The problem with “microaggressions”: The important distinction between talking about identity and racism

Originally posted on TheAjayBlog:

Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group”

The term worries me. Actually, it scares the shit out of me. While it is a useful descriptor for modern “implicit” or “hidden” types of racism, there is great potential that it can be deployed to shut down conversations about race and identity in the same way that “colorblindness” did/does (See Colorblind by Tim Wise).

Racism 2.0:

Several social scientists have adopted terms like “the new racism” or “racism 2.0” or “hidden racism” or “covert racism” to describe essentially the same thing: modern forms of prejudice and discrimination on the basis of racial identity (racism 2.0 is my personal favorite, mostly because I like Tim Wise).

According to these scientists…

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Call-out culture

I was listening to From Tucker Park road on Local 107.3 FM. Arif and Jason, who are the hosts, discussed the ban bossy campaign. It’s another attempt to police language. The online conversation is of course polarized. I like one side more than the other. For example, I think that Jessica Roy is right that some people choose to police language rather than bring “attention to important issues that have real impact on women and girls.” You might say that social change or activism is never either/or. But I think we all know that’s not true. We tend to take the easy path, settling for symbolic victories.

Although not exactly the same thing, I thought I would post what I wrote (under duress) for a zine. Don’t worry, it’s short.

I’m calling you out. If you’re an activist, you’re probably annoying. Every good thing that has ever happened has pissed someone off. Social progress requires friction, but not all the friction you get is good or necessary. One way to generate useless and harmful friction is to draw attention to someone’s privilege when they are making an argument.

Being aware of privilege doesn’t make you a better person than those who are less aware. Telling someone to check their privilege is not the same as helping them to understand that they derive unearned benefits from how they are positioned in the identity hierarchy (race, gender, class, etc.). Rather, it is a thought-terminating cliche. It effectively shuts down conversation. It’s also boring and unproductive.

Privilege is still a useful concept and smart people have written a lot of important words about how it affects our relationships. But the phrase “check your privilege” is a rallying cry. It is a product of “call-out” culture. (Yes, I am aware that I am flirting with the very thing I am criticizing). Advocates of call-out have been seduced by the notion that the personal is always political and that by challenging everyday behaviours they can encourage lasting social change.

Unfortunately, good intentions rarely pay off the way we think they will. I learned this the hard way by being an obstinate “mind changer.” I am not suggesting that we shouldn’t engage people in debate or stop egregious abuses, but call-out in the form of “check your privilege” is something different. It’s not socratic dialogue. It’s not even the caustic wit of someone like the late Christopher Hitchens. It’s just another way to troll, but it has undeserved prestige because it’s loosely tied to progressive values.

If you want to stop privilege checking, you are not required to abandon your principles or stop thinking critically. But when you feel self-righteous or want to dismiss dissent, pause for a moment and think about what you’re doing. Are you accomplishing your goals? Are you just relieving frustration? Beware the narcissism of minor differences. Don’t be a bully. If you consider yourself a radical, the most revolutionary thing you can do is encourage debate and mutual consideration. It’s really hard to do. You’re going to fail over and over again (I do) and you’re still not going to reach a lot of people, but you will be less annoying.

How to speak and write postmodern


I missed this one the first time around. It’s a good one.

Originally posted on The Paperthin Hymn:

How to Speak and Write Postmodern
by Stephen Katz, Associate Professor, Sociology.
Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada
Here is a quick guide, then, to speaking and writing postmodern.

First, you need to remember that plainly expressed language is out of the question. It is too realist, modernist and obvious. Postmodern language requires that one uses play, parody and indeterminacy as critical techniques to point this out. Often this is quite a difficult requirement, so obscurity is a well-acknowledged substitute. For example, let’s imagine you want to say something like, “We should listen to the views of people outside of Western society in order to learn about the cultural biases that affect us”. This is honest but dull. Take  the word “views”. Postmodernspeak would change that to “voices”, or better, “vocalities”, or even better, “multivocalities”. Add an adjective like “intertextual”, and you’re covered. “People outside” is also too plain. How about…

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Coyne vs. Plait

Jerry Coyne provides a sound critique of Phil Plait in Debate postmortem II: Phil Plait goes all accommodationist « Why Evolution Is True. I would, however, like to expand on his post.

Coyne concludes his critique by pointing out that Plait is not a theologist (go read it to find out why). Neither is he an expert on science education or advocacy. At the risk of sounding like Massimo Pigliucci, allow me to remind everyone that people (experts) professionally study stuff like science communication, religion, and what people believe about the relationship between science and religion.

Let’s take a look at some of Plait’s claims.

Plait: “Facts and stories of science are great for rallying those already on our side, but they do little to sway believers.”

Plait’s claim here is difficult to prove. Which believers? In one study, undergraduate biology students—most of whom were raised as creationists—came to accept evolution (in a Christian university setting!). The authors argue that all the “participants that transitioned from creationism to an acceptance of evolution had to reorder their long-held perspectives on the literalness of Genesis and the requisite conditions of salvation.” In other words, they had to change their religious beliefs rather than their beliefs about science.

Plait: “The conflict over the teaching of evolution is based on the false assumption that evolution is antagonistic to religion.”

Plait goes on to argue that the problem is with a particular brand of religion, and that “Evolution takes no stand on the existence or lack thereof of a god or gods.” The authors quoted earlier found that many Christians “decode words like ‘chance,’ ‘spontaneous,’ and ‘random’ as anti-theistic as demonstrated by the many participants … who interpreted ‘arose by chance’ to imply a direct challenge to the legitimacy of God.” Resolving such a conflict would be quite difficult for scientists, even if they were religious. Believers would have to alter their perceptions of God’s place in the universe.

