Monday, August 28, 2006

The McWhorter Fallacy

Those who pay attention to the scandals of the American political blogosphere doubtless know that George Allen -- a more-than-expectedly unappealing potential Republican nominee for President in 2008 -- called one of his opponents' staffers a "maccaca" and bid him "Welcome to America." The staffer in question is of South Asian descent and the hivemind quickly discovered that "maccaca" was a slur used by French colonists against North Africans. Allen's mother was a French colonist in Algeria, and it seems plausible (particulalry in light of the absence of competing explanations) that he consciously or sub-consciously had this meaning in his head. The Allen campaign can't admit any of this, of course, because it would suggest that Senator Allen is part French.

All of that is by way of background for those of readers and spambots who do not obssessively follow American politics.The point I wanted to make came from John McWhorter's defence of Allen, related by publius here:

Imagine for a moment that Allen actually knew that a "macaque" is a kind of monkey, or that in French the term is sometimes used as an insult for North Africans (Allen denied having known about either). Who, then, believes that Allen would use the slur against an opposition campaigner aiming a camera straight at him?

The logic, as I understand it is as follows:

-If P said X, then P would be criticized for violating some public norm.
-P therefore could not have said X since it would result in public criticism, which would reduce P's electability.
-Therefore, public criticism is unjustified.

The second premise depends on the idea that politicians, even in moments of stress, always act rationally. It also assumes that everything blameworthy will, in fact, be blamed. Since these are unsuound assumptions, the argument is a stupid one. This could actually be used as a warning about rational choice models, or just about the fact that in the public discourse today, someone will defend anything.

But more interesting is that the argument undermines itself to the extent that it is believed. McWhorter's Fallacy logically compels the conclusion that no politicians will ever say antyhing blameworthy. If people accept McWhorter's Fallacy, then, of course, they won't criticize politicians for what they say. But if that is true, then rational politicians, fearing no criticism and seeking the psychic satsifaction of insulting people will start saying blameworthy things again.

In other words, racial slurs by politicians become frequency-dependent strategies. If they are uncommon enough, they will not be criticized (on the assumption that their use is too irrational to occur). But then they will become a cheap way of letting loose. But if too many politicians start employing this method of stress relief, the McWhorter reasoning loses its hold and politicians start being criticized for being boors and bigots again.

It would then follow that there is a slur ESS. Anyone thinking of modelling this should give me credit. I realize it might be a bit embarrassing to suggest your idea came from an anonymous fellow on the Internet named "Pithlord", so I suggest P. Lord of the Institute for Pith and Substance. You're welcome.


Anonymous said...

ESS?? Case still -- somewhat -- unproven here, Pithy Pants, I think, although not for the reasons this McHooter apologist states, and even though I admire your attempt to produce some kinda Mathematical Model O' Bigotry, and despite my natural apathy re Yankeeland's racial overexciteablity (they're so niggardly about it, y'know...) Naw, I think one ought to look more to the content of the "slur" itself than to the debateable contexts and intentions with which it was delivered. What the hell *is* this word "macacca" (sp?), I mean? So it's a simian reference somewhat inherited from dude's *pied-noir* mum: does that mean it's packed full of hate and belittling? Maybe that's *only* true in the North American context -- although, let's be honest, attributing apishness round here to non-black South Asians is probably a bit more puzzling than contemptuous... look, I'm not being disingenuous here; my pale son's pale babysitter has called him "monkey" for years now, and it really is a fond tribute to his propensity for leaping about and screeching. If my kid were black, this salutation would take on a different colour, sure, but y'know, you can only parse and sweat this shit so much. Fundamentally, you must ask, does this pol's deploying of some obscure term, combined with a nerdy but not-entirely-unfounded assumption that an Indo-looking guy is a newcomer to the continent, mean he (the pol) harbours some dank Nazi-esque laothing for darker-skinned people...? I just don't see how that follows. Oh well, dude's career is unutterably sunk and destroyed anyhow. Hope he didn't have any good ideas Yankland will miss out on now.// Bonus Slur-Spotting Anti-Racism question, PithBoffers! When Indians were occupying Ipperwash Park, and then-Premier Mike Harris allegedly stated he wanted the "fucking Indians out of the park," wherein was the Other-hating racism exactly? In the intensifier "fucking," or in the common term "Indian"...? Or was the vile racialist hatred locateable in what he *didn't* allegedly say, "I want the fornicating/propagating status members of the First Nations community out of the cock-knocking park"...? Please advise.

PithLord said...

Come on, anonymous, a little logical thought can't hurt that much. If "macacca" means nothing in English, but is a pied noir slur for Arabs (racially Berber, and not that dark), then what is the logical conclusion?

Anyway, I doubt Allen is destroyed by this. If Webb pulls off an upset, it will because of a certain ill-thought out Middle Eastern adventure. Inshallah. But no one's going to change their vote over this, and no one should either. It's just that he can't apologize honestly because that would indicate a suspicious degree of bilingualism.

As for our mutual friend Mr. Harris, his story was always that he didn't interfere with police decisions at Ipperwash. If he said, "Get the fucking Indians out of the park" or "Please arrange so that the persons of First Nations descent are no longer in the disputed area", he interfered.

I'm not a slur-hunter by nature, dammit. I figure you can't say anything of public interest in this country without being called a racist by somebody, and I'm pseudonymous enough not to care. I put P&S's might behind one poor would-be Appointments Commissioner, if you'll recall.