Wednesday, January 07, 2015

On Privilege, Racism, and Fear

On Jan. 4th, Fox News co-hosts Peter Johnson Jr. and Tucker Carlson bashed Missouri state senator Maria Chappelle-Nadal for daring to mention white privilege in a Twitter post, claiming she is “perpetuating the race war that she announced in November” (Johnson) and that “she’s a race hater. She attacks people based on the color of their skin” (Carlson).

Carlson is displaying a text-book example of the big lie propaganda technique. This technique works so well for him, that he uses it twice. The first, obvious lie is Carlson’s claim that Chappelle-Nadal is attacking anyone. This lie is here only to distract. The second, more subtle lie is in Carlson’s phrase “based on the color of their skin.” If Chappelle-Nadal were literally "attacking people based on the color of their skin", yes that would be hateful. But that is not the case here. Our minds make race-based judgements about a person all the time, whether we intend to or not, simply because race is one of the first things we notice about a person. In George Orwell’s novel 1984, a big lie is encoded in the doublespeak word “blackwhite.” In today’s neoconservative America, the words are “post-racial” and “colorblind.” “Racism” is then defined as any challenge to the idea we live in such a society. (By this definition, every sociology department in America is racist.) The lie here is that assertions that whites enjoy socially-constructed privileges in today’s America are analogous to assertions that blacks are biologically inferiority (and therefore must be kept separate from the rest of society) in pre-Civil Rights Era America. Just think about that for a minute.

White privilege and racism are both very real. Our society conditions us to feel comfortable around white, male decision-makers, and threatened by the image of black men (and to ignore everyone else completely). This is the implicit message of our government, our media, our movies, and especially our economic institutions, where as of August 2013, corporate boards are still 87.7% white and 84.5% male.

We should be aware that the race-based issues in today’s media are about more than the surface issues--effective policing, the science behind humanity’s genetic differences, or the sociological history of racism. Tucker’s comments are part of a fear-based ideology of control.

We are living out an ideological struggle between love and fear. Television, unquestionably the most powerful technology of social control in human history, beams these fear-based images and soundbytes into tens of millions of homes each and every day. This is what scares me the most today--not the black guy walking down the sidewalk--the threat of living in a society where perfectly decent people never learn to trust each other because they are indoctrinated with fear-based ideologies.

Fear is not always bad. Our survival instincts depend on it to assure us of safety. But our media is constantly playing up our fears of each other in order to get higher ratings and manipulate voters’ choices. To fear ghosts--to fear when there is really no threat--is a sad way to live.
Are we to live in an economy of fear, in which we distrust our neighbor and maintain a safe psychological detachment from the outside world?

Racism today operates precisely in how we respond to questions like this. In contrast to the explicitly racist policies of our country’s past, today’s racism is in the margins of our decision-making within socially-complex contexts. Author Eduardo Bonilla-Silva explains how what he calls “racism without racists” functions: "Instead of saying that they do not want [minorities] as neighbors, they say things nowadays such as 'I am concerned about crime, property values and schools.’” Racism is not directly explicitly verbalized, but the end result is still the same: our neighborhoods become largely segregated, and stereotypical, race-based associations are reinforced. All other considerations being equal, whites are more likely than blacks to be called back for job interviews, approved for a bank loan, and put on probation instead of being incarcerated for a crime.

“But look at who’s President! Doesn’t the progress we have made deserve recognition, too?” (I can hear the corporate news anchor now.) Perhaps so, but before we give ourselves that collective pat on the back, we should be aware that racism has taken different forms throughout human history.

The idea that worth as a human being is specifically tied to skin color, rather than upbringing, was intentionally developed and perpetuated in order to justify the routine cruelty within the Atlantic slave trade. Pre-slave-trade racism consists of a more generalized fear of the unknown. Racism in this era was not defined in a specific way.  Foreigners, or those who are different, were simply distrusted at face-value. But as civilizations evolved, people began to find this simplistic fear of cultural difference unsatisfactory.

In medieval Europe, the idea of human slavery began to seem at odds with Christian values. Also, during the 17th century, it became common knowledge that other cultures have made beautiful art, scientific advances, advanced architectural procedures, etc. Other cultures became seen as interesting and worthy of respect after all.
At this same time, however, the conquest of extremely-fertile land in the Americas had created an overwhelming demand for slaves to work on the fields. Racism based strictly on skin color solved this ethical dilemma quite nicely for the white power-structure of the time. “Black people are born inferior. Slavery allows their life to contribute to a higher purpose. The enslavement of blacks is the natural order of things.” As a white person, I cannot imagine being subjected to such barbarity, the reminders of which are still all around us to this day.

