TCS Daily


Dusty Baker, Philosopher

By Keith Burgess-Jackson - September 23, 2003 12:00 AM

It pains me to say this, but our society is childish about race and foolish about language. These two embarrassments came together recently when Dusty Baker, the African-American manager of the Chicago Cubs baseball team, made a comment about the comparative heat tolerance of differently hued individuals. He said, specifically, that players with dark-colored skin tolerate heat better than those with pale-colored skin, the implication being that this affects their on-the-field performance.

I have no idea whether Baker's claim is true. It's an empirical question about which I, qua lawyer and philosopher, have no expertise. Nor have I seen any controlled studies on the matter. Thus, I remain agnostic. What shocked me was the reaction to Baker's comments. He was vilified. His intelligence was questioned; he was called names; it was even suggested that he was a traitor to his race. The consensus of the critics seemed to be that for the sake of race relations and his own safety, he should stifle himself. To Baker's credit, he refused to apologize.

Race is one of the few remaining topics about which people are not allowed to express an opinion. Oh sure, people can talk about it without fear of being haled into court, but only at the risk of being excoriated, like Baker; and who wants that? In my opinion, all of us should grow up. Aren't we mature enough to talk openly, honestly, and sensibly about something that (let's face it) everyone thinks about and notices all the time? Yes, there is a risk of offense in doing so; but shouldn't we mark that down as the price to be paid for freedom of expression? If freedom of expression is worth anything, it is worth being offended from time to time.

I want to address four race-related reasoning errors in this column. I was not born yesterday, so I expect to be misunderstood and, like Baker, vilified. But I feel an obligation, as a philosopher and as a public intellectual, to make racial discourse sane and civilized. If even one in ten philosophers were as courageous and principled as the great Socrates, the world would be a significantly better place. Perhaps this column will move us incrementally in that direction.

1. The first racial fallacy involves what philosophers call the use/mention distinction. There is a difference between using a symbol (such as a word) and mentioning it. Suppose I say that dogs have four legs. I am using the word "dogs." But suppose I say that "dogs" has four letters. Now I'm mentioning, or talking about, or referring to, the word. See the difference? In the first case (use), I'm talking about the things to which the symbol, "dogs," refers. In the second case (mention), I'm talking about the symbol, "dogs," that does the referring. The first is thing-talk, the second symbol-talk.

The word "nigger" (which I mention but do not use) has a long history of objectionable use. I will argue later in this column that not all of its uses are objectionable. The point I want to make now is that mentioning it is never objectionable. Why not? Because mentioning it is talking about the word, not those to whom the word is applied. How can it be objectionable to talk about a symbol? Here are some sentences in which the word "nigger" is mentioned but not used:

* The word "nigger" derives from the Latin "niger," meaning black or dark-colored.

* The word "nigger" has six letters.

* "Nigger," in most uses, is pejorative.

I have no idea why anyone would object to or be offended by these utterances. Only ignorance about the nature and functions of language could lead anyone to be offended. (Offense, like shame, guilt, expectation, and fear, can be misplaced, ungrounded, inappropriate, and unreasonable.) Note my use of quotation marks in the three examples. This is the conventional way of signaling to the reader that a symbol is being mentioned (talked about) rather than used. Note also that in the third example, the phrase "The word" is absent but understood.

2. The second racial fallacy has to do with linguistic privilege (or entitlement). If I remember correctly, Dusty Baker defended himself from his critics by saying that while whites could not have said what he said, he (qua African-American) could. This suggestion was met with derision. The implication seemed to be that either everybody may say certain things or nobody may. But why should that be? There are many things that I can do to myself (such as shave my head) that you may not do to me (without my permission). There are many things that I can do to my children (such as discipline them) that you may not do to them (without my permission). Logically speaking, why can there not be things that African-Americans can say about themselves that non-African-Americans cannot say about them (without their permission)?

Some well-meaning whites are troubled by the use of "nigger" by blacks. They hear blacks refer to each other with that word and infer that it's acceptable for them to do the same. But that's a non sequitur. If I see you discipline your child in the local Wal-Mart, I am not thereby authorized to discipline your child, even if your child deserves it. Now maybe African-Americans aren't sufficiently family-like (or cohesive) to make this a strong analogy. That is to say, maybe it's a mistake to think of a group as large and diverse as African-Americans as a functional unit, like a family, in which case the analogy fails. But that's what needs to be discussed. The mere fact that A does X to B doesn't authorize or entitle C to do X to B, for A and C may stand in different normative relations to B.

There is also this thing called nonliterality. In literal speech, one means what one says. (What one says is a function of the conventional meaning of the symbols one uses.) In nonliteral (figurative, metaphorical, ironic, sarcastic, facetious) speech, one means something other than what one says, perhaps even the opposite of what one says. (See, e.g., Kent Bach and Robert M. Harnish, Linguistic Communication and Speech Acts [Cambridge and London: The MIT Press, 1979], 67.) Suppose I see you twisting a cat's tail. I may say, "I'm sure the cat likes that," when what I mean is, "The cat hates that; stop it!" The sarcasm is usually clear (inferrable) from the context, one important element of which is intonation. (This, incidentally, is why e-mail is such a perilous medium.)

