Race, Class and Racism

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Eracism[Allie Holler / Flickr]

In response to Martin Luther King’s assassination, schoolteacher Jane Elliott devised a simple yet revealing exercise that helped her students understand the pathology of racism and prejudice– “The Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes” experiment. This experiment was featured in the 1985 Frontline Documentary, A Class Divided .

On April 5, 1968, the day after King was shot Elliott divided her all-white classroom into two groups on the basis of eye color, blue or brown. Those with blue eyes were inferior; those with brown eyes were superior. Within minutes the “superior” students exhibited arrogance and a sense of entitlement while the “inferior” group felt insecure and vulnerable. The following day, when Elliott reversed the experiment, the children who had been subordinate only the day before quickly took on the role as the oppressor, and vice versa.

Her third graders learned in only two days what some of us fail to learn in a lifetime: what it feels like to be discriminated against and how susceptible we are to acting out the irrational behavior of prejudice and bigotry.

Elliott’s first Blue Eyes/Brown Eyes exercise took place nearly 40 years ago in the small town of Riceville, Iowa. Today Elliott travels across the world, holding lectures and workshops to give people an insight into racism and what it feels like to be a minority.

When we asked Elliott if she’ s surprised that she’s still doing this work she said

Surprised is an understatement… I am angry and I am disgusted, I am frustrated and I am disappointed… and I am enraged.

In this hour we’ve invited Jane Elliott and others to talk about racism and discrimination in America today. Have civil rights legislation and affirmative action made a difference? Has the veneer of political correctness only made racism harder to detect? Are we hardwired to discriminate? Are our expectations for change unrealistic? Are we prepared to recognize that the road to true equality is a long one, paved with stumbling blocks? What are your experiences with racism and discrimination?

Jane Elliott

Teacher, Lecturer, Diversity Trainer

Rinku Sen

Publisher, ColorLines Magazine

Baratunde R. Thurston

Comedian and blogger

Author, Better Than Crying

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  • Nikos

    Considering the show topic, and being an unimaginative one trick pony, I cannot fail to once again recommend:

    What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee http://www.powells.com/biblio/65-0520240642-0


    We would all be well-served to understand that racism’s 20th century manifestations were based on old, discredited junk-science. And genetic anthropologist Jonathan Marks details this in plain English, and with a terrific ‘Groucho Marx’ delivery.

  • avecfrites

    Elliott’s experiment described above puts me in mind of the Zimbardo Prison Experiment, in which Stanford students assigned the role of prison guard became abusive toward other Standford students assigned the role of prisoner.

    There’s an awful lot of evidence that the social environment dictates behavior. People increasingly acknowledge this — so what stops us from moving more aggressively toward constructing environments that take advantage of this to let us lead more successful lives? The countervailing argument seems to come back to a fear of the “nanny state”, where liberal eggheads harm personal liberty by forcing people to do things a certain way.

    Can we think of ways to get past this objection, or maybe to do an end run around it by tackling problems in the social environment without requiring federal government mandates? Do individual states have enough leeway to radically reduce the number of people in prison, or do federal sentencing mandates prevent that? Could a state provide incentives to encourage most of its population to take a social psychology course of some sort, to let everyone see the results of experiments such as Elliot’s? [BTW, I’ve long thought that PBS or even a major network could/should present a jazzed-up series of shows centered on social psychology experiments and demonstrations a la Zimbardo; it could be as entertaining as the “reality” shows we see on TV today and could provide a real public service, worthy of the broadcasting licenses granted.

  • jazzman

    Dr. Seuss recognized Elliot’s phenomenon prior to 1961 when he wrote The Sneetches and Other Stories. It should be required reading with in depth discussion in all public schools. Oscar Hammerstein penned the classic You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught in 1949 and it is just as relevant today.

    Racism and Classism are learned behaviors that are generationally perpetuated and reinforced by peer behavior. Children who become class conscious and racist are inculcated with the BELIEFS (A-beliefs for Nikos or S-beliefs if you believe William Shockley and Charles Murray) of their authority figures. Parental authority is generally responsible for our deep seated beliefs. Unfortunately the contents of our minds (A-beliefs) are assumed to be true facts and are seldom examined to see if they are in fact true. (WG for Potter) – I should clarify that Nikos proposed to divide beliefs into types: S-beliefs – scientifically proven and F-beliefs – faith based beliefs (having no scientific merit) – I added N-beliefs – neither scientific nor faith based beliefs and A-beliefs – all 3 types of beliefs. F-beliefs are rarely examined and because they are faith based, close examination tends to cause personal schisms. S-beliefs are examined in light of new scientific evidence and replaced if the new evidence is .believed i.e., taken on faith; (unless we understand the ramifications of the scientific evidence we are obliged to take it on faith, buoyed by faith in the peer review of the scientific community.)

    I would say that Racism and Classism (snobbery) are N-beliefs and the degree of commitment to the belief mediated by emotional charge. The largest emotional charge is FEAR and unfortunately fear is a well known and often exploited tool of race and class baiters (as well as the current administration) and fear of one’s fellow man is the root of the racism. Snobbery is a function of inflated ego due to N- and F-beliefs that one is better than others by dint of life station or manifest destiny.

  • jazzman

    I think one of my favorite songs is appropriate.

    CLAMPDOWN – by The Clash

    Taking off his turban, they said, is this man a jew?

    ’cause they’re working for the clampdown

    They put up a poster saying we earn more than you!

    When we’re working for the clampdown

    We will teach our twisted speech

    To the young believers

    We will train our blue-eyed men

    To be young believers

    The judge said five to ten-but I say double that again

    I’m not working for the clampdown

    No man born with a living soul

    Can be working for the clampdown

    Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall

    How can you refuse it?

    Let fury have the hour, anger can be power

    D’you know that you can use it?

    The voices in your head are calling

    Stop wasting your time, there’s nothing coming

    Only a fool would think someone could save you

    The men at the factory are old and cunning

    You don’t owe nothing, so boy get runnin’

    It’s the best years of your life they want to steal

    You grow up and you calm down

    You’re working for the clampdown

    You start wearing the blue and brown

    You’re working for the clampdown

    So you got someone to boss around

    It makes you feel big now

    You drift until you brutalize

    You made your first kill now

    In these days of evil presidentes

    Working for the clampdown

    But lately one or two has fully paid their due

    For working for the clampdown

    But ha! gitalong! gitalong!

    And I’ve given away no secrets

    Who’s barmy now?

  • Ryon Frink

    Any discussion of racism toady cannot avoid talking about New Orleans. While so much mainstream media seems to think that the racism of Katrina was about who got out and who had to stay, the real racism came into play more after the fact. New Orleans is currently turning into the largest gentrification project of our times. While white neigborhoods received cleanup and basic resources early on, the black communities were left to fend for themselves. Now, seven months later, property prices have dropped drasticaly, and black residents who owned their land since the 1800s are being forced to sell. Why would the government want this? Because they can replace the black neighborhoods with high rises full of rich whites. The black land-owners have been nothing more than a thorn in the side of most politicians, and now we are seeing the results. The government has still not restored ellectricity to most of the city, and probably won’t in the forseeable future. Racism is not a thing of the past in this country. It’s an active fight for survival which all Americans should be outraged about.

