(Captain's log): The vast
majority of people who write to me are polite, friendly and
articulate. Occasionally I get hate mail, and that I typically
ignore. I have not, however, had anyone try to use my mail to smear
me before. In the aftermath of my postings over the weekend about
such issues as discrimination, John Ray began to write me mail about
the question of the basis on which employers would be justified in
using some criteria in what I guess could be called "nonstandard"
Over the course of several letters, I made what I thought were
strong statements against the idea of racial discrimination in
hiring, and in response each time he pushed the idea yet again, and
seemed to be trying to convince me that it was actually justified in
some cases. I finally decided that I had somehow attracted the
attention of a white supremacist and that I was wasting my time with
him, so I ended the discussion as politely as I could.
What he then did was to collect the entire email transaction and
send it to John Hawkins, proprietor of The Right Wing News, who
has reproduced a couple of my posts on his site (with my permission)
and who links to me quite often from his "Daily News" sidebar (which
I appreciate). Ray sent a cover letter to Hawkins attempting to
pretend that he'd talked me into supporting discrimination.
Under the circumstances I think he has forfeited any
consideration of confidentiality, and I choose to publish the entire
interchange here just to make sure it's all on the record. I do
wonder if he sent it to anyone else besides John Hawkins.
What Ray wrote will be in green below; what I wrote in black.
What is reproduced here is what John Ray send to John Hawkins, but
it includes substantially everything that passed between us (with
RAY: Your view that
"society" should remedy discrimination sounds like the worst sort
of liberal nonsense to me. One of the most pernicious forms of
discrimination today is the discrimination against flat-chested
women and short men. Both find it hard to get mates. What should
the government do about that? Treating all its citizens equally is
about the full obligation of government as far as I can
DEN BESTE: I was referring to discrimination
RAY: If I was hiring
people I would be darned careful not to hire lazy people. What
should the government do about that sort of
DEN BESTE: For most people, "discrimination in
hiring" means to make selections between candidates based on
aspects of them which do not directly relate to their ability to
perform the job at hand.
Laziness is clearly job related, and making a decision based on
that (were it possible to determine about a candidate) is not
RAY: Predicting how a
person will perform in a job is difficult but important and EVERY
hirer does his/her best at it. Any criterion we use will be (say)
only 80% right. But we will still use what we can. Ruling out
people with thick lips might give us the best hit-rate in
selecting people suitable for the job. Should the government stop
us from choosing the best people for a job?
DEN BESTE: You would have to actually
establish a connection between thick lips and job performance
before you could use such a criterion.
I do not find your arguments credible.
The government should not stop us from choosing the best
people, but the government has a manifest interest in preventing
us from using rationalization and junk science as a way of
pretending that "choosing the best people" is in practice a way of
discriminating. We are permitted to choose the best people, but we
don't get to define "best" in quirky ways; "best" is a general
criterion set by our society, not explicitly by us.
If you were using a criterion such as "thick lips" to
differentiate candidates, the government would be entirely
justified in saying to you either that you had to stop doing so or
else present significant justification for why that particular
characteristic of candidates truly did affect their ability to
perform the job. In general, my opinion is that any use of unusual
and bizarre filters can reasonably be assumed to be wrong until
proven right, and its use illegal until justified.
It's not as if the process of interviewing and hiring is
totally mysterious. It's been getting done for a long time, and
when we're hiring, for instance, engineers of a given type it's
reasonably well understood what does and does not make one a
decent choice to hire. "Thick lips" or "curly hair" do not make
sense and if we tried to use such a criterion, we'd be in deep
trouble, no matter what explanation we used for why we thought
that made sense.
And we'd deserve every bit of it, too, for being blithering
RAY: What if I had found
from experience that people with thick lips were generally bad
choices for my sort of job? Should I be prevented from using my
In his transcript to John Hawkins, Ray left out an exchange at
this point. I responded to his question with one word: "Yes". He
also responded with one word: "Why?" My next letter was the answer
to this query.
DEN BESTE: If you can make a legitimate case
to someone else (i.e. the government) for why that matters, then
you should be permitted to do this. But only if you can. The
default assumption when using a criterion like this is that you're
wrong, until you can prove that you're right. That is the only way
it can be.
If your only explanation is, "It's been my prior experience
that..." then it should not be allowed. You may be telling the
truth, but this opens the door for others to lie and use the same
explanation to cover up discrimination.
"It's been my prior experience that..." isn't good enough. If
that is all you have to justify it, then you should be prevented
from using that criterion when considering hiring.
Like all cases this is a balancing act between the rights of
different people. All of us have to yield some liberty to increase
the liberty of others. In this case I think there is no doubt
whatever that it is in society's best interest that employers be
restrained from exercising unlimited rights to choose who to hire
so as to increase the ability of the members of society to find
jobs without facing discrimination. I don't consider the arguments
on either side of this issue even slightly close, in fact; there's
no case at all to be made that society or the vast majority of
those who live in it would benefit by letting employers use a
flimsy excuse like this as a way to rationalize
So the only way that this kind of rationale could be permitted
is if you well and truly proved that it made sense. Otherwise you
should absolutely be prevented from using this kind of way of
evaluating candidates, even if your experience has been that it
did make a difference.
