The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, January 21, 2008

Ooh! An existentialist discussion arises!

The fun thing for me in the whole Race versus Gender discussion is that any intelligent person looking at it will see the edge of the map. There simply is nothing that we “know” other that there is something that seems to think it’s “us” that seems to think there is a world outside itself. That’s it. Every other thing is agreed-upon perception. Opinion. The weight of many voices over years.

Think there’s a mountain over there? Why? Because you’ve seen it? Walked it? Seen pictures of it? Seen it on a map? All nothing but perception, and human perceptions are fallible.

Think Jews were subject to the Holocaust? Opinions vary. Just because I believe with all my heart that they were, or that I’ve spoken to people who claim to be survivors, or others who say they saw these people in camps, and others who claim to have dug up vast numbers of skeletons…and some who confess to murder and torture on a scale to boggle the mind, while I’d say it crosses any reasonable definition of proof, it doesn’t make it so.

Was there slavery? Just because witnesses said so? Because you’ve seen pictures of people in chains? Photoshop.

It there was, was it bad? Wow. There’s a purely subjective measurement for you. Compared to what? Plenty of disagreement there. Listen to people who claim that slavery was just the price for blacks to participate in the American Dream. That’s an interesting perspective. I disagree with it, but just because I agree with myself, does that make my opinion So?

Are women worse off than men in America? According to what measurements? And did God come down from heaven and say those measurements are the ones we should pay attention to? Have Whites mistreated Blacks? Said who? According to what? Again, just because I agree doesn’t make it true.

I think that almost everything we agree is “true” is based upon a certain trust that people are capable of perceiving, and will be honest in reportage. The amusing thing to me is that, in saying “black women have the strongest right to an opinion” those groups excluded feel a certain prickly exclusion. I PROMISE you that more black women will like this idea than white males, white females, or black males. People want to believe that they can figure the world out, that their opinion is not just valid…but more valid than average. Now, obviously I’ve taken the position that my opinion about who can have an opinion here is more valid than other opinions. But I also laugh at it, because I know that nothing can be known. The absurdity of that last sentence is crystal clear to me, by the way.

It’s a corollary to the question: if nothing ultimately matters, why keep going? Because I enjoy the game. If there are no ultimate answers, if no human opinion can really give us ultimate answers (and everything that has been said to criticize my little thought experiment can be applied across the board, to everything everyone thinks they know about anything. There is no sample size large enough to reach Truth. No set of criteria separate from the minds that devise and select them. No measuring apparatus independent of the senses that interpret, or the minds that tabulate. No minds free of perceptual filters. Nothing is anything beyond the Cogito Ergo Sum, and yet…God, I love my son’s smile, and my daughter’s laugh, and my wife’s touch. It’s as real as it gets) then why bother?

Because we choose to. And in building a society, we listen to each other’s views of the world. Note that I disenfranchised myself too, folks. I have no dog in this fight. Except that the entire discussion REALLY points out the difficulties inherent in talking about the advantages or disadvantages in any human interaction. Blacks? Whites? Males? Females? Frankly, I identify most strongly with the part of me that cares about as much about that crap as I do whether black ants or red ants are “better.” Who cares? Apparently the vast majority of us do. The game called human existence has uncounted millions of these judgments wired into the laws and customs of every society on earth, and every single one of them is ultimately based on shifting sand. Go ahead. Find something that isn’t ultimately based on opinion, or faith. Please. I’d love to hear it.

It’s a fantastic, delightful, terrifying joke. And the joke’s on us, unless we can laugh at ourselves.


B Woodson said...

i dig it. At the beginning of the presidential race i told my friends and family who follow the political game that the most interesting vote would be black women . . . they all seem to agree.

I think the black women vote would be a relatively more definitive answer than anything else, why? Because it simply isn't "just a question". It's a solid political choice that has ramifications.

But also, what i just said is full of holes because they're not just voting 'for a woman' or 'for a black man', but more importantly the characters behind those particular skin bags and organ architectures.

But i think that is 'the' vote to watch in terms of this discussion.

Anonymous said...

"Find something that isn’t ultimately based on opinion, or faith. Please. I’d love to hear it."'s_identity

--Erich Schwarz

Steven Barnes said...

You know, Euler's Identity looks so cool, and so elegant, that I'm inclined to say "oooh." I probably should have excluded any purely theoretical construct from consideration, but since I didn't, and I don't have the expertise to comment, I have to say good one!

