Thomas Sowell is a legendary economist and social scientist, and that most disconcertingly contrarian of public intellectuals: the black conservative. Aged eighty-eight, he was born in the South and raised in Harlem in the 1940s. By contrast, I am a thirty-six-year-old white Canadian woman, mother, writer and erstwhile English professor.
What do we have in common?
In today’s cultural climate, what unites the black conservative and the dissident feminist is that both are often harshly criticized for daring to diverge from the political orthodoxies associated with our respective groups.
I’ve picked Thomas Sowell as a representative figure because he is the elder statesman in this battle, someone who has stood up to ad hominem attacks and slander with no-nonsense toughness (and often humor) for over fifty years now. I could just as easily have picked Glenn Loury. Or John McWhorter. Or Larry Elder. People of color in the public eye can count on being attacked, on a personal basis, when they reject any part of the progressive narrative.
While it is necessary for a healthy public discourse that thinkers be able to vigorously oppose each other’s ideas, and defend their own, it is unethical to base one’s criticisms—implicitly or explicitly—on skin color or other immutable biological characteristics. And yet special ire is directed at black conservatives: they are, in effect, being penalized for the thought crime of being conservative while black.
The Thomas Sowells of the world are called Uncle Toms for saying things like there are other factors besides discrimination and the legacy of slavery that perpetuate poverty in the African-American community: notably, Sowell has pointed to the declining black marriage rate and the rise of single parenthood since the 1960s. Likewise, the Christina Hoff Sommerses of the world are called self-hating women and worse for pointing out that the gender wage gap is a myth, that differences in average salaries between men and women can be largely explained by differences in individual choices, such as hours worked, college major and occupation.
The most unsavory critics call Sowell a traitor to his race, and Hoff Sommers a traitor to her sex. They refuse to believe that a black conservative or an anti-feminist woman (in their view, that is—Hoff Sommers is actually an equity feminist) could reach her conclusions based on the sober, careful analysis of facts, rather than be motivated by a twisted psychology. They must hate themselves, they assert, or perhaps they are cynically professing their heterodox views to curry favor with the white patriarchy, gaining power at the expense of their fellows, like the aunts in The Handmaid’s Tale. Similarly, in my own life, I have noticed that when people cannot dispute the facts, they almost inevitably resort to accusing me of internalized misogyny or unconscious bias.
In Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent, Wayne Booth called this tendency “motivism,” which he describes as the idea that “our minds are really determined, in all of our values, either by nonrational conditioning in the past, or by present motives or drives, many of them lying so deep that we can never find them out.” There is no real defense against this underhanded rhetorical maneuver. One can dispute the proper interpretation of a fact, but what can the debater possibly say to convince the person who claims to have the seer-like ability to peer into his heart and guess his psychological motivations? Here we have left the realm of reason and have crossed over into the misty terrain of speculation.
Of course, there is an intuitive, emotional component to our political views. We are only human after all. But it’s much more complex than our enemies give us credit for, and it’s just as likely to be altruistic as our detractors’ own motivations.
Sometimes, instead of accusing us of being evil, crazy or self-interested, our ideological opponents assume black conservatives and heterodox feminists are simply fools acting against our own best interests. This is the charge Democrats often level against rural and working class voters who vote Republican. Shouldn’t poorer people always welcome higher taxes to (theoretically) pay for the social services that they are more likely to use? Shouldn’t women always support organizations like Planned Parenthood if they care about other women’s reproductive health? Shouldn’t black Americans always support increased funding for inner-city public schools?
There are strong economic cases to be made against all these propositions, but, even if they were somehow cut-and-dried instances of economic gain for all three groups, it would still be against the moral interests of certain individuals within these groups to be in favor of them. Our moral interests are not necessarily the same as our economic interests. Jonathan Haidt explains such ideas in detail in the invaluable The Righteous Mind, using his six-pronged Moral Foundations Theory. For example, according to Haidt’s research, political conservatives and liberals both value caring for others, but liberals value it more. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more likely to sacrifice the care of some to achieve what they view as another highly important moral goal: fairness for all.
