Charleston – on hate crimes, terrorism and oppression

25 juni 2015 | In Crime Ethics Moral Psychology Philosophy of Law politics Psychology | Comments?

First, there are two initial question regarding how to categorize this event: Was it a hate crime? And was it an act of terrorism? The answer seems to be straightforwardly ”yes” to both. Statements reportedly made by the suspect, the symbols he wore, the choice of victims and place, the reported premeditation, etc. all speaks to this being a racially motivated crime, i.e. a hate crime as well as a crime committed with the intent to bring about societal change or, rather, to stop societal change, or to bring things back to the way they were, i.e. an act of terrorism. I will put most emphasis on the hate crime angle, as it is my area of expertise.

Hate crime. The Charleston case is one. On nearly every conception of what an hate crime is, if current information stands, this qualifies as one. Some commentators has said that we need to await the result of the full investigation, and that is always a good idea, but it would be surprising if that investigation would undermine what seems to be a blatantly clear cut case. There are a number of hate crime conceptions, that only partly overlap. The most common idea is of hate crimes as distinct by motivation, i.e. the reason why the perpetrator committed the crime. But in fact, many jurisdictions interpret hate crime as a case of intentionally selecting victims from a protected class, and puts less weight on the reason why the crime was committed. This is an advantage in two ways; it does not require proof of motive, and it does not rely on the controversial notion of punishing motive. A third conception understands hate crimes as defined by intent; the intent to strike fear in the targeted community, for instance. On this account, hate crimes are more or less a species of domestic terrorism. A fourth identifies hate crimes as crimes expressing a certain message to the targeted crime. (The expressive account has however been deemed unconstitutional in the US due to its conflict with the 1st amendment). The Charleston case seems to qualify as a hate crime on all these accounts. It seems to be hate motivated, the victims and place were choices because of their racial significance, the intent was (apparently) to send a message and to instigate race war.

That being said, South Carolina does not have a hate crime law. This in itself is worthy of note. The development of hate crime laws in the US was preceded by the civil rights movement, and is generally held to have the differential treatments of former slaves as second-class citizens as its background. The fact that South Carolina has not taken this measure, in conjunction with factors like flying the confederate flag and naming streets after confederate generals, means there is a long way to go. That SC does not have a hate crime law is not the end of the matter. The case can, and it looks like it will, be run as a federal case. Since the Matthew Sheppard and James Byrd Jr Hate Crime prevention act was signed into law in 2009, federal authorities have extended abilities to handle cases the states are unable or unwilling to take.

This is important for two reasons. First, the federal government having to step in in order to make justice possible in a race based case in a Southern state says something about how America is divided. Second, in order for this to be run as a hate crime case, it must be run on a federal level. But hate crime laws are penalty enhancements laws. And given the gravity of the case, it is quite possible that the penalty, if it had stayed in South Carolina state court, would have been the death penalty. In fact, the probability that it leads to the death penalty in a federal court may be lower. Which means that in order for it to be judged as a hate crime, it may lead to a lower penalty being given. On this account at least, this case can become legally interesting.

Why are hate crimes worse than other crimes? This was a massacre, a mass murder, an act of terrorism. What is the significance of naming it a hate crime?  As I said, hate crimes laws normally take the form of penalty enhancement statutes. This is because they are deemed worse than ”parallel” crimes, i.e. similar crimes absent the hate element. There are a number of reasons why, some having to do with the discriminatory nature of these acts, others with the maliciousness with which they are being committed. The most common account is harm-based, however. Hate crimes, according to influential scholars like Paul Iganski and Frederick Lawrence, hurt more. The primary victims typically experience more psychological harm when the crime is hate motivated. In a case like this, when the outcome is death, that is not relevant. But the additional harm also exist on the victims group and on society in general – it may, for instance, worsen the relations between groups. Both these accounts are relevant here; the targeted group is reminded of the risk it is at, and the tension between groups hightened.. Indeed, that was the expressed intent of the offender – to start a race war

Before moving on, lets just say this on penalty enhancements: Say he is sentenced to the death penalty, and that penalty enhancements cannot come into effect. Still, it is not pointless to treat it as a hate crime. Indeed, many victims and victimized group say that the penalty enhancement is less important than is naming the motive in these cases. Recognizing and condemning these types of crimes is the more important part. Hate crime laws has an expressive function.

