Abstraction comes in countless forms, but beware the vicious variety, which corrupts our thinking. A ‘vicious abstraction’ is a misrepresentation of an abstraction. You’d be amazed how far little white lies can go. Suffice it to say empires can be built on them. But suppose we could unravel one of the worst myths — racism — that plagues society. Suppose we could prove that non-racist people participate in racist laws and institutions, thereby being de facto racist. Don’t you think they’d want to know?
Here’s how otherwise smart people get wrangled into racist belief systems, and how covertly racist people get their views validated through coded political messaging. There is a sinister relationship between abstraction and racism that needs to be exposed and outlawed once and for all.
“Vicious abstraction” is the term for a linguistic fallacy whereby some essential piece of information is removed. It is considered as part of a set of other semantic errors including weasel words, composition/ division, suppressed quantification, equivocation, amphibology, and the fallacy of accent. According to the semantic context, vicious abstraction comes in two main forms: 1) quoting out of context, which distorts the statement’s meaning, and 2) misquotation, where paraphrasing omits or alters vital details. In its most crude form it looks like this, where ‘[X]’ is a given statement or fact in context:
- [X] = “X” (misrepresentation, out of context)
- [X] = “[x]” (misquotation, inaccurate, paraphrase)
As you may realize, this kind of vicious abstraction is everywhere. The selection bias of cherrypicking information is a common example. This isn’t just a crisis of false reporting or fake news, but about our inability to understand each other and to communicate honestly. We are in a constant epistemological crisis, hence my call for abstraction as an epistemological method. Vicious abstraction and other linguistic fallacies and cognitive biases permeate civil discourse. I probably commit some myself, unknowingly, but I try not to. The aggregate effect is misinformation is circulated, and the false narrative is reinforced. Everyone needs to be hyperaware and self-critical, if we are all claiming to be for truth.
The term vicious abstraction is applied outside linguistics too. In general, it is invoked as the (manipulative) selective reduction of information. Simply understanding vicious abstraction can be a critical intervention, by being able to better track how misinformation starts and spreads. This translative abstraction is “vicious” to the extent that it is false or inverts the meaning of the original fact.
As an analogy, suppose I give you a flashlight with no light bulb. The tool no longer does what it’s supposed to do. Something essential has been removed, and now it’s dysfunctional and self-defeating. You may not even notice until you try to use it. Now imagine using a term in a way that omits or removes a key part of the definition. So we have a semantic sense and a conceptual sense in which abstraction can be vicious. William James defines vicious abstraction more broadly in a chapter of The Meaning of Truth titled “ABSTRACTIONISM AND ‘RELATIVISMUS’”;
“Let me give the name of ‘vicious abstractionism’ to a way of using concepts which may be thus described: We conceive a concrete situation by singling out some salient or important feature in it, and classing it under that; then, instead of adding to its previous characters all the positive consequences which the new way of conceiving it may bring, we proceed to use our concept privatively; reducing the originally rich phenomenon to the naked suggestions of that name abstractly taken, treating it as a case of ‘nothing but’ that concept, and acting as if all the other characters from out of which the concept is abstracted were expunged. [Footnote: Let not the reader confound the fallacy here described with legitimately negative inferences such as those drawn in the mood ‘celarent’ of the logic-books.] Abstraction, functioning in this way, becomes a means of arrest far more than a means of advance in thought. It mutilates things; it creates difficulties and finds impossibilities; and more than half the trouble that metaphysicians and logicians give themselves over the paradoxes and dialectic puzzles of the universe may, I am convinced, be traced to this relatively simple source. THE VICIOUSLY PRIVATIVE EMPLOYMENT OF ABSTRACT CHARACTERS AND CLASS NAMES is, I am persuaded, one of the great original sins of the rationalistic mind.” — William James, The Meaning of Truth, 1909
To illustrate his specific point here, take the commonly abused words ‘socialism’ or ‘capitalism’ — both high-level abstractions, containing dozens of features, difficult to reduce to a single sentence. A straw man usually stands in for a richer version of concept, in order to make a point. They are typically presented antagonistically, as opposed, but this is an omission of the overlapping principles. People who proclaim anti-socialist or anti-capitalist sentiments do so not because they understand and reject the concept as a whole, but because they reject certain negative elements which have come to overwhelm the meaning of the word for them. Likewise, people who fully embrace the term capitalist or socialist do themselves a disservice, as they will be associated with a straw man version. These are instantiations of vicious abstraction.
Abstraction proper sets out to rectify definitions, by mapping the meaning of complex concepts. I would start by defining them in ideal terms: Socialism refers to a set of principles which value society and community over profit. Capitalism is an economic system that introduces private ownership and abstract capital as a means to increase productivity and wealth. Neither of these definitions are particularly offensive. In truth, they are not inherently incompatible. Both abstractions are rich in depth, but restricted by their shorthand expression.
