Matt Welch’s column at Reason.com on the 14th April this year was titled, “When Everything is ‘Systemic Racism,’ People Will Tune Out The Term”. The subject overall was exactly what the title suggested: indiscriminately calling everything and anything that touches on race, however remotely, ‘Systemic Racism’, without regard to what its nature might actually be, effectively renders the term ‘Systemic Racism’ so broad as to be without any discernible definition and, thereby, encourages people to ignore it. Or, more generally, the purpose of language is communication; if language becomes so imprecise that it no longer communicates anything meaningful or useful, people will stop listening. It is an echo of Dash’s lament from The Incredibles: If everyone is special then no one is.
In addition to that overall message, Mr. Welch also made three predictions about what happens “…when people feel they cannot openly talk about a subject…”:
In-group jargon will become increasingly incomprehensible
Out-group reaction will become more reactionary
The populism and collectivism of this political moment will only continue to grow
I felt there was a more concrete and concerning prediction one might make, related to his last two but pointing more to where we might end up as a result. I sent him an e-mail to make my case. This is not actually a new thought — I have been using the term I offered to label the situation I described for many years now…
I have found that the folks at Reason — and at The Bulwark and a few other places like those — are, to a much greater extent than are columnists and reporters at the so-called “mainstream” media outlets, interested more in having the discussion than they are in being the discussion. Hence, I have found that they are more likely to acknowledge, and occasionally even engage with, such missives. Mr. Welch was no exception: his reply was short but respectful and implied that he had taken it both seriously and, perhaps, to heart: “That’s…a very apt e-mail. Thank you much for it.”
[To be fair, the reluctance of mainstream media people to engage may also be a matter of success-induced popularity: it is, no doubt, harder to deal with many thousands or tens-of-thousands of letters and e-mails than it is to deal with many hundreds or many tens. And some places, like CNN, protect their people zealously — it may be that their reporters and columnists would be perfectly willing to engage if there were any way to actually contact them…].
17 April 2021
In your article, you predict 3 things that are likely to happen “…when people feel they cannot talk openly about a subject…”.
Here is another prediction: The Sledge Hammer.
That is the name I have given to a phenomenon I have observed many times in the last 40 or 50 years. Prototypical examples are the passage in CA of proposition 209, outlawing affirmative action, and propositions 13 (CA) and 2-1/2 (MA) limiting the rate of property tax increases. But it might also, perhaps, be used as well to describe Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency, not to mention “Defund the Police”…
It works like this:
People have a serious and legitimate complaint about some problem:
“We are being taxed out of our homes!”
“Affirmative action has turned into a racial spoils system!”
But they are not allowed to talk about it. They are told they are exaggerating the problem. They are told that there is no problem. They are told they are the problem.
They are told that they are “privileged” or that they are “racist” or that they are “sexist” or that they are “selfish”.
They are shouted down. They are told to shut up.
And, because they are not allowed to talk about it, there is no debate about it and there is never any incentive to change anything. The problem doesn’t get better. It gets worse. It festers. It becomes intolerable.
And the people who can see that there is, indeed, a problem but are told to shut up about it get impatient. Then they get frustrated. Then they get angry. Then they get furious.
And then they swing the populist Sledge Hammer: “Screw all of you condescending bastards! If we can’t fix the system, we’ll destroy it!”
Those Sledge Hammer solutions are almost always poorly thought out and poorly done. They create their own problems, in many cases problems worse than the ones they were meant to solve.
But boy, do they feel good….
This is, in some ways, the concrete embodiment of a general ‘conservative’ observation about practical politics (or, rather, an embodiment of its antithesis) that I mentioned in my book:
That which can be overcome with resolve or made tolerable by reform will not be overthrown by revolution.
Both sides of our modern political divide have become obsessed with controlling — and, when possible, suppressing — various conversations on the theory that what we never talk about will just fade away. But that only happens if the reason for not talking about something is that no one is interested in it or cares about it. Making it taboo, rather than making it irrelevant, pretty much guarantees it will erupt at some later time and in some inconvenient and disruptive and extreme and perilous fashion…
Here are a couple of related commentaries on one of the specific examples (California’s Proposition 209) I noted in the introduction:
And here is one on the general topic of property taxes, the subject of two others of my examples (California’s Proposition 13 and Massachusetts’ Proposition 2-1/2):
© Copyright 2021, Augustus P. Lowell