So, was this an act of terrorism? Again, the answer seems to be straightforwardly ”yes” by most definitions. But perhaps not all. What makes an act of terrorism is the intent (together with means reasonably fit to purpose) to cause fear and force societal and/or political change. According to one statement, Roof wanted to bring about a race war, which is certainly one way of doing that.

What complicates matters is that Roof, much like the Norwegian terrorist Breivik, seems to be a conservative terrorist, i.e. one that wants to stop change. Or to change things back the way they were. And this may be one of the reasons why he was not immediately and universally being called a terrorist. The ”typical” terrorist is someone somehow alien to the system which he/she wants to change. The thing that people keep pointing out is that this act was the extreme expression of white supremacy, and that this ideology is actually not that alien to the dominant culture. Many commentators that wants this branded as an act of terror, also thinks that the racism expressed is not uncommon, indeed that these attitudes are entrenched in society, part of the norm. There is some tension between these two aspects: Do we want to portray him as somehow normal, which means that the problem is much, much bigger than the risk of these kinds of attacks? Or do we want to describe him as something ”other”, something alien to our system? The reluctance to accept something entrenched in ”our” culture to be capable of terrorizing that same culture is probably one of the reasons we turn to questions about mental health in these cases. Why would a person congruent with the dominant culture in what is being described as a racist society otherwise go to these lengths, take this sort of risk? In the absence of a deep cultural divide between him and us, we need mental health issues to distance ourselves from a man capable of such heinous crimes.

The reasons why it might not be understood as terrorism is that we do not yet know whether there is any clear organization behind him – which is typical of what people think of as terrorism. Of course, the need for such organizations to facilitate acts of terrorism is considerably weakened by the internet, which make it possible to cherry-pick an ideology, a support base, and a methodology to suit you. Secondly, that the criminal is (as Åsne Seierstadt stated in her book about Breivik) ”one of us”, i.e. not that different from normal members of the population. This is significant as it means there is no discernible ”other” to direct retaliation towards. Terrorist threat is ”supposed” to come from outside, from people with no other route to a position of power. Rather than describing it as an act of terrorism, then, it could be branded as an act of oppression. 

The significance – Charleston as a symptom

What does this act mean? What does it signify? Is it a sign of things getting worse, and this is just a symptom of growing racism and racist rhetoric? Or (counter-intuitively) may it be a sign of things getting better? Racist offenders may find their justification in others expressing the same views. But they also find their justification in thinking of themselves and the society and values they care about as being somehow threatened. While hate crime criminals are often part of the majority, it is when that majority think of themselves as loosing their privilege that the need to commit a crime to keep that privilege arise. Lynchings were often a reaction to former slaves behaving in a way that former slaveowners and other whites thought of as unacceptable for a black person. Similarly, hate crimes are often understood as a response to people of the hated group stepping out of their place, and there being no other way of putting them back. Segregation, privilege and power means rarely having to worry. But, of course, privilege should be threatened. People like with the beliefs that Roof seem to have should be feeling threatened, because the order they want should be collapsing. If this is how it works (note that this is just a hypothesis), a rise in these types of crimes is likely to occur as things becomes better at a more everyday, ”structural” level.


Tjugo argument för kvotering

4 juni 2015 | In Blogginlägg på svenska | Comments?

För ett tag sedan deltog jag tillsammans med Annika Gilljam och Sofia Nerbrand i ett avsnitt av filosofiska rummet som handlade om kvotering av kvinnor i allmänhet, och i bolagsstyrelser i synnerhet. I samband med inspelningen gjorde jag en lista över de olika argument för kvotering som jag hittat i litteraturen. Jag har ingen särskilt stark övertygelse om styrkan eller hållbarheten i någon av dessa argument, och det finns naturligtvis en motsvarande lista med argument mot kvotering. Den får emellertid dröja till ett annat tillfälle. Jag erbjuder listan främst som ett diagnostiskt verktyg för att identifiera vilket eller vilka argument en debattör använder sig av:

