Systemic Suckitude

I just wrote about my views on what I called a fucked up world. I was ranting about the failure of politics, specifically partisan and identity politics, to deal with real world suffering. It all comes down to rationalizing the problems of my group and scapegoating some other group.

It irritates me, to say the least.

I’ve never felt like I had a group. I don’t strongly identify with any social identity. It feels rather incidental and random that I was born a particular gender, race, nationality, class, etc. I can’t take credit or blame for these conditions of my fate.

Anyway, suffering doesn’t care all that much about your social identity. Anyone can suffer, although suffering is far worse for some. I mean, if you have a car accident or get some crippling disease, the animal reality of suffering is basically the same. Maybe you can get better pain drugs and a little bit more comfort, but no amount of wealth or privilege can solve the mystery of suffering.

I have a clear sense of this because of my personal experience. I’ve suffered severe depression for I guess more than a couple of decades now. I’ve had severe depression for most of my life now. I can hardly remember what life was like before it.

Depression is a unique category of suffering. Unlike the PTSD of a veteran or the physical disability of a parapalegic, depression typically has no obvious cause or reason, no obvious effect even. It pissed me off, when I first began struggling, because there was nothing I could point to and blame. It was some internal failure inside me that couldn’t even be pinpointed. There was no dramatic story to be shared about being abused or growing up poor, no political oppression or horrific racism.

Depression is just pure unadulterated suffering. My experience of it has allowed me to better grasp suffering on its own terms, and not get stuck on the proxies of suffering. Race is a proxy for class in our society, but then class is proxy of other things. Everything is a proxy of something else, except for our most intimate and direct experiences. Depression needs to be proxy for nothing. It just is.

This is what few understand about the essence of suffering. It ultimately doesn’t matter what causes your suffering because in reality there never is a single cause. Suffering is irreducible, humanity at its most fundamental. To understand suffering, we must understand the human condition.

Yes, this involves all those other factors that contribute and exacerbate suffering. I don’t mean to dismiss the objective realities of victims. But in a world of suffering, the struggle of individuals is never really individual nor even demographic. Your social identity will offer you little comfort or protection from this shared human condition enmeshed in a shared society. It is the entire world that is fucked up. It is systemic suckitude.

Social labels only separate us from this harsh reality.

A Fucked Up World

Who grasps how massively God-forsaken fucked up the world really is?

Even many well-informed people appear to be fairly clueless, including activists directly confronting truly messed up problems. Most just don’t get what it all means. They see some data, if they know the data at all, but almost no one looks beyond their little niche of ideology, interests, and personal experience.

Take the victimization cycle. That sounds too abstract. A cycle? To put it in simple terms, suffering leads to more suffering. From one person to the next, generation after generation, century after century, all across society. Fucked up people fuck over other people leading to even more fucked up people. An endless tidal wave of fucked-upness, seeping into every crevice of the lives hit by it. A flood of suffering that leaves destruction and disease in its wake.

What is the typical response to this? Blame the other guy, the other group. Scapegoat someone, anyone.

What is to be avoided at all costs? Looking at the ugly reality straight in the face.

That is a major problem with both partisan politics and identity politics, or really any kind of ideological dogmatism. It leads to groupthink, an us vs them mentality. It is pointless and stupid. It just makes everything worse. The larger problems are ignored, the problems that are so immense that taking them in would lead some to suicidal despair. Maybe many people know on some level how fucked up it is and they want to avoid that awareness at any and all costs, even if it means never dealing with the problems they claim to care about.

The example that has been on my mind relates to the “Not All Men”. It irritated me not because there wasn’t some important discussion that should be had about the issues but because that discussion wasn’t really happening. Most of the posts on both sides of that ‘debate’ were bullshit, pointless attacks of the other side (not to say there weren’t a few intelligent responses in the mix). It mostly became an ideological turf war.

I chose not to join in the internet fiasco, the righteous posturing in articles and blogs. I chose not to join in because I didn’t want the bullshit to get on me. I kept my mouth shut and my mind open. Instead of voicing an opinion, I put my head down and tried to figure out what it all meant.

I knew about the statistics feminists repeat. I had no reason to doubt those statistics, but my curiosity got the better of me and I went into obsessive research mode. I had to know for myself what was what. Although I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, I wanted to see the data on some specific issues. I wanted to see the data on physical and sexual abuse, spousal and child abuse, female and male abuse, and anything else along these lines. I’d never looked at this data and all I knew was that there was a high rate of reported rape of women by men. So I made my search broad and checked every source I could find.

A real shocker came up. Some sources showed that women were more likely than men to abuse boys. Also, some sources showed that boys who reported being abused by women were more likely to have their allegations dismissed by the agencies/organizations that are supposed to record that info and deal with those problems. This apparently is a blindspot that may be as big as what once was found with spousal abuse by men. In both cases, something thought rare has turned out to be not so rare, after all.

