On May 28, progressive election data analyst David Shor tweeted about a new paper by Princeton professor Omar Wasow, showing that peaceful civil-rights protests moved public opinion toward protesters while violent protests had the opposite effect. The tweet violated a taboo in some left-wing quarters against criticizing violent protest and led within days to his firing.
What happened after that was even more bizarre. On June 11, I wrote an article briefly describing Shor’s tweet and firing. Four days later, “Progressphiles,” a LISTSERV for left-of-center data analysts, kicked Shor off. In a message to the group, the moderators described his tweet as “racist” and further accused him of having “encouraged harassment” of another member of the list:
David Shor, a member of this community, knowingly harassed and bullied another member of this space. In response to a well-deserved call in over a racist tweet, he encouraged harassment that led to death threats instead of choosing to learn and grow from his mistake. We as the Progressphiles Moderators, professionals in this industry, and as people, absolutely condemn this behavior. It is unacceptable to make people on this list and in this community feel unsafe for calling out wrongdoings. We cannot begin to decolonize our minds if we do not create safety for those fighting against white supremacy. It is on all of us to do this work, but especially to show up for those already doing it and make sure they are safe. By not acting, we are perpetuating the racism and sexism we know exists on this list and in our community at large. As such, we have removed David Shor from Progressphiles.
The “racist tweet” was of course a straightforward summary of a respected professor’s work. The moderators have not publicly substantiated the accusation that Shor encouraged harassment, nor have they responded to my request for comment on the charge.
I have obtained the entire thread. I am omitting the names of contributors, because they had an expectation of privacy when they contributed to it, and their identities aren’t terribly relevant. It reveals, first, a cruel attempt to destroy the professional reputation of Shor by smearing him with unsubstantiated charges in front of his professional peers. Second, it suggests an unsettling fear of open inquiry within the left-of-center professional data world. “Progressphiles” has roughly 1,000 members, only a tiny percentage of whom participated in the discussion about Shor, but many more of whom received a chilling message from his expulsion.
More important, the debate offers a case study in the norms of discussing race and gender within the progressive universe. Many progressives have sidestepped the problem presented by the illiberalism of these norms, dismissing them as goofy campus pratfalls. Over the past few years, and especially the past few weeks, these norms are gaining a foothold in elite professional settings, codified by tomes like White Fragility into tightly circumscribed scripts of accusation and confession. And as well intentioned as they may be, they lend themselves easily and almost automatically to abuse.
The Shor debate is anthropological evidence of these norms in action. These are not headstrong kids, nor is the episode an anomalous case of a conflict that went off the rails. It happened this way because they were following the rules.
Shor’s expulsion prompted a heated but heavily one-sided debate. The handful of members who defended Shor were met with reminders that a person who says they were victimized must be believed, and that anybody who questioned the charge needed to undergo self-examination:
I rarely post here, but I think the way this conversation has unfolded has been egregious, and I feel called to name that. I thought this was meant to be a progressive space. Many of us are not acting like it. I’m really disappointed to see so many people here reacting to defend a white man who was being held accountable for his actions, and prioritizing that over the harm he did to a queer person of color.
To all the BIPOC and especially Black folks reading this, you deserve better than how this space is behaving. To my fellow white people: If you find yourself leaping to defend a white person when they’ve been called in for doing something racist, notice that impulse, and then SLOW DOWN. Stop. Sit down and breathe and feel your feelings, take a really close look at what you’re doing and why. Find another white person who is an appropriate person to help you process them. (I am willing to do that for a few folks! Email me directly.) Find a different, more constructive action. Keep breathing. Black lives matter, Black safety matters, Black mental health matters, Black emotions matter.