To viciously abstract the concept would be to focus only on certain qualities, and to let those falsely stand for the whole. For example, to say that capitalism is only about the exploitation of the worker, or to conflate socialism with nationalism or communism, which history has descredited. Thus, James concludes that the original sin of rationalism is the corruption and misuse of a concept.
The phrase “vicious abstraction” is interesting terminology. The vicious effects of lying or spinning may not be apparent, but there are implied ripple effects, and the aggregate effect of small lies is considerable. It is ‘vicious’ precisely because the violence is hidden. The Abs-Tract Organization argues that these pathologies are widespread and systemically reinforced, such that people commit vicious abstraction all the time without even knowing. Sometimes it is banal, sometimes it is egregious. So serious and commonplace are these distortions, that perhaps “vicious abstraction” is appropriate as an umbrella term for a whole set of abstractions with negative consequences. We now turn to a more political example of abstraction as a process of manipulation.
“Here’s how I would approach that issue as a statistician or a political scientist, or, no, as a psychologist, which I’m not… is how abstract you handle the race thing. In other words you start out… and now ya’ll don’t quote me on this… You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it — I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me? — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut taxes, we want to cut this…” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.” — Lee Atwater, Republican Party strategist in an anonymous interview in 1981
The above quote is illustrative of the way by which racism becomes institutionalized and invisible, particularly under GOP policies since the 60s. The consequences of it demonstrate how ‘vicious’ abstraction is an apt characterization. The quote comes from infamous republican strategist Lee Atwater, the subject of the documentary Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Storyand the book, Bad Boy: The Life and Politics of Lee Atwater.
Atwater was to George H.W. Bush, as Roger Stone is to Donald Trump; a right-wing rabble-rouser and ruthless political operative. Salon recognized his legacy, noting that Donald Trump is the Southern Strategy on steroids. Under the condition of anonymity, the above quote is Atwater employing my favorite word — abstract — to describe how Republicans get the racist vote without being explicitly racist.
If The Abs-Tract Organization had existed in the 60s, rest assured this would be our fight, to lay bare what has been made complicated; that racism has not been solved but pushed underground, and will return with a vengeance. Here is a man (Atwater) who is not racist himself (he loves Blues music), but is perhaps cynical to the core — so much so that he’s systemically racist, or racist in consequence.
Atwater is saying that the successful political strategy is to talk abstractly around sensitive issues, to connect with voters via the subtext of the platform. Atwater uses ‘abstract’ variously as complex, coded, and covert. A quote like this is the closest thing to an abstract smoking gun we will ever find, tantamount to a confession of abusing abstraction and institutionalizing racism.
Of course, a more direct racist confession of the anti-black anti-hippie war-on-drugs is given by John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief. These are high-level insiders spelling out how by making the issue abstract, shifting policy action to different levels of analysis, they can control and destroy communities (and for what?).
But I’ll even give Atwater the benefit of the doubt; that he is merely describing, not advocating, how things work. He tries to setup his description as the hypothetical view of a social scientist — and this is where I entirely agree with the truth of his assessment; that it is chiefly a problem of abstraction. It is sinister on two counts: the recognition of the harm caused to the black community and failure to do anything about it. Who says Republicans have to cut these resources?
The key is really when Atwater says “subconsciously maybe that is part of it — I’m not saying that.” Whether consciously or subconsciously, it is absolutely part of it for Republicans. Jeff Sessions take note. Youtuber Taurean Reign posted his analysis of this quote in September 2016. He notes how Atwater says ‘don’t quote me’ to extricate himself from guilt by association. Reign explains how the language becomes coded, as Atwater’s own words reflect, into abstract forms of oppression.
The process of abstracting racism has continued to unfold from these early examples of ‘forced busing’ and ‘states rights’ into an array of black stereotypes (welfare queen) and white-privilege politicking.
Here is the audio of the Atwater quote:
Negligence is racist. This is where this issue intersects with Republicanism today — they are all about cutting the most indispensable things as a means of political division: education, social programs, environmental protection, etc… and of course not ending prohibition, the single greatest cause of systemic racism today in the US. Vicious abstraction of social issues is the modus operandi of the Republican party, and every cut disaffects vulnerable people, often black people. To be sure, historically the roles in racism of the Democrat and Republican parties were reversed; it was a Republican president (Lincoln) who abolished slavery. But this does not excuse the extant systemic racism of Republicanism today.
