Sunday, November 30, 2014

John McWhorter and Glenn Loury on the ethics of Ferguson

John McWhorter: [Michael Eric] Dyson thinks that a Michael Brown doesn't have any control. . . . The idea is that it's unfair to even suggest that the black community has control . . . . It's considered to be a special case, I think, in human history. The idea is that slavery plus Jim Crow and all these 400 years, then deindustrialization . . . makes it so that we have a group of people who cannot be expected to control themselves. It's on society.

Glenn Loury: That's a . . . category mistake. It mixes up two different kinds of things. Suicides will go up if the unemployment rate stays above a certain level for a certain period of time. I don't have the data at my fingertips, but I bet it's true. So, a social scientist can learn that, and that's worth knowing. This individual who hung herself — you can't account for that action with that reference. That's absurd. It's just mixing up two different kinds of things. There's no inconsistency between the simultaneous existence of a collective and an individual responsibility. Societies are responsible for the conditions in which people live; people are responsible for what they do in those conditions. I see no contradiction there.

McWhorter: You know, I know what you mean, but I honestly think that a lot of people, including a great many academics and intellectuals, would disagree with that point. You and I would be considered a little bit backward in understanding that there's a point beyond which individuals really cannot be held responsible. I think that in terms of that suicide example, many people would say: "No! You can't talk about what's going on inside of her! It's the larger issue!"  . . . The main flashpoint of Ferguson is that Michael Brown and his friend refused to step aside. And I'm not saying that in blame; I'm saying that because that shows you what their attitude toward law enforcement was. And I think that ultimately, that's law enforcement's fault. . . . Now, do I think of Michael Brown as responsible for the fact that he really could have just moved aside? I do. But on the other hand, I also see a society where I don't think that a representative number of people are going to be convinced by that. . . .

Loury: There's an ethical question here. . . . What does it mean to treat people with dignity and with respect? Withholding from them the presumption of their being responsible and capable, in terms of the management of their own lives, is a profound move of disrespect, in my opinion. I don't know how you can possibly have equality under such conditions. Those people then become infantile. The people about whom you say: "Oh my! Look at their conditions! They can only do this!" They become outside the orbit of any kind of moral discourse. They're not moral agents anymore. . . . You've gotta treat people as moral agents, man, or else you're not taking them seriously as human beings.

McWhorter: Well, isn't it sad that the fact is: we're backward! That is exactly why people hate the kinds of things that you and I write, because the idea is that this kind of Kantian — you might even call it "enlightened" — way of looking at it doesn't work when it comes to the descendants of African slaves in the United States of America. . . . I cannot stand the idea that part of my racial identity is supposed to be that I'm supposed to only pay lip service to the idea that we can do anything about our fate — that I'm supposed to just watch this steamroller rolling over us, and have a sense of heroicness in undergoing it and making sure that people see me undergoing it. That doesn't work. And I don't think it works for you.