Discussion with Nassim Taleb about sexism and racism in the Declaration of Independence

Nassim Taleb points to this post from congressmember Ayanna Pressley linking to an opinion piece by Matthew Rozsa. Rozsa’s article has the title, “Fourth of July’s ugly truth exposed: The Declaration of Independence is sexist, racist, prejudiced,” with subttile, “How we can embrace the underlying spirit of the Declaration of Independence — and also learn from its shortcomings.”

Here’s what Nassim wrote in his post:

This is the very definition of anachronistic bigoteering, a violation of the code of political expression, in Principia Politica.
Soon we will ban every document written between the emergence of writing in Sumer and the Obama presidency as tainted with “prejudice”.

And here’s what I wrote in response to Nassim:

I’m confused by your reaction. I followed the link, and the article by Rozsa didn’t seem anachronistic at all. It seemed very historically grounded, explaining various aspects of the Declaration of Independence based on historical context.

Also I don’t see why your reaction is “Soon we will ban every document…”. Rozsa never suggested banning the Declaration at all! His article is subtitled, “How we can embrace the underlying spirit of the Declaration of Independence — and also learn from its shortcomings.” That seems fair enough, to say that the document is sexist, racist, prejudiced, but that doesn’t make it worthless, it’s just a product of its time.

Here’s the final paragraph of Rosza’s article:

Is any of this intended to suggest that we should not take pride in the Declaration of Independence? Not even remotely: It was — and continues to be — one of the most eloquent and morally moving political documents ever penned. That said, we must also remember that our Founding Fathers were not the living gods that many believe them to be. They were fallible human beings, and some of their flaws had terrible consequences for people who were not fortunate enough to be born into privileged groups. When we celebrate the Declaration of Independence, we should embrace its underlying spirit — as well as the courage of the men who were willing to risk “our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor” — and simultaneously learn from its shortcomings. This alone can make the spirit of 1776 relevant to the conditions of 2019 — or any other year, for that matter.

This doesn’t seem anything close to the “ban everything” attitude that you wrote about.

Nassim then replied:

No the article itself doesn’t call for banning. If my tweet implied that, it is miscommunication. The article does use accusatory terms: “The Declaration… is sexist, racist, and prejudiced.” My response is not to the article per se but to the general disease of anachronistic bigoteering (that I cover in Principia Politica), which does indeed lead to censorship.

It’s not fair to say that he document is sexist, racist, prejudiced, or to flow back “isms” in time with the negative connotation they convey. That is precisely my point. Moral values were different at the time; they progress just like knowledge progresses. Using “isms” is no different from blaming the ancients for not understanding germs and calling them “obscurantists.” The very accusation is equivalent to saying that moral values don’t evolve!

It is OK to say: there was inequality of sexes; using “sexism” (with its negative connotation from today’s meaning) is not OK.

And indeed numerous authors are being censored, removed from the curriculum because of anachronistic bigoteering. In hindsight, everything in the past will be tainted.

I guess we’re just drawing the line at a different place. I think Rosza’s framing is fair: the Declaration is racist, sexist, and prejudiced, but it’s also an eloquent and morally moving document. But I do think it’s unfair for you to call Rosza’s article anachronistic, as to me it seems very careful and historically aware, the opposite of anachronistic. Also seems unfair to me to connect Rosza, who’s talking about flaws in a document that he things we should “take pride in,” with other people who are censoring things. Critical discussion is not in any way a form of censorship.

I sent the above to Nassim, who wrote:

I totally agree that we should be critical of the ancients—so long as we do not engage in hindsight games and values via modern accusatory language. I for myself have been waging a war against Plato and his legacy.

The danger of censorship is real (just witness the calls for the removal of statues, texts from the curricula, and the trending bowdlerization of the discourse). And the fact that you yourself wrote “the Declaration is racist, sexist, and prejudiced,” with the “isms” and the accusation of “prejudice” scare me quite a bit.

Accusing every single ancient of “racism” (which you practically can) trivializes the attitude modern racists and, by cheapening the currency, hurts their victims. Because someone racist in 2019 is racist.

A war against Plato, huh? You’re in good company. Karl Popper famously started wars with Plato, Marx, and Freud. None of these targets were around to fight back, but that’s ok. Typically in a dispute we have little hope of convincing the other person anyway, and all these people left enough written material to serve in their defense.

Regarding the Declaration being racist, sexist, and prejudiced: Yeah, not much of a surprise given that it was written by a dude who bought and sold slaves. But I’m with Rosza that the document should be understood in historical context. Not banned or censored or bowdlerized.