Monday, October 18, 2010

"Of Course It Was Written By a Minority."

This was my immediate response to this Slate piece on unconscious bigotry. Just seeing the author's name, Shenkar Vedantam, spawned a nasty little thought, before I had time to scold myself.

I was essentially proving its thesis:

Our conception of prejudice is fearfully wrong. Psychologists Andrew Scott Baron and Mahzarin Banaji once conducted a study evaluating the conscious and unconscious attitudes of 6-year-olds, 10-year-olds, and adults. The 10-year-olds reported less prejudice than the small kids, and the adults reported no prejudices at all. But that was at a conscious level. At an unconscious level, the three groups had identical attitudes.

Other research has shown that at an unconscious level, huge majorities of Americans (including sizable numbers of African-Americans) are biased against blacks. Huge numbers of women, as well as men, value men's professional contributions more than they value women's professional work. Large majorities of gays, Arabs, and people with disabilities have unconscious biases against people from those groups.

I immediately thought of a nugget buried in Andrew Sullivan's response to Leon Wieseltier's accusation of anti-Semitism:

Look, I am not one to dismiss any notion of anti-Semitism in me or anyone else. I believe it is such a toxic theme in human history and such a grave strain in the human soul that no one should be sublimely confident that he or she is free of it entirely. I take the moral demand to guard against it very seriously. And I have indeed searched my conscience these past few years to take stock if anything like this is unconsciously entering my soul, as I try to guard against my many other sins. I certainly think I have written and thought some things about Muslims and Arabs over the years that are not always carefully parsed, conditioned or measured. I'm not immune to homophobia either.

Anyone is capable of such thoughts, but the issue is often what is done about it. Liberals can err, and badly, on the side of multicultural reductiveness (see: Crash). But more often today we see conservatives papering over their baser instincts by, for example, hiring a black leader, any black leader, to counter the opposition's black leadership, and think it's sufficient. Or, worse, they'll proudly voice their sub-rational prejudices and explain them away as just entertainment.

This is not to say humor does not have a role to play in dealing with these dark thoughts. In fact, it may be the best way. By drowning the malice in irony, one can turn a bigoted thought into an excoriation of bigotry, a harmless exercise in knowingly bad taste, like a dead baby joke. Stephen Colbert is premised on not taking what he says at face value. The same is not true of Glenn Beck.

In a way, its the same mode of thought at work in getting a thrill from lurid horror fiction, which Stephen King once described as 'feeding the alligators in the cellar so they don't get loose.' From this derives the appeal of South Park, and Dave Chappelle.

The knowingness that one has stepped over the line is also what elevates Bill Hicks' tirade against a female heckler over Michael Richards' meltdown:

Whatever strategies social science may bring about to mitigate the practical consequences of our vilest, most unconscious sentiments, completely vanquishing them may well be an impossible task. Best then to be honest with ourselves of the alligators' existence, that they may be defanged.

CARTMAN: Of course it was written by a minority.

Much better.

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