avatarRebecca Ruth Gould

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Does Defining Racism Overcome it?

A philosophical enquiry into the uses and abuses of definitions of racism

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Much of the debate around the IHRA and other definitions of racism tends to focus on the substantive content that these new definitions ought to have. Relatively little attention has been paid to how these new definitions ought to be used, whether in purely academic and informal contexts, by employers or other private entities, by policymakers, or branches of government, including, most importantly, the judiciary. I argue here that the use of any given definition of racism matters as much as its substantive content, and those who ignore the abuse of such definitions do so at their peril.

At the centre of my analysis is the argument that thick description — a method introduced by anthropologist Clifford Geertz and described below — should be combined with what philosopher Gilbert Ryle would call “thin” definitions, adopted by the state for legal and quasi-legal contexts in order to nuance the adjudication of racism. While a democratic legal apparatus is compatible with minimalist definitions of racism, thick description moves beyond state regulation to develop a framework for anti-racism outside legal domains.

John Rawls and the Overlapping Consensus

Before we get to Geertz and Ryle on the subject of method, we need to contend with political philosopher John Rawls and his notion of the overlapping consensus. This is a concept which has tremendous potential for coming to terms with a range of politically contention issues, including Palestine/Israel, as politician scientist Farid Abdel-Nour has shown.

Rawls conceived of the overlapping consensus, whereby “citizens affirm a political conception wholeheartedly from within their own perspectives,” often for conflicting reasons, as the dynamic operative within liberal democracies. These separate and distinct affirmations together comprise a stable whole, that serves as the foundation for a just society.

In Rawls’ formulation, an overlapping consensus is “affirmed by opposing religious, philosophical and moral doctrines likely to thrive over generations in a more or less just constitutional democracy, where the criterion of justice is that political conception itself.” This agreement or consensus is the foundation of justice itself, even more than the substantive content of that agreement, which is various and potentially inconsistent.

Rawls offers a vision for how incommensurable positions can peacefully co-exist within society when there is an overlapping consensus, however minimal. Meanwhile, Geertz offers with the methodology of thick description as “an ongoing process of interpretation intended to achieve a level of insight into the nuances and complexities of human actions that are always open to further interpretation” a concrete means for achieving the ideal-type and otherwise rather abstract notion of overlapping consensus dreamed of by Rawls.

A key aspect of Rawls’ argument concerning the overlapping consensus — which can provisionally be described as the moral and normative content of what every citizen within a liberal democracy can reasonably be expected to believe, even if they adhere to such values for different and even contradictory reasons — is that it ought to be as narrowly defined as possible. An overlapping consensus that is excessively comprehensive will inevitably slide toward authoritarianism.

As Rawls states: “While we may not be able to avoid comprehensive doctrines entirely, we do what we can to reduce relying on their more specific details, or their more disputed features. The question is: what is the least that must be asserted; and if it must be asserted, what is its least controversial form?” From this vantage point, the major flaw of the IHRA definition of antisemitism that I and others have critiqued extensively and of other overreaching definitions of racism is that it assumes too much and it reaches too far.

Against Censorious Definitions

One advantage of newer definitions such as the Jerusalem Declaration of Antisemitism (JDA) is that its account of what antisemitism is fits better with an overlapping consensus that includes conflicting and even contradictory points of view on matters relating to Palestine and Israel. A democratically legitimate definition of racism will avoid relying on disputed features that diverge from the overlapping consensus.

Further, an adequate definition will assume (to quote Rawls again) the “least controversial form.” Here, I would prefer to revise Rawls in light of what is happening in our political present, and to replace “controversial” with “censorious.” There is nothing intrinsically wrong with controversial or partisan claims; the problem arises rather in the imposition by fiat of controversial claims which fall outside the rubric of the overlapping consensus.

I acknowledge a limited role for definitions of racism in the context of the jurisprudential adjudication (such as hate crime legislation). Yet I advocate for a non-definitional approach to racism outside of legal contexts. Definitions reify and therefore falsify empirical experience according to whatever happens to be the prevailing political creed, shutting down debate, and silencing dissent.

