Monday, June 13, 2011

Getting Our Minds Out of the "Hood"

Mark Kleiman points to another example of the right's obliviousness to its own tendency towards racial cognitive bias.  He links to Jeffrey Goldberg, who has this to say about a Fox News feature on Obama's meeting with the president of Gabon:
This is psychologically fascinating: The mind of Fox Business host Eric Bolling, when confronted with images of President Obama meeting with Gabon's president, Ali Bongo, instantly recalls other black people who have met with President Obama, and comes to the conclusion that Obama feels deep love for black "hoodlums."

Racism is a beast.  Even in the past, when it was largely socially acceptable for people to be explicit about it, their motivations were largely unconscious.  Even when pseudoscientific claims began to be made in the late 19th century, it was nothing but an attempt to find evidence for pre-existing hatreds.  Did the Germans know why they hated the Jews so much?  Their conscious rationale was based on bizarrely fantastical assumptions.  So to with most forms of hatred - whether anti-gay, anti-woman, anti-minority, etc. 
If racists were conscious of where their racism came from, what motivated it, they likely would not be racist.
So, now we have the modern "politically correct" world, where everyone knows we shouldn't traffic in "off-color" assumptions, stereotypes, or any of the other forms in which hatred has historically thrived.  This has generally coincided with the understanding that racism, sexism, etc. are wrong and untrue. 
Yet what is it about modern society that is able to grasp how these hatreds are wrong, while previous generations were unable to?  Have we found some special evidence that has proven these hatreds false, that we can point to and agree on?  To some degree, I think we have.  Much of the evidence is less scientific - in terms of biological differences in race or gender.  (We are still working on evidence that homosexuality is not a "choice", even while claims that there is anything wrong with it even if it were have long been demolished.)  The "evidence" I think would largely come from the social sciences, and their work in laying out not only the historical roots of hatreds, and the idiotic viciousness with which they were perpetrated, but as well the psycho-social ways in which they were propagated. 
The most difficult task has been to show the ways in which hatred, which is ultimately wrong because of the pain, injustice and inhumanity it creates, has persisted despite - what we now consider to be obvious - its incompatibility with the universal human impulse towards compassion, tolerance and empathy.  How could otherwise rational and caring humans treat each other this way?  A good portion of the explanation for this has been the fact that historically oppressed (hated) groups had been marginalized and thus banished from cognition, where they would have been subject to natural human impulses to treat them with fairness.  Theoretical frameworks have been developed that try and explain this through the function of social structures such as patriarchy, class, ethnicity, religion, etc. - the interplay of social power and dominance being dynamics that alter cognition. 
Obviously, much of this is pretty high-order analysis, largely still confined to and emanating from academia.  In popular culture, aside from that which had been filtered down from universities, the main deconstruction of these historical hatreds came through the civil rights movement, which was certainly working with academia (and its student movements), but was also merely about the standing up to oppressive elements in society by the oppressed, for whom the hatred was very real and personal.  The oppressed had no problems with cognition (except in the case of that which had been internalized, although that was a serious yet less central problem).  Instead, it was the cognition of the oppressors, those in mainstream society that had been raised on stereotypes and other forms of unconscious hatred that had crippled their ability to properly process empirical reality.
It took a massive, multi-decade campaign of relentless, in-your-face protest both on the streets, in the media, in the arts, and likely most importantly, at dining room tables and backyard barbecues.  (The most practical results being, of course, change in the courts and legislature).  A good portion of the movement’s efficacy lay in shame. 
Because once it was accepted that these forms of hatred were wrong, that was only the beginning. The real work lay not in establishing what should have always been an obvious empirical question, but in taking on the popular mythologies and habits of mind that had always been the real levers and gears of hatred's propagation.  It may not have been understood as such, but what had to happen was a mass re-examination of cognitive bias.  For most, what this first meant in practice was an end to ethnic or sexist jokes.  However, it was not the joke itself, but the habit of mind that produced it.  It was the critical deconstruction of the idea that you could reduce someone's humanity so as to not only ignore it, but to twist an empirically false reality in such a way that you could find humor in it. 
Take for instance an old-fashioned joke about blacks being lazy and eating watermelon.  Both are empirically false, but behind them is the reality of centuries of racial hatred and oppression.  By laughing at the joke, you are reducing blacks' humanity, inventing realities about them that are wrong, then using that fantasy to punish and laugh at them, all of which is a propagation of their historical suffering - in that this is the precise mindset that apologized for and excused their continued oppression.  And you can replace that joke with any joke about women, gays, minorities, etc.
Now, then there was a backlash to all of this, generally known as "anti-political correctness".  Much of it was – and still is - likely motivated by defensiveness to the allegation that one is motivated by an unconscious hatred.  Because, once it became established that these hatreds were actually wrong, the cultural patterns and habits of mind were still there, whether people wanted them or not.  Many in society were essentially walking right into a sort of trap: a massive cultural transformation had just taken place which revolutionized thought, and they were now expected to monitor nigh-every word or thought they had.  In this context, cries of “thought police” were not entirely inaccurate.
Of course, there really were no thought police.  But there was intense pressure bearing down on individuals to change how they thought and spoke.  Yet how else would the transformation, the movement to end these inarguably evil patterns of historical discrimination, prejudice, oppression – all of which essentially being forms of group hatred, come to pass?  It would have to be messy.  There would have to be dispute over what was and was not an expression of hatred? 
Many felt that the charges level against them were unfair: how could some simple comment – mere words – a joke! – prove that one was what would come to be one of the most damning charges in modern life, a racist?  Well, now we’re faced with a definitional issue.  What is a racist?  A slave-owner was certainly a racist.  A Nazi was certainly a racist.  A KKK member was certainly a racist.  Uncle Bob, who openly referred to blacks as “ni**ers” was a racist.

