The Selfish Fallacy

coining an awkward new term for a fallacy that probably already exists if it really qualifies as a fallacy at all and which will never catch on

I thought this was a useful exchange.

We pretend that the way political convictions work is that we look out into the world and assess the evidence for various political positions and then adopt our ideological outlooks from this process. This is, obviously, utter horseshit; we assemble our political selves either from wanting to embrace a particular social group (all the cool1 people on Twitter pretend they’re part of the Combahee River Collective so I will too) or to reject one (my parents are annoying limousine liberals so I’ll be a college Republican). We then backfill in a set of political opinions from there. There’s a lot of consequences for this, few of them positive. A big one is what I call the Selfish Fallacy, which is neither an apt nor clever name but I can’t think of anything better.

The Selfish Fallacy is where you’ve adopted a political view or set of views out of the previously-mentioned social necessity (or, increasingly, professional survival) but aspects of that view are unpalatable to you for various reasons, so you define the view in a way that is unusual or internally inconsistent or otherwise engineered to avoid conflicting with your other views, social world, or prior commitments. You then act as though that motivated definition is the plain truth about the view or set of views. For example, due to my Harper’s piece I have fairly regularly interacted with people who champion the Nation of Islam as a revolutionary Black power organization. But in fact, as I write in the linked piece, the NOI is first and foremost a bizarre religious cult defined by social conservatism and a truly deranged mythology which has had remarkably little political impact despite its prominence and, at one time, resources. Those people weren’t lying when they represented the NOI the way they did. They genuinely believed that the Nation was some radical liberation organization, rather than a means for Elijah Muhammad to amass money and get access to pliable young women, because doing so helped reconcile various clashing beliefs. The were subject to the Selfish Fallacy, in other words.

In less explicitly political terms, many people lay claim to the idea of “real Montessori,” which they think encompasses what Maria Montessori really believed was essential to her pedagogy. But all Montessori educators and schools avoid some of the dictates of her book, such as the physical education routines or her strange prohibition against children eating green foods. When you discuss these deviations with passionate Montessori people, their tendency is to express ignorance of that aspect of the philosophy, dispute that it’s in the book at all, or otherwise avoid confronting the deviation. The point is not that there is a dispute about what Montessori’s beliefs were. Rather the point is that, where Montessori’s actual beliefs might conflict with those of the people who claim her legacy, understanding of the philosophy is vague, internally inconsistent, or avoided. The Selfish Fallacy is selfish because ideas and philosophies and traditions are defined in a way that suits the interests of the person espousing them; it’s a fallacy because it prompts arguments that depend on a motivated misrepresentation of the debated ideas.

Here’s an important point about the Selfish Fallacy: it’s not a matter of accepting some aspects of a philosophy and not others, or wanting to develop a better idea that resolves problems within it. “I admire some elements of the Nation of Islam, but there are parts that need to go” is a perfectly fair position. Instead, the Selfish Fallacy is a convenient ignorance or misunderstanding, a motivated thoughtlessness; it handles conflicts not through potentially-painful reconciliation but through avoidance. “I think there are important insights within critical race theory, but its rejection of the legitimacy of basic democratic rights isn’t helpful,” is not the Selfish Fallacy. “CRT just says we should teach children that slavery is bad and racism still exists” is the Selfish Fallacy because it’s a convenient ignorance that allows the people saying it (and people do say stuff like that) to fulfill the social mandate to support CRT without prompting any cognitive dissonance.

This tendency towards avoidance is why you observe the Selfish Fallacy most often in relation to the beliefs or behaviors of a specific organization one would like to maintain positive feelings towards (as when people who believe in supporting Black businesses lionize the Black Panthers, an explicitly Marxist organization), when claiming to be working in the legacy of an individual because of the rhetorical power of that claim (such as those who invoke Adam Smith while ignoring basic elements of his philosophy), or when the debate is deeply concerned with definitions and the boundaries of a given school of thought, as with the critical race theory controversy.

Indeed the debate about critical race theory is filled with the Selfish Fallacy. CRT is now a completely floating signifier thanks to the motivated reasoning of those who defend it. Conventional center-left liberals feel compelled to defend CRT because conservatives attack it, but some aspects of that academic field are sufficiently extreme to make advocacy for them unpalatable, so the definition of CRT simply morphs to fit their boundaries for legitimate opinion. For many or most of the people defending critical race theory today, the tradition is just a vague assertion of the prevalence of racism, dressed up in a little academic jargon - because this conception is far more convenient for them than grappling with what CRT actually is.

Which is funny because these liberal defenders act like they alone know what critical race theory really means. A lot of liberals suddenly find themselves not just defending CRT and pretending that they have read deeply in the field but also pretending that they always have known what it means. (This stems from one of the most deeply-ingrained aspects of progressive culture, the addiction to knowingness - the imperative to not only have an opinion on everything but to act like you have always had this opinion because everything is obvious and banal to you.) You can study people’s records on social media or in their written work and find that they never referenced critical race theory before it became an important social signifier in liberal spaces, but that’s easily waved away. In any event, it has become a cultural and professional imperative that good liberals embrace CRT, so they have embraced it.

But as Yglesias points out here, a big part of CRT involves a skepticism towards, or an out-and-out rejection of, some elementary aspects of liberal society. This is part of a broader academic left tendency; certainly when I was in academia in the humanities a half-decade ago it was considered terribly embarrassing to believe in individual rights and the Enlightenment etc. But a lot of ordinary everyday progressives still embrace that tradition. Rather than let their social need to defend CRT conflict with that attachment, they simply invent an imaginary CRT in their heads so there’s no conflict. And this is the Selfish Fallacy.

