The Devil’s in the Details

Early last week, I participated in a Salon 360˚ call, the topic of which was “Beyond the Racial Divide: Where Do We Go From Here?” As a premise for the discussion in which we were to engage, this proposition was stated: “You’re either racist or antiracist.” That set my Spidey Sense off like a fire alarm. Here’s why:

Setting aside the fact being against racism (I am) isn’t the same as being antiracist by the terms of the book in which that phrase was coined (more on the book in a moment), that statement proposes that all of us in the conversation were — of necessity and by definition — either this or that. One choice. Mutually exclusive. No other possibilities. No middle ground. You’re in, or you’re out. And we wonder why we find ourselves embroiled in racial turmoil?!

Later that week, I was privy to a TED Talk on race, in which the talker confines us to this or that by opening his presentation with these words: “But seriously. What is up with us white people?” One choice. Mutually exclusive. No other possibilities. No middle ground. He even throws in a condemnation taken straight out of identity politics and includes himself in it: Us white people. White people are all the same. They’re all racist. They’re all guilty. And he is racist and guilty, too.

A Different View

Some years ago, my older son, Sean, a basketball coach, said, “If you want to know how bad the defense is in the NBA, watch a game with the sound off.” I did. He was right. I cite that here because, if you don’t think our beleaguered TED-talker believes he’s racist and guilty as sin, watch his presentation with the sound off. Look at his hangdog countenance. Look at his sloping shoulders. Look at his tentative posture and feeble hand gestures. His entire presence is one of guilt, shame, and hopelessness. He looks as if he’s trudging across the Bridge of Sighs. And if you happen to be as pale as he is, he’s taking you with him. Yep. If you were born white yesterday, you have some serious apologizing to do.

In an attempt to authoritatively ward off the self-defeat of his argument, our TED-talking pal cited Ibram X. Kendi and Kendi’s book, How to Be an Antiracist (the book, referred to above, in which the term was coined). It’s entirely possible there are people on the planet with bigger agendas than Professor Kendi’s. But since we have just one lifetime, there likely are better ways to spend it than trying to find those folks.

Tracing his illogic back to — and setting aside the number of times and the ways in which he contradicts himself — our TED-talking buddy tells us Kendi found, “What he believed to be the first articulation of racist ideas.” Not necessarily the first articulation of racist ideas but what Kendi believed to be — and what our TED-talking amigo passes off as — the first articulation of racist ideas.

Yes, one Gomes de Zurara, according to our TED-talking companheiro, who paraphrases Kendi, “Wrote a book in the 1450s [in which] he lumped together all of the people of Africa … and he described them as a distinct group, inferior and beastly.” That leads Kendi to the conclusion that capitalism and racism are conjoined twins [his term] and to argue in How to Be an Antiracist that we should rename capitalism, as we know it here in the United States, racial capitalism [his term].

As for our TED-talking dupe, nothing says racial harmony like letting your research stop with a secondary source purporting to have found the first articulation of racist ideas and broadcasting it as if it were indisputable fact, objective truth. And if you have to overlook the entire history of slavery to get there, well, that’s just collateral intellectual damage. And let’s not overlook the fact that, if Kendi wanted to put his mouth where his political agenda is, he’d give his book away, rather than accepting filthy, capitalistic lucre for it. (And God forbid sales of it should lead to the evils of profitability.)

So, here we are, with our self-convicted, TED-talking mate seizing culpability from the jaws of innocence by way of a terminal case of white guilt and one whopping fallacy of informal logic and saying, “Could be worse. At least I’m white.” Nope. Nothing inflammatory or divisive there. Keep moving.

Balance Would Be Nice

The bad news for everyone involved is that our TED-talking compagno and his agenda-promoting source employed the Fallacy of False Dilemma, alternatively known as false cause. To put it colloquially and specifically in this context, if the only tool you have is racism, all people are racists, particularly if they’re white. Hello, cognitive bias. And if they’re willing to go along with you — to feel guilty over the accidents of their births and their skin color, even if they’re model and universally respectful citizens — shame on them.

Is resorting to logical fallacy a crime? No. But inciting to riot is. And if the use of logical fallacies, selective research, and slanted political agendas leads to rioting, well, that’s just collateral property damage.

The good news is that Nature abhors a vacuum. Nothing can exist and no one can live in a world of polar opposition. Just as Nature regulates the imbalances of meteorological high- and low-pressure systems, we will, ultimately, be drawn to a middle. And it doesn’t take a TED-talker, a Ph.D., or a rocket scientist to know violence and denunciation — flagrant refutation of social order — are antithetical to social justice.

We can do better than this. We will do better than this. We have to be more curious than this. As soon as we stop asking, we stop growing. We stop improving. We stop bettering our lives and the lives of others.

