Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Black Lives Matter and the destruction of social capital

Recently read the following comment:
A second example i’ll give is Black Lives Matter. One is labeled racist/white supremacist/white nationalist/nazi if you say “no, All Lives Matter.” But the problem isn’t a devaluation or disrespect to the grievance (at least in all instances as it is implied) — it’s the selection of the name. ... In the BLM case, the name is overly narrow and the counter argument is equally disparaged. I’ve gotten into some heated discussions with Black/All/Blue lives matters all in a group and I posed a simple question: If the movement had started as “Police Accountability Matters” with the exact same issue to be resolved, would they react different — and all 3 opposing views suddenly agreed, everyone suddenly stopped the name calling and “arguing” and started discussing the pros & cons of ideas on how to solve the problem. They were all getting too hung up on the word selection and arguing about the rationality of each other based upon different interpretation of what the label meant.
Which fitted what had struck me about BLM, which is the destruction of social capital involved: that is, of positive social connections, of networked reciprocity.  

Social capital can reasonably be called capital, because it is a form of the produced factor of production (distinct from land, which is the acquired-from-nature factor of production, and labour, which is the reproduced factor of production). Other things being equal, the higher the level of social capital, the better functioning a society and the better prospects for a social group.

When the mainstream gay and lesbian community was seeking to achieve decriminalisation of their erotic lives, relationships with the police were crucial, for good and ill. The police were used to persecute the queer community, leading famously to the Stonewall riots

As the process of legal and social normalisation of homosexuality became increasingly successful, relationships with the police were still crucial, as gays and lesbians were particularly vulnerable to, and specifically targets of, violence. So the gay and lesbian communities worked to build better relations with the police. This was largely, and surprisingly quickly (as social change go) highly successful, leading to, for example, police contingents marching in Pride marches. In my own city of Melbourne, there has recurrently been a police show on the local gay and lesbian radio station, Joy FM, either as part of the regular program grid or as podcasts.

Along comes Black Lives Matter, who began to stridently object to police marching in uniform in Pride marches, which was an attack on, and seen as such, the connections built up between queer communities and police forces. In other words, an attack on built-up social capital.

Black Lives Matter was founded by three women, two of whom identify as queer. It was founded and spread largely through social media, which means via a communication mechanism with the most limited level possible of social connection and still communicate. Black Lives Matter has also been a disaster for the African-American community and relations with the police. The attack on queer-police social capital was a relatively minor part of a wider social capital disaster, a disaster which can be measured in hundreds of lost African-American lives from the post-BLM surge in homicides in various cities with high African-American populations such as Baltimore and Chicago. The increased death toll in dead African-Americans (1,800) for two years (2015, 2016) is more than half the estimated African-American deaths (3,446) from lynching in the decades 1882-1968.

The disaster came from (1) a gross mischaracterisation of a (highly variable by region and jurisdiction) problem with police use of deadly force; (2) a ludicrously simple diagnosis of the cause (racism); and (3) a misplaced approach (demonising police and actively seeking to reduce police interactions with African-Americans at which it has been all too successful). If one wanted a test case of what is wrong with intersectionality in a time of social media outrage, this is it. Attempting to operationalise intersectionality, notably via social media, in the form of BLM, has a much higher body count since 2014 than any form of white racism.

BLM manifests intersectionality’s indifference to problems of social order, the presumption of malice in “explaining” social outcomes and the attendant sacred victims without social or moral agency (particularly not negative agency). Despite the burblings of such as Ta-Nehisi Coates, the biggest danger to “black bodies” comes from other African-Americans, not the police. The main line of defence against that danger is not Twitter outrage, but the police themselves. The BLM reduction of social “analysis” to Manichean duality (evil, racist police v oppressed “blacks”) is a disastrously false simplification that directs attention and effort away from approaches which have some chance of being effective and towards a wildly simplistic and divisive outrage disastrous in its effects.

As psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out (pdf), the point of sacredness is to remove from trade-offs (or strongly resist any trade-offs) and a functional social order is all about managing trade-offs.

One of the ongoing problems in African-American communities is their low levels of social capital. It is hardly surprising that a political campaign based on attacking existing social capital turns out to be disastrously counter-productive. On the contrary, it seems a sad irony that communities suffering from low levels of social capital spawned a political movement destructive of social capital.

More accountable police forces better connected to their local communities can have considerable success in reducing crime. But that requires building broad coalitions focused on creating connections, not parading moralised differences. Presuming malice, undermining connections, poisoning interactions may be be congenial to the playbook of TwitterIntersectionality; to a time of cry-bullies, point-and-shriek, the oppression Olympics and moralised identity hierarchies. But it is not remotely a path to better social outcomes.

