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Nice image to illustrate a basic cladistic principle. I still get whines from creationists complaining that I said we humans are fish — but that’s just a bigger circle enclosing everyone in this image.
For the Lisowicia book, number 4 of the Extinct series, we wanted to show the reader how we mammals are related to Lisowicia and other synapsids. It was important for us that the reader understood, in a visual way, that once you are in a group, you never leave the group. pic.twitter.com/6uwMXNGxav
— Gabriel N. U. (@SerpenIllus) October 22, 2021
I have no illusions that this will ever sink into the brains of the people who deny it.
There’s nothing here I didn’t already know, but if you want an up-to-date summary of Hovind’s criminality, here’s a video. In addition to committing spousal abuse, he’s been hanging out with and making excuses for convicted pedophiles. Would you believe that he thinks one of his associates being found guilty of the crime is that, sure, he was playing strip poker with an 11 year old, but they only got down to his underwear before he stopped.
Only watch on an empty stomach.
I could have predicted he’d be taking this route 30 years ago. He’s a skeevy, creepy liar who found a profitable grift in religion.
We had a good time at DUNE (or, as the poster calls it, DUNC) last night. It was excellent! It’s true to the original story for the most part, and the special effects were impressive. It’s a movie where you can just sit back and enjoy the slow build with occasional bursts of action, and the plot overall is not stupid.
One matter of taste: this is not a superhero movie. No slam-bam non-stop overpowered people smashing buildings and chins. It really is all slow imagery: space ships don’t swoop with blasters blazing, immense geometric shapes float down to the planet and drift onto plains of sand. It’s a thing. If you don’t appreciate the idea of taking your time in a movie, you may not have a good time. I was in the mood for it, so I found it pleasant and thoughtful.
On the other hand, it didn’t get very far into the plot before just…ending. It only got as far as Jessica and Paul fleeing the invasion of the Harkonnens to end up in Stilgar’s sietch. It’s been decades since I read the book, and what is that? About a third of the way in? I was just getting on a roll here when I had to go home. And it ends on such a downer moment! There has to be at least one more movie, maybe two, to bring it to its complex conclusion. It looks like an expensive movie, too, with a star-power cast and lots of fancy computer work (ooh, the ornithopters were amazing), so I’m going to have to tell you all that you’re required to go so it makes lots of money and bankrolls and brings me some resolution.
One minor complaint that isn’t so much about Dune as it is about this kind of drama in general. I attended with my wife, who has some hearing impairments, and in those quiet moments where they were talking, everyone tends to whisper at each other. It was annoying. Jessica and Paul are hiding in a tent deep in the desert, alone, talking about their situation and advancing a little exposition, and they are whispering for dramatic effect. You’re in the desert! Alone! Talk normally, as people do. I will say this for super-hero movies: they are very shouty. People emote loudly. It’s just that whenever a plot has some subtlety and thoughtful tension to it, the way they express it in Dune is by having the actors drop their voices into a low raspy register.
Don’t let that stop you, though! You must go see it so there’s a chance they’ll make the next episode in the story just for me!
At 9pm Central on Saturday, 30 October, I’m going to start up a livestream on YouTube to just talk about spiders, and spider movies, and whatever scary things I can think of about spiders. It’s Hallowe’en! I get to indulge.
If anyone else wants to jump in the stream, just send me a note and maybe I’ll let you on. Or even commenters on that evening — if I trust you to tell us all cool creepy stuff, I’ll send you a link then.
Maybe I’ll try to convince Mrs Spiders to make a brief appearance, since she has to live with the abominable Dr Spiders and probably has the scariest stories of them all.
I didn’t know whether to title this “Atheist Nerd Christmas” or “HEY I’M GOING TO SEE DUNE TONIGHT!”.
Don’t tell me if the movie is bad. I’m going to try to approach it with no preconceptions.
Terminal Boredom: Stories (Verso) by Izumi Suzuki
Izumi Suzuki published her final story 35 years ago, but this introductory selection of her writing could have been written in the nuclear-paranoia 80s, the cyberpunk 90s, or yesterday. An iconic figure in Japanese science fiction, Suzuki’s darkly irreverent writing has seen her compared to the genre’s giants – like Ursula Le Guin and Margaret Atwood – but her stories also bring to mind Bret Easton Ellis’s affectless ennui, or the glossily grim cautionary tales of the popular TV show Black Mirror.
Suzuki’s settings range from the intimate – bars, cafés, arcades, nightclubs – to the desolate: ruined cities and worlds on the edge of the abyss. Her protagonists negotiate these spaces with a cool detachment. Their days are parcelled into dissolute drinking, shift-work or therapy sessions while in the background, sinister government initiatives abound, from gender segregation to “voluntary” euthanasia. The futuristic details here – replicating technology, tentacled waiting-staff, elections via celebrity voting proxies – seem less significant than the exploration of mundanely earthbound concerns like addiction, flirtation, heartbreak and guilt, which follow the characters through space and time. In “Forgotten”, lifestyle differences and political outlooks diverge between planets and alien races, not between countries and classes. But imperialism and colonisation have also upsized, their sights set now on not just nations but whole worlds.
Terminal Boredom’s style is stark and often strikingly snappy (“I have no remorse about having no remorse” is a typical line) but subdued, making its sporadic dashes of drama all the more devastating. The collection’s several translators manage to capture Suzuki’s hardboiled, laconic cadences of conversation and communication. Invented slang is mixed with retro transatlanticisms: vibe, sucker, phoney, killing my buzz, off your rocker. Elsewhere, there are lines of striking familiarity – “But that’s the way we’d talk: duelling monologues, each of us in a bubble all her own” – where a particular kind of companionable alienation has resonance in our current age of locked-down isolation and living through social media.
In keeping with their mostly youthful protagonists and metropolitan settings, pop culture forms a vital part of these stories. In some, real-world songs and films act as a supporting structure, their familiarity offering an emotional anchor and a line of mutual connection as time warps and memories merge. Emotional confusion is reinforced by a quote out of place or the sudden chronological derangement of a playlist. In the title story, film and TV provoke emotional responses more comfortably than the drama of real life does – up to and including murder. In “That Old Seaside Club”, nostalgia induces emotional clarity, honesty and connection, but only because the characters are reliving their regret-filled lives of emotional withdrawal and passivity, until they learn to let go and accept.
A recurring theme here is the retention of past culture in disjointed pieces, like fragments of a dream. This is most explicit in “Night Picnic”, where learned behaviours, including rebellion and heartbreak, are jarringly performed rather than felt. The characters learn from jumbled cultural representations of “earthling” life and ancestor-worship, carrying out pointless rituals and duties for no other reason than that it makes – or keeps – them human.
Elsewhere, there is intriguing speculation on gender roles and dynamics in futures marked by abundance or frugality, overpopulation, sexual apathy and mutual suspicion. For Suzuki’s mostly female protagonists, men appear as subjects of mystery, curiosity and temptation – absent or background figures even when not overtly segregated. There is a focus on the significance of familial relationships – mothers, grandmothers, sisters – and on friendship, as much as, if not more than, on romantic prospects. We hear of “virgin births” of daughters with no need for a man’s involvement. In the absence of men, we see women take on both their duties and their looks and behaviour. We see characters defy the ageing process and the passage of time, and slip in and out of gender roles just as easily. The social classifications of nerd, hipster, addict and fashion victim are more enduring here than contemporary definitions of gender, race or class.
Futuristic fiction, paradoxically, can feel both retro and solidly rooted in the here and now. The absurdity and futility of going through the motions – “Why do I have to keep on living that life?” “Well, I’m not sure why” – is a thematic refrain throughout this collection. Terminal Boredom is an uneasy, dizzying descent through worlds that blend past, present and future, but such well-written anatomies of anxiety and dissatisfaction are both timeless and of obvious relevance today.
This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
How have certain types of crime been racialised in the United Kingdom? What are the colonial origins of institutional racism within the British police force? And how has whiteness been mobilised to divide different communities across Britain? Samira Shackle spoke with Adam Elliott-Cooper, sociologist at Greenwich University, whose book, Black Resistance to British Policing, was published in May this year.
A conversation on racism, identity and social movements in the United Kingdom that explores how common conceptions around the particular attributes of certain communities have developed.
Hosts: Alice Bloch and Samira Shackle
Exec Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Image artwork: Ed Dingli
If you want access to more fresh thinking, why not subscribe to New Humanist magazine? Head to newhumanist.org.uk/subscribe and enter the code WITHREASON to get a whole year's subscription for just £13.50
Hi and welcome to With Reason. I'm Samira Shackle. And I'm Alice Bloch. And With Reason is brought to you from New Humanist magazine and The Rationalist Association. This podcast is where we catch up with people whose work and ideas challenged dogma and lazy thinking. It is the space to reflect on reason and unreason, debate and criticism.
And something we've explored in every series of With Reason so far is racism and inequality, the reality of it and stories of resistance to it. Back in series one, Jason Arday told us all about growing up in the 90s and about the contradictions of the so called cool Britannia era. That was the decade in which the black teenager Stephen Lawrence was murdered, and in which the McPherson report concluded that the investigation into that killing had been marred by professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership. More than two decades on from that report, despite some changes, racism and policing all too often appear in the same breath, something highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movements, both here and in the US. And indeed, elsewhere. Samira that's something you're discussing with your guest today, the sociologist Adam Elliott-Cooper. I'll leave it to you to tell us more about him. And I'll be back at the end for a catch up.
Yeah, so Adam is a sociologist at Greenwich University. And in his new book, Black Resistance to British Policing, he looks at the activism that made things like Black Lives Matter as possible. But he also approaches racism as something that goes way beyond the interpersonal level. So this idea of one individual being racist and discriminatory against another. Instead, he argues that black resistance confronts an entire global system of racial classification and exploitation and violence. So it's a sobering read, it highlights the links between imperial cultures colonial war and contemporary racisms, plural. But it's also hopeful, but gets inspired by experience too. So before digging into that historical structural side of things, Adam told me first about how his time spent working with young people actually brought him to writing about policing and resistance in the first place.
So I guess the book begins in 2011. And in 2011, I was working as a youth worker in Hackney in northeast London, where a lot of the work we were doing with the young people, there was educational workshops, and things like that. But I was always really interested in the more social activities that we could do with the young people that could explore different kinds of social or political issues. Sometimes I was invited into a youth club and asked to do a workshop on how to deal with a stop and search or police misuse of power. But a lot of the conversations often extended to why the police operate in the way they do, what the history of policing is, what the wider context is, but sometimes will be put into one workshop in a school about the history in the context of policing. But a lot of the young people wanted to always know about, okay, but what can we practically do? How can I deal with when I'm being stopped and searched? How can I challenge misuse of police power. And so I began to realise that policing was this issue, which not only was something which a lot of young people engaged with, but it was simultaneously something which better enabled people to understand the existing social order, and the historical context in which it emerged, but also enabled people to come up with practical solutions to challenge the existing social order.
Interesting. So you said that was in 2011, which was also the year of the London riots 10 years ago. So those started in Tottenham, in the north of London, actually, where I live. And I think the way that's been sort of cemented in the national memory is a story of looting and disorder and mayhem. And this idea, I think, particularly of local communities really losing out from a kind of rampage of looting. But that's not how you see it, is it?
No, I think that because of this experience I had with working on these issues relating to policing of all of these young people, I kind of saw what took place in 2011. Maybe it could take with a different kind of perspective. I mean, 2011 was the year in which a reggae artist called Smarty Culture died during a raid on his home. It was the year in which we saw one of the largest community protests in Birmingham following the death of a young black man called Kinsey Burrell. And of course, the riots that began in Tottenham was sparked by the police killing of Mark Duggan. But what also of course, took place in the years leading up to it was a massive escalation in police searches using a power Code Section 60, which enables the police to stop and search people without requiring any reasonable suspicion. And so, while a lot of people were focusing on the destruction and the harm that was caused during those rebellions, for me, I was also thinking about the destruction and harm that had been caused by the forms of policing harassment, violence, arrest assaults, which was the prelude to those disturbances in which I think are problems which haven't been ameliorated at all in the years which have followed.
Yeah, there's a kind of interesting point there, I think, again, coming back to the idea of policing, because, as I said, a lot of the way it's been cemented in the national memory and talked about is just a story of looting, and not really about the origins of it at all. And undoubtedly, of course, there were businesses that were destroyed, there were items that were stolen, etc, etc. But then there's this whole kind of other story about the way that those crimes were policed afterwards and the types of sentences that were handed out and so on.
Yeah, I mean, a lot of people try to argue that these rights were not political, but clearly the value to them was deeply political, right, you know, state power and policing. But I think the aftermath was equally as political. And so I began to get involved in organisations, like the new monitoring projects in East London, or the Tottenham Defence Campaign in North London, which was helping people defend themselves against a massive escalation in arrests, raids on people's homes, instances of brutality and violence at the hands of the police, which not only was, I think, a quite a concerted effort to reestablish the existing order and reestablish the kind of policing which had led up to the rise of 2011. But also, I think, crucially, involved in intervention from central governments. And we saw people like David Cameron and other politicians make quite public statements, encouraging courts to disregard normal sentencing to treat the sentencing of people charged related offences with political punishments.
So before we get more stuck into the discussion, I just wanted to ask how you're defining racist policing, as the title of your book is Black Resistance to British Policing. There I was wondering, can we say that there's white resistance to British policing, too? And can we say that not all policing is racist? Or is it that you're getting at something that's more structural?
So without getting too academic with people, I think it's useful to think about racism as not simply about prejudice, about there not being enough diversity, or enough training in the police force, but understanding racism is something which is institutional. So I would broadly define institutional racism as when the normal functioning of an institution produces racist outcomes. And what this means is that institutions like the police don't produce racist outcomes because there are prejudiced individuals working there who are flawed, or have some kind of unconscious bias deep within their psyche, which needs to be identified and routed out. So it's not because there aren't the kind of policies and practices necessary to ameliorate the issues in an otherwise fair system. He actually understands policing as something which is historically constituted as racist. So it understands racism as being fundamental to the foundations of both the British states and which is better understood, I think, as Imperial states rather than simply a nation state. And consequently, British policing, as most of British policing has taken place across Britain's colonies as much as it has on the British mainland. And thus, racism has been a fundamental component of British policing, for most of British policing history. And so I don't consider racism to be something which is an externality or a problem with policing, I think it’s policing functioning as it was intended to function.
That's interesting. And we'll get more into it later on the kind of Imperial roots of policing and the way that these structures are embedded into the state. For now, I wanted to ask as well about this idea of the “black folk devil” that's been present in public discourse for many years. I was actually thinking about when you were talking about the Tottenham riots and this idea of looting and mayhem and destruction and so on. But you talk about the mugger and the gangster, and so on. So I wondered what you mean by this term, the “black folk devil” and how that's been utilised recently.
So I think the “black folk devil” can maybe help us to better understand institutional racism. So there are two things here. The first is that mugging or gang crime or knife crime aren’t crimes in and of themselves. There's nothing really in the statute books about gang crime, specifically knife crime, specifically, muggings. Specifically, they are categories of crime. And what categories of crime do is they emerge at particular historical moments, the mugger emerges in the 1970s. Gang crime emerges in the 2000s; knife crime slightly later, and these categories of crime kind of vacuum up lots of existing forms of crime, creating the impression that there is a distinctively new and different problem. Very often this new purportedly different problem is attributed to a new and different people, and very often it's migrants and/or black communities. So are the racialized minorities for which these purportedly new social criminal problems are attributed we can think about other categories of crime, like terrorism, or immigration offences and what have you. But the other thing I think is really crucial about it is it helps us to better understand institutional racism. So let's think of example in relation to so-called gangs. There were two criminologist in Manchester who are really interested in looking at gang crime across the United Kingdom. And they realised that Manchester and London both have these gangs databases, which the police fill with the names of people they've identified as being affiliated with gangs or gang crime. And they also see broken down by ethnicity, and both the Metropolitan end and the Greater Manchester Police said, Yeah, sure, here you go. Here's the gangs database broken down by this thing, and then they then ask them, okay, so how do you define a gang member? And they said, one of the main ways they define them, are people involved in serious youth violence. This can be anything from very serious offences, like discharging a firearm, or attempted murder. So you'd less serious offences like common assaults, which is effectively spitting or shoving someone. And they said, What can we have all the young people you've identified as being involved in serious youth violence, and have that broken down by ethnicity, race. And what they found was that the vast majority of the people in the gangs databases were black or Asian, whereas the majority in Manchester of the CSU violence people were whites, young people, and when it came to London, it was 50-50, which is roughly proportionate of London's youth population. This tells us the criteria that police say they're using for identifying gang members is not the criteria that they are in fact using. And in fact, race is a far more salient indicator for who is or who isn't identified as being affiliated to a gang. Now, crucially, this isn't simply because the police are these terrible, bigoted, prejudiced, immoral people. Not that I don't think that's the case at all. I think this is an example of the normal functioning of policing, producing racist outcomes. And I think that the reason this is so endemic, is because racism has been fundamental to policing for the entire history of British policing that extends beyond the British mainland, across its colonies, through which race was the fundamental way of discerning who was immoral, and who was moral, who was criminal, and who was innocent, who was deviant and who was law abiding.
And this term “folk devil” is from sociology, is that right?
Right. Yeah. So the “folk devil” is a term which I think was popularised by people like Stuart Hall in the 1970s. And lately was adopted by others like Paul Gilroy in the 1980s and 90s. And the idea of this, the folk devil, I guess, is a popular conception of deviance, a moral outcast, somebody who the law abiding so-called majority should feel fearful of, should feel under threat from.
Yeah, it's interesting, you argue that it's often tied to this supposed threat of black masculinity. So you've got the old colonial era stereotypes about black men being hyper sexualized. There's also Enoch Powell, in his notorious “Rivers of Blood” speech warning about black immigrants robbing old white women, and so on. And I wanted to ask about where black women are in all this. So one of the most moving things that I think you highlight is black women's role in resisting discriminatory aspects of policing.
Yes, so one of the things I noticed when I began my field research was I began working with lots of different campaigns, which were led by the families of people who had died at the hands of the police. And what became really apparent was that almost every single one of these campaigns was led by a woman. And so I began to ask people, why is it that you think that women lead all of these so many, almost all of these campaigns, and I think there are maybe two or three broad themes that I picked up. The first was that too often, when people die at the hands of the police, particularly black people, they are framed as being dysfunctional, as criminal, as deviant, as coming from quote, unquote, single parents households, which couldn't look after them properly, places that were chaotic, devoid of love. And I think that by presenting themselves, not as these militants would, chaotic activists, but instead as grieving parents, as mothers, sisters, as widows, I think enables a lot of these activists to win over sections of the press or members of the public or politicians or the court systems. But I think there's something else happening here as well, which I think is also really crucial. Because, while they do often present themselves as grieving mothers and what have you, maybe Doreen Lawrence, the mother of Stephen Lawrence, who is perhaps one of the most well known examples of this, these women are also politically critical, politically engaged, and many of them actually politically radical. And when I interview and speak to them, and their speeches at rallies and protests and public meetings, many of them draw on those histories of colonialism and slavery and talk about the role of women who are separated from their children for the violence of Empire. They talk about the other women who have been, who have come before them who fought against injustices and violence in the hands of the states. And crucially, they articulate a sense of family and belonging, not simply as being this kind of nuclear family structure, which has been torn apart by state violence, but actually family as being something that goes beyond bloodlines, or the nuclear family, which is a sense of solidarity, which is a sense of community, and family, which is a sense of, of collective resistance in collective care. And I thought that it was really a really powerful way of articulating a form of black feminism, which I think doesn't always identify itself as such, but I think is really marked by ways of understanding states and police violence is not simply about race and class, but also about gender.
That's fascinating, because I think, much as you have all these stereotypes around black masculinity, as you say, these stereotypes around single parent families, or aggressive black women and so on are equally prevalent in our culture, aren't they? And this is what you're describing. And you know, that the kind of activism on the ground is so far removed from that.
Yeah, I think you're completely right. And I think we've seen this in often an almost unspoken way through the kinds of policies and practices that mainstream governments has implemented. When we think about Boris Johnson's mentoring projects when he was London mayor, or when we think about the other kinds of projects which seek to mentor, young, particularly young black boys, but working class boys more generally, I think, who have been brought up in by just one parents, generally a mother, and apparently, being brought up by mother means that they haven't been imbued with the kind of moral values necessary that only a man can imbue, haven't been brought up with a strong sense of identity and self worth, that apparently only a man can offer them. And I think this kind of way, implicitly, I think degrades women and frames men as being the arbiters of morality and discipline and justice, both in the home and outside of it.