The exact history and definition of racism is not as important as the fact that racism always plays off of our natural fear of uncertainty and the unknown.

Humans are the most visually-dependent mammal. We take in more visual data than our intentional, decision-making process has time to sift through. Numerous psychological studies have shown again and again that most contemporary Americans make many racial judgments every day without even realizing they are doing so. One famous study showed that Americans, black as well as white, associate the image of a black male with the threat of violence. Another study demonstrated that in the NBA, white referees call more fouls on black players, and black referees call more fouls on white players. Most participants in these
studies are not racist on a personal, individual level. Racism today is broader than that. It is a structural, institutional problem as well.

White privilege and racism against blacks are both quite real in America today. They are not so much about our individual intentional value systems as about the cumulative effect of our fear-based, everyday biases, which are constantly being reinforced by the structural racism all around us. The effects of racism are just as real as ever, and clearly signifies that we as a society need to wake up and stand up against the fear-based biases that the current system conditions into us.

At various times in human history, someone has proposed that an ideology of love can overcome our fear of the other. In Christianity, this is called Agape. For Islam, in the Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad is reported to have said: “You will not enter paradise until you believe, and you will not believe until you love one another.” In Judaism, this concept is called Ahava; in Buddhism, metta; and in Hinduism, prema. Authentic love is not just a mental state. It is the daring risk of self to engage the other. British literary theorist Terry Eagleton wonderfully translates the concept of Agape love as "political love.” Politicizing our love is the only way I see to overcome the fear-based ideologies that currently inundate our culture.

Monday, November 17, 2014

On the Dialectical vs. the Mechanical

All dialectics means is “competing consciousnesses”.

For an overly simplistic visualization, picture an ascending spiral contrasted with a straight line. Pursuit of a single conscious desire moves in a straight line, but as it acquires the perspectives of more and more constrasting desires, picture the straight-line motion transforming into an ascending spiral. That ascending transformation ("aufheben" in German) is the key to understanding dialectics.

Dialectical processes are necessarily more complex than mechanical ones. This is necessarily true, because there is no mechanical explanation for consciousness, so when two or more consciousnesses (or, even, two or more strains of the same consciousness) are in opposition, there is no linear, cause-and-effect explanation for what occurs.

Many of our interactions with the world are purely mechanical, for example, feeding your dog. There is no competing consciousness as both you and your dog share the same desire, that is, for the dog to be fed. We can truthfully say pet and owner are of the same consciousness.

The same can be said of groups of humans. All traditions are mechanical on their surface. This can be true of business, religion, schooling, or parenting. Anytime the reasoning of a group stops at “because it’s always been done this way” or “because I said so”, that group is acting in a mechanical way. Dialectics applies only when goals and procedures are either:
a) explicitly up for discussion, or
b) implicitly resisted by those assigned to carry them out.

America is popularly perceived as supporting the “free market of ideas”, but, when it comes to theories of knowledge, we don’t have a free market at all. We have one perspective, that of upholding traditional structures. Most of Academia today currently rejects dialectics in favor of mechanistic approaches to science, to business, to democracy, etc, although art criticism, the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution, certain strands of information theory, and chaos theory in mathematics are notable exceptions.

Analogies helpful in understanding Dialectics
internal agent
external agent
Dialectical Materialism
material base
Punctuated Equilibrium model of evolution
structural constraints of the environment
Information Theory (i.e. audio feedback)
extraneous noise, resulting in negative feedback
(in a mic-speaker system, most noise emitted from speakers cancels out with other extraneous sounds, and so is not strong enough to re-enter the mic)
mic or electric guitar directly in front of speakers, resulting in positive feedback
(occurs when a sound emitted from the speaker is strong enough to re-enter the mic, which immediately puts it through the speaker again, creating a cycle that results in the high-pitched screeching sound.)

Dialectics shares similarities with the evolutionary biological idea of “punctuated equilibrium,” “a model for discontinuous tempos of change in the process of speciation... where a new quality emerges in a leap as the slow accumulation of quantitative changes, long resisted by a stable system, finally forces it rapidly from one state into another.” The only difference is that the external agent within dialectics is consciousness, while the external agent within the punctuated equilibrium model of evolution is the environment.

