I was hoping that my first stab at this whole blogging thing would involve some weird application of data and at least one graph, but that stuff is hard and cultural pseudoscience is easy so I’ll begin with this.
I went to a bar this morning and noticed that several of the drinks on the menu were Southern themed. Juleps, bourbon cocktails, and punches (milk and otherwise) were being mixed, and their base liquors proudly bore the label of “plantation.” Plantation rum, plantation bourbon, etc. This was somewhat jarring to me, since I happen to live in Boston, which has to be pretty far up in the running for wokest city in America (Michael Che’s accurate portrayal of the city’s racism notwithstanding). West Coast hippy enclaves may take the cake since they don’t feature working class Irish roots, but in any case, the type of woke I’m discussing is solely the purview of the educated upper middle class. And, as the bar I was patronizing served cocktails in the $12-15 range, employed bartenders sporting undercuts, and played a well curated late 50’s doo-wop and twist playlist, I think I would be safe in assuming significant wokeness among the patrons. Now, perhaps I’m entirely mistaken, and hyperwoke culture has yet to spread from the truly hip neighborhoods of our inner city neo-hipster enclaves to the thirtysomething professionals who desperately emulate the young artist lifestyle from the respectable distance of upper middle class wealth. However, with the knowledge that, as I am in Boston, many of these professionals are the academic type, who thus have quite a bit of exposure to the currents of radicalism inundating campuses, I would have expected more patrons than just myself to have noticed the homage to the antebellum South.
Now, for those of us unschooled in the critical theory that underlies an accusation of being “problematic,” I can briefly summarize the mechanism, using our Lost Cause cocktail bar as an example: an item glorifying southern culture most definitely counts as a microaggression, as it “casually degrades a marginalized group”. Of course, offense exists solely in the eyes of the offended, but considering Cornell recently felt the need to change the name of their agricultural gardens, it’s safe to assume that there are some who would find a “plantation” bourbon to evoke the horrors of the slave trade. Under such a worldview, this word would be wildly inappropriate for a bar to plaster all over a menu. My prior, as they say, had been challenged. Living in Boston and working in academia means that I’m hyperaware that an accidental use of a word like “plantation” in any setting not specifically decrying slavery and racism would potentially open me up to charges of insensitivity. Is it not the case then, that a bar in Boston would be taking a large risk by using it in their marketing? Clearly, however, they are, and unless the bar owner is a fool about to suffer the wrath of a twitter shame campaign, it’s time for an update.
First, let’s dispense as quickly as we can with the facile explanations. Maybe the bar owner doesn’t know a dreadful mistake is being made? This is entirely possible, and I frequently find myself astounded at the level of racial insensitivity (albeit in the contemporary, microaggressive sense) I see on a day to day basis. I cannot count the number of times I’ve been burned by the same thought and response– “I’m a white male and I know it’s impolite to touch black women’s hair and thus never ask to do so, and therefore surely everyone must know better by now” only to see the exact microaggressive act happen in full public view within a few days of thinking that. It’s sad that I’m so susceptible to this form of egocentrism, but that’s an intellectual bubble for you. Returning to our case study, it is thus entirely possible that what I believe is common knowledge is far removed from the attention of a middle aged bar owner. Second, and just as plausible as the first explanation, is the idea that the bar owner knows, but doesn’t care. That is, enough customers are either oblivious or similarly uncaring that bending to the whims of the social justice youngsters isn’t profitable. I’m not sure how common this cold rationality is, as it seems to me more along the lines of the way an economist would model a bar owner than the thoughts of an actual proprietor, but it’s certainly possible. (Also, I don’t know if that distinction is meaningful, but hey, maybe another time).
The third possible explanation is quite similar to the second, but presents a distinction that I find rather interesting. Perhaps the bar owner knows that referring to the antebellum south on a menu can be perceived by some as a microaggression, and feels bad about it, but isn’t particularly concerned about the consequences. This has some obvious and uninteresting merit to it, as outside of a college campus, charges of racism don’t carry the same weight, and there are very few channels that an outraged patron may pursue to exert control over the bar. A bad Yelp review is about all that can come of it. However, the interesting part arises when I consider that the thing I’d be most afraid of as a bar owner hawking slavery-nostalgia juice is that an indignant patron would take to Twitter or Facebook and I’d end up with an internet shame mob tearing down my door. Honestly, this is terrifying to me, which in a way, is weird. I don’t know if this is a feeling commonly shared by those vulnerable to it, but as a white male academic with right of center politics, I feel I’m constantly one joke (or poor Hawaiian shirt choice) away from getting tarred, feathered, and run out of my job on a rail. Maybe I’m the only one, but given the conversations I’ve had with similarly privileged coworkers, I doubt it. And some of them were even liberals! Whether this bartender knows it or not, more than a few people would take one look at that menu and clam up in fear of what could possible happen to them if they associated their personal brand with the magnolia-and-Spanish-moss aesthetic. And yet, under this theory, the barkeep is unafraid.
