Can Software Make You Less Racist?

Some efforts by AirBnB along the same lines, to discourage people from making explicitly racist decisions:

Most significantly

In addition, the company plans to experiment with reducing the prominence of user photos, which have helped signal race and gender. Airbnb said it would also accelerate the use of instant bookings, which lets renters book places immediately without host approval.

Yeah, I stopped dead in my tracks when I read that line.

You gotta love the framing of that statement, that a differing opinion, is regressive. Quite obnoxious actually.

You’re so on the money @Brian_Z. I and many others would argue that many “progressive” ideas are “regressive”.

Ironically I find racist that in the example hispanic was typed in the “race” field xD

Well you’ve done a good job of finding a definition on the internet that supports your argument, but the truth is that the definition of the word you’ve posted is common only among people of a certain political bent. It is common among them when used to label people who disagree with them precisely because it is derogatory.
A more honest definition:

No. It can only remind you to censor yourself.

I take a couple of issues with this article. The reasoning leans a little towards the circular kind. Older people are going to be raised with older notions and standards. I’m at a loss to see how that is even regressive. Regressive means regression as in reverting back to an earlier form or degrading. In this case, the people just have old values and views. Not all of them are good, not all of them are bad and somewhere in between it is fairly subjective. The correct terminology would be that old people tend to be more conservative or hold more traditional values. Some traditional values may be more progressive. Regression is a forward motion backwards, progression is a forward motion forward. I know it can be confusing but basically, what you’ve ended up implying is that traditional values are regressive in general. Examples of genuinely regressive policies can for example be seen in Poland where new abortion laws are causing an uproar.

Progressive and regressive tend to be used to describe everything new and old as good and bad. The problem is with that is that new things aren’t always good. I can’t say I agree with genuine racism or objection to same sex marraiges. But when it comes to these subjects, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

People often fall victim to common human errors. Regardless of the idea, change it as much as you like, they don’t address the real flaws behind the mistakes humans make. One of these is only consuming new things. I know someone who refuses to watch anything but newly released movies even though there are plenty of good older movies they have not seen. The other is failing to recognise the difference between subjective morality (personal beliefs) and fact.

In the era I grew up in, I would say things were more progressive than they are now. There wasn’t such a strong notion that people should be coerced into thinking or believing certain things. Liberalism allowed for freedom of expression and belief so long as no harm was done. The era we live in now is one of authoritarian dogma. Progressive social movements have become doctrine that is blindly learnt.

I remember when I grew up people actually had an idea what racism meant. Changing individual beliefs with new information was part of that but predominantly it was about a system that was unjust. It was not so much about persecuting individuals for their personal beliefs.

I think if you’re going to resort to authoritarianism, it should be where authoritarianism is an established acceptable solution to the problem. For example in hiring people and in the other kind of areas where discrimination laws are essential. Outside of that I don’t see why it should be the task of software engineers to influence public opinion, personal beliefs and so on. In fact it sets a terrible precedence. Once you establish that power there’s no guarantee it will always be used for good.

The opposite extreme would be dating sites being forced to all become blind dating sites or something. I’ve never had a hard time discussing things with racists and getting them to think differently. I think another one of those human flaws is that people have a need to persecute others. I’ve had a much harder time having any kind of a rational or productive discussion with those who claim to not be racist. It’s not long before you give them a perspective which isn’t extreme on either end of the spectrum before they resort to insults, dirty tricks and a general inability to constructively continue the debate. I’m more concerned these days about the progressives than I am the regressives.

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Censoring yourself is a good thing, and we all do it every day. No filter between brain and mouth is… a bad idea.

Yes that’s what I want! Software that attempts to analyze my motivation and then modify my behavior according to the preconceived notions and beliefs of the programmer!

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If that isn’t working for you, feel free to use other free software that better meets your needs!

This may possibly be true:

“And those older people will, statistically speaking, be more racist.”

So what? This is definitely true:

“And those black people will, statistically speaking, be more criminal.”

Do you want your software to reflect this fact?

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In a comment above, Jeff writes:

“Sure they were – plenty of regressive beliefs were held in the last thousand years. The only constant is, the further back in time you go, the more regressive the belief systems. The very concept of civil rights had to be invented. That’s called progress!”

