in this context. You think that there are independent metrics which can be used to measure whether the outcomes of a voting system are the right ones. And you probably think that there could be many different ideal voting systems, all of which are ideal in virtue of generating the right type of results.

Of these two camps, Washington seems to belong to the former. His central claim is that it is bad that parties’ existence results in the will of minorities supplanting the will of the people, whatever else happens as a consequence. Parties undermine the will of the people and this in itself is bad. In fact, Washington does not even suggest that there is a possible world where parties have positive effects. For him to be so forceful here and not even consider this possibility gives us good reason to believe that he is firmly in the pure procedural justice camp. Were the will of the people allowed to flow unadulterated through our voting system, the results would be ideal, or so he seems to think.

I think that there is something to be said for Washington’s position here. If you think that the state owes its authority and legitimacy to a kind of contract it has with its citizens, that one of the terms of this contract is that the state respects the rights of its citizens unless they forfeit them, and that one such right is the right to be adequately represented in all legislative processes, then you probably think that there is an important sense in which the will of the people should be allowed to manifest itself, whatever this amounts to. Self-determination is itself valuable, regardless of its effects, because it is a presupposition of the contract that provides the moral foundation of the state. So if parties erode the procedure that allows citizens to exercise their self-determination, and thereby erode the full manifestation of the will of the people, then they are bad and perhaps should be restrained or eliminated.

Thus though maybe Washington would grant, if pressured, that there could be extreme circumstances where the will of the people is misdirected or bad to such a great degree that it threatens to outweigh the value of self-determination, his position seems to be that, in essence, this possibility is doubly moot. Morally it is moot because the bad effects of the nation having a bad will could never even in principle outweigh the value of the nation’s citizens manifesting this will. And, perhaps more importantly, practically it is moot because the parties always have worse wills than the nation since they are motivated by their own limited interests. Indeed, in a case where the nation has a thoroughly bad will, I suspect that Washington has trouble imagining how the parties in that nation would somehow float free of the broader currents.