I finally udnerstand the ridiculousness of Dawkins' claim that memes are “the fundamental unit of culture” just as genes are the fundamental unit of biology.
Genetics is a mechanical explanation for how traits are transmitted from one organism to its offspring, while memes provide no mechanical explanation of anything.
Evolutionary theorist Stephen Jay Gould speaks of an analogous situation with the antler size of elks. "Natural selection seems to have favored larger deer, and exceptionally large antlers came along as a byproduct of increased body size, not because they had any adaptive significance themselves."
Memes are "exceptionally large antlers" that have come about as a result of a change in technology resulting in a change of the expression of information. They provide no sort of fundamental explanations for anything. If the structural constraints of media change, of course the expression of stories will change also! To say memes are "fundamental units" is nonsense.
To Dawkins credit, dialectical situations are always complex. There are definite mechanical rules that govern how the people of any one culture behave, and thus a meme such as Beanie Babies or The Secret can successfully catch on and sell products to millions of consumers. Likewise theories such as “meme theory” can catch on within Academia within a society as conformist and consumerist as our own. Having said that, I'd like to cite Lord Grimcock's UrbanDictionary definition of meme:, which is tragically currently ranked #2:
Used to give a bit of pseudo-academic gravitas to stupid viral shit.

A 'meme' doesn't have to be funny, provocative or even make sense. Most memes fall into one of three categories:
- 'Quirky' stuff that isn't funny.
- Pathetic stuff that fills you with vicarious despair.
- Revolting pictures that could be presented to some alien jury as evidence that humanity is cancer.

There are a couple more quotes I wish to include here, which helped me in forming my understanding:


Identity is merely the determination of the simple immediate, of dead being; but contradiction is the root of all movement and vitality; it is only in so far as something has a contradiction within it that it moves, has an urge and activity.

Trotsky, explaining why language is inherently dialectical:
The dialectic… is not limited to the daily problems of life, but attempts to arrive at an understanding of more complicated and drawn out processes.

Start with the proposition ‘A’ is equal to ‘A.’ This postulate is accepted as an axiom for a multitude of practical human actions and elementary generalizations. But in reality ‘A’ is not equal to ‘A.’ This is easy to to prove if we observe these two letters under a lens--they are quite different from eachother. But, one can object, the question is not of the size or the form of the letters, since they are only symbols for equal quantities, for instance, a pound of sugar. The objection is beside the point; in reality a pound of sugar is never equal to a pound of sugar—a more delicate scale always discloses a difference. Again one can object: but a pound of sugar is equal to itself. Neither is this true—all bodies change uninterruptedly in size, weight, colour, etc. They are never equal to themselves. A sophist will respond that a pound of sugar is equal to itself “at any given moment”.
Aside from the extremely dubious practical value of this “axiom”, it does not withstand theoretical criticism either. How should we really conceive the word “moment”? If it is an infinitesimal interval of time, then a pound of sugar is subjected during the course of that “moment” to inevitable changes. Or is the “moment” a purely mathematical abstraction, that is, a zero of time? But everything exists in time; and existence itself is an uninterrupted process of transformation; time is consequently a fundamental element of existence. Thus the axiom ‘A’ is equal to ‘A’ signifies that a thing is equal to itself if it does not change, that is, if it does not exist.…
Dialectical thinking is related to vulgar thinking in the same way that a motion picture is related to a still photograph. The motion picture does not outlaw the still photograph but combines a series of them according to the laws of motion… Hegel in his
Logic established a series of laws: change of quantity into quality, development through contradictions, conflict of content and form, interruption of continuity, change of possibility into inevitability, etc., which are just as important for theoretical thought as is the simple syllogism for more elementary tasks.

Thomas Altizer on Hegel:
Full dialectical thinking is inseparable from an absolute Yes and an absolute No.

my poem about the equivalence of the concept of god with the dialectic (which, appropriately, came to me stoned driving to the store):
God spoke to me tonight,
"the Me that is Not me."
Your gospel laid bare,
now I know you're there!
I never thought this night could be...

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Theological Highpoetry

[Jesus] said unto them, 'Whosoever shall receive me, receiveth not me, but him that sent me.' - Mark 9:36-37

It is you, O God, who is being sought in various religions in various ways, and named with various names. For you remain as you are, to all incomprehensible and inexpressible. - Nicolas Cusanus

God spoke to me tonight,
"the Me that is Not me."
Your gospel laid bare,
now I know you're there!
I never thought this night could be...