My point isn’t some bullshit tit for tat. The feminists get their jab in with the rape statistics. And then the men’s right groups get to jab back as well. I don’t care about “Not All Men” or “Not All Women” or whatever else anyone wants to think up. Screw that! I’m not going to play those stupid games. Let’s take all of this seriously.

Are we prepared to deal with this soul-crushing fucked-upness? Or are we going to stick our heads in the sand once again?

This is mind-blowing stuff we’re being faced with here. How many women who abuse boys were themselves abused by men at some point? And how many men who abuse women were once abused by women?

Do we have the gut-level courage to ask these questions out in the open and look for the answers? Will we accept what answers we might find, for this issue and so many others? Are we adult enough to take shared responsibility for these problems?

Slumming in Hipsterdom

Ramon Glazov has an interesting article about David Foster Wallace. Although long, it is a good read. Ite isn’t just about DFW, but other similar writers: William T. Vollman, Hubert Selby jr, Bret Easton Ellis, and Dave Eggers.

I don’t have strong personal opinions about any of these writers, as I’m only vaguely familiar with most of them. That said, the article resonates for me in its takedown of hipster lit.

I’ve never liked word play that serves no purpose and, much worse, that hides its own superficiality and emptiness. It is intellectual gymnastics, a self-absorbed verbosity of little substance or depth. It is hipster pseudo-/anti-intellectuality with, as Glazov explains, an often crypto-conservative or crypto-Calvinist taints:

David Foster Wallace is a subtler bigot than Vollmann, and a better writer, but, like Selby, he’s still a Calvinist – I think that’s what you call someone who believes human beings are doomed to be wankers no matter what. It’s a lazy ideology that fits the Eggers circle like a glove: “Well, it’s not like I could ever be completely sincere about my parents’ deaths, without at least some profit motive, so I may as well stop trying altogether and hope you’ll love me out of reverse psychology.” But while it works for Augustine to question his motives endlessly, getting all miserable over the fact that even his best deeds have microscopic traces of selfishness, there’s no good reason to worry about this unless you believe in a literal Hell. In fact, it’s downright annoying behaviour for anyone born after the Middle Ages. I guess I can forgive religious people for it, since they’re doing it out of sheer terror, but I can’t forgive mopers who expect sympathy for expecting sympathy for expecting sympathy and expect me to care. And unlike Augustine (who at least had some belief in free will) writers like Eggers and Wallace don’t even try to break out of the pattern because they find it cleverer to flaunt their (painless, terrorless) yuppie version of Mediaeval Scholasticism. (Or worse – because they think “analysis-paralysis” is the only intelligence there is.)

And it’s the rehab clinic chapters of Infinite Jest where Wallace’s prejudices really come out. This is the opening to one of them:

If, by virtue of charity or the circumstance of desperation, you ever chance to spend a little time around a Substance-recovery halfway facility like Enfield MA’s state-funded Ennet House, you will acquire many exotic new facts.

(A list of “exotic new facts” follows for about six pages.)

The most interesting word here is “you” – this is the chapter where Wallace reveals his ideal reader. And what kind of reader is that? Apparently, someone who finds it “exotic” that “females are capable of being just as vulgar about sexual and eliminatory functions as males.” Or “that cockroaches can, up to a certain point, be lived with.” Or “that not all U.S. males are circumcised.” Or that “black and Hispanic people can be as big or bigger racists than white people.” So, Wallace pretty much admits that his book is written for pampered yupps who’ve never lived in a house with cockroaches or heard a woman swear before.

From Glazov’s perspective, it obviously isn’t just using a lot of words to say little. It is also saying something that wouldn’t be palatable if the message weren’t hidden.

It’s not unlike racism being translated into and obscured by color-blind language. It isn’t even clear that the message is consciously understood by the one communicating it and so isn’t a simple case of intentional vagueness and misdirection. People who speak this way likely also think this way. They don’t know how to get to the point because they don’t know what their point is and it is in their self-interest to never seek greater clarity. It is an existential unwillingness and inability to be accountable for their worldview. The implications are too great to be spoken of directly.

Maybe this relates to the complaint some make about the undercurrent of conservatism in post-modernism, an anti-intellectual and anti-Enlightenment reactionary worldview. Maybe it is similar to why the Dark Enlightenment seems counter-culturally cool to a certain kind of person, so alternative that it seems subversive while in actuality justifying the status quo.

I’m not entirely sure about my ultimate conclusion about DFW or this particular assessment of his writing. I do think, more generally speaking, that Glazov gets at an important point about what goes for good writing in many literary circles. Either empty or unpalatable, some writers don’t merit the acclaim they receive from critics and fans, although it could be argued about which writers should be included in this criticism.

