Memes are no substitute for adequate analysis and usually lead to atrociously misguided results.
OK, I get it. Our tiny ape-brains are hardwired for simplicity and reality is complex. So we gravitate towards the simple because it feels good. And virtue-signaling feels good too. When we virtue signal we’re demonstrating how we’re part of the good people group.
But the problem is that all this has very little connection with reality.
Let’s look at White Privilege. A lot of well-meaning people are throwing this term around because they’re understandably upset about racism in the USA. And there’s a huge amount of racism in the USA. In fact, the nation was built on it: wealthy white folk owned black slaves. You can’t get more racist than that.
But here’s the thing: no one sat down and explicitly said, “let’s privilege all white people.” In fact, white share-croppers were nearly as badly off as black people, because the real issue here was socio-economic status. Wealthy white people got to own slaves; poor white people were regarded as trash unless they too could scrape up sufficient funds to buy a slave of their own.
It’s undoubtedly the case that today a white skin confers a wide range of social benefits. But let’s look at why that is before we grab onto the nearest easy-to-remember meme and start feeling all virtuous about ourselves.
The USA has in general very low-quality police forces. The wrong people are hired (the sort who want a uniform to bolster their low self-esteem), the training is abysmal, and the daily reinforcement of norms merely makes everything worse. Add to this the USA’s insane gun policies which mean that a US police officer is vastly more likely to be shot than any equivalent officer across the rest of the OECD. In fact, there are very few places in the world where a police officer is more likely to be shot than in the good ‘ol USA. Maybe Afghanistan. Makes us proud, right?
So the police are for the most part drawn from the lower echelons of society, are the wrong personality type, and live on a diet of constant fear. And they’re armed. What could possibly go wrong?
To this we have to add something that is no doubt Very Politically Incorrect: decades of inept social policies and quite a bit of cynical exploitation have resulted in the fact a great many African-American males receive no meaningful education. In order to generate an income, many turn to crime. Sadly, some black leaders encourage avoidance of education in order to maintain their personal base of support (yes, step forward and take a bow, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson). Not only does this mean it’s easy for the police to make a default assumption about black males but also that it’s easy for the police to secure convictions; after all, these guys don’t have access to highly-paid private defense attorneys. In fact, many of them can’t even read the confessions they’re made to sign.
But it this really White Privilege? Or is it instead a hugely dysfunctional society in which many interlocked parts reinforce each other and result in appalling outcomes?
And what would a policy recommendation look like to address White Privilege? Setting performance targets for each police force to arrest and shoot more white people so that bias is reduced?
In case you think that’s a silly comment, remember that in Soviet Russia the meme was “our problems are a result of the privileged Kulak class” and so millions of Russian farm-owners were slaughtered. Remember that in Germany the meme was “our problems are because of Jewish Privilege” and we all know where that led. And in Mao’s China the meme was “our problems are due to the privileged Intelligentsia” and so millions of doctors and teachers and engineers were slaughtered.
Simple memes, while convenient, rarely result in helpful outcomes.
When we default to a simple-minded meme it means we’ve failed to conduct an adequate analysis. And if our analysis is inadequate, our proposals to remedy the problem are very unlikely to be adequate.
Getting the analysis right (or at least, less wrong) is essential if we want to do more than virtue-signal and instead actually start fixing problems. And while virtue signaling is fun and a quick way to get the warm & fuzzies about ourselves, it does nothing to actually help the people who need help.
Furthermore, in addition to not addressing the cause of problems, simple-minded memes can actually make it harder to fix things. When “social justice warriors” throw around #WhitePrivilege in order to signal how Politically Correct they are, they alienate a great many white males whose support will be needed to fix the systemic problems that this facile hashtag is vaguely protesting about.
So not only is the analysis wrong and any potential policy recommendations likely to be wrong too, but it also makes it more difficult to address the real problems.
In other words, for the sake of gaining a little feel-good, we make things worse.
And that’s not smart, and it’s not helping anyone.
I know anyone reading this article who is attached to the meme will reject what I’ve written here. After all, we all want to feel good about ourselves and it’s difficult to admit when we make mistakes. Even worse is when we’re told we need to look at real-world complexity rather than take refuge in a convenient meme. I’m not expecting to make any converts with this article.
But for those few who haven’t yet made up their minds, here’s the message:
The USA has a huge problem with low-quality personnel and endemic racism in its police forces. The USA also has huge problems in many other areas of society, all of which interlock and reinforce each other. Education is in general abysmal, economic opportunity is heavily biased towards wealthy white and Asian families, and gun ownership policy is literally insane.
But each of these problems can, with enough time and effort and focus, be tackled at least to some degree.
None of them will ever be addressed merely because some people are throwing around a hashtag that misses the point entirely.