And I wanted to jump back to talking about knife crime. So you talked earlier about the gangs matrix, and the way that we talk about knife crime and serious youth violence is often very racialized in tone. So yeah, what do you think is wrong with the way we talk about knife crime? And I think one interesting comparison is between the way we talk about knife crime in London and Manchester, as you mentioned earlier, and the way we talk about it in Glasgow. iIt's something you go into.
Right, yeah. So as I mentioned before, knife crime, of course, isn't a crime, right? It's a category of crime. And it's a category of crime which emerges as particular historical moments, maybe about 15-20 years ago or so, and has continually kind of expanded as we see more sections of the press or politicians or the police using this term. And what it can do is create the impression that this is a new problem and a problem which is increasing rapidly. But I think what's often the case, as well, as you mentioned, is that it's a category of crime which is racially charged. When we look at the images that are used on the television or listen to the commentary from people like Piers Morgan and others, we continually see race being associated with knife crime. And I think there are probably two or three problems with this. The first is that, of course, when we see crimes involving bladed implements being used in places like Glasgow, race isn't used to explain why it is we have these problems. So while even the United Nations has visited Glasgow and described it as one of the most violent cities in Europe, when this problem arises and is analysing Glasgow races and how we explain these issues, we see written questions of class, questions relating to addiction and poverty and inequality in housing and mental health, more often used in these kinds of context. But as soon as this question of knife crime becomes racialized, race becomes the explanatory factor. And I think the reason that racism is so important, therefore, isn't simply because it is empirically untrue that the vast majority of so-called knife crime in Britain is carried out by young black people. I think the real issue is how we explain an association between race and knife crime. And it's through race being the way in which we explain knife crime that I think the real problem arises. Because once we explain crime through race, rather than explaining crime through the facts that people live in conditions, which are more likely to breed these forms of violence, then we not only reproduce forms of racism, but we negate the underlying issues which leads to the issue of rising crime in the first place.
Hi there I'm Alice, I produce With Reason and today you're hearing Samira Shackle talking to the sociologist Adam Elliott-Cooper about racism, policing and resistance. If you want to hear more about that, go back to series two to catch Luke de Noronha talking about his work on Jamaica and the UK, his book Deporting Black Britons. He talks a little bit more actually about this idea of being criminalised that Adam may have already been touching on here. And if you enjoy listening to With Reason, you'll love New Humanist magazine, a quarterly journal of ideas, science and culture. To get a half price discount on a year's subscription, head to newhumanists.org.uk/subscribe and enter the offer code WITHREASON. That means you'll get four print editions through your door through each year, all for the modest sum of £13.50. back now to Samira and Adam.
So there's often this tendency for people in Britain to assume that if someone talks about racist policing, they're probably talking about America. And I think that probably goes beyond policing to this idea that racism is somehow much worse in America than it is in the UK. Or even that you shouldn't talk about racism and racist policing, in particular, in the US and in the UK in the same breath, because there's just no comparison at all. Why do you think that is?
So I think that Britain is really good at creating the impression that racism is something that happens somewhere else; it's something that happens in the United States, it's something that happens in South Africa, or at least used to happen in South Africa. But here in Britain, we don't do race, right, we do class. And I think the reason Britain is able to reproduce this kind of self image is because for most of Britain's history it hasn't been doing race on the British mainland. For most of its history, it's been doing racism in its colonies across the Caribbean, the African continent, Australia, much of Asia, and, of course, much of the Middle East and elsewhere. And so I think because of this geographical barrier between where Britain has been doing race and the British mainland, it's able to kind of create this kind of conceptual barrier between where Britain resides, and where racism resides. And I think this is linked to an idea which people like Paul Gilroy, again, has talked about, which is this idea of colonial amnesia, because people talk about American racism as being totally unconnected and different to British racism, as if Britain and America are unconnected, as if people in America speak English, because of some weird quirk of history, because of some unexplained natural phenomenon, when in fact, of course, and the United States is, in many way, a creation of a number of European countries, but principally Britain. And so by looking through those histories of Empire, and how Empire is fundamental to the constitution of Britain, both historically, and today, we can better understand the role that the United States has played not as a completely separate entity, where a worse kind of racism has evolved in a completely distinct way to Britons, but actually how Britain and America's racism are historically linked throughout history, but also today.
You talked earlier about how this history of racial discrimination and colonialism is built into British policing, sort of from its foundations. I wonder if you could talk a bit more about that. And also, is that something that's particular to policing? Are you talking more generally about the state?
It's useful to understand Britain not as a nation-state, but as an imperial state. Britain has never existed, since it was established in 1707, without colonists, and racism has therefore always been fundamental to British governance, right? Across all of its institutions. I think policing is a particularly interesting one, because of the way in which we've seen policies, practices, and people from Britain's colonies migrate to the British mainland, bringing those policing policies and practices with them, right. So maybe one or two quick examples. Probably the most one of the most well known include Sir Kenneth Newman, who was head of the Metropolitan Police, brought in after the 1981 riots to deal with this problem of black youth and urban rebellion, and he cut his teeth really first in British Mandate Palestine as a police officer, but then gained his knighthood in Ireland where he had been responsible for handing over power from the British Army towhat became the Royal Ulster Constabulary. And so because of his experience in dealing with unruly natives and racialized others across these colonies, he was considered to be a suitable candidate for the role of a head of the best parts in police and with him. And during this time, more colonial policies are brought to the British mainland. So this included in 1981, for instance, for the first time on the British mainland, we see the use of tear gas, and other forms of poison gas, we see the colonial tactic of driving an armoured vehicle into crowds in order to disperse them which a young man lost his life in Toxteth in Liverpool. We see forms of armoured, policing and other forms of more militarised weaponry being used for the first time and in 1985, Sir Kenneth Newman actually brings baton rounds to the scene of Broadwater Farm in Tottenham, in North London again, the first time these have been brought to the scene of a civic disturbance on the British mainland. But these are all policing practices which had been used for many years in Britain's colonies in places like Malaya and Kenya, and Trinidad and Guyana, and Jamaica, and Ireland. And they were being brought to the British mainland, as people from Britain's colonies and former colonies were considered to have posed a different kind of threat, a specific kind of racial threat to Britain, and thus requiring a form of colonial governance in order to deal with them.
And your book, although this is all so kind of embedded into the state, the book and talking about resistance, I think it offers a kind of hope as well about the future. So I wondered what the alternative is to the type of policing that we have at the moment. So is it possible at all to build a more progressive police force if racism is so embedded into the state? And if so, how, what could we be doing differently?
So over the last 30 or 40 years in this country, the prison population has almost doubled, the women's prison population has more than doubled. And we've seen the police expand in their ability to surveil our digital communications’ use and other forms of power of surveillance, to impose injunctions upon people to stop them from seeing certain people and going to certain places, making music using social media, what have you. But we haven't seen a significant improvement in public safety. Public safety is still a major concern for many people. And a lot of the community organisations I worked with, during the course of my research, particularly those who were youth led, were seeking to find other ways of improving public safety. And for many of the young people we worked with, when we asked them, okay, so what does a safe community look like, a lot of them said, Well, I know that if I go to a suburban area, it's probably going to be pretty safe. And the reason it's safe isn't because there's a police officer on every corner, because everyone who lives in the middle class suburbs lives under the constant threat of incarceration, if they put a foot wrong. It’s because people in these middle class suburbs are more likely to have access to a good job, secure housing, access to education, and mental health provision if they need it, addiction services, all of the kinds of fundamental things that people need in order to live a healthy and prosperous existence. And if we continue to erode and not replace the public services, which have been defunded over the course of the last 15 years since the global financial crisis, but instead continue to expand our police and prison system, I think we're going to only continue to exacerbate the problems which led to the 2011 riots and also not really improve issue the issues of public safety, which I think everybody wants to address. And so I think that what a lot of community organisations are arguing, actually, is that we should be arguing for less policing, less reliance on prison power, because reliance on police and prisons I think, isn't the sign of a strong society, which certain political parties might tell you it is but actually is a sign of a weak society. And a stronger society relies less on police in prisons, and more on alternatives to that place in prison system - strong trade unions and renters unions for people to have better jobs and better housing, strong youth and community organisations for people to get the kinds of social support that they need, support for survivors of domestic violence and child abuse. All of these types of things, which, in some parts of the activist communities, they call “defunding the police” and investing in communities instead. And I think that these kinds of political visions try to construct a world in which we don't rely on police and prisons anymore. And I think this might be a utopian vision that we can't imagine, in our lifetimes, but I think it's something that a lot of communities are trying to work towards on a piecemeal basis, one community centre, one youth project at a time.
Yeah, that phrase, that slogan “defunding the police”, I think is one that's quite often misunderstood. It seems to make people really angry in the mainstream a lot of the time. It's this idea that it's advocating for a lawless society. But that's not really what it is at all, is it?
I mean, it has a lot more behind it. As you've just said, the people who are most likely to be the victims of violence or harm in our society are lower income communities, are very often racialized minorities. And the fact that these slogans and these ideas are coming out of these communities isn't therefore coming out of a place of ignorance, it’s coming out to a place that just said, Look, this law and order policing, this expansion of police and prison power is not working. And not only is it not working. It's actually oppressing us. One analogy that a friend of mine uses is, it's like having a leak in your roof, you call your landlord and ask the landlord to fix the leak in the roof. And they come to you with a bucket to catch the drips of water. And a month later, you ask them to fix the leak in the roof cause it got bigger, and they come back to your home with a bigger bucket. Of course, the bucket is useful whilst the roof is leaking, but it's not going to fix the root issue of what's causing that roof to leak and the water to drip into your home. So whilst it makes sense, in some ways, in the short term to get bigger and bigger buckets, in the longer term, what we really need to do is to fix that roof, what we really need is to fix the root causes of the kinds of social inequalities which lead to people coming into the context of the police and prison system in the first place.
And we started off talking about institutional racism. And that's been been a sort of intimate point of discussion for decades now in the UK. And I think often when there's a discussion about solutions in the public sphere, at least, it's about, it kind of comes down to seeking greater diversity in institutions like the police. So promoting more black officers, having more black people in leadership positions and so on. You're critical of this idea that diversity is the answer. So maybe you could tell me about that and what you think better, more effective action would look like.
So we've seen the kind of liberal demands for diversity become increasingly popular over the last 30 or 20 or 30 years, and I think probably reached a crescendo in this country with the McPherson report, which demanded a massive increase in police diversity, and of course, probably reaching an even greater crescendo in the United States with the election of Barack Obama. And it's in these two contexts that we see the fact that actually police violence and police racism hasn't improved at all. And I think the reason that people thought that this kind of representation could work is perhaps slightly out of what can only really be a historical naivety. Because of course, Britain has been doing diversity initiatives for a very long time. But it hasn't been doing it on the British mainland. It did diversity initiatives in places like Rhodesia, in Nigeria, and Kenya. It did diversity initiatives in Jamaica and Guyana and Trinidad in India and Malaysia, because it had to recruit people from the colonised populations into their police forces and their court systems and their educational institutions and, and other systems of power and governance and control. And what we saw in all of these contexts was, as Franz Fanon and others have articulated so well, was the reproduction of the same systems of power, but with a few black faces in high places. And I think perhaps therefore, we should be unsurprised that those same patterns of inequality had been reproduced today. And maybe the most vivid example of this is this current conservative governments, which has one of the most ethnically diverse cabinets in British history and of course has its very well known commission for racial, racial and ethnic disparities where much like the colonial administrators of yesteryear have recruited people from the colonised or racialised populations into its systems of power to only continue the very same systems of institutional racism for which anti racists have demanded change for so long.
So we've been speaking just now about this idea of diversity, both in things like police recruitment, and more generally. And in recent years, we've seen quite a few books from people like Reni Eddo Lodge and Robyn D'Angelo, which explicitly reference white people in their titles. So, Eddo Lodge’s book is Why I'm No Longer Talking to White People About Race and d’Angelo's book is White Fragility: Why It's So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism. Those are just two examples. But people seem to get quite angry about this idea that whiteness is an identity in itself. It’s something that we explored in the magazine in New Humanists back in 2017. And so Adam, why do you think that people get so angry at the suggestion that whiteness is an identity that's worthy of examination?
So I think that very often whiteness is considered the default human being to which all other human beings are compared. Whiteness is the Greenwich Meantime of human dispositions; it is the centre of our social world. And I think that's therefore making it visible, and can often make people feel uncomfortable because it's so often it is actually invisible. But I think what’s also really crucial is that the work that people like Ron were doing, I think, situates whiteness, not as something which is simply embodied in all white people as Robyn D'Angelo does, but something which is historically constituted, which is something which is a historical invention. And therefore, if it's something which is had been historically invented, I, at one point, people, European people decided to begin identifying themselves as white in order to differentiate themselves from the peoples that they were colonising, which they were racializing, as, as red or black, or brown, or what have you. This means that we can also dismantle these identities, this means we can also dismantle these categories. And I think that's really crucial for one or two reasons. The first, of course, is that it means that racism is something that everybody is implicated in, in one way or another. But it also I think, helps us to better understand how people are exploited differently and divided through these racial categories. It creates the impression that a lower income working class person who identifies as white has more in common with Piers Morgan, or Boris Johnson, or Jeremy Clarkson, than they do with their Asian neighbour, or their black coworker. And so what this also does, of course, is obscures the way in which people have commonalities in the way in which they're exploited or experienced oppression, and creates what WEB Du Bois called a “wage of whiteness”, where people who are racialized as white can say, well, I might be exploited at work, and I might be harassed on the streets, and I might be worried about my pension and whether my children are going to get a home, but at least I can, in some immaterial, intangible way, identify with this idea of whiteness, and all of the people that it represents, whether that be the royal family, or the people who run governments or other ideas or institutions of influence and notoriety.
Yeah, I was thinking of, in I think it was in 2019, when Jon Snow was presenting on Channel Four, and he referred to there being a lot of white people at a pro-Brexit rally, and there were loads of complaints to Ofcom about it just for using that term. And I wondered if things have moved on since then. We obviously last year had the massive Black Lives Matters protests, both in the UK and around the world. Are we thinking about whiteness more or examining it more? In general, I don't know about in academia where you are, or sort of more generally, in public discourse.
I think what's happened with Jon Snow was really interesting because it helps us to differentiate between white people and whiteness. So when Jon Snow identifies a Brexit rally, and says there's lots of white people here, what he's really identifying is whiteness, it's people really kind of using their whiteness to engage in a political project. But what I saw in the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 were Black Lives Matter protests in small towns and villages across England and Wales and Scotland, which had maybe never seen an anti racist mobilisation before. And were almost exclusively white. But when I saw people, white people coming out in places that didn't have very much ethnic diversity, I didn't see them doing whiteness, I saw them actually pushing back against this idea that whiteness is how people should identify. And therefore, racism, anti racism is something that other people should be invested in. And in fact, I think they were pushing against whiteness, and the kind of political projects like Brexit, which have sought to mobilise whiteness to divide different people across countries like Britain. So I think that differentiating between white people and whiteness, I think has become so crucial over the last few years, as more and more people racialized as white have become invested in anti racist struggle not only through the kinds of rallies and mobilisation that we saw in 2020, but also through the new anti racist organisations like Anti Racist Cumbria, for instance, which has come out of the protest movements in 2020, which is made up of huge number of white people. But they aren't I think invested in whiteness in the way in which the Brexit protests that Jon Snow identified all those years ago and gotten all that trouble for.
Yeah, I think the exact quote from Jon Snow was that he had never seen so many white people in one place. Anyway, thank you, Adam. Elliott-Cooper, thanks so much for sharing all of that with us.
I thank you so much for having me on. Really appreciate it.
Adam Elliott-Cooper discussing his book Black Resistance to British Policing. Our producer Alice is with me now. So Alice, some of the themes that we touched on there have echoes of the interview that you did with Luke de Noronha in series two, which was about his book Deporting Black Britons. So what struck you listening to Adam there?
Well, it's interesting, isn't it? I mean, Luke is actually a sociologist just like Adam is, and one of the reasons I really like sociology is that it complicates this idea of the individual. And I really liked how Adam kind of goes beyond the interpersonal, which, of course, is really still important, and I think he would acknowledge that, but he goes beyond that, and focuses on the state and he says, you know, this is structural, this isn't an externality, it's part of our story, it's part of a kind of very deep embedded history that probably is so deeply embedded that a lot of us are actually blind to it, you know. His point on that reminds me of Orwell's writing on Burma. Also, though, you know, he may be a sociologist, but his work, or at least his conversation with you there, reminds me of contract theory and politics - this idea that, you know, you kind of enter into a bit of a bargain with the state, you accept the authority of the state, because ultimately, the state on balance is going to provide you with some kind of security, it's going to protect you. And it's probably better than if you're just outside of it on your own. And that's, you know, so-called state of nature, etc. But obviously, actually, as feminists have argued, re women in the state, what happens if the state doesn't protect you? What happens if you feel that the state isn't really made in your name? And that's something that Adam is pointing to, I think.
I think that point about the individual and the state is really an interesting one, you see it a lot with the way that the concept of white privilege is talked about and how it's become very controversial. In the media, it's almost like a culture war point. I think that's actually a term that originated to diagnose a structural problem, but it often ends up in a sort of defensiveness, I think, of people saying, you know, I don't have privileges just because I'm white, looking at all these ways in which I'm disadvantaged. And that sort of misses the point, I think, because it's a way of talking about racialized structures and differences and so on. But when it kind of comes down to this individual level, I think there can be a reflexive defensiveness. So yeah, it's, I think, very useful to have more focus on the structures and the histories that we're all operating within.
Yeah, certainly. And actually another word that people get very kind of, I guess, if not defensive, but rather stirred and angry by at all ends of the political spectrum is this term “diversity” that you and Adam also talked about. That reminds me of one book I'd love to read. It's from a little while ago, still certainly relevant, though, I think it's called On Being Included by the feminist Sara Ahmed. And that book is about kind of what happens when diversity is put forward as a so-called solution in institutions, you know, higher education, for example. And really, she talks about how, you know, racism, quote, can be obscured by the institutionalisation of diversity. So that's just a reminder really, that, you know, diversity, we really have to probe what's going on when someone raises that word, I guess, especially in a corporate context, it's something that I'm thinking about a bit at the moment reading a novel by Natasha Brown called Assembly, which is very much on that on that subject.
Yeah, I think you've seen this argument play out, as you say, with feminism as well, this whole idea of women in boardrooms being an end goal in and of itself. And what Adam was talking about with having more black officers in the police, for instance, in senior roles. And I guess the thing is, it's not a bad aim to have that. But if it's purely symbolic, and those people aren't given the tools to sort of bring about the cultural change, which is actually what you need, then it's a bit of a sticking plaster solution, I guess. It's not an end goal in itself. Also, if the kind of real burden is put on those individuals only to be the generators of change, then that's not really fair either. That's kind of reducing them to one dimension of their identity. And that would be an incredibly exhausting position to have to be in. It would involve a lot of work on top of your work. Yeah, a whole other issue. And so not not the most positive place to end but as I said, Adam’s book in documenting the kind of community resistance that's happening all around the UK and has happened through history does offer notes of hope. Remember, you can find reading lists and transcripts for all episodes of With Reason at newhumanist.org.uk.
This podcast was presented by Samira Shackle with me, Alice Block, and our sound engineer was the excellent Dave Crackles.
Thanks for listening and see you back here soon. Bye
Springtime on the West African coast. Nights, pleasantly warm and close, give way to searing daylight. By ten o’clock, the sun presses down upon the earth like a thumb, grinding everything beneath it into the dust that rises from the roads and thickens the air. It is a heat that hurts. People hide in the shade of mango trees or within the dark caverns of roadside shops; movement encourages a torrent of sweat.
Into this climate came Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, during which the observant abstain from all food and drink between sunrise and sunset. Those who must move – the men busting their guts making bricks, the women hauling buckets of water to vegetable patches along the river Gambia – take no water to slake their thirst, no food to ease their rumbling bellies.
I do not write to make fun of fasting, which is undertaken in some variation by much of the world’s population. But as the month-long deprivation descended on The Gambia, I wondered whether there was something beyond religious zeal that compels millions to deprive themselves of food in what could already be considered conditions of want. Could fasting create a societal relationship to food that extended beyond not having enough of it?
I profess no religion, and stem from a heritage that perceives religious (or even non-spiritual) fasting as eccentric behaviour. Early on, I looked up fasting online. “See list of ineffective cancer treatments,” the internet told me. It seems that this is good advice for some. There are groups – “breatharians” and “sungazers” among them – for whom fasting is a kind of panacea, a way to eradicate so-called toxins from the body. The fasting I saw in The Gambia was far from this idiocy, but the dedication required to temporarily forgo the needs of the body was similar.
