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Posted by on Feb 8, 2013 in Culture, In the news | 4 comments

Normblog on flimsy accusations of racism

Via Normblog comes this story about what seems from the facts revealed to be a flimsy accusation of racism. Although the boy apparently denies making a Nazi salute at his teacher, it seems likely that he did so as an act of defiance. This sort of thing is stupid, of course – thoughtlessly suggesting that an authority figure is demanding obedience to a point comparable to totalitarian dictators like Hitler. Nonetheless, that meaning of a sarcastically offered Nazi salute to an authority figure is well known. The teacher appears to have been equally stupid in insisting on an interpretation of it as conveying a racist meaning.

Subjective intention is not magical in its power to remove hurt. Damage can be done by acts that were not subjectively motivated by malice, by racism, or by anything else that merits strong condemnation of a person’s character. We do demand certain standards of care, reasonableness, thoughtfulness, and so on, above and beyond the absence of the worst kinds of mens rea. This runs all through the law and through everyday moral standards. But there are two important points to be made here, slightly different from the points made by Norm Geras.

First, although a mere lack of thoughtfulness, etc., may merit criticism, it still not the same as malice, malevolent feelings (such as racist ones), etc. If someone who is probably not motivated by racist intent nonetheless makes a gesture that could be reasonably interpreted as racist by an ordinary, reasonable person in the society, that’s probably what we should say (and how we should counsel them). We need to be careful in the extreme when we make highly charged and highly damaging accusations, such as accusations of racism. So often, the charges are flimsy or frivolously tactical. They are thrown around carelessly, with little regard to the damage they can do to people’s reputations (as well as the psychological damage from being accused of something so abhorrent). Or worse, they are made for the deliberate purpose of causing hurt and damage to reputation.

Second, we need to be reasonable in our interpretations of people’s words and gestures. Certainly, the meaning that can reasonably be placed on a gesture, say, is not entirely controlled by the actual subjective intent of the person who made it. But nor is it controlled by the subjective interpretation of the person on the receiving end. It is controlled by usage, history, context, what might reasonably be imputed to an individual given what else is known about them, by tacit semiotic codes that we are all socialised into, and so on.

In this case, a Nazi salute aimed at an authority figure, such as a teacher, is most reasonably interpreted as a defiant accusation that the teacher is behaving in an extreme dictatorial manner. That is the well known meaning of the gesture in our culture. In many contexts, the accusation made by the person delivering the salute may be stupid, unfair, unreasonable, offensive, and so on, but it is what it is.