Posts Tagged 'does culture matter?'

Muddle and melancholy.

I told a friend recently that I was running out of things to write about. I have only a handful of non-trite ideas, I said, they’re not that hard to explain, and it’s a struggle to come up with new ways to express them.

One of the ideas I keep returning to is representativeness. Not in its narrow modern sense of balancing ethnic grievances, but as a vast and under-explored domain of epistemic muddle.

We base our opinions about the world partly on direct observation, but mostly on the news we receive – through conversation and gossip, through the media, and lately through social media, though these three sources are increasingly blending together. But the news that gets passed on is, by definition, newsworthy – which is practically synonymous with out-of-the-ordinary.

99.95% of Americans Went About Their Day Untroubled By Violence Or Controversy

…is not news. This is:

Illegal Immigrant Uber Driver Rapes Passenger, Skips Bail, Flees Country

So is this:

Black Guys Get Arrested For Loitering At Starbucks

Why do people get worked up about incidents of violence or injustice or gross idiocy? Because they believe those incidents to be representative, to have some meaning beyond “stuff happens”. If the Starbucks story had been written up as This One Philadelphia Coffee Shop Manager Is Weirdly Anal About Sharing The Bathroom Code, it would have gone nowhere. The story took off because people believe it’s about something more than one coffee shop and one manager.

It’s impossible to tell, based on a sampling of media accounts, necessarily skewed toward sensation and controversy, how representative a news event really is. Especially when what excites people isn’t the event itself, but how it suggests a whole category of events, which might or might not themselves attain the threshold of newsworthiness. “So what, I saw a white lady get arrested for loitering just last week” isn’t going to change anyone’s mind about the Starbucks story. If one could examine the records of everyone ever arrested for loitering in a Philadelphia Starbucks, or in any Starbucks, or in any public space, and prove that blacks had been treated fairly, it still wouldn’t change anyone’s mind – because the story isn’t solely about Philadelphia or Starbucks or loitering or even black people.

Nor will arguing that immigrants have lower crime rates than native-born Americans change anyone’s mind about the Uber rapist story: the outrage isn’t about law-abiding immigrants, but illegal immigrant criminals, or liberal judges’ coddling of illegal immigrant criminals, or the mainstream media’s suppression of stories about liberal judges’ coddling…and so on.

There are 325 million people in the United States; another 140 million or so in the wider Anglomediasphere. Every week, tens of thousands of them experience some kind of injustice. If all the injustices committed last week were ranked from most to least egregious, would either of these instances be in the top 1000? The top 10? I have no idea.

Suppose the Starbucks story turned out to be the number one injustice of the week. That would make it more newsworthy…but less representative.

***

Okay, maybe instead of freaking out over whatever tumbles down the media’s outrage-powered conveyor belt, we should conserve our outrage for statistically significant problems. But statistics can be gamed, deliberately or unconsciously, and few of us have the inclination, let alone the mathematical chops, to scrutinize the underlying data. No surprise, then, that shoddy but headline-grabbing statistics proliferate – more widely, I’m tempted to say, than sound ones, although once again, maybe I’ve been misled by an unrepresentative handful of outrageously bad studies.

Most areas of social science defy statistical analysis anyway, being based on fuzzy concepts like privilege or equality, or on legal terms whose definitions keep mutating, like obscenity or sexual assault. Rarely do the terms stay constant; rarely is there consistent collection of data across jurisdictions or time periods; rarely is it possible to count actual occurrences rather than just reports of those occurrences. Usually researchers are in much the same position as news consumers – building rickety edifices of speculation on a foundation of incomplete data. The more intellectually honest researchers acknowledge this, humbly unveil their squat little constructs timbered with ifs, maybes, and neverthelesses, and watch as the mob streams past to gawk at flashy towers of popsicle sticks and cellophane. Or so it appears, from the vantage point of my own shaky stepladder.

