Fail, fail everywhere


This needs to go at the top of the post, even though it’s the last thing I wrote.

A few days ago I read a blog post by Elizabeth Moon, in a random act of Googling. I don’t normally follow her livejournal, and I wasn’t aware of any controversy surrounding it at the time. Later I heard that yet another “fail” incident had been stirred up over the post, which honestly ticked me off. In the past I had seen people taking the anti-racist side act like total assholes in a way that made me embarrassed to agree with them, so I was predisposed to assume that this was another tempest in a teapot. I started writing this post with that in mind.

However, when I went to actually look at the content of what had been said in the most prominent venues, I found something different. People were expressing disagreement, often vehemently, but the argument was largely free of the name-calling and egregious ad hominem that had characterized Racefail. Some people were losing it–somebody, somewhere is always losing it–but for the most part the discussion was actually constructive. Strong opinions, forcefully expressed–this is not a problem, even if the opinions are ones I disagree with. This that was the meta-point of my whole post, so where was I getting off criticizing Moon’s critics?

So I decided to leave the first half of this essay as-is, but not to finish it. Instead, this brief note acts as apology and conclusion.

Here’s some responses to Moon’s post which illustrate what I’m talking about:

SF Author Elizabeth Moon had a very interesting post up the other day about citizenship and the obligations of immigrants. She started off with an observation so true and pithy that I almost just want to quote it and leave the rest of it alone:

[T]he person with no loyalty to anything but his/her own pleasure is not a noble hero of individualism, but a pathetic failure as a human being.

From there she goes to riff on the responsibilities of citizenship, the particular ways in which those responsibilities impinge on immigrant communities, and the position of the Muslim immigrant community in the US. Along the way, she makes some very thoughtful and cogent points, including this one:

The point here is that in order to accept large numbers of immigrants, and maintain any social cohesion, acceptance by the receiving population is not the only requirement: immigrants must be willing and able to change, to merge with the receiving population…. Groups that self-isolate, that determinedly distinguish themselves by location, by language, by dress, will not be accepted as readily as those that plunge into the mainstream. This is not just an American problem–this is human nature, the tribalism that underlies all societies and must be constantly curtailed if larger groups are to co-exist.

This is true as a description of how societies actually work. While it might be nice to suggest that everyone be perfectly tolerant of others regardless of how different they are, this is not likely to happen on any world inhabited by actual human beings.

That said, in the conclusion to her post, Moon goes off the rails in a few different ways:

  • First, immigrant groups shouldn’t have to conform if they don’t want to. Self-isolation, as Moon calls it, should be allowed, though it remains inevitably true that such groups “will not be accepted as readily as those that plunge into the mainstream.”
  • Moon suggested that the Muslim immigrant community (most of which assimilates just fine) has been shown “much forbearance” in the wake of 9/11… which is true only insofar as it could have been a lot worse. But Muslims aren’t obliged to feel grateful that they haven’t been persecuted, and the rest of us don’t get a gold star merely for not oppressing the innocent.
  • I don’t see why the construction of an Islamic cultural center a few blocks from the former World Trade Center should be considered a breach of the civic duties of the Muslim community, or why it should be seen as “forbearance” for us to allow them to do so.

So I clearly disagree with major points made at the end of Moon’s post. Nonetheless, this is the sort of thing that reasonable people should be able to argue about without needing to call for the other’s head on a pike. Speech that you disagree with or which critiques a group that you belong to should not be called “hate speech” just for that reason. These sorts of issues are complicated and admit multiple points of view, and Moon clearly is thoughtful and sensible enough for me to give her the benefit of the doubt and engage her constructively.

But I forgot: this is the internet! Time to get your outrage on!

[And this is where I stopped to google, which resulted in the retractio printed above.]


  1. I am really pleased, too, with how constructive, thoughtful, and free of personal attack the lj conversation is. I appreciate, as it sounds like you do, how the lj community provides a place where people can express their indignation and upset in a way that’s not “reasonable” and still be heard. It seems like a big accomplishment to me that this conversation is taking place.

    I disagree with you that Moon’s assertion “in order to accept large numbers of immigrants, and maintain any social cohesion…immigrants must be willing and able to change” is a cogent point. I don’t think that there’s any benefit in someone in Moon’s position (or mine, as part of the “receiving” population) focusing on whether/how much immigrants should change. I think it’s best to trust people who move here to make that judgment for themselves. From the blogs I read and the people I’ve talked to, I feel confident assuming that pretty much /every/ immigrant considers it deeply. That reflection and effort is important work, and immigrants themselves seem to the ones in the ones in the best position to do it.

    I think that the thing for us “receivers” to do is to work on the “everyone be[ing] perfectly tolerant of others regardless of how different they are” part. There’s so much of that work to do, and we’re the ones positioned to do it.

    1. I don’t think that we disagree of this particular debate, but I’m not so sure that you can really make tolerance of immigrant communities an absolute obligation. Does the native population have no rights to set norms and expectations? Is there nothing that an immigrant community might do that would make you say, “Sorry, you can’t do that here” ? Consider a case where the values of an immigrant community conflict strongly (I assume) with your own values, such as female circumcision.

      I don’t feel like I have good answers to all of these questions, but I don’t think it’s a straightforward matter of “tolerate everything”, either.

  2. “Does the native population have no rights to set norms and expectations? Is there nothing that an immigrant community might do that would make you say, “Sorry, you can’t do that here” ?”