  • diemos3211

    To my mind, racism and classism are inextricably tied together in most places at this point, but especially in America. There are many aspects of inequality in American black people (to take an example) that could easily be seen as class-related much more than race related. The problem is that now does not exist in a vacuum. African Americans have been historically opressed, so that they are disproportionately lower class.

    Even if you take outright racism out of the equasion entirely, you have issues of class (and remember, the class of African Americans is very much tied to the racist oppression they were subjected to in the past) that impact education, job eligibility, crime rates, social prejudices etc.

    So now we have two problems to deal with (still leaving aside actual racism): There is the problem of objective disadvantage stemming from class (i.e. being able to afford to pay for advantages like good health care or additional education) and the problem of negative attitudes towards people of a lower class.

    Now let’s add into that mix outright racism. At the heart of racism is the idea that the Other (whoever they are) are somehow inherently worse than oneself. If you have an identifiable Other who have been disproportionately pushed into the lower classes or are even just perceived to be predominantly of a lower class all of the prejudices against the lower class are used to re-inforce the notion that the Others are inherently inferior and this idea of inherent inferiority is used to justify why the Others exist in penury (e.g. Blacks are lazy because they are poor, and are poor because they are lazy). The ironic thing is that one can be the poorest of the poor and STILL BUY THIS w/r/t some other group.

    Of course, to a certain extent this flows both ways. Lower class people and people of different ethnic groupings invariably find things to look down their noses at in the other groups regardless of relative station.

    All of this makes me wonder if this tendency to categorize and denigrate is hardwired into out brains somehow. Is this just some animal legacy of our brain chemistry? If so, can we transcend it by will alone? If not, can we transcend it through experience? Is it just a matter of making sure that we meet and interact all sorts of other kids when we are young or are we stuck with each of us making the long hard slog from ignorance, fear and hatred to recognition and understanding as individuals?

    And why the hell does my dog not care one little bit if other dogs at the park are almost unrecognizable as the same kind of creature as him, but people I knew in elementary school hate whole swaths of humanity because they have a slightly different skin tone than they do?

  • Nikos

    diemos: “All of this makes me wonder if this tendency to categorize and denigrate is hardwired into out brains somehow. Is this just some animal legacy of our brain chemistry?”

    This question alone makes the book I suggest in the first post of this thread very much worth your while. ‘

    (The answer to your question, btw, is: ‘It’s highly unlikely’. Human behavior is almost entirely predicated by human consciousness — in the form of cultural influences — instead of by residual primate ‘instincts’. But don’t take my word for it; take it instead from J. Marks.)

  • fredo

    Our problems with race are doubtless profound and pernicious not to mention completely confounding. So much so that I think we sometimes have trouble recognizing the real thing. Towit:

    –There is no doubt the black neighborhoods of New Orleans suffered more and were aided less than others. But was it because they were black or because they were poor? If another earthquke levels San Francisco don’t you expect the folks with political power and money in the bank will get rescued and rebuilt first?

    –Would the Duke lacrosse team brouhaha be making the headlines and dominating the cable sleazefest if the stripper and the players been the same color? How is a sex crime more heinous if the parties involved are different colors?

    –How is it that the young, inner city black man has risen to be the most powerful icon in American pop culture? All the white kids at the mall want the baggy pants, the oversize basketball jersey, the sideways-worn baseball cap. Do they want the poverty, the ignorance, the prospect of dying violently by 20 too? Could it said that this kind of cultural cherry-picking is a little racist? Like Paul Mooney said, “Everybody wants to be a nigger but don’t nobody want to be a nigger.”

    We have race problems for sure. But we have just as corrosive problems between the haves and the have-nots that too often get addressed in terms of color. And we have a tendency to blame “the other” for all our problems. The movie “Crash” showed us that if nothing else.

    Frankly I find the whole thing vexing and look forward to hearing the program, Hopefully people with better minds than mine can offer some insight and, better yet, a way out.

  • Bobo

    Fredo: The situation in New Orleans is truly racist, not simply classist. Black neighborhoods just as damaged and just as poor received no help, whereas the damaged, poor, white neighborhoods right next door received Fema assistance before they pulled out. In New Orleans, it was very much a question of race, not class. The rich whites in the city are fine with Blacks as long as they stay where they belong. However, in New Orleans, poor blacks own pieces of land which have been passed down in their family since the civil war. The government is trying to force them off this land because it is prime realestate now. That’s where the gentrification comes in. It’s too easy for us liberal whites to fall back on Marxist analysis to get rid of our guilt, but the fact is, not all race issues are class issues.

    diemos: “All of this makes me wonder if this tendency to categorize and denigrate is hardwired into out brains somehow. Is this just some animal legacy of our brain chemistry?â€? Michel Foucault has some very interesting views on “the Other” in “Discipline and Punish.” While he says that we always create an other, it is formed to be in dirrect oposition to the prime value of our society. In the middle ages, when health was valued, lepers were the other. In the age of reason, the world saw it’s first institutions for the insane. Nietzsche also discusses the nature of the “lower class other,” and the reasons why the lower-classes are always evil. The formation of the other is not something to look down upon. Even if you want the whole world to join hands and sing Kumbaia, then the other to you is the person preventing the world from coming together. Liberals have the Rednecks to hate, just as Rednecks have the blacks to hate. What makes racism in this country so objectionable is that it’s been institutionalized to such a degree that we no longer see it. We write it off as class, when in fact, the issue is much different. Hatred is one thing, but when it becomes 300 years of focused opression, something needs to be done, even if it just means recognizing the problem to begin with. Racism has been around for so long in this country, that most whites no longer believe it exists.

  • As long as we consider race and class together, not as separate issues, then there will be little change in how we view either.

    Out in Western Massachusetts, there’s great poverty, and it knows no color boundaries. On any given day, in any foodstamp or welfare office, you will find whites, blacks, and hispanics. In certain towns, such as Holyoke, you may find the people in the office overwhelmingly hispanic. But that doesn’t mean that *all* hispanics are poor. If you go to Athol or Pittsfield, you will find most of the people white. But that doesn’t mean they are all “lazy” whites who don’t want to work–there’s just no work. In Springfield, it’ll be blacks–but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any black folk who own their own houses and have stable jobs.

    And I don’t see any goverment–state or federal–doing anything to change the poverty situation out here, regardless of the race of a town’s inhabitants. There is no advantage to changing the way businesses in the state are parsed out, so the bulk of the money remains in the Eastern part of the state and in small pockets out in the West, like Northampton and Amherst. This is economics and classism, not race.