Anyway, Glazov’s conclusion about hipsterdom appeals to me:

That’s all Infinite Jest boils down to. An anti-intellectual (yet amazingly pretentious) Calvinist cautionary tale that makes the same death threats about thinking that Requiem for a Dream made about drugs – “Brains: Just Say No!” Plus a few voyeuristic scenes of depraved poor people in a rehab centre. Bum fights, in other words. Cleverish ones. Hobo torture porn for postgraduate smirkers.

Still, if the great Ned Flanders Lookalike Association of hipsterdom has one talent, it’s finding an excuse to adore practically anything. Poking fun at these vermin is like trying to kill bedbugs with pine-scented air freshener. They’ll always find a way to survive, at least until the rest of us take to the streets, form brigades and make it unsafe to be post-ironically ironic after dark. And even then, they’ll just join another, rottener subculture. Eventually, some Wallace groupie will find a way to spin everything in this article into a plus. I can already imagine the blurb: “Brilliant! Like a bum fight refereed by Einstein and Descartes!”

But that doesn’t make it any less of a bum fight.

That is an interesting way of putting it: bum fight. I guess that is like blacksploitation/blaxploitation films, but a high culture literary version of it “refereed by Einstein and Descartes”.

I’m not quite as dismissive as this. If someone appreciates reading DFW, it doesn’t bother me. I found it hard to get into some of his writings, but I feel wary about asserting his writings are without value and should be avoided by all. Even if it is fancied-up trash writing, there could still be enjoyment in slumming in hipsterdom.

As for my tastes: Give me Joe Bageant or Henry Fairlie, easily accessible writers who combine worthy ideas with personal observation. Give me some hard-hitting scholarly analysis like Michelle Alexander or insightful cultural analysis like David Hackett Fischer. And, if imagination is what is desired, give me the playful and probing vision of Philip K. Dick or the dark contemplations of Thomas Ligotti.

I just don’t do hipster lit. But each to their own, I guess.

Online Weirdness

The internet, especially social media, makes people weird. This includes: suspiciousness, rudeness, aggressiveness, unresponsiveness, misplaced common courtesy, absent social norms, lack of typical friendliness, bluntness, etc. I notice the differences in others, as well as in myself.

For instance, there is a fellow blogger I know. We mutually follow each other’s blogs. He recently shared his personal experience in his blog. He doesn’t usually write about personal experiences and so I thought this would be a good opportunity to get to know him better. I responded with some personal experience that was similar to his. I had interacted with this guy before and was trying to make a personal connection, to treat him like a normal person I might meet in normal life, but he gave me no response whatsoever. Just silence.

As another example, I was interacting with a guy I know on Facebook who lives in my community. He mentioned working at a library. As there are several libraries in town, I asked him about which library he works at (with an added “if you don’t mind my asking”). I got no response, not even saying that he’d rather not tell me, despite my having interacted with him online at least hundreds of times over many years, live in the same area as him, know some of the same people, and likely have met him in person at some point.

Ignoring people like that seems rude, or at least it would be in normal life. How can people apparently be so oblivious and unaware about their behavior? why don’t they think the same rules of conduct apply in all aspects of life? Why the division in relating, the dissociation of experience, or whatever it is?

It isn’t just strangers and casual acquaintances. I’ve had similar experiences with people I known personally for years and decades. Sometimes close friends won’t even acknowledge comments I make to their Facebook posts or posts I make to their page. Such silence wouldn’t be considered acceptable in a face-to-face encounter. Why is it acceptable online?

I always respond to people, even strangers, as long as I deem them worthy of a response. On my blog, if I deem someone unworthy of a response, I also deem them unworthy to have their comment to be approved for showing up in my blog. I treat my small corner of the internet as a semi-personal space and so I treat people I meet on the internet personally, which includes both positive and negative responses.

People I meet online are real to me in my experience, even if I’ve never met them in person. I’ve had internet friends who I’ve known and regularly conversed with for years. I know about their lives and their dreams, although I’ve never even heard the sound of their voices. I also treat people I know from my everyday life the same way online as I do offline. I don’t treat the two worlds as separate. It is all the same world, same common courtesy, same way of relating.

I do act differently online, in some ways. I’ll admit to that. I’m an introvert and, like many introverts, I find it more comfortable to be friendly online. I like meeting people online, but less so offline. I’m not a social person in the traditional sense, but I’m not exactly a private person either. I’ve always been a person to which applies, what you see is what you get. The internet hasn’t changed that, although the internet has given a vehicle for that philosophy to play out differently.