Marty S said...

Euler's identity not withstanding mathematics is probably the one of the best illustrations of your thesis. Mathematics starts with a set of assumes and an agreed upon set of rules for proving new "facts" using those rules. Given a different set of starting assumptions or a different set of rules and you end up with a different mathematics. We use the current particular set of rules and assumptions because the results seem to agree with what we observe in the real world. That is if we build a bridge that is supposed to be structurally sound based upon the current mathematics it doesn't fall down. At least if nobody cheats in its construction.
If you have any doubts about what I'm saying look up the paradox of "the set of all sets which don't contain themselves" and how mathematics deals with that paradox.

Elzabet said...

It’s a fantastic, delightful, terrifying joke. And the joke’s on us, unless we can laugh at ourselves.

Yep. ~has a good giggle~

B Woodson said...

this may be a little tangential, but i'm a fish out of water for Euler's identity. so could you explain. I'll put in some of my own experiences to illustrate why i would be confused. (this is mostly to Marty) in honor to not make a comment longer than the blog, why don't you read it on my blog (just click on my name)

Mushtaq Ali said...

Steve, you're gonna scare the straights again.

Last time you did that you had poor Frank thinking he was real and everything.

Steve Perry said...

Nobody sane laughs any more than I do -- I'm chuckling right now -- and I love a good one on me as much as anybody, but if you want to take Nietzsche's or Kierkegaard's stance that all that science stuff is a mind game, why, go ahead.

While the fact that plain water starts to crystalize and freeze when it gets to 32 degrees F. is based on an arbitrary scale that Herr Fahrenheit devised, it starts to do that at the same point on anybody's scale, and anybody with a freezer or a chilly day can replicate the experiment to prove this. (20 degrees outside Perry's window at the moment, hang on a few minutes, I can show you ...)

You dance good, Barnes. It's fun to watch, but evidence is still not the plural of anecdote, Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle notwithstanding.

Steven Barnes said...

You're right, Steve. So, shall we gather objective evidence? Which evidence shall we weight most strongly? Life expectancy? Income? Education? Any of a dozen other factors? Who decides which of these factors are most important, and how do you remove subjectivity? I submit that you can't, entirely. So I'd have NO problem creating a list of objective measurements, but whatever qualifications for creating and prioritizing said list: statisticians, political theorists, biologists, psychologists, whatever--would in my mind STILL be best staffed by those who are a member of both groups, or members of neither. Since there is no one who is a member of neither, I'm left believing that even the creation of standards is best chosen by those who embody both, as the ones who, on average, have less axe to grind. Otherwise, you simply choose those measurements that will prove your point. Women will chose average incomes. Blacks will choose unfair arrest statistics, etc. There simply is no objective standard for what would make one group more or less disadvantaged than the other.
Most importantly, I'm not trying to convince anyone out there to think as I do, really. Just saying this is the way I sort through problems. I've placed my attitudes and methods clearly out here. So, Steve--tell me: how would YOU sort through this? If you had to make a determination, what would you do? I'd really love to hear the answer.

Anonymous said...

Very po-mo Steve. But as Alan Sokal said its "fashionable nonsense". Good for impressing gullible young minds in the social studies field and the followers of Chopra but thats about it.

The fact is there are physical laws that if one violates you will die or become a cripple. Take a swig of cyanide or jump off a 4 story building and see what happens.


Steven Barnes said...

Sure. And if you make the wrong moves in a videogame, the character "dies." Doesn't make it real except as electrons on a screen. No one is denying that there are contexts in which things seem to be quite real. Or that I act under ordinary circumstances as if the world "isn't real." But the number of times perfectly brilliant scientists and theorists have thought they had an "ultimate answer" and then had to say "oops! Looks like there's another layer under this one..." is legendary. My attitude is that that onion has no core. There's nothing there. Your attitude is different. Great! Lotsa different ways of interpreting the world, and I sincerely wish you the best.

Steve Perry said...

How would I do it? Well, not being a social scientist of any skill, I can only generalize: Account for as many variables as possible. Narrow the focus.
Sort (or lump) the folks so that you are talking about people the same age, educational background, income, marital status, body type, etc. and see what you get from group A.

Then repeat it with folks that are on the other end of that spectrum.

