Friday, August 30, 2013

Writing about "Race" and "Intelligence"

Since putting up "Blaming the Victims, II" the other day I've had repeated bouts of blogger's remorse.  Let's face it: blog posts are always premature births.  It seems no matter how many times my eyes scan a given post before allowing it to leave the nest, I only ever see what I remember writing in my head, and not the actual words on the screen.   Thus, rather obvious typos continually slip through the cracks.  "By" instead of "But."  "Is" instead of "It."  It's like that email to your boss you read twenty hundred times looking for unprofessional gaffes only to realize immediately after sending it that you signed off with "Thanks you very much" or "God to see you."  This latter, especially if you are already under suspicion as a religious type, is a real boner.

But my qualms about "Blaming the Victims, II" extend beyond the realm of the typographical and have led me to commit a breach of blog etiquette by going back and making unannounced changes in the wording of minor passages (though this would be more shocking if it were clear that someone had actually read the original post in the interval besides my parents and fellow editor).  But despite the changes I'm still not satisfied.  So I figure I should take advantage of the short attention span of the medium and just write a new post.

The biggest single reason for my discomfort with my last post is that there is something intrinsically unsettling about a group of white, non-Muslim bloggers arguing back and forth about whether or not Capital-T "They" are "intelligent" or not-- or whether "Their Culture," tout court, is somehow uniquely depraved or rotten.  Even if I am the one taking the stance one would expect the "good liberal" to take, there is an element of condescending White Knight-ism about the whole business.  Reading the last few posts one might come away with the impression that this is a debate internal to America's putative "cognitive elite" which ought be settled by them in a dispassionate way on the basis of statistical evidence-- when perhaps, the position of genetic determinism, which I think can fairly be described as scientific racism, is not one which deserves to be discussed in abstractions-- or as simply one more falsifiable hypothesis.

Yes, using emotion in arguments is tricky.  It can get in the way of the rational assessment of different points of view and it should not be escalated unnecessarily-- but on the other hand, there are times when denying the emotional realities of a situation is itself an intellectual error-- a failure of rationality.  As Brian Barry once put it: "[T]here are, I believe, occasions when an emotional response is the only intellectually honest one. The concept of a 'free fire zone,' for example, could appropriately be the subject of black comedy or bitter invective but not dispassionate analysis."  Harold Pinter once made a similar point in even stronger terms: "The other night I watched some politicians on television talking about Vietnam. I wanted very much to burst through the screen with a flamethrower and burn their eyes out and their balls off and then inquire from them how they would assess this action from a political point of view."

This may be true of "free-fire zones."  How about the idea that certain racial groups of people are genetically incapacitated to do intellectual work, that they are naturally inferior in intelligence to other groups?  Does this likewise belong to the category of the irretrievably pernicious and inhumanly callous?  We should be open to the possibility: There are quite a few studies showing that if you belong to one of the racial groups deemed statistically "less intelligent," then even hearing that scientific racist views exist-- yes that's right, not hearing that such views are accurate, but hearing that such views exist-- will have a demonstrable negative impact on your test scores.  In other words, if you are told you are stupid you will play into the role, however unconsciously.  Your self-image and self-conception will adjust to the way people perceive you-- at great cost.

So perhaps, despite the strong language I employed in the last post-- "neo-racist drivel," etc.-- it was a mistake to pursue the issue on this blog without acknowledging that this is more than a social science research project for me.  I think a little bit of autobiography is in order.

As a kid I had been slated to join the "cognitive elite" by the usually battery of tests, but at the age of 13 I had my predictable teenage identity crisis and realized that I had better try out the label of "cool" or "slacker" before it was too late and I was labeled a nerd forever.  It didn't work-- I was still a nerd, but a nerd with lower grades.  The next year I dramatically switched identities again, decided I was an "intellectual," and worked hard to return to my vacated spot in the upper echelons of academic dweebery.

On the scale of life's misfortunes, this particular tale of woe doesn't exactly register as the tear-jerker of the century.  But what was genuinely disturbing to me after the fact was the extent to which my teachers in that one year of slackerdom bought into the narrative I told about myself.  I told them I was a slacker, they believed me, and I quickly started to believe it of myself-- even though it was contradicted by the rest of my life's experience.

What helped to pull me out of this spiral was not any heroic act of boot-straps-pulling on my part.  It was a handful of extraordinary high school teachers who did finally see something in me I had forgotten, or denied was there.  This was made possible but the fact that I went to a small school where teachers were able to take a personal interest in students-- that it was reinforced by parents who believed in me and knew I could do better-- and that I was still living in a social world of face-to-face interactions where my poorer report card showing in 8th grade did not determine my fate for the rest of my life.  If I had not been so privileged-- if I had only be exposed to an impersonal bureaucracy where my test scores were fed into a machine and my life's destiny farted out the other end-- then I shudder to think how differently things could have turned out.  My story is not a tragic one.  But it could have been.  And that continues to alarm me.