Once the overlapping consensus helps us clarify which definitions must be rejected as overreaching, we can use a Geertzian methodology of “thick description” to develop alternatives to the definitional framework. To the extent that they help us to understand our fellow humans’ experience of racism, approaches based on thick description are better aligned with democratic legitimacy.

Monolithic definitions appeal to politicians and policymakers because they simplify governmental action. However, at what cost does such streamlining come to our democracy and civil liberties?

History has shown that overreaching definitions often fortify authoritarian and fascist modes of governance when they are not adequately subordinated to freedom of expression as a basic — many would claim the most basic — democratic right.

One role of the overlapping consensus is to mandate such integration. Even when accurate for certain contexts, definitions can easily mislead. When they are badly formulated, or when they are held captive to political agendas, censorious definitions may inflict considerable damage on the fight against racism.

In the interest of upholding free speech (which crucially includes the right to dissent) over governmentality in the abstract, the overlapping consensus can usefully restrict the claims that any legal or quasi-legal definition of racism may make to that which is least controversial, least censorious, and least disputed.

One question that has not often been asked forcefully and carefully enough amid the sometimes-obsessive turn to definitions is what kind of work these definitions are supposed to do.

How should definitions be operationalized? By whom? What does it mean to give a definition of a phenomenon such as racism, which is notoriously difficult to measure, legal force, as has occurred, often beneath the radar of public scrutiny, with the quasi-legal IHRA definition? How precisely does defining racism work towards its eradication? Overall, what harm is done by the definitional turn?

Thin Definitions, Thick Descriptions

Beyond critiquing the object of racism, I want to develop a framework for the adjudication of racism that is not held hostage by censorious definitions. While policymaking bodies inevitably and perhaps necessarily flatten out philosophical nuances, we must engage critically with all legal and quasi-legal definitions, outlining and documenting their dangers and limits, even while recognizing the inevitability of their use in the context of modern governance.

Within the UK, the turn to definitions as a solution to the problem of racism has become so normalised that it often appears almost impossible to imagine an alternative.

Yet, an alternative becomes possible when we change our frames of reference. As a method, thick description can help bring about a world less governed by monolithic definitions that shut down debate and silence dissent. The most effective modes of thick description will be attentive to the overlapping consensus that conditions any democratic legitimacy. Indeed, the more responsive a definition of racism is to its immediate social context, the greater its ability to contribute to society as whole. In the terms of this essay, thin definitions of racism must be accompanied by thick descriptions of the experience of racism.

Clifford Geertz and Thick Description

Thick description neither seeks nor expects consensus

By introducing thick description as a concept and a method, Geertz simply formalized practices that were already innate within anthropology itself, in the form of ethnographic fieldwork.

In a lecture delivered in 1968, British analytic philosopher Gilbert Ryle first distinguished between what he called thick and thin approaches to knowledge. By way of illustrating his concept, Ryle asks us to consider a scene in which two boys squeeze the eyelids of their right eyes together.

Ryle introduces the following scenario: “In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice.” How can we discern the difference, Ryle asks, between a wink and a twitch, and when is this difference relevant? On the surface, any distinction may be difficult to discern given that at “the lowest or the thinnest level of description the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike.”

As we probe deeper, we discover that the difference between a twitch and a wink may be a matter of great significance that tells us much about the intentions of the agent, as well as the broader contextual and cultural meaning of that wink. In order to access this deeper dimension, wherein the difference between twitches and winks are most relevant, we need to look beyond the thin definitions and descriptions that are constrained by the overlapping consensus.

We must engage in thick description. In moving beyond an overlapping consensus, we venture into the realm of individual experience and emotion. This is what Geertz, following Ryle, calls “thick description.” The difference between thin and thick description begins in epistemology, and then branches out from there into other domains of politics and culture. In such contexts the difference between a twitch and a wink can be the difference between contempt and love, or admiration and satire.

In the opening essay to his landmark volume, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Geertz famously put Ryle’s distinction to anthropological ends. Further developing Ryle’s example of the wink, Geertz illustrates thin description with the formula “rapidly contracting his right eyelid.” The thick description that the anthropologist aspires to is then exemplified by a much more elaborate rendering, such as: “Practicing a burlesque of a friend faking a wink to deceive an innocent into thinking a conspiracy is in motion.”