Mix and match as many of these variables as you can. It will be a long, slow, boring process. But if you grind enough and at the end of fifty or a hundred such grouping and you get the same patterns across the board, then you got something.

No, it's not perfect. But it gets closer.

If twenty-something college grads skew the same way as fifty-something blue collar workers, and as seventy-something grannies who crochet; and those who live in the north have the same results as those who live in the west or the south or the east; if you get results that blow past random chance in every group, then you can wave it around.

Asking a few friends? Interesting, but it's not a big enough sample to draw conclusions that apply to a much larger and disparate group.

It just isn't.

Understand, I agree with the idea that every layer of minority you add to somebody that moves them one more step further from the majority of the tribe will make it harder on them.

I managed to get hold of two women I know who are black since yesterday. One is an educator who has dabbled in politics, the other is a newspaper reporter.

The professor said, "Race, probably, but it's hard to separate the female part out."

The reporter said, "Neither. Being a *gay* black woman is worse."

Sounds like something B.B. King would say about singing the blues to a black audience: They hate you three times ...

So, my sample isn't conclusive. But they were educated professional women and both over fifty. One married with grandchildren, the other single and no kids.

What I'm saying is, you either apply some kind of scientific standards or not, but if you opt for the idea that it's all subjective and it doesn't matter, then, why bring it up in the first place?

Why bring up *anything* if your fall back position is existentialism? It comes across as intellectual masturbation.

Yeah, I know about Maya and particle physics and the illusory nature of reality, but I'm reminded of a story they used to tell in Ananda Marga Yoga when I was in it: The teacher and his student were out walking when a maddened elephant appeared.

"Run!" the guru said, and did just that.

The student, knowing that reality was an illusion, stood his ground. The elephant ran up, grabbed him, threw him into a tree, and broke the student's arm before stomping off.

The teacher came back. "Why didn't you run?" he asked.

"Because you told me it's all an illusion, a dream!"

"Yes, that's true. But I also told you to run. We are made of the same stuff as the rest of the dream and thus a part of it. Next time I tell you to run, you run."

If you want argue there can be no answers, only subjective interpretations, that's fine, but that pretty much puts the kibosh on any discussion that's going anywhere. Why bother? ( I think the scientific name for this kind of ploy is "bullshit," and I sure know it when I see it ...)

You gonna play the game, you gotta play by the rules. You can't use 'em when they suit you and blow 'em off when they don't back you up.
Well, no, that's not true -- you can. But you are gonna get the fish eye.

Science doesn't have all the answers. There are things between heaven and earth not dreamt of in Horatio's philosophy. But science is a way to proceed, a method that has produced some pretty good results in the Grand Illusion, vis a vis what we have.

Smoke and mirrors are fun. I like 'em. But that guy on the stage is using them to fool people. Real magic is different.

Steven Barnes said...

I don't think I've ever said that there are no answers, only no ultimate ones. Or that there aren't any rules. Just that the systems those rules run in are to a greater or lesser degree artificial. I don't deny at all that the greater degree of scientific rigor applied, the better the statisticians applying their craft, the more "reasonable" the results become. And your suggestions certainly make sense.

Steven Barnes said...

Now here's where my little bet with you comes in, Steve: I'm betting that you get similar answers up and down the economic and educational ladder (on average). Whether I'm right about that or not will become apparent as more people try this little experiment. If that's true (and I'm not saying it is--but I'm curious about it) and my intuitive fast-and-dirty method is very close to a more elaborate implementation, would you attribute that to coincidence? Luck? Tuned intuition? What? I'm sincerely curious.

Steve Perry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve Perry said...

milar answers? What, I can't break black away from woman because I am one? Gay is worse than either?

Look, even a blind pig finds an acorn now and then. Science is sometimes slow to catch up with good guesses, but it's methodical -- slow but fine.

Facts, by definition, aren't arguable. Theories not yet proven are. The more evidence that accumulates, the closer it gets to fact. Darwin? So close for me there's no question. All of biology points at it over and over again.

I merely point out that your contention is iffy theory and not fact, and that if you want to sway folks in your leaning, yea or nay, you need more than because a few of your friends said so. It's not enough. For every hit you get doing it this way, you are apt get a thousand misses. Not a good enough batting average to play in the majors.

