Monday, October 18, 2010

Race, collective failure, and collective responsibility

It was really hard to listen to this Bloggingheads episode, because the tone of the argument was pretty charged, and because this is an issue that goes down into the traumatized core of the American collective psyche. That sounds a bit too pseudo-literary and clich├ęd, but I think there's some truth to it; almost every American seems to have a strong opinion on this issue, and most seem to get pretty emotional when they talk about it.

I have thoughts about various aspects of Lowry and Wax's argument, and about their arguments.

I had a similar reaction to the tone and basic approach of both. Wax struck me as a bit overly eager to arrive at her conclusion, which is pretty typical for a lot of conservatives. This is, I'm speculating, why Lowry seemed to have a bit of adverse emotional reaction, which was both understandable and counterproductive.

Lowry's objection to Wax's analytical framework struck me as a little vague, but also pointing to something important- perhaps a fruitful line of inquiry. But as it stood I think it was hard for Wax to substantially respond to it, especially in an hour long dialog.

Lowry mentions that Wax's approach of diagnosing a cultural problem among blacks has political consequences- ones that, he intones, are problematic. I think it's not unfair to say that he suggests that this way of thinking leads to something like a racist political outcome. Lowry says that we should only be willing to go down that road if we're on very solid analytical footing, which, he suggests, Wax is not.

Wax defends against this attack mainly by saying that (1), cultural analysis is just hard to make analytically solid, at least given our current knowledge, and that (2) the data seem to overwhelmingly point to a black problem- that is, there are statistics, like crime rates, among blacks that can not be accounted for by any other variable. This is were a different tone would have been helpful, by the way. She seemed a bit too eager to push this point, and at some points seemed to suggest the ridiculous posture often taken by conservatives that being willing to talk about this stuff is in itself somehow courageous.

Anyway, this all got me thinking about about some conceptual (dare I say- philosophical?) issues I've thought about in the past about the nature of social or cultural failure, collective responsibility, and collective guilt.

It seems to me that there's a lot of conceptual blurring that happens in discussions involving these topics, perhaps because these discussions are often around emotionally charged topics, but also, I suspect, because something about the way we've evolved to think about moral responsibility tends to lead us into confusion when we get to this level of talking about it.

UPDATE: This post languished for about a month- I want to finish it, but I may write less than I had initially planned:

The confusion I mentioned above comes, I think, from ascribing responsibility to groups in the same way we do to individuals, and from the conflation of collective responsibility and collective guilt.

The problem is that we've developed the concept of individual guilt/responsibility because it incentivizes people to behave in a more pro-social way (I think most evolutionary psychologists would agree with this hypothesis, but I'm open to being corrected). This same concept has gotten applied to groups because it's easy for us to think of groups the same way we think as individuals. But the incentive effect doesn't work here and, worse, it ends up getting mixed up with intergroup conflict and goes against our intuitions of justice. (Does that make sense?)

In the case of the debate about blacks in America, people like Wax suggest that blacks have some kind of responsibility as a group to improve their situation. This gets interpreted as a kind of accusation of guilt, and as alleviating whites of any responsibility. And Wax's tone does nothing to assuage the concerns of anyone skeptical of her motives.

If I was going to make the kind of argument that Wax was making, I would put it something like this: There is such a thing as cultural failure. Culture is a pattern of behavior among individuals is any group that separates itself from others enough to be able to create and enforce internal norms. These patterns can be conducive to, or destructive of, individual flourishing. They develop through internal and external influences.

In the case of blacks, a culture destructive of individual flourishing has developed. We don't really know why. It's likely that the unique exploitation and oppression of blacks in America is one reason.

Whether or not that's true, it is simply a fact that improving the situation of blacks will require individuals within the black community to engage with the culture and change it. This says nothing about the ultimate moral responsibility for the current situation. It is probably true in some sense that there is broader moral responsibility to be assigned to American society, American politicians, etc.

I don't have much confidence in this argument. If I were making it, I would also add that I do think government policy has a role to play, especially abolishing the War on Drugs and taking steps to improve education. I think my preferred policy for the latter would be to abolish public education and provide financial resources to those who need them, but that isn't going to happen, and there are probably ways to make marginal improvements in the meantime.

I don't know if any of this makes much sense, but I wanted to get it out there. I appreciate any feedback!