Help a sistah out

Long-time Cromrade Autumn is proposing an interesting experiment:

I hear all the time from Christians that they feel discriminated against in day to day life. I find myself skeptical. I pretended to be Christian for years to avoid discrimination and harassment. This lead me to an idea. I’m uncertain about it so I thought I would put it up here, while I was thinking about it. I propose to dress in a manner that visually links me to a particular faith (and/or denomination) and record how I am being treated. At the end of the experiment, I will compare my notes to see if there was any difference, and if so, what- in the way I was treated.

This would mean dressing with a devotional scapular and a crucifix to be “Catholic” or underclothes to mimic the look of the undergarments and a CTR ring or jewelry when being “LDS,” etc. An atheist t-shirt would be my atheist “test” and no visible signs of any religion would be my control.

She is looking for some feedback on both the research question and the ethics of deception. Go read over her proposal and see what you think. Feel free to cross-post your comments here as well. My own thoughts below the fold:

I have made no secret of my contempt for the idea of the “persecution” of Christians in North America. For all their complaints about how liberals whine and play victim over issues like racism, sexism, homophobia, and misogyny, the most patently obvious example of warrantless whinging comes from American Christians protesting the moderate losses to their entitlement in public life. Forcing everyone to play by the rules necessarily inconveniences those who have been living ‘above the law’ (literally, in some cases). I am a fairly sympathetic fellow, but I cannot conjure a whit of sadness for butthurt religious folks who are suddenly thrust into a world they had been conveniently ignoring/revising for centuries.

As such, I don’t have monumental expectations for Autumn’s ‘experiment’. Religious belief forms the background radiation of American life. People are inclined to assume, if asked the question, that a person about whom they otherwise know nothing probably holds some god belief; after all, that’s what the statistics would suggest. Issues of scientific rigour aside (how does one person measure discrimination against themselves objectively?), my question is what the findings would mean outside the context of Autumn’s own life. Let’s say she finds that she is discriminated against openly as an atheist, but not as a theist – to what extent is that experience shared by others? How do her other endogenous characteristics (race, age, gender, location) play a role? Are her interactions a representative cross-section of the population at large, or does her ‘convenience sampling’ of interpersonal interactions simply represent the kinds of people with whom she usually socializes?

If her goal is to gain some appreciation for the subjective experience of an overtly religious person trying to navigate a society that is more secular than ze is, then it could be a useful narrative exercise. It is important to note, though, that without actually having the core of belief that defines a religious person, it will be quite difficult to have the true visceral experience that would engender feelings of discrimination. Unlike the landmark work Black Like Me, where the object of camouflage was physical (and therefore easily counterfeited), Autumn is attempting to recreate a disguise that is largely internal – a much more difficult task.

Anyway, let her know what you think! Can it work? Are there ethical concerns? Is there a way to get a more useful scientific result?

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  1. dianne says

    Hmm…A couple of thoughts, maybe of interest:

    1. Consider defining “discrimination” before hand so that you don’t fall into the “I know it when I see it” trap which is notorious for giving the result you want. Try to be as thorough as possible.

    2. Consider appearing as someone of a religion where the risk of discrimination is quite high as a positive control. I’d suggest Judaism or Islam in the US.

    Hope this is useful.

  2. smrnda says

    A concern I have is how you are treated will likely depend on context. In the town I live, which is definitely liberal, someone with an atheist t shirt would probably not cause much of a stir or get much of a reaction anywhere, but I’d bet you’d get some nasty treatment in say, Mississippi or Texas. In the town I live people who dress in ways that loudly signal “I’m Muslim” don’t get much of a reaction, though the LDS missionaries tend to cause people to cross the street on the other side since they wear such distinctive uniforms and most people know that they’re out to proselytize if they are in uniform.

    Another issue is that you are right, a lot of things are internal and how you perceive things is based on your experience. A person who wants a sectarian prayer at graduation looks at that as like having a cake at a birthday party – something they can’t stand to do without, and the idea that they’re stepping on other people’s toes doesn’t occur to them. It’s because they’re used to privilege so that, to them, being asked to be fair looks like ‘discrimination’ since they’ve been used to getting their way so long. Paolo Freire wrote something about this where he said oppressors view any actions taken against them as infringements on their liberty.

  3. carlie says

    One potential problem might be that if she’s frequenting the same places, people will notice the drastic changes and might begin to treat her differently simply because she seems to be changing religions every week.

  4. smrnda says

    I actually couldn’t post since I don’t have the proper type of accounts and there was no anonymous.

    Also, in the town where I live, a person who is a Sikh would be properly identified as such, so I think a lot of the experiment depends on place.

  5. Dianne says

    If I could figure out how. I don’t have any of the IDs required to post on her blog. Is there an anonymous option (or something similar) I’m missing?

  6. says

    Sorry about that- I fixed the commenting. It should work now.

    Thanks for the suggestions- I will definitely be describing “discrimination” before I do anything.

  7. says

    “It’s because they’re used to privilege so that, to them, being asked to be fair looks like ‘discrimination’ since they’ve been used to getting their way so long.”

    I am expecting that- and that is what I hope shows through.

    “A concern I have is how you are treated will likely depend on context.”

    I agree- it will largely depend on factors that I cannot control for. It is because of this my experience would largely be anecdotal. It is people very much like me- background, age, ethnicity, education, income- that I hear a lot of complaints from. I’m hoping my openness about what I’ve noticed will cause a few of them to reconsider their “persecution.”

    I’ve fixed the commenting, by the way. I apologize for that.

  8. Dendritic Trees says

    I’m not a professional ethicist of any sort, but most of the ethical bans on deception are for when you’re asking things of experimental subjects. You’re supposed to be truthful about what participants are actually doing, as far as possible. Researchers routinely use ‘co-conspiritors’ who pretend to be other participants, or pretend to show up and steal things in social justice experiments or things like that. Dressing up as a religious person doesn’t seem to be any different from that. But she could contact someone at a university if she was very worried.

    To turn this into a real science experiment, I’d just increase the size. You can’t get much out of an n=1 study like this. But if she generated a list of operational criteria for acts that constitute discrimination and published it somewhere a lot more people could do the same thing. If you had a large number of widely distributed people who could record instances of discrimination along with some basic demographics about themselves (age, gender, location etc) you could get a bigger database of information about religious discrimination and actually do some real stats and get good information.

    I’d probably participate. It could be fun.

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