This is simply not true. There is no particular correlation between time and “progress” in belief systems. Witness the rise of fundamentalism in Islam. Or note that bans on inter-racial marriage are relatively infrequent and modern (last 200 years). Note the current assault on the First Amendment from many “progressive” fronts. Nevermind communism and socialism, “belief systems” that caused over 100 million deaths, and continue to kill in Venezuela and elsewhere.


Alfonso Linguini has ably responded to much of this post, but there are at least two aspects worthy of further scrutiny.

First is the wholesale condemnation of the elderly, simply due to their age. Old people are racist, bigoted homophobes - a basket of deplorables if you will - who have “old fashioned ideas”. In an act of Maoist ritual denunciation Atwood even goes so far as to publicly shame his own parents, calling them out (in bold type no less!) as “definitely someone I would label a little bit racist.” Atwood pre-apologizes “if this sounds ageist” but of course it does not just sound ageist, it is ageist. Atwood dresses this up with statistics, “the idea that regressive social opinions correlate with age isn’t an opinion; it is a statistical fact.”

Second is Mr. Atwood’s continuous virtue signaling and self-praise throughout the piece. He lets us know that he is not a racist and he is not a homophobe. He has all the right stances on all the right issues. “Your neighbors are probably a little bit racist” while for him “failure to support same-sex marriage is as inconceivable as failing to support interracial marriage.” While all of these other folks have a tiny “little” bit of racism in them, the ineluctable implication is that Mr. Atwood has none. Zero. Zip. Nada. Not even a little bit. Because if his publicly shamed parent is only a “little bit racist”, how can the son be superior to the father unless he is completely free of racism? (Given the human condition, the world would be a much better place if everyone exhibited only a “little bit” of any conceivable human failing. Progressives are always attempting to perfect the species and this has not turned out well.)

And I think here we get to what is so odd about this post. Ostensibly it is about using software to bring out the best in people, and to discourage our worst impulses. A noble endeavor perhaps. But it would more honestly have been titled “Old People Suck and I don’t”. The views of the elderly and Mr. Atwood’s virtue are irrelevant to the stated topic of the post. They are inflammatory and distracting as the comments show. And it is in the comments that we discover what really animates Atwood: Elderly people with benighted views voting incorrectly. He writes “there is a 60% chance that “any person age 65 or older will vote against same sex marriage laws” and “if the only voters in the country where age 65 and older, the statistics tell us there would be very little social change.”

It should be noted that it is ironic, if not galling, that in a recent previous post “They Have To Be Monsters” Atwood takes on the topic of people being cruel online and writing things they would never say to someone’s face. Perhaps he calls his parents racists to their faces, but of course even that is no justification for telling the world. Furthermore, in coyly shaming only one of parents, and not specifically his mother or his father, he has in fact shamed them both.

Finally, aside from irrelevance of the elderly shaming to the topic at hand, we have the actual arguments that Atwood has put forth in this context. Atwood maintains in general that moral progress and time are correlated, and that then, by definition, the elderly hold benighted views, while the young hold enlightened views (statistically speaking, of course!). Then he argues specifically that that opposition to same-sex marriage is one of those benighted views and equivalent to opposition to interracial marriage. Both of these arguments are erroneous, and if our host permits, I will take them up in subsequent comments.

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I think what happens is the goalposts move and the battleground changes. While I have a deep, abiding belief in “go about your business and I shall go about mine without bothering you in any way, through voting or any other method”, transgender people still make me very nervous in person.* I think 80 years from now our kids will be much more accepting of fluid gender than we adults are.

You can see this in the Oatmeal comic as well. Comparing “Negroes shouldn’t be allowed vote” to “the gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry” is moving forward 80 years in history.

As already covered earlier in the discussion, this reflects a deep innumeracy that borders on intentional obstinance. The numbers 61% (per surveys, the odds of any given 65 year old person opposing same sex marriage) and 0.005% are wildly different:

So yes, it is more likely you may be struck by a certain kind of meteor while walking down the street. That doesn’t make it any more realistic as an ongoing concern, though.

* To be brutally honest, women still make me nervous in person. So “person of unknown, indeterminate and/or unclear gender” makes it even tougher for me, personally. This is 100% my problem, though, that’s on me.