I also can be more aggressive online, at times. So, maybe I’m not in a position to judge others for acting out of character. That said, I tend to only act aggressively online to strangers, the type of people I’d never normally interact with at all. So, the internet merely opens me up to interactions that wouldn’t otherwise happen, but it doesn’t change the way I interact with people I already know; at least, I don’t think it does.

I’m not sure what is my point. Maybe people are always weird, but are better at hiding it in everyday life.

The Legacy of John Brown

Annie Brown, John Brown’s last living daughter, died in 1926. She was born in 1843 and so she made it to her early eighties.

She was 16 when her father helped incite the American Civil War. She participated by acting as a lookout in guarding the farmhouse that was used as barracks and armory in preparation for the raid on Harpers Ferry. She was 22 when the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.

Her lifetime began in the first half of the 1800s and continued into the early 1900s. By the time she died, many events had transpired: Lincoln’s assassination, the backlash against black freedom, the destruction of independent black communities, the expulsion of blacks from sundown towns, the creation of black ghettoes, the organizing of the original KKK and the rise of the Second KKK, the enforcement of Jim Crow laws, the wave of lynchings, the emergence of forced labor chain gangs, and the response to black soldiers returning from WWI.

I wonder what her perspective was on all of this. Did she think her father’s sacrifice for the cause was worth what it achieved? What did she hope would follow?

All of this wasn’t that long ago. To put it in perspective, someone alive today who was born when Annie died would only be slightly older than she was when she died. My grandparents were kids and teenagers at the time of her death. As Annie was reaching the end of her life and the lives of a new generation were beginning, a new society was forming out of the ashes of what came before. The last of the Indian Wars were being fought. Those early decades of the twentieth century also involved fights by other minority groups and fights by labor groups. It was an era of radicalism, often violent.

Annie Brown’s lifetime included many fights for freedom. But victory of freedom was still an uncertainty, as it remains to this day. Much more struggle would follow her death, though few later events in this country would be quite as dramatic as her father’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

Rate And Duration of Despair

“One of the most remarkable features of the unemployment figures is that both the rate and the duration of unemployment have increased during every Republican administration and decreased under every Democratic one, without a single exception.”
~James Gilligan, Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others,  Kindle Locations 704-706

This pattern has existed since records first began being kept, unemployment rate since 1900 and unemployment duration rate since 1948.

It’s not even just unemployment. The same partisan disparity is found with rates and, when applicable, durations of diverse issues: poverty and economic inequality, recessions and depressions, GDP and GNP, homicides and suicides, etc. The author further explores the broad range of studies that show various correlations between these factors, most especially how the other factors have through time-series analysis been causally linked to increasing violence.

Then Gilligan connects it all to regional partisan politics and differences of populations. He considers many angles, from crime policies to studies on authoritarianism; revealing “some very interesting inter-correlations between all three of these variables: character, party, and state” (Kindle Location 1816).

Also, he offers a thorough survey of the data on incarceration and crime rates. There is no clear, strong evidence that mass incarceration decreased crime and violence. An argument, instead, can be made that mass incarceration has been contributing to the problem.

Gilligan’s main argument is based on his accidental discovery of how the homicide and suicide rates followed party administrations. No one had noticed because the two parties were averaging each other out. No party was in power continuously for long enough to make the pattern obvious enough for a casual observation. The more the author looked at the data the stronger the correlation became and the wider set of the correlated data.

The primary conclusion is that economics is so bad during Republican administrations that an increasing number of Americans turn to violence, both against others and against themselves. Furthermore, the longer a Republican administration remains in power the worse it gets. The opposite happens with Democratic administrations. This is what the data shows.

It’s freaking mind-blowing.

He does offer a cautionary note. Even under Democrats, violence rates although lower than Republicans are still at what would be considered epidemic levels in other Western countries. Still, the pattern remains interesting.

One has to wonder what the pattern would look like if Democrats or those even further to the left had maintained political power continuously for this past century. Or imagine how our society would be transformed if ever a left-wing party came to power, as seen in other Western countries. Screw both the Republicans and Democrats! We can only take so much backlash of misery and temporary respite.

Even for someone who despises the two party system, this pattern can’t be easily dismissed or ignored. The differences between the parties are real. Politics does matter.

Many independents wish the differences were even greater, but one has to be extremely cynical to argue these differences aren’t significant enough to make a difference. If one is unemployed or at risk of unemployment, if one is poor or homeless, if one feels the shame and desperation of being deemed a loser in a society based on Social Darwinism, it certainly matters.

