Sunday, March 27, 2011

On Second Thought, Probably Not

I appreciate the concern here:
… in many societies today, free speech is highly valued, even at the cost of offense. “If we confine ourselves to the traditional form of the debate about ‘free speech,’ it is not difficult for those of a liberal disposition that the rights of criticism should be guaranteed in any tolerably open society, even when the activity risks giving offence to some of those being criticized.” And yet Collini sees the outlines of a problem: “Those who think of themselves as committed to ‘progressive’ moral and political causes have come to believe that two of the central requirements of an enlightened global politics are, first, treating all other people with equal respect and, second, trying to avoid words or deeds which threaten to compound existing disadvantages.”

Treating people with respect is a fine goal, but Collini notices that respect tends to be shown with special deference to so-called “out groups.” Claims of offense that would otherwise be ignored are instead given credence and even deference. Collini also correctly identifies the people who tend to fall into this trap. Very few “progressive” forces, for example, would have shown any “understanding” of hurt Christian feelings if Jesus had been mocked in a Danish newspaper. The entire force of the argument against the offensiveness of the Danish cartoons was based on the concern that Muslims were somehow less powerful than other religious believers. But this hardly qualifies as an adequate justification for a double standard.

That’s from a book review of a book contemplating the nature of taking offense. Collini apparently goes on to talk about how such sensitivity around the giving of offense is as narrowly defining as the stereotypes to which we might take offense and seek to drive out. Which is an interesting point.

I’m not sure that it’s accurate. I think it has two primary problems. There’s an empirical claim here—that we show too much deference to the offense-taking of “out” groups—and a philosophical one. I think both have flaws.

Let’s start with the philosophy. Here’s the claim:
To withhold criticism from certain communities or religions is, in Collini’s word, a form of condescension towards them. It denies these groups the ability to engage in constructive dialogue, and to fortify their own values. In the final analysis, everyone loses.
That’s a best-case scenario for such criticism. If someone takes offense to impugning of certain Muslim societies’ attitude towards women (for example), that’s all well and good. Unfortunately I’m afraid that some substantial amount of criticism is not meant in such a constructive way. Stereotypes abound about marginalized or powerless groups, and I’m sure we can all think of them easily enough: blacks are lazy; women can’t lead organizations (and if they try they’re bitches); and so on and so forth. These characterizations are hurtful emotionally, to start at the very least. There’s also some academic evidence that these stereotypes inhibit people’s flourishing (I’m thinking of the studies showing people, when primed about negative stereotypes e.g. women can’t do math before doing a test tend to underperform on said test). So taking offense at least feels emotionally justified.

Certainly, given the power of perceptions to define you despite your best efforts, it’s right of people to try to be sensitive where they can. The minimal case for political correctness is just asking you to recognize nuance, and try not to make overly large generalizations. That message has been lost, I feel, but it’s something we would do well to live by. Maybe the taking of offense so loudly is contradictory to that by inflaming passions.

Is the taking of offense the most effective response to such an injustice? By the life of me I just don’t know anymore. The number of things we could take offense to everyday feels asymptotic to infinity. Given that number, it's no surprise outrageous stereotypes are mainstream too—one comprehensive detailing of such stereotypes I linked to earlier (it’s about the proliferation of negative news reports about Africa). It’s these trends that make me feel that no, such deference is honored more in extreme cases than the day-to-day grind.

The extreme cases tend to get remembered. It’s not an unusual event to wake up and find out that some pundit or political figure or prominent person has said something spectacularly dumb and ill-informed and is now making a groveling, vague, and unapologetic apology. Usually said figure gets fired or has to move or something, and that’s the end of that—sometimes we talk of having a “teachable moment,” as if extreme moments were good ways of shaping subtle thinking about life.

I’m not sure that these explosive scandals where outrage is taken are usually deployed on behalf of the powerless, though. It’s often observed that the Tea Party (and/or Sarah Palin) is an instrument of the outrage. Their demographics barely describe a powerless group, though: they look a bit richer than the average American. Their outrage is one of the temporarily politically disempowered, which is hardly some oppressed situation.

Recent outrage controversies have involved anti-Semitic (Charlie Sheen, to a certain extent) or anti-Asian prejudice (e.g. this UCLA rant video). Most of these offenses-taken are justified: they were wrong, and got a lot of coverage for being flagrantly wrong. But while Jewish and Asian people are burdened with unfortunate stereotypes, those groups are not in general as disadvantaged in this country as are, say, blacks and Latinos. It would be interesting to study the relative frequency of these controversies, but I doubt they tilt more towards ones concerning the relatively powerless.

And if you think about it, why would it? The powerless by dint of that status are unseen and society and policy barely cares about them; when they do, it is often merely to criticize without any offers of help. I do not think there is some excess of concern for the powerless in our country, to say nothing of our lack of concern for people worldwide. There is a concern to observe the basics of such concern—polite people do not speak obviously ignorant stereotypes—but I suspect that this observation is partially about keeping one’s hold in polite society rather than any deep concern as such. Were we actually concerned, we might be working a bit harder to secure the life of the powerless.

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