    It seems, however, that the disaster in New Orleans has given a bunch of guilty white politically correct folks another reason to cluck their tongues and say that the poverty problem is all racially based. Don’t y’all get that the mainstream media is out for ratings and will play the race card whenever it can? Turn off the tv, folks, get out into your own poor neighborhoods and discover who the poor people, the underclass, the working and lower class, really are. Travel to other parts of the country, beyond your lilly white suburbs and acutally see who people are who live in poor rural towns–they are overwhelmingly white.

    Poverty and classism, folks, is color-blind. As long as guilty middle class liberal whites and narrow-minded bootstrap conservatives continue to believe that all people of one race or another are poor, because of what they see in the media rather than what they see in their own backyards, then there will be no meaningful dialogue, and no resolution, to either issue.

  • Raymond

    What are your experiences with racism and discrimination?

    The FPS-85, located on Eglin Air Force Base in northwest Florida, tracks satellites. A lot of satellites. And it has been doing this since the 1960s. The government had decided that the radar needed an upgrade. I was on the project with two colleagues, Sid and Tom. We had just driven over from the Laboratory to meet with Rosie, the government’s radar systems engineer on the project. While I had worked with Sid and Tom for several years, I had never met Rosie.

    We met for about an hour, complaining about all the ways the program would go wrong, they way engineers always do. I liked these three guys and could imagine working with them for the next several years, if the project went ahead. But I had to leave early, so I stood up and offered to shake Rosie’s hand, and he accepted the offer.

    Just then, Tom piped up, “Why did you shake Rosie’s hand?” Well … “I just met him, Tom, but I’ve known you for a long time. Why the heck would I shake your hand?” I could tell Rosie was offended a little by the exchange.

    You see, Rosie was Black. Would I have offered if he was not? Would Tom have commented? What I intended as simple courtesy became, by Tom’s simple comment, a racist incident. What is more revealing is that Tom and I are White, but Sid, who is Southeast Asian, said nothing.

    This scene has always remained vivid for me. How subtle is racism? The suspicion of racism was just underneath the surface of this ordinary meeting. Did racsim actually motivate my actions? Could I tell if it did? And if not, how do we look past what is inevitable in each other?

  • oldguyoldchick

    Growing up in segregated Virginia, I saw first-hand the racism of my beloved Southland. I decided to do something about it: that ‘missionary’ spirit led me to the Unitarian Church (freedom, reason, tolerance). My desire to change the South led to a career in education: teaching in the inner-city and eventually school social work. I believe I made a difference in many lives.

    One concern still gnaws at my soul. In all the remembrances and references today, it seems the Blacks forgot that there were white folks marching along with them.

    How much tribute do the Al Sharptons and Jesse Jacksons of today give to those of us who were with them then, but they seem not to noticed now?

    Can a person of one race or class or ethnicity internalize the feelings of another enough to speak for that other group?

    Take Ruby Payne’s class test: her questions on how long it would take you to move (one day for the poverty-stricken or a month for upper class), colors of food stamps, etc. are an eye-opener!

    Read Ruby’s Hidden Rules of Class at Work.She helps us understand how economic class influences – often subtly yet significantly – behaviors that show up in the workplace and an understanding of how the levels of an organization reflect the hidden rules of class.

    One of Lyndon Johnson’s aides asked why those people whom they had just helped so much with the Civil Rights legislation still hated white people. Lyndon responded, “If someone has his foot on your neck for three hundred years and lifts it up, what would be your first reaction?” Maybe not to thank, but to lash out!

  • Nikos

    I’ve just posted a long-delayed reply to Jazzman in the Dennett thread:


    It’s germane to his 6:10 PM, April 20th in this thread — although it’s a whole lot less gracious than I wish it were (it’s a long and messy argument we’ve been having…sigh).

    I would appreciate the feedback and thoughts of others as well as jazzman’s.

  • oldguyoldchick

    Regarding Jazzman’s version of how beliefs evolve, I have a different theory.

    Why can’t a belief be a consciously held view about truth and reality. Truth would equal reality: then make the link between beliefs and behaviors. Isn’t that is how we deal with the world around us?


    I have experiences and make observations that give me data about the world.

    such as

    …A less able Black person gets the job I want. The privileged class on the Titanic were saved first. The US Army gave smallpox-infested blankets to the Indians.

    I select data and information.

    … by the act of selection, I choose what is relevant and reinforcing to my idea.

    I add meaning.

    … that race, that nationality, or religion, or age group, or neighborhood is out to hurt me.

    I make assumptions.

    … if I don’t get them first, they are going to screw me.

    I draw conclusions.

    Every time I whack one of them, I save myself and my people.

    I adopt beliefs.

    They might fight back, so I must anhilate them.

    I take action on my beliefs.

    I vote, select, choose to support those politcans who will back me up.

    But, there are problems inherent to beliefs: that our belief is the truth, the truth is obvious, based on real data, and we have already selected the right data.

    We end up like Ben Johnson:

    “To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection and too gross for aggravation.� Johnson on Cymbeline.

    What I learned in my teaching career is that our beliefs about ability and achievement affect the behaviors of students, teachers and other school staff. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than threats to be avoided. Those people have an intrinsic interest and deep engrossment in activities they pursue, set challenging goals, sustain their efforts and rebound quickly when disappointed.

    That is the kind of schooling I want for my grandchildren.

  • Jazzman, Nikos, where do language and sign communities fit into your thinking about beliefs? If you have already talked about this in another thread, can you point me to the posts?

  • Nikos

    sidewalker, I’m not sure what exactly you’re asking. Nor do I know if you’ve read this before. It’s buried in the Dennett thread (somewhere!), but instead of sending you there on a search I’ll modify it for this thread:

    One writer’s definitional understanding of a family of near synonyms. From weakest to strongest:






    Conjecture: “To infer from inconclusive evidence, to guess.� (American Heritage Dictionary)

    I often interchange ‘speculation’ for conjecture, but that’s a bit of intellectual sloppiness on my part, since conjecture seems to mean the same thing but a bit more accurately. Additionally, I think of both words together as meaning: ‘the whimsical ponderings that, if convincing enough, can become opinions’. Speculations and conjectures are the rawest ‘material’ of the ‘belief’ family of words. Speculations are related to superstition, yet superstition is something of an untamed and untamable maverick in this family of approximate synonyms.

    Opinion: “A belief or conclusion held with confidence, but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof.� (A.H.D.)

    By this definition’s ‘burden of proof’ clause, most if not all religious convictions are opinions.

    However: “Opinion is applicable to any conclusion to which one adheres without ruling out the possibility of debate.� (A.H.D.)

    So, people holding religious beliefs would naturally find objectionable the proposition that their beliefs are mere ‘opinions’ – most especially because such beliefs are not commonly considered appropriate for debate.

