In which, true to form, Drek alienates everyone.
I'm not going to talk about my own opinion about whether or not this cartoon is racist, though you're welcome to try and draw inferences about my probable view from my extensive archive of nonsensical ranting (i.e. this blog). What I will say is that, given my stance on free speech, I strongly support the New York Post's right to publish this cartoon. Likewise, I support Shakha's right to criticize this cartoon, which he so clearly finds highly offensive. Criticism of other ideas is almost always to be preferred to censorship and I am on Shakha's side to at least that extent. And I think that Carl and Jay make excellent points about social construction. One of the most difficult lessons to be learned from work on cognitive biases and social construction is that we should distrust our own perceptions at least as much as we distrust others'.
Mostly, however, I want to make two related observations. The first is that this discussion, while heated, is being carried out by a large number of social scientists. These social scientists are of various levels of seniority and specialty but, nonetheless, are by and large well-trained professionals. Yet, as one commenter points out, it is entirely evident that the discussion is not proceeding using a common definition of racism. Indeed, the main focus of the argument seems to be not merely "Is this cartoon racist" but rather "What is racism?" Now, defining racism is an important task for a science like sociology, but it is at times like this that I sometimes feel a considerable amount of despair about the discipline. That we do not have a rigorous, agreed upon definition of racism that underlies all of our discussions points out a fundamental flaw in our work: we have not resolved basic issues of definition yet. And if we haven't even agreed upon what racism is, how on earth are we supposed to measure and explain it? It is as though physics tried to explain impact force without an agreed upon definition of velocity or acceleration. It is as though chemistry tried to explain rust without an agreed upon definition of chemicals. It is as though we're putting the cart before the horse and, to quote a friend of mine, during discussions like these "...my sociological imagination starts turning into frustration." I think that the existence of the argument, in and of itself, points to a weakness in the discipline that we would be well to attend to.
My second observation is that the heat in this discussion is not originating, I think, from scholarly interest in racism. Instead, I think it derives from attempts to assign blame. At one extreme the argument seems to be that since the cartoon can be taken as racist, then it is racist, and the editors/artists at the New York Post are being racist by printing at. At the opposite extreme the argument seems to be that since there are multiple plausible interpretations we cannot simply conclude that the cartoon and, thereby, the editors/artists are racist. In the middle we find arguments that the cartoon is racist, but only from a certain point of view, and that it is racist, but perhaps unintentionally. These are all, of course, simplified descriptions of an unfolding argument. And the real tragedy of this is that I think all of the commenters are in agreement that racism is bad and should be combatted- I think the only real disagreement is over the type of response that the cartoon warrants. I suspect, though perhaps without reason, that those arguing that the cartoon should not be viewed as extremely racist want to withhold outrage for stronger cases while those who argue that it is extremely racist believe that racism must be fought at every opportunity. What we have is a disagreement over tactics moreso than goals. Yet, a fairly large amount of inflammatory language has been injected. And, trust me, I know a lot about inflammatory language. Hell, come to think of it, the discussion vaguely reminds me of the sort of wrangling that goes on over at Conservapedia, where commitment to ideology often displaces a willingness to listen to alternative viewpoints.
I love my job, I love my field, I really love science. Y'all know that. I suspect you also know that I enjoy wrangling over ideas and like a good provocative conversation. I just wish sometimes that we could trade a little provocation for some productivity- because I do not like participating in an argument that will never go anywhere and just makes everyone angry.