Wednesday, June 21, 2017

How To Tokenize with Proportions

13% of American Muslims voted for Donald Trump.

That's a minuscule proportion. It is around half the proportion that Hillary Clinton got in Idaho. It is fair to say that Muslims overwhelmingly voted against Trump, just like it is fair to say that Idahoans voted overwhelmingly against Clinton.

13% also translates, roughly, into "1 in 8". And when you think of that way, it shouldn't be that hard to find a Muslim Trump supporter. Statistically, all you'd need to do is know eight American Muslims, and one of them is probably a Trump voter. And across a population of roughly 3.3 million Muslims, that means there are roughly 412,500 American Muslims who support Trump -- a lot of people! Yet it would be clearly, obviously wrong to use those "lot of people" to try and argue against the above conclusion that "Muslims overwhelmingly voted against Trump."

In short, it is simultaneously true that "Muslims overwhelmingly dislike Trump" and "it is not hard to find Muslims who do like Trump." Likewise, we can simultaneously know that Idaho is exceptionally conservative and know that finding liberals Idahoans doesn't take any herculean effort.

When one doesn't keep those two thoughts in mind, it is very easy to mislead oneself. I've noted that 13% is also the percentage of UK Jews who planned to vote Labour last election, but that still means it should not be remotely hard to find Jews -- quite a few Jews -- who are loud-and-proud for Jeremy Corbyn. If one is a Corbyn fan, one can (accurately!) think "look at all the Jews I know who support Corbyn" and then (inaccurately) conclude that the stories of widespread Jewish consternation over Corbyn are ginned-up nonsense. Same with Black Republicans -- they're simultaneously rare and not that difficult to find, and so it is easy for conservatives to dupe themselves into thinking they have no race problem by pointing out all the Black Republicans out there.

Ditto when one sees big crowds of angry constituents in a deeply conservative or liberal representative's town hall meeting. One can see those and think "wow -- even here people are turning against [Insert Party]!" But even in the most electorally lopsided districts, there are still going to be quite a few members of the other side -- certainly enough to pack an auditorium, if they're feeling motivated.

Or take this article, "To Understand White Liberal Racism, Read These Emails." It is about angry emails sent to school administrators regarding the decision by Seattle school teachers to wear "Black Lives Matter" t-shirts. The article observes that these emails came from one of the whitest, most affluent" and "staunchly liberal neighborhoods" in the city, places "dotted with rainbow yard signs that say 'All are welcome.'"

Applying the "staunchly liberal" label to these neighborhoods is entirely justified. The (Democratic) state senator in this part of Seattle was last re-elected with 80% of the vote. That's a crushing margin! But it still means that 1 in 5 voters in the district cast their ballot for Republicans. On the one hand, that's not a lot of people. On the other, that's a lot of people! Certainly, if 1-in-5 school parents have retrogressively conservative views on  race, that'd be enough to make their voices known in a letter-writing campaign.

Now, to be clear, it is entirely possible -- plausible even -- that these emails didn't come from the 1-in-5 Republicans but from the 4-in-5 Democrats. "Democrats" are a wide tent, and there are, indeed, plenty of putative progressives who are on a hair-trigger about race issues and would be prime candidates to send out letters like these. I'm not saying that because these emails were racist, they couldn't have come from liberals. They very much could have.

What I am saying is that we can't say "because this neighborhood is staunchly liberal, these emails must have come from liberals." That's because that conclusion entails a shift from the accurate observation that this part of Seattle is overwhelmingly liberal, to the inaccurate observation that any political or social activity substantial enough to make it onto the social radar screen must be emerging from liberals. It's quite possible for conservatives in a place like Northeast Seattle to be simultaneously a marginal presence and a visible one, under the right circumstances. Ditto liberals in a place like Idaho.

More broadly, this is just a particular example of an obvious point: words with the same meaning can nonetheless communicate very different messages. When we want to erase the minority presence, we talk in percentages (20% is teensy-tiny!). When we want to elevate it, we talk in ratios (1:5 is really common!). Both are right, and in fact both connotations are right: a minority of 20% is a very small minority (as against an 80% majority), but 1:5 people is very common. Keeping both connotations in mind is good deliberative practice. Jumping from one to the other as argumentatively-necessary is very bad practice.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

No Lessons Tonight

I have no lessons to offer from the results of tonight's Georgia special election. Mostly, this is because any "lessons" you'll hear tonight will almost invariably be "Democrats should do the thing I already thought Democrats should do", and I doubt I'm so dispassionate as to be able to resist that inflection in my analysis.

To the extent I have a takeaway, well, I get -- and basically agree with -- the argument that these results still show a huge swing in the Democratic direction compared to previous House results. Taking a district where Republicans were winning over 60% of the vote and making it nip-and-tuck is a big deal.

At the same time, Jon Ossoff got roughly the same percentage of the vote in the GA-06 as Hillary Clinton did. By and large, the people who vote for Trump are and continue to be fundamentally fine with Trump. All that's happened, all he represents -- they're okay with it. They like it even. I suspect they revel in it.