    In any event, ‘opinion’ seems the intermediate step between mere conjecture and firm ‘belief’.

    And, precisely because they are “not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof�, opinions are easy to revise or abandon in the face of contradictory evidence.


    1. “The mental act, condition, or habit of placing trust or confidence in a person or thing; faith.�

    2. “Mental acceptance or conviction in the truth or actuality of something.�

    3. “Something believed or accepted as true; especially a particular tenet of body of tenets, accepted by a group of persons.�


    It seems to me that an awful lot of human misery – racism included – is due to the implications of definition no.3. Group belief is systematically reinforcing, even against factual rebuttals.

    Despite this, beliefs are often characterized as ‘firm’, yet are still prone to failure under the erosive powers of critical rebuttal.

    Beliefs can (or not) include stronger emotional attachments than opinions do; yet not as strong as…

    Faith, which, by my understanding, is stronger than belief. Faith is an ‘unshakable’ belief or matrix of interdependent beliefs that the thinker is unwilling to expose to examination, for fear that the beliefs might be exposed as mere opinions, or worse, conjectures, or worst, unfounded superstitions.

    American Heritage defines ‘faith’ as:

    1. “A confident belief in the truth, value, or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.

    2. “Belief that does not does not rest on logical proof or material evidence: faith in miracles.�

    3. “Loyalty to a person or thing; allegiance.�

    4. “Belief and trust in God and in the doctrines expressed in the Scriptures or other sacred works…�

    5. “A system of religious belief…�

    Faith resists inspection, and often does so with belligerence. This manifests as…

    Zealotry: faith in physical manifestation. This can be as benign as prayer, or worse: proselytizing, crusading and jihadism. (Zealotry is sometimes called ‘rigorism’.)

    Lastly: Superstition, the feral beast of the belief-family:

    1. “A belief that some action or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome.�

    2. “Any belief, practice, or rite unreasoningly upheld by faith in magic, chance, or dogma.�

    3. “Fearful or abject dependence upon such beliefs.�

    Now, Jazzman and I are often at a conversational impasse because he lumps all ‘mental acceptances’ into the ‘belief’ definitions that imply no qualifications of validating/supporting evidence. However, I have reason to hope that our impasse is only temporary, because I am increasingly convinced that another concept related to this family of near-synonyms hasn’t got a word yet. It’s an orphan – a reality of human thought that as yet has no single-word signifier:

    “Mental acceptance of the probability that empirically validated premises are true and not illusory; mental acceptance dependent on empirically supported tenets, as distinguished from faith-like ‘belief’ in unverifiable tenets.�

    This concept is stronger than opinion, yet less strongly held than the ‘belief’ concepts defined above in American Heritage no’s 1 & 3. Currently, this nebulous concept is stuck sharing the word ‘belief’ because scientific empirical study is relatively new to human culture. For millennia on end, our ancestors derived their ‘knowledge’ – their ‘conventional wisdom’ – from folklore (superstition) and religion (faith). However, in the past century and a half, entire communities of empirical inquiry (scientists) have been busily examining the world-views of those old beliefs, faiths, and superstitions, and have largely found them to be baseless and/or unverifiable.

    Yet those same scientists have failed to give us a concept-signifier (word) for the growing body of replacement ‘mental acceptances’ like the acceptance of the heliocentric solar system theory. We now call the heliocentric theory a ‘fact’, but, because some putative ‘facts’ (especially those of proto- and pseudo-sciences) can be disputed, the word I’m looking for ain’t ‘fact’. And besides, ‘mental acceptance’ is at least as much an activity as it is a condition. And, the seeming ‘truths’ of (subscription to) scientific theory are provisional: subject to modification from freshly discovered evidence.

    ‘Mental acceptance of empirically substantiated tenets and theories’ is similar to ‘belief’, but functionally different. It’s qualitatively different. For instance, (as far as I know) millions of people’s lives aren’t forfeit for subscribing to the heliocentric theory. Yet millions throughout history have died for the ‘wrong’ beliefs of the (religious) ‘faith’ sort. ‘Heresy’ and ‘blasphemy’ are the exclusive domains of ‘faith-beliefs’, not scientifically grounded and, therefore, provisional ‘subscription-beliefs’. (This is a prime reason I so detest the conflation of science with religion. Religious people think that scientists are doing a weird kind of secular religion, but they’re wrong. Science is qualitatively different from religion.)

    ‘Mental acceptance of empirically substantiated tenets and theories’ is distinct enough to warrant its own word – or, at least, a modified definition of ‘belief’ that’s clearly distinguished from the ‘belief’ definitions nearly synonymous with ‘faith’.

    I’d rather it have its own word, however (if the language-wizard scholars at Oxford would just get to it instead of sipping afternoon tea while reading their silly gossip sheets about Beckham and Posh Spice).

    And one of its associated meanings ought to be that people’s lives cannot ever be forfeit in its sake – like Nazi racism and eugenics: the demon twin-children of baseless fictions called Social Darwinism.

    Racism was (and is) grounded in false science. This chilling truth makes it incumbent on the wordsmith who gives us the signifier for ‘Mental acceptance of empirically substantiated tenets and theories’ to insist that its ‘mental acceptances’ are provisional. No one’s life ought be forfeit – or even negatively affected – by anyone’s ‘provisional mental acceptances’.

    Ultimately, I’m hoping that the synonym-tree will one day soon look like this:

    1. Conjecture/Speculation

    2. Opinion

    3. (new word) meaning ‘mental acceptance of/subscription to empirically substantiated tenets and theories; mental acceptance of the probability that empirically validated premises are true and not illusory; mental acceptance dependent on empirically supported tenets, as distinguished from faith-like ‘belief’ in unverifiable tenets’

    4. Belief

    5. Faith

    6. Zealotry

    Perhaps, as this new word gains currency, it will help speed zealotry, superstition, and ‘blind’ faith toward deserved and long-overdue historical oblivion.

    sidewalker, I hope this was helpful. Let me know…

  • Nikos

    PS: it just occured to me (because I’m slow and dense) that in this tree…

    1. Conjecture/Speculation

    2. Opinion

    3. (new word)

    …’opinion’ = ‘hypothesis’, and ‘(new word)’ = ‘theory’.


    And that scientists have an ethical duty to never claim the ‘faith’ meanings of ‘belief’ for their intellectual products. (I think…)

  • Michael Foburg

    Hi all,

    I think you should begin tonight’s progran by playing “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught” from South Pacific.” Lyrics ae below. [Who’s old enough there to remember the show? — sorry.]

    Quick reminder, two main charaters are confronted with their own racist reactions to people they’ve fallen in love with. John Kerr sings this song. The theme is that your taught racsm, you’re taught hatred. You’re not born with it.

    Rodgers and Hammerstien were asked to remove the song from the score and thus from the Broadway production. They couldn’t; the wouldn’t.