There is a third odd aspect to this post: the statistical sleight of hand where accusations of racism are supported by evidence not of racism but of opposition to same-sex marriage.

First Atwood claims that as software networks grow “they begin to include older people”, and “those older people will, statistically speaking, be more racist.” Then he provides evidence that 65% of people 64 or older are opposed to same-sex marriage. From this statistic he concludes not only the obvious, that old people oppose same-sex marriage, but also that old people are racist. He extrapolates even further that “the idea that regressive social opinions correlate with age isn’t an opinion; it’s a statistical fact.”

Now there may well be evidence out there that old people are more racist than other cohorts but Atwood does not provide it. There may be evidence that old people don’t like to eat kale, but Atwood does not provide it. But the concept, indeed the Orwellian concept, of “regressive social opinions” is so broad and ill-defined that it is meaningless to call anything about it a “statistical fact” regardless of any putative evidence.

What is the definition of a “regressive social opinion”? It cannot simply be an opinion that the goes against the opinion of the majority of the young as this is tautological for Atwood’s argument. It cannot simply be the general opinion of the “left” or “progressives” or the Democrat party. One cannot make an exhaustive list of such opinions, and the longer the list grows the more likely no one would agree to the whole thing.

Atwood states that it is as “inconceivable” to not support same-sex marriage as it is to not support interracial marriage. This is perhaps the reason he assumes that evidence of opposition to same-sex marriage is sufficient to prove racism.

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I think you are missing the point by focusing on the magnitude of various statistics. Perhaps this will make it clear. There is a cohort of voters who opposed same-sex marriage in California at higher rates than you site for the elderly. Fully 7 out of 10 members of this cohort (that’s 70% for those following along at home) voted for the initiative (against same-sex marriage) that proved the downfall of Brendan Eich. Lets use this cohort in place of the elderly in your language and see how it reads:

“There is a 70% percent chance that a black person will vote against same-sex marriage laws”

“If the only voters in the entire country were black, the statistics tell us there would be very little progress for same-sex marriage.”

It’s even worse when you look at it in the context of the thesis of your post. Is there any doubt that Facebook was not only used by the young but largely the white at the start? Let’s see how this quote looks:

“But as those networks grow, they begin to include black people. And those black people will, statistically speaking, be more homophobic. I apologize if this sounds racist, but…”

Now let’s talk about using this little fact as a justification for enhancing your software.

The elderly are one of the last acceptable groups to ridicule and discriminate against, especially in the tech world, so it is not surprising that you don’t see yourself as ageist, just factual with the statistics. But those are factual statistics above, in the exact same situation, and you wouldn’t dare write those lines, would you?

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Everyone gets old. Not everyone becomes black.

I think a part of becoming old is recognizing that, statistically speaking, you are going to be a bit “old fashioned” on social issues by the time you get to be 60 or 70 years old. And to be crystal clear, by “you” I mean everyone: me, you, all of us.

You know what would be incredibly toxic to social progress: if people naturally lived to be hundreds or thousands of years old. Even beyond the profound social implications, imagine the concentrations of wealth in that scenario. It would be disastrous.

Everyone gets old. Not everyone becomes black.

True, but I don’t see that this helps your case, in fact it makes it a little worse I think.

I think a part of becoming old is recognizing that, statistically speaking, you are going to be a bit “old fashioned” on social issues by the time you get to be 60 or 70 years old.

By definition, old people are going to be a bit “old fashioned” on all types of issues, not just social issues. They don’t like rap, but that doesn’t imply that rap is better than Frank Sinatra. It is easy to make fun of them. Where I think you go wrong is this idea of “social progress” correlated with historical time. Countries and peoples and societies are constantly moving in lot of different directions, and at any point in time the elderly may have “old fashioned” ideas that are in fact better or more moral than the population at large. There is no “law of progress”. One need only look at Turkey, for example, to see a country on a long slide from a modern western society with rights for women, free speech, etc, to primitive, regressive authoritarian rule.