This is a condensed version of the procedures laid out by writers such as Robin DiAngelo. Indeed, one member helpfully quoted a passage from White Fragility:
In all of this, please consider the very real impacts of your words and defensiveness on the BIPOC members of our progressphiles community. Instead of invalidating their perspectives, this is a great opportunity to listen and learn more about the challenges they face being in the progressive data space. I hear outrage on behalf of the person who was removed from the list, but less outrage that people in our community felt unsafe because of harassment from another person in our community. If you must take issue with the moderators’ decision, I would recommend you communicate that privately with the moderators. I offer some words from Robin DiAngelo from her book “White Fragility,” a book I would highly recommend to my fellow white progressphiles members as a great learning tool:
“If you are white and have ever been challenged to look at your own racism — perhaps you told a problematic joke or made a prejudiced assumption and someone brought it to your attention — it is common to feel defensive. If you believe that you are being told you are a bad person, all your energy is likely to go toward denying this possibility and invalidating the messenger rather than trying to understand why what you’ve said or done is hurtful. You will probably respond with white fragility. But unfortunately, white fragility can only protect the problematic behavior you feel so defensive about; it does not demonstrate that you are an open person who has no problematic racial behavior.”
You might think the “progressive data space” would give more leeway to the citation of data. But that assumption proved incorrect. The majority of posters affirmed that sharing Wasow’s paper was indeed ipso facto racist, because it could be used to support the conclusion that violent protest is harmful:
For those of you who don’t realize what makes the tweet problematic, try not to overanalyze the statistical validity of the research paper and think about the broader impact it will have if people perceive it to be true. Democrats will wave this tweet urging people to protest their oppression peacefully, which will conveniently ignore how the majority of the most visible of these actions have occurred in areas where we have Democrats running the city council. Shor had initially defended his tweet by saying “Helping Trump get re-elected is not going to lead to better behavior by cops,” and I’m certain many people here would be inclined to agree. But it is this sort of binary thinking that we have that can be so oppressive as well. Helping Trump get un-elected (in itself) is not going to lead to better behavior by cops, when the goal of abolitionist work isn’t to have better-trained/nicer/POC cops but to systematically dismantle the very institution of policing to begin with.
Indeed, one member described the citation of Wasow’s paper not as an effort to inform or persuade but as an attempt to “dictate” the behavior of people of color:
We need to recognize the role data plays in this conversation. Using it to dictate how BIPOC should feel and protest is harmful.
Another member compared Wasow’s research to phrenology and other forms of pseudoscience:
I’d like to be heard. I have been following along with these posts all day and I’m exhausted. I was working and wanted to offer my thoughts now that my day has died down. I’ve been in progressive spaces since 2006, and it didn’t take long for me to understand that in our spaces, racism isn’t always loud. It isn’t always brash or demanding, spewing racial slurs with a foaming tongue. Sometimes it’s quiet; steeped in seemingly innocuous data and facts. Racism can wrap itself in the trappings of credible logic and I swear it can make sense. But when you see how data can and has been used to oppress, undermine and devalue movements, it’s impossible not to offer a critical eye. The context to anything is everything. Just because it was written by a “type of person,” or has a decimal point means nothing. The right to question and criticize works, is the reason why people all over the world have to defend their academic work to be considered a scholar.
We have seen scientific racism from the 1600’s until the late 1960’s (in theory) ushered in at every level — wrapped in empirical pieces of evidence — that prove genetic inferiority to white people. Skull measurements used to prove that blacks’ brains weren’t as large as white brains. I’m sure that at the time no one would have thought twice about the veracity of the claims. When you are a member of the offended group, it is damn near impossible to speak up to voice any complaint, to this logic. Those who address it are often attacked and threatened. When you find someone brave enough to say, “I’ll do it, I’ll speak up,” when they know what’s about to go down, AND they do it anyway, all I can say is … Thank you.
Please for the love of all the babies, stop telling people how to process their own oppression and the offense that comes alongside it. That is not allyship, that’s quiet and polite intellectual racism.
The premise that “allyship” prohibits the questioning of any charge of racism is a common one. Not only is the rigor of Wasow’s research no defense, neither is the fact that he is also Black, which is dismissed as a “my best friend is Black” form of tokenism:
And, it is important to examine the point Shor was making in a larger sense, regardless of whose data it was that he was presenting. The point itself could be interpreted as intended to denigrate the work of the Movement for Black Lives and pin any election losses on Black lives, and the fact that folks’ first defense of this point (which is a racist point!) is to say that the researcher is biracial is literally the equivalent of saying “my best friend is Black,” so truly, I fail to understand why people want to rush to Shor’s defense.