    Artist: Lyrics

    Song: Youve Got To Be Carefully Taught Lyrics


    You’ve got to be taught

    To hate and fear,

    You’ve got to be taught

    From year to year,

    It’s got to be drummed

    In your dear little ear

    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

    Of people whose eyes are oddly made,

    And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,

    You’ve got to be carefully taught.

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,

    Before you are six or seven or eight,

    To hate all the people your relatives hate,

    You’ve got to be carefully taught!

    Thks – keep up the good work, athough it seems you don’t feel it’s “work”.

    Michael Fosburg

    West Newbury, MA

  • baratunde

    Wadup people,

    I’m gonna preview some of the thoughts I’ve been having since being invited on the show. I doubt I’ll get a chance to say nearly all of this, but that’s what Open Source is all about right? Extending the discussion into multiple media. I’ll probably also podcast on the subject over the next few episodes.

    I posted the following to my own blog on Friday and have had some updates since.

    UPDATE: I didn’t quite capture everything here. There’s more on

    1. My experience with racism, especially something that happened at Sidwell Friends School

    2. My explanation of the need for affirmative action to a 50 year old, bald-headed, conservative, white man from Wisconsin who was my roommate for a week in California. No lie.

    3. (thanks to a friend reminding me) The role that an increasingly MULTI-racial America means for New Racism. That is, “THE BROWNIES ARE COMING!!!”

    4. (more thanks to that same friend) We don’t actually talk about race anymore, much less racism. Look at Katrina. Blown opportunity.

    5. Some exciting and ridiculously frightening research that friend and Penn State Prof Phil Goff has done on how white people cognitively perceive black people (hint: King Kong), how jacked up the criminal justice system is, our obession with racist intent vs. racist HARM. Oh so much stuff!

    I’m going to be on Christopher Lydon’s show, Open Source, next week for real! I’m interested in sharing my views and getting your input on modern racism, preferably before the show, but anytime is good. What has been your experience with racism? What do you think of affirmative action? What do you have to say about race in America?

    So read on for more if you have time.

    Christopher Lydon used to run one of the most popular NPR shows in the country called “The Connection.” This show actually got me through college as I cleaned bathrooms, and it had the hottest theme music ever! He left a few years ago and started a show called “Open Source”

    They transmit via regular radio, satellite radio, internet streaming and podcasting, and their show topics are determined by listeners and readers over at their website.

    They’ve invited me to be on Monday’s show as part of their series on Race and Class in America. The topic of this show will be, essentially, modern racism. The main guest is a woman named Jane Elliott who did a remarkable experiment showing the socialized nature of racism, by dividing her all-white class into brown v blue eyed students after King’s assasination.

    Here’s a blurb from the site:

    “In this hour we’ve invited Jane Elliott and others to talk about racism and discrimination in America today. Have civil rights legislation and affirmative action made a difference? Has the veneer of political correctness only made racism harder to detect? Are we hardwired to discriminate? Are our expectations for change unrealistic? Are we prepared to recognize that the road to true equality is paved with stumbling blocks? What are your experiences with racism and discrimination?”

    So, I have a couple of theories on this whole thing which I will outline below, but for this email, but I’m also interested in your take on this stuff.

    What do you think of those questions above?

    My point in asking you is not because I don’t have my own thoughts. Clearly I do or they wouldn’t want me on the show. But yall are people I respect, and I want to do the subject justice.

    Here’s a somewhat random sample of my thoughts:

    Americans are utterly confused about race today

    On the one hand, political correctness has made everyone very touchy, sensitive and terrified of offending someone. Is it even ok to mention that someone is black? On the other hand, pop culture has blurred the boundary between cultures, making everyone feel like they’re part of the IN group. For example, white people saying Nigger because so much hip hop says so.

    I often find myself playing the “was THAT just racist??” game and second guessing my judgements. It’s like thinking you saw a ghost. When a white guy decides to give me a “pound” instead of just shaking my hand like he’s supposed to, is that racist? Presumptuous, mos definitely. Is it worth it for me to “falsely accuse” someone of racism? Do I sacrifice my integrity if I DON’T call someone on racism though? Tough questions.

    Racism is different today, but it’s not harder.

    People like to look back on history and say “the problem was clearer in the past. You had laws to break down. Black people were hosed and forced to sit in the back of the bus. Today, racism is more stealth and harder to discern.” I think there is some, but little, merit in this position. I wasn’t around in the 1950s and 60s, but I can guarantee that the people fighting racism then didn’t consider it “easy” or “clear.” If it was so much easier and clearer, why were they getting hit upside the head and hosed in the first place? Because society as a whole didn’t see it as a clear “problem” to begin with. Remember, we’re in a nation where slavery, child labor and women-as-property were ALL the prevailing wisdom. Just because we think things are difficult today doesn’t mean they were any easier in the past, and that attitude sort of insults the people who had the courage then to stand up back then.

    Racism today: Lack of Positive can be as bad as a negative.

    Notwithstanding what I said above, I do believe that on some levels, racism is less overt than in the past, at least from today’s perspective. A company can no longer get away with saying “Coloreds need not apply.” However, they can effectively exist with the same policy by not actively recruiting black people. It’s about what they don’t do where the racism comes through. Many businesses would never consider recruiting from a black college, or expanding locations into a black neighborhood. So, it’s true that they aren’t saying “NO” but they also, noticeably aren’t saying “YES” because the assumption is that these people aren’t worth their time.

    Ok, time for white people to do some work.

    For 387 years, the oppressed people of this country have borne the burden of liberating this society. We had to fight. We had to resist. We had to pull the establishment, kicking and screaming the whole way, toward this less imperfect union. Well, the jig is up. Racism is not solely black people’s problem to solve. It’s WHITE PEOPLE’s! So far, most of their efforts have been to check a list of oppressive actions off the list, but there’s been no real effort to eradicate the underlying attitudes of supremacy that still pervade the culture. If the analogy is Latin dancing, it’s time for white people to lead. The oppresor has as much, if not more, responsiblity for undoing the oppression as the oppressed party does.

    One of the breaks that white people continue to get is to simply not be aware of race. Because of the lack of direct, oppresive experience, they often have the luxury of ignorance. It’s just indicative of how much the eradication of this disease requires everyone’s conscious participation.

    Sexism provides a useful comparison. I recently attended the SMT Conference, and met an incredible man named Cedza Dlamini from Swaziland in southern Africa. He was speaking on a panel about HIV/AIDS on the continent and had this to say, paraphrased:

    “We have to challenge the social norms and patriarchal structures that are contributing to the problem. We, as men, need to be involved in the fight; to have a redefinition of manhood. Men can no longer feel entitled to women’s bodies.”