In the west, gluttony barely registers as a problem. Insofar as we among the well-fed have “an issue” with food, it exists in a binary form: on one hand celebrated to preoccupation; medicalised on the other via the food illnesses of anorexia, bulimia and obesity. The issue of need is not often broached in popular culture, only the question of whether one is willing to take more. Seeking a different perspective, I joined my friends in their fast, to pit myself against hunger and see what came out. It was effective; too stunned at four in the morning to wake for the suhur pre-dawn meal, my days were often an extended 22-hour fast.
Our Gambian Muslim neighbours were chuffed to discover my partner and I were joining them in abstaining. We were often invited to the evening iftar meal to break the fast, with neighbours, friends, strangers. These invitations became small celebrations; not only did they enjoy sharing their tradition, but the apparent pleasure of feeding us seemed to equal the pleasures of being fed.
I asked my neighbour Musa what Ramadan meant to him. “It’s about peace, you know? Peace in your heart, peace with your neighbour.” Who cannot agree with peace, even while ravenous? The author Shiva Naipaul, perhaps. In Beyond the Dragon’s Mouth, he noted that “Ramadan may bring men closer to Allah and Paradise but not, it would seem, to tolerance and compassion. It is a scarifying – not a softening – experience; it must entrench the association of religious purity with suffering and violence.”
Naipaul was writing of his experience in 1970s Morocco, where those caught imbibing or ingesting during daylight hours risked jail time or worse. The same might be said of modern-day Morocco, or Pakistan, or Algeria, where eating and drinking in public during Ramadan is still a punishable offence. The emotion that pervades a difficult experience can extend beyond that experience to become an entrenched view of life. The seeds of suffering can sow themselves deep within our minds. Shiva’s brother V. S. Naipaul wrote, rather more cheerfully, in Among the Believers, that “to be a devout Muslim was always to have distinctive things to do; it was to be guided constantly by rules; it was to live in a fever of the faith and always to be aware of the distinctiveness of the faith.” Ramadan imposed a rhythm on the pious, V. S. Naipaul said; a cadence of food, fast, sleep, food. Rhythm then, rather than violence. Even a heathen like me could feel a rhythm to fasting. It existed between people as a mutual understanding, the way a common affliction establishes affection.
Fasting establishes a continuity of practice across religions: Christianity’s Lent; Judaism’s Yom Kippur; the Bahá’í month of ’Ala; the Native American “vision quest”. There are many Biblical reasons to fast: to grieve, “to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home”, or to be as Jesus when he resisted temptation in the wilderness while fasting for 40 days and nights. There are legacy reasons, too, as in the Qur’an, where Muslims are reminded that “fasting is prescribed on you just as it was prescribed on the people before you.” Jains have a multitude of fasts, some lasting hours, others days or months. Jains wishing for death can embark on Sallekhana, a practice of gradually reducing one’s food and water intake until expiration. If there is a better evidence of willpower, I have not heard it.
Across religions, abstinence in its myriad forms is recognised as an important element of transcendence and self-control – the mastery over the self. As well as food, there is in most religious fasting also an abstention from sex, irreligious music and smoking. This is fasting in mind as well as body. I asked Lamin, a Gambian Muslim, about this. “It’s a way of becoming closer with God,” he said. “It’s a cleanse that lifts the senses.” Lamin couldn’t help me to understand religious fervency. For him it was enough to believe without wondering why.
But what about cravings? Do the fasting hordes daydream a banquet? No, Lamin told me: one who is fasting must think of those for whom hunger is not a choice. “To fixate on your own bodily desires would defeat the purpose of fasting, would sever the divine connection,” he said. Fasting as an ascetic practice, then. Not an elimination, but a replacement: food swapped with fervour.
Such restraint was beyond me. Midway through a day of fasting, stricken with hunger pangs, the searchlight of my memory would cast out over a sea of meals past. One day, it settled on a grilled heart I enjoyed years previous on a warm night in Bolivia. Thus began a daily memory-exercise. I thought back to the previous April, to a fine pasta primavera I’d cooked, the Parmigiano Reggiano melting into the roasted wild garlic and thick shreds of wild Scottish salmon. On and on it went. Waking from this reverie unable to even wash down my spit was far from ideal; it was, if anything, torturous.
To alleviate my hunger pangs, I took a stroll. But the afternoon sun was punishing, and I was forced to rest beside the road on a decaying concrete stoop. Men slumped in the shadows of trees and walls, thumbing their phones. Women worked their mortar and pestle with less muscle. The fact that fasting, unlike other religious or political behaviours (preaching, marching), rarely leads to belligerence or fighting may be down to its weakening powers.
There is a vein of self-sabotage running through fasting. Refuse to eat long enough and it becomes a hunger strike. Go further still, it is starvation. Extended over a population, famine. Because the solo non-eater treads the line of public alienation, collective fasting is a kind of joint effort, its pain alleviated by the pain of others; a glue bonding an in-group together.
Just as Christians commemorate the beginning of their Lent fast with a gluttonous party (Carnival, from Carnevale, or “farewell to meat”), so Muslims mark the end of Ramadan. Early in May, Eid al-Fitr arrived. Come dusk, the sky – pink and full of fruit bats – was electrified with expectant energy and the smell of charcoal and chicken afra. After an invitation, we went into our neighbour’s yard. In his home was a toppled three-legged chair, an empty room lit by a bare bulb, a doorless hallway. There seemed no doubt he was one of the many needy and hungry people that fasters throughout The Gambia had been thinking about in the past month. From a common plate, we drew fingerfuls of a stew-like ẹgúsí, spiced rice and fish. We talked, and laughed, and sang. All around, there was a palpable sense of relief.
This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
God: An Anatomy (Pan Macmillan) by Francesca Stavrakopoulou.
We don’t know his real name. In early inscriptions it appears as Yhw, Yhwh, or simply Yh; but we don’t know how it was spoken. He has come to be known as Yahweh. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; by the third century BCE his name had been declared unutterable. We know him best as God.
God, as he is now understood by monotheistic religions, wasn’t always a singular deity. When Sargon II of Assyria conquered Israel in the eighth century BCE, he described seizing statues of “the gods in whom they trusted”. Who were these other gods – and what was Yahweh to them? Thanks to second-millennium BCE texts from the Syrian city-state Ugarit, we know that Yahweh was once a minor storm god of a wild, mountainous region south of the Negev desert. He was part of a large pantheon of Levantine gods headed by the patriarch El and his consort Athirat.
El, not Yahweh, was most likely the first god of the people of Israel. But early in the first millennium BCE, Yahweh displaced him. This Yahweh is the god whom Francesca Stavrakopoulou – professor of the Hebrew Bible and ancient religion at the university of Exeter – anatomises. He is not the perfect, abstract, immaterial being of modern conception; his is a visceral presence with an all too corporeal reality and many of the flaws that flesh is heir to.
He is very much made in the image of man. In texts, he is described as having radiant and red-hued skin, a ruddy complexion being an ancient marker of divine power, virility and strength. His beard is long but carefully groomed, and his hair is curled, black and lustrous. The older, white-haired god with whom we are more familiar is the creation of the prophet Daniel, writing in the second century BCE. At first, Yahweh was not entirely man-like, however. “God, who brought [Israel] out of Egypt, has horns like a wild ox!” the prophet Balaam exclaims in the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible. In some early temples he was represented by golden statues of a divine bull.
Stavrakopoulou’s thesis is that even during the six centuries over which the books of the Old Testament were written, the immense physicality of this wilder divinity was being erased, not least under the sway of Platonism. “Reverence rather requires . . . an allegorical meaning,” Clement of Alexandria wrote around the turn of the second century CE, expressing a scholarly distaste for the experiential and somatic that remains highly influential. Translators, too, have long sanitised the text, privileging the abstract and metaphysical over the corporeal. But this more primal, vital Yahweh can be reconstructed from scattered passages in the Bible which still retain warm traces of his divine materiality.
In Babylonian myth, the warrior god Marduk defeats the shape-shifting goddess Tiamat by shooting an arrow into her throat. The bow was widely conceived as a phallic weapon, and the sexual violence of the conquest is explicit: Babylonian scribes summarised its story as “Marduk, who defeated Tiamat with his penis”. Yahweh’s similar conquest is remembered in the Bible through his victories over oceanic chaos monsters variously named Leviathan, Rahab and Tannin, among others. His bow, too, is identified with the penis: “You brandish your bow of nakedness! You satisfy the shafts of your bowstring!” cries the prophet Habakkuk. (This is not, needless to say, how the passage is usually translated.) So when Yahweh places his bow in the sky after the Flood recedes, Stavrakopoulou notes, it is not just his bow that hangs there.
God: An Anatomy is a tour de force. Stavrakopoulou has created not just an extraordinarily rich and nuanced portrait of Yahweh himself, but an intricate and detailed account of the cultural values and practices he embodied, and the wider world of myth and history out of which he emerged. This Yahweh is a refutation of the opposition between the carnal and the divine expounded by the apostle Paul, who wrote that “what the flesh desires is opposed to the spirit”. If God himself is both carnal and divine, two millennia of Christian and post-Christian thought might be in need of some rethinking.
Stavrakopoulou has taken to heart the biblical injunction to seek the face of God, and what emerges is a deity more terrifyingly alive, more damaged, more compelling, more complex than we have encountered before. More human, you might say.
This article is from the New Humanist autumn 2021 edition. Subscribe today.
What does it mean to contemplate 'motherhood' in a world that values some bodies – and some decisions – over others? Behavioural scientist Pragya Agarwal tells Alice Bloch about her experiences as a woman of South Asian heritage – from abortion, to pregnancy, to surrogacy – and the social, historical and scientific factors that shape how we talk about motherhood. How have women been controlled and contained through history? And how does that continue, worldwide, today?
A candid conversation about maternity and reproductive justice, asking what motherhood means in a world of inequality, prejudice and control.
Hosts: Alice Bloch and Samira Shackle
Exec Producer: Alice Bloch
Sound Engineer: David Crackles
Image artwork: Ed Dingli
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Hi and welcome to With Reason with me Alice Bloch.
And me Samira Shackle.
This podcast comes to you from New Humanist magazine and the Rationalist Association. It's the place where we talk to people in fields like philosophy, science and culture. People who use bright thinking to challenge dogma and lazy ideas. It's a space as usual to think about reason and unreason, belief and disbelief, debate and crucially criticism. In the past couple of series, we've talked to people like the AI expert Kate Devlin, about sex tech and feminism, and to the writer Katherine Angel on the subject of consent and real life desire. But today we're looking at motherhood and choice with Pragya Agarwal. Alice, this one's yours. So I'll sit back and let you introduce Pragya and I'll be back to chat with you about my take a bit later.
Pragya Agarwal is the behavioural and data scientist who you might well know already from her best-selling book, Sway: Unravelling unconscious bias. That book unpacks the way in which our implicit biases affect how we communicate, how we make decisions, and offers a kind of toolkit for addressing them.
Now though, Pragya is turned to motherhood in a book by that same name, with the “M” brackets, so kind of motherhood, “otherhood”, I guess. She describes that book as sitting between a memoir and a scientific and historical disquisition of women's reproductive choices, and infertility. It’s pretty frank, it's moving at times. And it tells the story of Pragya’s roller coaster journey through fertility and infertility. So she's experienced pregnancy, abortion, IVF, and surrogacy across two continents. And along the way she considers the choices available to women and the compromised context in which they're made.
I should say, I think “choice” really is a word that we should keep in kind of quotation marks for the remainder of today's discussion. And now Motherhood does feel like really different territory from that covered in Sway. And so I asked Pragya, did she see any kind of thread linking the two? You know, is it perhaps the concept of choice that links these two books?
Yes, absolutely, it’s the notion of choice. But also the thread that I feel runs through my work is about how we behave and why we behave the way we do. But also what impact does it have on society? What impacts our positions in society, the systemic and structural hierarchies that have been created in society? What impact does it have on different people according to their place in these hierarchies? And I think reflecting on that is like a common thread to Sway and Wish We Knew What To Say. And then Motherhood is about these inequities that exist in society. Why is it that some people have more choice, ome people don't have choice? Some people are more marginalised, ome people are at the bottom of the hierarchy? And what dynamic does it create? How does it affect the society? And how does it affect individuals?
I mean, motherhood is really a saturated general market, I guess, in publishing, there was a lot written about it. But one thing that your book in particular stresses is an intersectional approach to the study of pregnancy and birth, you know, so one that takes account of differences re, you know, race, class, and gender and so on, that really remains lacking. I wonder, you know, as a data scientist, what are the existing data gaps, re pregnancy and motherhood for women of colour? You know, maybe was there something you went looking for in your research, heading off to the British Library, or whatever. And we're really shocked to actually find the answer just didn't exist because no one's bothered to ask the question.
I'm actually pleased that you thought that this is how it stood apart because when I started writing it before the pandemic, I didn't really think that there were that many books about motherhood from even a mothering perspective. And I think it's that notion, of how mothers or women are carrying much your mental and emotional load, has become so heightened during the pandemic and lockdown. So it was interesting to see how suddenly this discourse has become so mainstream. But still, that means that discourse is very much focused on one kind of person, one kind of mother, and one kind of family I think. And we still fall back on those norms.
When you say one kind, do you mean white middle class?
White middle class straight women, and a lot of memoirs were still being published from them. A lot of work that was being done, was still focused on them. And I started looking at the data and infertility and when I first started looking at it, the data wasn't even desegregated or collected from black and brown women and I couldn't find how many women were undergoing infertility treatment and what were the ages and even if there was data desegregation according to the BMA category, which is such a universal broad category. So I really struggled to find data on it.
And then again, if we start looking at the different people who are on the margins, fringes – transgender or non binary people – there's hardly any data. So as I say, in the book, I talked to many people, I talked to many trans men and women and non-binary and their experiences of healthcare and their experiences and motherhood. But in the end, I couldn't find a lot of scientific data because they're being ignored in the studies, not that they don't exist. But there hasn't been any dedicated research studies on that. And also, I didn't want these 20 experiences that I had to be this kind of tokenistic voice. And it was not my story to tell.
I had to write from a cisgender perspective. And that is why I think it was really important for me to make that lens clear as well. And this is my perspective. And so the terminology I use, the data I fall back on, is because it exists, and the other doesn't exist, I have to talk about it from this perspective. I cannot be the voice of a community that I do not belong to. But it is a shame that this data still doesn't exist, that we are still not disaggregating the data to understand how different people who are not at the top of these hierarchies are affected by this.
Your own perspective is a really, really fascinating one because you're a really successful academic and consultant over here in the UK and have been for a couple of decades, I think now, but you also you grew up in India, and that's where you had your first child and your daughter who (correct me if I'm wrong), she lived with your mother in India while you completed your PhD here in the UK.
And I don't want to make assumptions, I guess about motherhood in saying this. But you know, that sounds like an incredibly difficult thing to have gone through. I imagine. Tell me what were the conventions around motherhood when you were growing up.
So I grew up in the north of India, which is more patriarchal, I think, than the South. I think there are some matriarchal societies and communities in the south of India where, for instance, the women, the daughters take their mother's names and things like that. But in the north, it's very, it was a very patriarchal society that I grew up in, in the sense that the moment a girl is born, there's always a sense of kind of commiseration with the parents because it wasn't a son or a male to take over. My parents had three daughters. And I remember how everybody would look at us with pity that we didn't have a brother to look after us or our parents. I think that made me quite angry, as I was growing up. But also I determined to break those norms and stereotypes that were imposed on me. If somebody said, this is good for girls, or girls are supposed to do that, I would rebel against it.
So there was a sense that a girl or a woman's destiny is to be a good wife, a good mother, it's all about what can you do to be an ideal wife so that you get married into a good family. And then your destiny is obviously to be a good mother. And the role models that I saw were about mothers who were self-sacrificing, your identity doesn't matter anymore, or your aspirations or ambitions, because the success of your husband or your children is what is most important. And that's what women do. Yes, and, and women are good at it, women are good at hiding their pain. And women are good at hiding their expectations. And women are good at staying calm, and keeping everybody calm. And these are all the things you see in films, and these are the things you see around you, as well.
But as I write in Motherhood, there were other roles, models of motherhood, I saw as well – in the sense of women who had to leave the children behind in villages, because they had to go and look after other people's children as well. So there was this huge socio-economic disparity that exists in India as well. And where you belong in this hierarchy determines your place and your notion of motherhood as well. So I saw that, yes, and I gave birth to my first daughter there. And it was a very difficult pregnancy, and difficult childbirth, but that also what everything that I saw around me, I think kind of woke me up in a way to this awareness that I had to create a different life.
It is really clear that this background, this experience, gave you a really strong understanding of how our so-called choices and decisions really, you know – whether and how to become a mother, you know, our very sense of kind of what the horizons of what's possible – are just so strongly shaped by cultural context. And you do talk about this in the context of abortion, which is something that you personally chose when you became pregnant later again, now here in the UK in the early stages of a relationship, and writing in a very candidly and very movingly about abortion.
And you list some really shocking examples of how women's choices can be constrained so I think the most standout one for me was from Paraguay, where, in 2015, Amnesty reported that a 10-year-old girl who was pregnant after being raped was denied access to a safe abortion due to strict abortion laws there. But I guess whilst examples like that are shocking it's also important to note that it's not just the law that limits women's access to abortion. It’s that, you know, there are way more kind of insidious subtle things at work that prevent a woman having control over her own reproductive health, including here in the UK, I guess. And I wonder what examples you have of that from your research – either kind of discursive ones that just kind of subtly nudge, or actually mechanisms that get in the way of people making free choices.
I think coercion works in many different ways. And we can talk about coercive control. And I know we're having this discourse a lot around “What does coercion really mean?” And I address it in the book about how coercion can work in different ways, about limiting our choices, but also it's thinking about what choices do we really have on offer and the messages that we get from society that if we make this choice, then we are not making the right choice. And that can sway us towards different choices as well, because we get this sense from society and internalise this message, that actually, even though I really want to make this choice, this is not the right choice. And so we are swayed towards that choice.
So there's always this message that's given that if you actually choose to undergo abortion, you will regret it later. And we hear so many more stories of that. But there's also research to show that women who have undergone abortion, who chose to do that, more than 85% of them did not actually regret the choice later on because they were very fully capable of making the choice to choose the kind of life that they wanted, what was right for them in that instance or not. These questions can come from family members, from cultural context, religious reasons as well, about what emotion really means. So not just legally, and about the partner that you're with, about whether you have access to the services or not. Sometimes the kind of access to the services and resources can also limit a woman's choice, which we don't often consider as well.
And also the access to services if you are to then become a mother, you know, will weigh heavy on your mind. You talk about the socio legal framework, you know, is there state funded childcare available, can women afford to become a mother? And returning to your own story, some years after the abortion that you describe in your book you tried for another baby with the same partner I think, and the struggle to conceive. You turned to IVF and then you looked into surrogacy, which you went ahead with. In the book, you suggest that perhaps women do have some kind of primitive desire that makes them “broody”, to quote, but you also dismiss the idea of the so-called “body clock” as a kind of social and patriarchal construct.
So I just wonder, can you clarify what your perspective actually is here? Because I guess, you know, some people might say, well “body clock” is a really annoying phrase, and I don't want to be pressured about it by adverts on the tube telling me to freeze my eggs or whatever – but, you know, time is real, age is real. It’s pretty much real, isn't it?
Yeah, time is real, age is real. But this panic that's created around this, this mythical figure of 35 is not real. It's not related to women. 35 and women and this date, and after that they call it “geriatric”, because of this notion that 35 is just too late to have a child. And every woman is not built on a template. So we don't have enough data. Women are not given enough data to actually make up their mind and to know what these data sets even, what the blood tests, are telling us. How do we know whether we can become pregnant later on or not? Yes, women have a limited egg reserve, we do know that. But this is also linked to how women's fertility is big business. And that is why there is this panic around it.
And also the societal expectation that every woman has to become a mother and every woman's role or destiny is to become a mother, which is why we're seeing this panic at the moment in the media around the falling birth rate. And every media publication reporting on that, that the world birth rate is falling. And why is it that women are choosing a career over having children. And so it becomes like this binary choice for women, we have to choose to have children and not prioritise our career because otherwise we are seen as selfish. And I think that panic is not really conducive to making any decision or to having a choice. It's not a choice if you're being pressured into making this choice because of these external messages. And also, my point is that, first of all, women are not built on a template. Secondly, we're not talking enough about men's fertility.
Yes. I wanted to ask you about this. What does the actual science say about whether the body clock is real in men, too? Because one of the biggest takeaways from your book for me was just the staggering facts about Charlie Chaplin becoming a father in his early 70s, which I had no idea about. But I mean, is that an anomaly? Are you saying actually there is a body clock thing going on for men too? And actually, that's not talked about enough?