I was once told that it’s a useful exercise, when feeling some unpleasant emotion, to examine where that feeling is coming from. Anyone with basic familiarity with common psychological disorders and their treatments will know of cognitive behavioral therapy. In short, a cognitive behavioral therapist will ask the patient to examine a list of common “distorted thinking” – departures from rational thoughts – so as to identify the “distortions” behind the unwanted thoughts. Catastrophizing, for example, leads one to interpret a potentially realistic yet infelicitous outcome in the worst possible unrealistic and extreme way. To imagine, say, an accidental bump on the head has caused an aneurysm that will soon rupture, leading to death (I don’t know how aneurysms work, sorry, but this is the kind of thing I’ve thought so there’s an example). Catastrophizing carries an unambiguously negative connotation, but this type of thinking is so innate to humans that it is easy to pathologize quite common fears as unwarranted cognitive distortions. We do this with glee. I do it all the time. I once bet my grandmother that I’d buy her a Coke if I was murdered by a terrorist, so disdainful was I of her fears. I fail to understand the urgency with which Black1 writers so frequently express their fear of encounters with the police, when in the grand scheme of things, most such encounters are resolved without incident. I don’t understand the fear of flying, given air crash statistics. But if you tell me about the one time someone’s life got ruined by a ‘racist’ tweet, I’ll delete my Twitter and my Facebook, and spend all my time in public worried that a single foul joke could ruin my life. So perhaps, returning to the Dixie whistlin’ drink menu, the bar owner could have the exact same information set I do about the risk of irresponsible slavery references, but come to a different conclusion based on a lack of a cognitive distortion. However, since the whole world appears to share it2, maybe there’s something to it.
I’m not going to attempt to construct the functional form of the distribution each of these event classes follow, since as I said in my preface, I’m not doing any math this time around. But let’s just do what any jerkoff doing “data journalism” would, and assume a rough normal distribution on these events. Just kidding, Poisson for sure. Using terrorist attacks as our example, we can just use the past incidence of terrorism, and use our assumption that terrorist attacks tend to arrive with a fixed frequency to determine the likelihood of a terrorist attack within the next year. If you want to do this yourself, here’s where the FBI keeps data on this3, and here’s how to fit a Poisson in R. Go nuts, it’ll be pretty meaningless since there’s no reason to believe your assumed distribution holds here! In any case, under the assumptions we’ve imposed on our model, there is a low, predictible number of terrorist attacks each year. There will surely be fatalities, but the rate is so minor, that spending time worrying about terrorism is absurd. We can quickly see that any resources spent preventing terrorism would almost certainly be better spent elsewhere. Similarly, there’s almost no reason for me to hide my identity online, because nobody cares what I have to say, and even if they did, it would be rare for enough common outrage to be generated for my employer to care enough to fire me. And yet, here I am, writing anonymously, because that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. And we as a nation endure TSA theater costing us millions. So, bar owner, are you merely a cold headed rationalist whose commitment to reason I should salute? Should I act like an actuary in my own life, and boldly go ahead mixing up King Cotton cocktails knowing my fear of reprisal is in practice minimal. Not so fast. Like I said earlier, modeling these types of events is difficult because standard probability models impose assumptions that are unrealistic. Furthermore, the immense cost of events like this, and the fact that we must repeatedly expose ourselves to these risks means that even a one-in-one-thousand chance of an event occurring becomes rapidly significant if it is related to a task we engage in daily. For the sake of argument though, I’ll proceed with our Poisson, but you should know that my argument breaks if you tamper with these assumptions.
Indeed, in the “cold rationalist Poisson distribution” view of the world, maybe what we need to do is calm each other down. Fear of terrorism affects our entire political process. Think about how different our political system would be currently if the threat didn’t exist. Isn’t that incredible? This completely imaginary fear leads to wild, radical change to real world institutions that actually impact our lives. Terrorism is obviously an extreme example, but how many of our political decisions are based on wholly imagined fears? “That could have been me!” is a death spiral of rational policy making, and you can see it by looking around. Not only are common fears poison for shared political goals, but modern political tribalism is accelerated tremendously by this effect. We hate each other because we don’t take irrational fears to which we are not exposed seriously. We all love to sit on our rationalist high horse and tell the other side “actually, the probability of the thing you’re afraid of occurring is quite small,” and yet when it comes to our personal fears, we react with rage when the other side doesn’t take us seriously. Here I am, telling Black writers their probability of being shot is low while blogging pseudonymously. The hypocrisy is heavy and I am aware of it. This problem has real policy implications, and I have no idea how to think about it, let alone solve it. It’s hard. It clearly deserves a great deal more thought than we currently give it.
From this point of view, my best guess is that the bar owner didn’t think very much about microaggressions.
2 Before you point it out, yes I am aware that getting twitter shamed is not the same as getting shot by the police. If you can, please proceed with my argument ceteris paribus, if only as an intellectual exercise.