The Devil’s always in the details. That’s why he invented the Law of Unintended Consequences.


Mark O'Brien
Mark O'Brien
I’m a business owner. My company — O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) — is a B2B brand-management and marketing-communication firm that helps companies position their brands effectively and persuasively in industries as diverse as: Insurance, Financial Services, Senior Living, Manufacturing, Construction, and Nonprofit. We do our work so well that seven of the companies (brands) we’ve represented have been acquired by other companies. OCG is different because our business model is different. We don’t bill by the hour or the project. We don’t bill by time or materials. We don’t mark anything up. We don’t take media commissions. We pass through every expense incurred on behalf of our clients at net. We scope the work, price the work, put beginning and end dates on our engagements, and charge flat, consistent fees every month for the terms of the engagements. I’m also a writer by calling and an Irish storyteller by nature. In addition to writing posts for my company’s blog, I’m a frequent publisher on LinkedIn and Medium. And I’ve published three books for children, numerous short stories, and other works, all of which are available on Amazon under my full name, Mark Nelson O’Brien.

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  1. Hi Mark,

    It is my first comment on Bizcatalyst after I joined the community a week ago, and your article prompted me to comment. I live in Croatia where black people represent a negligible percentage of the population. People who live in rural areas have probably never seen a black person. It is hard for me to comment on the situation in the US. The roots of racism and racist ideas (which is very important) in America are many. But racial inequalities are maintained by racist policies.

    The fact is that the division of the population by race has nothing with human biology and genetics. It is an example of how a seemingly obvious thesis without being at all accurate, not only survives, persists, is generally accepted and rooted, but can have terrible and cruel consequences – to incite wars, social and economic divisions, pogroms and monstrous massacres.

    Until the term ‘race’ exists, no definition of the word racism will change anything. Unfortunately, we live in a dangerous polar opposite world, with no middle ground.

    • Hi, Lada. I’m so happy to read my article and decided to comment.

      What’s particularly challenging in the United States is that we can’t even agree on the policies that are and are not racist. And we have no appreciation or respect for the Law of Unintended Consequences. Or, as the popular saying expresses that same notion, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

      We do, indeed, live in a dangerous, divided world. The only way to get to a middle ground is to create it. And we’ll only get there when more people than not see themselves as sovereign individuals — as opposed to members of identity groups — and commit to talking and working with each other.

      Thank you for joining this conversation.

    • Mark, I really want to believe it is possible to create a middle ground between those holding extreme views (not only about the racist issue).
      But it requires people to be aware of their biases first and then to see beyond those biases.
      The middle ground is a complex issue, not just in politics.

  2. Thanks for sharing this perspective, Mark, and making us think. We always need to be curious, ask questions, research what we’re unclear about and make our own decisions based on our findings as they mesh with our experiences and what we think we know. Then, we have discussions to find out if what side of the fence what we think we know lies.

    • I’m grateful for your comments, Monique. One of my favorite expressions is this: “Never believe anything until it’s officially denied.” By the same token, I’ll coin this variation: “Dig most deeply into anything presented as ‘settled’.”

      Someday, I’d love to have a conversation with a dinosaur to get his thoughts on whether human beings cause climate change. 😉

  3. Mark O’Brien, what an articulate, balanced, and inspirational response to the whole question of race. And, of course, courageous. I have to laugh (albeit sadly) when I see the adulation and support given to Robin D’Angelo for her best-selling and force-fed treatise, ‘White Fragility’, which is not an academic effort, but straight propaganda. The title alone manages to be racist and fallacious (ad hominem, petitio principii, and Straw Man fallacy) in just two words. I know my last article, Reconcilable Differences, is longer than most people these days care to read, but it does explain the danger the US and the West generally are confronted with as Oligarchic and Marxist minorities terrorise and confuse the vast majority of the population, softening them up for the coming revolution. We’ve seen it all before – very recently. Don’t let it happen again. The US, like NZ, is one of the least racist countries in the world, but as the great Thomas Sowell said, “The word “racism” is like ketchup. It can be put on practically anything — and demanding evidence makes you a ‘racist.'”

    • Thank you so much, Andre. I take these comments from Albert Einstein to heart: “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices, but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence and fulfills the duty to express the results of his thought in clear form.” And as I suggest in another comment in this thread, we can throw Ibram Kendi, Isabel Wilkerson, Michael Eric Dyson, and others into that list of agenda-mongering propagandists and shills of of the grievance industry.

      What concerns me is the fact that we have seen it all before and, apparently, learned nothing. It’s staggeringly ironic that if all the propagandists actually heeded and learned from history, we’d be much closer to the utopia their ignorance precludes. (Note to self: Write a book called Cycles of Ignorance.)