    An analogy from my own life made this super clear. I’ve been dating the same wonderful woman for nearly six years. Because of the amount of time we’ve spent together, I’m way more aware of issues facing women than I ever was, even though most of my close friends in life have been women. What I learned was this: I am never, ever concerned about my personal safety. I’m a dude. I’m pretty strong. I have a (relative to the average) imposing physical figure. I’m cool walking anywhere, anytime, pretty much. But that is absolutely not the case for a woman, so when I say something like, why don’t you meet me five blocks from your home, and it’s damn near midnight, that’s a stupid ass suggestion. Something that’s an afterthought or no-thought for me, can be absolutely terrifying and absurd to a woman, but I would never know because I never thought about it. Even though I’m not actively oppressing her, that’s kinda sexist.

    I can’t say this enough: White people need to think about racism and what they’re going to do about ending it as well.

    My theory of citizenship breakeven.

    The point is related to finance. In the business world, there is a concept of “cashflow positive.” where your business may have been in the red early as you invested in growth, then you started generating positive cashflow and coming out of the whole, then you broke even, fully recovering your investment, and finally you’re really in the black. This is a helpful way to think about racism in America.

    From the moment slaves were brought here in 1619, this country started accumulating a debt; call it a citizenship debt or Freedom Debt, since “freedom” is the new black apparently. So then let’s say 1965, the voting rights act, is when we stopped digging the whole. We’re VERY negative at this point. 346 years Freedom Negative, to be precise. As of 2006, we’re still 304 years in the Freedom HOLE! We won’t be Freedom Breakeven until the year 2310! And that’s still not dope enough. Because what you’re saying then is that we are Freedom Neutral, but neutral sucks. We want our society to be positive. We don’t just want the absense of non-Freedom or the end of Freedom-Debt. We want Freedom-Wealth, positive freedom, where people don’t just not-hate each other, don’t just “tolerate” but actually work positively together. That won’t happen until 2656, btw. This is obviously a rough approximation, and human experience and change may not be linear. The period could come sooner, but it could also come later! The point is, either way, we have a long way to go, baby.

    I’m talkin bout that man in the mirror.

    Black people have been understandably focused, maybe even obsessed, about what white people are up to. How and what they did to us and continue to do. However, we haven’t dealt with our own internal ish. Whenever the body experiences a trauma, it necessarily goes into a healing and recovery mode. Cells repair themselves, resources are marshalled, an assessment takes place. We have not undertaken this much needed mission. We have not tried to heal the wounds of oppression. We have tried to stop the ongoing attacks but have yet to repair ourselves.

    There is something socially, psychologically and emotionally traumatic about being ripped from your home, tossed to the sea, told you are worthless, raped, flung far from your family. And anyone who doesn’t see a connection between this traumatic history and the problems facing black people in present-day America is sadly lacking in cognitive abilities. They are very much connected. Culture, history, attitudes, expectations are all handed down, inherited across generational lines. We have work to do, as black people, among black people on this healing process. This has nothing to do with white people, per se. It’s not about what “they did to us.” It’s about what we’ve been through.

    Now, white people have a similar struggle to undertake. For centuries, they believed, were taught and continued to teach they they were inherently superior, that thay had divine rights of power over others, that their poo didn’t stink. This too is damaging to their people because it’s been passed on from the 1806 slave master who killed a “worthless” black slave to the 2006 executive who avoids recuiting the “worthless” black worker. This disease may be falsely interpreted as a positive. Who doesn’t want to feel superior?? But it’s quite damaging and corosive to the soul. It’s unhealthy and, in its own way, it’s a trauma that white people have endured which requires healing and recovery. Again, this has very little to do with what “they did to black people.” It has to do with what they’ve been taught and what they’ve been through.

    Are positive stereotypes ok?

    NO! I’ll keep this one short, but black men should be allowed to have small penises. Asians should be allowed to fail math. And white people should have the freedom to NOT dominate the friggin globe! It’s a serious burden.

    Can a black person be racist? Can a white person tell a black person NOT to be racist?

    Yes and no. I was taught many years ago that there’s a key distinction between racism and prejudice. It goes like this: racism = prejudice + power; black people have no power; therefore, black people cannot be racist. This is not universally true because depending on the context of the situation, black people can have power and thus, can be racist.

    Consider a scene I’ve witnessed countless times. A group of young black men get on a sparsely populated bus / train. There’s a white guy there. He gets uncomfortable. The dudes know this and exploit it. They harass the hell out of this man who really didn’t do anything to them. They call him names, maybe fake punch him. He leaves terrified. They leave feeling like they had a good laugh and feeling pretty good. In that situation, they had power over that man, and I think their actions can be referred to as racist. Now, we can argue about whether the power they had over a single white man compares to the power to hire and fire, the power to launch missiles, the power to set policy, but I know I have to acknowledge that what they did was wrong on some level and involved racism.

    That second question — can a white person call a black person racist — is interesting to me and is related to the first part. A friend of mine is a teacher in a charter school which is pretty much all black, and she’s pretty much all white. She told me recently that these kids were horribly racist toward other ethnicities, especially Asians. She was having some challenges with how to deal with this and teach the kids something. But the situation is admittedly awkward. “Uh, Dashon, you’re being racist.” followed by “Uh teacher, your great great granddad owned my great great granddad.” It’s like the Catholic Church giving out child care advice.

    I asked her if the kids were just being kids, but she thought there was more to it. They refer to all Asians as Chinese and are really, really terribly racist. This is clearly a problem, and especially in a school situation, requires a “teaching moment.” My own thought is that you have to find a way to show the kids what they’re doing, so that they see it and logically come to the conclusion that it’s some horribly racist ish which needs to end.

    I know that’s easy for me to say because I don’t have a room full of sugar infused, malnourished, MySpace junkies looking to me for daily educational guidance and counseling. However, one great lesson I’ve taken from standup comedy is that the best jokes are those that you let the audience figure out for themselves. You just have to set it up right, but explaining a joke is just bad comedy. Screaming on a black person that they’re being racist is just bad comedy!

    Finally, have I ever been racist? Have I failed to stand up for others?

    YES! I will never forget this. I was apartment-hunting with another black friend for our first post-college apartment. The rental agent was driving us around and warned us: “You don’t want to live there. Indian people live there and you know how bad they smell. All that curry and weird body smell really leaves a stink in the place. Know what I mean?”

    We both looked at each other like, “can you believe this dude?” But then we kind of laughed it off because really, getting an apartment in Boston is hard work, and we couldn’t afford to alienate any rental agents. Well karma is a biatch, because wouldn’t you know we actually ended up rooming with an Indian dude that year!!?? Finally we had to fess up to him. “Yo Praveen, we need to tell you, we kinda hated on your people out of selfish cowardice. We’re sorry.”

    By not standing up for him, we sold ourselves out. This is how, ultimately, holocausts and genocide happens. Most people aren’t for oppression, but they’re all-too-happy to look the other way if there’s no direct impact to their lives. As black people, we should have been extra sensitive to this sort of thing, but we failed. Never again.

