A crank theory about individualism as an epistemology

It’s striking to me that a certain sort of person will blissfully reject disconfirming scholarship or expertise on the grounds that it appears to be contradicted by a single experience of theirs. That same sort of person will, if you make an explicit generalization (“most people in Europe are multilingual”), consider your point refuted if they give you a single example (“my cousin Terry only speaks English”). I say disconfirming because these same people don’t do this if the scholarship or generalization confirms what they believe. These people tend to make decisions entirely on the basis of their personal experience, and the experiences of their friends. And, it seems to me, they’re singularly prone to getting scammed, following harmful health fads (such as ephedra), misunderstanding the argument about vaccines, denying climate change. I’ve watched people (and sometimes myself) try to persuade them with studies, citations, and expert opinion, and it doesn’t work. And we aren’t trying (as they often think) to persuade them that they didn’t have the experience they did, or that what they’re claiming happened never happened, but just that their experience isn’t the end of the argument. Yet we get nowhere.

I’m not opposed to arguing from personal experience, or bringing in personal experience when assessing other kinds of data—this whole piece is based in personal experience. I don’t think experts are always right, nor that common sense is necessarily wrong. I think we shouldn’t be thinking in terms of which is right and which is wrong, as though it’s a binary. I think one of the reasons that we have problems with arguments about vaccinations and climate change is that this isn’t argument about claims (is this claim good or bad) but about epistemology. I think that people who value a certain model of identity (that an authentic individual is a person of certainty and clarity) tend to value a highly individualized version naïve realism (the notion that the truth about any situation is always easily obvious to a person of good sense and few prejudices).

If that’s right, then we need to stop arguing about what studies say, and we need to argue about epistemology, and the way a lot of scientists argue (a binary of naïve realism or rampant subjectivism) is just making it all worse.

Why Christians should not endorse the “sincerely held religious belief” standard…

….unless they’re racists who wish we hadn’t ended segregation.

It has become a talking point in certain circles that there should not be restrictions on what people with “sincerely held religious beliefs” can do, even if they’re governmental employees. If it’s your sincerely held religious belief that, for instance, homosexuality is wrong, you should not be “forced” to bake a cake for a gay marriage, or, as a government employee, sign a marriage certificate for such a marriage. This is presented as a fairness and tolerance argument.

It seems to be tolerant because you’re allowing people to act on “sincerely held” religious beliefs. I think the major political figures know what they’re doing (they don’t mean to allow all people to act on those beliefs), but I think a lot of reasonable people look at this as a way to be respectful and tolerant. What those people don’t know is that this is an argument for segregation. It’s also an argument for shariah law.

What people don’t understand is that the most appalling things in our history, such as slavery, genocide of Native Americans, and segregation, were all enacted by people who sincerely believed they were commanded by Scripture to do those things. People who think “sincerely held religious” beliefs won’t lead to awful things don’t know about groups like Christian Identity, who argue for appalling racist policies on the grounds of sincerely held religious beliefs.

I think it’s important to look carefully at just how bad that “sincerely held” standard is.


Here’s why it seems to be reasonable: it looks like it’s fair. It isn’t saying “my religion is good and yours is bad” (it actually is, but that’s below); it seems to be tolerant of all religions, so it’s tolerant.

But let’s stop here for a second.

This argument is assuming that people who act on “non-religious” values don’t deserve the same consideration as people who claim a religious belief. So, the very premise of this argument is that people who are religious should be treated better than non-religious people. It’s an explicit rejection of fairness across groups—religious people are saying that, because we’re religious, we should treat nonreligious people in a way we wouldn’t want to be treated.

Or, in other words, although we’re claiming to be religious, we aren’t claiming to follow Christ. I’ll come back to that.

The fairness issue gets even uglier when you look at how its advocates behave when confronted with religions other than theirs.

This policy is being sold as a tolerant and respectful thing to do, and it’s framed entirely in terms of liberty. And, therefore perfectly reasonable people, who don’t happen to pay a lot of attention to the history of religious discrimination in our country, and who are wickedly (sometimes I think deliberately) misinformed about the history of segregation, think it’s tolerant, respectful, reasonable, and fair.

