Saturday, October 8, 2016

Placing Privilege on Extinction

Hieronymus Bosch- The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things
- Anger (c.1450)
I recently argued that social and economic anxiety didn't explain as much of the current right-wing hatred of minorities and liberalism as the prevailing narrative would suggest. While sympathetic to real social changes providing fertile ground for hate to grow, I argued that extremism can become its own justifying, propellant force.
Victims of cults or domestic abuse may be more susceptible to begin with, but the intrinsic structure of thought becomes reinforcing.  Cult leaders and abusive spouses masterfully manipulate their victims, spinning reality so that 2 + 2 = 5.
However, Zach Beauchamp elaborates on the prevailing narrative of far-right populism being rooted in economic and social realities. In a piece in Vox, he describes a sort of controlled historical experiment that demonstrated his argument.

At the beginning of World War II, the small Baltic country of Lithuania saw two major shocks. First, in 1940, it was invaded and conquered by the Soviet Union. Just the next year, in June 1941, it was invaded and conquered by the Nazis.  In the city of Kaunas, the Nazi invasion triggered a spontaneous wave of attacks against Jewish residents, who had gained an unusual amount of power under the Soviets. The perpetrators weren’t the Nazis, who hadn’t had time to set up yet. It was the people of Kaunas themselves.  Prior to the Nazi invasion, Kaunas had a reputation for tolerance; one Jewish resident called it a "paradise." Yet afterward, the "tolerant" citizens of Kaunas tortured, humiliated, and slaughtered their Jewish neighbors. Roughly 3,800 Jews were murdered in just four days.
Just 65 miles away, in the capital of Vilnius, things were different. The city had seen pogroms in the past, so you would have expected something like the horrors of Kaunas. Yet the citizens of Vilnius mostly left the Jews alone. Why?
Indeed. Beauchamp points to an MIT researcher, Roger Petersen, who argued that this was explained not by an appeal to physical threat, nor "ancient hatreds", but rather by a sense of resentment of power dynamics.

In order to fully understand why ethnic violence happens, he argued, we need to appreciate the role of resentment: the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn't previously held it."  Apparently WW2 Lithuanians massacred Jews who had risen to power as communists under Soviet rule.  But are gays, Muslims, Hispanics and Blacks rising to power in the US?  Apart from exceptions it seems not to be the case.  I rather think the resentment is targeted at Liberals who would pave the way towards such thinking. 
This helped explain the puzzle of Kaunas and Vilnius. In Kaunas, the Soviet invasion in 1940 had politically empowered local Jews, who had occupied leadership positions in the Communist Party prior to the invasion and ended up with plum Soviet jobs as a result. This sparked intense feelings of resentment on the part of Kaunas residents, resulting in the vicious pogrom. In Vilnius, by contrast, non-Jewish ethnic Poles held most leadership positions. The Soviet invasion didn’t empower Jews on a large scale, and thus failed to create any resentment toward them.

Beauchamp goes on to argue that this sort of deep resentment is what is motivating current far-right populism.

I have no quarry with this assessment - as far as it goes.  There is certainly resentment at work.  But I question what kind of resentment it is, and whether it is based on any real changes in power dynamics.  

For instance, in Kaunas, plum jobs and actual power were being given to a distrusted, outsider minority.  But that is not happening in the United States.  Sure, a Black man is president, but he is far from representative.  Neither are women, or gays, or Mexican immigrants.  Washing dishes and mowing laws, or picking carrots are hardly "plum jobs" of power and authority.  

And yet these groups are resented.  But rather than actual power, what seems to be resented is the mere concept of power.  Immigrants are resented for "taking our jobs", yet this is largely low-skill labor, and must be weighed against the economic stimulus plenty of economists will argue immigration also provides.  Rather, much more of the resentment is based not in any physical threat, but abstract notions of "cultural invasion", in which Spanish translations are made available, Spanish is spoken in public, or simple Hispanic expressions of culture are cause for offense.  The resentment is the idea of Hispanic culture simply co-existing with Anglo culture.

This same resentment is expressed towards gay, black, feminist, atheist (humanist) or gender transgressive culture.  The resentment is less about physical threat to power and authority, as it had been perceived from Jews in Kaunas, and more about the mere idea of these groups being accepted, respected and having an equal right, or claim on cultural and institutional legitimacy.   The idea of homosexuality being viewed as legitimate is resented.  The idea of black language being used is resented.  The idea of women taking on male roles is resented.  

