It isn’t what you say, it’s who you are

Sarah Haider in the talk above outlines the reality that she has particular privileges in regards to talking skeptically and critically of Islam because of who she is, not the force of her arguments. More precisely, her status as an immigrant, woman, and a person with brown skin, inoculates her against the reflexive charges of racism or bigotry which get leveled against those who dare challenge Islam and the cultures with which it is associated.

And yet even here Sarah observes that she gets attacked and dismissed, whether through undermining her credibility, or suggesting that she’s a “native informant”.

I’ve been writing on the internet for 15 years. Long enough to see some trends emerge. This pattern of dismissal-by-identity has become much more noticeable on the Left over the past few years. Left-wing thought policing is operationalized through enforcing informational hygiene by segregation from unclean persons. I don’t know where it’s going, but I’m not optimistic.

But there is another group that engages in the same thing: the racist Right, what is now called the Alt-Right. In the early years of this weblog, most of the attempts of dismissal-by-identity came from this sector. Basically, the thesis is that nonwhites are constitutionally not intellectually creative, so their arguments were better than mine because they were white and I was not (this is a real position that was staked out by people who kept reading my writing).

A milder form of this stance would be that of a long-time reader, who I will not name in this post, who suggested that he understood the Bible better than I did because he was a white American and it was part of his culture, and not mine (nevermind that I grew up around white Americans and in white American culture, so he probably confused my brown skin for my cultural identity; again, something common among the identity politics Left and the racist Right).

Ultimately this form of argument-by-identity goes nowhere. Arguments are won through positional rank status within the tribe (you all know what “oppression Olympics” are), so they’re not arguments at all, but restatements of the nature of identity and its determinative character. If you are a white male, your job is to listen and learn, not talk back. If you are a white male and Alt-Right it is the job of others to listen and learn from you. If two people are of different tribes there is suspicion and incommensurability.  I, for example, am suspicious of engaging in discussions with liberals who I don’t know because tribalized arguments are usually just a waste of time (once they realize I’m not on their tribe they’ll just go full identity and everything will collapse). Similarly, many liberals probably feel the same way about #MAGA types.

The future seems to be more about power than persuasion. You are either in the Elect, or you are among the damned.

Meanwhile, someone like Sarah, who exhibits an old-fashioned fidelity and adherence to the idea and execution of truth is caught in the cross-fires of the two ascendent barbarian tribes.


12 thoughts on “It isn’t what you say, it’s who you are

  1. Yes, everything is Who? Whom? now. That’s probably inevitable with the degree of racial/cultural diversity we have. What to do about it, though?

  2. Devil’s advocate: when, realistically, has it (goepolitics, politics) ever not been about power?

  3. Mark Twain’s diary, Friday, September 7, 1906:

    For good or for evil, we continue to educate Europe. We have held the post of instructor for more than a century and a quarter now. We were not elected to it, we merely took it. We are of the Anglo-Saxon race. At the banquet, last winter, of that organization which calls itself the Ends of the Earth Club, the chairman, a retired regular army officer of high grade, proclaimed in a loud voice, and with fervency,

    “We are of the Anglo-Saxon race, and when the Anglo-Saxon wants a thing he just takes it.”

    That utterance was applauded to the echo. There were perhaps seventy-five civilians present and twenty-five military and naval men. It took those people nearly two minutes to work off their stormy admiration of that great sentiment; and meanwhile the inspired prophet who had discharged it–from his liver, or his intestines, or his esophagus, or wherever he had bred it–stood there glowing and beaming and smiling, and issuing rays of happiness from every pore–rays that were so intense that they were visible, and made him look like the old-time picture in the almanac of the man who stands discharging signs of the zodiac in every direction, and so absorbed in happiness, so steeped in happiness, that he smiles and smiles, and has plainly forgotten that he is painfully and dangerously ruptured and exposed amidships, and needs sewing up right away.

    The soldier man’s great utterance, interpreted by the expression which he put into it, meant, in plain English–

    “The English and the Americans are thieves, highwaymen, pirates, and we are proud to be of the combination.”

    Out of all the English and Americans present, there was not one with the grace to get up and say he was ashamed of being an Anglo-Saxon, and also ashamed of being a member of the human race, since the race must abide under the presence upon it of the Anglo-Saxon taint. I could not perform this office. I could not afford to lose my temper and make a self-righteous exhibition of myself and my superior morals that I might teach this infant class in decency the rudiments of that cult, for they would not be able to grasp it; they would not be able to understand it.

    It was an amazing thing to see–that boyishly frank and honest and delighted outburst of enthusiasm over the soldier prophet’s mephitic remark. It looked suspiciously like a revelation–a secret feeling of the national heart surprised into expression and exposure by untoward accident; for it was a representative assemblage. All the chief mechanisms that constitute the machine which drives and vitalizes the national civilization were present–lawyers, bankers, merchants, manufacturers, journalists, politicians, soldiers, sailors–they were all there. Apparently it was the United States in banquet assembled, and qualified to speak with authority for the nation and reveal its private morals to the public view.

