How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People: Write about Race (Part I of III)

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How to Lose Friends & Influence Over People:
Write about Race (Part I of III)

Toward Some Solutions to the Political Problem of Writing about Race while Being Aware of One’s Own Race

Part I.

Diversity is good. Therefore: knowledge that happens to be diverse is better than knowledge that happens not to be. When a body of knowledge lacks diversity, it is called specialization. I would rather be diverse than special, a dilettante rather than a scholar.

But writing about race is a political problem for both dilettantes and scholars. Writing about race involves ingroups and outgroups. As Alan Jacobs has recently pointed out in his book How to Think (2017):

Our ability to think well will be determined to some considerable degree by who those others are: what we might call the moral form of our community. A willingness to be “broken on the floor,” for example, is in itself testimony to belief that the people you’re debating are decent people who don’t want to harm or manipulate you—whereas if you don’t trust people you’re unlikely to allow them anything like a “victory” over you. This suggests that the problem of belonging and not-belonging, affiliation and separation, is central to the task of learning how to think. [1]

Philosophy is learning how to think. Philosophy is problem solving. Political philosophy attempts to solve (or at least identify) political problems.

I cannot solve the political problem of writing about race while being aware of one’s race. Instead I can take lessons I’ve learned from reading and apply them to my writing. The first lesson comes from the mediaeval Persian philosopher Al-farabi (872–950 AD), who (following Aristotle and Plato) identifies four questions one should ask of any political problem:

He should make known what and how every one of [the things under discussion] is, and from what and for what it is, until all of them become known, intelligible, and distinguished from each other. This is political science. It consists of knowing the things by which the citizens of cities attain happiness through political association in the measure that innate disposition equips each of them for it. It will become evident to him that political association and the totality that results from the association of citizens in cities correspond to the association of the bodies that constitute the totality of the world. [2]

In other words, to see the big picture of the topic under discussion, one has to answer the four questions. I’ve read four recent pieces on the topic of race in the United States. These pieces discuss race as well as the problem of writing about race. I want to use Al-farabi’s method of asking four questions for each of the four written articles to try to understand the problem better. Why? Because answering these questions helps me better think about what I’ve read. Literally these questions help me how to think. For, as Jacobs points out: “The genuine community is open to thinking and questioning, so long as those thoughts and questions come from people of goodwill.” [3] Or, in the words of Martin Buber (1878–1965), (if one can temporarily ignore his über-patriarchal writing style):

Genuine conversation, and therefore every actual fulfillment of relation between men, means acceptance of otherness…. Man wishes to be confirmed in his being by man, and wishes to have a presence in the being of the other…. Man exists anthropologically not in his isolation, but in the completeness of the relation between man and man; what humanity is can be properly grasped only in vital reciprocity.[4]

So I ask Al-farabi’s four questions concerning four articles so I may begin engaging in a “genuine conversation” concerning race and writing and one’s awareness of one’s race while writing. To see how that plays out, you’ll have to read Part II.



[1] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: a Survival Guide in a World at Odds, (New York, NY: Currency Books, 2017) 54.

[2] Alfarabi, Alfarabi’s Philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, Translated by Muhsin Mahdi, (Chicago, IL: Agora Books, 1969), “The Attainment of Happiness,” p. 24, i, ¶ 20.

[3] Jacobs, How to Think 59.

[4] Buber, The Knowledge of Man: a Philosophy of the Interhuman, trans. by Maurice Friedman and Ronald Gregor Smith, (New York NY: Harper & Row, 1966) 69, 71, 84.

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