To My Rationalist Friends

We need to have a talk.

Over the past two weeks, there have been a number of demonstrations on college campus around this country protesting incidents of racist bias. As is pretty par for the course by now, these protests have generated a whole slew of online articles, which, when posted to Facebook and Twitter, have, in turn, launched some pretty sprawling comment threads. And I’ve seen you posting on some of those comment threads, and honestly, it’s been painful. You’ve come in asking questions that seem to you to be perfectly reasonable, only to be met with replies that seem prickly and unwelcoming, at times almost aggressively uninterested (it seems to you) in calm, rational, intellectual discussion of the issue at hand. Affronted by this brusque rebuff, things often escalate, and lo! a flame war is born.

This isn’t a pattern that’s new to the past two weeks. It’s something I’ve been seeing since, well, pretty much since I first signed up for social media. I am very sure I have been that person more than once in the past.

Today, I’m going to take you at your word. I’m going to assume that you genuinely don’t understand why people (and, let’s be honest, it’s usually “marginalized people on the left”) are so worked up about the latest clash in the college campus culture wars, that you’re asking questions from a place of open-minded naïveté in a good-faith attempt to understand what’s going on. (If that’s not the case, if you feign ignorance just so you can get a rise out of the other side for fun, you are petty and cruel and should feel ashamed. If you deliberately cause pain to other people solely for your own enjoyment, I have nothing more to say to you.) I’m going to try to meet you on your own ground and do my best to answer those honest questions that cause such a fuss. I write this as someone who is sympathetic to the broader rationalist project, who shares its values of free and open inquiry and debate, of logic and carefully constructed argumentation, of searching out the truth, however uncomfortable we may be with what we find. (You might be surprised at how many people on the left share these values, even if they don’t articulate them using the same language. In positioning myself like this, I am not trying to set myself apart as Not Like Those Other People protesting systemic oppression on the left. I am writing this in the hopes that my fluency in the language of rationalist thought will help make the rationalist community — a community that I feel at least loosely affiliated with — more understanding of and dedicated to issues of social justice.)

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