The race issue today is wholely unresolved, even though there are those who have solved it. There is still a war-on-drugs. People who are black still face discrimination and criminalization. A (half-)black president has done little to directly address the abstract nature of the problem, except to acknowledge that it is systemic. #BlackLivesMatter is a thing because systemic racism is a thing. Those of the Alt-right, and even Right-wing critics of the alt-right (like Ben Shapiro), argue this issue is overblown, and that the ‘facts’ are on the conservative side. They’re engaged in sophistry and don’t know it. This cartoon conveys the simple, abstracted, tragic truth that white nationalists deny:
The Atwater example of abstract racism demonstrates how the causes of racism can become distanced and protracted, such that there can be systemic racist effects that are diffuse and abstract. Racist attitudes are sublimated and abstracted away from individual interactions into institutional processes. The whip from the past still lashes the present, but now through an abstract chain reaction or ripple effect expressed across micro-relations.
Consider this example as one of hundreds, if not thousands, of abstract processes subsumed in the broader racialized prohibition regime called ‘the war-on-drugs.’ Microaggression on a macro scale. Whether intentional or not, this abstract subterfuge is wrong as it is counterproductive. The issue needs full disclosure in the form of truth and reconciliation. When people focus on the immediate, proximate cause, they completely neglect the distant abstract causes.
Another way an abstraction can be vicious is its conceptual denial to others, similar to the use by William James. The Democratic party has also been guilty, or victims of, this abstract political tactic. Here, Cornel West laments how the exclusivity of a given abstraction can be used to deny rights to another group. At the same time, it is suggestive of how a concept can elude people through the equivocation of language.
“I just think it is very important that we don’t sanitize and sterilize what brother Bernie Sanders talks about when he talks about health care as a right as opposed to a privilege. See, voting rights was a privilege for a long time; you had white brothers with property and white brothers without property, women didn’t have the right to vote. So it remained sanitized, it was an abstraction for a small group, but it functioned as a privilege. Black folk didn’t get it til ’65. So just language is so abstract, that when Bernie Sanders says it’s a right, he wants to specify the ways in which voting rights is universal…”— Cornel West, calling out the Democratic Platform Committee for rejecting single payer health care in 2016.
West is talking about similar coded language that Atwater was talking about. Fundamentally people have lost touch with universal concepts, and they just hear whatever they want to hear. “Voting rights” used to apply only to white males, even though it was a universal concept. So, this was a vicious abstraction, in multiple ways. The same applies to health care and the denial of it to certain groups or classifications of human beings.
The abstract approach is not a novelty popping up here and there, it’s a strong pattern. It is both problem and solution. In Pragmatism and the Problem of Race, and entire chapter is devoted to “Distance, Abstraction, and the Role of the Philosopher in the Pragmatic Approach to Racism.” Many other critical perspectives, on race or otherwise, invoke abstraction as a key theme, but here’s some more on race:
“Racism is a practice of abstraction, a death-dealing displacement of difference into hierarchies that organize relations within and between the planet’s sovereign and political territories…Indeed, the process of abstraction that signifies racism produces effects at the most intimately “sovereign” scale, insofar as particular kinds of bodies, one by one, are materially (if not always visibly) configured by racism into a hierarchy of human and inhuman persons that in sum form the category of “human being.”” — Ruth Wilson Gilmore (quoted in Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected, by Lisa Marie Cacho)
“We observe that with debasement goes abstraction, until the final point of nothingness is reached.” — White Racism: A Psychohistory, By Joel Kovel
None of this is to say Democrats aren’t also guilty of abstracting the problem of race. They are, and the Clintons, even up until the present day, demonstrate their lack of awareness of their own complicity. In their pragmatism, they signed off on the same-old racist laws that maintain the status-quo, throwing disproportionate numbers of innocent black and minority populations into penal servitude; into modern day slavery. Is all this vicious abstraction malicious? or an honest mistake? It’s likely both. Rather than play the blame game, we have to intercept it at the abstract source. Republicans and Democrats against racism should come together over the common enemy of abstraction (as obfuscation).
The many types of vicious abstraction can be summed up as 1) misrepresentation, 2) misquotation, and 3) misconception. Now we can add 4) misdirection, and 5) misinformation, to the list. Through these distortions, we find ourselves in an absurd situation, where complex social issues are reduced to ‘black and white’ logic. For all our ingenuity and intelligence, human beings invest a lot of social capital in morally bankrupt markets. When I say social capital I mean human networks; investors pour money not only into inhumane institutions and laws, but into the very belief-systems that organize humans into collective action. People themselves, become the abstract instruments of oppression.
I’ve tried to argue simply that institutional and systemic racism needs to be understood as a multifarious problem of abstraction. In the historical sense, slavery was a process of commodity abstraction, debasing human value to a tradable unit. People were grouped according to vicious abstractions, even beyond abolition. Then there is the conscious abstraction of social policy through coded language and dog whistle politics. Perhaps we could rise above these aberrations, to the highest abstractions, to see humans as humans.