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Racist and bigoted tropes


Consider what we might call the ‘trope’ criterion of bigotry:


if there’s a negative attribute associated with an ethnic/racial/sexual traditionally stigmatized minority (e.g. they’re greedy, terrorists, bad drivers, over-emotional, violent, conniving, sexist, etc.) and a person maintains that someone of that ethnicity/race/sex has that negative attribute, then that person is a bigot.


Of course we have a moral duty to be self-reflective and carefully monitor what we say about the members of such traditionally stigmatised minorities. It's very easy to slip into adopting toxic cliches and stereotypes about women, or gay people, or black people, or Jews, or Muslims, etc. without realising we have done so. Those who are justifiably sympathetic to the view that we have this moral duty to monitor ourselves and others and to avoid adopting poisonous stereotypes may well be drawn to the trope criterion of bigotry.


However, it's easy to see that, actually, the trope criterion of bigotry is way too strong: it counts as bigotry a great deal that isn’t. It’s not bigotry per se to point out that that Muslim (Osama Bin Laden) is a terrorist, or that that Jewish person (Robert Maxwell) acted greedily and conspiratorially, or that that woman is a bad driver, etc. Sure, there might be bigotry behind such a criticism. But you can't just assume that there is.


Nor is it sufficient - or even close to sufficient - to establish bigotry that someone has accused a country falling under such a racial or ethnic umbrella of having such a negative attribute.


For example, it’s not bigotry to accuse Saudi Arabia (a Muslim country) of promoting terrorism, sexism, and homophobia. Actually, it’s true that Saudi Arabia promotes terrorism, sexism, and homophobia. We should be allowed to say that without being accused of bigotry - of 'Islamophobia'.


Admittedly, someone who is Islamophobic might be particularly keen to make or hear such a criticism of a Muslim country, but that doesn't come close to establishing that someone who makes the criticism does so because they're Islamophobic.


Similarly, it’s not sufficient - or even close to sufficient - to establish bigotry (anti-semitism) that someone has accused Israel of engaging in underhand and conspiratorial activity, notwithstanding the old anti-semitic ‘trope’ about Jewish people that they’re underhanded and conspiratorial.


We should be very wary of slipping into adopting negative and toxic cliches about traditionally maligned social groups. But we should also be wary of self-censoring, and allowing others to censor - by applying the ‘trope’ criterion of bigotry - reasonable criticism of countries like Saudi Arabia, religions like Islam, and this or that particular woman, etc.


In the wrong hands, the 'trope' criterion of bigotry can be used in a McCarthyite way: to suppress legitimate free speech about and criticism of countries, religions, and individuals.


JSteele said…
Great article! This is especially true in today's cancel culture. Any legitimate critic is at risk of being silenced.
psbraterman said…
Indeed. It is only when ethnicity/race/sex is taken as evidence of, or explanation for, possessing the attribute, that we have bigotry. Thus "She is a woman, therefore she is a bad driver, is bigotry, as is "She is a bad driver because she's a woman."

Regarding countries, if a country is wrongly accused of something as a result of a sincere mistake, that is not bigotry. When an utterly implausible accusation is stated as fact regarding a country, on the basis of pre-existing attitudes, then, however deplorable that country's policies may be, I would regard that as bigotry and wonder if you would as well.

For example, consider this statement by Maxine Peake, praised in the tweet that Rebecca Long-Bailey refused to remove when asked:

"The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd's neck, that was learned from seminars with Israeli secret services."

I am sure that the Israeli secret services do many unpleasant things, but training US city police to kneel on people's necks is not likely to be one of them. Yet Peake asserts this as fact,with no evidence presented other than her attitude to Israel, which she clearly expects her audience to share. That's bigotry
Stephen Law said…
Well there were Jewish leftists speculating that as Israeli police do routinely kneel on necks, and as they train US police, and US police are doing the same, the US police learned it from Isrealis. However, there's no evidence they actually did, and in fact there is evidence there were doing it before the Israeli police training took place. Peake presumably came across this argument claim (made as I say by left wing Jews) and took it to be correct. That's a mistake. What's the racist 'trope' behind this error, if any? The suggestion is that it's an example of associating Jews with malign political influence and conspiracy. Is that what led her to make the error? Maybe. One the other hand, maybe the explanation is that she has evidence that Israel does have a lot of malign political influence in the US (and perhaps also that there's related racist brutality in both countries), and it was that background knowledge that led her to believe this particular false claim. In which case, it's just an error I think.
stephen law said…
On thinking about it, it's also true I think that being prejudiced against a country needn't be a manifestation of racism or bigotry. Maybe I have a particularly low opinion of Russian, or Saudia Arabia. It's partly justified, but is also a result of confirmation bias etc. i jump to negative conclusions about Saudi too easily. Someone claims Saudi did a bad thing and I assume it must be true. That's an illustration of my anti-Saudi bias, maybe. But it's not good evidence I am Islamophobic. I could easily be not at all Islampohobic even while being somewhat irrationally hostile to Saudi and Iran, say. Ditto Isreal, then. Just because someone has a particularly big and somewhat unjustified bee in their bonnet about Israel doesn't allow us justifiably to conclude that's because they're antisemitic.
psbraterman said…
"Someone claims Saudi did a bad thing and I assume it must be true." But you would not publicly state that it was true unless you had verified it. Moreover, what if it is a totally implausible, very specific, and highly emotive accusation, such as, for example, that the Saudi police conducted a seminar in which they taught the Minneapolis police to kneel on people's necks?

