The Danger of Deferring to Groups Demanding Deference

by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the destructive ways in which we can at times shut down people who express ideas or use words that someone says are offensive. Examples I use include stigmatizing the word "picnic" and the word "Jew" (as a noun, to refer to a person of Jewish ancestry or faith). One of the ideas in the column is that we should get out of the habit of deferring to people who claim an elevated status, whether because of oppression or for some other reason.

In this post, I want to talk more about why deference is a mistake. The paradigmatic example of deference on the left involves some individual or group of people, defined by an identity characteristic such as gender or ideology, insisting that their position or factual or normative perspective is the only right way to look at things. Someone from outside the relevant group might express a viewpoint only if it is the same as that of the group. If the outsider strays from that view and says that he thinks something else is true--if he fails, in other words, to defer--then he will face a disproportionately harsh penalty for that failure.
If the individual departs from whatever orthodoxy has issued from the group, then the group and perhaps its allies as well may denounce him and label him in ways that suggest he is a bigot or worse. Members of the group in question thus become a font of norms, and they measure loyalty to the cause of the group's wellbeing and progress by how harshly its allies enforce those norms.

Here is one admittedly odd example that I hope will prove illuminating. In June, food critic Anthony Bourdain killed himself. In response to his death, many people expressed warm feelings for the man and/or talked about the need to do a better job of supporting those who suffer from depression. A few of "my people," ethical vegans, expressed some hostility to Bourdain because of his enthusiastic infliction of suffering on animals, such as an octopus whom Bourdain ate on camera while the animal was still alive and conscious, and because of Bourdain's hostile statements about vegans, including an invitation for us to commit suicide. All of this was fine, I think. When a high-profile person dies, there will be those who praise the person, and there will be those who criticize the person.

But then suddenly, a number of vegans on social media began to condemn the vegans who were criticizing Bourdain, saying that it is outrageous to rejoice when someone commits suicide and that Bourdain's behavior toward animals was no different from any non-vegan's behavior toward animals. Then, for the kicker, at least one vegan suggested that vegans have no right to criticize Bourdain because vegans are not an oppressed group, and Bourdain stood up for the rights of oppressed groups.

Note that those issuing this condemnation were not simply saying that they disagreed with the criticism of Bourdain (which is fine). They were "unfriending" and otherwise exhibiting moral disgust for the people who criticized him. They were also exaggerating the words of Bourdain's vegan critics, claiming that the critics had rejoiced at his death.

Then, in a nearly comic move, some of this group of vegans began praising Bourdain and saying that his behavior towards animals and towards vegans should not matter, because he was such an otherwise wonderful person. I did not know Anthony Bourdain, so I am in no position to speak to what sort of person he was in general. I can, however, say that no one should be surprised that some number of vegans might take issue with Bourdain's willingness to torture live animals and might think this willingness worthy of mentioning amidst the celebrations of his life.

I bring up this particular episode because it involved my own vegan community and yet was quite reminiscent of what the left sometimes done to dissenters. Indeed, the folks who exuded the most rage at those who criticized Bourdain were very saliently left-identified. (The right may do much of the same, but I focus my critical faculties on my own team's conduct).

Reading increasingly nasty and grandiose rants by a mob of "friends of friends" against vegans who dared to criticize Bourdain was disconcerting. I was convinced that nothing I could possibly say would get through to the people on the other side of this question.

I do not mean, by the way, that I could not convince other vegans to be critical of Bourdain; I didn't care whether they were or were not critical of Bourdain. I mean that nothing I said would persuade them that a decent human being who respects the rights of other human beings, including those of the oppressed groups that Bourdain might have helped, could disagree with them and criticize Bourdain. Though I ended up writing a blog post on the subject, I was afraid to say what I thought on FaceBook. It felt to me like reasoned deliberation had left the room.

In this case, no oppressed group was actually involved. Anthony Bourdain was, to my knowledge, a white man of means. He probably suffered from depression (although some have suggested that he received a fatal diagnosis that might have motivated his suicide), but that did not ipso facto make him a victim of oppression.

Many ethical vegans feel very strongly about the torture of animals and accordingly felt impelled to say so when people were uniformly heaping such praise on Bourdain. It seems to me that critics should have been permitted to have their say without having to face demonization by other vegans or by anyone for doing so.