While the sentiment of resentment against all these groups may not be located in any real threat to power, it is located in political and cultural space.  The civil rights movement has been about toppling the notion that white, patriarchal, heterosexual Christian culture ought to be the default American perspective. A central moral claim of the movement is that as these other perspectives are just as valid, it is thus "politically correct" to take them into consideration when engaging in cultural behaviors and practices.  That is, there is a moral responsibility to do so.  Because the default has been to ignore or deny their validity, and to assume a traditional non-inclusive perspective, an active process of self-criticism must be constantly made in one's personal behavior to correct for this bias.

It is this criticism, this open dialogue of openness to the possibility that one's privilege is unwittingly supplanting or exploiting the lack of privilege of another, this expectation of self-criticism, that ultimately is resented most.  It is a form of moral embarrassment, in which one's concept of self as legitimate and righteous clashes against the accusation by others that one is acting arrogant , chauvinistic, or disrespectful of the feelings of others.  So many today swear up and down all day that they are not racist or sexist or homophobic.  And they honestly believe it.  But through their actions, they express implicit biases.  They make assumptions, create associations and hold values that demonstrate otherwise.   

Political correct criticism is the act of pointing this out, of making the case that one is engaging in behavior that is not aligned with commonly shared values of tolerance, patience, compassion and understanding.  The critique is an attempt to shorten the distance between the speaker and the subject offense, for sake of moral clarity.  For instance, a funny joke might be told that involves the death of a parent.  If one is entirely removed from this perspective, they might find it easy to laugh at the dark humor.  However, if the joke is told to someone whose parent has just died, the joke might not be so amusing.  The pointing out of this is an attempt to illustrate the conflict between shared values (the love of a parent) and behavior (making fun of a parent's death).  Now, these sort of social errors have always been common, and obvious.  We point them out to each other frequently.  When the mistake is unintentional, the gaffe can be chalked up to a brief lapse in judgment.

However, with larger social errors, the offense reflects not merely a momentary slip, but rather evidence that a person shows much greater, persistent ignorance of a historical phenomenon, and is willing to participate in its perpetuation.  This is not always an easy call, and many people are too quick to make such sweeping moral judgments when the behavior is not reflective of ignorance, but rather could be done with contextual knowledge, or in another such way as to demonstrate not ignorance but something else entirely.  I was recently personally involved in an exchange in which my constructive criticism of an article on white privilege (I argued that it was not going far enough into the mechanisms at work), was criticized by a person friend, and person of color for having the temerity to make the criticism to begin with, as a white male.  My sense of identity and values were definitely being placed on extinction.  I thought about the comments at length, and still believe they were unfair and inappropriate.  I felt neither the content of my critique, nor the format in which I made it were legitimately being impacted by my identity as a white male.   What my friend was essentially asking was for me to "check my privilege". Yet is any criticism by a white male (no matter how mild), an unacceptable form of privilege?  

Many people themselves who have been historically mistreated or otherwise marginalized will be the first to make "politically incorrect" statements in jest, during moments of levity.  "Gallows humor" describes the phenomenon of those on the front lines of truly terrible events finding humor as much to rekindle dimming spirits as anything else.  The question, "Too soon?" illustrates the grayish quality of the line between appropriately and inappropriately behaving in such a way as to not give proper seriousness to what was at one point a painful, traumatic event.  This type of judgment is also often doing extra work, so as to bluntly wield an easy moral bludgeon over those with whom one might wish to score cheap political points.  This gives the moral importance of true political correctness - of recognizing real power relationships in effect and actuated in social behavior - a bad reputation and is counterproductive to real social change.

Yet though this type of poor judgment can be indulged in too easily, proper, "correct" socio-political criticism is always necessary.  Power differentials between man are central to our species' continue struggles for equality and freedom.

