Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Motivated Reasoning: Social Mobility Edition

I've become more and more interested in the research on motivated cognition -- the processes by which we interpret evidence in a biased manner and reason directionally to our preferred ends. This literature is equal parts fascinating and depressing: fascinating as a window into our modes of thinking, depressing in that it has grim implications for both how much we should trust our learned intuitions and for the ability for evidence and facts to move our mental needles towards more accurate appraisals.

Today, I read an interesting study by John R. Chambers, Lawton K. Swan, and Martin Heesacker entitled Perceptions of U.S. Social Mobility Are Divided (and Distorted) Along Ideological Lines (forthcoming in Psychological Science). The study, as the name suggests, explores how people perceive facts relating to social mobility in the United States. They asked two main questions: First, they asked participants to provide their views on social mobility directly, by asking them to predict how many people who grew up in the bottom, middle, and top third of income brackets end up (as young adults) in the bottom/middle/top brackets (high social mobility would suggest that people move brackets regularly -- a society in which one's origins played no role in economic outcomes would see an even 33/33/33 split; low social mobility would suggest that people generally stay in the income bracket of their parents). Second, they asked people to appraise whether social mobility opportunities had increased or declined over time (they could say it increased a lot, a little, hadn't changed, decreased a little, or decreased a lot).

The results?

Everybody underestimated social mobility (that is, they thought our society was less socially mobile than it was). And likewise, people thought that we had experienced a decline in social mobility opportunities over the past few decades (in reality, social mobility rates have remained flat). But on both points, liberals were further from the mark than conservatives. The authors suggest that this is because liberals are generally pessimistic about the state of economic and social opportunity in America, and so they are motivated to belief that social mobility is worse than it is. Conservatives, by contrast, are more optimistic about America's meritocratic and egalitarian nature, and so (though they underestimated our social mobility too) ended up closer to the right figures.

I bring this up not because it means that social mobility is not a problem. After all, social mobility could simultaneously be more common than we thought and still too low, and indeed there are other western countries which dramatically out-perform America on this front. Rather, I mention these findings because, as the authors note, sometimes motivated cognition is perceived to be a conservative problem ("that's why they don't believe in global warming! They're just cognitively biased!"), and in reality it is a problem shared by all (I assume most of my readers are liberals and thus could use the reminder; conservatives preparing to gloat should know there are plenty of cases where the right is the party led astray). After all, if I'm being honest I can say I was surprised to find that most people underestimated social mobility (which is, of course, exactly what the study would predict would be my response). It's hard for me -- now knowing the data -- to say with confidence how I would have answered the study questions in my naive state, but I suspect at the very least I would have marked that social mobility was slightly worse off than it had been in decades past, and that would have been wrong. And the most likely explanation for its wrongness is that I have certain ideological priors that predispose me to having certain beliefs about the fairness of the American system.

Now, if one wanted to fight the data, there are ways to go about it. Perhaps while social mobility generally has remained unchanged (and is better than we thought), it might be the case that for particular subgroups (over-represented amongst liberals?), social mobility has decreased. There is some evidence pointing in that direction, and this could cause certain people to misperceive social mobility for the polity writ large based on the particular experience of their own group. Another possibility is that the abolishment of Jim Crow, and the resulting opportunities gains for racial minorities, had an upward-social mobility effect that canceled out other factors which generally reduced such mobility -- but that the former is perceived as a one-time "low-hanging fruit" situation while the latter are viewed as more permanent. But, these arguments are, as I said, fighting the data -- it seems likely that the general conclusion (that, for motivated ideological reasons, liberals underestimate the amount of social mobility in America) is accurate. And as a liberal, it's always worth remembering my own fallibility.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Verbal and Conceptual Blockbusting

Today's quote of the day* comes from Columbia Law Professor Patricia Williams:
I feel as if I am on a linguistic treadmill that has gradually but unmistakably increased its speed, so that no word I use to positively describe myself or my scholarly projects last for more than five seconds. . . . The moment I find some symbol of my presence in the rarefied halls of elite institutions, it gets stolen, co-opted, filled with negative meaning. As integration became synonymous with assimilation into whiteness, affiramtive action became synonymous with pushing out more qualified whites, and of course multiculturalism somehow became synonymous with solipsistically monocultural privilege.

While constant rejuvenation is not just good but inevitable in some general sense, the rapid obsolescence of words even as they drop from our mouths is an increasingly isolating phenomenon. In fact, it feels like a form of verbal blockbusting. I move into a large meaningful space, with great connotations on a high floor with lots of windows, and suddenly all the neighbors move out. My intellectual aerie becomes a known hangout for dealers in heresy and other soporific drugs, frequented by suspect profiles (if not actual suspects) and located on the edge of that known geological disaster area, the Slippery Slope
Patricia J. Williams, The Rooster's Egg: On the Persistence of Prejudice 27-28 (Harvard UP 1997).