I observed a kind of fever on FaceBook. One or two people condemned the vegans who had criticized Bourdain, lots of people "liked" and "loved" what those people wrote, adding their own, even more febrile, comments to the threads, and the whole thing just kept escalating. The vegans' adoration for the food critic who ate intestines taken from a live duck was completely resistant to evidence and to argument.

When one confused vegan wrote, in response to one of the virtually orgasmic celebrations of Bourdain by other vegans, "Hey, didn't he eat live animals and say hateful things about vegans?," one of the arbiters of what is right and good replied with a quote about not rejoicing at anyone's death. The quote was  irrelevant, because no one was rejoicing at anyone's death. Someone was asking a question and raising an objection. But that didn't matter. The relevance rule cannot hold a candle to the rule of righteousness.

The best way to be the voice of righteousness, better even than identifying with the oppressed people whom Bourdain might have helped, is to be a member of an oppressed group oneself. If I condemn someone for saying something anti-Semitic, and I am a Jew, then I get special credibility, and others defer. I thought of this when Zina Bash, a former law clerk of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, had one of her hands in the "ok" sign on television.

Some people began circulating the claim that Bash was making a "white power" sign with her hand. This seemed implausible to me and, really, should probably have seemed implausible to everyone. Exactly how she would help Kavanaugh by flashing a white power sign is unclear. Yet friends on FaceBook were repeating this nonsense uncritically. They were deferring to whoever it was that told them that this was a white power sign.

As it turned out, this accused white supremacist is half Jewish and Mexican American, and her grandparents survived the Holocaust. But because we on the left have come to equate everyone who is conservative with white supremacists, the accusation sounded true to people. Many suspended their critical faculties and deferred to whoever issued this defamatory claim about Bash.

If you are on the left, and you believe in deferring to people who claim some kind of privileged identity status, I have news for you. The mindset that you embrace has some serious drawbacks for oppressed people. That is, if we get into the habit of demanding that some people suspend critical judgment and defer to the more worthy perceivers and purveyors of truth, factual and moral, then we might end up harming the very people we purport to be helping.

Think about police officers who shoot and kill African American suspects. Some police officers might be doing that because they--the police officers--are hateful and violent racist criminals who want to kill people of a different race. But those are the "bad apples" to which some folks like to point when denying that we have a problem with police use of excessive force, whether against men of color or in general.

I am willing to allow that most of the police officers who kill civilians are doing so because they--the police--truly feel scared and react to that fear with deadly force. And I suspect that such fear is far from color-blind, so that police officers who use unwarranted deadly force against unarmed men of color are more frightened of them than of white men.

So what? If a shooting is unjustified, what difference does it make whether the shooter is a violent racist creep or whether it is someone who is genuinely but inappropriately frightened? It matters, I would argue, because people are generally prepared to find the first guilty of misconduct, whereas people feel greater tolerance for the second.

We have seen videos taken at the time of a shooting in which a suspect was doing nothing wrong or threatening, and the police officer nonetheless shot the suspect. We know that the jury in such a case sometimes finds the officer not guilty of a crime. Philando Castile comes to mind. What happens in these cases?

One explanation is pure racist hatred. White police officers kill black civilians, and then white juries acquit those white police officers, if the cases even get as far as a trial. But I have a different theory. I do not believe that the average American thinks it is okay for white police officers to murder black civilians, simply because of race. I think the process at work is more subtle.

When police officers testify to juries or grand juries about killing a civilian, the officers presumably say that they believed the suspect was holding a gun, that they feared for their lives and/or the lives of nearby civilians, and that they had no choice but to use deadly force against the civilian in question. But what if the video shows that it was unreasonable for a police officer to fear for her life or the lives of others? Why don't juries simply reject the police officers' accounts of the danger that they allegedly faced?

The answer might well be that juries are deferring to the police officers testifying about their own behavior. When police officers say, "I had good reason to be afraid. I thought that the civilian was armed and would kill me or others. My fear was justified," the jury that is prepared to defer to the police officer's narrative will find the latter not guilty. Only a jury that is ready to go behind the officer's story and examine the evidence for itself might potentially convict the police officer who kills a civilian out of unjustified fear.