If it really did make a difference, you should have no trouble
proving it to someone else.
You should not be forced to hire what society thinks are
unqualified applicants. What you think are unqualified
applicants doesn't matter and you should not be permitted to
create and use your own definition unless you can prove to society
that it makes sense. If you, and everyone else, were permitted to
do that then we'd have too great a chance of reverting to the old
days of "Negroes need not apply" appearing in the help wanted
Look, you seem to have some point you're trying to prove. I
understand the point you think you're making. I unconditionally
disagree with it.
RAY: So you agree that if
I did a proper scientific study trying out different criteria for
job selection and thick lips turned out to be the best predictor
then the government should allow me to use that
DEN BESTE: Some questions are so hypothetical
that there isn't any point in discussing them. "If a pig had
wings, would it be a pigeon?" The only answer to a question like
that is to say, "Let me know when you've found one, and I'll look
at it then and tell you."
I am EXTREMELY confident that it is not
possible to prove that point with a proper scientific study, and
therefore I do not feel any need to consider the possibility of
what we would do if such a study actually did prove that it were
When you've done the study and think you've made such a case,
let me know and then I'll consider it.
In the mean time, I don't care to continue this discussion.
I would be happy to correspond again with you in future, on
different subjects, but I will not be writing any more letters
about this subject.
Thus it ended. Here is Ray's cover letter sent to Hawkins, along
with the above letters:
Steven Den Beste is one of the internet's most popular
"bloggers". He runs a site which he aptly calls "USS Clueless".
His popularity seems to stem from the fact that he is a political
centrist -- he has something for everyone. Fence-sitters, however,
often have the unfortunate experience of finding that the fence is
made of barbed-wire and so it proved to be when I recently
subjected him to a Socratic interrogation about his support for
affirmative action. When the debate rapidly showed that his ideas
came perilously close to supporting discrimination AGAINST
Negroes, he terminated the discussion! You may find the debate
amusing. I reproduce it below.
John Hawkins responded that he didn't agree that this indicated
that I supported discrimination. He also copied me on his response,
for which I'd like to thank him.
I receive questions like this (well, not really like
this) all the time, and nearly always those who write are
genuinely confused about something they've read on my site and are
seeking clarification. When I write in return to provide further
explanation, such correspondents will actively seek to understand
what I'm saying, and to interpret it the way I intend it to be
It had become clear to me that Ray was doing his best to be
obtuse and to try to twist my words, which is why I began to suspect
that I was dealing with a white supremacist. I could see what he was
trying to do and I didn't want to play the game any longer. That's
what the final paragraph of my second-to-last post tried to
communicate: Yes, I know that you're trying to justify
discrimination. I don't agree.
And when I received his next letter, my reaction was
exasperation. This bozo is still trying to press that
point? After everything I'd already written? It was obvious he was
never going to let it go, especially since the last question was
what lawyers refer to as a "leading question", and not a genuine
attempt to further understand what I thought. I considered ignoring
him, but after several exchanges I felt some obligation to let him
know that I was no longer going to reply.
I did not suspect that he was actually trying to set me
up until I received the copy of John Hawkins' letter. And I still do
not have the faintest idea why he did this.
I leave it to you, good readers, to decide if he did indeed
manage to use the Socratic method to make me admit that sometimes
discrimination should be justified, or if I did indeed cut off the
discussion because he had me backed into a corner.
I'm sure my new friends Max B.
Sawicky and Demosthenes would be
quite surprised to see anyone characterize me as a "centrist". See,
guys, I'm not a conservative after all.
Update 20020819: John Ray writes as follows:
Dear Mr Den Beste
I refer further to the fact that you have implied that I am a
“white supremacist” on your website.
In the matter concerned, I am simply a traditional conservative
who believes in equality of opportunity and who hence opposes
affirmative action as unjust to the people who have earned their
opportunity but been denied it because of their white skin or
their male gender etc. Judging by various votes that have been
taken, many ordinary Americans have similar views. I therefore
used the Socratic method of simply asking you questions that
followed on from your own statements to show that your own quite
reasonable fundamental assumptions and values contradicted your
support for affirmative action. My own views are set out in some
detail at: http://jonjayray.blogspot.com/
I think therefore that you owe me a public retraction for
implying that I am a “white supremacist”. Such an epithet is
highly defamatory and therefore almost certainly highly actionable
(Dr) John Ray
It's a first for USS Clueless: my first time where someone tries
to use a threat of a lawsuit to shut me up. I guess this means I've
I recommend that John read
this and this.
Then read this definition of "actual malice" and
stop trying to intimidate me with empty threats. I'm not impressed.
Neither will any lawyer be that you talk to.
At the time I wrote it, I honestly thought it was true. Thus even
if I was mistaken, there is no "actual malice" and libel against a
public figure cannot be proved.