Beyond that, the idea that the moderators are someone shutting down discourse is patently absurd. Worth considering that they are indeed, trying to shut down discourse that might actually be offensive or racist for good reason. I fully support their decision.
Note the doublethink involved: In the first sentence, claiming the moderators shut down discourse is “absurd”; in the very next line, shutting down discourse was a wise decision.
The list moderators added the the charge of “harassment” to the original indictment of a racist tweet. They refused to explain exactly how Shor engaged in harassment (and declined to respond to my emails). A member of the list who is close to the moderators provided an explanation that the moderators did not contradict, and which came to serve as the quasi-official account:
I am told that Mr. Shor’s behaviour that constituted raising the mobs and threats was going to New York Magazine, cap in hand, asking for the story to be told from his perspective and denigrating the qualifications of The Author.
New York Magazine is like neoliberal Breitbart: they are an attack publication that barely does journalism, and with the fanboys of Chait, Kilgore and Sullivan, being mentioned as the villain of the story in one of their posts is like having a target on your back. That Mr. Shor went there, knowing these things, asking for a story to blast everyone he disagreed with is enormously poor conduct and well worth the description.
This account is a mixture of distortion and outright falsehood. Shor did not approach me to write the article, and indeed was (and remains) extremely uncooperative and fearful, citing a nondisclosure agreement. I was forced to find other sources to confirm the story.
When I researched my piece, I found an exchange on Twitter between Shor and Ari Trujillo Wesler, a fellow progressive digital organizer. I quoted the exchange because it provided some of the flavor to the pushback against Shor. But it was not Shor who pointed me to her response. I simply found it on Twitter.com.
As a result of her tweets being published in my article, Trujillo Wesler was allegedly subject to harassment. The apparent accusation is that Shor bears responsibility for the blowback Trujillo Wesler received from my article, which is premised on the imagined charge that he asked for the story to be written.
When one member of the list asked for substantiation, another argued that asking for the evidence to support the claim of harassment was insensitive to the victim:
[name withheld], I need to call out a few things on what you’ve written here. You first praise the moderators for being concerned for victims of harassment, then immediately ignore the harassment in your characterization of why an individual found themselves removed from this group — it was in response to the harassment that followed, not for “simply tweeting about published research.” It may not be your intention to deflect but that is what is happening with these words.
Too often the burden of public exhibition is demanded of the victim. Whatever happened behind the scenes that escalated this situation far beyond a disagreement about the content of the tweet, up to and including inviting public attacks on a member of our community, I expect the moderators were privy to some of that information, and the employer of the removed individual certainly saw enough, and that information is not a public matter you should demand be shared. That disrespects the victim and the already significant spotlight placed on them. And ignores the fact that were moderators to share anything, it would likely also find its way to the public eye as well, making it even worse for the person wronged. Please demonstrate the same concern you initially praised the moderators for showing.
“Present the evidence” is incredibly insensitive to the nature of situations like these. Victims have a right to privacy, and I ask you to pause and consider that.
When anybody defending the accused is automatically accused of the same crime, and any demand for evidence of the charge is seen as an extension of the original crime, you are following the logic of a witch hunt.
It would be inaccurate to take the overall tenor of this discussion as representative of the views of progressive data analysts in the group. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true. Seeing one of their peers fired from his job and then banished from their professional network after being accused of racism, and then other members similarly accused merely for questioning the fairness of this response, surely dissuaded many people who disagreed from speaking up.
“Reasonable people are not commenting, and the reasonable people are afraid for their jobs,” one member told me, adding that several peers had sent private messages objecting to Shor’s mistreatment that they felt afraid to share with the list.
Elite institutions like “Progressphiles” deserve credit for attempting to grapple with the crisis of institutional racism, a task many institutions have not even bothered to undertake. Simple color blindness is not enough to make women and people of color feel welcome and fully equal in spaces in which few of them have been admitted. These institutions need to develop norms of conduct that allow underrepresented groups to feel truly equal while accounting for human complexity and permitting people to express themselves in natural language rather than academic jargon.
The protocols they are using now do not work. Liberals must find better ones.