Yeah, that is not it is not talked about enough. It's again linked to this notion that yes, egg freezing is a very lucrative business, it costs 20 times more than sperm freezing, if I recall correctly. And yes, first of all, there has not been enough research in men's fertility, there's not been that much focus on it because of the focus is on women's fertility so much. But the research that we have shows that actually there is a degradation of the sperm, there is degradation of sperm mobility, and other factors that can affect men's fertility as they grow older, after the age of 40.
So it's not just a woman, but also the male fertility that comes into question as well. In the US, we hear stories of men becoming fathers at an older age, but compare that to women who are stigmatised for having children at an older age. Like we saw recently with Naomi Campbell. Men are kind of like put on a pedestal. They can do anything. And then you can become a father at the age of 70.
So there is a huge paradox in how fertility is talked about in terms of women and women's fertility, it is so inherently linked to the stereotypes that are ingrained in our society. So yes, women don't have the similar pressures, but there is still a link between age and men's fertility. And we saw this recently with the WHO messaging around drinking and, and women's fertility, how the focus was merely on women's fertility about how women between 18 and 50, “of childbearing age”, they were called, should not drink or should be prevented from drinking, because it affects the fertility. But as I pointed out, there is research to show, actually, from a number of case studies, that men's fertility is also impacted heavily by drinking. There was no mention of that.
So crucially, as you say, I mean, infertility is often pinned on the woman in a heterosexual couple as her problem, her kind of burden to carry, something to feel guilty about. It's kind of assumed, if a couple can't conceive that, you know, okay, it's probably the woman. I was really fascinated by this concept of psychogenic infertility from the 1940s that you mentioned. So it's this idea to quote you, that women who were educated, unconsciously hijacked their own fertility I guess kind of you know, if the cleverer you are, the greater risk there is that you might not be able to conceive something like that. Tell me about that. And its resonance today because I mean, for me that that sort of speaks to the trope of the uptight career woman, something like that.
Absolutely. There's, again, this notion that women, by choosing careers, are actually hijacking or affecting their fertility by not having children. So there's this fear, this panic, that is created around it, that if all women started to just focus on their careers, what will happen to our world? But it's also linked to how women's pain is dismissed and ignored. And women's illnesses are dismissed and ignored in the medical and healthcare domain as well and we’ve seen numerous examples of that through history. But even now, we've had lots of discussions about it. And because it often is considered that these physical manifestations are either imaginary, or they're just linked to emotional distress or emotional kind of anxieties. And that a lot of chronic pain or invisible disabilities, these invisible illnesses, take a long time to get diagnosed, because it is assumed that it's linked to emotional anxiety and that actually women are imagining it.
On that question of pain, I've also become aware of research that talks about how there can be a perception that women of colour, it's horrific, are supposedly better able to bear pain than white women in childbirth. I wonder if that's research that you've come across, you know, on that prejudice, on that bias? And what on earth that is about and what we can even do about it?
Yes, I talked about it in Sway actually, in my earlier book: about how these prejudices are formed, and how they're rooted in eugenics, these notions, false scientific myths, that black people, for instance, had thicker skin so that they had more ability to bear pain. And obviously when the gender and race intersect some of these biases are heightened, we know that is the effect of intersectionality. So obviously, women are prejudiced [against] and when you're a black woman that prejudice still carries, and there is recent research to show that actually, a lot of these carry forward in some of the medical and scientific textbooks.
I was recently writing an article about it about how these prejudices and misconceptions have been carried forward and healthcare professionals still believe that black women are more likely, black and brown women are more able, to bear pain because their skin is thicker. Yhere are cultural issues as well sometimes, because when women know that they are undergoing stereotypes, and they have these cultural pressures to appear stronger, they don't have the luxury, they sometimes don't vocalise or articulate their pain as much as others would do. So I know from research that black and brown women sometimes don't talk about their pain in the same way or don't show their pain in the same way.
The idea of actually being able to articulate your pain freely is actually a privilege that we don't think about. Absolutely.
You're listening to With Reason. I'm Alice Bloch, and I'm talking to Pragya Agarwal about her memoir and academic treatise on motherhood and reproductive choice. If you want to hear more about the importance of taking an intersectional look at real lives, so that's looking at things like racism and gender and class and how they shape a person's lived everyday experience, head to our archive to hear Jason Arday talking about Cool Britannia and its blind spots, or you could head back to Series Two, to catch the sociologist Luke de Noronha talk about his book Deporting Black Britons.
Time now though for a quick word from New Humanist editor Samira Shackle. When we're not making With Reason, we're busy putting together New Humanist, a quarterly journal of ideas, science and culture. If you enjoy this podcast, you'll love the magazine. Recent issues have included an analysis of why conspiracy theories are so popular at this moment, climate change and the politics of health. If you want a 50% discount on a year's subscription, you can head to newhumanists.org.uk/subscribe and enter the offer code WithReason. That means you'll get four beautiful print editions through your door across the air, or for the modest sum of £13.50.
Back now to Pragya Agarwal. So Pragya, we were talking about the idea of the so-called body clock and the pressure to have a child. And it seems a good time to mention a piece from the New Humanist archive which is actually a review that I did back in 2019, of the book called Childless Voices by Lorna Gibb. And that's all about the experiences of childless or child free people worldwide. So it's a global portrait of those without children, whether through circumstance, choice, loss or denial. And Lorna writes about the rituals and the lengths performed by people desperate to have children and how sometimes actually that desperation can be really heavily exploited. You mentioned a couple of times I think how despite being a scientist you know, in the toughest moments when you were struggling with infertility when trying for a second child, you found yourself recalling various Hindu scriptures. Or reading scientific studies, but kind of doing so half-heartedly, or even considering kind of ritual and superstition. Tell me a little bit about that and I guess kind of what it says about human nature.
Yes, we fall back on rituals, we fall back on some of these things because at that point we are always trying to think of anything that could work. I suppose we want something desperately, we want to just reach that goal and resort to whatever works. But also there is some kind of confirmation bias as well, where we are looking for information that would confirm our existing beliefs.
Yeah, I mean we will do that when we Google something don't we? We just look and look until we find what we want to hear.
And a lot of science is like that as well. Sometimes we might think we are being very objective scientifically, but no, we cherry-pick information sometimes. We look for things that confirm our existing beliefs. Because that is less cognitively taxing for our brain. And those times of threat or fear or insecurities, and those kind of desperation or hopelessness, we need to preserve our cognitive resources, we don't have those kinds of mental resources to actually contradict our existing beliefs. And so if we have to take on new information, that doesn't confirm our beliefs, our hope that this is going to work, that will be more cognitively taxing for us.
what examples do you have from your story of those moments where you did turn to kind of superstitious ideas or rituals, kind of despite your scientific brain?
I think there was so much of it. There was no scientific basis as to whether I should eat pineapple, or whether I should have acupuncture. There wasn't a lot of information or scientific research to show either way what should work or not.
Yes. Or having kale juice or having any of the other supplements that I was taking. There's also not that much scientific research to show whether stress affects our chances of fertility or not as well. But there's always this kind of myth and everybody telling each other, don't get stressed because that can affect your chances of being pregnant. And so I remember really feeling guilty about it, and finding it very difficult because that is a situation when you're being very stressed. And I looked at a lot of research later on about what it says. And actually there wasn't that much valid scientific research to show whether stress affects our chances.
I guess you gave a scientific explanation earlier of why we might resort to superstition and ritual. But I guess you know, there is this huge risk isn't there, that people's desperation around fertility in particular, can just be so terribly exploited by people offering “solutions”, you know, in quote marks, that just really aren't based in evidence at all. I wonder whether you've come across any examples of research on examples of that, whether from, you know, India or the UK?
Yes. At that stage, when you're really desperate for things to be successful, when you have this goal, and when you're putting your body through this treatment, you want to look for solutions, anything that could help. I know, in India, there's a huge kind of religious fervour around these things. There are things like gems or stones, there's a huge amount of belief in what we're doing, what kind of gemstone can make things work on which finger. There are lots of solutions that are offered with people who will read horoscopes, about prayers that you can perform, that would put all the planets in the right order for you. And all those things happen quite a lot, not just in the rural parts of India. But also it's really interesting to see very educated, highly educated people in urban parts of India, really believing in a lot of things – planetary alignments affecting our behaviour, and our chances of conceiving or not conceiving, or our prospects in business and success in life, and all those things as well.
That's fascinating. It's kind of the urban, maybe more educated population as well, it’s not just kind of rural people say, that would be the stereotype.
Going back to Lorna Gibbs’ book that I mentioned, Childless Voices, it also features interviews with people who've chosen not to have children. So she talks about GINKS (Green Inclinations, No Kids.) And she also talks about a nun who sees herself as a spiritual mother to many. To quote her, this nun, she doesn't see herself as childless. And she says that, actually, to say that a woman is only a mother if she gives physical birth is very limiting of womanhood.
And later, Lorna Gibbs wonders: well, isn't it enough to be a woman? What is it about the role of mother, that means we have to retain it, whatever the difficulties, whatever the form? (That's to quote her). And that part of her book, I think, speaks, at least to me to your own reflections on your experience of contracting surrogates in India, to carry and give birth to, eventually, your twin daughters. That's something that you're very honest about. And you really admit feeling tremendous ambivalence about it, even quite deep into the process. Just tell me a bit about what those feelings were and what you did to mitigate your concerns around surrogacy, which is obviously just such a controversial topic.
Yes, again, it comes back to the choices that women have and autonomy they have about their bodies, and how we believe that certain women have more rights to their bodies than others, and how we impose our expectations of them in certain parts of the world, and believe that they don't have the autonomy on their bodies.
So I suppose, in the US, surrogacy is highly controversial. I wanted to discuss it in an honest way. Because I think I wanted to write from a perspective of a person who went through it, but also thought about it quite a lot. I didn't want to paint it in a picture of saying, actually, I did it, so it is perfectly okay to do it. I want to look at everything. Because that's how I examine things when I'm working through things. So I looked at a lot of literature about the experiences of surrogates. And I see that a lot of media panic that's created or is around the stories that come out with this, it didn't work, where their rights were, perhaps not respected, and all the legalities and issues around it. And I suppose, once again, we talk about some of these issues without centering the voice of people who really matter and whose stories we're trying to tell. And we see that with other debates and discourses as well. People who are not part of that community, people who have never been through that process, feel that it's right to talk about that process. And I it was the research that centres the voice of the surrogates that was really interesting for me, which is not much again, there's not much of that research.
That voice is often marginalised.
Exactly, because it's almost believed that women who have undergone the role of surrogates in India don't have a voice. So in doing that we're actually marginalising them and not giving them the platform or even giving them the option to have autonomy over their body in any way.
And even if when they did speak, they happen to say, you know, actually, I didn't like this, It's important that they're spoken to and asked for their perspective on their own experience.
Yeah. I looked at some of the research, this longitudinal study that was done over 10 years. It was really interesting to me to read about that. There's a lot of research done at Cambridge in this area where they've talked about women who have undergone surrogacy, as in the intended parent, but also women who have been surrogates and what their experiences have been at the time, but five years later as well.
I looked at the legalities. I looked at the legal issues. We hired a lawyer to talk through it. We looked at different clinics.
You translated documents, yes? Which, like you said, doesn't normally happen. Yes. Incredible. You made sure that the documents and the contracts were translated into Hindi So that your surrogate could actually understand what she was signing. I mean, that's phenomenal. But that might not have might not happened in every case.
Yeah, it might not be happening in every case. But we were really adamant that we wanted to, and we wanted to make sure that we knew how they were selected, how they were chosen for this, how they were looked after, and all those kinds of things. And we met her afterwards. And it was clear that she had been happy about it. But yes, of course, when you read all these news items, when we read such polarised discourse and debates, it's very difficult to make up your mind, it's a very emotional process as well, when you're undergoing something where you feel like you're about to become a mother, but you're not carrying your children. And you feel, I'm so disconnected from this process. I don't know how I should feel or how I'm going to feel because it's all very new. And I really wanted to capture that part as well. I suppose in writing that I was also admitting to parts of myself that I wasn’t really proud of, because I think sometimes we can airbrush those parts of ourselves when we are writing and we say “Actually no, I was perfectly okay or I was really happy” or whatever.
We can rewrite the story of my own ambivalence to kind of erase that uncertainty that existed at the time. Actually that brings me to ask you the concept of mothering. But before I do that, we should note though, that in 2016, after your girls had been born, India did change its law on surrogacy.
Yeah, now no foreigners can go and carry out surrogacy in India, nobody who is not of Indian descent. But the main thing for me is that it's a very severely homophobic law as well, even though homosexuality has been legalised in India. Because no same sex couples, even in civil partnership, can carry out surrogacy in that way.
After talking about surrogacy, you suggest that really we should maybe talk of “mothering” as well as, or maybe even instead of “motherhood” at times. Tell me a little bit about that, what this word “mothering” means to you.
I was thinking about nature and nurture at that time, as well. Because as I say, I was really during that process feeling so detached from it, because I suppose a lot of the things that you read or hear about or talk about, is about this bodily experience of carrying a child and becoming a mother. And so there's always this notion of becoming a mother. And we read a lot of scientific research about what happens when you become a mother, when you give birth, it is associated with giving birth, and this rush of hormones that creates an instant maternal bond or attachment with your child, because you've also carried them for eight or nine months in your body. And I was looking, reflecting on this experience – very different from my previous experience – of not carrying the children but becoming a mother. And I was thinking about how, actually, instead of that rush of hormones, because I haven't given birth to them, it is kind of a dance between the infant and the mother, about the different ways that we bond and attach together, and this two-way process of forming this attachment in the days, weeks and months to come. So I suppose I was thinking about all those mothers and all those people who become mothers, but have not given birth.
And finally Pragya, I mean, your book ends on a note of hope on a personal level, you know, with kind of really a strong sense of joy about your family of five, and your daughters. But it also signals a warning too. So you write of a rise in the state control of women's bodies during the pandemic. I wonder what examples you can give us there, what we should be guarding against, what we should be vigilant against.
Now, as we're seeing around the world, I think bodies are being controlled more and more and some bodies are being marginalised more than others. What it means to be a woman is becoming part of a really polarised discourse and debate around the world. This notion of woman and feminine entity. We're falling back on those tropes, these boxes we try to escape. We get trapped ourselves, again and again, it feels like, because we are adhering to this notion of what a woman means, but we are also seeing the rise of controls on women's reproductive facilities as well. We're seeing abortion rules in the US which are very heavily being state controlled, and the decisions that are made by men for women. We're seeing that in countries like Turkey and we're seeing that in Hungary and Czechoslovakia – how women's reproduction and choices are being curtailed as well.
And so, it is it is quite scary. It is quite threatening how these discourses are becoming so polarised, why women's choices are being curtailed, why again, we are seeing the rise in this discourse around falling birth-rate, and giving women the message that you need to stand up and you need to have children.
It’s your duty, yeah. Which is always linked with nationalism – often, nativism and nationalism go hand.
Absolutely. The anti-abortion debate has a lot of racial history, racialized history as well. It's rooted in eugenics. And we are not talking about motherhood so much here, but there is this inherent paradox because the state, even in the UK, is not providing quality free childcare for women. So motherhood, the act of becoming a mother, is revered. But when that happens, women are still facing the motherhood penalty. We just saw the example of Stella Creasy, about the maternity leave [for MPs] in Parliament and how it becomes a bar to women's careers and women's choices later on. So I think we really need to think about what society can do for us.
Not just what we can do for society. Pragya Agarwal, thank you so much for joining us. That was really fascinating. Thank you.
Parag Agarwal talking about her latest book Motherhood. And with me now is Samira Shackle, editor of New Humanist magazine. Samira, hi, what's your take on what we've heard from Pragya there?
Yeah, what really jumped out at me listening to was all the points at which data is lacking or deficient in some way. It's this kind of idea of missing information, I thought that was a quite consistent thread. And I was actually thinking about that, when you were talking with Pragya about the prevalence of ritual and superstition and old wives tales when it comes to fertility and pregnancy. Now, I sort of wondered to what extent that's a symptom of all these areas where we don't have sufficient data, or to what extent it's maybe just human nature that even if we're generally rational, or prize rational thought processes, that when we're faced with something that's kind of out of our control, and hard to understand in some way, that we do fall back on things, because it makes us feel we're doing something. It gives the illusion of control, perhaps,. I don't know which of those things it is, or perhaps it's a bit of both.
Yeah, I mean, just from personal experience, I would say it's possibly both. I mean, obviously, lack of data, and data gaps that she talks about, especially to do with kind of intersectional inequality is really important and really serious. But just more generally, there, whether you're pregnant or trying to get pregnant, what you choose to do, there's so much information out there, that it's almost overwhelming. And I wonder also, whether maybe people resort to or retreat to ritual and old wives tales and superstition, because they're actually bombarded by information. I know I certainly felt a bit like that. When I had my son recently, and I was overdue. And looking to trigger labour, I pretty much just googled around until I found whatever it was I wanted to hear, even if it was actually on what I secretly probably knew were the most dodgy websites, the weirdest blogs ever, full of typos. And then, you know, I just kind of felt a bit supported in doing the silly things I would do to try and make labour happen. I think to some degree, especially in those kind of examples, you know, maybe it's harmless to just do a little bit extra, you know, the little kind of ritual on top of the science. But where it's obviously not okay, and where it's a massive problem, is where people are being exploited by people who are taking money from people who are in desperate situations, or raising false hopes, you know, whilst extracting money and time and energy from people. That's really not okay to mess with people when they're in such a vulnerable situation and trying to have a child.
I think Pragya’s discussion around body clock was also really interesting for that reason. She talks about how sure, yeah, it's, it's real, but there's a lot of pressure and panic that's kind of socially constructed or amplified really around the idea of the body clock. And that really, that doesn't need to be there. And we can do a lot to make conditions in which women are making choices about pregnancy and fertility much, much better and much, much, much easier for them. She talks in her book for example about egg freezing and how she was on the tube in London seeing these adverts about freezing your eggs now. I think the only adverts I've seen that are remotely comparable are ones targeted at men to be sperm donors. And yet the ones targeted at women are about freezing that their eggs.
I mean, yeah, the body clock point is so knotty. There, obviously is more of an age-related fertility decline for women than men, or a sharper one anyway, but there's also so much social pressure. And it's overstated. Certainly, the egg freezing point, I think connects back to what you were just saying about marketing services to people. I mean, it's very expensive, very invasive, I think often people don't appreciate how invasive it is. And I was actually, just by coincidence, doing a bit of research about this recently for a piece I'm working on. And a really, really huge proportion of women who freeze their eggs never end up using them. But it's sort of marketed as this tool of empowerment. And actually it's, you know, it's a pretty serious surgical procedure that's pretty unpleasant in many ways. And yeah, and something else that struck me while you were talking to Pragya was this blending that she's done of her own story with academic research. I find that interesting. Obviously you know, having that that sense of narrative can make research much more engaging to read when you're writing for a mass audience. I published a book earlier this year, and I have obviously a completely different subject, a nonfiction book, but I am personally very resistant to writing in that sort of autobiographical mode and really prefer to keep writing as a journalist about other people, rather than myself. But this is obviously such an intensely personal subject.
Yeah, I think motherhood in particular is a subject I mean, maybe I should say parenthood really is a particular subject that does seem to lend itself to a kind of confessional mode. And it's also really an area that forces people to consider the tension between their beliefs in theory – whether that's, you know, feminism or environmentalism – and their desires in practice, you know, whether that's actually considering contracting a surrogate or having children despite being concerned about the impact on the planet. Praya discussed that tension pretty honestly, re surrogacy, as I say. Also Lucy Jones, the science writer in our episode on nature and mental health, as part of this series, she also has an interesting point to make there that I think is worth listening to.
But yeah, that is all for today and we'll be back next week with more. Remember, you can find reading lists and transcripts for all episodes of With Reason at newhumanist.org.uk. They're ready to share with the student in your life or the resident critic at your kitchen table. You can also find us on Twitter @NewHumanist. With Reason is presented by me, series producer Alice Bloch, with New Humanist editor Samira Shackle. Our sound engineer was Dave Crackles. See you back here soon. Bye.
'(M)otherhood: On the Choices of Being a Woman' (2021) Pragya Agarwal
Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias (2020) Pragya Agarwal
Alice Bloch, Review of 'Childless Voices' by Lorna Gibb (2019) New Humanist Magazine
I am delighted to announce that Issue 4 of our magic comic, Hocus Pocus, is out now. This one is all about whether it’s possible to predict the future. As ever, it contains 28 full colour pages about magic, mystery and the mind. This issue also has lots of interactive demonstrations and illusions. Mother Shipton predicts your future , Nostradamus uncovers the secret of publishing profitable predictions and Paul The Psychic Octopus reveals all.Amazing work by Jordan Collver, Rik Worth and Owen Watts. Enjoy! Available now from Prop Dog
I have just co-authored a new research paper suggesting that learning to perform magic tricks makes children more creative.
