Ethics, wealth, privilege – pulling it all together

Looking back at this morning’s post, it may have seemed a bit atypical for me to highlight a study that has nothing to do with politics, religion, racism, or any of the other usual suspects for this blog. In the early days of the Manifesto I realized that it was important to have a focus – in order to build a ‘brand’ one must be associated with an idea (or even a handful). Over the past couple of years this ‘focus’ has been rather malleable – shifting as my own personal interests do. However, insofar as this blog is an attempt to unify my own thoughts and ideas and provide myself (and you) with some insight into how my thought process works when synthesizing new information.

When I first read the fact that there was a study that demonstrates that rich people are jerks, I was prepared to laugh it off as just one of those interesting, quirky psychological discoveries. But as the days passed, I realized that there was quite a bit more depth to it. Many of you (hopefully) remember my series on System Justification Theory where we explored the theoretical underpinnings of why people who are relatively lower status may embrace behaviours and attitudes that work to the advantage of the outgroup rather than selfishly. Since we are talking about power and status, there is an opportunity to explore the extent to which greed increases someone’s system justifying behaviour. Are low-status people who have positive attitudes about greed approve when high-status people subvert the rules? Are they more motivated to excuse unethical behaviour by those in power? If such a correlation exists, could it possibly explain why someone like Newt Gingrich still has political support among evangelicals despite his rampant infidelity?

Does this overlap between greed and SJT explain perhaps the backlash against the #Occupy movement – why Romney’s characterization of the justifiable anger against the excesses of the financial elite as ‘jealousy’ resonates with voters who are getting screwed by the same elites? How does this potential psychological phenomenon affect the way people interpret news like this:

But many researchers have reached a conclusion that turns conventional wisdom on its head: Americans enjoy less economic mobility than their peers in Canada and much of Western Europe. The mobility gap has been widely discussed in academic circles, but a sour season of mass unemployment and street protests has moved the discussion toward center stage.


One reason for the mobility gap may be the depth of American poverty, which leaves poor children starting especially far behind. Another may be the unusually large premiums that American employers pay for college degrees. Since children generally follow their parents’ educational trajectory, that premium increases the importance of family background and stymies people with less schooling.

What implications would understanding a climate of greed and the ethical lassitude that accompanies it have when we add system justifying into the mix? If we can find ways to convince people that greed isn’t good (contra Gordon Gekko), will we see an adjustment in the amount of support for social programs that level the playing field? Will politicians who adopt an ‘investment’ model rather than a ‘free market’ model gain more traction?

Many of you may have read this resignation letter from a (former) Goldman Sachs executive:

Today is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm — first as a summer intern while at Stanford, then in New York for 10 years, and now in London — I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.


When the history books are written about Goldman Sachs, they may reflect that the current chief executive officer, Lloyd C. Blankfein, and the president, Gary D. Cohn, lost hold of the firm’s culture on their watch. I truly believe that this decline in the firm’s moral fiber represents the single most serious threat to its long-run survival.

How does this reaction to corporate greed connect to Goldman’s unethical practices (as detailed in the letter)? Is it always the case that the extremely wealthy will become avariciously unethical, or is it greed that separates a Lloyd Blankfein from a Warren Buffett? Many praised Greg Smith (the letter’s author) for showing a level of morality that one does not commonly see among the very rich. Is that ‘morality’ borne of an organically superior sense of right and wrong, or simply a less favourable view of greed?

System justification produces unfavourable attitudes that fall along racial and gender lines, and operates implicitly (subconsciously). If greed is mixed in to the system justifying process, does that contribute to the atmosphere that results in fewer women and minorities being promoted to executive positions? Do the double standards that make identical actions look ‘assertive’ in men and ‘bitchy’ in women come from a subconscious approval of a culture of greed? Would encouraging people to think of greed unfavourably create a more demographically balanced environment? Can this help to explain why economically ‘left’ groups tend to be more inclusive of minorities than economically ‘right’ ones?

Finally, how do we moderate approval of greed? Does merely exposing greed make people think unfavourably of it, or do we have to focus our attention on the downsides? How can we separate (unhealthy) greed from (healthy) competitiveness? Are they two sides of the same coin, or is there a way to encourage innovation and discovery without having to accept the phenomenon of people pulling each other down rather than pulling themselves up? Do we as skeptics have a role to play in unpacking the subconscious baggage of greed, or is that a job for educators and public figures? Is greed biological or sociological – do we see parallel behaviours in animal species?

These are big questions, and I certainly don’t have answers for them. However, the more I look around, the more I see that things are connected.

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Trying to tread privilege

One of the most frustrating phenomena in the realm of talking about out-group discrimination, whether that be racial or gender or otherwise, is the common appeal to “some”.

“Why do you say ‘white people’ have privilege? Not every white person has racial issues! Shouldn’t you say some white people?”

“Why do you say that men objectify and abuse women? Not every man does that! Shouldn’t you say some men?”

