Minding Our Language

Excerpts from "Thinking Straight" by Antony Flew 

5.1 The Fallacy of Pseudorefuting Description is essentially obscurantist. For the effect, and too often the object, of committing this fallacy is to dismiss blindly and with no evidencing reasons given whatever is so described. Today this fallacy is perhaps most commonly committed by describing someone's beliefs about what is or is not the case as racist, and dismissing those beliefs from further consideration on that account alone. Here, as has been suggested earlier (see paragraphs 1.44-1.47), the crucial and too often unmade distinction is the one between, on the one hand, beliefs about what is or is not the case and, on the other hand, a kind of behaviour, or, in the present case, misbehaviour. When someone's behaviour is truly described as racist, it is inasmuch as the person has discriminated either in favor of or against individual members of some particular racially defined set for no other or better reason (on no other or better ground) than that those fortunate or, as the case may be, unfortunate individuals were members of that particular racially defined set. Such behaviour is obviously unfair and on that account deplorable.

5.2 But suppose someone is condemned as a racist not for any such deplorable behaviour but for his or her beliefs about what actually is or is not the case. For example, suppose that he or she has found evidencing reason to doubt, and has expressed their disbelief in, some of the implications of a remarkably comprehensive and categorical pronouncement issued in 1965 by the U.S. Department of Labour, a pronouncement issued on its own sheer authority and without the citation of any supporting evidence. This read: "Intelligence potential is distributed among Negro infants in the same proportion and pattern as among Icelanders or Chinese, or any other group. ... There is absolutely no question of any genetic differential."

5.3 But anyone who is condemned as a racist for no other or better reason than that he or she does not accept and has expressed disbelief concerning some of the implications of this departmental pronouncement is in effect being condemned as a heretic; a person, that is to say, who rejects some of the established and approved beliefs of a society of which he or she is a member. But the liberal and civilized way to deal with the propounders of heresies is not to make them outcasts but to try to refute their heresies (see paragraphs 1.57-1.58). Providing only and always that the heretical beliefs were the outcomes of open-minded and sincerely truth-seeking inquiry, heretics surely cannot be blamed for holding their no doubt erroneous beliefs?

5.4 In the three previous paragraphs I was taking it for granted that the allegedly racist beliefs are beliefs not about all members of particular racial sets but only about averages across those sets. All the allegedly racist beliefs that various psychologists, biologists, and social scientists have in recent years been denounced and hounded for holding and expressing have been of this statistical kind. These beliefs, therefore, provided no rational basis for discrimination either in favour of or against any particular individual member of any of the racial sets in question. For example, as stated earlier, from a proposition stating the average height of all the members of some set one cannot validly infer the height of any individual member of that set. The situation would be different if anyone claimed that members of some racial set either all possessed or all lacked some characteristic needed in many sorts of employment and achievement. But such a manifestly false belief could scarcely be the outcome of open-minded and sincerely truth-seeking inquiry.

5.5 Committing the Fallacy of Pseudorefuting Description is one way of disposing of disfavoured assertions without undertaking the perhaps unachievable labour of refutation.

Pages 77-78 "How to Think  Straight" by Professor Anthony Flew


1.44 A measure of symbolization is by now necessary. But before \ proceeding to that, something needs to be said about the word "racism," which has become as much a term of abuse as "democratic" is of praise. For unless the disputants in any debate as to whether some person or policy is or is not racist agree upon at least some rough and ready working definition of the key term, then in the most literal sense they simply do not know what they are talking about. Two points may usefully be made at this stage.

1.45 First, if you want to abominate racists as wicked, then the word "racism" will have to be defined as referring to a kind of bad behaviour, presumably that of advantaging or disadvantaging individuals for no other and better reason than that they are members of one racially defined set rather than another. By the Axiom for Sets, formulated by George Cantor (1845-1918), the sole essential feature of a set is that its members have at least one common characteristic, which may be of any kind. The reason for introducing the word "set" here is that it does not cany the unwanted implications of such alternatives as "group" or "class" or "community."

1.46 The alternative hypothetical is that if, whether explicitly or implicitly, one defines the word "racism" as involving no more than the holding and/or  expressing of beliefs in the existence of differences on average across one racially defined set as opposed to another, then the definition makes racism not a kind of bad behavior but a sort of disfavored belief. The crucial distinction here is between beliefs that all members of some racially defined set possess some characteristic and beliefs that some characteristic is on average more or less commonly possessed across one racially defined set than across another.