From the cognitive science end of the spectrum, Blancke et al. (2012) challenge the notion that science and religion are compatible. They conclude that it is often necessary for religious people to change their “anthropomorphic God concepts into more abstract notions” to reconcile their “intuitive modes of reasoning that hinder their understanding of evolutionary theory.” One point in Plait’s favor is that the authors agree that “pupils will not modify their beliefs if teachers bluntly confront them with the incompatibility between their faith and evolutionary theory,” but one point in Coyne’s favor is that it is the religious believer that needs to reconsider and revise their tendency to see God as an intentional agent. The idea that a religious believer who already understands the “reality of science” can just sweep in and persuade someone with rigid beliefs is naïve because at the end of the day the less sympathetic believer would need to undergo a significant transformation (the same transformation that atheists desire). Also, science-friendly religious believers can be just as confrontational as science-friendly atheists.

As far as persuasion is concerned, Thagard and Findlay (2010) argue that there are three pedagogic strategies worth considering: detachment, reconciliation, or confrontation. The authors argue that which strategy is best “depends on a host of philosophical, scientific, psychological, and political factors,” which I notice is more compatible with the confrontationalist’s position than the accommodationist’s stance. In my experience, confrontationalists recognize that other strategies might be important depending on context, while accommodationists tend to overwhelmingly support reconciliation. Detachment is the position that science and religion occupy separate realms, which used to be the dominant position taken by scientists, religious or otherwise. Detachment didn’t work out all too well. Although it has political benefits, understanding evolution does not lead to a belief in evolution, that is, people are “unlikely to expend the substantial effort required to overcome the conceptual difficulties that impede understanding.” They learn evolution because they’re required to do so, but they don’t tend to appreciate the scientific value of the theory because there is no pressure to do so.

Reconciliation has its own difficulties. For one thing, it tends to be “highly relativist, asserting that there is not real competition between Darwinian and creationist accounts because they are just different ways of talking about the world.” I don’t think Plait advocates relativism, but that’s mainly because he’s ignorant of what a lot of religious people actually believe. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to threaten their core beliefs to get them to accept evolution, but believers know better. Another problem is that reconciliation forces the science advocate to do some pretty impressive yoga poses to accept science and religion as being compatible.

One approach to reconciliation, similar to detachment, is Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, but it “fails to deal with conflicts over specific claims such as how the human species came to be,” which, whether Plait likes it or not, is hugely important to many religious believers (not just a small faction). Theistic evolution, which I sort of discussed earlier, requires the religious believer to change their beliefs about God (or gods). For many believers, it will be just “as repugnant as Darwin’s theory, because it violates their deep faith in the literal truth of their favorite religious texts and the ongoing intervention of God in human lives.”

Now we come to confrontation. It won’t work everywhere, especially in places where criticism of religion is prohibited. To be effective it needs to “address cognitive and emotional issues that tend to be neglected by advocates of science.” Skeptics face the same sort of problems when they’re dealing with pseudoscience and the paranormal. Some people in the skeptical movement have decided that science can be taken to “supersede religion when cognitive conflicts about facts and theories occur.” Atheists could take a similar strategy to science education, but they are limited in one important respect: creationists make empirical claims, which are in turn bound up with believer’s values. In these types of conflicts, I think it’s vitally important than scientists stay on message with their advocacy because there’s no way to get around the conflict. Religious moderates aren’t going to be able to do it. Atheists aren’t going to be able to do it either. It’s simply a battle that scientists have to win, and perhaps brute force is the only solution.

Scientism and snark

I’m always interested in what’s going on in the new atheist movement, and no internal debate is too silly or petty to grab my attention. Massimo Pigliucci, the self-appointed internal critic of the rationalist community and tireless defender of philosophy, wrote a paper, “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement” for the Midwest Studies in Philosophy journal. Although I am a sociologist, I have a strong enough background in science studies and the philosophy of science to roll my eyes when I see the word “scientistic,” especially when it’s in the title of a paper. (Also, can we please stop referring to “turns” in journal articles?).

Late last month, James A. Lindsay wrote a blog response to Pigliucci, which also happens to be a decent summary of some of Pigliucci’s views about the new atheist movement. From a philosophical standpoint, Pigliucci doesn’t think there is much new about the movement. I’m not sure why this is important because I don’t see a heck of a lot of people suggesting that the new atheism is new from a philosophical standpoint. Regardless, Lindsay writes “Most people do not care enough about philosophy to revise their beliefs. In all likelihood, they never will, no matter how many papers like his are published.” Although Lindsay goes on to explain some important differences between philosophy and science, he does a good impression of a sociologist, noting that the new atheist movement has been more successful than previous atheisms in spite of its lack of philosophical novelty.

Jerry Coyne offers his own review of the paper: It’s a nasty piece of work: mean-spirited and misguided. It’s also, I suspect, motivated by Pigliucci’s jealousy of how the New Atheists get more attention and sell more books than he does—and that’s just unfair because people like Sam Harris and Dawkins don’t know any philosophy and ergo shouldn’t have any credibility. In fact, Pigliucci argues, their ignorance of philosophy is deeply injurious to the cause of both science and New Atheism.” I can’t speak to Pigliucci’s intentions, but he does tend to go on a bit too much about the new atheists. I am not suggesting that new atheism could do with less criticism. Not at all. I just think it could do with less of Pigliucci’s brand of criticism.