Occam’s razor has dulled considerably

Recently on Twitter, I linked to an article about Michael Ian Black, a comedian, telling off an audience member who compared President Obama to Hitler. Black, who supports Obama, went on tirade against the audience member, then later reflected on the encounter on his own blog.

I presented the link and said only that my respect for Black had increased, but didn’t comment further. I wanted people to draw their own conclusions about it. Also, I hate starting political discussions because they never ever accomplish anything. People (myself included) are far too entrenched in their own ideologies to consider changing their minds, so what’s the point?1

But I’ll let you in on a secret: The thing that I admired about Black’s response was his fair-mindedness.

Black’s point was not that Obama is super great (although he may well think so, and he may be right) but rather that Hitler was so effing horrible that it’s ludicrous to suggest any American president (thus far) is comparable. Comparing a president with Hitler is an interesting psychological exercise, but equating a president to Hitler is the laziest form of idiocy.2

Black sums up his position:

Incidentally, although I love Obama, I hope my reaction would have been as vehement if the heckler had said the same thing about W, who I did not care for. Here’s something I believe that nobody else seems to believe: people are doing the best they can. They’re trying to make good decisions, and instead of seeing everybody who disagrees with us as the enemy, we should first take it at face value that they are doing their best. Even when we think they’re fucking morons.

Believing someone has ulterior motives is not unreasonable. What is unreasonable is claiming to know, in the absence of real evidence, exactly what those motives are. (Note: People do not always act solely in their own self-interest. Also, “It’s obvious; everybody knows it” is not evidence.)

But then today, when I saw someone else link to the article, I noticed something I’d missed before. The headline reads, “Michael Ian Black’s Tirade Against a Racist Obama-Hater During Set.” Seems straightforward enough. Until you realize that there’s nothing in the article to suggest that the audience member was racist, or that the exchange had anything at all to do with race.

When confronted with a person stupid enough to equate a president with a ruler who systematically exterminated millions of people, is it really necessary to tag on a superfluous “racist” label? Perhaps, if the person had said something about race. But apparently he didn’t. So what makes this person a “racist”? I suppose it’s obvious. He disagrees with a black person. Everyone who said George W. Bush was like Hitler was also anti-Texan.

Ironically, this is an example of the same knee-jerk reaction Black is complaining about. Accusations without any evidence, or even any thought.

To me, an accusation of racism is a serious thing. Racism is about as repugnant a state of mind as there could ever be. So it takes a lot before I’ll concede that a person is indeed racist. In the same way that it takes a lot for me to concede that a person is indeed like Hitler.

As comedian/magician Penn Jillette notes, when we claim a person is racist in the absence of actual racist speech and actions, we’re claiming to see into their hearts.3 This is a claim that no one should be making.

I should note, I’m not speaking here about individuals who actually do hurl epithets and carry racist signs. I’m speaking about casting entire political movements (or even entire political parties, and often even in the face of explicit repudiations of racism) as racist because we just know they can’t possibly be concerned about the things they actually say they are concerned about.

Do racist people oppose Obama? Yes. That’s the definition of racism. Is everyone who opposes Obama a racist? No. That’s the definition of having an opinion.

When we go beyond what people say about why they think what they do, to the point where we claim to see into their hearts to their true, hidden intentions, we’ve gone too far. When we go beyond a person’s profession of Christian faith, to the point where we claim to see into his heart where he’s really a secret Muslim, we’ve gone too far.

  1. Well, my point here is just to vent, mainly. []
  2. Predictably, lots of people missed the point. The comments section on the article is full of partisan bickering and explanations why it’s ridiculous to say my favorite politician is like Hitler, but it’s quite reasonable to say so about the politician I don’t like. []
  3. Why is it that comedians are making more thoughtful and nuanced points about politics than our politicians and pundits? []