“Why do you say that atheists have to be more welcoming to women? Some atheists are women! Shouldn’t you say some atheists?”

It is a particularly stubborn and tedious argument to have. A large chunk of it is people’s failure to distinguish between universal and general statements. This is a very superficial explanation, though. After all, we have no problem when someone on the news says “New Hampshire went to the polls today.” There aren’t any pedants who jump up and down screaming “don’t you mean some people in New Hampshire? Not everyone in the state votes!” [Read more…]

Shuffling feet: a follow-up

Okay, first of all: wow. I have written more than 700 posts on this blog, and I have never seen a response like I had on Monday afternoon. At the time of writing, my post about my objection to anti-black racism being used to deflect the “Shroedinger’s Rapist” argument has elicited 330 comments, and received nearly 20,000 hits. I’ve been quickly outed from my quiet little obscure hideaway at the middle-bottom of the FTB frontpage, and have been placed in front of many fresh pairs of eyes.

So, hi.

Second of all: there is apparently a need for some clarification. I was trying to make two separate points in that piece, and there seem to be a number of people who simply did not pick up on them. The first point is that connecting Shroedinger’s Rapist to anti-black racism fails to address the central question of whether or not we want women to feel more comfortable in freethinking circles; if we do, then we need to make some changes. Men being aware of how their (our) seemingly-benign behaviour may be seen as threatening is one specific change we can make.

The second point is that linking the argument to anti-black racism ignores many of the experiences of black folks who are constantly making similar adjustments to make white folks feel more comfortable. Failing to recognize this fact only highlights the ignorance of the speaker, and it is not particularly pleasant to have my story used in the service of an argument I despise by a person who will never experience it.

There were a number of other comments and misconceptions that I will attempt to clear up in this post. [Read more…]

Born on third base

If you haven’t done so already, you should read this piece by Greg Laden, as well as this one by Greta Christina, by way of intro to this piece.

One of the foundational myths of conservatism, or even of libertarianism, is that the private sector will remain competitive by selecting the best of the best through market forces. Those who are the most skilled, the most resourceful, and the most industrious will be rewarded by the invisible hand of the market with high pay and bonuses, while those who would simply leech from the system are punished.

It’s a nice story. If only it were true:

Members of the 1% are clearly at an advantage when it comes to opportunity, and that advantage carries through when it comes to finding a job. While it’s common for people to find employment through family and friends, there’s a direct correlation between a father’s income and the likelihood his son will work for the same employer, according to a report last year in the Journal of Labor Economics (via Miles Corak, who co-wrote the paper). The researchers found that that among its subjects, around 40% of young Canadian men had been employed by an employer for whom their father worked. But for earners in the top percentile, that figure jumps to around nearly 70%.

[Read more…]

Okay, now drop what you’re doing and go read THIS

Maybe I should give up the blogging game and just re-direct everyone’s attention to what other, better writers are doing. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a brilliant writer on matters racial and historical gives us a different grasp on the same story as last night’s ridiculousness. In this piece, which is definitely worth reading in its entirety, he implores us to employ what he calls a “muscular empathy”:

This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this–You are not extraordinary. It’s all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it’s much more interesting to assume that you wouldn’t and then ask “Why?”

A few years ago there was a murder on a Greyhound bus. A severely deranged man took a knife to the throat of one of his fellow passengers and severed the man’s head. The rest of the passengers fled and trapped the assailant inside the bus until police could arrive.

I cannot count the number of people who declared themselves to be the reincarnation of John Rambo, and the many ways in which they would have stepped in and stopped the murder rather than fleeing the grisly scene. To all of them I replied “unless you are specifically trained to run TOWARD someone with a knife, you would have done exactly what everyone else on that bus did – tried to save yourself.” The trick is not to simply assert that we are better people, and therefore racism is beneath us – it’s to train ourselves to run toward problems rather than away from them. It’s to reprogram the way we think about not only ourselves, but the situations that produced us.

It’s to build our empathy muscles.

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Everyone drop what you’re doing and go read this

Greg Laden absolutely FRICASSEES an article that, if privilege was a liquid, would be dripping with it:

Much of this may be true. Certainly, libraries often do have computers and kids can have access to those computers. And so on and so forth. But, again, we need a reality check. There are three things you need to know. First, the Po Black Kids in the inner city already knew this. If you have ever gone to an inner city library you would know that they know it. If you go to the library in the inner city before it opens on the weekends you’ll see this line of Po Black Kids outside and around the block, regardless of weather, waiting to get into the library. There, they are herded into waiting areas by the library staff and eventually given access to the computers, several at once, for limited periods of time.

Reality one: They know this and are doing it. Reality two: The 1%, in all their wisdom, have worked the system so that libraries around the country are generally closing, not expanding. The anti-tax lobby has shut down library after library. There is more and more need for what you are telling the Po Black Kids to make use of, and less and less of those resources to go around. And Reality three: They have been using the free technology all along, and it has helped, but it is not enough.