And if I asked every black woman in the U.S. this question and got the same answer, what that would prove is that they all think this is so. It still wouldn't go to the essence of why they think so without eliminating all those other factors that might have affected their belief.

Frankly, I don't think you can't get to fact on this one yet. Maybe when we get portable brain scanners that can tell what you are thinking radiopathically from across the room.

Lemme lay something out for you: You know that Zombie song, "She's Not There?"

Well, you aren't there, either. Nor anybody else. Not this blog, not your house and family, nor your little dog, if you get one.

Highlander had it -- well, I gave it to him -- There can be only one.

And I'm it.

Not the center of the universe, I AM the universe. You, other people, galaxies, Ford Broncos, they are all just clever illusions I have created to amuse myself. I've always been here, I'll always be here, and the rest of it is all spun from my essence.

All of it, all the time -- another construct of mine, time/space -- far as the eye can see. I'd have wanted it to be turtles all the way down, I coulda done that ...

See how silly that sounds? But yet, solipsism is impossible to breach, because if you are a believer, it has all the answers. Nothing anyone can offer can scratch it, because however clever or logical or magical your attempt. the solipsist knows -- he knows -- that they are so clever because he made them that way so he'd have a real challenge and not just straw men.

Gets back to Philosophy 101, and it's fun, but not real useful in tying my shoes, if you know what I mean.

Fire a shotgun at a flock of ducks long enough, you will hit one. You do better narrowing your aim to a specific duck and leading it. (Well, in Perry's universe you do, and since that's where we are, that's the rule.)

This is like the math problems in junior high where the teacher made you show your work. Guessing the answer wasn't enough, you had to show you know how to find the answer using the system.

That way allows you to find other answer. Pure guesswork misses more often than it hits.

Intuition is wonderful. I trust mine, because more often than not, it is right. Snap judgements of people I meet, based on a micro-flash of something? Right ninety-six times out of a hundred. But, boy, when it is wrong? It catches me flat-footed and that's when another tool is useful.

Knowing the answer is good. Being able to figure out how you got it? That's good, too.

Steven Barnes said...

Steve, I never said that I am all that exists. I said that that all you can be certain is that there is something that thinks it's you, and that it thinks it perceives a world. I applied this to the question of ultimate truth, not practical or "good enough for Army work" type truth. I'm all for investigating the way systems work, and consensus reality is certainly such a system. So long as people remember that they can't get to 100% certainty, I have no problem. That's at one end of the spectrum.
At the other...
My thought that black women would be the ones who could most accurately determine whether being black or female is the greatest limit is indeed a theory. To put it more broadly, I'm saying, "in general, if you want to know if condition X or Y is more limiting, you will find the most accurate opinions in the group XY." I would imagine that that theory would be testable, and I'd be very interested in hearing the results. My guess is that my contention would be fairly easy to falsify. But again, all I'm saying is that that's the way I think.
Yes, all I did was ask some friends, but didn't you notice that I STOPPED ASKING, because I didn't want to operate under the illusion that I had an "answer"? I am perfectly aware of the limitations of me asking everyone I know, even if only because it's slanted by the fact that they are filtered by association with me. And if I suggest others do the same experiment, it's also limited, but not so much, the larger the sample gets.
Eventually, we'd cover 99% of the black women in the country. Do I think we'd then have "truth"? No, my initial statement is that we can't get all the way to truth: but the information would be very useful. Now, we could take the position that human impressions or memories of negative circumstances can't be trusted. Cool. But unless I have some reason to believe black women are less accurate reporters of their experience than either women or white people or black people or men in general, I fail to see why I'm wrong in assuming that this group, with personal experience in both camps, would not be the best witnesses. Not the only witnesses. Not the sole arbiters of "truth." But the best. Mark it down to my obliviousness, but I fail to see why that set of XY would not be best in evaluating X over Y. Does this really seem so unreasonable to you?

Anonymous said...

Hi, Asian-American female here. I grew up in the US, I don't speak English with an accent.

There have been times when I've been treated badly by customer service-type people in person. I will never know if it was because they didn't like my East Asian features, my female-ness, having marital troubles, having a bad day, having a bad life.

But I almost always get good customer service on the phone. I'm just saying.