It isn’t tolerant, respectful, reasonable, or about liberty. And it is nowhere near fair. It’s about the government giving members of one religion the ability to treat others in a way they would never tolerate. It’s about privileging one political/religious agenda.
Here’s simply one point. I work in a state where I cannot ban guns from my classroom, even were I Quaker or Amish. The “sincerely held religious belief” of Quakers and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other pacifists never come into play here. They have to pay taxes for war, after all. I’m religiously opposed to the Death Penalty, but I have to pay for it, and I’m struck from juries because I don’t believe in it. If that last thing isn’t religious discrimination, I don’t know what is–I am banned from being on a jury for murder trials because of my religion. My religion says that homosexual marriages are marriages; people claiming religious freedom haven’t been staying up nights worrying about the fact that they’ve denied me that religious freedom for years. That isn’t snark—that’s an important point. If something is a principle as opposed to a useful argument to get your way then you stand by that principle even if it makes something happen that you don’t want to happen.

So, when was the last time that the people now claiming to support religious freedom supported the freedom of a religion with which they disagreed? How hard did they argue for Quakers?

“Conservative Christians” want Kim Davis, as a government employee, to be able to do only those things in her job that fit with her interpretation of her religion, but they don’t want pacifists to be able to ban guns from their classrooms. Were the defenders of Kim Davis acting on the principle of “government employees should not be required to act against their sincerely held religious beliefs,” then they would include all religious beliefs in their legislation. In fact, if you look, they specify gay marriage. So, this isn’t about religious freedom, this is about gay marriage.

That means that this isn’t about the principle of religious freedom, but about one kind of person of faith getting privileged treatment. This is not even a little about fairness.

I think that a lot of the people I see (and read) repeating the “religious freedom” point just don’t know a lot of people of different religions, and so they don’t imagine things from those points of view. They don’t even know much about Christianity. They don’t know, for instance, that my commitment to marriage equality is a religious belief.

Allowing someone like Kim Davis to refuse to allow certain kinds of marriages means my government is violating my sincerely held religious beliefs. Passing a law that requires guns in classrooms violates the sincerely held religious beliefs of many teachers. Ending segregation violated the sincerely held religious beliefs of many Christians.

Many political figures support the “freedom” of a teacher to lead prayer until the moment they imagine that teacher being Muslim. It’s fine if someone on the street fails to think that way, but when political figures with considerable power think that way, then they are either failing in the major job responsibility they have (to think from various perspectives about policies they support), or they’re engaged in strategic misnaming. They never meant religious freedom—they meant the freedom for people like them to force their religion on others; they meant theocracy.

And I think it’s the second because, so often, when people point out that the “right” they are promoting would have to be extended to Muslims, Quakers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, major figures suddenly argue that the US is and must always be a “Christian” country. There’s a longer argument there, but here I’ll just mention that the argument they make for that case is internally inconsistent (they don’t use terms like “founders” or “Christian” consistently) and contradicted by the historical record.

Here’s simply one example. People with access to google will sometimes argue that the government should promote the celebration of Christmas because the Founders were Christian. And those same people sometimes include the seventeenth century New England Puritans in their definition of “founder.” But the New England Puritans weren’t the first people to settle what would later become the US, they weren’t the first Europeans to do so, they weren’t the first Europeans to settle what would later become the thirteen colonies, they weren’t even the first English to settle what would later become the thirteen colonies, and they prohibited the celebration of Christmas.

So, really, it’s a group of people arguing (badly) that the government should promote their political agenda.

Well, okay, that’s what everyone does. The difference is that this group is pretending that their political agenda is the only sincerely held religious one. They aren’t arguing for fairness across religious beliefs; they’re pretending only their religion counts. And they don’t even know the history of their religion.

There are two problems with that argument. One I’ll mention now, and the other I’ll get to later. The one I’ll mention now is simply this: let your yea be yea and your nay be nay. Don’t lie. If you want to argue for theocracy, go for it. But don’t argue for theocracy under the cover of religious freedom. The two are opposites.

It is a hobby horse of mine that we teach the history of civil rights movements in the US so badly, and this is an example of why it matters. Everyone loves the people who engaged in the Greensboro sit-in, but they don’t realize that was a private property (Woolworth’s). If you think “sincerely held religious belief” should be sufficient grounds for a private business refusing service, then you endorse segregation. If SCOTUS thought the way you think they should, we would still have race-based segregation.