Political Correctness and the Behavioral Concept of a Stimulus Prompt
In behavioral science terms, this would be known as a stimulus prompt.  Just as a visual prompt serves to correct negative behaviors by signalling the appropriate behavior in public areas, this prompt serves as a conditioned stimulus to correct behaviors in private.  So, for instance, the "wash hands" sign in public restrooms is a conditioned stimulus that prompts us to remember to use proper hygiene after using the bathroom.  We have many "little voices" in our head that have also become conditioned through reinforcement to prompt us to engage in appropriate verbal behavior.  Even though I may find someone's style of dress unattractive, I do not say so out loud because I have been conditioned that this behavior is impolite.  Obviously, social behaviors are highly arbitrary and subjective to different cultures.  However, they have their own logic based on what has been reinforced as acceptable.  If I tell someone they look ugly, this verbal behavior will be punished by our culture.  Likewise a nearly infinite number of responses has been reinforced and punished, establishing in me a repertoire of social behaviors.

The line between what is and is not conscious in this process has to do with my behavior of reflection, or "thinking" about certain stimuli and responses.  Children are taught "strategies" to solve problems.  This amounts to a set of verbal instructions that, through reinforcement, will then be evoked in them when certain stimuli are present.  For instance, when the figures 3+ 3 = are written on the board, the behavior of looking and counting fingers is reinforced so that in the presence of similar number patterns, they can use this type of motor prompt behavior to help derive the solution to addition problems.  As their adding repertoire becomes stronger, this prompt can fade from a motor behavior to a silent "private event" verbal behavior, taking the form of imagining one's fingers.  Eventually, the prompt fades completely as it is no longer necessary and reinforcement for the correct answer is encountered without having ever using the prompt, and it disappears from use (or technically, goes "extinct").

Stimulus Prompts
Of course, many types of prompts are useful in our daily lives.  Many of them are outside of us, and physical, such as written language, signage, taps on the shoulder, railings, lines, etc.  We have just as many within our own skin and metaphysical: counting and echoically repeating phrases to memory are both very common.  Sometimes these private events become public, as when we can be heard muttering a prompt to ourselves, "where did I put that envelope" is a type of prompt we have learned to repeat to help in locating items such as envelopes or car keys.  They have been reinforced in the past when such an utterance has "triggered", or become the stimulus that evokes the behavior of remembering items we were motivated to find.  There is generally no need to be conscious that we are using these prompts.  We have more important things to concern ourselves with.  But sometimes our prompts can be faulty.  We frequently discover that our "thinking" on a particular subject had been flawed.  Recently, I began keeping a particular bowl in a different cabinet.  For weeks, whenever I was motivated to find that bowl, I looked in the location that I had previously found it in, and had been a stimulus that had reinforced my looking in that particular location.  Over multiple opportunities, when I looked in the old location, and was met with an empty cabinet, my behavior was not reinforced, but rather placed on extinction.  However, this became a prompt to look in the new location, and the behavior of looking there was reinforced when I found the bowl.  I now do nothing else.

When your uncle makes a racist joke and no one laughs, he is not getting the reinforcement he once had when he first heard the joke, among his racist friends who first told it to him.  Furthermore, he may be actively punished for telling the joke by frowns or specific verbal behavior such as rebukes.  A common "side-effect" of punishment is what we would consider negative behavior: anger/ resentment/ retaliation.  This "negative" behavior can actually be quite effective for the behaver.  If your uncle gets what he wants by angry outbursts, they will be reinforced, and he will continue engaging in them in the future.  On a societal level, this process of avoiding being "put on extinction", and having one's behavior reinforced, is what drives people to spend time with like-minded others, forming cultural groups.  Political correctness is rooted in the understanding that a class of people's civil rights have historically been privileged, and in order to guarantee an equality of civil rights to all, that previous verbal behavior need be changed.  However, even as many laws have been changed, and institutional practices have been altered, privilege still exists.  In social exchanges, verbal prompts have been established to place certain behaviors on extinction and to reinforce others.  

Privilege as Stimuli
Many members of the privileged group however, resent and are angry about the concept of political correctness.  This is a natural result of being placed on extinction.  They had previously been reinforced for reacting to stimuli from a privileged perspective, and now that reinforcement is being withheld.  This can present a tricky dilemma for social interactions.  In the example of the joke about a dead parent, the context is crucial.  It would be disrespectful to make light of someone's recent trauma, yet maybe after many years or if no one is present who has experienced the trauma, it might be perfectly fine.  The stimulus relations in these two cases are different.  Similarly, the stimulus relations for someone with a history as a member of a privileged class are going to be different than a member of that class.  Political correctness might be thought of as this individual example of an awkward reckoning of stimulus relations being played out on a societal scale.  

