Racism (30): What Should We Call Non-White People, and How Do Names Affect Us?

Obviously, “nigger” is out. Initially a neutral term – from the Latin “niger” which means black – it was often used without racist connotation during much of the 19th century, but it became increasingly pejorative and derogatory. Even though it’s still used today by some, shall we say “African Americans”, to describe each other, often even endearingly, it’s done with.

“Negro” also means “black”, notably in Spanish and Portuguese. This term took over from “nigger” and then also from “colored” as the more polite appellation (“colored” was common usage during a few decades at the beginning of the 19th century).

“Negro” was long considered to be the proper English-language term for people of sub-Saharan African origin. This lasted until the late 1960s. Martin Luther King could still call himself a Negro. However, the term was already criticized in the 1950s en 1960s, notably by Malcolm X who successfully tried to redeem the word “black” which was seen as offensive during much of the first half of the 20th century. And indeed, “black was beautiful” during the “black power” era in the 1970s.

“African American” then took over from “black” which went from repudiated to acceptable to repudiated again. (Initially, the term was “Afro-American” derived from “Anglo-American”). “African American” has been the standard term since the 1980s, and it still is today.  “Negro” is now considered to be acceptable only in a historical context, and you should avoid talking about “black people”. African American – a term which for the first time doesn’t reference skin color – was initially hyphenated: “African-American”, like “Irish-American” or “Cuban-American”. This has become problematic very recently in reaction to the belittling phrase “hyphenated Americans“. Hence the recent omission of the hyphen.

Many will see this movement of the language of race as political correctness “gone wild”, but language does evolve and words carry meaning and historical references. Meanings and historical references can influence ideas and behavior. People who insist on using the word “nigger” are likely to have certain very specific ideas about those whom they call “nigger”. And these ideas can circulate when the word circulates. Even those who are tempted to see PC at work here will surely agree that “nigger” is an unacceptable and damaging use of language. But if “nigger” is, then why not also certain other words?

“Negro” was quite often used during the Civil War era and during the Civil Rights struggle, understandably, and was the standard expression in the period between. “Blacks” took over in the 70s, and “African American” in the 90s. “Nigger” has always been taboo in published works.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (45): Is There A Right To Do Wrong?

Absolutely, there is. People have a right to vote for incompetent politicians; to express hatred; to organize hate groups; to insult and mock people; to burn books etc. All of these things are wrong in most plausible conceptions of morality, and yet they are part and parcel of human rights, and should be, to the extent that they don’t cause rights violations. Does this make human rights wrong? Objectionable? No it doesn’t, at least not necessarily. Human rights are objectionable if they have bad consequences, but only bad consequences in the sense of rights violations. Hence human rights are objectionable if they produce violations of other rights or the rights of others.

Some of the examples I just gave of the use of human rights may result in bad consequences. Hate speech can harm people’s rights. However, it’s often extremely difficult to measure the consequences of rights. For example, bad consequences can produce good consequences: e.g. allowing people to produce hate speech can convince a lot of people of the unattractiveness or disadvantages of certain ideologies.

Still, no matter what the consequences of the human rights are, we’ll still be stuck with differences between human rights and morality because some of the consequences of some rights will be clearly immoral. The two will probably never completely overlap. Some of the uses of human rights will produce outcomes that are a net negative from a moral point of view, even in the long run. So how should we react to people exercising their rights in an immoral way and in a way that produces immoral outcomes? It’s difficult, at first sight, to contemplate the use of morality to tell them to stop, since they are exercising their rights. However, rights are seldom absolute and can be limited if necessary. It depends on the nature of the immoral outcomes of the use of human rights. When we’re talking about an outcome that is immoral because it offends or hurts the feelings of people, the justification to do something about it is a lot less strong than when we’re talking about an outcome that is immoral because it violates the rights of people. In the latter case we should act and try to find a balance between the rights of different people, namely those people exercising their rights in an immoral way and those suffering the consequences of this exercise. In the former case, our actions should probably be limited to persuasion, education etc.