During the experiment, a group 10 to 11-year-old children completed a creativity test that involved coming up with multiple uses for an everyday object. They were then taught how to perform a simple trick in which they showed someone a cube with different coloured sides, asked the person to secretly choose a colour, and then magically revealed their person’s choice. Finally, they all completed the creativity test a second time. Compared to another group of children who took part in an art lesson, learning the trick significantly boosted the children’s creativity scores.
Magic tricks often involve lateral thinking and we suspect that learning to perform the illusions encouraged children to think outside of the box. There is a need to enhance creative thinking from a young age. Learning magic tricks would be a cost effective, practical, and fun way of teachers and parents boosting children’s creativity. Maybe in the future, magic will become part of the school curriculum!
The peer-reviewed work was carried out in collaboration with Amy Wiles and Professor Caroline Watt (Edinburgh University), and published in the academic journal PeerJ.
I am delighted to announce that I have co-authored a new book – David Copperfield’s History of Magic.
It’s written by David Copperfield, David Britland and myself, with photographs by Homer Liwag.
The book presents a personal tour of David’s amazing secret museum of magic in Las Vegas. Containing over 100 full colour photographs, the book takes you on a journey into a clandestine world of psychology, history and magic. The book is released on October 26th and is now available for pre-order.
USA: Click here
UK: Amazon UK
Last year I collaborated with The Good Thinking Society to set up the Good Magic Awards.
Our first award focused on performers who use magic tricks to improve the lives of others, including work with disadvantaged groups, hospital patients, and schools. The judges selected two great winners: Megan Swann (who presents a magic show that promotes environmental issues) and Breathe Magic (who support children with hemiplegia by helping them to learn tricks that improve physical and psychological wellbeing).
This year, the award will provide £2,000 to support a new and innovative project that promotes the art of magic. This might, for example, include developing a live or virtual performance, writing a magic-related book or essay, creating a podcast, devising a new form of illusion or presentation, or undertaking research into the history of magic.
Applicants need to be over 18 years old and currently residing in the UK, and nominations will close at 5pm (GMT) on 20th February 2021.
To enter, please head over to The Good Thinking Society now!
A few years ago I produced three videos containing ten magic-based science stunts. I thought that they might help educate and entertain children during lockdown, or indeed anyone with a curious disposition. Here they are…..
In this episode of the podcast, Sam discusses the recent social protests and civil unrest, in light of what we know about racism and police violence in America.
This is a transcript of a recorded podcast.
* * *
Welcome to the Making Sense podcast… This is Sam Harris.
OK…. Well, I’ve been trying to gather my thoughts for this podcast for more than a week—and have been unsure about whether to record it at all, frankly.
Conversation is the only tool we have for making progress, I firmly believe that. But many of the things we most need to talk about, seem impossible to talk about.
I think social media is a huge part of the problem. I’ve been saying for a few years now that, with social media, we’ve all been enrolled in a psychological experiment for which no one gave consent, and it’s not at all clear how it will turn out. And it’s still not clear how it will turn out, but it’s not looking good. It’s fairly disorienting out there. All information is becoming weaponized. All communication is becoming performative. And on the most important topics, it now seems to be fury and sanctimony and bad faith almost all the time.
We appear to be driving ourselves crazy. Actually, crazy. As in, incapable of coming into contact with reality, unable to distinguish fact from fiction—and then becoming totally destabilized by our own powers of imagination, and confirmation bias, and then lashing out at one other on that basis.
So I’d like to talk about the current moment and the current social unrest, and its possible political implications, and other cultural developments, and suggest what it might take to pull back from the brink here. I’m going to circle in on the topics of police violence and the problem of racism, because that really is at the center of this. There is so much to talk about here, and it’s so difficult to talk about. And there is so much we don’t know. And yet, most people are behaving as though every important question was answered a long time ago.
I’ve been watching our country seem to tear itself apart for weeks now, and perhaps lay the ground for much worse to come. And I’ve been resisting the temptation to say anything of substance—not because I don’t have anything to say, but because of my perception of the danger, frankly. And if that’s the way I feel, given the pains that I’ve taken to insulate myself from those concerns, I know that almost everyone with a public platform is terrified. Journalists, and editors, and executives, and celebrities are terrified that they might take one wrong step here, and never recover.
And this is really unhealthy—not just for individuals, but for society. Because, again, all we have between us and the total breakdown of civilization is a series of successful conversations. If we can’t reason with one another, there is no path forward, other than violence. Conversation or violence.
So, I’d like to talk about some of the things that concern me about the current state of our communication. Unfortunately, many things are compounding our problems at the moment. We have a global pandemic which is still very much with us. And it remains to be seen how much our half-hearted lockdown, and our ineptitude in testing, and our uncoordinated reopening, and now our plunge into social protest and civil unrest will cause the Covid-19 caseload to spike. We will definitely see. As many have pointed out, the virus doesn’t care about economics or politics. It only cares that we keep breathing down each other’s necks. And we’ve certainly been doing enough of that.
Of course, almost no one can think about Covid-19 right now. But I’d just like to point out that many of the costs of this pandemic and the knock-on effects in the economy, and now this protest movement, many of these costs are hidden from us. In addition to killing more than 100,000 people in the US, the pandemic has been a massive opportunity cost. The ongoing implosion of the economy is imposing tangible costs, yes, but it is also a massive opportunity cost. And now this civil unrest is compounding those problems—whatever the merits of these protests may be or will be, the opportunity costs of this moment are staggering. In addition to all the tangible effects of what’s happening—the injury and death, the lost businesses, the burned buildings, the neighborhoods that won’t recover for years in many cities, the educations put on hold, and the breakdown in public trust of almost every institution—just think about all the good and important things we cannot do—cannot even think of doing now—and perhaps won’t contemplate doing for many years to come, because we’ll be struggling to get back to that distant paradise we once called “normal life.”
Of course, normal life for many millions of Americans was nothing like a paradise. The disparities in wealth and health and opportunity that we have gotten used to in this country, and that so much of our politics and ways of doing business seem to take for granted, are just unconscionable. There is no excuse for this kind of inequality in the richest country on earth. What we’re seeing now is a response to that. But it’s a confused and confusing response. Worse, it’s a response that is systematically silencing honest conversation. And this makes it dangerous.
This isn’t just politics and human suffering on display. It’s philosophy. It’s ideas about truth—about what it means to say that something is “true.” What we’re witnessing in our streets and online and in the impossible conversations we’re attempting to have in our private lives is a breakdown in epistemology. How does anyone figure out what’s going on in the world? What is real? If we can’t agree about what is real, or likely to be real, we will never agree about how we should live together. And the problem is, we’re stuck with one other.
So, what’s happening here?
Well, again, it’s hard to say. What is happening when a police officer or a mayor takes a knee in front of a crowd of young people who have been berating him for being a cog in the machinery of systemic racism? Is this a profound moment of human bonding that transcends politics, or is it the precursor to the breakdown of society? Or is it both? It’s not entirely clear.
In the most concrete terms, we are experiencing widespread social unrest in response to what is widely believed to be an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at the black community by racist cops and racist policies. And this unrest has drawn a counter-response from law enforcement—much of which, ironically, is guaranteed to exacerbate the problem of police violence, both real and perceived. And many of the videos we’ve seen of the police cracking down on peaceful protesters are hideous. Some of this footage has been unbelievable. And this is one of many vicious circles that we must find some way to interrupt.
Again, there is so much to be confused about here. We’ve now seen endless video of police inflicting senseless violence on truly peaceful protesters, and yet we have also seen video of the police standing idly by while looters completely destroy businesses. What explains this? Is there a policy that led to this bizarre inversion of priorities? Are the police angry at the protesters for vilifying them, and simultaneously trying to teach society a lesson by letting crime and mayhem spread elsewhere in the city? Or is it just less risky to collide with peaceful protesters? Or is the whole spectacle itself a lie? How representative are these videos of what’s actually going on? Is there much less chaos actually occurring than is being advertised to us?
Again, it’s very hard to know.
What’s easy to know is that civil discourse has broken down. It seems to me that we’ve long been in a situation where the craziest voices on both ends of the political spectrum have been amplifying one another and threatening to produce something truly dangerous. And now I think they have. The amount of misinformation in the air—the degree to which even serious people seem to be ruled by false assumptions and non sequiturs—is just astonishing.
And it’s important to keep in mind that, with the presidential election coming in November, the stakes are really high. As most of you know, I consider four more years of Trump to be an existential threat to our democracy. And I believe that the last two weeks have been very good for him, politically, even when everything else seemed to go very badly for him. I know the polls don’t say this. A large majority of people disapprove of his handling this crisis so far. But I think we all know now to take polls with a grain of salt. There is the very real problem of preference falsification—especially in an environment of intense social pressure. People will often say what they think is socially acceptable, and then think, or say, or do something very different in private—like when they’re alone in a voting booth.
Trump has presided over the complete dismantling of American influence in the world and the destruction of our economy. I know the stock market has looked good, but the stock market has become totally uncoupled from the economy. According to the stock market, the future is just as bright now as it was in January of this year, before most of us had even heard of a novel coronavirus. That doesn’t make a lot of sense. And a lot can happen in the next few months. The last two weeks feel like a decade. And my concern is that if Trump now gets to be the law-and-order President, that may be his path to re-election, if such a path exists. Of course, this crisis has revealed, yet again, how unfit he is to be President. The man couldn’t strike a credible note of reconciliation if the fate of the country depended on it—and the fate of the country has depended on it. I also think it’s possible that these protests wouldn’t be happening, but for the fact that Trump is President. Whether or not the problem of racism has gotten worse in our society, having Trump as President surely makes it seem like it has. It has been such a repudiation of the Obama presidency that, for many people, it has made it seem that white supremacy is now ascendant. So, all the more reason to get rid of Trump in November.
But before this social unrest, our focus was on how incompetent Trump was in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. And now he has been given a very different battle to fight. A battle against leftwing orthodoxy, which is growing more stifling by the minute, and civil unrest. If our social order frays sufficiently, restoring it will be the only thing that most people care about in November. Just think of what an act of domestic terrorism would do politically now. Things can change very, very quickly. And to all a concern for basic law and order “racist”, isn’t going to wash.
Trust in institutions has totally broken down. We’ve been under a very precarious quarantine for more than 3 months, which almost the entire medical profession has insisted is necessary. Doctors and public health officials have castigated people on the political Right for protesting this lockdown. People have been unable to be with their loved ones in their last hours of life. They’ve been unable to hold funerals for them. But now we have doctors and public officials by the thousands, signing open letters, making public statements, saying it’s fine to stand shoulder to shoulder with others in the largest protests our nation has ever seen. The degree to which this has undermined confidence in public health messaging is hard to exaggerate. Whatever your politics, this has been just a mortifying piece of hypocrisy. Especially so, because the pandemic has been hitting the African American community hardest of all. How many people will die because of these protests? It’s a totally rational question to ask, but the question itself is taboo now.
So, it seems to me that almost everything appears upside down at the moment.
Before I get into details on police violence, first let me try to close the door to a few misunderstandings.
Let’s start with the proximate cause of all this: The killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police. I’ll have more to say about this in a minute, but nothing I say should detract from the following observation: That video was absolutely sickening, and it revealed a degree of police negligence and incompetence and callousness that everyone was right to be horrified by. In particular, the actions of Derek Chauvin, the cop who kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for nearly 9 minutes, his actions were so reckless and so likely to cause harm that there’s no question he should be prosecuted. And he is being prosecuted. He’s been indicted for 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, and I suspect he will spend many, many years in prison. And, this is not to say “the system is working.” It certainly seems likely that without the cell phone video, and the public outrage, Chauvin might have gotten away with it—to say nothing of the other cops with him, who are also now being prosecuted. If this is true, we clearly need a better mechanism with which to police the police.
So, as I said, I’ll return to this topic, because I think most people are drawing the wrong conclusions from this video, and from videos like it, but let me just echo everyone’s outrage over what happened. This is precisely the kind of police behavior that everyone should find abhorrent.
On the general topic of racism in America, I want to make a few similarly clear, preemptive statements:
Racism is still a problem in American society. No question. And slavery—which was racism’s most evil expression—was this country’s founding sin. We should also add the near-total eradication of the Native Americans to that ledger of evil. Any morally sane person who learns the details of these historical injustices finds them shocking, whatever their race. And the legacy of these crimes—crimes that were perpetrated for centuries—remains a cause for serious moral concern today. I have no doubt about this. And nothing I’m about to say, should suggest otherwise.
And I don’t think it’s an accident that the two groups I just mentioned, African Americans and Native Americans, suffer the worst from inequality in America today. How could the history of racial discrimination in this country not have had lasting effects, given the nature of that history? And if anything good comes out of the current crisis, it will be that we manage to find a new commitment to reducing inequality in all its dimensions. The real debate to have is about how to do this, economically and politically. But the status quo that many of us take for granted to is a betrayal of our values, whether we realize it or not. If it’s not a betrayal or your values now, it will be a betrayal of your values when you become a better person. And if you don’t manage that, it will be a betrayal of your kid’s values when they’re old enough to understand the world they are living in. The difference between being very lucky in our society, and very unlucky, should not be as enormous as it is.
However, the question that interests me, given what has been true of the past and is now true of the present, is what should we do next? What should we do to build a healthier society?
What should we do next? Tomorrow… next week…. Obviously, I don’t have the answers. But I am very worried that many of the things we’re doing now, and seem poised to do, will only make our problems worse. And I’m especially worried that it has become so difficult to talk about this. I’m just trying to have conversations. I’m just trying to figure these things out in real time, with other people. And there is no question that conversation itself has become dangerous.
Think about the politics of this. Endless imagery of people burning and looting independent businesses that were struggling to survive, and seeing the owners of these businesses beaten by mobs, cannot be good for the cause of social justice. Looting and burning businesses, and assaulting their owners, isn’t social justice, or even social protest. It’s crime. And having imagery of these crimes that highlight black involvement circulate endlessly on Fox News and on social media cannot be good for the black community. But it might yet be good for Trump.
And it could well kick open the door to a level of authoritarianism that many of us who have been very worried about Trump barely considered possible. It’s always seemed somewhat paranoid to me to wonder whether we’re living in Weimar Germany. I’ve had many conversations about this. I had Timothy Snyder on the podcast, who’s been worrying about the prospect of tyranny in the US for several years now. I’ve known, in the abstract, that democracies can destroy themselves. But the idea that it could happen here still seemed totally outlandish to me. It doesn’t anymore.
Of course, what we’ve been seeing in the streets isn’t just one thing. Some people are protesting for reasons that I fully defend. They’re outraged by specific instances of police violence, like the killing of George Floyd, and they’re worried about creeping authoritarianism—which we really should be worried about now. And they’re convinced that our politics is broken, because it is broken, and they are deeply concerned that our response to the pandemic and the implosion of our economy will do nothing to address the widening inequality in our society. And they recognize that we have a President who is an incompetent, divisive, conman and a crackpot at a time when we actually need wise leadership.
All of that is hard to put on a sign, but it’s all worth protesting.
However, it seems to me that most protesters are seeing this moment exclusively through the lens of identity politics—and racial politics in particular. And some of them are even celebrating the breakdown of law and order, or at least remaining nonjudgmental about it. And you could see, in the early days of this protest, news anchors take that line, on CNN, for instance. Talking about the history of social protest, “Sometimes it has to be violent, right? What, do you think all of these protests need to be nonviolent?” Those words came out of Chris Cuomo’s mouth, and Don Lemon’s mouth. Many people have been circulating a half quote from Martin Luther King Jr. about riots being “the language of the unheard.” They’re leaving out the part where he made it clear that he believed riots harmed the cause of the black community and helped the cause of racists.
There are now calls to defund and even to abolish the police. This may be psychologically understandable when you’ve spent half your day on Twitter watching videos of cops beating peaceful protesters. Those videos are infuriating. And I’ll have a lot more to say about police violence in a minute. But if you think a society without cops is a society you would want to live in, you have lost your mind. Giving a monopoly on violence to the state is just about the best thing we have ever done as a species. It ranks right up there with keeping our shit out of our food. Having a police force that can deter crime, and solve crimes when they occur, and deliver violent criminals to a functioning justice system, is the necessary precondition for almost anything else of value in society.
We need police reform, of course. There are serious questions to ask about the culture of policing—its hiring practices, training, the militarization of so many police forces, outside oversight, how police departments deal with corruption, the way the police unions keep bad cops on the job, and yes, the problem of racist cops. But the idea that any serious person thinks we can do without the police—or that less trained and less vetted cops will magically be better than more trained and more vetted ones—this just reveals that our conversation on these topics has run completely off the rails. Yes, we should give more resources to community services. We should have psychologists or social workers make first contact with the homeless or the mentally ill. Perhaps we’re giving cops jobs they shouldn’t be doing. All of that makes sense to rethink. But the idea that what we’re witnessing now is a matter of the cops being over-resourced—that we’ve given them too much training, that we’ve made the job too attractive—so that the people we’re recruiting are of too high a quality. That doesn’t make any sense.
What’s been alarming here is that we’re seeing prominent people—in government, in media, in Hollywood, in sports—speak and act as though the breakdown of civil society, and of society itself, is a form of progress and any desire for law enforcement is itself a form of racist oppression. At one point the woman who’s running the City Council in Minneapolis, which just decided to abolish the police force, was asked by a journalist, I believe on CNN, “What do I do if someone’s breaking into my house in the middle of the night? Who do I call?” And her first response to that question was, “You need to recognize what a statement of privilege that question is.” She’s since had to walk that back, because it’s one of the most galling and embarrassing things a public official has ever said, but this is how close the Democratic Party is to sounding completely insane. You cannot say that if someone is breaking into your house, and you’re terrified, and you want a police force that can respond, that fear is a symptom of “white privilege.” This is where Democratic politics goes to die.
Again, what is alarming about this is that this woke analysis of the breakdown of law and order will only encourage an increasingly authoritarian response, as well as the acceptance of that response by many millions of Americans.
If you step back, you will notice that there is a kind of ecstasy of ideological conformity in the air. And it’s destroying institutions. It’s destroying the very institutions we rely on to get our information—universities, the press. The New York Times in recent days, seems to be preparing for a self-immolation in recent days. No one wants to say or even think anything that makes anyone uncomfortable—certainly not anyone who has more wokeness points than they do. It’s just become too dangerous. There are people being fired for tweeting “All Lives Matter.” #AllLivesMatter, in the current environment, is being read as a naked declaration of white supremacy. That is how weird this moment is. A soccer player on the LA Galaxy was fired for something his wife tweeted…
Of course, there are real problems of inequality and despair at the bottom of these protests. People who have never found a secure or satisfying place in the world—or young people who fear they never will—people who have seen their economic prospects simply vanish, and people who have had painful encounters with racism and racist cops—people by the millions are now surrendering themselves to a kind of religious awakening. But like most religious awakenings, this movement is not showing itself eager to make honest contact with reality.
On top of that, we find extraordinarily privileged people, whatever the color of their skin—people who have been living wonderful lives in their gated communities or 5th avenue apartments—and who feel damn guilty about it—they are supporting this movement uncritically, for many reasons. Of course, they care about other people—I’m sure most of them have the same concerns about inequality that I do—but they are also supporting this movement because it promises a perfect expiation of their sins. If you have millions of dollars, and shoot botox into your face, and vacation on St. Bart’s, and you’re liberal—the easiest way to sleep at night is to be as woke as AOC and like every one of her tweets.
The problem isn’t just with the looting, and the arson, and the violence. There are problems with these peaceful protests themselves.
Of course, I’m not questioning anyone’s right to protest. Even our deranged president can pay lip service to that right—which he did as the DC police were violently dispersing a peaceful protest so that he could get his picture taken in front of that church, awkwardly holding a bible, as though he had never held a book in life.
The problem with the protests is that they are animated, to a remarkable degree, by confusion and misinformation. And I’ll explain why I think that’s the case. And, of course, this will be controversial. Needless to say, many people will consider the color of my skin to be disqualifying here. I could have invited any number of great, black intellectuals onto the podcast to make these points for me. But that struck me as a form of cowardice. Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Coleman Hughes, Kmele Foster, these guys might not agree with everything I’m about to say, but any one of them could walk the tightrope I’m now stepping out on far more credibly than I can.
But, you see, that’s part of the problem. The perception that the color of a person’s skin, or even his life experience, matters for this discussion is a pernicious illusion. For the discussion we really need to have, the color of a person’s skin, and even his life experience, simply does not matter. It cannot matter. We have to break this spell that the politics of identity has cast over everything.
