A Primer on Who/Whom Morality

American media publishes pearl-clutching moral outrage pieces at a remarkable clip and with remarkable persistence, so keeping up with all of them is, to be honest, a bit of a hassle. Here at Social Matter we devote a few interns to the task, and even then their filing cabinets always runneth over. Here’s an excerpt from one article that’s representative of the sort of papers they squirrel away:

Waytz, A. et al., “A Superhumanization Bias in Blacks’ Perceptions of Whites,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

A new study suggests [that] in general, black people are more likely to think of white people as magical and mysterious. In a series of experiments, psychologists show that black people were quicker to associate superhuman words (ghost, paranormal, spirit, wizard, supernatural, magic, and mystical) with white faces relative to black faces. Also, when explicitly asked, black people indicated that a white person was more capable of possessing superhuman qualities—and would need less medication to alleviate pain—than a black person.

You can see, within a progressive worldview at least, why these findings disquiet people. They obviously evidence the deep and abiding mental trauma that blacks suffer from living in predominately and hegemonically white societies. They evidence an inferiority complex. Our institutions and our cultural mores have so reinforced in them these feeling of inferiority that blacks have now begun to ascribe superhuman qualities to us. We are the wizards, and they’re simply mundanes. We are the magical ones; we are beings beyond the petty constraints of scarcity or poverty or pain that circumscribe their own experiences. It’s heartbreaking, really. These results give us a glimpse into the scarred psyche of the oppressed—

Oops, wait a second. I think I had that all backwards. This is how the study actually reads:

Waytz, A. et al., “A Superhumanization Bias in Whites’ Perceptions of Blacks,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (forthcoming).

A new study suggests [that] in general, white people are more likely to think of black people as magical and mysterious. In a series of experiments, psychologists show that white people were quicker to associate superhuman words (ghost, paranormal, spirit, wizard, supernatural, magic, and mystical) with black faces relative to white faces. Also, when explicitly asked, white people indicated that a black person was more capable of possessing superhuman qualities—and would need less medication to alleviate pain—than a white person.

Well, you can see, within the progressive worldview at least, why these findings disquiet people. I mean, why wouldn’t they? They evidence the ways in which blacks are dehumanized by the white hegemony under which they live. Clearly whites consider blacks a species apart, not fully human at all but supernatural, like some creature out of myth or folklore. This dehumanization extends even to the capacity to feel pain, perhaps the most sympathetic of qualities. And the implications for black/white interactions under such a conceptual schema are grim…

Alright. I’ll stop channeling my inner Salon writer. And ultimately you probably shouldn’t buy this particular study either way you slice it. In general, the social sciences are not known for their rigor, and “implicit bias” tests in particular have fallen on rough times. But all I wanted to point out is that it’s easy to give a plausibly progressive reading of the findings of this study regardless of what they turn out to be. You can reach the same conclusion even if you start with two diametrically opposed sets of them. That’s, in fact, the beauty of the social justice critique. It relies on concepts like “racism” or “privilege” so malleable and abstract that it’s easy to put them to whatever use one wishes. And that use, for the garden-variety social justice warrior, is of course to demonstrate how oppressive or evil or phobic the traditional white cisheteropatriarchy is.

That’s one reason why the Left produces so many of those logical contradictions that the Right loves to pounce on. They would have us believe that violence against women is a grievous evil while simultaneously rewriting laws to introduce them to combat roles in our armed forces. Or another on that same theme: we are supposed to believe that females are just as physically capable as males but also that holding them to the same Marine fitness standards as males amounts to unfair treatment. We could compile this list all day. The gender to which you’re attracted is strictly determined by genetics, but the gender to which you belong is fluid and subject to change. Multiculturalism ought to be the aspiration of every advanced and tolerant and democratic country, but every citizen of that country ought to abide by the same advanced, tolerant, democratic mores, regardless of any cultural proclivities towards alternative modes of social organization. And so on.

The reason why contradictions flourish like this in modern progressivism is that the modern progressive critique, as I mentioned above, doesn’t operate on logical principles. It’s essentially a series of slurs and ad hominems and conceptual kludges that are used to advance an agenda rather than to flesh out a coherent understanding of the universe. And so the best way to understand or predict that critique is to check the logic at the door. You simply have to ask yourself, “Who does the progressive consider to be the good guy in this situation?” and “Who does the progressive consider to be the bad guy in this situation?” The specific language of the critique flows almost exclusively from those assessments.

The implicit bias study, for instance: it is simple to give it a plausibly “anti-racist” interpretation no matter what the actual outcome of the study is. The particulars are irrelevant. No matter what they happen to be, they’re going to be recruited to put the members of the designated victim class “blacks” in a positive light and members of the designated oppressor class “whites” in a negative light.

This is called Who/Whom morality, which was an approach that evidently originated, like so many gems of modern socio-politics, with Lenin and the Bolshevists in Russia. The term still gets bandied about by folks on the Right, though, because it still accurately describes this core characteristic of progressive culture warriors. Matters of right and wrong for them are not determined by principles at all but by a simple investigation of who is doing what to whom.

Once you recognize this, you can amuse yourself by inverting the facts of any moral outrage story the media floats and then working your way back to that same moral outrage. A white domestic terrorist, for instance, would prove the existence of white supremacy because he acts out of a sense of frustrated entitlement. An Arabic domestic terrorist, on the other hand, would also prove the existence of white supremacy because he acts out of a sense of alienation and marginalization. Public antagonism towards homosexuals highlights homophobia because that’s obviously the impetus behind it. But public antagonism by homosexuals also highlights homophobia because that’s obviously what he was lashing out against. Simple.

Personally, I would recommend using this insight, whether it’s new to you or not, to distance yourself from the sort of “gotcha” debates that we seem to get drawn into repeatedly. The movement that we call “social justice” doesn’t operate logically but opportunistically so it doesn’t really warrant engagement on that logical level. You could also employ this insight to land a job at one of those prog outrage outlets. You can bang out articles left and right if you know the Who/Whom formula. But I would hurry up if you’re going that route. I hear the advertising dollars in that industry are really drying up right now.

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