On Racism and Changing Minds

On Racism and Changing Minds June 6, 2020

The reason I am saying this post is that it is setting up a second piece after it.

Racism is high on pretty much everyone’s agenda right now. I am an active poster on my own personal Facebook page and in this time of turmoil, there have been ample occasion and opportunity to do so as of late. I have a range of friends on Facebook, many of whom are acquaintances or friends of friends or followers; also, people who have found me from talks I have given here and there.

I recognise the pitfall of places like Facebook, and here, becoming echo chambers. This is unavoidable. Take this blog: if I say things that people like, they are likely to hang out. I will also attract reactionaries. I don’t often ban people, as many of you bemoan, in an attempt to promote free speech and so places like this don’t become echo chambers.

There are racist comments here and those that skirt very close to the edge. There is a line that, when it gets crossed, I take action. I banned Otto for a week, recently, and have no compunction about doing this when people go too far.

However, Facebook is not only personal, it’s also always there. I am the sort of guy who gets sucked in, having always had an obsessive streak in me that can’t help but fight perceived injustices and mistruths. The thing with Facebook always being there is that this happens all too easily and my life is in a place where I have less time than ever before to do all the many things I want to do.

So I have a few people on Facebook with whom I disagree a heck of a lot. Often and vehemently. This is time-consuming. My threshold is lower on Facebook than here, though. That said, I have never unfriended people before.

Well, I got embroiled in an argument that turned out to be with someone who was fairly obviously racist: he was a friend of a “friend” of mine (who himself ended up being a facilitator of racism). He is a right-wing libertarian who has so often before flirted with racism, but not quite enough for me to properly bite at, or take action against. He is a typical radical Brexiteer who believes anyone who is not is some kind of Marxist leftist.

Where I bit with his friend was with the tropes of “black people are lazy” and have “a poor attitude to work” and “have a low IQ”. Sound familiar? The discussion started over a typical “All lives matter” style post, and a video, even, from some black right-wing comedians (the Hodge Twins).

I bit and got into a protracted argument, presenting a whole plethora of information and argument, evidence and empirical data. He provided next to nothing. After a late night and much further argument the next day, I realised I had spent probably 6 or 7 hours arguing the toss over stuff that should be pretty obvious if you had the will to pursue the evidence. I really started seeing a pattern and came to understand (again) that you can’t reason people out of a position that they never reasoned themselves into.

My efforts were water off a duck’s back. So I unfriended my “friend” after many years of arguing with him to no avail. There was a racism threshold that was crossed that I thought was unacceptable and that I felt was wasting my time and making me angry – all on my own personal Facebook.

So I stated:

I have tried to keep people as Facebook friends with whom I disagree so as not to live in an echo chamber. I am aware that I do live in one, by and large. But I’ve just unfriended someone over racism. It’s sad when you meet racism head to head. It’s sad when, given what is going on in the US, you meet the causal influence of this first hand. I am staggered.

It’s also sad that I provided, in a protracted set of arguments, a shed load of data and evidence to support my position but that it made not a jot of difference. You cannot reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into.

Sad times; sad that “blacks are lazy and “blacks have lower IQ” pervades as if we are living in Victorian times. I will entertain data and argument that defends this position and I am up for a reasoned debate. Heck, I have a shed load of evidence up my sleeves to defend my position. Alan Duval [linked] and I wrote a series of articles on exactly this. But if you are just going to maintain a racist position that lacks any nuance or desire to engage rationally, you can do one.

You ARE the problem.

The sort of thing I was arguing about, demanding that the other two explained, was this:

Black and African Americans
• Poverty rate: 23.0 percent
• Total in poverty: 9.1 million
• African Americans as percentage of U.S. population: 12.5 percent
• African Americans as percentage of poor population: 21.4 percent
There is a huge gap between the median wealth held by Black families ($17,000) and White families ($171,000)—a ratio of 10 to one.
The key points to the Joint Economic Committee’s report The Economic State of Black America in 2020 are:
Despite significant economic progress over the past decades, Black Americans experience far worse economic conditions than Whites or the population as a whole.
 Historically, the unemployment rate for Black Americans has been approximately twice the rate for Whites. That is the case today—6.0% for Black workers and 3.1% for Whites.
 The difference in the unemployment rates for Blacks and Whites shrinks for college graduates; however, even in the current strong economy the unemployment rate is 50% higher for Black Americans.
 During the majority of the past 50 years, Black Americans have experienced unemployment rates that, were they experienced by the entire population, would be seen as recessionary.
 Black workers have been disproportionally hurt by the overall decline in union membership and the decreasing power of unions.
 The typical Black households earns a fraction of White households—just 59 cents for every dollar. The gap between Black and White annual household incomes is about
$29,000 per year.
 Black Americans are over twice as likely to live in poverty as White Americans.
 Black children are three times as likely to live in poverty as White children.
 The median wealth of Black families ($17,000)—is less than one-tenth that of White families ($171,000).
 The wealth gap between Black and White households increases with education.