As I’ve already acknowledged, there is a legacy of racism in the United States that we’re still struggling to outgrow. That is obvious. There are real racists out there. And there are ways in which racism became institutionalized long ago. Many of you will remember that during the crack epidemic the penalties for crack and powder cocaine were quite different. And this led black drug offenders to be locked up for much longer than white ones. Now, whether the motivation for that policy was consciously racist or not, I don’t know, but it was effectively racist. Nothing I’m about to say entails a denial of these sorts of facts. There just seems to be no question that boys who grow up with their fathers in prison start life with a significant strike against them. So criminal justice reform is absolutely essential.
And I’m not denying that many black people, perhaps most, have interactions with cops, and others in positions of power, or even random strangers, that seem unambiguously racist. Sometimes this is because they are actually in the presence of racism, and perhaps sometimes it only seems that way. I’ve had unpleasant encounters with cops, and customs officers, and TSA screeners, and bureaucrats of every kind, and even with people working in stores or restaurants. People aren’t always nice or ethical. But being white, and living in a majority white society, I’ve never had to worry about whether any of these collisions were the result of racism. And I can well imagine that in some of these situations, had I been black, I would have come away feeling that I had encountered yet another racist in the wild. So I consider myself very lucky to have gone through life not having to think about any of that. Surely that’s one form of white privilege.
So, nothing I’m going to say denies that we should condemn racism—whether interpersonal or institutional—and we should condemn it wherever we find it. But as a society, we simply can’t afford to find and condemn racism where it doesn’t exist. And we should be increasingly aware of the costs of doing that. The more progress we make on issues of race, the less racism there will be to find, and the more likely we’ll find ourselves chasing after its ghost.
The truth is, we have made considerable progress on the problem of racism in America. This isn’t 1920, and it isn’t 1960. We had a two-term black president. We have black congressmen and women. We have black mayors and black chiefs of police. There are major cities, like Detroit and Atlanta, going on their fifth or sixth consecutive black mayor. Having more and more black people in positions of real power, in what is still a majority white society, is progress on the problem of racism. And the truth is, it might not even solve the problem we’re talking about. When Freddy Gray was killed in Baltimore, virtually everyone who could have been held accountable for his death was black. The problem of police misconduct and reform is complicated, as we’re about to see. But obviously, there is more work to do on the problem of racism. And, more important, there is much more work to do to remedy the inequalities in our society that are so correlated with race, and will still be correlated with race, even after the last racist has been driven from our shores.
The question of how much of today’s inequality is due to existing racism—whether racist people or racist policies—is a genuinely difficult question to answer. And to answer it, we need to distinguish the past from the present.
Take wealth inequality, for example: The median white family has a net worth of around $170,000—these data are a couple of years old, but they’re probably pretty close to what’s true now. The median black family has a net worth of around $17,000. So we have a tenfold difference in median wealth. (That’s the median, not the mean: Half of white families are below 170,000 and half above; half of black families are below 17,000 and half above. And we’re talking about wealth here, not income.)
This disparity in wealth persists even for people whose incomes are in the top 10 percent of the income distribution. For whites in the top 10 percent for income, the median net worth is $1.8 million; for blacks it’s around $350,000. There are probably many things that account for this disparity in wealth. It seems that black families that make it to the top of the income distribution fall out of it more easily than white families do. But it’s also undeniable that black families have less intergenerational wealth accumulated through inheritance.
How much of this is inequality due to the legacy of slavery? And how much of it is due to an ensuing century of racist policies? I’m prepared to believe quite a lot. And it strikes me as totally legitimate to think about paying reparations as a possible remedy here. Of course, one will then need to talk about reparations for the Native Americans. And then one wonders where this all ends. And what about blacks who aren’t descended from slaves, but who still suffered the consequences of racism in the US? In listening to people like John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes discuss this topic, I’m inclined to think that reparations is probably unworkable as a policy. But the truth is that I’m genuinely unsure about this.
Whatever we decide about the specific burdens of the past, we have to ask, how much of current wealth inequality is due to existing racism and to existing policies that make it harder for black families to build wealth? And the only way to get answers to those questions is to have a dispassionate discussion about facts.
The problem with the social activism we are now seeing—what John McWhorter has called “the new religion of anti-Racism”—is that it finds racism nearly everywhere, even where it manifestly does not exist. And this is incredibly damaging to the cause of achieving real equality in our society. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate the evil and injustice of slavery and its aftermath. But it is possible to exaggerate how much racism currently exists at an Ivy League university, or in Silicon Valley, or at the Oscars. And those exaggerations are toxic—and, perversely, they may produce more real racism. It seems to me that false claims of victimhood can diminish the social stature of any group, even a group that has a long history of real victimization.
The imprecision here—the bad-faith arguments, the double standards, the goal-post shifting, the idiotic opinion pieces in the New York Times, the defenestrations on social media, the general hysteria that the cult of wokeness has produced—I think this is all extremely harmful to civil society, and to effective liberal politics, and to the welfare of African Americans.
So, with that as preamble, let’s return to the tragic death of George Floyd.
As I said, I believe that any sane person who watches that video will feel that they have witnessed a totally unjustified killing. So, people of any race, are right to be horrified by what happened there. But now I want to ask a few questions, and I want us to try to consider them dispassionately. And I really want you to watch your mind while you do this. There are very likely to be few tripwires installed there, and I’m about to hit them. So just do your best to remain calm.
Does the killing of George Floyd prove that we have a problem of racism in the United States?
Does it even suggest that we have a problem of racism in the United States?
In other words, do we have reason to believe that, had Floyd been white, he wouldn’t have died in a similar way?
Do the dozen or so other videos that have emerged in recent years, of black men being killed by cops, do they prove, or even suggest, that there is an epidemic of lethal police violence directed especially at black men and that this violence is motivated by racism?
Most people seem to think that the answers to these questions are so obvious that to even pose them as I just did is obscene. The answer is YES, and it’s a yes that now needs to be shouted in the streets.
The problem, however, is that if you take even 5 minutes to look at the data on crime and police violence, the answer appears to be “no,” in every case, albeit with one important caveat. I’m not talking about how the police behaved in 1970 or even 1990. But in the last 25 years, violent crime has come down significantly in the US, and so has the police use of deadly force. And as you’re about to see, the police used more deadly force against white people—both in absolute numbers, and in terms of their contribution to crime and violence in our society. But the public perception is, of course, completely different.
In a city like Los Angeles, 2019 was a 30-year low for police shootings. Think about that…. Do the people who were protesting in Los Angeles, peacefully and violently, do the people who were ransacking and burning businesses by the hundreds—in many cases, businesses that will not return to their neighborhoods—do the people who caused so much damage to the city, that certain neighborhoods, ironically the neighborhoods that are disproportionately black, will take years, probably decades to recover, do the celebrities who supported them, and even bailed them out of jail—do any of these people know that 2019 was the 30-year low for police shootings in Los Angeles?
Before I step out further over the abyss here, let me reiterate: Many of you are going to feel a visceral negative reaction to what I’m about to say. You’re not going to like the way it sounds. You’re especially not going to like the way it sounds coming from a white guy. This feeling of not liking, this feeling of outrage, this feeling of disgust—this feeling of “Sam, what the fuck is wrong with you, why are you even touching this topic?”—this feeling isn’t an argument. It isn’t, or shouldn’t be, the basis for your believing anything to be true or false about the world.
Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that I or anyone else needs to respect. Your capacity to be offended isn’t something that you should respect. In fact, it is something that you should be on your guard for. Perhaps more than any other property of your mind, this feeling can mislead you.
If you care about justice—and you absolutely should—you should care about facts and the ability to discuss them openly. Justice requires contact with reality. It simply isn’t the case—it cannot be the case—that the most pressing claims on our sense of justice need come from those who claim to be the most offended by conversation itself.
So, I’m going to speak the language of facts right now, in so far as we know them, all the while knowing that these facts run very much counter to most people’s assumptions. Many of the things you think you know about crime and violence in our society are almost certainly wrong. And that should matter to you.
So just take a moment and think this through with me.
How many people are killed each year in America by cops? If you don’t know, guess. See if you have any intuitions for these numbers. Because your intuitions are determining how you interpret horrific videos of the sort we saw coming out of Minneapolis.
The answer for many years running is about 1000. One thousand people are killed by cops in America each year. There are about 50 to 60 million encounters between civilians and cops each year, and about 10 million arrests. That’s down from a high of over 14 million arrests annually throughout the 1990’s. So, of the 10 million occasions where a person attracts the attention of the police, and the police decide to make an arrest, about 1000 of those people die as a result. (I’m sure a few people get killed even when no arrest was attempted, but that has to be a truly tiny number.) So, without knowing anything else about the situation, if the cops decide to arrest you, it would be reasonable to think that your chance of dying is around 1/10,000. Of course, in the United States, it’s higher than it is in other countries. So I’m not saying that this number is acceptable. But it is what it is for a reason, as we’re about to see.
Now, there are a few generic things I’d like to point here before we get further into the data. They should be uncontroversial.
First, it’s almost certainly the case that of these 1000 officer-caused deaths each year, some are entirely justified—it may even be true that most are entirely justified—and some are entirely unjustified, and some are much harder to judge. And that will be true next year. And the year after that.
Of the unjustified killings, there are vast differences between them. Many have nothing in common but for the fact that a cop killed someone unnecessarily. It might have been a terrible misunderstanding, or incompetence, or just bad luck, and in certain cases it could be a cop who decides to murder someone because he’s become enraged, or he’s just a psychopath. And it is certainly possible that racial bias accounts for some number of these unjustified killings.
Another point that should be uncontroversial—but may sound a little tone-deaf in the current environment, where we’ve inundated with videos of police violence in response to these protests. But this has to be acknowledged whenever we’re discussing this topic: Cops have a very hard job. In fact, in the current environment, they have an almost impossible job.
If you’re making 10 million arrests every year, some number of people will decide not to cooperate. There can be many reasons for this. A person could be mentally ill, or drunk, or on drugs. Of course, rather often the person is an actual criminal who doesn’t want to be arrested.
Among innocent people, and perhaps this getting more common these days, a person might feel that resisting arrest is the right thing to do, ethically or politically or as a matter of affirming his identity. After all, put yourself in his shoes, he did nothing wrong. Why are the cops arresting him? I don’t know if we have data on the numbers of people who resist arrest by race. But I can well imagine that if it’s common for African Americans to believe that the only reason they have been singled out for arrest is due to racism on the part of the police, that could lead to greater levels of non-compliance. Which seems very likely to lead to more unnecessary injury and death. This is certainly one reason why it is wise to have the racial composition of a police force mirror that of the community it’s policing. Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that this will reduce lethal violence from the side of the police. In fact, the evidence we have suggests that black and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. But it would surely change the perception of the community that racism is a likely explanation for police behavior, which itself might reduce conflict.
When a cop goes hands on a person in an attempt to control his movements or make an arrest, that person’s resistance poses a problem that most people don’t understand. If you haven’t studied this topic. If you don’t know what it physically takes to restrain and immobilize a non-compliant person who may be bigger and stronger than you are, and if you haven’t thought through the implications of having a gun on your belt while attempting to do that—a gun that can be grabbed and used against you, or against a member of the public—then your intuitions about what makes sense here, tactically and ethically, are very likely to be bad.
If you haven’t trained with firearms under stress. If you don’t know how suddenly situations can change. If you haven’t experienced how quickly another person can close the distance on you, and how little time you have to decide to draw your weapon. If you don’t know how hard it is to shoot a moving target, or even a stationary one, when your heart is beating out of your chest. You very likely have totally unreasonable ideas about what we can expect from cops in situations like these. [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]
And there is another fact that looms over all this like the angel of Death, literally: Most cops do not get the training they need. They don’t get the hand-to-hand training they need—they don’t have good skills to subdue people without harming them. All you need to do is watch YouTube videos of botched arrests to see this. The martial arts community stands in perpetual astonishment at the kinds of things cops do and fail to do once they start fighting with suspects. Cops also don’t get the firearms training they need. Of course, there are elite units in many police departments, but most cops do not have the training they need to do the job they’re being asked to do.
It is also true, no doubt, that some cops are racist bullies. And there are corrupt police departments that cover for these guys, and cover up police misconduct generally, whether it was borne of racism or not.
But the truth is that even if we got rid of all bad cops, which we absolutely should do, and there were only good people left, and we got all these good people the best possible training, and we gave them the best culture in which to think about their role in society, and we gave them the best methods for de-escalating potentially violent situations—which we absolutely must do—and we scrubbed all the dumb laws from our books, so that when cops were required to enforce the law, they were only risking their lives and the lives of civilians for reasons that we deem necessary and just—so the war on drugs is obviously over—even under these conditions of perfect progress, we are still guaranteed to have some number of cases each year where a cop kills a civilian in a way that is totally unjustified, and therefore tragic. Every year, there will be some number of families who will be able to say that the cops killed their son or daughter, or father or mother, or brother or sister. And videos of these killings will occasionally surface, and they will be horrific. This seems guaranteed to happen.
So, while we need to make all these improvements, we still need to understand that there are very likely always to going to be videos of cops doing something inexplicable, or inexplicably stupid, that results in an innocent person’s death, or a not-so-innocent person’s death. And sometimes the cop will be white and the victim will be black. We have 10 million arrests each year. And we now live in a panopticon where practically everything is videotaped.
I’m about to get further into the details of what we know about police violence, but I want to just put it to you now: If we’re going to let the health of race relations in this country, or the relationship between the community and the police, depend on whether we ever see a terrible video of police misconduct again, the project of healing these wounds in our society is doomed.
About a week into these protests I heard Van Jones on CNN say, “If we see one more video of a cop brutalizing a black man, this country could go over the edge.” He said this, not as indication of how dangerously inflamed people have become. He seemed to be saying it as an ultimatum to the police. With 10 million arrests a year, arrests that have to take place in the most highly armed society in the developed world, I hope you understand how unreasonable that ultimatum is.
We have to put these videos into context. And we have to acknowledge how different they are from one another. Some of them are easy to interpret. But some are quite obviously being interpreted incorrectly by most people—especially by activists. And there are a range of cases—some have video associated with them and some don’t—that are now part of a litany of anti-racist outrage, and the names of the dead are intoned as though they were all evidence of the same injustice. And yet, they are not.
Walter Scott was stopped for a broken taillight and got out of his car and tried to flee. There might have been a brief struggle over the officer’s taser, that part of the video isn’t clear. But what is clear is that he was shot in the back multiple times as he was running away. That was insane. There was zero reason for the officer to feel that his life was under threat at the point he opened fire. And for that unjustified shooting, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. I’m not sure that’s long enough. That seemed like straight-up murder.
The George Floyd video, while even more disturbing to watch, is harder to interpret. I don’t know anything about Derek Chauvin, the cop who knelt on his neck. It’s quite possible that he’s a terrible person who should have never been a cop. He seems to have a significant number of complaints against him—though, as far as I know, the details of those complaints haven’t been released. And he might be a racist on top of being a bad cop. Or he might be a guy who was totally in over his head and thought you could restrain someone indefinitely by keeping a knee on their neck indefinitely. I don’t know. I’m sure more facts will come out. But whoever he is, I find it very unlikely that he was intending to kill George Floyd. Think about it. He was surrounded by irate witnesses and being filmed. Unless he was aspiring to become the most notorious murderer in human history, it seems very unlikely that he was intending to commit murder in that moment. It’s possible, of course. But it doesn’t seem the likeliest explanation for his behavior.
What I believe we saw on that video was the result of a tragic level of negligence and poor training on the part of those cops. Or terrible recruitment—it’s possible that none of these guys should have ever been cops. I think for one of them, it was only his fourth day on the job. Just imagine that. Just imagine all things you don’t know as a new cop. It could also be a function of bad luck in terms of Floyd’s underlying health. It’s been reported that he was complaining of being unable to breath before Chauvin pinned him with his knee. The knee on his neck might not have been the only thing that caused his death. It could have also been the weight of the other officer pinning him down.
This is almost certainly what happened in the cast of Eric Garner. Half the people on earth believe they witnessed a cop choke Eric Garner to death in that video. That does not appear to be what happened. When Eric Garner is saying “I can’t breathe” he’s not being choked. He’s being held down on the pavement by several officers. Being forced down on your stomach under the weight of several people can kill a person, especially someone with lung or heart disease. In the case of Eric Garner, it is absolutely clear that the cop who briefly attempted to choke him was no longer choking him. If you doubt that, watch the video again.
And if you are recoiling now from my interpretation of these videos, you really should watch the killing of Tony Timpa. It’s also terribly disturbing, but it removes the variable of race and it removes any implication of intent to harm on the part of the cops about as clearly as you could ask. It really is worth watching as a corrective to our natural interpretation of these other videos.
Tony Timpa was a white man in Dallas, who was suffering some mental health emergency and cocaine intoxication. And he actually called 911 himself. What we see is the bodycam footage from the police, which shows that he was already in handcuffs when they arrived—a security guard had cuffed him. And then the cops take over, and they restrain Timpa on the ground, by rolling him onto a stomach and putting their weight on him, very much like in the case of Eric Garner. And they keep their weight on him—one cop has a knee on his upper back, which is definitely much less aggressive than a knee on the neck—but they crush the life out of him all the same, over the course of 13 minutes. He’s not being choked. The cops are not being rough. There’s no animus between them and Timpa. It was not a hostile arrest. They clearly believe that they’re responding to a mental health emergency. But they keep him down on his belly, under their weight, and they’re cracking jokes as he loses consciousness. Now, your knowledge that he’s going to be dead by the end of this video, make their jokes seem pretty callous. But this was about as benign an imposition of force by cops as you’re going to see. The crucial insight you will have watching this video, is that the officers not only had no intent to kill Tony Timpa, they don’t take his pleading seriously because they have no doubt that what they’re doing is perfectly safe—perfectly within protocol. They’ve probably done this hundreds of times before.
If you watch that video—and, again, fair warning, it is disturbing—but imagine how disturbing it would have been to our society if Tony Timpa had been black. If the only thing you changed about the video was the color of Timpa’s skin, then that video would have detonated like a nuclear bomb in our society, exactly as the George Floyd video did. In fact, in one way it is worse, or would have been perceived to be worse. I mean, just imagine white cops telling jokes as they crushed the life out of a black Tony Timpa… Given the nature of our conversation about violence, given the way we perceive videos of this kind, there is no way that people would have seen that as anything other than a lynching. And yet, it would not have been a lynching.
Now, I obviously have no idea what was in the minds of cops in Minneapolis. And perhaps we’ll learn at trial. Perhaps a tape of Chauvin using the N-word in another context will surface, bringing in a credible allegation of racism. It seems to me that Chauvin is going to have a very hard time making sense of his actions. But most people who saw that video believe they have seen, with their own eyes, beyond any possibility of doubt, a racist cop intentionally murder an innocent man. That’s not what the video necessarily shows.
As I said, these videos can be hard to interpret, even while seeming very easy to interpret. And these cases, whether we have associated video or not, are very different. Michael Brown is reported to have punched a cop in the face and attempted to get his gun. As far as I know, there’s no video of that encounter. But, if true, that is an entirely different situation. If you’re attacking a cop, trying to get his gun, that is a life and death struggle that almost by definition for the cop, and it most cases justifies the use of lethal force. And honestly, it seems that no one within a thousand miles of Black Lives Matter is willing to make these distinctions. An attitude of anti-racist moral outrage is not the best lens through which to interpret evidence of police misconduct.
I’ve seen many videos of people getting arrested. And I’ve seen the outraged public reaction to what appears to be inappropriate use of force by the cops. One overwhelming fact that comes through is that people, whatever the color of their skin, don’t understand how to behave around cops so as to keep themselves safe. People have to stop resisting arrest. This may seem obvious, but judging from most of these videos, and from the public reaction to them, this must be a totally arcane piece of information. When a cop wants to take you into custody, you don’t get to decide whether or not you should be arrested. When a cop wants to take you into custody, for whatever reason, it’s not a negotiation. And if you turn it into a wrestling match, you’re very likely to get injured or killed.
This is a point I once belabored in a podcast with Glenn Loury, and it became essentially a public service announcement. And I’ve gone back and listened to those comments, and I want to repeat them here. This is something that everyone really needs to understand. And it’s something that Black Lives Matter should be teaching explicitly: If you put your hands on a cop—if you start wrestling with a cop, or grabbing him because he’s arresting your friend, or pushing him, or striking him, or using your hands in way that can possibly be interpreted as your reaching for a gun—you are likely to get shot in the United States, whatever the color of your skin.
As I said, when you’re with a cop, there is always a gun out in the open. And any physical struggle has to be perceived by him as a fight for the gun. A cop doesn’t know what you’re going to do if you overpower him, so he has to assume the worst. Most cops are not confident in their ability to physically control a person without shooting him—for good reason, because they’re not well trained to do that, and they’re continually confronting people who are bigger, or younger, or more athletic, or more aggressive than they are. Cops are not superheroes. They’re ordinary people with insufficient training, and once things turn physical they cannot afford to give a person who is now assaulting a police officer the benefit of the doubt.