From this perspective, it is neither immoral nor stupid for women to vote against any public policy that tilts too far away from their most cherished core values. A libertarian woman, for example, who is an ardent feminist in the sense of believing women should have every opportunity men do to develop their innate abilities, might oppose quotas on female representation on corporate boards on the grounds of her belief in the right of humans not to be unduly imposed upon by the government. Having a vagina or increased melanin in the skin does not preclude the possibility of distrust in authoritarianism.
Black conservatives and heterodox feminists must also deal with the accusation of naïveté, of being Pollyanna-ish. Recently, I disputed a friend’s claims that women were subject to systemic sexual assaults and harassment in academia—and even “in all of Western civilization” (!). I thought this was a grossly hyperbolic statement, and gave my definition of systemic, with specific examples (e.g. Japan’s use of comfort women during World War II). In light of my arguments, she dialed back her statements a bit, arguing that sexual assault on campus was still “endemic,” if not “systemic.” We respectfully disagreed, and left it there.
During the course of the discussion, the friend also stated that I was “lucky” not to have experienced sexual harassment during my time in academia. Another female friend and past co-worker privy to the discussion then sent a private message to inform me that she had heard one of our male superiors make sexually suggestive comments about me, years ago. The purpose of her message, seemingly, was to enlighten me that I too had been a victim of sexual harassment, albeit behind closed doors.
I wasn’t surprised. In fact, I would have been more surprised to hear that this particular superior had never made inappropriate comments about me. I had observed how he treated women, and long ago reached conclusions about his character. That doesn’t mean I excused him. It just means that I refused to spend any more of my energy than necessary on his nonsense.
Once again, there’s a commonality here between black conservatives and heterodox feminists like me: while acknowledging the impact discrimination can have on our lives, we will not be defined by ignoramuses. As John McWhorter put it in a November 22nd Fifth Column podcast, in reference to racist police officers, he refuses to base his racial identity on how “somebody who doesn’t like us feels about us.” Similarly, I refuse to base any part of my identity on the opinion of someone who primarily sees women as sexual objects.
I am continually disheartened that many of my female friends and colleagues are so invested in the narrative of our supposed shared victimhood. (It is certainly no coincidence that this view is more common among women who have passed through the ideological meat-grinder of a Western liberal arts education.) I’ve heard similar sentiments from dissident members of the black intelligentsia like Kmele Foster, Thomas Chatterton Williams and Coleman Hughes. I frequently pause in the middle of Glenn Loury and Kmele Foster’s podcasts and exclaim, “That’s exactly how I feel!” Today’s proponents of identity politics—a retrograde belief system that’s hopefully on the way out—might be surprised to see how shared values can supersede shared skin color.
In the past, I often wondered how lone dissenter-types like Thomas Sowell found the strength to stand firm in the face of overwhelming group pressure to conform. After reading Sowell’s memoir, A Personal Odyssey, I had a better idea. Contemporary free-thinkers like Sowell (or Camille Paglia, or Ron Paul, or Sam Harris, or Jordan Peterson) feel some of the same discomfort most people feel when ostracized by their group for stepping outside the bounds of what is considered acceptable thought. However, for these people, this discomfort is eclipsed by a stubborn dedication to the truth above all things.
In A Personal Odyssey, in response to a journalist who says he appears “untroubled” by decades of opposition to his unpopular positions, Sowell muses, “I was often as surprised at how hurt other people were by things that I said as some journalists were about how little hurt I was by smears about me. It is the truth that hurts.”
I have not yet self-actualized to the point of being indifferent to personal attacks that are not grounded in the truth. It can be hurtful—at the very least, disconcerting—to be called a misogynist, racist, fascist, or what have you, even when you know such statements are false. But I would rather be called any epithet than live in a world where irrationality reigns because people are afraid to question orthodoxies. Instead of waiting for someone else to come along to call out the bleeding obvious, I have to start calling it out myself, in my little corner of the earth. I am encouraged by the example of others who dared to dissent.
These are the main lessons I’ve learned from Thomas Sowell.