That’s what segregation was—it was a practice defended by appeals to religion. You can see this in the major arguments for segregation, such as Theodore Bilbo’s Take Your Choice, texts going back to defenses of slavery (it was rare for someone to defend segregation and not slavery), and the numerous pro-segregation sermons and doctrinal statements (Haynes’ Curse of Noah traces out the importance of Genesis IX in both slavery and segregation).

Take, for example, Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, a SCOTUS case in which an owner of a drive-in barbeque place argued that it was his right to refuse to serve nonwhites. He said he had that right because the federal law didn’t apply to him (a technical issue easily solved—it did), property rights (another easily solved issue), and his religious freedom.

In that era, the religious freedom issue was also easily solved. The tendency of SCOTUS was to say that religious freedom was a private issue, and so could be relatively easily trounced in the public by other concerns, especially fairness (more on that below). Also, courts tended to rule on the basis of mainstream religious beliefs. If you read the transcript of testimony, you would notice that the judge refuses to take Bessinger’s reading of the Bible as a basis of authority. When Bessinger tries to support his claim with a newspaper clipping, the judge cuts it short. And the judge never worries about Bessinger’s personal reading of Scripture.

And so he shut down the head of the National Association for the Advancement of White People and all the other bigots who wanted to refuse to serve African Americans. He did so because he rejected Bessinger’s religious expertise.

But, had he used the standard of “sincerely held religious belief,” then he would have had to rule in favor of Bessinger, because all Bessinger would have had to do was to show that his reading of Scripture was sincere, not reasonable.

Notice this exchange:

Q: And is it—in your treatment with every individual everyday, do you follow this?

Bessinger: Well, I certainly think I try to. I mean I do as much as I possibly can. What I mean by that, I certainly hope I am living that life, that is what your question is.

Q: Is it your belief to that effect?

Bessinger: Absolutely.

Q: Do you have any beliefs concerning segregation of the races, is that intwined or intermingled with or part of your beliefs as a Christian?

Bessinger: Yes, sir, that is very much part of my belief as a Christian, mixing of the races certainly is.

Q: By races you refer to what, sir?

Bessinger: By races, I refer to the race as the black race, the white race, and the yellow race.

Q: What is the Biblical basis, if any, for such a belief?

Bessinger: Well in the Old Testament God commanded the Hebrews not to mix with other peoples and races.

Anyone even a little bit familiar with the history of racism in the US is, at this point, saying, Oh, really, not this shit again, because Bessinger is mentioning one of the racist proof texts. But people who only know the triumphalist version want to read Bessinger as some crank.

Nope. He was mainstream. Segregation was a religious issue, with many proof texts, and he mentioned one. He could have mentioned Genesis IX, or various passages about not planting certain seeds in with others, or God having placed peoples in different parts of the world. There were a lot of proof texts people had for segregation (more than current bigots have about homosexuality, in fact, since some of those texts are about pederasty).

The court rejected his religious freedom argument because he didn’t cite external authorities (the testimony goes into an argument about a newspaper clipping he presented). And, I’d like to think, all the people now supporting the “sincerely held religious belief” argument would be appalled at the sorts of proof texts people like him provided.

But law is always an issue of principle.

And, if the principle is sincerely held religious belief, he met that standard.

So, people who want to say that Kim Davis can do what she wants are saying that Bessinger should have been able to refuse to serve African Americans. They are (unintentionally, I think) endorsing the principle that segregation was right. That’s worth taking some time to consider. If Davis is right, then so was Bessinger.

If we should allow Davis to refuse to allow some people to marry because she thinks that kind of marriage is a violation of Scripture, and our only standard is personal belief, then we have to say that the courts should have ruled that the people who believed that states could refuse to allow whites and nonwhites to marry, and businesses could refuse to serve nonwhites, and school districts could insist on segregated schools—those were all sincerely held religious beliefs. Arguing for Kim Davis is arguing for Bessinger; it’s arguing for segregation. It’s also arguing for county clerks refusing to allow bi-racial marriages, marriage after divorce, marriage of anyone wearing mixed fibers, dealing with anyone with a tattoo or who eats shellfish.