People are going to the mattresses for a fairly obscure set of theories from legal education that they didn’t know existed last year, and so there are bound to be people passionately advocating for CRT on Twitter when many of its precepts would be very challenging to their broader politics. People want to believe that their political culture is normal and the other side is crazy, so they sand away the edges of the philosophies they’re espousing. But there genuinely is some wild-ass shit in CRT stuff and the broader “antiracism” movement, such as the idea that math is racist. Because it’s 2021 and culture war reigns in all things, liberals who defend CRT don’t want to accept that such wild shit exists. So they go on Twitter and express performative outrage at conservative ignorance about CRT while remaining entirely ignorant of what CRT is themselves in order to avoid having the nasty feeling of being pretty much conventional center-left Dems who suddenly believe, for example, that free speech is not just undesirable but has always been a tool for maintaining white supremacy. (Warning: link contains actual critical race theory, though like much of CRT, written by a white guy.)

This is a problem for the contemporary left and the Democratic party more broadly: recent outbursts of social justice politics have brought normies to the point of expressing aspects of extremist philosophies that they simply are not in a position to really embrace. The radical Black critique of contemporary American society really is radical! For example, it is extremely common within the broad realm of critical race theory to argue that all white people inherently promote white supremacy, regardless of intentions. I don’t think that’s actually radical in substance - generalizing an accusation to that degree inevitably defangs it to the point of meaninglessness - but it is certainly a challenge to a widespread assumption that your individual racial attitudes matter in moral and political terms. But now respectability in mainstream liberal circles requires elaborate and showy deference to anything that labels itself a part of the Black social justice movement, even while those respectable mainstream liberals continue to maintain a generally bloodless approach to politics where the most radical things on offer are, like, tweaking the Earned Income Tax Credit. This combination of deference to certain kinds of radical ideas with an existentially milquetoast party is, obviously, not sustainable. The way it played out last year was that the radicalism in substance was dropped while the radical posturing endured. We didn’t Defund the Police, but we did spend a lot of political capital convincing people that the Democrat were anti-cop. This does not seem ideal for anyone.

Jeet Heer is emblematic of a sea of liberal cope on this issue. I’ve been digging around his tweets on CRT and it’s a mess. He simultaneously wants to argue that a) conservative critics of CRT don’t know anything about CRT and are attacking it completely cynically, and b) that most defenders of CRT aren’t defending the anti-liberal attitudes summarized in the passage Yglesias highlighted, which he dismisses as a “fairly esoteric scholarly body of thought.” Hey Jeet, buddy: critical race theory itself is a fairly esoteric scholarly body of thought. It’s an approach to legal education first, and one that was until very recently not very popular even among legal educators. It has seen an explosion of interest in the past year because the kind of soggy liberals who teach at law schools have decided that they need to look busy when it comes to race or risk losing their cush gigs. The question is, should we take it seriously for what it actually is, that particular brand of scholastic “antiracism,” with all of its extremity, insularity, and academic baggage? Or do we just use “critical race theory” to mean a vague approach to understanding race that emphasizes the symbolic, cultural, and linguistic to the detriment of the material, and which is defined primarily by relentless pessimism dressed up as radicalism?

The problem with the latter option is that it renders a farce of one of the most commonly-voiced liberal complaints about this debate, which is that conservatives don’t know anything about what they’re critiquing. To acknowledge that the actual substance of CRT is a “fairly esoteric scholarly body of thought,” rather than the free-form social signifier for “people who are Good About Race” disarms that critique. It reveals it for the utter hypocrisy that it’s always been. Yes, conservatives don’t know shit about CRT and attack it for cynical reasons, but most of the liberals defending CRT don’t know shit about it either and are defending it for reasons of pure culture war and social signaling. When I made this point earlier this week I was accused of “false equivalence,” but I’m not saying that critics and defenders of CRT are the same. The conservatives are full of shit and utterly hypocritical about freedom of speech and exchange of ideas and local control of schools and more. Banning CRT in schools is asinine, for no other reason than that K-12 students aren’t exactly in a rush to uncritically accept what’s they’re taught in the first place. But on the specific question of people arguing about CRT without having read any of it, well - the idea that the average BlueAnon Twitter account raging about conservative attacks on CRT is doing so from an educated place is so absurd I can’t imagine anybody would defend it.

In 6 months the CRT debate will be over and nobody will talk about it and we’ll be on to a new bullshit “conversation about race” that never admits to the fact that our supposed racial reckoning has accomplished nothing. Because the very purpose of all of this culture war is to distract from that failure. But the bigger problem for the mainstream left-of-center will remain: they’ve painted themselves into a corner of having to be seen uncritically accepting the positions of Black critics of contemporary society even when those positions cut directly against their own actual beliefs and what they know to be in their political best interest. The Democratic intelligentsia must appear to accept Black radicalism even while their base rejects it and they know that there are electoral advantages to distancing themselves from it. (Ask Eric Adams.) This situation can’t last, and when it comes to a head, it might get ugly. And for those radical Black critics the story might be bleaker still: the fact that the Democratic party so effortlessly incorporates their rhetoric suggests that it’s far less challenging than they might like to think. Jeet Heer, for one, thinks all that radical stuff can be dismissed out of hand, and this is where Black radicalism stands among liberals today.

If you think that we must maintain this strange performative deference to Black radicalism because of the events of last year, I would gently suggest that we try giving them results instead of deference.


Note: they are not actually cool.