On Dehumanising Opinions

There is a meme going around that tries to critique the use of the right to opinion to protect harmful speech. The meme actually doesn't make sense. It is easy to dispute. But on a more profound level it relies on a problematic model of racism as ignorance.

The meme looks like this:

The problem, I argue, is not that 'X is sub-human' is not an opinion, nor that it is ignorant, but that it is a dehumanizing opinion. By 'dehumanizing opinion' I mean a statement about a group of humans that calls into question their status as humans. It is dehumanizing because it ensures that the people whose humanity is called into question will always enter this debate from the position of being not-yet-human.

In the first instance, the meme is just factually incorrect. Both the phrases 'I prefer X over Y' and 'I think X is Y' are actually opinions. An opinion is an uncertain judgement about a thing (as opposed to knowledge). 'I like ice cream' or even 'I like ice cream more than chocolate' indicates a desire or a preference, and makes a value judgement between two things (ice cream and chocolate).

The problem emerges when you take the two opinions to be of the same order. A statement of preference ('I prefer coffee over tea') is wholly subjective. It can not be disputed because it is a statement about the speaker's subjective preference. Only the speaker will know whether they like coffee over tea and therefore only they can verify if the statement is true. The problem is when you treat 'I think X are sub-human' as a preference or a statement about the speaker's subjectivity. This is not a statement of preference, but makes judgements about external things, things which are verifiable and therefore debatable by others. In this case, we can have better or worse arguments based on verifiable evidence to determine which opinion is more reasonable and persuasive. (Of course, whether people apply the rules of logic to determine persuasiveness is another matter entirely). So the problem with 'I think X are sub-human' isn't that it's not an opinion. It is an opinion, although we can question whether it's worth having and I'll return to this below.

The second problem is that the meme suggests that bigotry and vilification (in this case, racism) is about ignorance. This draws on a wider popular critique of protecting ignorance under the right to have opinions. We see this in similar memes like the Dilbert cartoon below or this Morpheus meme:

These are important for debunking, for example, people that think that their opinion based on ignorance should be treated equally as opinion based on verifiable facts and reasoned arguments. For example, when media commentators without any scientific background or study into the research of climate science consider their 'opinions' about climate change should count as much as those of a climate scientist or even worse should equal the weight of the worldwide consensus of climate scientists. In such cases I am definitely sympathetic to the critique of ignorance and also the critique of protecting ignorance under the right to an opinion.

However, the first meme cited above problematically conflates racism with ignorance. I understand that the meme is trying to debunk racism's protection as a form of opinion, but assuming that racism is a form of ignorance raises problems. Racism isn't about ignorance; it's about power. In the statement 'X are sub-human' that power manifests as a form of dehumanization of one or more groups (more on that later). By treating 'X are sub-human' as a matter of ignorance, it concedes that the statement is potentially true. In other words, it suggests that the statement 'X are sub-human' is incorrect and therefore those that hold that 'X are sub-human' are ignorant. But what this ultimately does is to turn 'X are sub-human' into a verifiable statement and therefore, leaves it open to further debate. We see this happen on a daily basis now in America, the UK and Australia. Thus, conflating racism as ignorance in this case actually opens it up to debate rather than shutting down the debate.

The problem with 'X are sub-human', and this is my third point, isn't that it is not an opinion, nor  that is based on ignorance. The problem is that the opinion can have violent effects on the group mentioned. 'I think X are sub-human' is rather different from discussing the preference of coffee, or the merits of tea or the properties of chemicals. These debates about external inanimate objects matter, but in different ways to debates about particular groups of humans. 

The problem with 'X is sub-human' is that for those that identify with X it is inherently dehumanizing to enter into that debate. Why? Because the statement begins from the presumption that X's humanity is up for question, is in doubt, and furthermore that the outcome of such a debate could be used to determine whether such group is afforded protections that other humans are given. In some contexts, the consequences can be so violent as to make them 'killable' or 'torturable' if they lose the debate. Thus, it is fundamentally different for us to debate whether we have a preference for tea or the properties of coal in opposition to debating the ontological status of one of the debaters, because the ontology of at least one of the speakers is called into question from the beginning.

It is important to note that not all statements about particular sub-groups of humans are dehumanising, even if they are linguistically 'objectifying'. The frivolous statement 'white people can't dance' is not a form of dehumanisation. The statement is definitely a kind of generalisation, and it turns 'white people' into an object of the statement and it is in the form of a debatable opinion. But the outcome of such a frivolous debate only determines whether white people are dancers or are good or bad dancers. It does not call into question their humanity from the beginning and therefore the consequence of the debate can not lead to their dehumanisation. This is completely different from dehumanising opinions, which should not be a protected form of opinion. Dehumanising opinion presume that some people's status as human is debatable and that therefore some people's rights can be nullified through debate rather than universally protected as a natural right. 

We can apply this to actual debates our governments and media are entertaining now about whether we can be tortured, whether we can be indefinitely locked up without charge, whether we can be deported and even whether we can be killed. These debates are not simply opinions about external inanimate objects but debates that make some people's access to liberty or even freedom to exist questionable. All genocides begin with such opinions, which are seemingly protected by the civility of 'open debate'. When we engage dehumanising opinions, even to argue that they are ignorant or untrue, we are nevertheless granting them status as debatable statements and therefore assume that some people's humanity is indeed contingent. This is why we should not entertain them, why we should not believe that these are 'debatable'. They are not.

When media, government, celebrities, commentators and activists tell us that we should be open to persuading the far right, to engaging them in these debates, what they are ultimately agreeing to is our dehumanisation, to the contingency of our humanity and thus they leave us open to violence. Could you imagine having panel after panel, talk after talk, workshop after workshop, of people of colour discussing respectfully and civilly, politely and eloquently whether we are allowed to kill white people and under what conditions we could kill them? Could you imagine if such things were entertained seriously on a daily basis? Or again could you imagine an all gay panel discussing when it is acceptable to perform lobotomies on straight people and what are the acceptable ethical limits for doing so such that we can retain our own humanity while still performing this violence? There's no way such a thing would be allowed! Dehumanising opinions are not fair fodder for civil debate, it is inherently uncivil.