The False Virtue of Incrementalism

calvin-kick-ass-e1302010511948I like to state that I abandoned Twitter, but my shameful secret is that I frequent it still pretty regularly. It’s still probably the best place to go for interesting news and views; I pop in on a few econ and tech personalities to check the common thinking and broaden my perspective. I try not to tweet because I no longer find any value in contributing. I find the echo chambers tedious and the discourse generally watered-down. As Noam Chomsky has observed, I see discourse of varying polarities all happening in a neat box. It’s like our political sideshow of Democrats and Republicans, everyone generally agrees with one another with differences on the margins. Twitter is subtly reinforcing that dynamic by lumping like groups together. Its aggregation philosophy is to give you more of the same, to steer you toward what you already want to see versus what you may need to see. I really don’t frequent it to learn anything new so much as gauge the landscape of popular thought.

A couple of days ago, I came across a thread by econ writer Noah Smith regarding the improving state of Blacks in America. I generally found it encouraging but a tweet toward the end of the thread got me pretty heated; to paraphrase, Smith expressed that the improvements in the lives of Blacks made him more optimistic regarding the American system.

I vehemently disagreed and expressed that sentiment in no uncertain terms. As far as I was (and am) concerned, I don’t view the improvement of the lives of Blacks in America as a validation of the American system, but as an indictment. What Blacks have gone through in this country to achieve what they have is a testament to their strength and resolve but, by my estimation, they have already more than earned the right to be equal and valued members of society from their blood, sacrifices, and suffering many times over. I find the fact that Blacks still have to prove themselves and “earn” the rights that whites have in society (which are also freely given to other, more highly regarded minorities) a profound injustice.

Smith’s response to my feedback amounted to what I consider a defense of incrementalism which, based on my initial statement, was a non sequitur. He also threw in a straw man attack by implying that I either desire or glorify revolution, which was mystifying as I don’t think I’ve used that word even once on this entire site (don’t quote me on that though).

In the end, I decided to take my foot off the gas and let him be because it wasn’t my intention to embarrass him. Instead, I wanted him to consider how his attitude was, ironically, indicative of the very reasons why Blacks have struggled so hard in this country and why progress has been so difficult for Blacks to truly appreciate.

I’ve decided that the best way to express my thoughts on this matter is to kick Noah Smith’s ass… figuratively of course.

The Ass Kicking

Let’s say that, through some extraordinary act of coercion, I gained the right to kick someone in the ass at will. And let’s say that I did indeed kick that person in the ass 10 times every day. And let’s say, just for giggles, that I really enjoyed kicking their ass and that I did it with vigor and gusto.

It’s probably safe to state that the person on the receiving end wouldn’t be particularly happy about it. They might even frequently ask for me to stop kicking them in the ass. But I like kicking their ass so, every day, they get ten swift kicks with as much energy as I can put into it.

Now let’s say that, over time, maybe a decade or two, I start kicking them in the ass less. Maybe I’ve developed arthritis of the knee or bursitis in my big toe, maybe I’m just getting older, or whatever but, for whatever reason, I just start kicking their ass less. Maybe, after a few years, I go from ten forceful kicks to about 5 or 6 merely solid kicks.

Is that progress?

On my end, I’m thinking that a few medium level kicks to the ass is much better than the ten I was previously dishing out. Maybe the person receiving the kicks appreciates the fact that, for whatever reason, they’re getting kicked in the ass a lot less with a lot less force. So, if that person has no say in how much or how badly he gets his ass kicked, any reduction, particularly a significant one, is a welcome change.

Makes sense, right?

However, there’s just one problem with this scenario (other than the obvious)… I had absolutely no right to start kicking them in the ass in the first place, I gained that privilege from an act of extraordinary coercion. So, as long as I kick them in the ass, the scales are not balanced. It isn’t until I stop kicking them entirely that the situation reaches equilibrium. As long as I perform an act needlessly to that person’s detriment, I am committing an injustice.


Some people may not see it that way. Some may think that, by some natural law or circumstance, I deserved the right to kick that person in that ass. Under those circumstances, they may consider any reduction in ass kicking a mercy to the receiver. They may think that less ass kicking was indeed progress.

See where I’m going with this?

Noah Smith called my thinking “absolutist” and stated that, if such thinking had any true power, nothing would ever change.


I have to ask myself where Noah Smith actually stands. Is the progress that Blacks have made a gift bestowed upon them by a society that could have chosen to not relent or is it only a small portion of the rights that are due to them as full members of that society?

If you think that Blacks should be happy with the incremental improvements they’ve experienced in a society in which they still face significant oppression, you should probably ask yourself just how equal, from a human perspective, you think Blacks actually are to you, particularly if you are white. Are the rights that whites and other privileged minorities enjoy a gift to be bestowed on Blacks? Or are they indeed honest-to-goodness rights?

If you think the former, then Blacks have indeed made progress. If you think the latter, then Blacks are still fighting for the right to be considered human beings in a society that still does not fully recognize them as such.

I think we need to get beyond this notion that it is okay to take our sweet time fixing the problems of the world, including racism. When all you take are baby steps, your problems will eventually catch up to you.


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