  1. Diskriminering sker nu. Mindre kompetenta män väljs över mer kompetenta kvinnor.
  2. Det ligger i företagets intresse nu att ha en mer kompetent styrelse, dvs fler kvinnor. Kvotering hjälper dem med detta. (kvotera inte in vilka kvinnor som helst)
  3. Det ligger inte i företagets intresse att ha fler kvinnor, trots att de är tillräckligt kompetenta eftersom styrelser och affärslivet är en ”manlig miljö”. (reaction-qualifications). Kvinnor respekteras inte efter förtjänst. Enda sättet att motverka det är att kvotera.
  4. Kriterierna är rätt, men kvinnors kompetens blir inte sedd
  5. Kriterierna är fel, så kvinnors kompetens räknas inte
  6. Kriterierna är rätt, men pga diskriminering/särbehandling etc så lever kvinnor sällan upp till dem.
  7. Det ligger i företagens intresse på sikt att inkludera den kompetens som de saknar (motverka kvartalskapitalism).
  8. Det ligger i företagens intresse på sikt att inkludera kvinnor för att uppmuntra andra kvinnor att söka, och män att inte hindra dem, de utbildningar, den erfarenhet som fordras
  9. Diskriminering sker nu, men tidigare i kedjan. Kvinnor uppmuntras inte i skolan eller i arbetslivet etc att ”ta för sig” på det sätt som leder till framgång i form av styrelseuppdrag. Anledningen att det finns färre kvalificerade kvinnor är diskriminering tidigare. (se 6)
  10. Indirekt Effekt nu: fler kvinnor i bolagsstyrelser skulle leda till bättre beslut (både för företaget och för samhället – i form av andra jämlikhetseffekter (dvs om kvinnor är bättre på att fatta beslut som gagnar andra kvinnor).
  11. Direkt Effekt nu: Större jämlikhet.
  12. Förebilder 1: Påverkar yngre kvinnors intressen och tendens att utbilda sig, välja en väg som leder till uppdrag
  13. Förebilder 2: leder andra (män) till att inse kvinnors kompetens, motverkar inbyggda fördomar (förutsätter att kvoteringen inte underminerar detta projekt)
  14. Jämlikhetsskäl: Utvecklingen framåt, men går för långsamt.
  15. Det blir bättre: tendensen mot större jämlikhet tyder på att jämlikhet har legitimitet. Kvotering kan hjälpa processen på traven.
  16. Kompensation för nuvarande diskriminering i urvalsprocessen 
  17. Kompensation för nuvarande diskriminering i samhället
  18. Kompensation/reparation för tidigare diskriminering i samhället som direkt drabbat en del kvinnor som lever nu – därför att det bla leder till den snedfördelning i maktsfären som nu råder – och som utförts av en del av de män som lever nu.
  19. Kompensation/reparation för tidigare diskriminering som hände före vår tid – därför att den lett till ojämlikhet
  20. Kompensation/reparation för tidigare diskriminering oavsett vilken roll den spelat i orsakandet av nuvarande missförhållanden

Om skattningar av rasismens utsträckning

1 april 2015 | In Blogginlägg på svenska Self-indulgence | Comments?

Låt säga att samhället är mer rasistiskt än vad jag tror. Låt samtidigt säga att samhället blir allt mindre rasistiskt. Om samhället är mer rasistiskt än vad jag tror, och jag får reda på att samhället blir mindre rasistiskt, kommer jag att sänka min skattning av utsträckningen av rasismen i samhället. Avståndet mellan hur rasistiskt samhället är och hur rasistiskt jag tror att det är förblir konstant. Det kan också öka, eftersom vi har en tendens att överdriva betydelsen av nyheter som bekräftar vår världsbild; i det här fallet att samhället inte är så särskilt rasistiskt.

Rasifierade har ofta en annan uppfattning av hur rasistiskt samhället är, främst eftersom de oftare konfronteras med rasismen.

Det är möjligt att vissa rasifierade, och vissa anti-rasister, tror att samhället är mer rasistiskt än vad det är. Precis som mina erfarenheter får mig att underskatta rasismens utsträckning kan deras erfarenheter (av rasism) få dem att överdriva dess utsträckning. Vissa händelser kommer räknas som rasistiska av dem som inte nödvändigtvis räknas som rasistiska av mig. Det beror på om det ingår i det mönster av händelser vars betydelse jag underskattar, och som de överskattar.