It was this Slate Star Codex post, in which Scott Alexander dissects the results of his recent reader survey on sexual harassment in different professions, that got me thinking along these lines again. (He alludes to immigrant crime rates in an aside.) Scott wonders whether the STEM fields report less harassment than others not because there’s less of it going on but because the kind of people who pursue STEM careers define harassment more narrowly than, say, people who go into the media. (He characterizes this as, basically, “STEM nerds are too oblivious to know when they’re being harassed” but it could equally be phrased as “media snowflakes think every awkward interaction constitutes harassment”.) But Scott recognizes that his blog’s relatively small female readership may be selected in ways that distort the survey results.

As I see it, while there are a handful of smart folks out there, like Scott Alexander, trying to build up little neighbourhoods of reason and goodwill, they’re isolated in a megalopolis of muddle that sprawls from horizon to horizon and becomes more rundown and anarchic every day. But do I see the cityscape accurately, or have I blundered into a cul-de-sac that I’m mistaking for the whole? And if the residents assure me that they’re very happy here – who am I to contradict them?

It’s a line of thought that leads to fatalism and inertia.

***

I recently marked this passage in a 1940 essay by E.M. Forster called “Does Culture Matter?” [1] Forster wonders whether the practical, forward-looking generation then coming into power with the decline of the old English aristocracy will have any use for the kind of culture he was raised to deem valuable. He thinks of his upstairs neighbour, who “judging by the noises through the floor … doesn’t want books, pictures, tunes, runes, anyhow doesn’t want the sorts which we recommend. Ought we to bother him?” And if we do, is there any likelihood the neighbour will be grateful?

It is tempting to do nothing. Don’t recommend culture. Assume that the future will have none, or will work out some form of it which we cannot expect to understand. … Out of date myself, I like out of date things, and am willing to pass out of focus in that company, inheritor of a mode of life which is wanted no more. Do you agree? Without bitterness, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings, ourselves the last of their hangers-on. Drink the wine – no-one wants it, though it came from the vineyards of Greece, the gardens of Persia. Break the glass – no-one admires it, no-one cares any more about quality or form. Without bitterness and without conceit take your leave. Time happens to have tripped you up, and this is a matter neither for shame nor for pride. [2]

Forster eventually decides against lying down and letting the barbarians take over – but I’m not convinced that he’s convinced by his rallying conclusion. [3]

As I peer around at the shanties thick on every hillside, unable to see a way through the maze, unsure whether my own actions are adding to the confusion, like Forster I’m tempted to plop down in the shade with a glass of wine and let the future take care of itself. I’m descended from that vulgar upstairs neighbour, after all – provincial, uncultured, borderline illiterate, at least by Forster’s standards – and yet I’ve had a pretty comfortable time of it. It’s reasonable to suppose that the next generation will manage to extract about as much pleasure out of their debased pastimes as I have from mine. While I feel increasingly out-of-place in their world, a few sheltering nooks of the older world should survive as long as I do.

Of course, there’s a self-protective motive for staying engaged. The consequence of ceding the streets to the barbarians is that our nooks will be overrun all the faster, so that the youngest of the old fogeys may find themselves with no place to shelter. Likewise, if muddle-headed melancholics like me try to duck out of the ideological fray, there’s no guarantee that the true believers won’t trample us as they lunge for each other’s throats.

And yet…even as I type these words, I worry that my reflections, well-intended though they may be, will dishearten and enervate the few readers they manage to reach. Am I sapping our civilization’s fragile spirit? If I can’t stand up forthrightly for truth, any truth, mightn’t the responsible thing be to lie down and (metaphorically) die?

M.

1. Of course, it’s reading Forster that has made me think of “muddle”, one of his favourite words.

2. “Does Culture Matter?” is in the 1951 collection Two Cheers For Democracy.

3. “[T]he higher pleasures,” Forster argues, “are not really wines or glasses at all. They rather resemble religion, and it is impossible to enjoy them without trying to hand them on. … What is needed in the cultural Gospel is to let one’s light so shine that men’s curiosity is aroused, and they ask why Sophocles, Velasquez, Henry James, should cause such disproportionate pleasure.” And if our evangelism for these dry old names should fail, as seems likely, to ignite the upstairs neighbour’s curiosity? Forster changes the subject.

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