So mostly right now I'm just sad. I'm sad because I get the sense that if the median Georgia Trump voter knew that I -- Berkeley-residing, academically-employed, advanced-degree-holding, Jewish David -- was sad, they'd be happy. They like that I'm sad. They like that I'm scared. It's high-time people "like me" (whatever that means) were a bit antsy. It's long past due that I recognized that this isn't my country, it's their country. If I'm unhappy, that isn't a regrettable byproduct of important policy reforms they deeply believe in, and it's not a challenge to try to reach out and make me believe that these reforms can speak to me too. It's not the means, it's the end. It's not part of the job, it's why they took the job.

Maybe I'm wrong. But I certainly don't get the sense that they care. One never sees the "middle-income conservative white Christians need to reach out and heal a divided country" take out of the right-wing press.

So I'm sad. And to be clear: Being sad doesn't mean you stop working. And it doesn't mean you stop believing in other people, or assume there's no hope for change. But you're allowed to be sad. You're allowed your sensibilities.

Epistemic Antisemitism

On Twitter, I flagged this great article on antisemitism in left spaces by Spencer Sunshine and promised to write more about it. Then I got distracted. But it really does deserve at least a little additional comment, because there was a particular passage I wanted to highlight:
It’s almost always deeply frustrating to convince Leftists to sever these ties [to antisemitic actors] — but often it’s achievable. Leftists know these people taint their movement, even though they are often hesitant to be drawn into what seem like endless controversies about anti-Semitism. There is almost always disbelief when you broach the topic, and a tendency to dismiss any documentation that comes from the normal watchdog organizations. And it can also make you the center of unwanted attention; Barrett is running a smear campaign against me in retaliation for exposing him. But Leftists usually change their mind once they understand that these unsavory alliances generate critical media attention. 
Leftist Jews often come to me privately and complain about anti-Semitism they’ve experienced, but feel cowed into being silent about it. But the more people speak out against this from within the Left, the less likely the antisemitic conspiracy theorists are to find a welcoming platform.
The emphasized portion (emphasis my own) is what I wanted to highlight. It goes to what I want to call "epistemic antisemitism". Epistemic antisemitism is the process and practices which discredit Jews as knowers, particularly as knowers of their own experience (e.g., their experiences as victims of antisemitism). The default "disbelief" that comes when Jews say "that's antisemitic" -- and Sunshine soft-pedals here, since it is not usually just "disbelief" but a far more aggressive assumption that the antisemitism claim is (as usual) being made it bad faith -- is a particularly dangerous case. Prejudice yields the injustice, and then insulates said prejudice from critical review. In this way, antisemitism claims can be routinely dismissed across the board.

To be clear: "epistemic antisemitism" is not solely or, I'd suggest, even primarily a "left" phenomenon. The right is no more willing to credit antisemitism charges when it implicates them and theirs. To the extent "left" antisemitsm gets more attention, it is because most Jews are part of the (broadly defined) left and so exclusion there hits closer to home. It's also because of a sense that the left has the methodological tools that render it theoretically capable of addressing this wrong in a way the right does not (the right doesn't even purport to believe in things like "be appropriately deferential to marginalized groups when they articulate their own experiences).

In any event, if we are to root out antisemitism in our movements, I firmly believe that tackling epistemic antisemitism has to a top priority -- it stands as the guardian shielding all the other forms from challenge. And so it needs to be made crystal-clear that one cannot hold oneself out as an ally of the Jews if one is not willing to listen attentively, respectfully, and open-mindedly when they proffer critiques -- even when those critiques sting, even when they challenge deeply-felt commitments.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Joys of Social Tragedy

There's perhaps no type of person I'm more contemptuous of than those whose first response to a major social tragedy -- a terrorist attack, a mass shooting, a violent attack on a politician or political activist, and so on -- is gleeful musing on who they're now allowed to hate (or, typically, hate more than usual).

These are the people who get excited about what a suicide bombing "tells us about the Palestinians". They're amped about what a case of "price tag" settle violence "reveals about Zionists." They're positively giddy about what the shooting of Steve Scalise "illustrates about progressives". They can't wait to regale us about what the Manchester bombing "proves about Muslims."

Sometimes there are important social messages that are excavated by a major tragedy. They have real consequences after all, and they can be genuinely illustrative about certain threats various groups face or certain ideologies which have purchase.

My objection isn't to genuine and careful attempts to work through those meanings. Again -- it's to the giddiness that often accompanies it. They're more excited that their prejudices have been (in their minds) verified than they are that something terrible has happened. Their response is virtually never a "genuine and careful attempt" to craft a warranted conclusion from the full body of evidence. It is rather an expression of ideological ecstasy that dances upon graves even as it cloaks itself in the barest veil of solidarity.

It's a sick instinct. It's also an alarmingly commonplace one. I wish people would knock it off.