Att jag (och många andra) tror att samhället är mindre rasistiskt än det är, är del av vad som gör samhället rasistiskt. Om jag tror att samhället är mindre rasistiskt än vad det är, kommer jag också att tro att de som tror att samhället är just så rasistiskt som det är tillhör de som överdriver rasismens utsträckning. Omvänt kommer de (hypotetiska) personer som överdriver rasismens utsträckning se den som gör en korrekt bedömning som någon som underskattar dess utsträckning. När det kommer rapporter om att rasismen i samhället minskar så kommer avståndet i uppskattning av rasismens utsträckning förbli konstant om samtliga korrigerar sin uppfattning med så mycket som rapporten föreslår.  Eller öka eftersom de som överskattar rasismens utsträckning underskattar rapportens betydelse, och de som underskattar rasismens utsträckning överskattar rapportens betydelse.

Ett del av problemet är att dylika rapporter främst indikerar skillnader, inte absoluta nivåer (om man ens meningsfullt kan tala om sådana). Oavsett om attitydundersökningar mäter rasism på ett rimligt sätt eller inte så kan skillnader ha betydelse för vart vi är på väg. Vad jag borde göra är att betrakta rapporten som goda nyheter, men ändå ändra min uppfattning om rasismens utsträckning åt motsatt håll. Det är värre än vad jag trodde, och rapporten visar inte att det har blivit så mycket bättre som jag tror.

Det finns en rad skäl för att underskatta och överskatta rasismens utsträckning. Det är här erfarenheter blir viktiga. Sannolikheten att jag underskattar rasismens utsträckning är troligen högre än att de som blir utsatta för rasism överskattar dess utsträckning. Det är samtidigt relevant för de som utsätts att jag som inte utsätts förstår i vilken utsträckning de utsätts. Pga hur vi förutsebart reagerar på rapporter om att saker blir bättre ligger det i deras (legitima) intresse att underskatta betydelsen av dessa rapporter. Samtidigt ligger det naturligtvis i deras intresse att det blir bättre. Men sannolikheten att det blir bättre kanske sjunker om sådana som jag underskattar hur illa det är.

Det är dessutom så att pga rasismens utsträckning så är de som underskattar den sannolikt oftare i maktposition. Deras (vår) skattning av rasismens utsträckning har därför större betydelse för vilka åtgärder som kommer genomföras. De risker som är befattade med underskattning tycks då större än de som är befattade med överskattning, även om de senare vore vanligt förekommande.

Reparationsargumentet för kvotering av kvinnor i bolagsstyrelser

8 mars 2015 | In Uncategorized | Comments?

Den 8/3 diskuteras kvotering i filosofiska rummet. Gäster är Sofia Nerbrand, Annika Gilljam och jag. Annika har skrivit sin kandidatuppsats om ett argument som ofta glöms bort när vi pratar om kvotering: reparationsargumentet. Eftersom filosofiska institutionens arkiv av uppsatser ligger nere för tillfället har jag fått Annikas tillstånd att lägga upp den här.

Kvinnlig Reparation – kan kvotering av kvinnor berättigas utifrån reparationsprincipen?

On caricatures, freedom and the nature of assholes

13 januari 2015 | In Comedy Emotion theory Ethics Hate Crime media Moral philosophy Philosophy of Law politics Psychology Psychopathy Self-indulgence Uncategorized | Comments?

I have to admit, I’m not overly fond of caricatures. Never have been. I guess sometimes they manage, just like a good metaphor does, to capture something important about its object that was not as obvious before. The thing that a caricature brings out about the object is usually intended to render it ridiculous. Most things are partly ridiculous, of course, it’s almost never a useless way of viewing a thing. But it becomes particularly useful if the thing, or person, or group,  is in power, is pompous, is revered to an unreasonable extent. It becomes less so, even harmful, if the thing or person, or group, is already despised, disenfranchised, already treated as ridiculous.


The reason why I’m not overly fond of caricatures, or metaphors for that matter, is that they rely on putting emphasis on certain things at the expense of others, and the result, the ”translation”, as it were, depends on whether that serves to correct the received view in order to reflect the actual importance of those things. Caricatures have a history of ridiculing power, and that history is well-rehearsed these days. But they also have a history of serving power. Of dehumanizing people it deems of less importance, which makes these people even easier to disregard, or even to kill.