However, this says nothing about whether the feelings are legitimate; anger is of course often quite justified.  When one's privilege is challenged, anger and resentment are natural responses.  The question is whether the challenge was justified.  If one makes a racist joke and is offending another, who is experiencing a sort of dehumanization, or exclusion, one is at some level violating their civil rights - their right to be treated fairly and respectfully.  This might be contrasted with a joke told "in good fun" in which both parties are willing and understanding of each other's shared humanity, friendship, good-will, etc.  No civil rights in any sense are being violated.  

But in this case, if the critique is correct, if civil rights are being violated, if people are being ignored, excluded, exploited or otherwise marginalized, especially as part of a larger history of societal exclusion in which the privileged party has been reinforced for behaving in ways which contribute to this process, then the anger is not justified.  The behavior (or "response") had been socially inappropriate.  That is, it conflicted with our larger values.  It had been reinforced by a cultural space in which it was OK to assume that white, patriarchal, Christian cultural norms were supposed to be the default, and other perspectives were inferior.  Yet if we respect the rights of women, of people to be who they were born to be, of people to retain their cultural heritage in a diverse society, then this behavior ought not be reinforced, but placed on extinction.  

Throwing Tantrums
A tantrum is a common set of behaviors often involving anger/ resentment/ retaliation and seen when one has been placed on extinction, having had their previous reinforcements removed.   If you add up all of the ways in which privilege has been reinforced in a certain class of individuals, there is a considerable amount of behavior that political correctness is essentially attempting to place on extinction.  People who have lived their lives in an environment in which privileged behavior for years has been reinforced by popular culture, churches, mass marketing advertising campaigns and partisan media outlets, will no doubt experience a great deal of discomfort might this reinforcement be revoked.

Like the Vilniusians, the nationalist far-right are brimming with resentment.  However, unlike the Vilnusians, the targets of far-right resentment - the gays, immigrants, feminists and the like - have not taken away their positions of real power and authority.  Rather, all that has been asked of them, the privileged,  is that they allow that they no longer be considered the "default" setting in American social, cultural, and institutional life.  They have been asked to make room and share with others.  This has always been difficult for Americans, and is part of the core of the civil rights narrative: learning to share and express humility.  From slavery, to native peoples, to segregation, to feminism, to the disabled, to gay and transgender rights, the aim is simply to acknowledge that everyone has a right to sit at the table and be respected.

The effect of this questioning the default narrative - the electing of a Black president, the presence of illegal immigrant workers, gay marriage, minorities on television, installation of wheelchair ramps outside businesses - has not had a negative impact on real white, patriarchal Christian freedom and dignity.  It has merely rolled-back some of the unequal, out-sized privilege it had enjoyed.

What it has done, however, is to place countless stimulus prompts in places in which previously there were none.  Whether as physical prompts - seeing minority presence in the media and in places of authority, or as verbal prompts - hearing voices speaking out in critique of privileged narratives, new, appropriate behaviors will hopefully continue to replace the previously maladaptive behavior which runs counter to our core values.

In behavior science, there is a phenomenon known as the "extinction burst".  This describes what frequently happens when a previously reinforced behavior gets placed on extinction.  Kicking a soda machine when it fails to give you your soda when you press the button.  Yelling at your car when it runs out of gas.  A child screaming when it doesn't get to watch its favorite show on TV.  All are examples of an extinction burst.  It is tempting to view this far-right nationalist behavior as part of an extinction burst at the societal level.  The term "burst" refers both to a sudden uptick in severity/frequency of the behavior, as well as a sudden decline when plotted on a graph.  After the extinction burst, if reinforcement is continued to be withheld, the behavior will eventually decrease and ultimately stop completely.  However, if behaviors are reinforced, even intermittently, they will continue.

The question for us is one all behavior analysts must first address: what is the function of the behavior, i.e. what is reinforcing it, causing it to continue?  In the absence of an actual threat to the behavior of the privileged, what is reinforcing it?  Right-wing media narratives, especially when taking place in a proverbial echo-chamber, reinforce listening behavior and the adherence to rules regarding assumptions about the marginalized, as well as those who might defend them.  Indeed, if there were any group the far-right nationalists might be thought to despise more than the non-white, it would be the left-wing progressives with whom they are in metaphysical conflict.  Much of the verbal narrative of the right is spent organizing rules about the left in order to inoculate themselves from criticism that might come from those quarters, and interfere with their intra-group reinforcement.

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