    If you read this far, congratulations. That’s more than I expected. I’m sorry if the ending feels a bit non-closing, but this wasn’t designed to be an open and shut essay. I’m just working out some thoughts. I’m also shocked at how many friggin words there are here! Someday I’ll have to make this funnier.

    Please, please, contribute your thoughts, comments, questions, links etc. I’m turning off comment moderation until the radio show airs Monday April 24, so excuse any SPAM that comes through, but I want feedback with the quickness.

    peace peace.

    – Baratunde Thurston

  • baratunde

    ooh snap. I’m DEFINITELY going to talk about my citizenship breakeven theory, but the comment didn’t post the pic. You can find it on Flickr here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/baratunde/132556667/

  • Racism is limited to humans or even to mammals. As the caretaker of a flock of chickens, I have seen many instances of birds changing their behavior toward each other based on plumage color.

    Example: Bearded varieties of chickens tend to be a little “slower” or “meeker” than non-bearded varieties (TENDS, mind you, I once had a very pugnacious bearded cockrel). I once had a flock consisting of Barred Rocks, a checkered, aggressive variety; Rhode Island Reds, a middle of the road bird that usually ends up high in the pecking order because of their diplomatic stances in flock politics; and white Americanas, a bearded, laid back breed.

    All the chicks were raised together, and one of the barred rocks turned out to be a rooster. Being the “head of the flock,” he favored the barred hens above the others. He would hold down the white hens to let the barred hens peck them. The white hens became neurotic, and I removed the barred rooster (he was very tasty). The barred hens continued to boss around the white hens, including a new white Leghorn– a healthy, middle-tier hen who was forced to the lower tiers of the flock because the barred hens treated her like the Americanas. Later, I bought a white Americana rooster and added him to the mix. Immediately he started favoring all the white hens, and the barred rocks found themselves cast out. The Americanas never became as mean as the rocks had, but they did start putting on airs around the feeder.

    I learned something valuable from that experiment: Always have a rooster from the flock’s meekest breed. It balances the flock’s internal structure, because roosters do favor hens who look like them by calling them to food and intervening in hen fights involving their favorite consorts.

    An interesting follow-up would have been to bleach the plumage of one of the barred hens during the Reign of the Barred Rooster so she would appear white (I have no idea where to start with that process, though). See if her naturally bossy personality and preconceived status in the flock would prevail over the prejudice of her sisters. If she were able to reintegrate with the barred hens and continued to attack the white ones, we could assume that hens don’t judge each other based on plumage color. However, I imagine that she would probably have been flogged by her former barred sisters for “acting above her status” at the feeder, much as the white leghorn was. She would have sank lower in the flock to become a high ranking white hen intent on taking her frustrations out on all the other white hens.

  • Nikos

    Rachel Nabors: thank you for your great accounts of chickens.

    I would caution us all, however (learning as I have from the genetic anthropologist Jonathan Marks), to proceed with a rock or two of salt when trying to draw conclusions from comparisons between humans and non-humans – especially animals that have been effectively ‘denatured’ by human domestication.

    Your chickens might not be ‘racist’ but something very different in chicken-consciousness – something perhaps incomprehensible to human observers. Indeed, one of the more common occurrences in anthropology is the projection of human social realities onto the non-human primates (notably chimpanzees) under study for comparative purposes.

    As always, I recommend the Marks book linked to in the first post of this thread.

  • And, I recommend “Animals in Translation” by Temple Grandin to you. It’s a good book with much insight into the mind of animals and the dogma of scientific theory surrounding their study 🙂 It’s a good book, if you haven’t read it already.

  • brosenmass

    Long comment by Baratunde, but I saw one of the semantical pitfalls that I don’t like to see. Baratunde differentiates between prejudice and stereotyping, which is good, but I don’t see the latter as bad. That is, unless it becomes prejudice. Everyone of us has an obligation not to let our stereotypes become prejudice, and that is a hard task. But I feel that every human being stereotypes things. We categorize. That’s how we deal with everything around us.

  • tlewis

    To the extent that American life is informed by religion, it is Christianity that dominates. To the extent that America is still persistently, enduringly marked by the tolerance of racism, this is the failure of Christianity’s moral and prophetic voice. The hypocrisy of so many Christians is exposed.

    Think about the rise of the right-wing Christian dominated Republican Party and the “Southern Strategy” that polarized its white base using race (through Reagan to Bush’s Willie Horton, to the present day in New Orleans) and I cannot find a way to avoid saying that this is a failure of Christians and Christianity.

  • brosenmass

    I disagree with the notion that only the powerful can be racist. Power changes from one skin tone to the next depending on the situation. I’m white. I haven’t been able to play basketball in certain places for hours because of my skin color and the fact that people had let their basketball stereotypes become prejudice against my ability.

    Sure, the basketball court is literally a small arena compared to that of life in general, life in this country that is supposed to be so great. Jane Elliot says that we need to walk in the shoes of others, specifically minorities, and this is an example of that.

  • BJ

    I think racism is borne of laziness and fear–the unwillingness to do the work of getting aquainted with the “other” and the apprehension that once you do you may have to revise your sense of self.

  • Really enjoyed this show.

    Jazzman mentioned Dr Suess, Sneetches

    That was just the textbook for the class that came to my mind.

  • Nikos, thanks for that wonderful answer. Still, I am wondering what role language plays. If we are talking about pure science, where we let the material world speak, or if we are talking about the langauge of math, I think we can say that the human languages play little part. But all else is mediated by terms and their significance, which instantly takes us into the realm of discourse, culture and all the bagage of beliefs and values that found and sustain any speech community. Even if we do not go as far as Nietzsche and claim that all language is metaphorical, we cannot deny that language enables and distorts our thought/emotion. Perhaps we can say the more one accepts the “word” or “sign” as natural, the more superstitious one will be. Likewise, the more skeptical, then the more speculative (following your family of near synonyms). Maybe this aligns with a view that superstition comes out of a magical sense of the world that does not seperate us from nature; whereas science, with its distant, objective stance leads to a speculative and manipulative relationship with the world.

    Sorry, I don’t think I have expressed myself well here but it is after a long day of work.

  • Nikos

    Sidewalker, I believe the questions of language and belief you pose are answered in painstaking detail by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By (University of Chicago Press; 1980 & 2003 – http://www.powells.com/cgi-bin/biblio?inkey=1-0226468011-1 )

    The bulk of this post went into the Dennett thread yesterday, but I’m giving it here again here since this thread seems to be prematurely drying up – and because both my posts of this yesterday were marred by typos and other errors. (However, the ‘follow-up’ I’ve planned for this will go to the Dennett thread.)