There is an argument that says that we have freedom of speech in order to protect precisely the sort of statements that we do not like. This is spurious. It may be true that the extent of freedom of speech can be measured by exactly how offensive, vitriolic, hateful, debasing, threatening expressions that it allows, but it hardly seems to be the point of having freedom of speech. Some people will say that freedom is a value in itself. Others, like the more often quoted than read J.S. Mill, say that freedom of speech is an instrumental value, which serves a function. And it can be limited when it fails to serve that value. On this account, we can say that freedom of speech is a matter of costs and benefits. The offensive can occasionally be a benefit, the hateful very rarely is, but we may want to preserve the right to make hateful assertions because the total value of relatively unregulated speech is positive.  The benefits may outweigh the costs. (It should be noted that this analysis could, and, I believe, should, adjust for fairness. If the costs and benefits are unfairly distributed so that the worst off bears the greatest burden, the cost may be unacceptable even if it is outweighed in absolute terms). Hate speech laws tend to draw a line between the offensive (which is allowed) and the hateful (which is not), but some legal scholars and a lot of libertarians believe this distinction fail to track anything of moral importance.

Now. In moral philosophy, the notion of an asshole is quickly turning into a technical notion of considerable use. An asshole is a person that does not infringe on other peoples rights, but does everything he/she can to reap the benefits for him/herself, and nothing to help others. It is the kind of person that uses freedom of speech to say all the worst things he/she is allowed to, and contributes nothing to a productive discussion. The behavior of such people tend to be on the cost side in the cost/benefit analysis of a right. Assholes are on the cost side, and if they become too many, the instrumental value of certain freedoms decreases. At the same time, the fact that we tolerate them (even encourage them in certain contexts) may be a testament to the strength of our society, our resilience. Assholes also serve the considerable function of showing the gaps in our systems.

I’m going somewhere with this. I have not made myself familiar with the works of Charlie Hebdo. I don’t know french, and I’m not sufficiently familiar with the cultural and political context. If I understand things correctly, their tendency has been to make fun (if that is the right word) of power and pompousness in all it’s guises. It certainly is no straightforward instrument of power. But equal treatment does not amount to equal effects, especially when the people and groups treated have different social standings to begin with. Some of their work may render things ridiculous that we all benefit by viewing in that light. Some of it may serve to dehumanize and ridicule people that are already being discriminated against, whose social standing in the context is low. The latter is an unmitigated cost, and it is the work of assholes, in the technical sense described above. Caricaturists will often tend towards asshole-hood. And it is possible that they should, that it is for the good that there are people, and publications, like that. But it would probably be unbearable if we were all like that. And while the extent of free speech may be measured by the worst things it allows, the value of it must be measured by the best things it allows that would otherwise have been banned.

Some hate crimes are worse than others

18 december 2014 | In Crime Ethics Hate Crime Philosophy of Law Psychology | Comments?

A tale of two hate crimes

Imagine that I am physically assaulted on my way to work because of my membership in some of the groups to which I belong. The white, the middle-class, academics, the city-dwelling, the fairly tall, the heterosexual or what have you. Imagine what, in this very unlikely event, would happen to me, given that I survive the assault and am not hospitalized.

I would report the crime to the police, who would hear my story and do whatever it could to track down the assailant. Then I would probably call in sick, stay at home for a some period of time, be afraid to go out, have difficulties sleeping etc. The social security system, and the social ”safety net” would soon spring into effect, I would receive a large share of my salary, my employer is very understanding, and would keep in touch but not press me to come back to work. My family and friends would gather round, make sure that I remained safe, fed, got the opportunity ta talk things through. I may never regain my complete sense of security and confidence, and may fear renewed victimization due to the manifested presence of violence inducing bias towards me in some capacity.

Now imagine a person of Roma origin from eastern Europe, begging outside a convenience store in the middle of the Swedish winter. Imagine what is unfortunately not that unlikely, that person being attacked by a hate motived assailant. What would happen then? First, that person may hesitate to contact the police, due to earlier encounters (eviction from a camp, say), fear of being harassed, registered, of being picked up on the police ”radar” as someone associated with crime and, minimally, not expecting to be taken seriously. So there is, at the very least, a hurdle to clear for any kind of social security or victim support to kick in. Further, there is very little by way of a home for this person to return to, and there is no social security, no compensation for lack of income. The situation in the homeland, which it is expensive to get back to, is not much better. There may be family and friends around, of course, but these too have to earn their living in this makeshift fashion, and they are equally at risk of being targeted.