For Atwood it is as “inconceivable” to not support same-sex marriage as it is to not support interracial marriage, and he assumes that evidence of opposition to same-sex marriage is proof of racism. Bans against interracial marriage and bans against same-sex marriage are in the same basket of “old fashioned ideas”, unsupportable by reason, logic, evidence or right thinking people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bans on interracial marriage had nothing to do with marriage and everything to do with racial discrimination. They have actually been fairly rare in history, and have only shown up in societies that enslaved another race. They have no basis in common or natural law. They have always been part of a panoply of laws specifically designed to oppress a specific group of people in a specific time and place. Race is not part of and has never been part of the definition of marriage in any society at any point in history. It was precisely because interracial marriage is in fact real marriage that it had to be explicitly banned. When bans on interracial marriage were lifted, it was indeed progress, but only the sense that repealing the 18th Amendment was progress: It removed bad law and restored things to the way they had always been. Removing bans on interracial marriage in no way changed the definition of marriage.

The same is not true of same-sex marriage, which fundamentally alters the definition of marriage, and indeed much more. Traditional marriage between a man and a woman is a universal human institution that has developed in all societies in all parts of the world in all cultures. Some of these cultures have been very tolerant, even supportive, of homosexual behavior, yet all shared the definition of marriage. Marriage is a universal human institution for one reason: children. If human beings could reproduce asexually by clipping a fingernail and placing it in water, marriage would never have been invented.

It is honest but erroneous to argue that same-sex marriage is a good thing. But it cannot be maintained that it does not change the very definition of marriage, and will have profound effects on the institution and much else. Let’s examine just one aspect of this change. Same-sex marriage means nothing if it does not mean that same-sex marriages are equal to opposite sex marriages. They cannot be second class marriages or treated differently in any way. This means that when married couples want to adopt children no preference can be given to opposite-sex couples. It cannot be argued that having a parent of each sex is a benefit to children. It cannot be argued that a woman, as a female, brings a unique and valued perspective to raising children. The same of course holds for men: It cannot be argued that a father, as a man, a male influence, is important to a child’s life. To hold any of these ideas is to be a bigoted homophobe. Motherhood and fatherhood are two of the immediate casualties of same-sex marriage. (Of course there are countless studies over that last 70 years that show the importance of fathers and mothers that must now be discredited and superseded.)

It is supremely ironic that the only place progressives reject the benefits of gender diversity is marriage. Nothing can make a marriage more diverse, in a truly meaningful way, than a man and woman (except an interracial marriage! – which makes beautiful children too!). For progressives a woman, as a female member of the human species, brings untold benefits to an all-male corporate boardroom, to an all-male congress, to a student body, to an all-male workforce. But a woman brings nothing (nothing at all!) to a marriage. To deny this is to condemn same sex marriage to second class status. There is only one way to eliminate this cognitive dissonance, and that this to call into question and then destroy very concept of male and female itself. And as night follows day this is happening. It is no accident that the transgender activists leapt into action as soon same-sex marriage became accepted. These activists are not just looking for a safe, private place to use the bathroom. The very labels male and female, men and women, ladies gentlemen are anathema to them and must be destroyed. For example at Vassar College, the transgender activists are not satisfied with additional single use bathrooms that the college has provided - they deface the bathroom doors by taping over the men and women signs. At campuses nationwide there is an assault on the English language itself with respect to pronouns. At Michigan, students can request a pronoun of choice, and professors can be disciplined for not using it. This is a logical outcome of same-sex marriage. Indeed it is an attempt at a post-implementation fix for a flawed concept.

Same-sex marriage changes everything. It changes everything because it alters the definition and thus the institution of marriage beyond recognition. It is nothing like interracial marriage, which always was and always will be true marriage, despite unjust racist laws.


Extremely well said David; I’ve never looked at the same-sex marriage issue this way. You’re certainly correct that it’s had ramifications that we didn’t really expect.

This is just my opinion of course but I honestly feel more hate and bigotry coming from the left than traditionalists or conservatives these days. Amazing to see how things change.

I’m all for less race-centric thinking in the world, but the Nextdoor example is surpassingly silly. Three of the four must-be-included-alongside-race fields are almost instantly transient (clothing), and the fourth (hair) only takes a little longer than that. For better or for worse, the color of someone’s skin is basically one of two immutable characteristics about them you can observe at a distance, and the other (height/weight) is well-known in witness psychology to be deeply unreliable unless the person is standing next to something to use as a measuring stick.