This is something that most people seem totally confused about. If they see a video of somebody trying to punch a cop in the face and the person’s unarmed, many people think the cop should just punch back, and any use of deadly force would be totally disproportionate. But that’s not how violence works. It’s not the cop’s job to be the best bare-knuckled boxer on Earth so he doesn’t have to use his gun. A cop can’t risk getting repeatedly hit in the face and knocked out, because there’s always a gun in play. This is the cop’s perception of the world, and it’s a justifiable one, given the dynamics of human violence.
You might think cops shouldn’t carry guns. Why can’t we just be like England? That’s a point that can be debated. But it requires considerable thought in a country where there are over 300 million guns on the street. The United States is not England.
Again, really focus on what is happening when a cop is attempting to arrest a person. It’s not up to you to decide whether or not you should be arrested. Does it matter that you know you didn’t do anything wrong? No. And how could that fact be effectively communicated in the moment by your not following police commands? I’m going to ask that again: How could the fact that you’re innocent, that you’re not a threat to cop, that you’re not about to suddenly attack him or produce a weapon of your own, how could those things be effectively communicated at the moment he’s attempting to arrest you by your resisting arrest?
Unless you called the cops yourself, you never know what situation you’re in. If I’m walking down the street, I don’t know if the cop who is approaching me didn’t get a call that some guy who looks like Ben Stiller just committed an armed robbery. I know I didn’t do anything, but I don’t know what’s in the cop’s head. The time to find out what’s going on—the time to complain about racist cops, the time to yell at them and tell them they’re all going to get fired for their stupidity and misconduct—is after cooperating, at the police station, in the presence of a lawyer, preferably. But to not comply in the heat of the moment, when a guy with the gun is issuing commands—this raises your risk astronomically, and it’s something that most people, it seems, just do not intuitively understand, even when they’re not in the heat of the moment themselves, but just watching video of other people getting arrested.
Ok. End of public-service announcement.
The main problem with using individual cases, where black men and women have been killed by cops, to conclude that there is an epidemic of racist police violence in our society, is that you can find nearly identical cases of white suspects being killed by cops, and there are actually more of them.
In 2016, John McWhorter wrote a piece in Time Magazine about this.
Here’s a snippet of what he wrote:
“The heart of the indignation over these murders is a conviction that racist bias plays a decisive part in these encounters. That has seemed plausible to me, and I have recently challenged those who disagree to present a list of white people killed within the past few years under circumstances similar to those that so enrage us in cases such as what happened to Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Walter Scott, Sam Debose, and others.”
So, McWhorter issued that challenge, as he said, and he was presented with the cases [VIDEO, VIDEO, VIDEO]. But there’s no song about these people, admonishing us to say their names. And the list of white names is longer, and I don’t know any of them, other than Tony Timpa. I know the black names. In addition to the ones I just read from McWhorter’s article, I know the names of Eric Garner, and Michael Brown, and Alton Sterling, and Philando Castile, and now, of course, I know the name of George Floyd. And I’m aware of many of the details of these cases where black men and women have been killed by cops. I know the name of Breonna Taylor. I can’t name a single white person killed by cops in circumstances like these—other than Timpa—and I just read McWhorter’s article where he lists many of them.
So, this is also a distortion in the media. The media is not showing us videos of white people being killed by cops; activists are not demanding that they do this. I’m sure white supremacists talk about this stuff a lot, who knows? But in terms of the story we’re telling ourselves in the mainstream, we are not actually talking about the data on lethal police violence.
So back to the data: Again, cops kill around 1000 people every year in the United States. About 25 percent are black. About 50 percent are white. The data on police homicide are all over the place. The federal government does not have a single repository for data of this kind. But they have been pretty carefully tracked by outside sources, like the Washington Post, for the last 5 years. These ratios appear stable over time. Again, many of these killings are justifiable, we’re talking about career criminals who are often armed and, in many cases, trying to kill the cops. Those aren’t the cases we’re worried about. We’re worried about the unjustifiable homicides.
Now, some people will think that these numbers still represent an outrageous injustice. Afterall, African Americans are only 13 percent of the population. So, at most, they should be 13 percent of the victims of police violence, not 25 percent. Any departure from the baseline population must be due to racism.
Ok. Well, that sounds plausible, but consider a few more facts:
If you have 13 percent of the population responsible for 50 percent of the murders—and in some cities committing 2/3rds of all violent crime—what percent of police attention should it attract? I don’t know. But I’m pretty sure it’s not just 13 percent. Given that the overwhelming majority of their victims are black, I’m pretty sure that most black people wouldn’t set the dial at 13 percent either.
And here we arrive at the core of the problem. The story of crime in America is overwhelmingly the story of black-on-black crime. It is also, in part, a story of black-on-white crime. For more than a generation, crime in America really hasn’t been a story of much white-on-black crime. [Some listeners mistook my meaning here. I’m not denying that most violent crime is intraracial. So, it’s true that most white homicide victims are killed by white offenders. Per capita, however, the white crime rate is much lower than the black crime rate. And there is more black-on-white crime than white-on-black crime.—SH]
The murder rate has come down steadily since the early 1990’s, with only minor upticks. But, nationwide, blacks are still 6 times more likely to get murdered than whites, and in some cities their risk is double that. And around 95 percent of the murders are committed by members of the African American community. [While reported in 2015, these data were more than a decade old. Looking at more recent data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report, the number appears to be closer to 90 percent.—SH]
The weekend these protests and riots were kicking off nationwide—when our entire country seemed to be tearing itself apart over a perceived epidemic of racist police violence against the black community, 92 people were shot, and 27 killed, in Chicago alone—one city. This is almost entirely a story of black men killing members of their own community. And this is far more representative of the kind of violence that the black community needs to worry about. And, ironically, it’s clear that one remedy for this violence is, or would be, effective policing.
These are simply the facts of crime in our society as we best understand them. And the police have to figure out how to respond to these facts, professionally and ethically. The question is, are they doing that? And, obviously, there’s considerable doubt that they’re doing that, professionally and ethically.
Roland Fryer, the Harvard economist who’s work I discussed on the podcast with Glenn Loury, studied police encounters involving black and white suspects and the use of force.
His paper is titled, this from 2016, “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force.”
Fryer is black, and he went into this research with the expectation that the data would confirm that there’s an epidemic of lethal police violence directed at black men. But he didn’t find that. However, he did find support for the suspicion that black people suffer more nonlethal violence at the hands of cops than whites do.
So let’s look at this.
The study examined data from 10 major police departments, in Texas, Florida and California. Generally, Fryer found that there is 25 percent greater likelihood that the police would go hands on black suspects than white ones—cuffing them, or forcing them to ground, or using other non-lethal force.
Specifically, in New York City, in encounters where white and black citizens were matched for other characteristics, they found that:
This is more or less the full continuum of violence short of using lethal force. And it seems, from the data we have, that blacks receive more of it than whites. What accounts for this disparity? Racism? Maybe. However, as I said, it’s inconvenient to note that other data suggest that black cops and Hispanic cops are more likely to shoot black and Hispanic suspects than white cops are. I’m not sure how an ambient level of racism explains that.
Are there other explanations? Well, again, could it be that blacks are less cooperative with the police. If so, that’s worth understanding. A culture of resisting arrest would be a very bad thing to cultivate, given that the only response to such resistance is for the police to increase their use of force.
Whatever is true here is something we should want to understand. And it’s all too easy to see how an increased number of encounters with cops, due to their policing in the highest crime neighborhoods, which are disproportionately black, and an increased number of traffic stops in those neighborhoods, and an increased propensity for cops to go hands-on these suspects, with or without an arrest, for whatever reason—it’s easy to see how all of this could be the basis for a perception of racism, whether or not racism is the underlying motivation.
It is totally humiliating to be arrested or manhandled by a cop. And, given the level of crime in the black community, a disproportionate number of innocent black men seem guaranteed to have this experience. It’s totally understandable that this would make them bitter and mistrustful of the police. This is another vicious circle that we must find some way to interrupt.
But Fryer also found that black suspects are around 25 percent less likely to be shot than white suspects are. And in the most egregious situations, where officers were not first attacked, but nevertheless fired their weapons at a suspect, they were more likely to do this when the suspect was white.
Again, the data are incomplete. This doesn’t not cover every city in the country. And a larger study tomorrow might paint a different picture. But, as far as I know, the best data we have suggest that for, whatever reason, whites are more likely to be killed by cops once an arrest is attempted. And a more recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by David Johnson and colleagues found similar results. And it is simply undeniable that more whites are killed by cops each year, both in absolute numbers and in proportion to their contributions to crime and violence in our society.
Can you hear how these facts should be grinding in that well-oiled machine of woke outrage? Our society is in serious trouble now. We are being crushed under the weight of a global pandemic and our response to it has been totally inept. On top of that, we’re being squeezed by the growing pressure of what might become a full-on economic depression. And the streets are now filled with people who imagine, on the basis of seeing some horrific videos, that there is an epidemic of racist cops murdering African Americans. Look at what this belief is doing to our politics. And these videos will keep coming. And the truth is they could probably be matched 2 for 1 with videos of white people being killed by cops. What percentage of people protesting understand that the disparity runs this way? In light of the belief that the disparity must run the other way, people are now quite happy to risk getting beaten and arrested by cops themselves, and to even loot and burn businesses. And most people and institutions are supporting this civil unrest from the sidelines, because they too imagine that cops are killing black people in extraordinary numbers. And all of this is calling forth an authoritarian response from Trump—and leading to more examples of police violence caught on video.
As I hope I’ve made clear, we need police reform—there’s no question about this. And some of the recent footage of the police attacking peaceful protests is outrageous. Nothing I just said should signify that I’m unaware of that. From what I’ve seen—and by the time I release this podcast, the character of all this might have changed—but, from what I’ve seen, the police were dangerously passive in the face of looting and real crime, at least in the beginning. In many cities, they just stood and watched society unravel. And then they were far too aggressive in the face of genuinely peaceful protests. This is a terrible combination. It is the worst combination. There’s no better way to increase cynicism and anger and fear, on all sides.
But racializing how we speak about the problem of police violence, where race isn’t actually the relevant variable—again, think of Tony Timpa— this has highly negative effects. First, it keeps us from talking about the real problems with police tactics. For instance, we had the recent case of Breonna Taylor who was killed in a so-called “no knock” raid of her home. As occasionally happens, in this carnival of moral error we call “the war on drugs,” the police had the wrong address, and they kicked in the wrong door. And they wound up killing a totally innocent woman. But this had nothing to do with race. The problem is not, as some commentators have alleged, that it’s not safe to be “sleeping while black.” The problem is that these no-knock raids are an obscenely dangerous way of enforcing despicably stupid laws. White people die under precisely these same circumstances, and very likely in greater numbers (I don’t have data specifically on no-knock raids, but we can assume that the ratio is probably conserved here).
Think about how crazy this policy is in a nation where gun ownership is so widespread. If someone kicks in your door in the middle of the night, and you’re a gun owner, of course you’re going to reach for your gun. That’s why you have a gun in the first place. The fact that people bearing down on you and your family out of the darkness might have yelled “police” (or might have not yelled “police”; it’s alleged in some of these cases that they don’t yell anything)—the fact that someone yells “police” isn’t necessarily convincing. Anyone can yell “police.” And, again, think of the psychology of this: If the police have the wrong house, and you know there is no reason on earth that real cops would take an interest in you, especially in the middle of the night, because you haven’t done anything (you’re not the guy running a meth lab)—and now you’re reaching for your gun in the dark—of course, someone is likely to get killed. This is not a racial issue. It’s a terrible policy.
Unfortunately, the process of police reform isn’t straightforward—and it is made massively more complicated by what’s happening now. Yes, we will be urging police reform in a very big way now, that much seems clear. But Roland Fryer has also shown that investigations of the cops, in a climate where viral videos and racial politics are operating, have dramatic effects, many of which are negative.
He studied the aftermath of the investigations into police misconduct that followed the killings Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, and Lequan McDonald, and found that, for reasons that seem pretty easy to intuit, proactive police contact with civilians decreases drastically, sometimes by as much 100 percent, once these investigations get started. This is now called “The Ferguson Effect.” The police still answer 911 calls, but they don’t investigate suspicious activity in the same way. They don’t want to wind up on YouTube. And when they alter their behavior like this, homicides go up. Fryer estimates that the effects of these few investigations translated into 1000 extra homicides, and almost 40,000 more felonies, over the next 24 months in the US. And, of course, most of the victims of those crimes were black. One shudders to imagine the size of the Ferguson effect we’re about to see nationwide… I’m sure the morale among cops has never been lower. I think it’s almost guaranteed that cops by the thousands will be leaving the force. And it will be much more difficult to recruit good people.
Who is going to want to be a cop now? Who could be idealist about occupying that role in society? It seems to me that the population of people who will become cops now will be more or less indistinguishable from the population of people who become prison guards. I’m pretty sure there’s a difference there, and I think we’re likely to see that difference expressed in the future. It’s a grim picture, unless we do something very creative here.
So there’s a real question about how we can reform police departments, and get rid of bad cops, without negatively impacting the performance of good cops? That’s a riddle we have to solve—or at least we have to understand what the trade-offs are here.
Why is all of this happening now? Police killings of civilians have gone way down. And they are rare events. They are 1/10,000 level events, if measured by arrests. 1/50-60,000 level events if measured by police encounters. And the number of unarmed people who are killed is smaller still. Around 50 last year, again, more were white than black. And not all unarmed victims are innocent. Some get killed in the act of attacking the cops. [EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE, EXAMPLE]
Again, the data don’t tell a clean story, or the whole story. I see no reason to doubt that blacks get more attention from the cops—though, honestly, given the distribution of crime in our society, I don’t know what the alternative to that would be. And once the cops get involved, blacks are more likely to get roughed up, which is bad. But, again, it simply isn’t clear that racism is the cause. And contrary to everyone’s expectations, whites seem more likely to get killed by cops. Actually, one factor seems to be that whites are 7 times more likely to commit “suicide by cop” (and 3 times more likely to commit suicide generally). What’s going on there? Who knows?
There’s a lot we don’t understand about these data. But ask yourself, would our society seem less racist if the disparity ran the other way? Is less physical contact, but a greater likelihood of getting shot and killed a form of white privilege? Is a higher level of suicide by cop, and suicide generally, a form of white privilege? We have a problem here that, read either way, you can tell a starkly racist narrative.
We need ethical, professional policing, of course. But the places with the highest crime in our society need the most of it. Is there any doubt about that? In a city like Milwaukee, blacks are 12 times more likely to get murdered than whites [Not sure where I came by this number, probably a lecture or podcast. It appears the rate is closer to 20 times more likely and 22 times more likely in Wisconsin as a whole—SH], again, they are being killed by other African Americans, nearly 100 percent of the time. I think the lowest figure I’ve seen is 93 percent of the time. [As noted above, more recent data suggest that it’s closer to 90 percent]. What should the police do about this? And what are they likely to do now that our entire country has been convulsed over one horrific case of police misconduct?
We need to lower the temperature on this conversation, and many other conversations, and understand what is actually happening in our society.
But instead of doing this, we now have a whole generation of social activists who seem eager to play a game of chicken with the forces of chaos. Everything I said about the problem of inequality and the need for reform stands. But I think that what we are witnessing in our streets, and on social media, and even in the mainstream press, is a version of mass hysteria. And the next horrific video of a black person being killed by cops won’t be evidence to the contrary. And there will be another video. There are 10 million arrests every year. There will always be another video.
And the media has turned these videos into a form of political pornography. And this has deranged us. We’re now unable to speak or even think about facts. The media has been poisoned by bad incentives, in this regard, and social media doubly so.
In the mainstream of this protest movement, it’s very common to hear that the only problem with what is happening in our streets, apart from what the cops are doing, is that some criminal behavior at the margins—a little bit of looting, a little bit of violence—has distracted us from an otherwise necessary and inspiring response to an epidemic of racism. Most people in the media have taken exactly this line. People like Anderson Cooper on CNN or the editorial page of the New York Times or public figures like President Obama or Vice President Biden. The most prominent liberal voices believe that the protests themselves make perfect moral and political sense, and that movements like Black Lives Matter are guaranteed to be on the right side of history. How could anyone who is concerned about inequality and injustice in our society see things any other way? How could anyone who isn’t himself racist not support Black Lives Matter?
But, of course, there’s a difference between slogans and reality. There’s a difference between the branding of a movement and its actual aims. And this can be genuinely confusing. That’s why propaganda works. For instance, many people assume there’s nothing wrong with ANTIFA, because this group of total maniacs has branded itself as “anti-fascist.” What could be wrong with being anti-fascist? Are you pro fascism?
There’s a similar problem with Black Lives Matter—though, happily, unlike ANTIFA, Black Lives Matter actually seems committed to peaceful protest, which is hugely important. So the problem I’m discussing is more ideological, and it’s much bigger than Black Lives Matter—though BLM is its most visible symbol of this movement. The wider issue is that we are in the midst of a public hysteria and moral panic. And it has been made possible by a near total unwillingness, particularly on the Left, among people who value their careers and their livelihoods and their reputations, and fear being hounded into oblivion online—this is nearly everyone left-of-center politically. People are simply refusing to speak honestly about the problem of race and racism in America.
We are making ourselves sick. We are damaging our society. And by protesting the wrong thing, even the slightly wrong thing, and unleashing an explosion of cynical criminality in the process—looting that doesn’t even have the pretense of protest—the Left is empowering Trump, whatever the polls currently show. And if we are worried about Trump’s authoritarian ambitions, as I think we really should be, this is important to understand. He recently had what looked like paramilitary troops guarding the White House. I don’t know if we found out who those guys actually were, but that was genuinely alarming. But how are Democrats calls to “abolish the police” going to play to half the country that just watched so many cities get looted? We have to vote Trump out of office and restore the integrity of our institutions. And we have to make the political case for major reforms to deal with the problem of inequality—a problem which affects the black community most of all.
We need police reform; we need criminal justice reform; we need tax reform; we need health care reform; we need environmental reform—we need all of these things and more. And to be just, these policies will need to reduce the inequality in our society. If we did this, African Americans would benefit, perhaps more than any other group. But it’s not at all clear that progress along these dimensions primarily entails us finding and eradicating more racism in our society.
Just ask yourself, what would real progress on the problem of racism look like? What would utter progress look like?
Here’s what I think it would look like: More and more people (and ultimately all people) would care less and less (and ultimately not at all) about race. As I’ve said before in various places, skin color would become like hair color in its political and moral significance—which is to say that it would have none.
Now, maybe you don’t agree with that aspiration. Maybe you think that tribalism based on skin color can’t be outgrown or shouldn’t be outgrown. Well, if you think that, I’m afraid I don’t know what to say to you. It’s not that there’s nothing to say, it’s just there is so much we disagree about, morally and politically, that I don’t know where to begin. So that debate, if it can even be had, will have to be left for another time.
For the purposes of this conversation, I have to assume that you agree with me about the goal here, which is to say that you share the hope that there will come a time where the color of a person’s skin really doesn’t matter. What would that be like?
Well, how many blondes got into Harvard this year? Does anyone know? What percentage of the police in San Diego are brunette? Do we have enough red heads in senior management in our Fortune 500 companies? No one is asking these questions, and there is a reason for that. No one cares. And we are right not to care.
Imagine a world in which people cared about hair color to the degree that we currently care—or seem to care, or imagine that others care, or allege that they secretly care—about skin color. Imagine a world in which discrimination by hair color was a thing, and it took centuries to overcome, and it remains a persistent source of private pain and public grievance throughout society, even where it no longer exists. What an insane misuse of human energy that would be. What an absolute catastrophe.
The analogy isn’t perfect, for a variety of reasons, but it’s good enough for us to understand what life would be like if the spell of racism and anti-racism were truly broken. The future we want is not one in which we have all become passionate anti-racists. It’s not a future in which we are forever on our guard against the slightest insult—the bad joke, the awkward compliment, the tweet that didn’t age well. We want to get to a world in which skin color and other superficial characteristics of a person become morally and politically irrelevant. And if you don’t agree with that, what did you think Martin Luther King Jr was talking about?
And, finally, if you’re on the Left and don’t agree with this vision of a post-racial future, please observe that the people who agree with you, the people who believe that there is no overcoming race, and that racial identity is indissoluble, and that skin color really matters and will always matter—these people are white supremacists and neo-Nazis and other total assholes. And these are also people I can’t figure out how to talk to, much less persuade.
So the question for the rest of us—those of us who want to build a world populated by human beings, merely—the question is, how do we get there? How does racial difference become uninteresting? Can it become uninteresting by more and more people taking a greater interest in it? Can it become uninteresting by becoming a permanent political identity? Can it become uninteresting by our having thousands of institutions whose funding (and, therefore, very survival) depends on it remaining interesting until the end of the world?
