Travis Pangburn has declared “ideological war” on Black Lives Matter. While an argument could be bade that the hyperbole of the metaphor here is counter-productive- serving to deflect, rather than attract the serious attention that I know he hopes his arguments will draw, I’m actually quite amenable to the advocacy of “intellectual sparring”- both as entertainment, and as a serious exercise in the pursuit of truth.
Since he’s chosen to characterize these sorts of exchanges as a “War”, I won’t be pulling any punches here, and I trust that he won’t misconstrue my letter to be anything besides a serious examination of his claims and their verity. All of my interactions with Travis thus far have convinced me that he is friendly, honest, and earnestly open to structured criticism - so criticize I will. For context, much of this is a follow up to the live conversation I and others had with Travis today.
Unfortunately, many of the “claims” (they are more like stipulations or demands) appearing in this manifesto strike me as vapid, spurious, and devoid of force. Some of them rely on clever linguistic misdirection to masquerade as legitimate criticism of the movement, like this claim that “Black Lives Matter” is a racist title/slogan. Here’s the demand he makes in his writing:
Black Lives Matter must adopt a non-racist label and mission statement. Such as "Lives Matter".
The presuppositional, or implicit claim here is that “Black Lives Matter”- the current name of the organization, is a racist name. If that accusation wasn’t entailed here, the presence of this demand in Travis’ manifesto would be bizarre and out of place.
Additionally, it has also been made clear to me through on-air engagement with Travis that the primary reason for this demand lies in that allegation. Indeed, the only rationale given here to support the injunction is that dubious description of the label as “racist” -a weighty and injurious adjective.
In response to this, I’ve argued that BLM is not a racist label, but merely a specific description of the grievance the movement aims to redress. According to BLM, there is an issue afflicting one people group specifically, and that’s where they want to focus, so they’ve titled their organization in kind. This sort of thing characterizes a lot of movements - like the Women’s Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement (not in name but in goal), and many others. It’s not that suffrage advocates denounced men’s suffrage - the problem was that women didn’t have it.
This is where Travis makes vexatious philosophical moves that can be described charitably as irresponsible, or harshly as sophistry.
He will, and has, argued that “racism” is anything that inserts a race-specific qualifier or makes a race specific claim. When I asked him if the “women’s suffrage movement” (which is named with respect to the sex-specific problem it was seeking to address) would qualify as a “sexist movement (or label)” in a parallel sense, he answered in the affirmative. I commend him for his consistency in the application of these ‘ism’ terms, (and he’ll be quick to interject that under his definition, not all racisms and sexisms (like suffrage) are bad), but now I am missing the force of his argument completely. Why should BLM change their name?
After all, if that is what ‘racism’ means here, then racism isn’t necessarily objectionable. In fact, under that bizarre definition (which I think is somewhat divorced from the English verbiage in the sense that it doesn’t track the usage of the term very well at all), the ‘racism’ might be a good thing for all we know!
Consider that if I were to charter a 1960s organization entitled “Justice for the Black Voter”, then that would be a “racism” according to Travis’ definition.
Well, fine, he can define the word however he’d like, and maybe that definition does indeed make BLM a racist title, but now I don’t care. His indictment against BLM of having a “racist label” has now been completely defanged. In fact, this new definition of ‘isms’ is so vague that it may well be an accolade - a virtue rather than a vice (certainly, fighting for suffrage would have been a virtue, though it was “sexist”). Thusly, all his work to demonstrate the objectionable nature of the label is still cut out for him.
Now let me come down on this technique a little harder. Earlier I said that I would most charitably describe this as irresponsible, and most harshly as sophistry. Here’s why.
This is simply not what most people, most of the time, mean when they use the word racist. When I define racism, I assign the description: ‘unjustified discrimination or prejudice based on race’ (something like that). This is always a pejorative description. It’s something that should never happen, and is, in and of itself, morally objectionable. I submit that this working definition comports with the English usage of the word far more efficiently than the one being tossed around here.
Travis thus gets a lot of mileage out of this accusation of ‘racism' (indeed, its the only reason given as to why BLM should change its name), because he relies on the vastly widespread (dare I say universally) negative connotations and baggage that the term carries in contemporary context. If I can establish that X is racist, then that is sufficient for most people to conclude that X is morally objectionable and desire its cessation. This is the general cognitive tendency that Travis exploits. Here’s something like the argument he wants you to swallow, it seems to me:
Racist themes are bad.
“Black Lives Matter” is a racist theme.
Conclusion from 1+2: “Black Lives Matter” is a bad theme (…and should change.)
If you press him to defend the verity of the 2nd premise, however, he’ll give you the definition of ‘isms’ I described above, where 'racism' is anything race-specific, sexism is anything sex-specific, and not all of either are bad.
It’s intellectually problematic to employ English words without being cognizant of the baggage they carry - the way they are used contextually and contemporarily. It’s misleading, and it confuses people - which is why it peeves me a bit when someone like Jordan Peterson defines “God” as some emergent evolutionary truism, when that’s just not what most people mean by God most of the time. Sam Harris saliently pointed this out in Pangburn’s event a couple years back with the ghost analogy, pointing out how Jordan is robbing the noun of its meaning.
But at least Jordan defines God before he tells you what God he believes in. We don’t have to badger Jordan into this admission after he’s made grandiose assertions that clearly invoke the traditional definition of God (something a lot more like an extant, magical anthropomorphic immortal, and less like an emergent evolutionary property).
What Travis is doing here is akin to Jordan telling religious fundamentalists “You should organize yourself into hierarchies, because that’s what God commands you to do.” -and then only admitting later that he is referring to a natural evolutionary hierarchy or emergent literary spirit of the father- which would kinda undermine the notion that there’s anyone ‘commanding’ it in the same sense. This would be irresponsible.
And it’s actually a fallacy with respect to the syllogism above. The first premise is sound under my definition (and I would venture to say it is also sound under most English speakers’ definition) of racism. But the second premise is NOT sound. The second premise only goes through under this bizarre, new definition of the term, but it does so at the expense of the argument itself, cannibalizing the truth of the first premise in the name of establishing the second.
In other words - the argument relies on two distinct meanings of a term to work. This is known as the fallacy of equivocation, and it seems to be what Travis exploits when he says to BLM: “Change your racist name!” It’s nothing but a rhetorical trick - the sophistic element I referenced earlier.
That’s what is going on here. He’s palmed a card in the deck and he’s hoping it will go unnoticed. Heads he wins, tails you lose.
Black Lives Matter is not a racist name. Travis can arbitrarily change the meaning of “racist” to make it so, but now I don’t care (and neither should anyone else.)