Nonetheless, what is an independent to do when the back and forth partisan power struggle never leads to permanent solutions that get to the root of problems? As a psychiatrist who worked for 25 years in the prison system, that is what James Gilligan wants to know (Kindle Locations 123-134):

“Given the stability of that correlation between the political parties and the violent death rates, and my inability to disconfirm it, the question that remains is: what does it mean? Why is it occurring, and doing so repeatedly? As a physician, my interest has always been in matters of life and death, not politics, and this foray into politics because of a chance discovery that implicated political actors only happened because of my attempt to learn what was causing these deaths and how we could save lives.”

Ignoring parties, how do we get positive results? How do we make the world a better place? What lesson should we learn?

I wish I knew.

Unseen Influences: Race, Gender, and Twins

Steven Fraser, in The Bell Curve Wars, discusses the problems with Hernstein and Murray’s genetic argument for IQ.

He points out that the Flynn effect is particularly devastating. For this reason, he finds it puzzling that they don’t recognize or acknowledge the obvious implications. Black people today are on average smarter, as far as IQ tests go, than white people were a few generations ago. By today’s normed IQ tests, white people of a century ago would now be labeled as “retarded”.

I’ve covered that territory before. What caught my attention the other day was what followed his comments on the Flynn effect. He made a further point about the weakness of the genetics hypothesis. He states that a “remarkable phenomenon commented on in the Moynihan Report of thirty years ago goes unnoticed in The Bell Curve–the prevalence of females among blacks who score high on mental tests” (Kindle Locations 914-925); he continues:

“Others who have done studies of high-IQ blacks have found several times as many females as males above the 120 IQ level. Since black males and black females have the same genetic inheritance, this substantial disparity must have some other roots, especially since it is not found in studies of high-IQ individuals in the general society, such as the famous Terman studies of high-IQ children, which followed these children on into adulthood and later life. If IQ differences of this magnitude can occur with no genetic difference at all, then it is more than mere speculation to say that some unusual environmental effects must be at work among blacks.”

This isn’t limited to any race/ethnicity. It is a gender IQ gap found across diverse other populations.

“However, these environmental effects need not be limited to blacks, for other low-IQ groups of European or other ancestries have likewise tended to have females over-represented among their higher scorers, even though the Terman studies of high-IQ individuals from the general population found no such patterns. One possibility is that females are more resistant to bad environmental conditions, as some other studies suggest. In any event, large sexual disparities in high-IQ individuals where there are no genetic-or socioeconomic-differences present a challenge to both the Herrnstein-Murray thesis and to most of their critics.”

This reminds me of the stereotype threat discussed by Claude M. Steele in Whistling Vivaldi. He shows the research about how much simple changes in environment can cause large changes in results, both for tests of academics and other activities. Women tend to test lower on math, for example. However, neutralize stereotype threat and the disparity disappears.

Environments aren’t just different between populations, but also within populations. The environmental factors that will impact a female are different than for a male, including the stereotypes and expectations placed upon genders just as happens with race. Having much shared genetics doesn’t necessarily mean that all influences are being shared.

To emphasize this point, Fraser extends his argument to an even more stark example. Twins also show great differences, something overlooked by early twin studies.

“Black males and black females are not the only groups with significant IQ differences without any genetic differences. Identical twins with significantly different birth weights also have IQ differences, with the heavier twin averaging nearly nine points higher IQ than the lighter one in some studies.’ This effect is not found where the lighter twin weighs at least six and a half pounds, suggesting that deprivation of nutrition must reach some threshold level before it has a permanent effect on the brain during its crucial early development.”

Slight changes in environment can lead to immense differences over the long term. This is because of the cumulative effect of initial conditions. One thing leads to another. Lowered nutrition or increased toxicity has its impact which gets magnified by such things as school tracking. Each effect becoming a cause and all the causal factors combining to form significant differences in end results.

The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.

Looking the Other way: Willful Ignorance and Intentional Blindness

Ignorant. There is no word like it. Calling someone ‘uninformed’ or ‘misinformed’ doesn’t have the same force nor even the exact same meaning. No word can take the place of ‘ignorant’.

Yet it is politically incorrect to call someone ignorant. I’ve had comments deleted on Amazon reviews because I called someone ignorant when I meant it as a literal statement in that person was, as defined by the dictionary, “lacking knowledge, information, or awareness about something in particular.” It is considered mean-spirited to point out that someone is ignorant, even when or especially when it is true.

This just makes it all the more frustrating. Our society has a taboo about facing ignorance. We wouldn’t know how to function as a society without such ignorance. It can feel like it goes beyond even just ignorance. Along with an unwillingness to talk about ignorance, there is an ignorance of ignorance. It is the default position for nearly all social interactions and public discourses.

It can seem pointless even trying to blame anyone for being ignorant. The seeming unconscious obliviousness is immense. People are just ignorant. They don’t know any better, so the story goes.

My focus has been mostly on racism as of late. The ignorance in this area is more frustrating still. It is a systemic and institutional ignorance that makes possible the systemic and institutional racism.

