Total Drek

Or, the thoughts of several frustrated intellectuals on Sociology, Gaming, Science, Politics, Science Fiction, Religion, and whatever the hell else strikes their fancy. There is absolutely no reason why you should read this blog. None. Seriously. Go hit your back button. It's up in the upper left-hand corner of your browser... it says "Back." Don't say we didn't warn you.

Friday, February 20, 2009

In which, true to form, Drek alienates everyone.

Folks who keep an eye on the socio-blogosphere are no doubt aware of the fiasco currently unfolding over on Scatterplot. In short, Shakha wrote a post about a certain comic published by the New York Post that has potentially racist over/undertones. He observed that, to him, the comic is indeed deeply racist. The discussion has, from there, gradually metamorphosed into a lengthy argument about racism, social construction, and ethics.

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 " 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.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Two things: 1) good analysis of the discussion not just on Scatterplot but really just about anywhere I've run into this "discussion" this week.
2)The definitions thing really is a major problem in the social sciences. The main thrust of my Dis is about attempting to piece together a definition of "class" that at least Marxist sociologists can get behind and maybe Weberians can see some use in. But sadly as I try to address the theoretical issues in other definitions I'm slowly coming to the conclusion that it isn't going to matter anyhow so why bother.

Anyway, good luck getting social scientists to agree on anything.


Friday, February 20, 2009 4:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Drek, you've really nailed this. I'm in salvage mode now, we'll see if it works.

"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."

This is my read too. In particular there's some slide between what might be called existential racism and what might be called symbolic racism. I'm suspicious about direct causal ascriptions from the latter to the former, and even more suspicious of activism that addresses the former through the latter.

Friday, February 20, 2009 11:00:00 PM  
Blogger Corey said...

Drek... Regarding your first observation. Do you think this is a problem that can be resolved? I mean, Sociology as an empirical social science has been around for about 120 years now. While great strides have been made in the methodological rigor of the discipline, the conceptual foundations have remained thin and underdeveloped... perhaps its inevitably so.

I think the comment trail over scatterplot illustrates this point. The majority of the comments are of the variety, "obviously this cartoon is racist... it is a data point illustrating modern racism. If you don't see this, you must either be a racist or a heretic sociologist." Then Carl (and to a lesser extent Jay) come along and pee in the pool... reminding us that data points don't speak for themselves, they are also given voice through theoretical lenses.

As someone who grew up fundamentalist and is now recovering from that experience, I get nervous whenever I see Orthodoxy. It seems to me that the vast majority of the comments in that thread embody an Orthodoxy... that one must interpret the evidence in a particular way (specifically, that running the cartoon was OBVIOUSLY a strategic attempt to associate African Americans with Chimps).

That may be true... but the alternate readings offered by Carl and Jay are also plausible. The advocates of the "obvious" position point to rather thin conceptual definitions of racism (in my heretical opinion) that lead to simplistic empirical indicators and that set them up for confirmation bias. I'd suggest that it can be no other way, because human beings actively reconstruct the meaning structures that guide their behavior.

Anyway... I applaud your post and the thought that you put into it. If I survive the purge at this year's ASA, introduce yourself to me and I'll buy you a beverage of your choosing.

Saturday, February 21, 2009 9:46:00 AM  

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