      Thank you for your thoughtfulness and for joining this conversation.

  4. As I discussed with Dennis after my first Salon experience, the word racism has many meanings to different people. Any conversation without first establishing the meaning of the word is doomed to failure as people are literally having different conversations. On group is talking about an orange, the other talking about a dog.

    When I brought this up in the most recent Salon, the academic’s definition was brought out. A definition I thoroughly reject as it essentially leads to what is taught in (at least my kids’) public school, All whites are racist because they’re white and blacks can’t be racist. So, with that being the case, I don’t know how to have a conversation.

    I kind of knew where things would go when I saw posts from this medium giving either/or options or talking about getting rid of or destroying racism (just from recollection or feelings from the posts, I don’t know where they are), etc. And the opening soliloquies made it clear that I, with a less than radical view on race, was not the target audience.

    Basically, if we start the conversation 90% of the way through the topic, we’re not having a real conversation about the topic.

    And the irony was that the prompt was something along the lines of being treated differently based on race, it did not ask about racism. Hey, that is something I could get behind! Don’t treat people differently because of the color of their skin! Yes! Let’s go with that as a starting point!

    I came back because “we” desperately need to be able to speak to each other, debate, discuss any and all topics and I’m looking for the venue for those conversations.

    • Hi Mike – no doubt Mark will weigh in here, but your commentary confirms the need within the Salon and beyond to break up the logjam and steer the dialogue back to that which each of us can relate to and deal with at the core (e.g. being treated differently based on race, it did not ask about racism. Hey, that is something I could get behind! Don’t treat people differently because of the color of their skin!”) … And your feedback coupled with that of so many others also confirms the need for the Salon to prevail, as we adjust the sails along the way to make it a worthwhile investment of time for those that show up, step up and speak up because they ‘get it’… and are ready to push through the age-old roadblocks preventing thoughtful, forward-looking discussion, absent the need to come away holding hands and singing kumbaya… And if that means only 10 people show up versus 50, that’s fine to… Our job is to set the stage and then get out of the way so as not to impact the performance. Along the way, we need more captains (like you) willing to respectfully steer their ships (Breakout Rooms) using a compass poised to make shift happen.

    • Little more to say Mike other than we will (as stated) ensure the stage is set for more walkin’ following much more talkin’ …

      1. Cutting the Opening & Closing segment for the benefit of ample time in the Breakout Rooms for those seriously interested in diving deeper. We need to emphasize the need for each Breakout Room participant to take ownership of their Room when it comes to dealing with long-winded occupants, off-topic dialogue, and too much kumbaya. Far too many folks are expecting “Room Monitors/Moderation” from us versus simply stepping up, grabbing the baton, and running with it.

      2. As we did several weeks ago (second Salon), we need to bring even greater clarity to our breakout room question(s) and expectations (call to action). And our question(s) need to be directly related to the overarching theme.

      I plan to make the above to drive the above two points home in my opening, as after two Salon 360° “practice runs” it’s time for those showing up to actually step up, speak up, while (truly) getting comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. And finally, it’s time for everyone to show up on time out of respect for those that do – which means we may literally close the door for folks to enter when the clock strikes 3:00 PM. May sound aggressive, but we can’t expect adult conversations unless we expect a bit of adult discipline from the start – again separating this from all other Zoom calls that tend to welcome a revolving door regardless of the start time.

      Hope you’ll join us .. See:

    • Yes, Michael, we have academics like Ibram Kendi, Robin DiAngelo, Isabel Wilkerson, and others to thank for the operative terms in our “discussions” about race. We need to approach the topic from an entirely different and unexpected angle. And we have to acknowledge going in that we’ll never win over the folks who are committed to the grievance industry. If you’ve already determined you’re a racist or a victim, one “academic” who supports your position will outweigh a million people willing to give you objective facts and tell you hard truths.

      Thank you for weighing in here.

  5. Thank you for this Mark. Because of the hideous climate we are in, I knew the discussion last week would focus on being a racist if you do not subscribe to the likes of certain individuals. If you disagree with them on merit, you are a racist, closed book. Now people who adopt children of a different race are being referred to as white colonists yet when Madonna, Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie and others did the same, what was the response? Crickets. As it should have been and continue to be. Love has no color nor should merit. I will not participate in conversations that are one-sided and just as narrow-minded. In fact, isn’t that an “ism” when you are attacked because you do not follow the loud voices that claim Kumbaya. Give me a fair-minded debate on facts, and I will be there.

    • Thank you, Darlene. In the immortal words of Richard Feynman, “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered than answers that can’t be questioned.”

      Any discussion that begins with acceptance of any narrative, won’t be a discussion. It’ll be a lecture, an admonishment, or both.