Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The capitalist retort to discrimination

I found this post on Rand Paul's racial snafu quite interesting:

The Times editorial and other media pronouncements have perpetuated a drastic misreading of history and of government’s role in ending racial discrimination in this nation. This history is far more nuanced than is widely assumed. At the center of the Jim Crow system lay the “Jim Crow laws.” They were indeed laws, i.e., requirements that persons and businesses and government agencies must practice racial discrimination or face civil or criminal penalties. In other words, government had bolstered discrimination instead of suppressing it. For example, the famous 1896 Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson, which endorsed “separate but equal” treatment in railroad travel and eventually in other spheres such as public education, was about whether an 1890 state law in Louisiana requiring segregation was constitutional. The court said it was.

My experience with the rights of sexual minorities makes me skeptical that a liberation movement can be wholly successful without government backing, so I support government intervention for both sexual and racial liberation. Still, Mr. Calfee is right to conclude that the standard narrative that pits enlightened government officials against racist business owners doesn't wash. Jim Crow wasn't so much the freedom of association run amok as it was a majority using the levers of democratic governance to secure their supremacy. It remains largely mute on the possibility of promoting tolerance through non-coercive means, and on the question of whether freedom of association is compatible with a pluralistic society.

In fact, boosters of the free market would have us believe that one promotes the other. This argument takes many forms, but the one the article posits is that there is an economic incentive to practice non-discrimination. In its own words:

By the 20th century, the Jim Crow system was vastly diminished in the North but had become thoroughly embedded in the South—through government action—despite the incentives of many business owners to reap the economies of scale and consequent profit from treating all customers alike.

Color me skeptical that the free market tends to dampen the enthusiasm for discrimination. There's an unfortunate tendency to view economic man as a straw version of a utilitarian- someone who keeps his nose to the grindstone, is unconcerned with ideology, and in the end driven only by the almighty dollar. We're to imagine someone who buys all the off brands when grocery shopping, because they offer a better deal, and someone who feels that the demands of ideology are so much dust in the face of tangible currency.

Of course, this isn't an accurate description of humanity as a whole, nor is it the description of man as studied by economists when they're doing their jobs right. The father of the discipline, Smith, was fond of citing varying degrees of honor given to professions to explain their different wages. Rather than a fascimile of utilitarianism, Smith's humanity was concerned with things other than filthy lucre. If economics is to accurately describe human action, it must take these things into account.

If the bottom line were all that drove humanity, Mr. Calfee's analysis would be substantially correct. Yet monetary- I hesitate to say economic, for other areas of human action are as amenable to the discipline as practical things- considerations are not all that drive humanity, even and especially in the realm of commerce. Many are willing to spend more money on environmentally-friendly products. Many refuse to spend their money on corporations that have politics that are hateful to them.

In other words, capitalism is far from a panacea because some people will attach an economic value to expressing their racism. Any advertising executive will tell you that ideas and values are as important to commerce as practical utility. Even setting aside clearly erroneous beliefs that workers of different races will be less competent to do their jobs, racist business owners will feel an incentive to practice racist policies because their beliefs are deeply held. And those who patronize those businesses will express their displeasure in racially progressive hiring policies by shopping elsewhere.

So it would have transpired, anyway, if the libertarian solution to race problems had prevailed in the Jim Crow south.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Lay down your burdens

The Slacktivist has this to say on the subject of pity:

Pity gets a bad rap. It's considered acceptable to feel pity for those who are fully aware that their plight is pitiable -- victims, say, of earthquakes or tsunamis. But to feel or show pity for those not fully aware of their plight -- particularly of those who would vehemently deny that they are, like the rest of us, deserving of pity -- is somehow regarded as unforgivably arrogant and condescending.

"Undo the thongs of the yoke to let the oppressed go free." How patronizing! Who are you to tell someone else they're oppressed. "Let the one who has two tunics share with the one who has none." How condescending! Keep your tunic to yourself, you stuck-up, less-shivering-than-thou jerk.

If we are to love one another as we love ourselves, then pity is unavoidable. To reject pity as arrogant and condescending can only lead to somewhere cruel, callous and monstrous. Somewhere, obviously, pitiless.

Pity, at least the sort the slacktivist describes, is rarely the friend of those in favor of sexual freedom. The pity for the compulsive evangelical, burdened by the duty to witness to the faith no matter how awkward they make social situations, is of a piece with the pity for the homosexual, burdened by his or her nature to never know the joys of parenthood, the pity for the polyamorous, doomed to exploitative and unloving relationships, and the pity for the masochist, who could not in his or her right mind truly enjoy what is happening. What they all share in common is the refusal to take the experience of the pitied seriously. Empathy untempered by humility is worse than useless. If we are to love one another as we love ourselves, we must also accept that others might have different values than we do. We must acknowledge that our judgment of others' circumstances may be wrong. And we must have the love to shelve our pride and accept the testimony of others about themselves over our judgments about them.

In short, imposed pity is never loving. Pity for those who do not consider their plight pitiful is considered condescending and arrogant because it is condescending and arrogant. I share Mr. Clark's revulsion of those who consider all pity an evil, but we oughtn't group imposed pity together with empathy. The one seeks an honest connection with another human being, accepting their personhood in commiserating with their plight. The other objectifies the pitied by replacing their experience with the judgment of the pitier.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

It's Never Just a Game, Part 1- Escapism

I wrote this post originally for the Border House Blog, a clearinghouse for queer's, feminist's, people of color's, and other marginalized views on gaming and technology. There's a lot of great stuff being published there, so I highly encourage you to check it out!

I get the appeal of escapism. No one actually wants to think of their own troubles or the problems of the world while slaughtering Ares in God of War or destroying the Death Star. Gaming can be our brief reprieve from Kant and accounting, romantic problems and chores, responsibility and danger. It can be a refuge from the world, a small part of existence where everything can be right.

Taken in moderation, there’s nothing wrong with such an escape. In fact, taking the time to relax every once in awhile seems critical to maintaining mental health and living a happy life. The reluctance to question the provider of this good is understandable. I think that explains why critical analysis of video games tend to be dismissed by the notion that it’s “just a game.” Case in point: a friend of mine recently got into a discussion on potential antisemitism in Mass Effect 2, and one of our mutual acquaintances responded with, “If they want to politicize something, then let them, but enjoy the stupid thing for the game that it is.”

In other words, what we do here at the Border House threatens the escapism of the gaming public. The duty to think critically about the stereotypes that our gaming can reflect, and about the portrayal of those who exist outside the mainstream of American society, can seem like it’s getting in the way of a good time. If we could just lighten up, shrug off unintended insults, and play on, we’d be much happier.

It’s not difficult to deconstruct the privilege in this assessment. Obviously a gentile can safely ignore antisemitic sentiment if it pops up in their favorite game, but a Jew will be painfully reminded of every time they’ve been treated as lesser because of their racial and religious identification. Straight gamers can laugh at cheesy gay stereotypes, but queer gamers will be reminded of slurs tossed at them on the playground.

Members of minority groups would rather like to join their privileged brethren in enjoying some depoliticized, harmless entertainment. We’d love to have a small reprieve from our troubles and be able to just focus on beating a boss. That’s why it’s so frustrating when games, intentionally or not, remind us of our marginalized status. Being reminded that people of color are seen as nothing more than accessories to white protagonists isn’t the most relaxing thing when you’re just trying to beat Ultima Weapon. Ultimately the only way we’ll get media that reflects our existence is if we start making some noise.

That’s why we’ll keep writing.