    Putting aside that the entire United States of America is one gargantuan immigrant community, I think the answer is: Well…sure. Anything that’s against the law. That seems pretty a pretty straightforward answer and guideline. “I want to do this.” “Is it against the law?” If the answer is yes, then that’s a pretty good starting point as to the rights of the people in question. And if you feel the law should be changed, then you work on changing the law. And thus do black immigrants get the right to marry white immigrants, which never should have been denied them in the first place, etc. Suggesting that rights should be curtailed because, hey, what about female circumcision–a practice I have to think would run afoul of child abuse laws, resulting in the arrest of the parents and anyone performing the act–is like saying that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry because the next thing you know, men are going to want to wed cocker spaniels.

    In the case of the Muslim center, a concept I have no problem with, no laws were broken in either concept or execution. Zoning permission was given unanimously, and Congress shall make no law, so badda bing, badda boom, next case, move along, nothing to see here. Because otherwise, if we take it to its logical extreme, no churches should be allowed to be constructed within range of the Alfred P. Munch Building in Oklahoma City because Timothy McVeigh was Irish Catholic.

    Just sayin’.


    1. I’m leaving in a few hours for a very long car trip, so please excuse the brevity of this response.

      I actually take the opposite, more inclusive position on female circumcision: I think it should be legal, though I don’t like it, and I’m slightly horrified at the idea that it should be prosecuted as child abuse. But the different between us is the point I’m trying to highlight: everyone finds something to be intolerable, and we cannot honestly hold “tolerate everything” as our standard. And I’m not sure that legality is a good test, either, because a native majority can trivially pass a law to render illegal whatever immigrant practices they find offensive. (See: burqas in France, minarets in Switzerland.)

      Ultimately I don’t think that tolerance is really a stable moral principle, because we always have to fall back on our other values to determine what can be tolerated, and what cannot. Differences in toleration aren’t usually indicative of bigotry, as is often assumed, but of differently ranked values.

      1. Well, first of all, I didn’t say that laws should be the be-all, end-all of the test, but merely a “good starting point” as to what the guidelines should be. And if enough people feel the law should be changed, then that prompts a discourse and–if it is found to benefit the commonweal–then the law is changed.

        Second…you think permanently mutilating a female’s genitalia so she’ll never feel pleasure during sex should be legal? I’m not sure we’ve got all that much to discuss if that’s your position.


      2. Let’s not get into a long discussion about female circumcision… I’m on vacation :). I was merely using it as an illustration: your rejection of female circumcision does not automatically make you bigoted against African immigrants. It just means that your values are such that you’re not willing to tolerate that among immigrant communities–you believe this is something that immigrants from Africa will have to give up if they want to live peaceably in America. It would be ridiculous for me to suggest that you and anyone sharing your views is automatically racist.

        For the same reason, Moon’s arguments against the Cordoba Center are not inherently racist. I still don’t agree, since I think that her moral argument is misapplied and the legal argument is nonexistent, but the principle that immigrants can’t always do what they want is sound.

  3. My rejection of female circumcision stems from, “Oh my God, why would someone do that to their daughter?” Having four daughters, I’m probably more sensitive to it than most. Then again, it’s not my rejection at issue; as I said, I’m reasonably sure it’s against the law which, as I said, is a good starting point in determining whether something is acceptable or not.

    As for Moon, I don’t know if believing in the curtailment of religious freedom is automatically racist. I do think it loses sight of what this country is supposed to be about. The saddest sacks are those who declare that, because you couldn’t build a church in Saudi Arabia, Muslims shouldn’t be allowed to build places of worship here. We’re supposed to be setting an example of tolerance, and the rationale we use to excuse our actions is that we should be emulating the Saudis? Really?

    Anyway, enjoy your vacation.


  4. Someone’s values always win out when it comes to law-making, social norms, etc. so yes, the dominant or “receiving” culture’s values do end up limiting the freedoms of immigrant communities. And when these values are seen as intolerant or unjust, eventually they will be changed. So yes, congruent with what you’ve both said, that is what’s great about this country. For example, some school districts will now be offering a day-off for an Islamic holiday because there has been enough recognition of Muslim values to precipitate this. That’s great, I have no problem with that and I think we all agree.

    Second, resisting female circumcision doesn’t make you a bigot, but it may make you inadvertently racist, or at least culturally naïve. Yah, I have two daughters; the thought of female circumcision appalls me. But for many women in African cultures, not getting circumcised would actually be more damaging to them – often resulting in alienation from the community, persecution from elder females and those who have been circumcised, and inability to find a husband. So for many immigrants who want to retain some cultural identity, this isn’t just an issue of “Well, it’s against the law and it doesn’t make sense to Americans, so let’s just skip it.” The issue is much more complex than that, and I don’t know the solution. Law isn’t always a good starting place, and absolute tolerance is absurd in any society that wants to retain some order. Hmmmff.

    But the thing is, comparing female circumcision and the building of the Cordoba Center isn’t actually all that helpful. Prohibiting female circumcision would certainly reflect American values and is consistent with our laws, but is actually more intrusive on an essential cultural value/norm of the immigrant communities that practice this. However, reacting negatively to the building an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero isn’t an assault on an essential cultural value, unless Muslims would say something like, “We value building our cultural centers in areas where many people could be greatly offended because of obvious connotations.” Obviously Muslims don’t think like this, so asking them to rethink the construction of the center isn’t like asking them to reconsider their daily prayers.

    Which is why I actually agree with Moon’s conclusion. She wasn’t saying that Muslims can’t worship in America, she was saying that in this instance it doesn’t reflect good citizenship, because part of being a good citizen in this country is using a little self-reflection in deciding what you can forfeit for the sake of the whole – even if you disagree with the whole. I think that’s fair.

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