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Thursday, May 29, 2014

EDWARD MORRIS: FACE THE ILLOGICAL DIATRIBES AND GET THEM OUT OF THE PAPERS

It would appear that Elizabeth Ferguson, in a less-than-lucid letter to the Grand Forks Herald (“Face Racism and Work to Eradicate It”, dated May 21st of this year) has attempted an argument opposing racism, although only in the final paragraph does she offer a conclusion, one not supported by any premises. While conveying a sense of exhortation she has avoided advocating any kind of action against racism, so I am not sure what precisely her argument is, but I can identify four faults with her construction.

First, she begins with an oft-quoted poem - by a poet whose name she has misspelled (oops!) - and follows it immediately by a pair of general statements about racism, while failing to relate the poem to the statements. One could take Donne's regrettable collectivist credo and, without conjunction, vituperate in the following sentence against private business-owners, land-holders, the Catholic Church, private banks and hospitals and schools, or virtually any entity which does not bend its will to the whim of tyranny, and be guilty of the same rhetorical device she has employed.

Second, the poem in question is of questionable merit as an expression of truth and is certainly not an appropriate citation in an argument. Because John Donne said it, and everybody quotes it, it is stamped with the seal of authority. Argument From Authority is a logical fallacy. And, Ms Ferguson, don't you dare suggest, however furtively, a political action (for what else could “stamp into the ground” and “eradicate” imply?) without acknowledging the necessity and propriety of logic.

Third, she has incorrectly defined the word “Racism”. American Heritage Dictionary defines the word as “the belief that race accounts for the differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others” or “discrimination or prejudice based on race”. Racism is not an attempt by any agent, willingly stupid or cowardly. (Why should cowardliness be more germane to the argument than stupidity?) Nor can racism, being a non-volitional conceptual entity, desire death of inspiration, life on the moon or a ham sandwich.

Her fourth and foulest error is her attempt to incite an emotional reaction through a set of vague abstracts without any concretes, so as to convey that she is talking about one thing when she may, in fact, be talking about something quite different. Ms Ferguson proceeds to tell us what “fighting racism” entails, or as she puts it, less precisely, has to do with. Yet she omits to state whether “fighting racism” is good or bad. Instead, she offers us pearls of wisdom such as these words, with which she closes her letter: “Until we decide to face racism and deny it all its excuses, we, our community, our university and our state will remain what ignorant cowards wish us all to be:  narrow, mediocre and eternally third-rate.  What a legacy.”  Without having properly defined racism, and without having described a fight against it except to say it involves individuals “working every day in every way to eradicate it,” we cannot reasonably be expected to arrive at a conclusion she is too sloppy or craven to make herself.

 

What we can do is examine the meaning of recent events on or near the UND campus pertaining to a set of t-shirts and a performance by a group of protesters as a concrete example of what “stamping racism into the ground” looks like. (Hey, isn't that a coincidence? Ms Ferguson has voiced her race-related concerns at a time when the subject is all over the local news!) What I see is a college president “condemning” a happening that took place at an activity which is not related to the institution over which he presides and which is no more his business than it is mine. I see the obscene spectacle of this same president abusing his position by participating in a “protest march”. (What does it mean when a person in power protests against individuals whose power extends no further than their own noses?) I see ordinary college kids, naive enough not even to question the reality of the First Amendment, out of nowhere labeled as hatemongers. Pardon them all to hell. Two years ago the Sioux logo was their school mascot.

Not too long ago, a group of sorority girls was similarly maligned over an innocuous banner draped over their house, sentenced to “diversity training” and academic probation. Since Ms Ferguson is so concerned about our community and our university, here's a concern of my own: for the foreseeable future, our political leaders will have undergone their education at a university. What sort of person will come out of an environment in which he must live under the constant fear that his any word or deed will mark him as a “racist”, a “homophobe” a “sexist” or some such word, all of which really mean untouchable? I conjecture that the college student who hopes for a lucrative career, who stands a chance in the political arena after graduating, if he should graduate at all, is the one who remains silent when the college president “protests” or publicly reprimands his classmate for not falling in line, or for expressing the wrong opinion. He will find it in his best interest, if I imagine things as they are, to keep his head down and say and do exactly what is expected of him by those who can make or destroy him. He will submit to diversity training as prostrately as any slave in Egypt submitted to the will of his Pharaoh, as fearfully as any Soviet submitted to the commands of Stalin and his politburo. If I am right in my conjecture, such a person would be well-conditioned to do all the wrong things when he entered politics, where cringing, cowering, back-peddling, back-stabbing and dissimulating would (as indeed they do) affect innocent victims outside the ivy walls.

Through all the scenery, what is really salient is the First Amendment (and the Fourteenth). Either we're talking about abridgment of free speech or we're not talking about anything. If Joe College doesn't have the right to wear a hateful t-shirt, because the all-knowing “we” decided that the First Amendment doesn't apply to such heinous, inciteful expression; if the First Amendment does not support him; and neither does the Fourteenth which guarantees him equal protection of the law; and if this drunken, racist, hate-mongering lout whom we might just as soon not give the time of day cannot claim these Amendments as arguments for his right to express himself, then there is no logical reason for anyone else to found a similar argument on them. What goes out the window for the goose goes out the window for the gander.

(You might think, and I'm sure many people do, that since you are not a racist, but a “right-thinking” person, your “feeling” about “sensitivity” exempts you from having to argue your position - “I'm not a racist! I'm one of the good guys!” But suppose racist expression isn't the only variety held to be intolerable. What of the South Carolina student who was sent to sensitivity training for wearing a cross? A religious symbol isn't racist. “But it's offensive!” a do-gooder interjects. So it's not really about racism, it's about “offensive speech”. But if curtailment of the First Amendment encompasses not mere racism, but all offensive speech, why should it not extend beyond all offensive speech to all speech contrary to the “public good” as determined by those with arms to enforce curtailment, such as anti-war speech or anti-UN speech or anti-Public School speech? Once there is no protection for the so-called racist - and once racism is extended to encompass the wearing of t-shirts, anyone can be called a racist - there is no reason to suppose that your free speech will be protected.)

It would not surprise me if Elizabeth Ferguson had not thought of this angle. Her little diatribe displayed a contempt for reason and a proclivity toward hysterical shrieking, as displayed in her fascistic-sounding rhymed couplet (“One either stands in the light or steps into the night”), a slogan appropriate to a public service ad, or in a police state where citizens are expected to report on each other for intransigence, but never in public discourse in a free country. Instead of openly proposing punishment for what she (or some entity or group deemed to have authority- deemed by whom?) decides is racist behavior (or speech, or heck, why not thought?) and extrapolating from said punishment the existence of laws, let them be local, or state, but necessarily laws contradicting the First Amendment; instead of then proposing we scrap the Fourteenth Amendment, which forbids the States from “mak(ing) or enforc(ing) any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States”; instead of coming out and saying what she really means, she yells “racist” and hides behind a smokescreen of clichéd rhetoric, expecting her voice, one more in a madding chorus of “racist”, to drown out all rational examination of her words and the true implication of her cause.

So, who's the coward?

 

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