Why are so many people ignorant about the continuing reality of racism?

“It can be tempting to think that today most white people are racist primarily because of an inadvertent lack of knowledge about the cultures and lives of people of color. Many white people in the United States and other white privileged countries do not often personally interact with people of color, and when they do, such interactions often are of the trivial sort found in consumer exchanges. Given the de facto but persistent racial segregation of many cities, neighborhoods, and schools and the paucity of non-stereotypical portrayals of people of color on television and in Hollywood movies, white solipsism is a real problem.”
~ Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, Kindle Locations 219-223

But is ignorance reality a default state? How can an unintentional passivity toward racism cause it to be to remain so stubbornly in place?

There is a study that was about attentional focus. It measured this by eye gaze. As I recall, it had to do with differences between liberals and conservatives. There was something that either conservatives don’t appreciate or doesn’t fit into their worldview. They put an image of this thing or something like that in their visual field. What the researchers found was that the people who had a vested interest in not seeing something intentionally didn’t look in the direction of what they didn’t want to see. At some level, they had seen it, even though in questions they acknowledged no awareness of it being there.

These people went to great effort to maintain their experiential blindness. This is how willful ignorance operates. There is an intention behind the behavior, even if it isn’t fully conscious.

“A similar temptation is to think that white people are racist because they lack accurate knowledge about the (alleged) scientific, biological basis for racial categories. This view of racism holds that many people fail to understand that there are no necessary and sufficient biological or genetic conditions for dividing the human population into distinct races. Because of this failure, they mistakenly think that race and racial hierarchies are real. Demonstrate the lack of scientific basis for race, so says this eliminativist view, and racism will disappear because the categories on which it is based-white, black, and so on-will have disappeared. Racial categories and the racism they support are like the emperor who wears no clothes. All one need do is honestly point out the emperor’s nakedness, and the illusion of his clothing will disappear. Dismantling the biological theories of race upon which racism rests likewise requires merely the same straightforward good will to acknowledge the obvious: the lack of the scientific data to support racial categorization.’
~ Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness, Kindle Locations 227-232

I’m a lover of knowledge. I want to believe that knowledge matters. The issue isn’t really about knowledge, but about ignorance and the two aren’t necessarily oppositional. People know and don’t know things all the time. People are fully capable of dividing their minds and their lives, never making the connections that would cause them to see the full picture.

Knowledge isn’t just about facts, but more importantly about comprehension, about a visceral and emotional sense of really getting what something means and why it matters. Knowledge isn’t an abstract intellectual exercise. Truth is a moral force or it is nothing at all.

Pointing out data without a way of conveying meaning won’t undo ignorance. List the numbers of dead in the recent genocide against Palestinians won’t have an impact. But if you forced someone to spend a week having Israeli bombs falling all around them with dead bodies and destruction that couldn’t be ignored, all of a sudden that list of numbers would be viscerally real and would have an emotional impact. Mere knowledge that could be easily dismissed would become a truth with moral force.

Westerners can be told the data that objectively proves genocide. But data is just data. There is great power of the mind to not really see or comprehend the data, to dismiss it, ignore it and rationalize it away. It isn’t unintentional.

The oppression of dark-skinned people in Palestine follows the same basic pattern of the oppression of dark-skinned people in America. The mechanisms are the same. The details really don’t matter in defense of the social order and in upholding the status quo. Much has changed in the US over the centuries. Racism morphs to fit the times and yet basically continues on.

I sometimes try to make sense of this as mere inertia. But that doesn’t really explain anything at all. That is just an avoidance of responsibility and an avoidance of the despair that would accompany taking responsibility.

“Rather than an innocuous oversight, it was an active, deliberate achievement that was carefully (though not necessarily consciously) constructed, maintained, and protected. Du Bois eventually saw that to understand the white ignorance of non-white people, one has to hear the active verb “to ignore” at the root of the noun.”

We are ignorant because we ignore. This is willful ignorance. It isn’t just racial bias in institutions, residue of past racism. No, racism is alive and well, in the minds of all of us. We are afraid to call a spade a spade. It is politically incorrect to point out that our society is still racist.

Black Feminism and Epistemology of Ignorance

I have some thoughts that have been simmering on the back burner for a while now. It is specifically relates to black feminism. That isn’t something I normally read about, but I came across a quote by Angela Davis and started reading one of her books, The Meaning of Freedom (Kindle Locations 170-174):

“More than once I have heard people say, “If only a new Black Panther Party could be organized, then we could seriously deal with The Man, you know?” But suppose we were to say: “There is no Man anymore.” There is suffering. There is oppression. There is terrifying racism. But this racism does not come from the mythical “Man.” Moreover, it is laced with sexism and homophobia and unprecedented class exploitation associated with a dangerously globalized capitalism. We need new ideas and new strategies that will take us into the twenty-first century.”