And what could be going on in the mind of someone aspiring to high office who then publicly praised you for saying that?

There is a difference between thinking something, taking the responsibility of saying it, and taking the further responsibility of going onto a public forum to praise someone for saying it when you are yourself a public figure. Surely philosophers are supposed to pay attention to that sort of thing.
Stephen Law said…
Hi, Well I am quite careful, and would want to check - yes. However, those originally making the accusation were (I believe) Jewish people with some at least some credibility so while I think Peake was pretty sloppy, I can't get *that* judgemental re Peake as people jump to conclusions about Saudi and Russia on the basis of similar accusations that they see on line (assuming they must be true) all the time without being accused of bigotry. Let's not operate a double standard. Also, you suggest the accusation is wildly implausible. It seems to me that while it's false, and not well-supported, it's not ludicrously implausible - it's true Israeli police use the knee on neck, it's true the Minneapolis police use it, and it's true the Israeli police taught the Minneapolis police. So this wasn't some entirely bizarre out-of-nowhere 'I'm going to believe this bad thing claimed about Israel cos Jews are bad' accusation, which is what you are suggesting. There is no sound basis for accusing Peake of anti-Jewish bigotry here. True, she *might* be somewhat irrationally hostile to Israel, just as some are somewhat irrationally hostile to Russia, jumping to all sorts of negative conclusions on basis of insufficient evidence (loads of that on twitter, for example). But that does not establish racial bigotry (further, you might perhaps make the case that such hostility to Russia or Israel or Saudi is not, in fact, irrational).

Here's a thought experiment. Suppose there was another state somewhere that had a great humans rights record, that occupied nowhere, and that treated all its citizens equally well, and refrained from brutalizing any of the population under its control, though it did train overseas police forces, including Minneapolis. If Peake had instead seen folk on twitter suggest that this other country was responsible for training the knee on neck method to Minneapolis police, would she have assumed it must be true, and repeated the claim? I doubt it. I suspect she would have been more cautious. Now many will leap to the conclusion this shows Peake is antisemitic. But now ask yourself: Would she have have assumed the claim was true so if that other country happened to be Jewish? Again, I doubt it (certainly, I can see no evidence for supposing otherwise). This suggests to me that what lead Peake to accept to easily the accusation made is not that Israel is a Jewish state. It's because, rightly or wrongly, she believes it to be a state with a history of brutality. Unless you have some evidence to suggest it was because Israel is Jewish, I really think you should stop accusing her of bigotry.
psbraterman said…
I am surprised to learn that the Israeli police are involved in training the Minneapolis police ((actually, Peake referred specifically to a seminar by the Israeli secret service, which is also relevant to the flavour of what she said, but let that pass). Do you have a link to evidence for that?

Nonetheless, we agree that Peake was sloppy, to put it at its kindest, and I would infer (I do not know if you would agree with me on this) that she is predisposed to believe, and to assert with confidence, bad things about Israel on the basis of inadequate evidence. I don't know if that rises to the level of bigotry, but it is the very definition of prejudice. However, it is not her so much that I am angry with, as Rebecca Long-Bailey, who by virtue of her position has a duty to be careful about what she endorses.

The relationship between hostility to Israel, and anti-Semitism, is interesting. The Left has a natural sympathy for the underdog, and I am old enough to remember how rapidly it swivelled in its sympathies between Israel and the Arabs after the Six Day War. Hostility to Israel also feeds into the sanctimonious urge to condemn, something that I find particularly unlovely.

I feel very uncomfortable (I think we have discussed this before) when people say that they are not anti-Semitic but are anti-Zionist. To be anti-Zionist, if it means anything, is to wish for the dismantling of Israel as a state. I do not know if people who used such language have thought through the issue of what you're going to do with all the Jews who are living there.

With this issue lurking in the background, it should be clear why Jews generally regard unwarranted criticism of Israel as a manifestation of anti-Semitism. There is, of course, plenty of room for well-warranted criticism, a fact that pains me.

