Tag Archives: Racism

Taboos. There to be broken.

6 Jan

The important thing is not to stop questioning.
– Albert Einstein

Given I’m discussing taboos in this post I should give a health warning – some of the following points may make you feel uncomfortable. But that’s the point – breaking through this discomfort is what I’m trying to convince you to do.

Here goes…

A subject should not be avoided just because society deems it taboo. A question should not be out-of-bounds because some people find it uncomfortable. In fact, areas that are taboo, by their nature, tend to be important things that need to be discussed.

For example the British National Party are renowned for the racist views of their members. Does this mean we shouldn’t let them discuss their ideas in the public sphere? Absolutely not. To ban the discussion of ideas that one thinks morally questionable is to push them underground. To push such ideas underground means that the arguments and counter arguments are not heard. If a person sympathetic to such arguments hears them, perhaps in a local pub where the BNP are quietly recruiting, they are more likely to sign up because they are not aware of the arguments that would enable them to disagree. So having their leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s current affairs program Question Time was a good thing.

Tim Harford bravely asks some taboo questions about racism in his excellent book The Logic Of Life. He discusses “rational racism“, i.e. when it can be advantageous to be racist. When we ask such taboo questions and understand such motivations then we can work to avoid them.

Setting up the rule that “we don’t talk about that kind of thing” is counter productive. If some ideas or histories are not allowed to be questioned, not only does it hold back society, but it causes the very problems those that want to stop the questioning are afraid of. If a positive principle is never questioned for many years, when it is questioned in the future, for some people it will fall down like a deck of cards as the counter arguments are not well known.

Glenn Greenwald makes this case strongly, concluding: “Criminalizing ideas doesn’t make them go away any more than sticking your head in the sand makes unpleasant things disappear. If anything, refusing to confront them makes them stronger“.

And so to one of the greatest taboos: the holocaust. This is an area where historians absolutely should be able to question facts about the events that are claimed by others. When historian David Irving questioned some aspects of what happened in Auschwitz he was prosecuted under the crime of holocaust denial. While he has a history of supporting Hitler, and supporting some of his approaches, that’s no reason to make this particular question an issue for the courts, and trying to limit his right to free speech and enquiry. It’s exactly the kind of thing Orwell wrote about in 1984. So if we hear counter arguments to what we consider an important truth, it will ensure that our body of arguments and evidence is kept strong and well for future generations.

Aristotle said “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it“. So along these lines, some have suggested that siding with Hitler rather than Stalin may have been a more morally acceptable approach based on the fact that many more people got killed because of Stalin. Is it wrong to have such a discussion? How so? It is only by asking such difficult questions that we can understand better how to be more moral individuals.

People look at acts of cruelty such as the 2011 massacre in Norway by Anders Breivik and say he’s a monster, he’s evil. I’ve written about this before – people use these arguments to close down debate so they don’t have to put themselves in the position of considering how a person might rationally conclude that such actions could be considered morally defensible. Again, this taboo doesn’t help society become more moral – it hinders any such growth.

In many circles it is taboo to question whether or not homosexuality is innate. The assumption of many”antigay” types is that sexual orientation is a choice, whereas the gay friendly usually assume that it is an unchangeable part of someone’s nature. It seems to be an assumption based on what conclusion supports their agenda rather than something based on evidence. Personally I couldn’t give a damn. It shouldn’t matter whether it’s genetic or not; rights should be universal and discrimination illegal regardless of whether choice is involved. But if these questions can be discussed more openly, when some firmer evidence comes in one way or the other, we’ll be better prepared for it.

Religion is a big taboo on which I’ve often commented. Whether christianity or islam, they should be questioned to destruction. If an idea is good or worthy then it will stand up to criticism. If it is not, it will fail and we will move on to find a better idea. Tom Holland’s documentary questioning whether Mohammed existed, and putting an alternative interpretation on the origins of islam is absolutely valid, regardless of whether the interpretation is right or wrong. Yet many people suggested that this was too sensitive a topic. As Holland said: “The origins of Islam are a legitimate subject of historical inquiry“.

Noam Chomsky said “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum“.

So question taboos. Question the orthodoxy. Ask questions that might “offend” people. Question things that one “shouldn’t” question.

Tony Benn saidI think the key to any progress is to ask the question ‘why’ all the time. And of course questions can get you into a lot of trouble … [but] without questions we won’t make any progress at all“.