Can it become less significant by being granted more and more significance? By becoming a fetish, a sacred object, ringed on all sides by taboos? Can race become less significant if you can lose your reputation and even your livelihood, at any moment, by saying one wrong word about it?
I think these questions answer themselves. To outgrow our obsession with racial difference, we have outgrow our obsession with race. And you don’t do that by maintaining your obsession with it.
Now, you might agree with me about the goal and about how a post-racial society would seem, but you might disagree about the path to get there—the question of what to do next. In fact, one podcast listener wrote to me recently to say that while he accepted my notion of a post-racial future, he thinks it’s just far too soon to talk about putting racial politics behind us. He asked me to imagine just how absurd it would have been to tell Martin Luther King Jr, at the dawn of the civil rights movement, that the path beyond racism requires that he become less and less obsessed with race.
That seems like a fair point, but Coleman Hughes has drawn my attention to a string of MLK quotes that seem to be just as transcendent of racial identity politics as I’m hoping to be here. You can see these quotations on his Twitter feed. None of those statements by King would make sense coming out of Black Lives Matter at the moment.
In any case, as I said, I think we are living in a very different time than Martin Luther King was. And what I see all around me is evidence of the fact that we were paying an intolerable price for confusion about racism, and social justice generally—and the importance of identity, generally—and this is happening in an environment where the path to success and power for historically disadvantaged groups isn’t generally barred by white racists who won’t vote for them, or hire them, or celebrate their achievements, or buy their products, and it isn’t generally barred by laws and policies and norms that are unfair. There is surely still some of that. But there must be less of it now than there ever was.
The real burden on the black community is the continued legacy of inequality—with respect to wealth, and education, and health, and social order—levels of crime, in particular, and resulting levels of incarceration, and single-parent families—and it seems very unlikely that these disparities, whatever their origin in the past, can be solved by focusing on problem of lingering racism, especially where it doesn’t exist. And the current problem of police violence seems a perfect case in point.
And yet now we’re inundated with messages from every well-intentioned company and organization singing from the same book of hymns. Black Lives Matter is everywhere. Of course, black lives matter. But the messaging of this movement about the reality of police violence is wrong, and it’s creating a public hysteria.
I just got a message from the American Association for the Advancement of Science talking about fear of the other. The quote from the email: “Left unchecked, racism, sexism, homophobia, and fear of the other can enter any organization or community – and destroy the foundations upon which we must build our future.” Ok, fine. But is that really the concern in the scientific community right now, “unchecked racism, sexism, and homophobia.” Is that really what ails science in the year 2020? I don’t think so.
I’ll tell you the fear of the other that does seem warranted, everywhere, right now. It’s the other who has rendered him or herself incapable of dialogue. It’s the other who will not listen to reason, who has no interest in facts, who can’t join a conversation that converges on the truth, because he knows in advance what the truth must be. We should fear the other who thinks that dogmatism and cognitive bias aren’t something to be corrected for, because they’re the very foundations of his epistemology. We should fear the other who can’t distinguish activism from journalism or politics from science. Or worse, can make these distinctions, but refuses to. And we’re all capable of becoming this person. If only for minutes or hours at a time. And this is a bug in our operating system, not a feature. We have to continually correct for it.
One of the most shocking things that many of us learned when the Covid-19 pandemic was first landing on our shores, and we were weighing the pros and cons of closing the schools, was that for tens of millions of American kids, going to school represents the only guarantee of a decent meal on any given day. I’m pretty confident that most of the kids we’re talking about here aren’t white. And whatever you think about the opportunities in this country and whatever individual success stories you can call to mind, there is no question that some of us start on third base, or second base. Everyone has a lot to deal with, of course. Life is hard. But not everyone is a single mom, or single grandparent, struggling to raise kids in the inner city, all the while trying to keep them from getting murdered. The disparities in our society are absolutely heartbreaking and unacceptable. And we need to have a rational discussion about their actual causes and solutions.
We have to pull back from the brink here. And all we have with which to do that is conversation. And the only thing that makes conversation possible is an openness to evidence and arguments—a willingness to update one’s view of the world when better reasons are given. And that is an ongoing process, not a place we ever finally arrive.
Ok… Well, perhaps that was more of an exhortation than I intended, but it certainly felt like I needed to say it. I hope it was useful. And the conversations will continue on this podcast.
Stay safe, everyone.
Dear Making Sense and Waking Up subscribers—
Those of you who have been listening to my podcast or following me on Twitter know that I’m quite worried about the emerging coronavirus pandemic. Barring some extraordinarily good luck, I believe that we have some very rough months ahead of us. Health concerns aside, it now seems inevitable that we will experience considerable economic uncertainty as a wave of illness disrupts normal life in a hundred countries simultaneously.
As you know, both the Waking Up app and the Making Sense podcast are subscription services. However, it has always been my policy that money should never be the reason why someone can’t get access to them. As we collectively respond to this global emergency, please know that if you can no longer afford a subscription to Waking Up or Making Sense, you need only send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com, and you’ll receive a free account when your subscription expires.
I’m incredibly fortunate to have found work that I love to do, along with a community of people willing to support it—and I feel especially good knowing that I can be of use to many of you at a time like this. I’m also very happy that both Waking Up and Making Sense are supported by a wonderful team of employees and contractors who can work from home indefinitely.
So please don’t forget: The work we are doing is for you, whether you can pay for it or not. And don’t hesitate to be in touch if you need help.
Wishing you all health and happiness,
As many of you know, the Day of Reflection conference, scheduled for November 17 in NYC, has been cancelled, and some hundreds of ticket holders are now left seeking refunds.
I was forced to pull out of this event nearly two months ago and have said very little about it since. Now that Travis Pangburn has officially announced that he will be “folding” his touring company, Pangburn Philosophy, I can give a brief account of what happened.
Although Pangburn still owes several speakers (including me) an extraordinary amount of money, we were willing to participate in the NYC conference for free as recently as a few days ago, if he would have handed it over to us and stepped away. I have been told that this offer was made, and he declined it.
I find it appalling that so many people were needlessly harmed by the implosion of Pangburn Philosophy. I can assure you that every speaker associated with the NYC event will be much wiser when working with promoters in the future.
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As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve recently gone back to school for an M.Ed in Higher Education. Regular readers may know that I already have a humanities PhD, which raises a pretty obvious question: “What the hell Dan? Aren’t you done with school? Why collect yet another degree? Seriously what is wrong with you?”
There are a few reasons I decided to go back to school. but most of them ultimately boil down to one thing: the academic job market. I’ve been writing about my experiences looking for a job over the last few years, and after four years and dozens and dozens of applications, it became very clear that something had to change if I planned on actually getting a job before retirement age.
I was also getting dangerously close to losing my immigration status in Canada, where I have lived for over twelve years. My three-year postgraduate work visa was set to expire this past summer, and with no employment on the horizon that would satisfy CIC requirements for renewal, going back to school was essentially the only way for me to stay in the country short of marriage (which an immigration lawyer actually suggested).
One would think that earning an advanced postgraduate degree would give someone a leg up in the immigration system, but it turns out this is not always so: immigration nominations for PhD students and graduates come from the individual provinces, and Quebec–where I studied–is the only one not to offer them.* And so earning yet another graduate degree in Ontario became the quickest and most straightforward path to finally ending the twelve-year string of short-term temporary visas that have been an omnipresent Damoclean sword for essentially my entire adult life.
But why Higher Ed?
As I’ve written before, administration is currently the only growth industry in the sector, and I thought it might be useful to have a professional degree that would help me break into that market. I also do honestly believe that schools would benefit from having more administrators who have first-hand experience with teaching and research, and with actual lived experience as graduate students and academic contract workers. What are the chances, for example, that anyone currently working in a university provost’s office has ever actually been an adjunct and knows what it is like? Or has even been a graduate student any time after the 1980s?
Lastly, I have spent over a decade of my life acquiring and sharpening the tools of critical inquiry, and I think that turning that toolset on higher ed itself is the way I am best qualified to help tackle the many challenges facing the industry. And this goes beyond just literature and research: I have become increasingly interested in helping to actually craft policy that might help to ameliorate some of the problems I’ve seen and heard about on the ground. This degree is a first step in that direction.
*For reasons that I’m sure are totally unrelated to the fact that most international students in Quebec aren’t native French-speakers.
Hello everyone! Many apologies for my long absence, but things got a little busy for me when I went back to school (yes, again) to actually officially study Higher Education!
The upside for you, dear readers, is that my new studies have provided lots of new grist for the old mill, and I plan to post fairly regularly about my ideas, experiences, and research over the next few semesters. This will include everything from day-to-day experiences in the programme itself to discussions of the existing literature on higher ed to summaries of my own research in the field (and possibly links to full papers for the true masochists among you).
Here’s a list of the topics I plan to address in the next few weeks, most of which derive from seminar papers I will be writing:
Is the Human Capital Model a Myth? Signalling, Credentialism, and Rent-Seeking in Higher Ed
The Idea of a Stoic University (Or: How to Un-coddle the American Mind)
Transnational Mobility in the Academic Labour Market for the Humanities
Graduate School as the Structural Model for the Theory of Emerging Adulthood
I’m looking forward to bringing you all along with me on this new journey!
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The post Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson in Vancouver (Night Two) appeared first on Sam Harris.
[Update to the update: SIU has posted a statement on the programme here. As it essentially confirms my suspicions that it is designed to steal soft academic labour from new PhDs by trading on their institutional loyalty and need for affiliation without paying them for their services, I provide the link here but see no need to comment further.]
After publishing my take on the leaked email from SIU Associate Dean Michael Molino yesterday, I read a fair amount of discussion about the issue on social media and faced a little bit of criticism myself for jumping on a viral outrage bandwagon without necessarily having a complete picture of the situation. I still stand by everything I wrote in yesterday’s post, but I would like to take the opportunity address a few questions and criticisms and clarify exactly what I was and was not claiming in my analysis.
Is this email even real? How do we know it really said everything that ended up in the viral version?
Okay, fair enough. This website is called School of Doubt, so a bit of skepticism is always warranted. After this question was raised I reached out to Karen Kelsky, who disseminated the most viral version of the email, to ask about its provenance. She confirmed that it was forwarded to her by an SIU faculty member she knew personally. Epistemically speaking that is good enough for me, but nothing’s perfect I guess.
Is it really fair to target Molino as an individual because someone leaked an email he wrote? Isn’t this just doxxing that invites harassment?
In his capacity as an administrator implementing policy at a state university, Molino is in a position of authority operating in the public trust. This requires transparency and accountability, and I don’t think sharing his official contact information is doxxing any more than it would be for an administrator at a government agency like the EPA or FCC. Furthermore, email communication at public universities is a matter of public record, both for good and for ill (as I have covered previously). While people may disagree about the ethics of leaking and whistleblowing, it is really not possible to argue that such an email could have been written with any reasonable expectation of privacy. But yes, he’s probably going to have a bad time and that sucks.
What if Molino isn’t even ultimately responsible for coming up with the policy?
Well, bluntly, who cares? He is clearly working to implement it. Not to get all Godwinny, but we’ve heard that one before. You can write to the Provost instead if you want. I won’t provide his email but I bet you can find it.
Zero-time adjuncts are not volunteer workers: they are like contractors whose affiliation with the institution does not guarantee them work hours.
First off there is a terminology problem here. Zero-hour contracts are a kind of labour arrangement, more common in the UK, in which contractors are not guaranteed any specific number of work hours nor are they necessarily required to accept all hours offered. Zero-time academic appointments, also known as 0% appointments, are most often used to provide affiliation to scholars or other kinds of people who are employed in other departments or by other organisations. For example, an economist might be tenured faculty at a business school but also have a zero-time appointment in the economics department of the arts faculty of the same school. This person might advise students or otherwise participate in research and service in both departments, but it is understood that the work in their 0% appointment is covered by the pay from their full-time appointment. Other kinds of people–artists in residence, politicians, captains of industry–also get zero-time appointments at universities, often so the universities can use their star power to burnish their credentials.
Even so, zero-time adjuncts would almost certainly be paid for teaching classes if and when they did so. Not to do so would probably be illegal, right?
Okay, here is the crux of the issue. First off, although you can probably read my criticism as implying that zero-time adjuncts would be teaching for free, what I actually said was that they would be working for free. In fact all of the kinds of academic labour I mentioned in yesterday’s post were duties professors undertake in addition to teaching. Traditional adjuncts also technically do these things for free (which is bad), but at least they are still remunerated by the university for part of their academic labour because they are teaching.
So what does it mean when they also don’t get teaching?
Does anyone seriously believe that they will be compensated at a specific and fair hourly rate for time they spend at departmental meetings, on thesis committees, advising and communicating with students, collaborating on research projects, or having other “intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units”? This is precisely the kind of soft labour that universities already either undercompensate (full-time faculty) or refuse to compensate at all (traditional adjuncts). Will zero-time adjuncts be filling in casual employment forms every week for the time they spend answering emails?
Like it or not, “professor” is still a word with a meaning. Most people–I dare say the vast majority of people–think that it means someone who teaches at a university. Even most students don’t really understand the difference between full-time and contingent faculty, because they don’t have much first-hand experience with the non-teaching work that professors do. Or when they do (e.g. academic advising, mentorship, etc.), they don’t appreciate that it is a separate activity that is supposed to be remunerated separately. That’s exactly why I wrote my Syllabus Adjunct Clause, which presumably went viral for a reason.
This lack of awareness is why it is so dangerous to allow this precedent. Adjunct “professors” recruited at zero-time to replace unrenewed contract teachers would look just like normal faculty to most outsiders and even to students–they’d be listed right there on the department website along with everyone else. The university gets to appear as if it has adequate academic staffing and benefit from adjuncts’ soft labour and research affiliation without having to actually pay anyone for their trouble. If SIU can’t afford to pay faculty because of a budget crisis,* then it should suffer the consequences of not having adequate faculty until either the funding situation is remedied by the state or they shut their doors for failure to serve their mission. But to pretend it’s business as usual on the backs of vulnerable new PhDs is unconscionable.
*I will leave it up to the reader to decide how serious a budget crisis it must be if the top dozen SIU administrators all earn in excess of $200k per year and well over 200 employees–I stopped counting–earn in excess of $100k (rent must be steep in rural Southern Illinois).
Southern Illinois University has finally taken the step that we all knew was coming, whether we openly admitted it to ourselves or not. The progression was too obvious, the market forces in question too powerful, for this result to have been anything but inevitable. The question was never if, but when, and it turns out that when is today.
Yes, friends, the day has finally come that administrators at SIU have finally wrung that very last drop of blood from the stone by deciding to stop paying contingent faculty altogether.
Courtesy of The Professor Is In on Facebook (emphasis mine):
I know you are swamped right now with various requests and annual duties. I apologize for adding to that, but I am here to advocate for something that merits your attention. The Alumni Association has initiated a pilot program involving the College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Applied Sciences and Arts, seeking qualified alumni to join the SIU Graduate Faculty in a zero-time (adjunct) status.
Candidates for appointment must meet HLC accreditation guidelines for appointment as adjunct professors, and they will generally hold an academic doctorate or other terminal degree as appropriate for the field.
These blanket zero-time adjunct graduate faculty appointments are for 3-year periods, and can be renewed. While specific duties of alumni adjuncts will likely vary across academic units, examples include service on graduate student thesis committees, teaching specific graduate or undergraduate lectures in one’s area of expertise, service on departmental or university committees, and collaborations on grant proposals and research projects. Moreover, participating alumni can benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts who will come together regularly (either in-person or via the web) to discuss best practices across campus.
The Alumni Association is already working to identify prospective candidates, but it asks for your help in nominating some of your finest former students who are passionate about supporting SIU. Please reach out to your faculty to see if they might nominate a former student who would meet HLC accreditation guidelines for adjunct faculty appointment, which is someone holding a Ph.D., MFA, or other terminal degree. One of the short-comings with our current approach to the doctoral alumni is that the database only includes those with a Ph.D. earned at SIU, but often doesn’t capture SIU graduates with earned doctorates from other institutions. Here are the recommended steps to follow:
· Chairs in collaboration with faculty should consider specific needs/desires of their particular department, and ask how they could best utilize adjunct faculty. For example, many departments are always looking for additional highly qualified members to serve on thesis committees, and to provide individual lectures, seminars, and mentorship activities for both graduate and undergraduate students.
· Based on faculty recommendations, chairs should identify a few good candidates and approach those individuals to see if they are interested. The interested candidate should provide his/her CV (along with a brief letter of interest outlining areas in which they are willing to participate) to the department chair, who can then approach the Graduate Dean for final vetting and approval.
The University hasn’t yet attempted its first alumni adjunct appointment, but this is the general mechanism already in place. Meera would like CoLA to establish a critical mass of nominees before the end of the summer. A goal of at least one (1) nominee per department would get us going.
MICHAEL R. MOLINO
Associate Dean for Budget, Personnel, and Research
COLLEGE OF LIBERAL ARTS
MAIL CODE 4522
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS UNIVERSITY
1000 FANER DRIVE
CARBONDALE, ILLINOIS 62901
In case you don’t speak adminstratese, “zero-time” means “unpaid.” Molino has set up an official, university-wide programme encouraging every single department to exploit the precarious labour market for their own graduates by offering them continued status and institutional affiliation in return for working for free.
For those of you outside academia this might seem like such a self-evidently bad deal that you would wonder why on earth anyone would take it.
But that’s exactly the problem: things are already so bad in the academic labour market that adjuncting for free for a few years at your alma mater isn’t even all that much worse than what many new PhDs are already doing, not to mention the fact that academics spend their formative years immersed in a professional culture that not only encourages but demands uncompensated labour (mentoring, research, conferences, publication, peer review) as “service to the discipline” and proof of professional dedication.
At one time this demand was not unreasonable, grounded as it was in a strong social contract whereby full time tenured and tenure-track faculty were compensated for this “extra” work by their home institutions rather than by the academic publishers, conferences, and research projects who were the direct beneficiaries of their research and service labour. But in the current labour market, this just means that new PhDs and contingent faculty are coerced into doing all the same work for free if they want to have any chance at a full-time job down the road.
Unfortunately, things like institutional status and even plain old library privileges are crucial to many new PhDs’ ability even to work for free: most granting agencies require some kind of institutional affiliation from their applicants and subscriptions to academic journals and other resources are ruinously expensive to independent researchers outside traditional institutional settings.
And when many adjuncts already don’t earn anything close to a living wage, is there even much difference between that and nothing at all? In the end, it’s just a few more deliveries for Uber Eats.
[Ed. note: I posted a follow-up to this post addressing some common questions and criticisms here]
Thank you for writing me with your question about [COURSE]. I am currently out of the office because I am contingent faculty and do not have an office.
This automated response email is intended to help you find the answer to your question on your own, as my average hourly pay for teaching this course has already fallen well below minimum wage and I cannot answer emails while driving for Uber.
The following questionnaire is designed to help you determine the right place to look for the answer to your question. Please go through it in order until you find the answer to your query. IF and ONLY IF you go through the entire list without finding the answer to your question, please follow the instructions at the end as to where to send your question in order to receive an answer directly.
Let’s begin, shall we?
1. Am I your professor, and are you currently enrolled in my class?
If the answer is NO, please consult your course schedule online to determine which professor you are supposed to be bothering with your inane question.
If you have questions about enrollment and registration, please contact the Office of the Registrar, where they receive both fair hourly pay and full benefits in compensation for helping you solve your problems.
2. Is the answer to your question on the course syllabus, which we went over in detail on the first day of class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
Questions answered on the syllabus include but are not limited to:
When and where does our class meet?
What assignments do we have and when are they due?
When are exams and what will be on them?
How many points are deducted from our final grade when we email you questions that are clearly answered on the syllabus?
3. If your question is about a specific assignment, is it answered on the assignment sheet, which we went over in detail in class and which is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
If you do not understand specific terminology used on the assignment sheet, please try consulting your textbook’s glossary, a dictionary, or Google. You may also want to try coming to class, where I teach you what these words mean.
4. Is your question answered on our course FAQ page, which currently lists 127 commonly asked questions and is freely available online 24 hours a day from anywhere in the world?
You may find it easier to use Ctrl+F and search for specific keywords to navigate this very long document.
5. Is your question unrelated to our class, inappropriate, or just plain unanswerable?
Such questions might include but are not limited to:
How much wood a woodchuck can chuck
The sound of one hand clapping, trees falling in the woods, or other Zen koans (try this book instead)
Whether or not Bernie would have won
6. If you have reached the end of this questionnaire without finding the answer you need, you probably have a valid question. Congratulations!
Please contact your TA for assistance.