But what about the coworker who merely said she was afraid to go into black neighborhoods?  What was she expressing?  What was she feeling?  Did she feel that black people were somehow more dangerous than whites?  Did she hear all the reports about black crime and assume that the neighborhood was more dangerous than it really was?  Was she subject to any of the many cognitive biases that we know contribute to false cognition about racial issues?
Add to this her genuine belief that she was in no way a racist.  The idea that she might be disgusted her!  Yet what if she was just a little bit wrong?  What if she had grown up with mistaken ideas, assumptions and prejudices about black people?  Maybe her view of race relations was informed by old patterns of racial bias and misinformation – yet she was consciously convinced, and firmly believed that racism was wrong?  She never took an ethnic studies course.  Sure, she watched Oprah and understood that much of our history had been whitewashed, groups marginalized.  But she didn’t have the “chops” to properly analyze every last one of her own views and assumptions before they flew out of her mouth.
And now she’s being accused of racism?  Well, this can’t be.  Because she’s not.  So what she said must not have been racist.  How could it be, when a non-racist person said it?   Everyone is just being too sensitive.  It is they who have the cognitive bias.  They have become so overtaken by their own white guilt that they are now attacking their own race.  In fact, it is they who are the real racists.  Why are they so obsessed with race?   Why do minorities get to make sweeping statements about whites?  This is reverse-racism!
Maybe some of what she is saying is true.  Maybe white guilt has driven people to be a bit too cynical.  Maybe some of it is simply rebelliousness – parents would surely attest to this among teenagers.  (How many charges of racism were made towards parents in the sixties, and dismissed as teenage rebelliousness?)
In the end, we don’t really know what lurks in the mind of every person.  We have a hard enough time knowing what lurks in our own minds.  But these patterns do exist: these biases, these prejudices and assumptions.  And we know that they have formed the backbone, the cognitive framework, for historical hatreds.  We simply cannot take them lightly.  We must investigate them and provide push-back when they are written off as harmless or insubstantial.  On their own, or depending on what exactly they are expressing, they might be.  Under examination, it may turn out that they meant nothing.  But it also might be the case that they represented a real instance of cognitive bias, some tendril of hatred, no matter how small.
One thing we must be very careful of, if we are to ultimately continue to make progress against what may be a universal human susceptibility to patterns of hate, is to avoid alienating the very people we wish to teach.  Because teaching is truly what we are doing, regardless of how we go about it.  Whether it is to politely suggest, or firmly denounce and shame, the ultimate goal is always to stop the behavior, to cut off the falsehood before it can grow any larger.
Many will say that the problem is mostly gone.  It has been decades now since explicit expressions of hatred have been considered shameful to the overwhelming majority of Americans (homophobia is just now getting there).  So too, one would assume, the practical consequences of hatred – that which effects people’s ability to acquire housing, employment, and otherwise live in society as equals.  Certainly cases of discrimination have dropped substantially.  We aren’t there yet, and it is an ongoing struggle, but most people seem pretty fair.
Yet are they?  One can be an avowed anti-racist, and still be subject to cognitive bias.  One can feel that all gays are perfectly nice people, but worry that there is still something “wrong” with them.  One can vote to limit their rights.  One can feel that blacks are no different than whites, yet have bad “cultural habits”.   One can then choose to avoid their application. 
More damning, one can fail to fully embrace attempts by society to rectify historical wrongs.  If one opposes more money for poor (read: black) schools, or welfare benefits, or healthcare – to what degree might cognitive bias enter into the picture?  Surely there are principled philosophical arguments to make against such endeavors.  But to what extent would opposition to such programs be informed by the presence of cognitive racial bias?  If one feels that blacks have a “culture of laziness”, then would one be less likely to support the provision of social services perceived to be offered to blacks rather than whites?  Surely they would.  Yet because this doesn’t mean that opposition to such programs is motivated by cognitive bias (the tendrils of historical hatred), as there are perfectly reasonable arguments against these programs (they are too expensive, ineffective, etc.), the determination of the extent to which their opposition is due to bias is extremely difficult.
Suffice it to say, because of the possibility that bias may still play a considerable role in politics and the structure of government, the stakes are quite high.  It is with this consideration that those who understand the fundamental role cognitive bias has played in historical hatred approach issues of race, gender, class, sexuality, etc. with heightened skepticism.  Furthermore, the skepticism increases when any are involved who are known to have an opposition to attempts by society and government to correct for historical patterns of oppression through regulation or social programs.  Precisely because it is difficult to know one’s motivations – whether principled or biased, it becomes all the more important to take a skeptical stance.  This is warranted by the mere possibility that one’s cognitive failings might be informing their determination of highly consequential social outcomes.  This is all the more true when the subject in question is not merely a voting citizen, but a public figure with a much determinative influence.

No comments:

Post a Comment