The Logic Of Life by Tim Harford

28 Jun

Tim Harford is a very cool economist. His book describes how we humans are very rational in our choices, it’s just a question of understanding the incentives that drive those decisions. He comes to some interesting, fun and startling conclusions about the human condition through wonderful studies and exciting statistics. His is an evidence-based world from which we can learn much about overcoming our less helpful tendencies and cognitive biases.

I am a fan of his radio series and his blog in which he gets to the bottom of the statistics in the news and what they really say.

I recommend reading his book, however if you want to get a flavour of the main themes, here they are:

On Safety
The more floors in the buildings in a street the more dangerous it is. After controlling for race and class in the residents of a building, it can be seen that for every extra floor in the building, you are 2.5% more likely to be mugged or have your car stolen, a statistic that goes up to 25% after 10 floors. The theory is that people feel less like they are being observed so are therefore emboldened with the thought that they can get away with it.

On Business
He describes the tournament theory: you are rewarded relative to those around you, therefore you are more likely to make others look bad, and just work as hard as you need to to look better than others.

He describes why CEOs getting paid so much is not necessarily all bad: the guy at the top being paid more doesn’t motivate him to work harder; it motivates those under him to work harder so they can achieve that position, and this can still add value to a company even if people aren’t rewarded fairly for their work.

The amount of luck involved in achieving a good outcome in a particular kind of work perversely means that bonuses must be significantly higher for that role. So if 95% of the outcome of a job is down to hard work, and 5% down to luck, motivating a person with a bonus is easy – the bonus doesn’t need to be very high. However, if 95% of a job is luck and 5% is hard work then the worker would just put his feet up and wait for the money to come in. If however he were rewarded massively for that extra 5% he’d buckle down. This clearly has some interesting implications for certain unpopular sectors where very high bonuses are awarded.

We are motivated to work harder if we know a more productive colleague can see what we are doing – if a supermarket worker at a till knows that a faster colleague is behind them they are faster themselves.

On The Hunt For A Mate
The less men there are (for example; works the other way around too), the more likely it is that women will settle for a less good “deal” in terms of what they get out of the relationship, because there will always be another girl that will settle for a less good deal to get her man.

We don’t have absolute values about what we want in a partner; we choose the best from those available in the group. I’ve seen other studies around this from the analysis of speed dating statistics.

And now we get to the sensitive topics:

On Sexual Choices
It may taboo to discuss sexual orientation in such terms, but the evidence is there. If you are from a family that contains someone with HIV/AIDS, then you are less likely to be in a male homosexual relationship, and more likely to be in a lesbian relationship. A rational decision based on the first hand information you have of the disease. Male anal sex increases the likelihood of contracting HIV, and lesbian sex means it’s lower than heterosexual penetrative intercourse.

On Racism
People may find it uncomfortable to read the phrase “rational racism”, but that doesn’t make it less truthful. If people actually find the balls to face facts and understand why they themselves can be racist, and take responsibility for that fact, the sooner we can get better at avoiding these things in our society.

Harford references some surprising studies that show how racist people are. For example one study found that resumes headed with stereotypically white names received 50% more interview requests than the same resumes with stereotypically black names. Sadly, he shows, this is because there is an economic advantage to some ‘”rational” discrimination in recruitment. Another proves how easy it is to engender a colour bias with a simple game, the implication being that it’s much more of a problem if such biases are entrenched over generations.

I challenge you to take this IAT test. Most people tend to say “not me”, however I’m humble enough to say that I did it and found that I have racial biases. If you pass with no racial tendencies, then you are part of a very small and special part of society, and I would like to know how you managed it. For the rest of us mere mortals we need to be aware of our biases in this regard and understand how to motivate and incentivise ourselves to beat them.

The good thing is that Harford present ways that we can beat racism that are proven to work empirically.

On Society And Innovation
So if we live in a society where earning money is rewarded rather than punished (with taxes or corruption), and private property and the rule of law is respected, then people will innovate and come up with great ideas. The economic viability of the idea is paramount. For example, he describes why the industrial revolution did so well in the UK: not because Britain had people who were more inventive or clever than other Europeans as some historians like to maintain, but because we had an easily available energy in the form of coal, and wages were significantly higher than the rest of Europe, so cotton mills, coke smelting, etc. were much more economically viable due to the resulting wage savings.

He finishes with what he admits is not an iron clad theory: that the number of ideas produced by humans, is directly proportional to the number of humans there are. Hence, as population has increased so has innovation.

The main theme is that we are entirely rational creatures, making logical choices given the incentives we have. The more we understand our biases and motivations, the better we can be for that knowledge, and the more we can influence ourselves to perform in better ways.

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