Friday, July 11, 2014

Cathy Reisenwitz Remains Confused

by Bretigne Shaffer

Last January I wrote a piece for EPJ on “Libertarians and Privilege” in response to an online debate between Cathy Reisenwitz and Julie Borowski on the topic of “privilege.” In it, I argued against Reisenwitz’s position that libertarians ought to not only oppose the initiation of force, but should also be concerned with  “...the cultural attitudes, ignorance and prejudices that form the basis of (the desire to preserve unearned power)” I also reiterated my rejection of the term “privilege” as she uses it, and explained my reasons for rejecting it. Yesterday, re-posted my article and Reisenwitz responded here.

Reisenwitz starts off by chiding me for focusing on this particular debate but failing to cite her contribution to another online debate - a contribution she wrote some five months after my article had appeared. She then takes me to task for
claiming that she failed to address the criticism she had received regarding her claim that shaming is a form of coercion. She writes:

“...the first mistake Shaffer makes is to claim I failed to address criticisms to my “shaming is coercion” article that I actually did address. In the follow-up article.

“...Also funny: When writers don’t do their due diligence. In fact I clarified that although I do acknowledge that shaming can be a form of coercion (something I’m not the only writer to assert) that fact doesn’t justify using even more coercion to punish it.”

In fact, I did read Reisenwitz’s follow-up article. Far from “addressing” the criticism she received, she simply redefined the word “coercion” to make it appear that there was no problem with what she had said. She writes:

“In my mind, this is the key difference between coercion and persuasion: persuasion is pointing out the natural consequences to another person of possible courses of action for them. Coercion is creating those consequences.

So, while you and I may have grown up believing that “coercion” refers to the use of violence or the threat of violence to get others to do what you want them to, in Cathy-Land, coercion means “creating negative consequences” for actions or behavior.

This is interesting. This means that, for example, refusing to do business with people whose behavior you disapprove of could be considered “coercion.” Would it be the kind of coercion that Reisenwitz would want to make illegal or otherwise respond to with force? It’s hard to tell, because all she says on the matter is this:

“I can see how it would follow that if I want to classify shaming as coercion, I want it made illegal as well, particularly if the person reading it is not an anarchist ... But I do not. I am an anarchist, and I see clearly the horrendous, freedom-limiting unintended consequences of this.”

Reading this, I have no idea where Reisenwitz draws the line between “the kind of coercion for which force is justified as a response” and the kind for which it is not. And this is kind of important because this is the very distinction with which libertarianism is concerned: When is the use of force justified and when is it not? That Reisenwitz does not even address this question is precisely why I wrote that she is “confused by the whole ‘force’ distinction.”

Reisenwitz then attacks my statement that “It is not a “lack of empathy” that is at the root of these bad laws - it is the institution of the state itself...”, calling it “asinine.” She continues:

Now, where, I’d ask Shaffer, does the will and drive to create and tolerate sodomy laws, redlining, vagrancy laws, laws against women owning property, and so on originate? The “state itself” isn’t a good enough, or actually helpful in any way, answer.”

The answer is that from the standpoint of determining whether or not these laws are legitimate, it doesn’t matter where the will and drive for them came from. Just as it doesn’t matter what the motives are that drive a potential rapist in determining whether or not you are justified in using force to repel him. The question is thoroughly and completely irrelevant to this particular problem.

...which is not the same as saying that this question is irrelevant to life itself or to a better understanding of society. Another point that seems to confuse Reisenwitz:

“Shaffer is claiming she’s taking “a principled stance against coercion,” by ignoring bigotry, and it’s result: privilege. In reality, she’s decided, arbitrarily, that the only thing that matters is that physical violence is threatened against an individual.”

But I never advocated ignoring bigotry. (I did say plenty about the concept of “privilege”, but maybe she didn’t read that far.) All I’ve said is that libertarianism does not require a stance on bigotry one way or the other, and that bigotry itself is not a violation of the Non-Aggression Principle. In fact, I’ve written about sexism in language, racism in law enforcement, and in 2008 I made a documentary that highlighted systematic discrimination against minorities and low-income families in a public school system. So it’s a little strange to be told that I am  “personally disinterested in identity-based oppression” and that I am “ignoring bigotry.” But perhaps the whole distinction of the NAP is too subtle for Reisenwitz to grasp.

Her second point here is simply bizarre. She can’t possibly believe that I invented the NAP, nor can she believe that I think “...the only thing that matters is that physical violence is threatened against an individual.”  Again, what I said was that physical violence, or the threat thereof, is the only thing that justifies physical violence as a response. This is pretty basic stuff.

Reisenwitz further reveals her ignorance of libertarian thinking when she writes: “Questions like ...why physical violence is coercion but character assassination or blackmail isn’t, are all unanswered.” She’s right, I didn’t discuss character assassination or blackmail - primarily because neither were what my article was about. But these issues have been extensively addressed by libertarian thinkers such as Murray Rothbard and Walter Block among others. Says Rothbard for example:

“...since every man owns his own mind, he cannot therefore own the minds of anyone else. And yet Jones’s “reputation” is neither a physical entity nor is it something contained within or on his own person. Jones’s “reputation” is purely a function of the subjective attitudes and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people. But since these are beliefs in the minds of others, Jones can in no way legitimately own or control them. Jones can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people.”

As I’ve said, there’s nothing wrong with examining issues of race, class, gender, etc. from a libertarian perspective. There is however something wrong with trying to redefine libertarianism to require such an examination, which is what Reisenwitz is attempting to do here. There is enough confusion about violence and morality outside of libertarian circles, and enough outright dismissal of the Non-Aggression Principle as “arbitrary” in a world that accepts and even worships state violence. It is disappointing to hear this kind of thing coming from those who present themselves as libertarians/anarchists as well.

Bretigne Shaffer blogs at On the Banks.


  1. You know Bretigne its amazing how so many bright people cant figure out the nuance inherent in true NAP Libertarianism.

    A homily about most SHTF scenarios from a good friend of mine goes:

    " Yes, I see you rioting and burning those cars in the street, just make sure you stay our of my yard."


  2. Why does Reisenwitz feel libertarians need to address the "bigotry" and "inequality" problems she so often references? Should libertariens address the societal problems of alcoholism and drug addiction too?

    1. "Why does Reisenwitz feel libertarians need to address the "bigotry" and "inequality" problems she so often references?"

      The standard excuse is that it helps us attract "millenials" (ie, leftists) to the movement. Young people generally care more about racism and inequality than they do about mundane things such as not having the government murder you, self-ownership, non-aggression, etc.