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Negative definition

Newspapers across the United States are tying themselves into knots justifying the decision to capitalise ‘Black’ while keeping ‘white’ lowercase. The Chicago Sun-Times provides a useful illustration; its new approach capitalises ‘Black’ and ‘Brown’ but retains ‘white’ in lower case as “a wider descriptor of people of numerous origins”, resulting in the curious conclusion that the Sun-Times believes there is more cultural variation within Europe than there is between South America, Asia, and Africa combined.

The closest we’ve come to an explicit statement of the thought process behind these decisions was in the Associated Press statement that “we are continuing to discuss within the U.S. and internationally whether to capitalize the term white. Considerations are many and include any implications that doing so might have outside the United States”. It doesn’t take a major leap of logic to guess at what those unintended consequences might be.

The current social consensus goes something like this: ‘The majority holds a great deal of political power and will generally make rules to suit it. Some of these rules will heavily disadvantage smaller minority groups. When this happens, we will sometimes be able to rely on the dynamics of public choice to alleviate the problem; policies which confer a small benefit on many and a large cost on a few may cause the few to push back with sufficient force to overturn them. For others, a degree of organised lobbying will be required, with the lobby largely defined by ethnic grouping; identity politics, or a soft ethnocentrism, is a necessary evil in a pluralistic state.

However, these same tools employed by the majority may result in even greater oppression of minority groups. In order for society to function, a gentleman’s agreement is required: the majority decides not to use for itself the tools of ethnocentric rhetoric, and not to pursue its interests as a group, acting instead as individuals. In this way, it will generally get most of what it wants, minority groups will be better treated, and there is no risk of an explicitly hostile majority.’

As Kwame Appiah notes, ‘White’ has often been the manner in which white identitarians refer to themselves. Media organisations may well be nervous of unintentionally validating this view of a unified White people standing in opposition to assorted others, or at least of encouraging white people to view themselves as a homogeneous grouping with defined political interests. In other words, don’t speak into being something you don’t wish to see. Don’t undermine the gentleman’s agreement.

The problem with this logic is that it doesn’t really matter whether you decide to capitalise a word or not, because that’s not what’s going to habituate people to thinking in terms of ethnic interests. The problem is not typographical convention, the problem is the entire framework in which every political issue becomes one to be examined through the lens of identity.

In mathematical logic a set is a collection of objects. We define a set by setting up rules that detail what’s in and what’s out; the set of MPs, for instance, is defined as “everyone elected to Parliament”. But we can also group things together in the negative by reference to another set; looking at its complement. The complement of the set of MPs is everyone who is not an MP.

This holds for rhetoric just as well as it does for mathematical theory; we can recognise when something is defined by its negative. When you define every group other than ‘white’ and enumerate their explicit interests, you end up with a hard-edged definition of what’s left behind regardless, and the question of precisely what interests that group holds. If you want to avoid this, the answer isn’t selective capitalisation; it’s avoiding provoking it into existence through excessive focus on race as a determinant of people’s interests.

Image courtesy of Thomas Hawk, used under a Creative Commons Licence.