Letter to John McWhorter on racism and free speech

Hello Professor McWhorter,

I was listening to your conversation with Sam Harris this morning (https://samharris.org/podcasts/217-new-religion-anti-racism) on my way to work here in Berlin, Germany, and found many of your ideas refreshingly uncommon and on target if we are serious about actually fixing the discourse paralysis that one sees literally everywhere today. A particularly novel paradigm shift you mentioned is the advice that we all need to get to the point where we don’t care that people call us names in public, e.g. when people call us a racist for saying that all lives matter.

I would even suggest that we take this further and actively encourage people to call us any names they want in public, e.g. nigger, Nazi, cunt, fatso, libtard, white trash, redneck, anything, but also–and this is key!–engage them in argumentative conversation and hold them accountable for what they say by forcing them to define what they mean by the names they use!

This is, after all, what we call (1) freedom of speech and (2) encouraging dialogue with others with whom we disagree, two things that we all should be doing, particularly you academics at our universities, who in fact should be modeling this behavior for the rest of us.

Similarly, your bump-the-shark-on-the-nose metaphor in which you suggest that we should simply tell people who call us racists that we are not racists so that they go away, as you say, does not go far enough. While this metaphor has the right spirit of suggesting we need to fearlessly counter these people who call us names in public, it unfortunately reeks of the dysfunctional, American desire to avoid conflict and dialogue with each other. To be clear, we shouldn’t want anyone to go away, as you suggest, but we should endlessly be engaging each other in argumentative conversation so that bad ethics and low intellect, wherever they surface, are properly exposed and people are held accountable for holding these views.

Instead of saying as you suggest, « I’m not a racist and that’s the end of the conversation, » a better approach is to refute people who call you a racist with a negative example and then counter-question them, e.g. « I don’t own slaves, so I’m not a racist, or what do you mean by racist exactly? » and let them know that this is not a rhetorical question but that you expect them to answer it in public and to stay in conversation until what they are attempting to say is clear.

If they can actually define the term they called you and stay in conversation explaining it, then they may indeed have an insightful point that you can learn from, one reason why we have conversations. But in my experience, most people today can’t define the words that they use. And if you can’t define the words you use, then by definition, you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is, I suspect, something that most people know very well at some level, which is why they won’t even attempt to define their terms, because they know that at some point it will be revealed that they don’t know what they’re talking about. But alas, this is the sad state of our so-called educated society today, even in our universities, which is worth exposing so that we can fix it.

So a better metaphor for countering name-callers than bopping them on the nose, as you say, would be to engage them in conversational ju-jitsu, which means to actively seek out conflict with people who threaten you, and to engage them in a way that uses their own force against them. Physically this means to throw them across the room in the direction of their punch. Conversationally this means to force them to explain what they’re saying, since the more they talk, the less they make sense, and the more they’re shamed in public.

But then, Socrates already taught us how to do this over 2300 years ago. And as you hinted to in the podcast, if enough of us have the courage to engage people (everyone!) in conversation in a way that exposes bad ideas, contradictions, hypocrisy and corruption, perhaps we won’t face the same fate that Socrates did.