Risk and disadvantage

Now, there are two very relevant differences between these two cases.

First, the latter sort of attack is much more likely to take place. Even when it doesn’t, people of Roma origin, particularly recent arrivals in the exposed situation of being forced to spend time begging, live with the constant risk of being assaulted, and with the constant presence of reminders of this risk. (Verbal assaults, campaigns from populist right-wing parties). Whereas I may receive a handful of group-based insults over a life time, these people receive them every single day. Besides the fact that such assaults, when they occur, have terrible consequences, they also serve as an reminder of the constant risk of assault of which they are manifestations.

Second, the difference in impact described above means different amounts of harm caused. The fact that I have access to a marvelous social safety net makes it the case that a lot of resources are concerned with minimizing the harm of such an attack. This is hardly present at all in the case of the Roma immigrant above. This is to say, they are at an disadvantage in almost any conceivable way.

Some hate crimes are worse than others

Committing a crime against a person belonging to a thus disadvantage group is, arguably for that very reason, worse than committing a similar crime against me. Doing so because they belong to that group betrays a particularly heinous motive. Both crimes above are motivated by hate/bias, but the latter is clearly worse because of the relative social standing of the victims. If so, it is not just the hate that matters, but the fact that this hate purposefully targets people that are already at a heightened risk for this sort of attack, who lack comparable resources to minimize harmful effects (including reduction in income), and that have a minimum of support when being attacked.

It is bad enough to attack these people at all. To attack them because of their membership in this group that is thus at disadvantaged, is simply beyond the pale.

Hate crimes and harm

In a forthcoming paper (in a symposium section of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, edited by me and Christian Munthe), Paul Iganski and Spiridoula Lagou point out that hate crimes do tend to hurt more than other crimes, but that some hate crimes hurt more than others. This is an important, and yet under-researched, matter. If the seriousness of a crime is proportional to the harm involved, such matters are important. In particular, it is important for which groups should be included, and be made a priority, in the enforcement of hate crime legislation. The sort of contrast I described above suggest that it is not simply the hate/bias element that makes these crimes particularly serious, even if that is a contributing factor; it is also the fact that some groups are more frequently targeted, and that some groups are at a disadvantage when it comes to resources to cope with victimization.

Inexcusable racism

24 juli 2014 | In Emotion theory Ethics Hate Crime media Moral Psychology politics Psychology | Comments?

Everyone’s a little bit racist. Basic cognitive functioning relies on generalizations, after all. Unwarranted initially, in order to get off the ground, and then more or less supported, or rejected, or revised by experience, by evidence. Slightly less basic cognitive functioning requires that we adjust our generalizations in the face of evidence. We adjust our explanatory categories, we fine-tune and narrow in on something that starts to look like likelihood. Or, rather, we do this when there’s sufficient reasons to do so. And those reasons are not just epistemological, they are to a large extent pragmatic. Most of us are lazy thinkers, and all of us have limited time to spend on adjusting categories. We only do when it’s useful for us to do so, or when we have the time and interest to do so at our leisure.

We assign significance to superficial differences like skin color, mode of dress, language, gait, because superficial differences are what signifies internal and explanatory differences when no other information is readily available. (To be fair: superficial difference often DOES correlate with less unimportant things.)
Prejudices are explanatory shortcuts, and quite often they serve us well. Sometimes by being dead-on, otherwise by knitting us closer together with others with similar needs, who jumped to the same unfounded conclusions about the explanatory order of things. The prosocial function of shared false beliefs should not be underestimated. Organized religion springs to mind.

People are, by most accounts, naturally geared towards bigotry, at least under the circumstance of groups competing for resources that seems to have prevailed through a significant part of our formative evolutionary past. The thing to explain is not that we are bigoted, but that we occasionally stop. (Even so, what categories matter, and how to assign value, is, of course, learnt. The tendency is present in the cognitive default state, but needs triggers and particulars to get underway and be filled by content. A person born into a truly egalitarian world would arguably have the tendency to assign significance to the superficial, but lack most of the triggers to do so, and the guidance to do so in any particular manner. Bigots, if they were still to develop, would be of a much more idiosyncratic ilk).