This quote was on my mind when the “Not All Men” meme went viral. It really put things in contrast. Davis’ reference to the mythical “Man” refers as much to feminist issues as to racial issues. There literally is no “All Men”. It isn’t fundamentally about blame or evasion of responsibility, as the “Not All Men” argument was framed.

The grand insight of black feminism has been that there is no singular vantage point for all women, no universal set of truths for all feminism. Black feminists saw middle class white feminists as part of the same racial and class hierarchy. Identity politics can create a kind of blindness to important distinctions and inconvenient knowledge.

As a basic example, a middle class white woman in America has more privilege and experiences less violence and oppression than a poor black man in post-colonial Africa (or even most poor black men in America). Or, as another example, consider the issue of women and violence. Most rape and abuse happens to poor minority women, not middle class white women. As far as that goes, a black man in prison is probably more likely to be raped and abused than a middle class white woman.

It isn’t just about being a man or woman. It isn’t just about being black or white. It isn’t just about being rich or poor. It isn’t about any single thing. It is how these factors and issues combine in the lived experiences of particular people and populations.

Generalizations can be misleading and dangerous. They can be used to ignore the real issues. This is how race becomes a proxy for class and in many ways so does gender, for women make less money than men. If class is the most major issue, then all the rest of identity politics can be problematic when they don’t take this into account.

It was from there that I began looking more into intersectionality (where identities and disadvantages intersect), which is related to the larger fields of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science. Intersectionality as a basic understanding has been developing for a long time, across many fields. A major connection goes back to Marxism and its influence on feminist thought through standpoint theory:

“Standpoint theory supports what feminist theorist Sandra Harding calls strong objectivity, or the notion that the perspectives of marginalized and/or oppressed individuals can help to create more objective accounts of the world. Through the outsider-within phenomenon, these individuals are placed in a unique position to point to patterns of behavior that those immersed in the dominant group culture are unable to recognize.[2] Standpoint theory gives voice to the marginalized groups by allowing them to challenge the status quo as the outsider within. The status quo representing the dominant white male position of privilege.[3]

“The predominant culture in which all groups exist is not experienced in the same way by all persons or groups. The views of those who belong to groups with more social power are validated more than those in marginalized groups. Those in marginalized groups must learn to be bicultural, or to “pass” in the dominant culture to survive, even though that perspective is not their own.[4] For persons of color, in an effort to help organizations achieve their diversity initiatives, there is an expectation that they will check their color at the door in order to assimilate into the existing culture and discursive practices.[5]

One’s viewpoint depends on one’s social identities and one’s social position. This isn’t just a philosophical debate, for it has real world consequences. Studies show that environment has a strong influence on individual development and behavior.

Recent studies on the upper class and lower class makes this abundantly clear. Wealthier people have less empathic accuracy in that they are less able to read the emotional experience of others, to understand and appreciate the persepctive of others. They don’t listen to and pay attention to others as much. They also express fewer pro-social behaviors such as being more rude and aggressive (e.g., driving behavior) along with being less generous.

This goes straight to the class issue. Blacks and women, most especially black women, are among the poorest people in America and in the world. Being poor, in some ways, makes them more likely to act in ways that are considered caring and humane. To be on the bottom of society, an individual is more dependent on and interdependent with others.

This could explain why middle and upper class people, both black and white, don’t understand the family structures and support systems of the poor. All they see are marriages under stressful conditions, calling the families weak or broken, but they don’t see the strength of communities surviving under almost impossible conditions.. The ignorance of this judgment from privilege hit home for me when I read the following passage from Stephen Steinberg’s “Poor Culture”:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Those rich in wealth are poor in so many other ways. And those poor in wealth are rich in so many ways. It depends on what you value. People can’t value what they don’t see and understand.

The issue of knowledge and ignorance has been perplexing me for most of my adult life. My perplexity has been caught between the rocks of despair and the riptide of outrage.  I have thought about and written about this endlessly. It is what anchors me in place. It is the mystery around which everything else revolves.

I was glad to come across the book Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, a collection of papers by various authors. In the Introduction, Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana state that “ignorance results from humans’ situatedness as knowers. Because we are located, partial beings, we cannot know everything” (Kindle Locations 64-65). This line of thought is continued in Chapter 2 with “Epistemologies of Ignorance: Three Types” by Linda Martin Alcoff. In that essay, Alcoff explains that both knowledge and ignorance are situated (Kindle Locations 607-611):

“Thus from the fact of our general situatedness it follows that ignorance should be understood as contextual, since it does not accrue to me simply as an individual outside of a particular situation. I may be a trained linguist with the ability to communicate in eight languages, or an excellent seamstress capable of making my own designs from scratch, but insofar as I am attending a medical operation, I am ignorant of the skills needed to fully assess the health of the patient. What is determinative of ignorance is the interplay between my individual epistemic situatedness- my location, experience, perceptual abilities, and so forth, not all of which will be relevant in any given case-and what is called for in reaching conclusions about this particular object of inquiry.”