Cover to Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973).

Stated simply, thick description is an ethnographic method that takes place in the imagination as much as in the field. Practicing thick description means making legible and sensible for ourselves the racism endured by others, which we may not directly experience in our own lives. Geertz describes thick description’s itinerary as one that is:

foreign, faded, full of ellipses, incoherencies, suspicious emendations, and tendentious commentaries, […] written not in conventionalized graphs of sound but in transient examples of shaped behavior.

Thick description embraces a pluralistic epistemology that recognises the variability of the ways in which we experience and define racism. This is what makes thick description relevant to the adjudication of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other racisms. Along with the “history of interlaced pasts” advocated for by Jonathan Judaken and his fellow historians of antisemitism that replaces the perceived uniqueness of antisemitism with “comparative frames,” pursuing thick description within the framework of an overlapping consensus will move us beyond immutable and ahistorical understandings of racism and sometimes censorious as well as counterproductive project of defining it.

Thick description could be compared to Judaken’s “history of interlaced pasts” inasmuch as it is constructed from “transient examples of shaped behavior” rather than abstract postulates. Yet it is squarely focused on the present; it addresses itself not just to the historical record, but to the conflagration of political forces in any given moment, and in particular to their irreconcilable disagreements.

Thick description neither seeks nor expects consensus: in a liberal democracy, the terms of consent have already been determined by the overlapping consensus. Specifically, they are bounded by the least censorious version — or substantive definition — of it.

Another advantage of using thick description to interpret racism is that it clarifies the adjudicator’s positionality. The issue of who has the right to interpret racism has become a subject of intense contestation in many UK and global debate around antisemitism. Often, it is insisted that only Jews — and often only Jews of certain political persuasion — are authorized to define what is and is not antisemitic. Or alternatively, only Muslims or those who experience persecution as Muslims, are authorized to reflect on the appropriate scope of a definition of Islamophobia. Attempts to critically engage with new definitions of antisemitism and Islamophobia are treated as presumptively antisemitic and Islamophobic.

Amid such stalemates, thick description enables a move beyond the search for mere agreement. Thick description alleviates the practical need to vest authority in specific interpreters on the basis of intrinsically divisive criteria. It enables, in short, a movement beyond abstraction, into a more concrete empirical realm.

Once the boundaries of an overlapping consensus are established according to least censorious definitions of racism conceivable, the interpretation of racism can begin, not in isolation as a purely ontological problem of definition, but rather from the vantage point of how such evaluations are experienced. Whereas the former relies on a thin conception of the overlapping consensus, the latter requires thick description.

Philosopher Brian Klug has argued that anyone invested in the controversy around defining antisemitism ought to have the hermeneutic charity to empathise with those who consider themselves targets of antisemitism, even when agreement cannot be achieved at the level of the overlapping consensus. Putting ourselves in our opponents’ shoes is never a bad idea.

From the point of view of an overlapping consensus, it may for example be implausible for Labour MP Margaret Hodge to compare her experience of being Jewish under Corbyn’s Labour with her ancestors’ experience of the Nazi regime, as she famously did in 2018. We can reject Hodge’s comparison while still gaining insight into how she arrived at them by making use of the methodology of thick description. We can understand — and reject — her position and nonetheless trace this type of comparison to the causal normalization of the Holocaust that is having genocidal effects in Gaza as of 2024.

Thick description offers us a means of grappling with our opponents’ positions without surrendering our ethical commitments. It enables us, in short, to hold more than one idea in our head at the same time.

While the overlapping consensus restricts us from imposing overreaching or censorious definitions onto an entire society, thick description would enable us to understand Hodge’s experience on her own terms.

Thick description is governed by a mandate different from that which governs the overlapping consensus, and we need not limit the range of its content. Hermeneutic charity should be extended to anyone who feels that they have become a target of racism, and thick description is among the most effective methods for acquiring this kind of understanding.

Undoing the Damage of Monolithic Stereotypes

The strength of our resistance benefits from understanding them.