I suspect that people like Noah Millman or Charles Murray who invest "intelligence tests" or the SATs with cosmic omniscience never had a real experience of intellectual failure in their lives.  They probably never had anyone tell them they were not smart enough to do something which they knew, deep down, they could succeed at if given the chance.  They were probably never slated to sit in the slow class or to be left behind a grade or told that they weren't "gifted."  If they had been, they might have realized how difficult it is to break out of a role in which you have been cast by the world's perceptions.  Those perceptions, meanwhile, never take all the facts into account.  They are not interested in whether you are rebelling, whether you came from a broken home, whether you live in public housing where there is no privacy to study, or anything else.  They are based on numbers, which register you as "smart" or "slow."  And if you deny their judgment, you must have "a chip on your shoulder."  And pretty soon, you will have just such a chip.  You will become what they say you are.

If Noah Millman or Charles Murray had ever brushed up against the suggestion that they just weren't smart enough when they were children, they might have experienced that uniquely keen despair that only kids can feel: the sense that rebellion is utterly hopeless and futile, because the very act of rebellion will not be viewed as such, but chalked up to a failure of intelligence.  Of course, this continues to some extent in adult life, but the adult world is also composed of infinitely varied individuals and subgroups of individuals pursuing their own visions of the good.  To the child, and even the teenager, on the other hand, the world is very small, and its strange rules and rites of passage seems as if they were handed down from heaven for all time.  As Orwell described it:

"There was a line of verse that I came across not actually while I was at St Cyprian's, but a year of two later, and which seemed to strike a sort of leaden echo in my heart. It was: [Milton's] ‘The armies of unalterable law’. I understood to perfection what it meant to be Lucifer, defeated and justly defeated, with no possibility of revenge. The schoolmasters with their canes, the millionaires with their Scottish castles, the athletes with their curly hair — these were the armies of unalterable law. It was not easy, at that date, to realize that in fact it was alterable. And according to that law I was damned."

This, I suspect, is rather how the world seems to children who read blog posts online or magazine articles saying that the racial or religious group to which they belong is naturally dimwitted or intellectually inferior.  They are kids.  They believe what they are told.  And if they are told that they are not good enough, they won't allow themselves to be any different.  Thus, If you play around with the ideas of scientific racism, you are affecting real children's lives for the worse: you are denying to each one of them their potential and their self-esteem.

This may seem like an overstatement.  Surely there are worse obstacles to place in children's way than the negative judgment of an IQ test or a lousy report card.  True-- but we should always remember how intense the sense of failure and defeat can be to kids-- how complete and irrevocable, and hence how damaging.  Orwell helps us remember it.  So does George Eliot in her account of the angst of the young Maggie Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss on realizing she is about to get in trouble with her parents:

"Very trivial, perhaps, this anguish seems to weather-worn mortals who have to think of Christmas bills, dead loves, and broken friendships; but it was not less bitter to Maggie–perhaps it was even more bitter–than what we are fond of calling antithetically the real troubles of mature life. [...] We have all of us sobbed so piteously, [...] but we can no longer recall the poignancy of that moment and weep over it, as we do over the remembered sufferings of five or ten years ago. Every one of those keen moments has left its trace, and lives in us still, but such traces have blent themselves irrecoverably with the firmer texture of our youth and manhood; and so it comes that we can look on at the troubles of our children with a smiling disbelief in the reality of their pain. Is there any one who can recover the experience of his childhood, not merely with a memory of what he did and what happened to him, of what he liked and disliked when he was in frock and trousers, but with an intimate penetration, a revived consciousness of what he felt then, when it was so long from one Midsummer to another; what he felt when his school fellows shut him out of their game because he would pitch the ball wrong out of mere wilfulness; or on a rainy day in the holidays, when he didn't know how to amuse himself, and fell from idleness into mischief, from mischief into defiance, and from defiance into sulkiness; or when his mother absolutely refused to let him have a tailed coat that 'half,' although every other boy of his age had gone into tails already? Surely if we could recall that early bitterness, and the dim guesses, the strangely perspectiveless conception of life, that gave the bitterness its intensity, we should not pooh-pooh the griefs of our children."

This should be required reading for Millman, Murray, and the other usual suspects.  They have clearly failed to "recover that early bitterness"-- which surely they too experienced at some point if they lived human lives and were human children-- but which they have clearly forgotten or repressed now in their roles as "rational" adults.

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