The author then connects this situatedness to race (Kindle Locations 698-699):

“most whites in the United States seem to believe that the United States is a form of society based mostly on individual merit, while most nonwhites seem to believe that the United States is a form of society based on a racial contract.”

That caught my attention because it relates to the studies on socioeconomic class. The studies found that wealthier people tend to take individual credit for their wealth, for their position and privilege. Poor people tend to emphasize the importance of their environment.

This seems to directly correlate to the differences in seeing families as nuclear versus as extended networks of support. For the wealthier, even families are seen as individualistic and isolated, and of course they see that as normal despite how unusual it has been throughout history and continues to be for most families throughout the world. Nuclear families are a fairly recent invention and hardly the sign of a healthy society.

Upper class white Westerners are truly weird (and WEIRD–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and they don’t even know it. However, some might argue that the ‘D’ for democracy isn’t entirely accurate, considering forms of imperialism still remain dominant in the West, for democratic rhetoric is too often simply used to rationalize power. White Westerners have the privilege to be ignorant of how racism, classism, and other forms of oppression continues in their own countries and are enforced on other countries.

This is a major point made by Alcoff (Kindle Locations 700-706):

“Mills suggests that “whiteness,” which he carefully defines as a political construct rather than simply an ethnic category, brings with it a “cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of all social realities,” that it ensures that whites will live in a “racial fantasyland, [or] a `consensual hallucination,”‘ and that the root of all this is the “cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement” (Mills 1997, 18-19). If it is true that most people prefer to think of themselves as moral or at least excusable in their actions, then in unjust societies those in dominant and privileged positions must be able to construct representations of themselves and others to support a fantasyland of moral approbation. Thus such whites might believe that the academy is a meritocracy, that modernity began in Europe and then spread outward, and that global poverty is disconnected from Western wealth. The persistence of such myths in spite of increasing empirical and theoretical counterevidence certainly suggests that the cognitive dysfunctions responsible for myth maintenance are more than a matter of differences in group experiences or expertise.”

This is what we face with the overwhelming injustice and suffering in the world today. This is why so many people remain ignorant and remain ignorant of their ignorance. This is how people simultaneously know and don’t know.

As Angela Davis suggests, “We need new ideas and new strategies”. We need to get past our conceptual blindness, our cultural biases, our vested interests. We need to get past all of that toward a broader view, toward a greater sense of shared vision and common cause.

I want to add a caveat as part of my conclusion.

In this endeavor, we should especially listen to those who are in a position to know what we don’t know or don’t fully understand. This isn’t about being allies to the disadvantaged, but about expanding our sense of humanity. It is also to realize every position has its own sets of knowledge and sets of ignorance.

We all have disadvantages, including the wealthy, as the studies show. As for the rest of us not so disadvantaged with wealth, we are the majority of people in the world. Even most white men lack much power and influence in a wealthy country like the U.S. We also shouldn’t forget that most poor people in this country are white. One of the most ignored and silenced groups in America are poor rural whites. They have a position of knowledge on our society that gets heard less often than that of poor urban blacks.

Identity politics can be self-destructive when it divides us. This is where intersectionality is so important. What intersectionality speaks to is what connects, what crosses the artificial boundaries we create. That is the potential we need to find a new language to communicate.

* * * *

If you’re interested in learning about the studies on economic class, here are some videos and articles that go into the details:

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/business-jan-june13-makingsense_06-21/

http://blog.ted.com/2013/12/20/6-studies-of-money-and-the-mind/

http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-wealth-reduces-compassion/

http://nymag.com/news/features/money-brain-2012-7/

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/under-the-influence/201208/how-the-rich-are-different-the-poor-ii-empathy

http://www.livescience.com/8978-read-emotions-helps-poor.html

http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2012/07/03/money-may-make-you-mean-but-can-you-buy-a-heart/

http://www.inc.com/laura-montini/how-the-mind-makes-sense-of-advantage.html

http://bigthink.com/Mind-Matters/study-more-privilege-means-less-empathy

http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/rich-really-poor-in-generosity-empathy-and-altruism-study/830627/

http://www.cnn.com/2012/09/21/opinion/marsh-wealth-happiness-romney/

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/dec/08/social-status-empathy-philanthropy

http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/10/08/do_the_rich_care_less_power_imbalances_can_lead_to_empathy_inequality_between.html