1.47 This is important. For from propositions expressing beliefs of the latter sort nothing can be validly inferred about the possession or nonpossession of the characteristic in question by any particular individual member of the racially defined set in question. You cannot, for instance, validly infer the height of any particular individual member of some human set from a proposition stating only the average height across that set. So even if some or many propositions of this kind are found to be true, their truth could not constitute a reasonable objection to our trying to discover every individual's merits or demerits directly, and then proceeding to treat him or her accordingly. The policies for which such discoveries really might carry upsetting implications are policies to secure the representation of various racially defined subsets of a population in various areas of activity and achievement in proportion to their numbers in that entire population. (For a leading lawyer's critique of attempts to enforce such policies by law, see Epstein 1992.)

Pages 25-26  "How to Think  Straight" by Professor Anthony Flew

Racial Quango's & agencies
"4.16 Notwithstanding the recent development of the economics of public choice, however, many people apparently remain unaware of the very real and live possibility of corruptions resulting from the private interests of employees of public and semi-public organizations, corruptions resulting from their private interests precisely as employees of
those particular organizations. Employees of agencies established to combat perceived evils, for instance, cannot but have strong job-preservation interests in the continuation of at least sufficient of those evils to justify the preservation of the agency which employs them. If and insofar as those evils are indeed diminished, either by the activities of the agencies themselves or by independent technological and social developments, it becomes necessary, just to maintain present levels of employment and funding, for those agencies somehow to identify further supposed examples of the evils in question. (For a brief account of the nature of the economics of public choice, consult the preface to
Buchanan 1991. The classic contribution to that area of economics is Buchanan and Tullock 1962.)
4.17 This is certainly no place for a general investigation of the ways in which such possibilities have in fact frequently been realized: for instance, in the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission
(EEOC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the United States or in similar organizations in other countries. But it is for us very relevant to refer to a case in which the identification of an abundance of further supposed examples of the evils in question is achieved by tacitly transforming the meaning of the key word; the word, that is to say, used to refer to that evil."
Discrimination, Indirect and Institutional  Racism:
4.18 For example, the EEOC does this when it discovers what it calls indirect discrimination to have occurred when some minority subset of the total national population is found not to be proportionately represented either in some kind of employment in some particular geographical area or among those employed by a single employer throughout the
country. The employers concerned are then presumed, until and unless they are able to prove their innocence, to have been guilty of hostile dis-
crimination against members of the minority subset in question. It is notoriously hard to prove a negative. So, paradoxically, the only sure way for employers to provide acceptable proof that they were innocent of hostile discrimination against members of some minority subset is for them to operate a quota policy of positive preferential discrimination in favor of members of that minority subset. Presumably the EEOC recognized
that discrimination as a kind of choosing is essentially intentional. This was no doubt part of the reason why the EEOC decided that what it was proposing to combat as a supposed further form of the evil of discrimination must be described not as unintended but as indirect discrimination."
Why we cannot defend words like Multiculturalism:
"4.19 The economist Lester Thurow, however, on the second page of his Poverty and Discrimination (1969) simply defines "discrimination" as his word for all the actual differences with respect to economic prospects and economic achievements among members of the various sets which he there chooses to distinguish. This is done altogether without any refer'ence to causes from which these differences may have resulted. Thurow then proceeds to provide an abundance of statistics showing the extent of
these differences, a proceeding which, according to his definition, constitutes the provision of statistics showing the extent of discrimination. All intergroup differences in cultural orientation toward education, work, family, risk, self-employment, enterprise, and everything else have been banished from consideration by definition. "Discrimination" here
becomes a word for nothing but statistical results, although the very reason why most of us are concerned about discrimination in the usual
understanding of that word is that, in that understanding, it refers to a particular and unlovely kind of intentional behavior.
4.20 By this verbal maneuver Thurow not only abandons inquiry into the causes of these observed and recorded intergroup differences,
causes of which hostile or favorable (direct) discrimination is certainly only one cause although perhaps in certain cases the most important
cause. At the same time, he attempts to redirect the moral disapproval of his readers from such discrimination as a possible cause of these intergroup differences to the intergroup differences as such. In so doing he appears to be trying to persuade us to abandon the ideal of equality
of opportunity, which forbids discrimination upon grounds which are properly irrelevant, and to abandon it in favor of the very different, and
in practice incompatible, ideal of equality of outcome.
4.21 Thurow presents this altogether different ideal of equality of outcome in an oblique and very misleading way, as if its realization could be achieved by systematically preventing all defections from the entirely different ideal of nondiscriminatory equality of opportunity. Thurow, like everyone else, is fully entitled, if he so wishes, to proclaim his personal ideals straightforwardly, and to endeavor to persuade others to join him in pursuing those ideals. But to present what appears to be his own personal ideal as if it were a very different ideal, and that one
which is today almost universally shared, that is a different matter. (For some discussion of the relations or lack of relations between these two
different ideals of equality see, for instance. Flew 1981, chapter 2.)



All excerpted from Antony Flew's brilliant book "How to Think Straight"