We may be partially excused for being racist, then, as it is in our nature to make a big deal out of differences, and we can often find at least some evidence to back a prejudice up. We are likely to do this, as our prejudices are often at least partly emotional in nature, and we are likely to go looking for confirmation, rather than rejection, of the rationality of those emotions. Emotions too have an evolutionary function, as indications we do well to trust when information as the the value of things is scarce. Awkwardness in the face of the unfamiliar calls for post hoc rationalization (ironically, the pressure towards a racist explanation of that awkwardness increases when there is a reluctance to self-attribute prejudice).

Yet we do blame people for being racists and are presumably right to do so. Why? Because we have every opportunity to revise our first impressions. The evidence as to the irrelevance of these superficial differences is so overwhelming, and the case for the basic equal value of persons is so much stronger than any alternative account, that there is really no excuse if you’re an adult, intelligent person living under non-warlike conditions (people at war, or under extraordinary stress, may sometimes be excused).

The point is that people should be blamed, not merely for harboring racist (and other, avoidable) prejudices, but for failing to revise them in the face of evidence, and for the failure to look carefully enough for evidence that falsifies that prejudice. In many cases, the reason for such failures is nothing more sinister than basic cognitive laziness and self-interest.

There exist, of course, a skeptic safe haven for the bigoted, and it consists of distrust in the sources of evidence. If you believe that, say, the liberal elite has an agenda to mislead concerning the nature and character of the groups you disfavour, you may well protect your prejudices against such challenges. The strategy is fundamentally flawed, as it depends on not adopting skepticism in equal measures to other sources of information, like the sources you use to entrench and confirm your pre-existent prejudice. But the model provides some light when it comes to explaining why some people remain bigoted. It also shows the depth of the problems caused by societal distrust.

The Pallas Athena Complex

7 januari 2014 | In Uncategorized | Comments?

So you write something and maybe it’s a good thing. You’re new so what do you know? You’re still working things out, but you have been doing that for a while so you’ve got this idea that maybe you should have presented it, or something else, by now. And you want to make a good first impression. You would like it to be the case that the time, whatever the time, it has taken you to write this thing has all been worth it because it’s basically flawless. Like Pallas Athena, it should spring out of your head fully ready to do combat on it’s own. Maybe you fear criticism, so you want there to be very little space for it – the text should be laden with defenses for anything the reader could conjure up. So you work through it again and it’s impossible because the time it takes you to work through it, whatever the time, means the result must be even better than when you started working through it, and odds are you have reached the point where you’re not improving it, you’re making it worse. Time spent with a text can make you blind to how it reads for a new reader, you can’t help reading into it things that are not publicly available. It shouldn’t be this hard, or so you say (conveniently forgetting that Thomas Mann thing that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people).

What I’m describing to you is what I like to call the ”Pallas Athena Complex” and I believe it is responsible for academic failure to a far greater extent than lack of academic talent is. It means tons of promising work remains hidden in drawers and may never see the light of day. It’s a form of shyness, of course. The reluctance to appear vulnerable, or responsible for something flawed. But it’s also a byproduct of the cult of the solitary genius. Particularly susceptible to belief in this cult are those who approached their subject on their own, and where taught the history of their subject by description of the work of eminent singular persons. Particularly susceptible to the Pallas Athena Complex are those who, however confident, lack confidence in the readers ability to spot promise in a text.

If you’re a teacher or a supervisor, you should learn to spot the early signs of the Pallas Athena Complex. Broken deadlines, postponed seminars, general avoidance despite keen interests. If you’re a sufferer, go to seminars and conferences an take note that people are submitting stuff that are much worse than the stuff you’ve got hidden away. And start a blog, you don’t even have to provide footnotes in a blogpost.

The When Law and Hate Collide Radio Documentary

25 november 2013 | In academia Crime Hate Crime media Philosophy of Law Self-indulgence | Comments?

At the fourth meeting of the research project ”When Law and Hate Collide”, which took place in Brussels in 2012, we recorded a radio documentary. It features the project members Michael Salter, Kim McGuire, Christian Munthe, David Brax (that’s me), Caroline Bonnes and Michael Fingerle along with noted experts Paul Iganski, Henri Nichols of the FRA, Paul Gianassi from the UK Ministry for Justice, Joanna Perry from OSCE-ODIHR, Jackie Driver from the Equality and Human Rights Commission and UCLAN’s Bogusia Puchalska.