Saturday, June 14, 2014

On Karl Popper’s Views of Marxism

Karl Popper, best known as a philosopher and professor at the London School of Economics, had just turned 12 years old when his home country of Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, marking the beginning of World War I. At the time, opposed to the mainstream desire for national glory, he hoped only for a quick peace [p.14*]. By age 17, in the months following the war, Popper had acquainted himself with members of the Communist Party in Austria, but soon astutely recognized contradictions within the values that party members claimed. Popper re-evaluated his attitude toward Marxism, and concluded he must leave the Party.

Popper summarizes Marxism as consisting of the following three arguments [p.19]:
1. revolution, not reform
2. conditions will get worse for workers
3. Capitalists cannot be individually blamed

Popper says this third point of Marx’s is usually, in his experience, ignored by Marxists, because it is subsumed by the first point. Political goals take precedence over theoretical distinctions. “Vulgar Marxism” is adopted, because it’s easier to explain and advances the immediate goal of building the party’s numbers.

Popper describes this contradiction as the “Marxist ideological mousetrap.” Those who adopt Marxism will inevitably dumb-down Marx’s theoretical distinctions, in order to make it simpler for others to adopt, thus advancing the immediate goal of revolution. I would counter that a proper organizational structure would have measures in place to avoid the trap.

A key takeaway from Popper’s analysis is that Marxists should avoid demonizing individuals for capitalist business practices. [War criminals are a whole other story--they can be demonized ad infinitum.] But critically demonizing people, such as the Koch brothers, for their economic/political behavior ultimately plays into neoliberal reformism, because it blames the individual instead of blaming the machinery of capitalism.

Popper ultimately sided against communism, because in his words, “[Marx] believed the economy was all-important, and this is certainly a mistake” [p.21]. This is where I would disagree. Popper died in 1994, right before the Internet made obvious the influence of global capitalist markets. I agree with Wolfgang Giegerich’s claim that globalization is simply monotheism applied to the economic sphere: “Profit maximization is the sun around which we humans today have been assigned to revolve. … It is our real God.”

Popper remained interested in the question “Communism, yes or no?” up until the end of his life [p.15], and, had he lived another decade, I find it probable that he would have started to lean more towards “yes.”

*All page references are from the book The Lesson of This Century: Karl Popper Interviewed by Giancarlo Bosetti

Monday, May 26, 2014

College Reflection on Education

This reflection was written for Educational Technology, first semester of my senior year. This is the only full class where I received an "F", but at the time, it really did not affect me, which signaled to myself I had finally overcome the emotional attachment to grades I had developed growing up. (Although it did not affect my attitude at the time, the fact that my graduating GPA ended up being below 2.50, 2.44 to be exact, would prove to significantly impact my teaching career.)
Tom Burwell Reflection about Education
Think about the difference between volunteer work and having a job within a corporate system. If you’re the cashier at Walmart, the more machine-like you are, the better. The important thing is to check items out quickly and accurately, to “complete your duties efficiently.” Your attitude toward customers is not the primary priority. But if you’re volunteering at, say, feeding the homeless, interaction with people is the important thing. (Unless, they are starving are something, which is very rare in America.) A machine-like volunteer would bring no joy to the lives of those you are serving, and thus misses the entire point of volunteer work, of public service. Corporate work benefits from a machine-like approach; public service benefits from a human-like approach.

In his book How to Survive in Your Native Land, recounting his experiences teaching in a public middle school, James Herndon provides a powerful illustration of the difference between truly internally motivated student activities, and what teachers assume to be internally motivated participation. He describes how kids in his regular class enjoyed the creative tasks he came up for them to do: the “uproar when twenty kids rushed to the board to put up their symbols” when the class was creating a Hieroglyphics-like language, getting information about how the Peace Corps operates and then writing “imaginary journals of stays in Africa and South America.” Then, once, he and a colleague started a new class, without grades, and in which students were issued “permanent hall passes,” making attendance completely optional. They soon found that students didn’t want to participate in these creative tasks. “We had to face the fact that all the stuff we thought the kids were dying to do (if they only had time away from the stupefying lessons of other teachers) was in fact stuff that we wanted them to do, that we invented. … And not only things to be doing—it was things for them, the kids, to be doing. … We wanted to see what symbols the kids would invent for English words; we didn’t have much curiosity about the symbols we ourselves would invent. We didn’t write fake Peace Corps journals ourselves; we only told the kids to do it.”