I think that this has been a useful discussion.
stephen law said…
Thanks Paul. There's a C4 factcheck here which refers to Minnesota police attending an event organised by the Israeli cosulate in Chicago with Morning Star reporting 'Israeli deputy consul Shahar Arieli claimed that the half-day session brought “top-notch professionals from the Israeli police”: I don't think anyone is denying some Minnesota police received some training from Israeli police. Such training is widespread and well-known in the US. See:

Peake put two and two together and made six. Because she's antisemitic? I very much doubt it. There's really no evidence for that. Far more plausible is she already had a view of Israel as a brutal oppressor and an exporter of brutality (which, if Amnesty are to be believed, is correct) and because this allegation fitted that narrative, she accepted it too easily. Sloppy, yes. Indicative of some anti-Israel prejudice? - yes. Indicative of antisemitism? - no.
psbraterman said…
Thanks. From your link it is clear that some Minnesota police have indeed attended presentations by the Israeli police. It is also clear from the same link that the Minnesota police had adopted the neck-kneeling tactic years before these presentations. I am glad to see on that link that Peake has apologised and retracted.

As for context, Peake said the original interview, just before the offending remarks, “Systemic racism is a global issue,” which softens my suspicion that she had singled Israel out, because Israeli treatment of Arabs is indeed an example of systemic racism and therefore relevant.

What leads to anti-Israel prejudice is an interesting question. I do not think that the Israeli government's bad behaviour is a sufficient answer, and I think I have said enough to make it clear why for Jews (and for the purposes of anti-Semitism
I see myself as a Jew) anti-Israel prejudice raises fears of anti-Semitism, although I agree that often a clear distinction can be made between the two.

None of this in any way detracts from my criticism of RLB
psbraterman said…
[Fixing comment forwarding to my email]
stephen law said…
Thanks Paul. Incidentally, re the suggestion that leftist singing out of Israel is evidence of antisemitism, I question that here for what it's worth:

To me, and indeed quite a few Jews, it seems obvious that the charge of antisemitism is being made *far* too casually, and sometimes for political reasons (one Labour MP just accused anyone defending RLB of being an antisemite). It seems pretty clear to me, looking at the evidence, that there's no more a/s in Labour or on the left than anywhere else. To us, the intense and sustained focus on the left, when there's at least as much a/s on the right and in the centre, looks politically motivated.

And yet, too many Jews, and also many not on the left, it seems clear that the left has a significant a/s problem, and even that denying this is itself evidence of antisemitism ('It's a Jewish conspiracy!'). Often this seems to be because left attitudes towards Israel are interpreted by critics as antisemitic (the Peake affair being one example). Given that this issue may have been enough to tip a General Election result, and the extraordinarily toxic history of antisemitism, it's certainly worth understanding exactly what's going on and trying to get the facts right.
psbraterman said…
"this seems to be because left attitudes towards Israel are interpreted by critics as antisemitic"; this indeed is the problem.

There are several reasons for this. Many Jews have personal connections with Israel, and think of it as part of their identity. Jews will generally have heard a self-serving version of the history of how Israel came into being. They feel singled out, and are concerned that opposition to Israel is a required shibboleth on the left. The widespread support on the left of Palestinians' claimed right of return is seen by Jews in the UK as an existential threat to Jews in Israel, and "existential threat" is a concept that Jews do not take lightly. There is certainly deplorable ignorance In the general population of the extent to which the movements of peoples in 1948-9 represented an exchange of populations. (Of course it didn't feel Like an exchange to the Palestinians, who unlike the many other populations displaced in the late 1940s have still not found a home, and there are many who share the blame for this). There is an understandable suspicion (this may be something that you want to discuss with your friends) that the real aim of the leadership of movements like BDS is the destruction of Israel, rather than simply attempting to bring its conduct into line with acceptable norms.

I get the impression that at times there is also in reality a blurring of the distinction that you are endeavouring to keep so clear between anti-Israel attitudes and anti-Semitism. I have read of students objecting to the activities of Jewish student organisations, on the grounds that Jews are Zionists, Zionism is racism, and therefore Jews are racists. I have also heard (I think this was one of Jerry Coyne's examples) of a rainbow flag on which was superposed a white Star of David (crucially, a Jewish, rather than Israeli, symbol) being banned from a Gay Pride march, on the grounds that a similar symbol appears on the Israeli flag, that the Israelis are oppressors, and that Pride is against oppression. Yet Palestinian flags were allowed on that march; clearly the organisers had little knowledge of the Palestinian Authority's attitude to gays.

As you know, I wish Labour well, and hope that you can find some successful way of navigating this thicket.
psbraterman said…
(Trying in vain to divert to the email I actually use. Apologies)

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