This relates to something I've been thinking about for awhile, concerning the drift in meaning of certain terms or concepts related to marginalized groups and discrimination. The obvious example is the shift from Colored to Negro to Black to African-American as the polite or respectful term of reference. Each one was offered as an alternative to the stigmatized other, only to become loaded with negative valence itself and eventually be shunted aside for the next one in line. I've always thought that this maneuver illuminated a fundamental mistake in our thinking: the problem wasn't with the words, it was with the attitudes. If people have negative attitudes towards people of color, then any term that is predominantly associated with said people will progressively take on baggage. I suspect one sees a similar phenomenon with respect to concepts or strategies -- as they become associated with political action by a group we don't like, they will become coded as inappropriate, small-minded, short-sighted, radical, or otherwise illegitimate (this could explain the Washington/Du Bois double-bind I've talked about).

In any event, Williams' description of this as "verbal blockbusting" was particularly evocative, so I wanted to share (and preserve it).

* Quotes not necessarily provided daily.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Caring Equally

Yesterday, I was preparing to write a Facebook status that would have said something like the following: "What I want is for everyone who posts about Copenhagen to also post about Chapel Hill, and everyone who posts about Chapel Hill to also post about Copenhagen." It was meant to be responsive to a trend I had perceived on Facebook, which is that people who were talking about one tended to have nothing to say about the other. Now to be clear, I don't mean that people who were on the ramparts about Chapel Hill were pooh-poohing the idea that there was an emergent anti-Semitism problem, or vice versa. For the most part, that wasn't it at all -- and I'm sure that if asked directly they would say pretty much exactly what one would want to hear. It's the silence that was the issue -- and it was an issue both sides picked up on. One person on Twitter noted what he perceived as the muted reaction to the Copenhagen attack and wondered if we've all just decided "this is a thing that happens now." Another person on Facebook complained that there was little attention outside particular social media circles to a series of anti-Islam attacks that had recently occurred in the West. And I related to that -- when I saw people who would post lots and lots about attacks on Muslims, but scarcely a word about attacks on Jews, it made me feel like I wasn't a part of their campaign -- that defending Jews wasn't something that motivated them, or worse, that they viewed it as a "hard case". I have to imagine the same thoughts go through the minds of persons in the Muslim community when they read friends who talk a ton about Charlie Hebdo and the Jewish deli massacre but have little to say about when Muslims are killed for their faith in our own backyard.

I never actually wrote the post. And even as I thought it I began to second-guess myself. Would I meet my own prescription? Technically no, but not for the reasons one might think -- I had put something up about Chapel Hill but not (that I recall) Copenhagen. Still, I think few people would accuse me of being too inattentive to global anti-Semitism. And in general, while I write and blog about a range of topics, it is obvious that I devote disproportionate attention to anti-Semitism compared to other issues.

Why do I do that? Is that because I think anti-Semitism is objectively "more important" than other like -isms. I don't think so, though if someone was to argue that I have a subconscious bias in that direction due to the fact that anti-Semitism threatens me personally I would not have much room to argue. Is it because anti-Semitism is the only anti-racism campaign I care to campaign on? I don't think so; and hopefully my academic work is enough to disabuse that. If I was to give an answer, it's that anti-Semitism is an area where I think I have something particular and useful to say. I have skin the in game, yes, but also expertise -- I feel (rightly or wrongly) like I can make a unique and helpful contribution here. Other issues I feel more confident that others can and will say whatever I would have.

It is a cliche, but an accurate one, to say that nobody can devote care and attention (much less equal care and attention) to everything. We all have to make choices. We all know that on the production end, and yet when on the (non-)receiving end we still feel that pang of exclusion -- that we're not important enough to rouse others to action. So what do we do?

I don't have a good answer. Certainly, I think we should all be curious consumers about what our fellows are saying. If a group in my society feels marginalized or scared or hurt or wounded, I want to know that because making our community -- our entire community -- a safe, welcoming and inclusive space is part of my campaign, and the only way I can know that there is a problem is listening to people talk about it. But listening, though well and good, is still a silent activity. As for speaking up, well, I'll try to remember that we don't always have to have cutting-edge commentary or novel insights to offer. When someone is shot in North Carolina or beheaded in Syria or stabbed in France, it is perfectly okay to simply acknowledge the horror of it. That's worth something too. It's not a bad thing that I have a comparative advantage in talking about anti-Semitism, and I don't apologize for leveraging that. But I will do my best to at least make clear to others that, yes, I have their back as well. Because I know how it feels when I don't feel that way about myself, and it isn't a good feeling.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Outward Bound

Last week, a former colleague of mine from Illinois emailed me about a German decision where torching a synagogue was not anti-Semitic, just "criticism of Israel" (not the first time I've heard that argument). And earlier this week, a law school classmate sent me an Austrian prosecutor's conclusion that putting up a picture of Hitler captioned with "I could have annihilated all the Jews in the world, but I left some of them alive so you will know why I was killing them..." was likewise just a means of exposure displeasure with Israel. Seriously, this argument has to be bounded somewhere, yes?

Oh, and half of all racist attacks in France are directed at Jews, who constitute one percent of the population. Makes me glad to have the #JewishPrivilege of living in the United States, where we're only the second most common (per capita) victim of hate crimes.