Behind the saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is the philosophic theory that beauty is a subjective quality that depends on the judgment (or feelings) of the perceiver. This saying could be modified to apply to determining whether an aesthetic object, such as a black balaclava jumper or shoes, is a blackface object: “blackface is in the eye of the beholder.” The underlying principle would be that whether an object is blackface or not depends on the judgment (or feelings) of the perceiver.
If blackface is in the eye of the beholder, then it is up to the beholder to determine whether an object is blackface or not. This might be a matter of judgment or a matter of feeling, depending on the broader aesthetic theory in play. One problem with applying this principle in general would be that whether an object is blackface or not would be subjective. As such, those who assert that an object is not blackface because they do not see it this way would be just as right (or wrong) as those who take the opposite position. However, there is a way to grant a certain audience a privileged right to judge (or feel).
One obvious way to argue for this view is to draw an analogy to insult. Whether something is an insult or not depends on the target of the alleged insult. If the target does not judge or feel that the alleged insult is an insult, then it is not. If the target judges or feels the alleged insult is an insult, then it is. In the case of objects alleged to be blackface, there is the question of who is analogous to the target of a suspected insult
One easy and obvious approach, one that would presumably be favored by those cast as social justice warriors, is that the potential target of any potential blackface object would be blacks. As such, whether an object is a blackface object or not would be decided by the judgment or feeling of black people (and perhaps also those with adequate levels of woke). One could easily get bogged down in the logistics of group consensus, but there are two easy approaches here. One would be to go with the majority opinion of the group. The other would be to break it down to the individual level so that an object could be blackface for one person but not another. While messy and inexact, this does seem to reflect the messy and inexact reality of such judgments (or feelings). Thus, an object would be blackface if the majority of blacks judged (or felt) it is such an object. Alternatively, it could be done at an individual level: an object would be blackface for an individual if they judged (or felt) it was blackface.
One obvious concern here is that whether an object is blackface or not would be subjective. One might raise the objection that under this definition, anything could be blackface, thus opening everyone up for charges of racism. Alternatively, one could argue that if blackface is subjective, then anyone could simply point this out to avoid accusations of racism.
The solution is a messy one: as with disputes over beauty or insults, there would need to be arguments advanced in favor of the various positions and the better arguments should settle the matter as to which interpretation seems to be the most plausible. Even if blackface is in the eye of the beholder, better and worse cases can be made that the judgment or feeling is a sensible one. That no perfect resolution is possible should be expected.
But some might object, being accused of racism has real-world consequences. A person’s career could be ended and their life ruined—surely this should not be left up to subjective judgments or feelings. While, as a practical matter, this is how things tend to work, philosophy does offer a better approach. Turning back to the analogy of insults, there is the question of whether the person making the alleged insult intended to be insulting or not. This can be investigated by considering their history, character and the context of the situation. Likewise, if a work is judged (or felt) to be a blackface object, there is still the question of the intent of the creator. While one cannot know the true heart and mind of another, the creator’s history and character as well as the context can be assessed to reach a plausible conclusion. As such, a person could create a blackface object without intent and without being a racist, just as a person could horribly insult another without any intention to do so. In such cases, the object should be condemned but the creator should be held innocent of racism. Naturally, if the creator’s history and character and the context provide evidence of racism, then that is another matter.
So a question for TJ…or anyone else so inclined and familiar with the history here regarding race and such…Do you think that the Jussie Smollett case is yet another wonderful example of a lie that tells a greater truth? You know, like “Hands up, don’t shoot” or Uncle Tom’s Cabin?
I assumed Jussie was lying from the time I first heard the story. The whole thing seemed improbable.
The only greater truth is that the left needs hate crimes to sustain itself.
I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in a Jewish household; my grandparents escaped from the pogroms of Russia in 1904; many of my relatives were not so lucky, they remained behind and were killed either by the dominant forces in their own Eastern European countries or perished in the concentration camps during WWII.
I never really practiced my religion – although I do feel a strong connection to the culture and to my ancestors. When my kids were small, we joined a temple and started getting a little more involved with the cultural and spiritual connection to our roots, and the aspects of those connections that would bear some relevance to our lives.
At this particular temple (which is the one I attended as a youth, in fact) the Sunday School education and the overarching theme of so many of the sermons was focused on “Never Again” – about the pogroms, about the Holocaust, about the anti-Semitism around the world and in the United States, right down to the communities where we lived.