[Also published at Skepticlawyer.]


  1. Great post! I've been trying to tie together theories on social capital, collective norms, the evolution of belief systems and how they all intersect with ethnocultural politics. This blog helps connects a lot of the dots. I see a connection between the Puritan cultural ethic and the Progressive movement ( , but I'm still formulating thoughts. I'll have to think this over before I am able to give an adequate response.

    1. Thanks! Always happy to help thinking along :)

    2. Mencius Moldbug famously argued that there was a connection between Puritans and contemporary progressivism.

  2. ..."The main line of defence against that danger is not Twitter outrage, but the police themselves."

    Yes exactly! In some of the most troubled urban regions of the US, the police are pretty much the only ones trying to protect the local people or help them in any way. If you visit a typical American "urban ghetto" type area, it's quickly apparent that the main problem is public safety, not "poverty" per se. The actual material standard of living of most people in these areas doesn't remotely qualify as "poverty" in most of the rest of the world.

    Deliberately sowing discord between American black people and the rest of the country is pretty much the most destructive attack anyone could possibly launch against the USA. As an ethnicity, African Americans, the creators of so much of what can be identified as truly indigenous to American culture, have a claim to represent the real core of our identity that is stronger than any other group's. Weakening the bond between them and the rest of us is truly an attack on our nation's heart.

    And the American left in general are the worst culprits. They believe that persuading black people to soak in grievances and believe that the rest of us are their enemies provides them with a political advantage. Sadly, they may be right.

    1. Excellent points: particularly like "African Americans, the creators of so much of what can be identified as truly indigenous to American culture, have a claim to represent the real core of our identity that is stronger than any other group's." Which is, of course, a cultural achievement, not a racial one.

    2. I think of African Americans as an ethnic group, not a racial one. I used to find the term kind of objectionable, a bit clunky next to simply saying "black people", but lately I feel that it makes more sense. It seems clear that "African American" denotes an ethnicity and "black people" describes a racial group - obviously some overlap but not the same thing.

      People from the islands and Africa can belong to the "black people" racial group but certainly not to the "African American" ethnic group.

      I don't know if that understanding of the terms is actually widespread though, and I can even imagine it getting a lot of pushback from certain political enthusiasts, who would prefer that it wasn't too obvious that African Americans have much more in common with other Americans than they do with Carribean or African members of the black racial group.

    3. It can be difficult to swim against the tide of usage. (And the advent of a new wave of sub-Saharan African migrants to the US is complicating matters.) Hence my suggesting the term Ebonic-American to distinguish them from more recent arrivals.

    4. "It can be difficult to swim against the tide of usage...". Ain't THAT the truth. The latest annoyance is "obligated". It's become ubiquitous here, hopefully it hasn't down there yet. At least people still understand what you mean if you say "obliged", but who knows how long that will last.

      Anyway...I'm finding the whole identity politics bit to be deeply horrifying these days. If everything wrong with society is the fault of the white people, and only they can fix it (via reparations, affirmative action, welfare, etc. etc.), then how is that any different from the views of actual white supremacists? Non-western, non-white people have no moral agency and need to be coddled and cared for by the whites? Exactly what would Hitler find objectionable about such a belief system?

      How can they not see it?

      And I see recent immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa recoiling instinctively from such attitudes. I suspect many of them are scratching their heads in puzzlement, waiting for signs of this horrible American racism they've heard so much about. Well, mostly suspect, but in at least one case know it for a fact, because this is paraphrasing the comments of a buddy of mine from Nigeria...who has been called a fool while arguing about it with American black people. Yeah, he's such a fool he's got a PhD in Chemical Engineering. Real dummy this guy, sure.

    5. All excellent questions. Some folk are beginning to push back.

  3. Sorry for the super late reply! I agree with Moldbug on the phylogeny of progressivism, but not it's defining cultural traits, and thus come to the opposite conclusions that he does.

    This quote by Alinsky summarizes what I think BLM should have done: "This failure of many of our younger activists to understand the art of communication has been disastrous. Even the most elementary grasp of the fundamental idea that one communicates within the experience of his audience — and gives full respect to the other's values — would have ruled out attacks on the American flag. The responsible
    organizer would have known that it is the establishment that has betrayed the flag while the flag, itself, remains the glorious symbol of America's hopes and aspirations, and he would have conveyed this message to his audience." That would be a better approach to building social capital.