Herndon then describes the successful activity of that class. He and his colleague decided to make a film, but one that they wanted to make. “We didn’t want to find out what the kids’ notions of films were. We didn’t want to see what they would do with the film. We didn’t want to inspect their creativity.”

“If … the role of teacher as giver of orders didn’t work out, it was also true that the other role (the one Frank and I had imagined)—the teacher as Provider Of Things To Do, the teacher as Entertainer—didn’t work our either. For wasn’t that just what the kids had been telling us all year in their oblique, exasperating way? What did all that Nothing To Do In Here mean, if not that the kids didn’t want entertainers, wouldn’t accept them if they didn't have to, wanted the teachers to be something else entirely?

“Wanted them to be what? What was the difference between all the grand things we’d thought up for the kids to do and The Hawk? Why, merely that we didn’t want to do any of the former ourselves and we did want to do the latter.”…
“Wanted them to be human.”

Later, Herndon spells out his central message to teachers:
“Resist every day all the apparatus of the school which was created in order to enable you to manage and evaluate a group, since it is just that management which destroyed the kids you have in your class.
“You must examine your authority for what it is, and abandon that part of it which is official, board-appointed, credentialed and dead. Then you must accept the natural authority you have as an adult, belonging to a community of adults which includes the kid’s parents and relatives.”

So Herndon tells us to resist “all the apparatus of the school which was created in order to enable you to manage and evaluate a group.” But be aware that the apparatus serves a useful function. For bad teachers, and we should admit there are bad teachers, the apparatus is a necessary “safety net” that gives at least some sort of direction to the class. But that’s all it is: a safety net! If we’re trying to teach students to do more than crawl, we must “resist the apparatus”, rise above the safety net, and use only the “natural authority you have as an adult.” So don’t use grades to get behavior out of students, (but I do believe grades have a useful function of allocating scholarship opportunities to those who most want them), and don’t give out praise to students just for doing what’s expected of them (how weird would it be if we treated our friends that way? “Good job coming to dinner with me tonight, Steve!”). Resist that artificial authority; only use it as a safety net when you feel overwhelmed from being the only adult in a class full of kids.

This is such an important idea for teachers to understand: Authority from being a teacher is a good safety net, but should be resisted. Our authority from being an adult is in fact much more real, and much more powerful.

So which approach should a teacher take? Should teaching be approached like any other corporate job? Or should it be approached more like a public service? From what I can tell, the education department here favors the corporate model of teaching. We’re encouraged to use rubrics, “behavioral objectives”, and grades to get students to efficiently carry out the assignments we give them.

I love the idea of teaching; I want to teach, at least on and off, many years down the road from now. But I’m not satisfied with the experience I have had in this department. This is now my senior year, and it’s not at all been what I hoped it would be. To me, teaching is about more than getting students to understand the content of a subject. To me, teaching is about impacting the lives of students, about initiating them into society, about teaching them to be good members of a community. When I think of a good teacher, I have always thought of Socrates, Jesus or the Buddha. It seems to me, though, in this department we’re not learning how to be teachers. We’re learning how to train corporate workers. …to get students to carry out their tasks accurately and efficiently. I believe in public education. If I teach, I want to teach in public schools. I understand the value of everything we have covered in this class, and appreciate being made aware about all of it, but I don’t agree with being required to fill out all these lesson plans and content assessment projects. Don’t all the physics classes I have taken test whether I know the content or not? To properly teach physics in high school isn’t so much about getting students to understand specific concepts; most of them won’t become physicists anyway. Rather it’s about explaining the role physics has in our society, and about initiating them somewhat into that culture of physics, so that students will be able to decide whether or not they are interested in pursuing the subject as a possible career.

 I don’t think being able to fill out a unit plan reflects my ability to be a high school physics teacher. Being a high school teacher should focus primarily on building a strong sense of classroom community, initiating students into the cultures of different career paths, and only then, on having successful lesson plans that give students every opportunity to succeed on that path if their interest leads them there. For me at least, putting the primary focus on producing excellent lesson plans for all students, whether they are really interested in the subject or not, deadens what the idea of teaching is all about. Rather than impacting the lives and choices of students, teaching is reduced to either giving students orders or an entertaining them--either training corporate workers or simply providing students with things to do.