Monday, April 4, 2011

The agency of a soundly struck billiard ball

     Recently, I opined that, though one may well have good reasons to vote (in elections), one reason that one does not have is precisely the reason most commonly given—namely, that “one’s vote counts”—i.e., one’s vote is causally significant. This claim, of course, is manifestly false.
     It is a characteristic of our time that we often believe things—often false things—for manifestly specious reasons. I've grown accustomed to it.
     Recently, I came upon some writers who make similarly obnoxious points. For instance, political philosopher Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting, argues that citizens do not have a duty to vote (indeed, some of them have a duty to not vote). But, if they do vote, they have a duty to vote intelligently, something that most actual voters clearly fail to do:
     Before Canadians head once again to the polls, they should do their homework. This election is an opportunity to make Canada even better, but it’s also a chance to make it worse. Bad decisions at the polls can lead to increased poverty, a stagnant economy, lost opportunities, worse pollution or unjust wars....
     Casting an informed vote is hard. Knowing what the problems are is not enough, because the solutions to Canada’s problems are not obvious. Reading parties’ platforms is not enough. Knowing what policies the different political parties favour is not enough, because a voter needs to know which policies have any real shot of working. The Conservatives, Liberals, New Democrats, Greens and others each want Canada to be healthier, happier and stronger. They’re like doctors each offering different prescriptions to cure Canada’s illnesses. Some of these prescriptions will work, some will have no effect and some will make Canada sicker. Voters need to learn how to evaluate these prescriptions....
     Voting is not like choosing food from a menu. If a citizen makes a bad choice about what to eat in a restaurant, she alone bears the costs of her decision. But if she makes a bad choice at the polls, she imposes the costs on everyone. Voters are not just choosing for themselves, but for all. If a restaurant offers bad food, diners can walk away or get their money back. This is not the case with public policy. Political decisions are imposed on all and enforced by law. Fellow citizens can’t just walk away from a menu full of bad policies.
     Voters face some choices. They can form their beliefs about politics in a self-indulgent way. They can ignore evidence and form policy preferences based on what they find emotionally appealing. They can treat voting as a form of self-expression and ignore what damage they do. Or they can be good citizens. They can form their policy preferences by studying social scientific evidence about how institutions and policies work, and by using reliable methods of reasoning to study the issues. They can work to overcome their personal and ideological biases and choose in a smart, thoughtful way.
     I’m not sure about Canadians, but, near as I can tell, most Americans are utterly incapable of being good citizens, as Brennan understands that.
     Does this mean that we Americans have a duty to stop being a country? Gosh!
     On the other hand, if one’s vote “doesn’t count” (i.e., is inefficacious), in what sense can it be said that unintelligent voting is harmful?
     Plainly, the widespread phenomenon of unintelligent voting is harmful. But that is consistent with the “harmlessness” of any given unintelligent vote.
     On the other hand, there is, I think, a special sense of moral agency that defies ordinary causal agency. My moral agency is not like the agency of a soundly struck billiard ball.
     But that is a topic for another day.

The politics of "colored people"

NAACP graphic
“I have never been able to discover anything disgraceful in being a colored man. But I have often found it inconvenient….”

     Earlier today, I heard a great little news story on NPR about the NAACP and the so-called “new diversity” (listen to the story here).
     The gist of the piece is that the NAACP—i.e., the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People—had gone into decline but is now rebounding, in part because it in some sense embraces a “new diversity” such that the “colored people” of its name is increasingly understood as including, not only African Americans, but “people of color”* (i.e., all non-whites) and even gays.
     I say “in some sense” because, as the NPR story reveals, some blacks resist or reject this new diversity and regard the phenomenon of non-blacks—e.g., Hispanics—leading NAACP chapters as a kind of “hostile takeover.”
     Meanwhile, some African Americans in the NAACP establishment seem to welcome and celebrate the new diversity.
     Philosophically, this is a delicious issue, a real smorgasbord of reasonable but conflicting perspectives with no resolution in sight.
     The NAACP was in fact founded by blacks—and whites!—at a time (1909) when the term “colored people” was the least offensive term for blacks, but that, in fact, was also (sometimes?) thought to include Native Americans and even other non-whites.
     But, unless I’m very much mistaken, the NAACP was and has been dominated by African Americans (not Native Americans) and, during most of its century-long existence, it has focused on African Americans. And so, whatever the peculiarities of its philosophical origins, at some point before I came along (I’m 55), it had become the single most prominent organization of and for African Americans.
     And further, one might suppose, it is good that such an organization—one by and for African Americans—exists. That is, if there were no such organization, then—one might suppose—there ought to be one.
     Part of the trouble here is the term “colored people,” which is loaded with cool (and not-so-cool) issues. One such issue is the term’s curious status as both offensive and inoffensive. When used by clueless residual rednecks (who may or may not be racist), it is offensive, owing to that usage’s historical links to a racist past. On the other hand, when used (viz., in its name) by the NAACP, it is inoffensive, owing to the organization’s origins—at a time when the term “colored people” was the clear choice among the decent and progressive.
     But, again, unless I am very much mistaken, the NAACP continues to “use” the term (justifiably, I think) despite the term’s (otherwise) long ago ceasing to be appropriate for the group for which it was created. And, somehow, the term—remembered now by most of us as an artifact of an unfortunate past—has I think narrowed in meaning, no longer referring to Native Americans (et alia) but clearly only to African Americans.
     So it is understandable, I think, that some African Americans view the NAACP as an organization specifically for African Americans. It undeniably had become that kind of organization (many decades ago), and its very name arguably refers to African Americans, its century-ago meaning to the contrary notwithstanding.
Frederick Douglass
     NAACP’s (slightly troubled) embrace of all people of color (and even gays) as the referent of the phrase “colored people” strikes me as generous, magnanimous, and forward-thinking. I like the spirit of the “new diversity” crowd in the NAACP. But I am not inclined to carp about those blacks who want and value an organization specifically for African Americans—and who, for obvious reasons, take the NAACP to be that organization.
     Part of me wants to call this a “dilemma.” But, of course, if it is a dilemma, it isn’t my dilemma. This is an issue (if it is an issue) for, well, “colored people,” whoever they might be.
The man who has suffered the wrong is the man to demand redress . . . the man STRUCK is the man to CRY OUT—and … he who has endured the cruel pangs of slavery is the man to advocate Liberty. It is evident that we must be our own representative and advocates, not exclusively, but peculiarly—not distinct from, but in connection with our white friends.

*I hope that it goes without saying that “colored people” and “people of color” are very different terms, despite their grammatical similarity.

See also

• Lohan calls Obama ‘colored’, NAACP says no big deal
• Tea Party Express' Mark Williams: NAACP's Use Of 'Colored' Makes It Racist

NAACP graphic