None of it was false – it’s all horrible, unconscionable, and immoral. But we, as a family, made the decision that that was not where we wanted to focus our spiritual energy – that the past, although important to put in context, was the past – and we wanted to make sure that we used our gifts, our talents, and our energy in moving forward. So we left the temple. Of course there are others that have different focus, but that’s a different story.
Sadly, it’s not the same with racism. Racism and anti-Semitism go hand-in hand with their ubiquitous presence throughout history; Slavery was an abomination and was not restricted to the US, anti-Semitism led to the expulsion and extermination of Jews in every century and in every part of the world.
So what’s the difference? You tell me. I, personally, have moved on – and regard both overt and subtle acts of anti-Semitism as mere examples of the ignorance of the perpetrator. So do my family and friends (although we look with extreme caution at the vocalizations of the systemic anti-Semitism in the US Congress today). It is our hope, our contention, that it will ultimately die if we choose not to let it live. And we, ourselves, retain the right as the final arbiters of what will offend us (and the answer to that is, “not much”. Living well is the best revenge.).
Racism is the opposite. It is purposely kept alive. As TJ says, in not so many words, it is needed for the very sustenance of the Left, and for the power of those who choose to wield it as the hammer which it has become.
With all due respect, the discourse in these last two essays is insane. Lunacy. To enter into a discussion about free speech and intent within the context of “Beauty is in the Eyes of the Beholder” is a bizarre and inappropriate analogy to matters of taste versus matters of political and/or hateful intent, and only serves to bolster the division among human beings with different skin color, who lack the mental capacity to make decisions for themselves without adhering to some tribal allegiance and “group-think”, aimed at the political power of people who don’t give two shits about you. When anything and everything can be interpreted by someone as racist, we will be able to say or do nothing – and we will become (if we haven’t already) a completely repressed society living in fear of social and political recourse for our actions, thoughts, and words, which we had no idea were wrong.
Meanwhile, normal, sane, open minded individuals in the workplace, in academia, and in social situations keep their mouths shut for fear they may say something that is misinterpreted by the wrong person, and that might bring down their careers and cause them to be shunned by their friends – with no “I didn’t mean it like that” acceptable, no “But it was a different time 40 years ago, and we didn’t know!” even remotely understood with a forgiving nod. Academic institutions, rather than being driven by intellectual ideals and challenging thought, are run by HR departments who are always looking out for “who might be offended”. We have reached a pinnacle of intolerance, and we are grossly intolerant of behavior that simply does not exist – at least not in most cases.
And if someone is going to be offended by a pair of shoes or a turtleneck collar, well, I’d say the problem lies with them.
My answer to the always offended – “Get a helmet and move on”.
Except that I don’t believe they are offended at all. They see power and they take it.
(Michael – do me a favor, stick a “” after “purposely kept alive” in the above rant, will ya? I don’t want to be accused of writing a post in blackface).
that would be a “/b” html tag, contained within the less-than, greater-than symbols.
“But some might object, being accused of racism has real-world consequences. A person’s career could be ended and their life ruined—surely this should not be left up to subjective judgments or feelings. “
Well, why the hell not? I mean, that’s the point, isn’t it? We don’t have to engage in any sort of political or philosophical debate – that takes far too much work. If we can magnify the offense to a level of horror, we can bring down anyone without having to tip our political hand and take any kind of intellectual risk at all.
Once again, it is not about determining what is offensive and what is perceived by whom and to what extent. To that I’d say anything that can possibly be made into a racist statement is fair game, depending on whom it is being used against, and the degree is always set to “11” or higher.
Just look at the shock, awe, and horror levied against Northam when that picture surfaced. Suddenly we didn’t have to talk about abortion, we had something far jucier. Republicans and Democrats cried out for his head – until suddenly it appeared as though a Republican would be appointed Governor … then suddenly the rhetoric quiets down.
If this country turns into one where I have no say in what I mean by what I say, then it is no longer the US.
DH, have you read the following from Nassim Taleb?
The comparison to insult is good.
I have long believed that it is not possible, in the general case, to determine whether a particular statement was an insult. We can certainly form judgements in individual cases, with varying degrees of belief, and that sense of certainty can approach 1 when we see repeated instances, but never from a single account of a single incident.
“Racism” is much less well defined than “insult”. When someone uses the word “racism”, I never know which definition they are using, so I am never clear on what they mean. This cloud of ambiguity is of course very handy for people who want to use it as an accusatory label.