How does this bear on what I discussed above? In both kinds of cases, people who ought to be exercising their own judgment and thinking about whether the stories they are hearing actually make sense, are instead deferring and surrendering their judgment to some authority. The group of FaceBook folk followed the lead of someone who mischaracterized vegan critics of Bourdain as rejoicing about a suicide.

I could practically see the witches dancing around the fire and stirring their brew, even as a few people just raised some questions about whether vegans might want to hold off on granting sainthood to a man who tortured animals and despised vegans. And in somewhat less venomous but far more consequential jury rooms, juries follow the lead of the very police officers whose conduct they are supposed to be judging. One can imagine the thought process, "if he believed the civilian was going to shoot him or harm someone else, then who am I to question that judgment? I was not there. I am just a civilian."

Not being there can sometimes allow us to figure out what should have happened. We have the luxury of being able to think about whether the officer reasonably believed that the civilian posed a serious danger to him. Was the officer's fear justified? Should he have restrained himself, even if it felt like a dangerous thing to do?

A police officer might feel afraid because (a) he has absorbed racial stereotypes that make people feel fearful around African American men even when nothing objectively frightening is taking place or (b) there is something legitimately scary about what the civilian was doing, and the police officer justifiably reacted to that reasonable fear with deadly force. The jury's job is to figure out which of these two is correct, assuming the officer did not deliberately murder a civilian, and the jury cannot do its job properly if it feels obligated to defer to the judgment of the officer.

Just to avoid one type of confusion, let me clarify that I am not proposing that jurors should sit back and ask themselves whether they believe, with the luxury of time and slow motion video observation, that the civilian was or was not posing a threat to the officer. The standard is necessarily whether a person standing where the officer was standing would have reasonably believed that the civilian posed a threat, given what was visible and known to the officer. I am suggesting that I am not convinced that juries are adhering to that standard. They may instead be deferring to the police.

I could certainly produce examples about the left that are more provocative than one involving vegans on FaceBook and Anthony Bourdain. But I prefer to stay away from specifics that get closer to the heart of identity politics in the progressive community. Suffice it to say here that too many of us on the left will defer to people because of their identity (or ask for deference because of our identity) rather than evaluating those people and the claims that they make in the light of logic and fact.

Students at some schools will accept uncritically the proposition that speakers who hold offensive positions and come to speak at the school (at the invitation of student groups) are doing violence that accordingly justifies attempts to make it impossible for the speaker to say her piece and may even justify actual violence in alleged "self-defense." This is not an idea that announces itself to everyone, so it took someone to make the claim--one that could, if taken seriously, lead to anarchy--and then lots of other people to defer to the claim without question.

If we want to live in a democratic society in which people think for themselves and reject ideas that make no sense, we need to "be the change." We have to pause when someone in our tribe or camp makes an assertion, the more intense the assertion, the longer the pause. During that pause, we have to ask ourselves, "Does this make any sense to me, a person capable of critical analysis?," "Is there evidence to support this?," "Is this sort of assertion likely to improve or diminish the social universe in which we all live?" The Milgram experiment may have gone the way it did, because deference trumped a clear-eyed consultation with one's own sense of right and wrong (even as I accept Daniel Goldhagen's rejection of the view that Eichmann and his followers were "just following orders" like the subjects in the experiment).

If we think critically and carefully, then the deference will stop. Trolls and even credible leaders will make implausible claims, and the rest of us will say no. People will test difficult ideas, and others will explain politely why the ideas strike them as sensible or as unhelpful or offensive, instead of bringing down the Lord's wrath on those who voice a potentially threatening idea. Robot trolls on social media will no longer influence elections.

This is how we become and inspire others to become the kinds of individuals who have the courage to say "the civilian in that video is not threatening the police officer at all; the officer should not have killed him." That courage requires an individual to stand up to other jurors who might still be following the "deference" school of thought and wondering how a mere civilian could properly judge the fear of a police officer in the field.

It might seem like this context is completely different from the context of censorship that I describe above, but it really isn't. People on the left defer to a mix of ideological and other-identity-defined leaders, while people on the right and people without political loyalties tend to defer to the police and other authority figures. We should all recognize the downside of deference and understand that declaring that "The Emperor Has No Clothes" does not make a person a traitor or worse. It makes him or her worthy of an honored place in a society that has grown alarmingly tribal and deferential to their respective tribes.