Bessinger sincerely thought he was violating Scripture by serving nonwhites in the same place he served whites. And he thought that because a tremendous amount of southern religion promoted that view. He wasn’t a crank; he was acting on what was a commonplace in southern religious discourse.

I said earlier that the “sincerely held religious principle” is important in two ways: if it’s a principle for us, then we really hold all religions to it; if we aren’t going to do that (which would mean allowing communities to enact segregation, sharia law, gay marriage, Satan worship), then this is an argument pretending to be about fairness that is actually an argument for theocracy.

The “sincerely held religious principle” either means that communities imposing sharia law is okay, as is segregation, pacifists not allowing guns in classrooms, my serving on death penalty juries despite what prosecutors want, a teacher insisting the class pray to Satan, and all sorts of other practices, or we only mean “sincerely held religious principles with which we agree.” In that case, we’re violating the notion that we should treat others as we want to be treated.

So, in service of what is supposed to be a religious argument, Christians have to violate one of the basic precepts of our religion.
That is, it seems to me, an important problem, since, if we reject the notion of “do unto others” we are also rejecting the person said that we should act on that principle. Either we allow segregation or we reject Christ.

Or maybe it means that the “sincerely held religious belief” is a disastrously bad way to base public policy.

Compromise and Purity, Pt. II

Clinton’s loss against Trump was shocking to many people, as has been the loss of Congress and the governorships. There is a narrative about that loss that is circulating, and I think it’s simultaneously persuasive and harmful. Narratives imply policy, and if our narratives are wrong, we end up with the wrong policies. I think we’re in danger of that now. I think our narratives imply that “the left” should become more purely left, either by all agreeing on a set of core goals or a single political agenda. That policy agenda can also seem to be right—to motivate people you can’t have a wishy-washy agenda.

Here’s the narrative as to what happened:

  • The Dem establishment obviously bungled because it promoted Clinton instead of Sanders.
  • That claim has two sub-claims: that Clinton only won because of the DNC support, and that it’s absolutely clear that Sanders would have won.
  • The Dems have consistently lost at every level for twenty years because they have moved toward third-way neoliberalism.
  • The DNC needs to move toward a single motivating political agenda, and it should be a more democratic socialist one, or it needs to be a more neoliberal one.
  • Or, the DNC needs to create a big tent in which we treat one another with respect and compassion and find shared ground.

Those are plausible claims, and that’s why people believe them. I’m going to argue that these claims are untrue, but, when I say that, I’m often heard to be arguing that the opposite of these claims are true—that, if it isn’t obvious that Sanders was a better choice, then I’m saying it’s obvious that Clinton was. I’m not. I’m arguing for walking away from narratives about what some set of us being obviously right and some of us being obviously wrong. I think some of us are wrong, but not obviously wrong.

Even though I disagree with those claims, I think the people who believe them aren’t idiots, or bad or stupid people, and the people who refuse to believe those claims aren’t necessarily any better than the people who do. I think they’re bad premises, but I don’t think the people who believe them are bad people, and I’m willing to admit I might be wrong.

And, in fact, that’s my whole argument: I think Dems need to imagine a world in which we agree to disagree in an inclusive sense, in which we agree to disagree while working toward common policy goals—and those goals are ones on which we agree to disagree. That is, we all support some policies we don’t like, and we each get some policies we do like. It’s taken me a long time to come around to that point of view, as I think it’s counterintuitive, but I think it’s right.

Or, in other words, the space between those assumptions about the 2016 election seeming to be true and yet their being false is the space of very important political work among good people with good motives and good reasons. I’d like to help us do that work.

I think dems need to find a world in which we act on the bases of inclusion, fairness, compassion, and long-term consequences. It is not a world in which we like each other, or even agree on premises. It is a world in which people who really dislike each other agree to treat each other well. It is a democracy.

That is a world in which we try to transcend the call of putting the ingroup first, and in which we aspire to treat the Other as we would want to be treated. I think that is a world toward which lefties aspire, and so this is about how to achieve that, but it begins with a long discussion about how not to achieve it.

And my argument as to how to achieve it is so controversial that I think I have to plead for people to continue to read. There are, conventionally, four ways that political parties succeed:

  • they agree on a political agenda;
  • they agree on a set of principles;
  • they agree hating some group/s;
  • they decide to work together although they loathe one another.

