Thursday, December 06, 2007

The "Real Problem"

It's been interesting to watch the debate over Saletan's "Created Equal" series here on Wikifray, but at the end of the day, any damage that he's done to the idea of a non-correlation between race and intelligence pales in comparison to this:

Sherri Shepherd Doesn't Get That Whole BC Thing, Insists "Jesus Came First"
Of course, there is the obvious counter-argument that Ms. Shepherd's ignorance stems from a religious upbringing that didn't leave room for a critical understanding of history, but the dearth of other high-profile examples could make that a hard sell.

One of the interesting things about the Black community in the United States is its overall penchant for conspiracy theories, and with this exchange, Shepherd fits herself very nicely into one of them - that the American Media Establishment (tm) is engaged in a perverse form of "affirmative action," intentionally putting Black "knuckleheads" (to borrow the term from Bill Cosby) in front of cameras, as a way of bolstering racist arguments that Blacks are stupid.

In a lot of ways, the most enduring legacy of racism is the expectation of racism, which is why I cringe whenever a Black person makes a fool of themselves on national television. In a way, I expect everyone who has watched Shepherd on television to look at me and say to themselves: "Black person on television: idiot - therefore, Black person in front of me: idiot." Of course, in expecting a person to judge me based on the color of my skin because of the color of their skin, I can't exactly claim the moral high ground, now can I?

Maybe I need to re-evaluate where the "real problem" actually lies...


TenaciousK said...

I watched the video clip you linked on Huffington, and then found a longer one on youtube (which includes her response to Whoopie asking if the world was flat). The clip struck me as sad on a number of levels. It's said because she was saying, in essence, that it never occurred to her - that it doesn't impinge on her daily life. And it's sad because she immediately becomes the object of such derision. Her ignorance on the subject becomes one more object lesson for racists to hold up as they talk about the intelligence of Black people.

But her response is also instructive - she was talking about the bible. This seems to be the focal point of her worldview - scripture consumed unexamined. I can't help but think it's the final ironic vestige of subjugation - the blind, unthinking acceptance of an authority which renders all other examination moot.

In a way, it's like the racists I've been jousting with on Human nature, most of whom are entirely unwilling to engage their critical faculties in examining the argument being presented.

But I suppose the US isn't unique in the manner people tend to accept unquestioningly what is told them, and stubbornly refuse to examine. It does make me uneasy, however, when I think about the role of media in people's lives. People are opting for easy entertainment and taking their facts from the sources at-hand. It reminds me of Philo Farnsworth, who never really made any money at all off of his invention of the television. He envisioned it as a tool of education; the thought of it as a vehicle for entertainment media was one that apparently never occurred to him.

Is this the price we pay for unrestrained capitalism? The Libertarian position has never given much credit to the idea that the "untermensch" require some nurturing in order to become class-mobile.

I was at the jail yesterday (long story), and while I was in the midst of an interminable wait, I came across a table full of books they had left out for inmates being released. Most of them were not the sorts of books one would necessarily find inspiring or helpful for someone down on their luck (though I suppose any reading is salutary) but I found to my surprise a 1976 edition of Skinner's Walden Two. I re-read his forward while I was waiting, and jotted down a couple of quotes.

"A culture must positively reinforce the behavior of those who support it and must avoid creating negative reinforcers from which its members will escape through defection."

"...Something is wrong when it is the system that must be saved, rather than the way of life the system is supposed to service."

I've never been a big fan of radical behaviorism, but Skinner's words strike me as wise - and prescient, given they were written some time prior to 1976. We are reaping what we've sown, as a culture.

Don't let the bigots get you down, Lyger. I've linked an interview with Lakoff about a half dozen times now, in hopes that people will understand - it's the framing of this issue that people like Jared Taylor and Rushton have as their goal. They want to spark a discussion where we are talking about the allocation of resources along "tribal" lines, and discussing the quantitative differences of a poorly-defined variable along ethnic divides, and reinforcing the perception we are all in competition.

To quote myself, we are all one tribe. Anyone who tries to tell you differently has their eye on someone else's resources, and is attempting to elicit your collusion in their effort to obtain them. This is why I find Rushton and Taylor so alarming - they are not just racists, they are a new breed of sophisticated racists who are strategically promoting an agenda. Rushton is a social psychologist for God's sake. If there were a discipline in the world that would lend itself to the manipulation of public perception, it's that one.

But these guys don't want you examining the flawed foundation of their argument any more than someone, somewhere, didn't want Sherri Shepherd to examine the pap that was sold her as "gospel truth". Don't let the bigots get you down, because then they win. And that's a victory that none of us would settle for, unless we were convinced of it's inevitability.

I don't know if anyone will pick up Skinner's book down there, and find inspiration in it. But I'm hopeful, seeing that someone thought to sow that particular seed. If we sow enough of them, we'll have an entirely different crop to reap.

Aaron said...

Thanks, K. I needed that.

Dawn Coyote said...

Three things:

1) I saw this program a number of years ago, and it forever changed the way I look at television. It was a documentary of some kind featuring a black British woman. I don't even remember what the show was about. What I will never forget is the difference in the way she was depicted in particular segments. In the interview segments, she was in a garish dress, in a tacky-looking apartment, and she seemed comic and pathetic when she was answering the interviewer's questions. In other segments, she was wearing a colourful tunic, in an apartment that was decorated with eclectic flair. When she spoke, she was thoughtful and dignified and intelligent.

From one segment to the next she was in the same clothes, in the same apartment, saying the same thing. The only thing that was different was the press of the interviewer's questions, the lighting, her position and the camera angle.

It was a vivid example of what the medium can do, not only to the message, but to the messenger. I can still see her.

So I look at that View interaction and note that all of those women are caricatures, because television is designed to make everyone look like a fool They converse in a rapid-fire manner that's more characteristic of hierarchical posturing than of meaningful dialogue. Any respect given is temporary and conditional, and Ba'al forbid they display any weakness.

2) I think of some of my NA Indian friends, and imagine them in such an interaction, only using the style I've seen them use in a healing circle, where they do the opposite of dominance posturing: they defer, they wait to speak, and when they speak, they speak slowly and emphatically, using simple language. Some of the most sagacious elders I've ever met would sound like simpletons in an exchange styled the way the View is styled. They might also be utterly unaware of the Roman Empire.

3) Transformers really pissed me off. The two main black roles were vulgar caricatures. The women were all cardboard cutouts of adolescent boys' wet dreams. When I mentioned in various company that the racist and sexist stereotypes in the film bothered me, the most common reaction I got was, "Wha?" People didn't see it.

So why are those racist and sexist caricatures selected, and why don't people notice, and who (or what) is to blame?

Gregor Samsa said...


Obviously, it's a complex world out there, but in here, there are wonderful opportunities for making a fool of yourself entirely on your own merits, not someone else's coattails.

If you haven't tried it yet, give it a shot. I could lend you the benefit of my vast experience, but if you go check out the "Best of the Fray", it won't be necessary.

Good luck.

TK, Dawn: hiya.

Archaeopteryx said...

Aaron, if it makes you feel any better, when I saw the Shepherd clip, it made me embarrassed to be a human.