Steve, can you comment? As a woman of color, I think all people of color are my "peeps," but I have noticed (esp here in the SF Bay Area, as opposed to the NYC/tri-state area) that black folks don't really consider me allied with them, racially. More than once, I have heard black folks refer to Asians as "white," as if there isn't any difference between the two races. And I feel sad about that. We have a lot in common, not being the dominant race.

Sure, this could be a case of class and not race, but one of the people who referred to me mistakenly
as "white" is a good friend of mine who happens to be a black woman.

Another black woman friend of mine says that growing up in Alabama, she never for once would reach out to the Chinese girls at school (because it was a majority-white school) because if anything, they would specifically stay away from her.

Steve Perry said...

Nah, I just used solipsism as an example, like existentialism, both of which are philosophical concepts you can't out-argue, they have built-in answers.

I think you're right, insofar as black women have it worse than black men or white women -- but I want to see the work to back up your answer. Being a member of a group isn't ipso facto the best qualification to be a judge of that group. Condee Rice is -- ostensibly -- black, but but somehow I don't see her as the voice of sisterhood. Growing up rich and coddled gives you a different view of life than being poor and having to worry about your next meal.

The color that matters most in America is still green.
Enough of that, you can a lot of places. Ain't got any, your other anchors will drag heavier.

(Oh, and for folks who don't know us, we aren't pissed-off at each other, Barnes and I -- we go way back and we are just having fun here batting the ontological tennis ball back and forth.)

Simple: I'm right, he's wrong, and he's just too stubborn to admit it ...

Steven Barnes said...

I've certainly never considered Asians "white" and actually haven't heard anyone say that--it's a new one on me. I think that the people who said that must kind of lump everyone who isn't of African descent into the "white" category because they don't know what else to call you. Feels like ignorance to me, plain and simple.

Steven Barnes said...

I've certainly never considered Asians "white" and actually haven't heard anyone say that--it's a new one on me. I think that the people who said that must kind of lump everyone who isn't of African descent into the "white" category because they don't know what else to call you. Feels like ignorance to me, plain and simple.

Marty S said...

Steve the Asian lady anonymous hits the nail on the head with respect to the flaw in your approach. If I am a black female and I find myself discriminated against how do I know whether its because I am Black or because I am female. Lets say you have professor at a university and you suspect the professor is biased and gives out grades based on his biases. If you look only at the grades of Black women and they are lower than those of all students you can presume he is biased against Black women but you don't know whether his bias is only against Blacks, only against women only against people who are Black and women or whether he is biased against both Blacks and women. You must look at the grades for all the separate groups and compare them before you can draw a conclusion.

Pagan Topologist said...

I have been away and offline for several days, so I am catching up on comments. There are two things I want to add here.

In mathematics, the absolute truths that can be discovered are of the form: "In any context where these axioms are true, all these other statemants are true also, given the terminology we define." For example, Euler's formula depends on the definition of complex exponents. The definition of such exponents is natural and elegant, but nevertheless arbitrary.

On the topic of race vs. gender, I have known two black women over the years who said that among black people, being female is actually an advantage in the job market. So, asking black women may not be as good a source of "unbiased" information as one might hope, since among white people, being female is a clear disadvantage.

Steven Barnes said...

That "flaw in my reasoning" hasn't borne out. Asked for specifics, each of the women I asked for justification of their positions mentioned things like "all the other boys and girls mocking my skin and calling me nigger." Pretty cut and dried. They might have been lying, but they weren't vague, dude.
If among black people being a woman is an advantage, but among white people it is a disadvantage, I would say that being black would be a more fundamental problem. A differential power grid might work out like this:
1)White men
2) White women
3) Black men
4) Black women.

Remember, I said "might" sort out like this. IF that is true, THEN it would seem clear that race is the greater disadvantage, followed by gender. Many would contend that black women have some serious advantages over black men. Again, it would depend on the standards used. My thought is not that serious statistical methodology shouldn't be used, but that even the decision about "which factors are most important" involves serious subjectivity.
Life expectancy? Infant mortality rate? Inherited wealth? Incarceration rates? Lifetime earning? Subjective feelings of safety? Upward mobility? I don't doubt that you could have a general poll and ask which of these, or write-in factors, are the most important, and then take the ten most important ones and measure the rates of each in a four-quadrant grouping.
But my point is that the average human being will distort reality to their own advantage, and that only black women have NO axe to grind about whether gender or race is the biggest problem.
And that therefore, they would be the most reliable arbiters of this discussion.