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Posted by on Feb 8, 2013 in Culture, In the news | 4 comments

Normblog on flimsy accusations of racism

Via Normblog comes this story about what seems from the facts revealed to be a flimsy accusation of racism. Although the boy apparently denies making a Nazi salute at his teacher, it seems likely that he did so as an act of defiance. This sort of thing is stupid, of course – thoughtlessly suggesting that an authority figure is demanding obedience to a point comparable to totalitarian dictators like Hitler. Nonetheless, that meaning of a sarcastically offered Nazi salute to an authority figure is well known. The teacher appears to have been equally stupid in insisting on an interpretation of it as conveying a racist meaning.

Subjective intention is not magical in its power to remove hurt. Damage can be done by acts that were not subjectively motivated by malice, by racism, or by anything else that merits strong condemnation of a person’s character. We do demand certain standards of care, reasonableness, thoughtfulness, and so on, above and beyond the absence of the worst kinds of mens rea. This runs all through the law and through everyday moral standards. But there are two important points to be made here, slightly different from the points made by Norm Geras.

First, although a mere lack of thoughtfulness, etc., may merit criticism, it still not the same as malice, malevolent feelings (such as racist ones), etc. If someone who is probably not motivated by racist intent nonetheless makes a gesture that could be reasonably interpreted as racist by an ordinary, reasonable person in the society, that’s probably what we should say (and how we should counsel them). We need to be careful in the extreme when we make highly charged and highly damaging accusations, such as accusations of racism. So often, the charges are flimsy or frivolously tactical. They are thrown around carelessly, with little regard to the damage they can do to people’s reputations (as well as the psychological damage from being accused of something so abhorrent). Or worse, they are made for the deliberate purpose of causing hurt and damage to reputation.

Second, we need to be reasonable in our interpretations of people’s words and gestures. Certainly, the meaning that can reasonably be placed on a gesture, say, is not entirely controlled by the actual subjective intent of the person who made it. But nor is it controlled by the subjective interpretation of the person on the receiving end. It is controlled by usage, history, context, what might reasonably be imputed to an individual given what else is known about them, by tacit semiotic codes that we are all socialised into, and so on.

In this case, a Nazi salute aimed at an authority figure, such as a teacher, is most reasonably interpreted as a defiant accusation that the teacher is behaving in an extreme dictatorial manner. That is the well known meaning of the gesture in our culture. In many contexts, the accusation made by the person delivering the salute may be stupid, unfair, unreasonable, offensive, and so on, but it is what it is.

  • Thanny

    When I was in high school (20 years ago this year), there was a certain substitute teacher who was excessively regimented. When I learned he would be subbing for a particular class, I wrote “Jahwohl, mein Herr!” on the blackboard.

    Anyone suggesting even a smidgen of racism at that would be an absolute fool. I think the same goes for a Nazi salute in what sounds like exactly the same context. It’s also not unreasonable or offensive. Exaggerated comparison is one of the most powerful tools available to highlight how something is going wrong.

    I also have a caveat about the general notion of what a reasonable person might think. Most people are reasonable the majority of the time, but many such normally reasonable people are entirely unreasonable about certain subjects. Their opinions on that subject (whatever it may be) should not be credited as having come from a reasonable person.

  • Subjective intention is not magical in its power to remove hurt. Damage can be done by acts that were not subjectively motivated by malice, by racism, or by anything else that merits strong condemnation of a person’s character.

    I think it can’t remove hurt in itself, but recognition of that intention by the listener can. For instance, if Fred is lamenting that his unemployment benefits are harshly being taken away and Susan says “it’s to stop shirkers like you”, Fred might get upset. However if Susan then says that she was being sarcastic (referencing David Cameron’s rhetoric), her claim ‘magically’ becomes acceptable to Fred. Fred recognises Susan’s intention to convey a particular point – his belief about her intention changes whether or not he was hurt by her remark.

    This is based on the account of meaning given by Grice, which I find plausible. Furthermore I think that the moral culpability of the speaker is based on their intention. I don’t think Susan did anything immoral even if she wasn’t aware that Fred was offended, and so didn’t end up clarifying.

    Anyway, I just wanted to put that out there – it doesn’t really contradict anything you said.

    So when the headteacher said:

    A racist incident is defined by perception of other people rather than the intention of the person who committed it and this is the point we tried to make. [Telegraph]

    I would say that’s very wrong, for the reasons that Geras gives. If I claim that the exclusion of the boy from the school was itself a racist act, that would quite rightly be dismissed as silly, regardless of my sincerity. So there must be other factors involved in branding a particular act ‘racist’, other than simply that it was perceived that way by someone.

  • ThePrussian

    I agree with you. There’s even a Calvin & Hobbes strip where Calvin does that to his babysitter Rosalin.

  • DrewHardies

    I think it can’t remove hurt in itself, but recognition of that intention by the listener can. For instance, if Fred is lamenting that his unemployment benefits are harshly being taken away and Susan says “it’s to stop shirkers like you”, Fred might get upset. However if Susan then says that she was being sarcastic (referencing David Cameron’s rhetoric), her claim ‘magically’ becomes acceptable to Fred. Fred recognises Susan’s intention to convey a particular point – his belief about her intention changes whether or not he was hurt by her remark.

    I agree with this. Insults sting because they have a sentiment of, “I disapprove of you.”

    The idea that the harm could be intent-independent is bizarre. Were it true, Fred to be ‘harmed’ while mixing poetry magnets on his fridge.

    The “intent isn’t magic” phrase could be meaningful (‘after-the-fact claims about innocent intent aren’t always credible and won’t necessarily be believed’), but is becoming a thought-terminating-cliche.