Another argument in favor of a right to do wrong does not focus on consequences. Rights entitle us to make our own choices, and making your own choices is a moral good in itself. If this moral good leads to immoral choices and these choices are immoral because of the negative consequences for other people, then it’s not necessarily those consequences that are most important. If we force people to do the right thing, we’re taking away their right to make their own choices, and we’d also be acting immorally. Hence, there’s a conflict between two moral maxims, and it’s not obvious that the maxim that says we should limit negative consequences for others is always the most important of the two. It depends on the harm done by those consequences, and the degree of choice limitation that would result from trying to avoid those consequences.

No matter what we do, there will always be cases of rights that result in wrongs, just as there are moral wrongs without corresponding rights (keeping promises is moral but not a right; the same is true for telling the truth, helping friends, being faithful to your spouse etc.). Of course, many actions are both morally wrong and a violation of rights, or both morally right and respectful of rights, so we shouldn’t make too much of an issue of the right to do wrong. But still, it is an issue and it’s good to know that it’s an issue.

Does the existence of a right to do wrong imply that rights are divorced from morality? Well, it makes it a bit harder to argue that rights are merely a subset of morality. But it doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and say that rights are an exclusively legal matter separated from moral concerns. That extreme would land us squarely in the territory of legal positivism, or the theory that states that we only have those rights that are recognized in law. And that’s not a pleasant territory since it makes it impossible to challenge deficiencies in the rights recognized by the law. In order to challenge those deficiencies, you need a notion of moral rights, rights that are not yet (fully) recognized by the law (there wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King in the land of legal positivism for example). But in order to have moral rights, rights have to belong to morality, and it seems that a right to do wrong makes this belonging problematic. However, we can anchor rights in morality by arguing that morality is more than the teaching of what we should or shouldn’t do. We just stipulate that rights talk belongs to morality, and conflicts between elements of morality – in this case rights and wrongs – are nothing unusual.

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (3): Civil Disobedience

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Civil disobedience is non-violent and public disrespect for a law which one considers to be unjust, accompanied by a willing acceptance of the consequences of this disrespect. The purpose of civil disobedience is to highlight the injustice of a law and hence to work for the abolishment of the law. The assumption is that actions which highlight an injustice can contribute to its abolition, which is an reasonable assumption at least in a democracy. In a democracy, there should be other procedures to abolish injustices, such as representation, free speech, freedom of assembly and association etc., but no democracy is perfect and therefore a more extreme measure such as civil disobedience may be necessary. The American Civil Rights Movement, which operated in a manifestly imperfect democracy, was an example.

However, civil disobedience is a dangerous thing. Laws are important, because without laws and judges and police forces to protect them, human rights are just moral claims, unenforceable and at the mercy of those who are stronger and more powerful.

So you have to be careful when allowing yourself to defy the law. Civil disobedience is not the same thing as the freedom of conscience. You do have the absolute legal right to believe what you want and what your conscience forces you to believe. But it is another thing to be able to act according to your conscience and to break the law because of your conscience; or not to act because of your conscience, as is often the case with conscientious objectors. If you state that everything, even a breach of the law, is allowed as long as it conforms to your conscience, then you go down a very dangerous path.

The freedom of conscience is something different from the right to do or not to do something because of objections based on conscience. You may be forced to do something that goes against your conscience while retaining your freedom of conscience and your beliefs about wrong and right. You can even force yourself to act against your conscience, perhaps because of a sense of duty or because of respect for the rule of law. You only lose your freedom of conscience when you are forced to believe something, which can only happen in extreme circumstances.

Conscience as the ability to know wrong from right is a kind of self-legislation. But because this is fallible (in German they say, “das Gewissen ist kein Wissen”, conscience is not knowledge), and more fallible than common legislation (more fallible because you are alone – two people know more than one – and because you miss the opportunity to learn from discussion and arguments), it should not determine actions when it is incompatible with the laws that are valid in a well-functioning democracy. Only if the external law, as opposed to the internal law, is clearly dysfunctional or unjust as in the quote above, can there be a reason to appeal to your conscience and engage in civil disobedience.

However, civil disobedience is an individual choice, and can it be allowed that individuals decide for themselves whether a system of law is “clearly dysfunctional”? It is dangerous at least, which is why civil disobedience should be an emergency measure only. The risk of anarchy can sometimes convince us to accept a supposedly dysfunctional law or judge, even if our conscience tells us to rebel. Civil disobedience should only be tried when everything else has failed.