I identity six types of justifications for penalty enhancements at 10:40 and the possible criteria for inclusion as a protected group at 22:47

And here it is:

Radio documentary

Notes on a scandal

26 september 2013 | In Crime politics Psychology | Comments?


For the last few days, a police scandal has been dominating swedish media. The scandal concerns a file including a very large number of people of mainly Roma origin which the press calls an ”ethnic registry”, which is clearly a rights violation and in all likely to be a punishable offense, while the police (some of them) calls it an ”analytic file”. The content of the file/registry is not entirely clear – and lets be thankful for that, police files should not be open access –  nor is the reasoning behind it’s existence or it’s extent. If you believe the police, it all started with an investigation and the collection of names of people connected to it. This, of course, is fairly unproblematic. There is no fault in gathering data on people of Roma origin connected to a suspected crime, as long as they are not collected because they belong to that group, unless group membership is clearly relevant to the investigation. Similarly, the police is not allowed to have a registry of people on basis of political conviction unless their membership in a certain political group is germane to the investigation. While this qualification seems straight-forward, it means a very large gray area. In fact, it’s probably the gray area where most rights violations takes place. I’ll return to this matter below.

At some point, the file started growing to what’s seems to be an unreasonable file, not warranted by the objective of the investigation. For example, it involves a large number of children, and some deceased people. Again: there may be sound reasons for collecting data on whether a suspect has children, and other family or association based relations through deceased persons. The problem arises where the collection of such data becomes unreasonably extensive and ulterior motives can be inferred.

Discrimination by proxy

A registry on the basis of ethnicity is clearly unlawful, and violates the anti-discrimination principle. A clear case of such a registry is one which includes only members of a certain ethnic group because they belong to that ethnic group, and also includes all such members which the people responsible for the registry knows about. The registry/file involved in the scandal is not such a clear case. A clear case of a nonproblematic registry/file is one which concerns a suspected crime and collects data of people of a common ethnic origin clearly relevant to the investigation, but in which there ethnicity is not noted as such.  The registry/file involved in the scandal is not such a clear case either.

A registry may violate the anti-discrimination principle in other ways, however. Even if the police is not collecting data on basis of ethnicity, they may collect data because of ethnicity. I.e. a proxy can be used. In the case, the proxy used seems to be family ties, very extensive family ties. As mentioned, you may collect data about family ties, but not if the reasons why you do so is based on your idea about the ethnicity of the people involved.

The importance of Reasons

The point is this: In order for the registry/file to be discriminatory, it’s not necessary that it’s a clear cut ethnic registry. It suffices that the extent of the file, or the method used, is one that wouldn’t have been employed were it not for the ethnicity of the people involved. In other words: if the reason why you take family ties to matter to a large extent is your idea about the importance of family to people of that origin to be relevant to the investigation when it isn’t. This is complicated, and relates to a well known phenomena from the social psychology of prejudice: Discrimination often proceed, not by taking ethnicity, sexuality, gender to be a reason in itself, but by you taking these things to be a reason to look for other reasons for disparate treatment. If, for instance, you are hiring someone and you choose your non-ethnic criteria on basis of which ethnic group you want to hire from. You thus provide post-hoc rationalization of your decision which does not coincide with your actual reason for it.


Clear cases, criteria and explanations

As mentioned previously in this blog, there is a problem with treating to obvious cases as exemplars. It makes it difficult to deal with the less clear cases, where some of the distinguishing marks of the obvious cases are missing. In the scandal, a clear case would be a registry based on ethnicity alone, with no other rationale.  But as mentioned, this is not necessary to make it a case of discriminatory conduct. So what is necessary? In the case above, the sort of evidence germane to the problem will concern the intents of the police officers involved, but this will be notoriously hard to come by directly. The more indirect route will come through a careful investigation and an informed judgment regarding the reasons why the investigation took the form that it took, and involve an appeal to the best explanation. For a philosopher, at least, it seems that the way to do this is to compare with files concerning similar cases where the people involved have other, or diverse, ethnic origins. If it’s standard procedure, there’s no particular problem with this case (there may be a general one, though). If it isn’t, someone needs to provide a very good explanation.