Below are my opening and closing statements for a debate that was hosted by the NYC Political Forum, a Meetup group in New York City. The debate itself was Oxford-Style and featured two teams, each with two members. I was partnered with my friend Roberto Guzman. As is customary for our team debates, I opened with a statement that established the philosophic context for our position, and Rob provided economic and historical support for our view. We argued against the proposition and won the debate. (Reading time 8 minutes.)
I want to begin tonight’s debate by asking each one of you to try a thought experiment. Let’s imagine that you have an acquaintance who is Asian.
If your acquaintance achieved an important life goal, would you like the credit to be given to all Asian people, or just to your friend?
Or, let’s imagine your friend committed a crime. Should the punishment be given to every person of Asian ancestry, or only to your acquaintance?
Now let’s try substituting gender for race. You have a friend who is a woman. She becomes a great violinist. Should credit for her achievement be given to all women, or only her?
How about if she lies to her husband about an affair, and is caught? Should moral blame the given only to her, or to all women?
Now let’s substitute class for gender. Say your friend is poor. He makes a scientific discovery that’s groundbreaking. Should then the poor as a class be given credit for his discovery?
Or, let’s imagine he is rich. Should all rich people as a class be given credit for his discovery?
I’m guessing that you find the above examples absurd to entertain, even as a thought experiment. But why is that? What explains the absurdity?
It is because implicitly you are able to grasp that it is senseless and unjust to punish or reward an entire group of people for the good or bad deeds of an individual, based on their race, gender, class, or other collective classifications. You understand in these examples that doing so is unjust, because only individuals are responsible for their actions, and therefore only individuals should earn rewards or punishments based on those actions.
You realize, implicitly if not explicitly, that each individual has the ability to make choices, and that these choices are the responsibility of the individual, not of all of the individuals within the group to which he belongs.
In short, implicitly you accept the principle of individualism and reject the principle of collectivism.
Racism is the most primitive form of collectivism. Racists judge people collectively and interchangeably according to their racial membership and reward or punish them according to their racial membership.
The antidote to racism was expressed eloquently in Martin Luther King’s wish that people should be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. In practice, this means treating every individual, regardless of their race, as an individual; judging every individual, regardless of their race, as an individual; and rewarding or punishing every individual, regardless of their race, as an individual.
In other words, the only antidote to racism is what is the only antidote to every form of collectivism, and that is individualism.
Affirmative action, however, takes the opposite approach. Advocates of affirmative action, knowingly or not, embrace the collectivist perspective that is the foundation of racism, by claiming to be able to remedy the racist policies that were visited upon innocent people in the past by enacting new racist policies visited upon entirely different people in the present. Affirmative action attempts to transmit the guilt deserved of an individual racist in the past undeservedly to everyone who shares his race in the present. Similarly, affirmative action attempts to redress the racial injustices visited on individuals living in the past by offering remediation to those who share their race in the present. Affirmative action sees individual men and women not as individuals, but as interchangeable members of their racial group. Affirmative action fights racism with racism and fights collectivism with collectivism.
As advocates of justice, Rob and I are opposed to collectivism in principle and in all of its forms, past and present, irrespective of the particular groups in question, be they based on race, gender, class, or any other collective designation. Similarly and for the same reason, we are opposed in principle to racism in all its forms, whatever group the perpetrators or victims belong to, and in whatever part of the world and in whatever era it is practiced. We are staunch individualists, and as such we believe that the only possible way to redress past racial injustices is to disregard race in the present and the future and treat people as individuals, thereby not repeating and perpetuating the philosophic errors and existential injustices of the past. We judge people by the content of their character, not by the color of their skin, and certainly not by the color of the skin of their ancestors.
Justice demands that individuals, not groups, are rewarded and punished according to what they have earned, and what they deserve.
Justice is individual, not collective.
I’d like to close by asking you to perform a second thought experiment. Think for a moment about the value of your own life and the importance of your own pursuit of happiness, which is crucially dependent on your education and your career. Your own life is irreplaceable. You only have one life to live and one opportunity to achieve happiness. How important is it to you? Would you sacrifice your own happiness to pay for the sins of your ancestors in the past whatever those may or may not have been? If the answer is no, then what right do you possibly have to impose such a demand on others?
Those others, each and every one of them, also have a right to pursue their values and goals and happiness.
The sins of one man can never be paid for by another. The good of one man can never be achieved by the sacrifice of another.
Racism will never be eliminated so long as we treat each other as interchangeable members of conflicting ethnic tribes. It’s time, in 2019, to reject racism once and for all, in principle, and in all of its forms. It’s time to finally leave racism behind us as the barbaric relic of the past that it is. It’s time to learn to appreciate each other as the unique, irreplaceable individuals that we all are. It’s time to finally grant each of us as individuals, irrespective of our race, our value as individuals and our rights as individuals. It’s time, finally, for us as a nation to live up to the principle that all men are created equal and have an inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. It’s time as a culture to finally live up to the words of Martin Luther King, that we judge one another by the content of our character and not the color of our skin.
It’s time to move forward.