I’m going to argue that lefties need to do the last.

Not a popular argument, I’ll grant, and not one I really want to make, but I honestly think it’s the right one. To make that argument, I first need to show what’s wrong with the five points listed above about 2016, and that’s complicated because those are all points of view that can seem really reasonable. They are, I think, reasonable, but wrong. They aren’t obviously wrong, and the people who make them aren’t idiots, but I still think they’re wrong.

Making that argument requires making arguments about arguments, and also about political deliberation, and about fallacies of niceness. So, here goes.

I. A premise about argument: Or, saying “You are not obviously right is not the same as saying you are obviously wrong.”

I think we need to begin by rethinking conventional American notions about policy argumentation itself, in three ways: first, we need to reject the notion that feeling certain that you are right necessarily implies everyone else being obviously wrong (that is, lefties should be smarter than appealing to naïve realism); second, we need to stop assuming that policies necessarily follow from group identity (and so the most important arguments are about identity); third, we need to stop thinking that the solution to failure is greater purity.

In the abstract, lefties reject naïve realism and endorse various epistemologies of skepticism. In fact, however, humans live our lives in a world in which things are generally as they look, and lefties are not immune to invoking a kind of naïve realist argument about how any kind of realism is obviously wrong. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for lefties to cite studies in science to say that it’s been proven that people always fall back on confirmation bias, and are never objective. Then why cite the science? Aren’t the scientists themselves prone to confirmation bias? It makes sense to cite science to show that science isn’t some direct and unmediated contact with a stable reality (that is, to make a negative or refutative case), but it doesn’t make sense to use science to make an affirmative case about rejecting science.

I was particularly confused in the summer of 2016 by people whom I knew endorsed a social construction of knowledge epistemology, and who also said that Sanders or Clinton would OBVIOUSLY win and everyone who disagreed with them was an idiot. They weren’t just an idiot, but a dupe of someone or something, or doofusly ignoring their obvious best interest (if you’re really a progressive, if you’re really a feminist), often coupled with “How could you support THAT person?” arguments. If we really believe that there is not unmediated perception, and we believe that biases are inherent, and that we are all subject to our own constructions of ourselves, what does it mean to characterize every person who disagrees with us as obviously wrong?

I’m not arguing that we are obligated to say all points of view are equally valid. I am saying that, if we really believe the epistemology we claim to believe, then we are obligated to admit that we exist in a range of certainty/uncertainty, and that we are always obliged to argue about where we are on that range. We are obliged to argue with one another, and that means engaging their evidence, and not either simply repeating our own assertions or accusing them of bad motives.

There is also the problem that lefties are not always immune to the notion that the degree to which one feels certain is a sign of how much evidence we have, and that we should only enact policies about which feel certain. In addition, it’s common for us to think that, if you feel strongly about something, you must feel equally strongly that the people who disagree with you are bad and wrong. And, so, the first point is to try to distinguish between believing that other people are wrong and those same people are obviously wrong and bad. The notion that policies are either obviously right or obviously wrong assumes that decisions fall into a binary.

Thinking that someone else is reasonable and being what we think is right aren’t necessarily the same thing. We can be passionate, certain, and wrong. And, in fact, we’re always wrong, in some way or about some thing, but we are still certain. Saying that we are (perhaps have to be) certain and wrong at the same time isn’t endorsing the notion that all points of view are equally valid. It does mean that making any decision involves assessing the relevant information, like figuring out whether to take an umbrella on a given day. Important decisions are never questions of absolutely clear or random choice; we live in a world in which we’re always making decisions on the bases of various probabilities, and so there is rarely a binary between whether one should take an umbrella or not. Decisions aren’t binaries—they’re about the probabilities.

If the weather prediction is a 60% chance of rain, I would be a jerk to make fun of someone who made a different decision from me—whether I chose to take an umbrella or not. It wouldn’t necessarily be unreasonable to take an umbrella or not. Politics is always a realm in which we are making decisions between 30% and 70%. We should think about politics as questions of probability, like taking an umbrella. But we don’t. And, really, lefties of all people should be especially open to the argument that no single person can see things from all perspectives, and that nuance is important. Let’s not be jerks.