 Much less than half (42%) of Black families own their homes, compared to almost three-quarters (73%) of White families.
 High school graduation rates for Black and White Americans have nearly converged.
 The share of Blacks who are college graduates has more than doubled since 1990, from 11% to 25%—but still lags far behind Whites.
 Persistent segregation leads to large disparities in the quality of secondary education, leading to worse economic outcomes.
 The incarceration rate for Black Americans is falling, but is still nearly six times the rate for White Americans.
 Non-Hispanic Black Americans have a life expectancy 3.6 years lower than nonHispanic White Americans.

And I was met with those aforementioned tropes.

It was nice to have been inundated with a whole bunch of understanding from friends and acquaintances – but you would expect this in an echo chamber.

‘Trick Slattery, who has also written a book on free will, replied:

Yeah, racists, sexists, and homophobes are another *level* of ‘disagreement’ category altogether. It is one thing to be open to different points of view, it is another to be open to harmful, extremely irrational points of view. Sometimes the base epistemological standards are so off course that trying to change these sorts of minds without fixing the base level mechanisms first will only lead to frustration and the appearance that you are giving them a platform. For some views, it may be causally better not to give them the time of day.

One of my friends did give a good counter-argument:

 Did you by any chance see the last leg last night? Desiree Burch was a guest – and said that unfriending people over racism is not what is wanted – as if you have them on your facebook there is a modicum of a chance you will be able to reason with them (slim i know) whereas if everyone unfriends them they end up in their own echo chamber.

Indeed, this is why I had maintained the Facebook friendship for as long as I had. It’s a good point. ‘Trick replied:

There is probably some degree of racism one can assess that can give one a fighting chance at changing their mind, but from my experience, there is also a degree that is so indoctrinated and has the base standards so mixed, that it is not worth it.

Also, these people should not feel like they are being given a platform – sometimes taking away a platform and not interacting with harmful people is a way to demote their ideas.

If you DO want to spend the sheer amount of time needed to attempt to uproot someone’s base level standards of evidence (a task that is very time intensive) in order to attempt to change their mind, I recommend doing so in messenger (“offline”). If they are unwilling to have the discourse with you in that way, they are not open to change and just looking to proselytize.

Another alternative, if one truly has the time to spend and is going to keep it on a platform that others can see, is not to argue with these people in order to change their mind, but rather to display how poor their thinking is to others that may read it (for their sake). I like this approach, but it does make it so you need to respond fairly quickly to the problematic words being displays, just so misinformation is not fed into your platform. This makes the task not only time intensive, but there being a pressure to respond in a timely fashion as well.

So we need to weigh these things in, including our goals, the level of time we have, and the level of timeliness we have. It is not worth it to give someone a platform if you do not have the time or the speed to correct all misinformation fed into such a system quickly …in that case it is best to not give them a platform at all.

I’ll add some anecdotal comments onto this in my next post since there were some worthwhile things that came out of this, but I am interested in hearing your thoughts on echo chambers, things as visceral as racism and racially-charged discussions, and places like blogs and social media. How best to deal with such people and how best to change minds?

Can it be done?

Are there some thresholds that can simply never be reached 9at least without some huge, life-changing event).

As one exasperated friend asked:

How to do we get through to these people then?! I feel like the vast majority of people want to be better, want to learn and are open to hearing others points of view…the rest don’t want to know despite facts, evidence, anecdotes, what’s right  How did these people get so angry/full of hate? The problem can’t go away until there’s a way to influence these people but honestly don’t know what it would take…the Daily Mail / Fox News could help!

I will look to answer these questions in future posts (a few similar questions have been asked in the comment threads here over the last week or so).


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