    The initial welcome of that strange sentiment was not an unwary betrayal, to be repented of upon reflection; and this was shown by the fact that whenever, during the rest of the evening, a speaker found that he was becoming uninteresting and wearisome, he only needed to inject that great Anglo-Saxon moral into the midst of his platitudes to start up that glad storm again. After all, it was only the human race on exhibition. It has always been a peculiarity of the human race that it keeps two sets of morals in stock–the private and real, and the public and artificial.

    Our public motto is “In God We Trust,” and when we see those gracious words on the trade-dollar (worth sixty cents) they always seem to tremble and whimper with pious emotion. That is our public motto. It transpires that our private one is “When the Anglo-Saxon wants a thing he just takes it.” Our public morals are touchingly set forth in that stately and yet gentle and kindly motto which indicates that we are a nation of gracious and affectionate multitudinous brothers compacted into one–“e pluribus unum.” Our private morals find the light in the sacred phrase “Come, step lively!”

    We imported our imperialism from monarchical Europe; also our curious notions of patriotism–that is, if we have any principle of patriotism which any person can definitely and intelligibly define. It is but fair then, no doubt, that we should instruct Europe, in return for these and the other kinds of instruction which we have received from that source.

    Something more than a century ago we gave Europe the first notions of liberty it had ever had, and thereby largely and happily helped to bring on the French Revolution and claim a share in its beneficent results. We have taught Europe many lessons since. But for us, Europe might never have known the interviewer; but for us certain of the European states might never have experienced the blessing of extravagant imposts; but for us the European Food Trust might never have acquired the art of poisoning the world for cash; but for us her Insurance Trusts might never have found out the best way to work the widow and orphan for profit; but for us the long delayed resumption of Yellow Journalism in Europe might have been postponed for generations to come. Steadily, continuously, persistently, we are Americanizing Europe, and all in good time we shall get the job perfected. At last, after long waiting, London journalism has adopted our fashion of gathering sentiments from everywhere whenever anything happens that a sentiment can be coined out of…

  4. I’ll concede to being guilty of having personal heuristics that value the qualitative (or theological) opinions of a member of a given minority group about itself over another random pundit who often have transparent motivations. I mean don’t have time to thoroughly study the Quran so I have no idea if the particular passages that a ‘Weekly Standard’ writer identifies as problematic are “cherry picked” or not, but I do know that the Muslim Question is fraught with large political implications.

    The conclusion that ‘Muslims r bad’ just seems to conveniently align with a particular viewpoints on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the need for additional defense spending, the validity of the America’s ongoing colonial wars, etc.

  5. The conclusion that ‘Muslims r bad’ just seems to conveniently align with a particular viewpoints on the Israel-Palestine conflict, the need for additional defense spending, the validity of the America’s ongoing colonial wars, etc.

    ppl like sarah distinguish btwn being anti-islam and anti-muslim.

    though i do note that ppl who are worried about islamophobia don’t worry nearly as much about the dehumanization of ‘knuckle-dragging troglodyte evangelicals’ (perhaps apparently depicting poor uneducated whites as subhuman is ‘punching up’).

    on a literal level, muslims are killing atheists in bangladesh. i plan to never visit that country until that changes for obv reasons. meanwhile, the left believes islam is a religion of peace (at least in public, a lot of liberals private will talk shit about how bad the religion is cuz they’re not morons).

  6. I hope I’m not that long-time reader who you thought thought you didn’t understand the Bible as well as he because I would never think such a thing . . . I think I am pretty good on the Patriarchal Narratives though: 😉

  7. Razib,

    You’ve been sounding these themes for quite a few years now. Would you entertain maybe writing a piece or two about the “whys” of this unfortunate identity authoritarian phenomenon (per John Robb’s classification) from your perspective? i.e. factors/trends causing/worsening it, whether its long time brewing or sudden punctuated equilibrium, etc.

  8. on a literal level, muslims are killing atheists in bangladesh.

    I’m not a Ta-Nehisi Coates super fan but he had a good criticism a couple of years ago of Obama’s “Don’t forget the crusades” aside by instead recalling more recent US post-antebellum savage violence against blacks. This violence was ostensibly illegal but so common as to be small footnotes in local history where these events occurred. I think it’s debatable whether or not that compares to ISIS, but assassinations of professors and bloggers and other small-time terror would definitely fit the parallel.

    Anyhow I thought of this thread today because I remembered that pre-Trump a lot of right-wing intellectual heft was focused on a concept called “Taqueria” whereby *any* Muslim could be presumed to be lying because they are instructed to due so by their religion. These claims were made by mainstream Michelle Malkin-type of conservatives and not just the pray to Odin people.


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