What this example shows is that meaning can (and usually does) depend on context. To rule out the use of "nigger" categorically, i.e., in all contexts, is, to put it bluntly, stupid. If I were African-American, I would be outraged by this attempt to limit or cabin my speech. I might even view it as another form of racial oppression -- a kind of meta-oppression. For example, I have heard the word "nigger" used endearingly, not only by one African-American to another, but by a white friend of an African-American. It can also be used subversively. Perhaps if African-Americans used the word endearingly or ironically, especially in the presence of whites, it would subvert the word's use as a racial epithet. Over time, the word would lose its power to offend.

3. The third racial fallacy concerns what Gilbert Ryle (1900-1976), the English philosopher and classicist, called conceptual trespass. I have heard it said recently (and more than once) that there is no scientific basis for race. The implication is that the rest of us (nonscientists) should stop thinking and talking in terms of race. But this is fallacious. To say that there is no scientific basis for race is just to say that race is not a fecund (fruitful) scientific concept. In other words, it doesn't give rise to interesting and testable hypotheses.

I'm not a scientist, and I don't even play one on TV, so I can't speak to the claim that race is not a scientifically fecund concept. But suppose it's not. Does it follow that it's not an ordinary (nonscientific) concept, that it's incoherent, or that it's not useful? Are all concepts scientific concepts? Surely not. I doubt that baseball or widowhood is a fecund scientific concept, but that doesn't mean that there is no such thing as baseball or widowhood or that we should stop talking about these things. Baseball is real, whatever scientists say about it.

To cite another example, some philosophers (viz., eliminative materialists, sometimes called simply eliminativists) believe that there is no scientific basis for the ordinary concepts of belief, desire, intention, mind, self, and consciousness. They disparage this cluster of concepts as "folk psychology" and advocate their elimination from our conceptual scheme. We should stop thinking and talking that way, they say, just as we stopped talking about phlogiston and the ether. Instead, we should talk about brain states (the way neuroscientists do when acting in their neuroscientific capacity). But these are normative claims, and in my opinion silly ones.

Eliminative materialism exemplifies scientism, which is the encroachment of scientific concepts, methods, and terminology on nonscientific domains, such as law, art, philosophy, commerce, religion, sport, and everyday life. Scientists are rightly revered, for they have expanded our knowledge of (and control over) the world, but it would be mindless and irresponsible of us to allow them to dictate which concepts we have and use and what counts as knowledge. If scientists find race an unfruitful concept, fine; but they have no right to dictate to the rest of us which concepts we deploy. Science gives us one picture of the world. It does not give us the picture.

One motivation for denying the reality of race is that race makes racism possible. Without race, there would be no racism. But this gets the evaluative cart before the existential horse. If racism is bad, shouldn't it be attacked directly rather than by denying one of its presuppositions? Consider an analogy: Without fire, there would be no arson. Is this a reason to deny the existence (or value) of fire?

4. The fourth racial fallacy is committed so often that it should be given a fancy Latin name, such as argumentum ad racium. It occurs when one infers racism from criticism. None of the following actions, in and of itself, is racist:

* Opposing affirmative-action programs.

* Booing Serena Williams at the French Open tennis tournament (or elsewhere).

* Criticizing Deion Sanders's showboating behavior.

* Firing (or supporting the firing of) Terrell Bolton, the African-American police chief of Dallas, Texas.

If mere opposition to affirmative-action programs is racist, then there cannot be a fair and honest debate about their merits. One side will have won (and the other lost) at the outset. Can't people of good will disagree about the legality, morality, and prudence of programs that have both winners and losers? In all four of the cases cited, racism was inferred and charged. But surely, more information is necessary before such a charge can be well-founded.

How pervasive is racism, anyway? Is there less racism now than before, either qualitatively or quantitatively? These questions cannot be answered without defining "racism." If "racism" is defined broadly, then there will be a lot of it. If it is defined narrowly, then there will be less of it. Those who benefit from there being a lot of racism will have a tendency to inflate the term's meaning. Those who benefit from there being little racism will have a tendency to deflate its meaning. This is the politics of language of which George Orwell (1903-1950) spoke. I will not try to define the term here, but I do find it dismaying how often the charge of racism is leveled. Whatever it is, racism is bad. One should therefore be extremely careful (the opposite of reckless) in accusing someone of it. Criticism of an African-American, or of a program that redounds primarily to the benefit of African-Americans, is not necessarily racist.

At a minimum, one must justify one's charge of racism by adducing evidence. The seriousness of the charge dictates the amount of evidence one should adduce. But there is more. It disserves civility and undermines mutual respect to call someone a racist without specifying what one means by the term. "Racist" is the functional equivalent of "communist," "atheist," "sexist" and "anti-Semite." The word immediately puts one on the defensive, and this in turn stifles rational discourse. I think this is what is meant by "playing the race card." Calling someone a racist can be an attempt to intimidate him or her. It raises eyebrows, drops jaws, and turns heads. Judgments are formed about people (and their reputations destroyed) solely on the basis of the charge.

What is gained by this, except unfair argumentative or social advantage? And what sorts of things are racist, anyway? People? Motives? Actions? Policies? Institutions? Can there be racist thoughts? Speech? Concepts? Feelings? I believe there can and should be a public, philosophically informed discussion of all of these matters, free of suspicion and recrimination; and yes, scientists should be allowed (even encouraged) to participate. Such a discussion would help us grow up as a society. Isn't it time we did?

Keith Burgess-Jackson, J.D., Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, Department of Philosophy and Humanities, The University of Texas at Arlington.

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