In the last two posts on the topic of the recent political conventions dealt with the effect of speech on speakers, and on the way we treat information as a society. In this post, I would like to take some time to explore how this type of speech interacts with social, and group dynamics. For this I’m primarily going to go back to the Khizr Khan story. There has been a lot of discussion on this, from several perspectives. I’ll begin here with the response from the Trump campaign to the speech. I should note that this is a limited perspective on a complex issue, and should be treated as such. Ultimately, this attempts to look at the issue from a perspective of tangible objectives, and incentives. This is not the only perspective, and one should be careful to examine a variety of perspectives, particularly ones representative of the social groups most strongly affected by these dynamics.
Much of the commentary immediately following the speech was particularly focused on the accent, and ethnic aspects of the speaker. This is a strong example of a low real value, high nominal value route of discussion. It will get people talking, and it will get people thinking about how the speaker is different, and differentiate themselves from them. Not only is there no real value to the comment, there is not even an attempt at tying the implications made of the argument to anything of real value. At least with things like voter ID law, or climate change, there is at minimum, a hypothetical problem to be addressed. There is however, no real, or hypothetical problem with having an accent. If you have heard someone with an accent speak for any amount of time, you will find that it quickly becomes easy to understand them, so there’s no efficiency loss. There is nothing inherently better about saying words in one particular was versus another, and yet, it was not ridiculed, it was not ignored as the useless commentary it was. Instead, it was given widespread media coverage, and taken by many to be serious. This is the exact type of thing that crowds out good, reasoned, nuanced, ideas.
The second aspect I want to examine on this is how the manner of rhetoric imposes additional burdens on those it is trying to uplift. There is a certain distinction here that needs to be drawn between the ideas of being accepting of people, and asking them to prove themselves. From an analytical perspective, this can be boiled down to how gains and costs of actions should be distributed between parties, and is one of the most pervasive issues in the area of trade. Here is a good article that summarized that problem.
As per my usual mode of reasoning, I will first assign an objective, then attempt to explore the ways that objective can be reached. The presumed objective here will be to ensure acceptance, equality, and perceived humanity of marginalized social groups. Any solution to this must address the problem that these traits are currently not at acceptable levels. The easiest way to solve this is to prove to people who do not hold the assumptions of equality, that people of a marginalized group are not different than those people in any fundamental way. There are two issues with this line of reasoning. First, there is a question of what traits are fundamental to similarity. The second, is that showing an individual of a group(or even all individuals of a group) have certain traits, does not imply the group as a whole has, or even should have those traits. This would be committing a fallacy of composition, so even proving it for individuals does not resolve the problem of dynamics between groups. There is a third issue that comes about from the implementation of this proving idea. Consider the case where you are someone who is unsure of the equality of another social group. If you accept the idea that individuals within the group share traits with yourself, but not all reflect those traits, in order to change your mind, a person from that group must demonstrate somehow something contrary to your initial assumptions. This is at least morally questionable, but more tangibly, it imposes a direct cost to members of that group. If the goal here is to improve conditions for marginalized groups, then pursuing a course of action that imposes additional costs on that group would not seem to get us closer to the goal. This is a sign that there is some sort of fundamental problem with the strategy.
In order to find a better solution to this, we need to address both the fallacy of composition, and the impact of a solution on the group directly. This is a difficult issue, and I won’t pretend that I have a neat solution to it. I will suggest however, a change of focus. Instead of trying to prove that members of one group are just as dedicated as another by making personal sacrifices, why not work toward improving access to resources that allows them to become part of broader, inter-sectional groups, that are not at odds with more dominant groups? We have to be careful to allow self-determination, and not to impose additional costs to become parts of these broader groups, as well as allowing continuing adherence to their particular identity characteristics. By ensuring people have equal access to institutions, we can solve the fallacy of composition problem. If people are encouraged and allowed in to broader institutions, it greatly decreases the tribalistic characterization of common interests pitted against each other. By ensuring self-determination, we are allowing people to choose to do what would make them happiest, without raising their relative price of participation. This would ideally increase the well being of those groups, without further marginalizing them. This isn’t by any means a complete, or even well formed solution, but it is a start. It should be criticized, analyzed, deconstructed, and improved upon.
For the aspect of personal harm for the speakers, I argue that while it’s not necessarily a settled case, there probably, at the very least, isn’t a negative net impact on the speakers presenting these speeches. For the overall level of conversation, and ideas in society, I argue that while these personal, emotional, anecdotes are important, improvement could be found by more directly linking these issues to more systemic, nuanced, and empirically founded processes that perpetuate the conditions which cause the tragedies. For the overall impact of this rhetoric on the issues it’s trying to address, I argue that while it is a difficult issue, and I don’t have a clear cut solution, we may benefit from focusing less on ideas of proving equality, and more on ideas of improving equality, thus reducing the ability for a competitive tribalism to emerge.