The key task in the adjudication of racism is to distinguish between an institutional domain in which the boundaries of the overlapping consensus are rigorously protected and censorious definitions not imposed by fiat, and the role of thick description in opening our eyes to the experiences and viewpoints distant from our own. As for these latter views, we need not accept them, but we should understand them. Indeed, the strength of our resistance benefits from understanding them.

We need precise delineations of these distinctions, such that thick description does not encroach on the overlapping consensus, and is not used to manipulate it. The confusion and conflation of these two domains is increasingly common in the adjudication of racism, and often lies at the core of abusive applications of definitions of racism, particularly through the weaponization of the IHRA definition within the UK.

Most contemporary forms of liberal governance prize ambiguity. States erect partitions around meanings, and assign singular rather than overlapping statuses to identities. For example, it is easier for politicians to categorize Jews as people who support Israel and who identify with mainstream Jewish public opinion than it is to recognize Jews as a fluid demographic that does not easily fit into a single rubric.

Minorities within minorities are not readily recognised by modern bureaucracy, nor are dissidents at the fringes of any given group easily legible. Overreaching definitions of racism may have the net effect of reifying the differences among overlapping groups.

Thick description is a strategy for undoing the damage that such definitions inflict. Where states and their agencies prefer monolithic and one-dimensional approaches to complex and overlapping problems, thick descriptions offer nuance and depth. Thick description is a necessary corrective to the limits imposed by the (necessary yet restrictive) overlapping consensus within liberal governmentality.

A Method, Not a Panacea

Consensus creates the infrastructure, but thick description is the glue that holds it together.

Thick description cannot solve the problem of racism on its own. Geertz recognised well the risks associated with the method of thick description. “Cultural analysis,” he writes, “is intrinsically incomplete…the more deeply it goes the less complete it is. It is a strange science whose most telling assertions are its most tremulously based.”

Just as sciences built around doubt will appear “tremulous” to some, a polity cannot be governed by thick description alone. An overlapping consensus that rejects censorship can provide stability and certainty, as well as a common ground without which justice cannot be attained. At the same time, thick description is indispensable if we are to understand and appreciate those with whom we must live amid our irreconcilable differences.

Liberal democracy is hardly worthwhile if it cannot accommodate a polity that trusts and empowers its citizens to manage their affairs and to contribute to the betterment of society based on their overlapping — yet rarely coinciding — understandings of how the world is and how it ought to be. Achieving such an equilibrium requires that thick description operate within the overlapping consensus without undermining it.

The thick descriptions that ought to govern our social lives and expand our horizons extend to understanding — and not merely defining — racism. In short, my concept of thick description, derived from anthropology, can be integrated with Rawls’ concept of overlapping consensus in the political sphere. Supplementing thin definitions with thick description will sustain the epistemic and empathetic work that consensus cannot produce by itself. Consensus creates the infrastructure, but thick description is the glue that holds it together.

Those of us who have witnessed and participated in the debates around antisemitism and Palestine solidarity within many European and North American states and which shows no sign of being resolved anytime soon are well aware that the price of violating the overlapping consensus is polarization, endless proxy wars over politicized meanings, and the complete derailment of the pursuit of justice, for Palestinians and for Jews alike.

Justice will not be advanced — and racism will not be overcome — so long as society’s overlapping consensus is undermined through the assignment of unwarranted quasi-legal legitimacy to contentious definitions of racism and the systematic erasure of those with whom we disagree and cannot understand.

Further Reading

Clifford Geertz, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” in The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 3–33.

Jonathan Judaken, “Introduction,” The American Historical Review 123.4 (2018): 1122–1138.

John Rawls, “The Idea of An Overlapping Consensus,” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 7.1 (1987): 1–25.

Gilbert Ryle. “Thinking and Reflecting,” in The Human Agent. Royal Institute of Philosophy Lectures (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1968).

Gilbert Ryle. “The Thinking of Thoughts: What is ‘Le Penseur’ Doing?” ‘University Lectures’, no.18 (University of Saskatchewan, 1968).

I have gathered my writings on the challenges of defining antisemitism and its weaponization through the IHRA definition in this list:

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Racism
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