    Lakoff & Johnson show in astonishing detail how metaphor permeates everyday language. More pertinent to your question, they show how this metaphoric conceptual system called language creates human ‘reality’ – and thereby belief. Bolded words are particularly germane to your question, and all bolded words are my blogitorial emphases:

    Metaphors We Live By – George Lakoff and Mark Johnson; Chapter 1: Concepts We Live By:

    (begin quote)

    Metaphor is for most people a device of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather in thought or action. For this reason, most people think they can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

    The concepts that govern our thought are not just maters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and what we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor.

    But our conceptual system is not something we are normally aware of. In most of the little things we do every day, we simply think and act more or less automatically along certain lines. Just what these lines are is by no means obvious. One way to find out is by looking at language. Since communication is based on the same conceptual system that we use in thinking and acting, language is an important source of evidence for what that system is like.

    Primarily on the basis of linguistic evidence, we have found that most of our ordinary conceptual system is metaphorical in nature. And we have found a way to begin to identify in detail just what the metaphors are that structure how we perceive, how we think, and what we do. To give some idea of what it could mean for a concept to be metaphorical and for such a concept to structure an everyday activity, let us start with concept ARGUMENT and the conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This metaphor is reflected in our everyday language by a wide variety of expressions:


    – Your claims are indefensible.

    – He attacked every weak point in my argument.

    – His criticisms were right on target.

    – I demolished his argument.

    – I’ve never won an argument with him.

    – You disagree? Okay, shoot!

    – If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out.

    – He shot down all my arguments.

    It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win and lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground. We plan and use strategies. If we find a position indefensible, we can abandon it and take a new line of attack. Many of the things we do in arguing are partially structured by the concept of war. Though there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counterattack, etc.—reflects this. It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture; it structures the actions we perform in arguing.

    Try to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance, the participants are seen as performers, and the goal is to perform in a balanced and aesthetically pleasing way. In such a culture, people would view arguments differently, carry them our differently, and talk about them differently. But we would probably not view them as arguing at all: they would simply be doing something different. It would seem strange to even call what they were doing “arguing�. Perhaps the most neutral way of describing this difference between their culture and ours would be to say that we have a discourse form structured in terms of battle and they have one structured in terms of dance.

    This is what it means for a metaphorical concept, namely, ARGUMENT IS WAR, to structure (at least in part) what we do and how we understand what we are doing when we argue. The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one kind thing in terms of another. It is not that arguments are a subspecies of war. Arguments and wars are different kinds of things—verbal discourse and armed conflict—and the actions performed are different kinds of actions. But ARGUMENT is partially structured, understood, performed, and talked about in terms of WAR. The concept is metaphorically structured, the activity is metaphorically structured, and consequently, the language is metaphorically structured.

    Moreover, this is the ordinary way of having an argument and talking about it. The normal way for us to talk about attacking a position is to use the words “attacking a position�. Our conventional ways of talking about arguments presuppose a metaphor we are hardly ever conscious of. The metaphor is not merely in the words we use—it is in our very concept of an argument. The language of argument is not poetic, fanciful, or rhetorical; it is literal. We talk about arguments that way because we conceive of them that way—and we act according to the way we conceive of things.

    The most important claim we have made so far is that metaphor is not just a matter of language, that is, of mere words, we shall argue that, on the contrary, human thought processes are largely metaphorical. This is what we mean when we say that the human conceptual system is metaphorically structured and defined. Metaphors as linguistic expressions are possible precisely because there are metaphors in a person’s conceptual system. Therefore, whenever in this book we speak of metaphors, such as ARGUMENT IS WAR, it should be understood that metaphor means metaphorical concept.

    (end quote)

    That’s the whole of chapter 1.

    It’s ‘pregnant’ (another metaphor) with implications.

    Our language is ‘built on’ (another metaphor) metaphor, in thousands and thousands of ways. Yet if our language’s metaphors don’t accurately enough represent (by their implicit comparisons) the realities we intend to comprehend by using them, the realities seem unreal. (This is the crippling, self-defeating flaw of the ‘mechanistic universe’ metaphor I excoriate at length in http://www.radioopensource.org/is-god-in-our-genes/#comment-8013 .)

    As things stand now (another metaphor), our language has no commonly understood conceptual distinction between ‘mental acceptance of empirically validated tenets’ and ‘mental acceptance of religiously validated tenets’. This lack leads us to conflate the two types of ‘mental acceptances’. This conflation leads in turn to actions to deny the claim of conflation. And these actions take place within the domain of the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor. Worse, the ‘argument’ can actually engender real war: such as the asymmetrical war between the world view of the Islamists and the increasingly divergent understanding of the world and of humankind provided by Western science.

    So, to your question was about the role of language in belief: ‘beliefs’ are mental acceptances of ideas. Ideas are inevitably products of the conceptual ‘processing’ (another metaphor) called language. Language is fundamentally metaphoric, and so beliefs are fundamentally the stuff of metaphoric comparisons. (My follow-up in the Dennett thread will carry on the Lakoff & Johnson demonstration of this.)

    This means that whenever our language relies on inadequate or inaccurate metaphoric comparisons, our beliefs will be wrongly ‘founded’ (another metaphor). Worse, because we largely think ‘within’ language, we are hard-pressed (another metaphor) to even begin to recognize the entrapment (another metaphor). If our beliefs are wrongly founded we can’t ‘see’ it (another metaphor), because the language is inaccurate, and that inaccuracy will persist no matter how many times our beliefs are empirically proven wrong. To fix (another metaphor) the inaccuracy, the language must change first. (This is why so much science is conducted in impenetrable lingo that requires years of college to master. Like physics! To be accurate, scientific inquiry must abandon everyday language – and that’s why scientists are often loathe to ‘popularize’ their fields: to give their explanations in ‘plain language’, with all its attendant metaphoric shortcomings, inevitably compromises their accuracy.)

    Worst of all, our language is riddled with metaphors that are obsolete by centuries in comparison to our contemporary empirical pursuit of knowledge. Popular beliefs, therefore, consistently seem ‘medieval’ to those whose comprehensions of reality are at the forefront of the human pursuit of enlightenment.

    Think about the Islamist hatred of Western science: It’s not just that science finds no evidence to support the teachings of the medieval Koran – it’s also that classical Arabic is rooted in metaphoric concepts that don’t ‘translate’ into the metaphoric conceptual systems used by Western scientists. To the Islamist (who reads and understands the Koran in Arabic), scientific explorations are patently false – and to his thinking this is TRUE! – yet only in metaphor.

    However, because we think in metaphors, the Islamist literally can’t perceive the realities described by science. To do so would require learning the language of science. Which would ‘ruin’ him as a true believer.

    Obviously, humankind as a whole is in dire need of a host of new metaphoric concepts. Yet this is a glacially slow process, and subject to violent objections from those whose biases prevent them from feeling any authentic desire to update their obsolete metaphoric conceptual comprehensions of the world.

    Right: enough already – this is a damn loooooong post.

    Does it begin to answer your questions?

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