I swear, I miss ONE LOUSY DAY and Greg scoops me on the juiciest privilege puff piece I could hope for. Luckily, he got to it before I did, because he did a much better and more patient job than I would have. Go read it. He’s good.

Politically INcorrect? As though that was a good thing…

Over the past couple of months I have become more active on Twitter. While at first I used it primarily as a secondary RSS feed, with automatic updates for these blog posts, after a while I began to use it as a way of getting politics updates and rapid news on the Arab Spring uprisings. From there, it was a slippery slope down to constant updates from various Occupy sites and recording artists I particularly like.

As I’ve become more active (and after moving from the outer realms of anonymity to FTB), I’ve been steadily picking up followers of my own. Most are atheist/skeptics who I assume follow me because of the consistent reminders I put at the bottom of each of these posts. Others have, I presume, seen my full-throated defenses of Occupy or election reform politicians in the United States, or caught me uttering a particularly clever bon mot and thought I was worth checking out in greater detail.

I was perusing my list of followers one afternoon when I came across one who described hirself as, among other things, “politically incorrect”. This struck me as sort of an unusual thing to brag about. I have, on occasion, been caught describing myself as an “asshole”, because while I am constantly dissecting my language, I very rarely mince words. This is not bragging about my lack of restraint, but is intended as more of a wry observation on our tendency to prioritize tone over substance when evaluating each other.

The phrase ‘political correctness’ was common parlance in my upbringing during the late ’80s and early ’90s. By then, however, it had begun taking on a decidedly negative connotation – something akin to ‘thoughtcrime’. The spin on it was that whiny liberals were hopping up and down on semantics, getting hot under the collar over linguistic non-issues. Plain spoken folks were, as a result, forced to tiptoe across a minefield to make even the simplest of points. Political correctness was a muzzle that prevented the free exchange of ideas, and to buck the trend and declare oneself ‘politically incorrect’ was a bold and courageous move.

Even typing that made me feel ill. [Read more…]

Africentric school approved in Toronto

There are periodically – not often, mind you, but occasionally – points in race conversation when I am tempted to throw up my hands and say “you’re white, and you don’t get it! Just accept that I am right!” Oftentimes race issues require so much unpacking – privilege, history, demographics, sociology, the list goes on – that a seemingly innocuous topic or opinion actually takes a monumental effort to resolve.

Of course my “job”, as someone who blogs explicitly about race as I do, is to do such unpacking so that anyone can walk their way through the argument. Most of the time I am game for this, particularly if I can refer the person back to some article or another that I’ve written in the past. I recognize that the conversation doesn’t get completely explored in the span of a single blog post, and I get e-mails from people telling me that my work here has helped them change their minds about some race issue or other (those are really appreciated, by the way).

But there are periodically points in this conversation where I just want to cop out and say “because I’m black and I’m right, dammit!” One of those times has just reared its nuanced and complex head: [Read more…]

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 7: Summary

This is part 7 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5. Read Part 6.

So on Thursday I finished up with the last sections of the paper, but I didn’t get to do the wrap-up post that I wanted to (time crunch – abstract submission deadline followed by dinner immediately after work, with friend who then asked for a full explanation of the entire OWS movement… it was a long day for my brain). So I’m going to take this opportunity to bring this series to a conclusion.

Why System Justification Theory?

Older psychological models to explain human behaviour focussed on the relationship between individual ego motivation, and group allegiance. The central understanding was that people would tend to demonstrate in-group favouritism and out-group hostility. In the same way we tend not to see ourselves as bad people but vilify the actions of others, we would do the same for groups with whom we did and did not feel allegiance.

The problem with this theory is that it fails to explain a common and seemingly-inexplicable finding: that people often tend to demonstrate an asymmetric bias toward people in high-status groups, even to the point of abhorring their own group. If it was a rare occurrence, we could just chalk it up to “well some folks is crazy”, but when it’s consistently observed in many different populations under experimental conditions, it becomes something that needs looking at. [Read more…]

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 6: SJT writ large

This is part 5 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3. Read Part 4. Read Part 5.

We left off exploring the consequences of conflicts between how we see ourselves in context of a group, and of how we see the society we live in. There is, the authors suggest (and demonstrate as described in the previous 5 installments of this series), a strong drive within us to reconcile our self of self-worth, in-group approval, and societal outlook. It has the somewhat idiosyncratic effect of causing us to harbour ideas that may work directly to our detriment, but allow us to align these three desires (through the use of stereotyped thinking). Aside from resulting in the advantaged staying at the top, it also leaves those at the bottom with increased psychological issues.

Up until now, our exploration of the specific hypotheses stemming from System Justification Theory has been focussed on individual-level attitudes and effects. In the final section of the paper, the authors explore some of the larger themes that are explained, at least in part, by the desire to approve of the status quo. Most skeptics will be familiar with the concept of cognitive dissonance – it refers generally to a brain state in which we are trying to reconcile two contradictory beliefs. Believers in a deity have pioneered a wide variety of methods to resolve cognitive dissonance – the most popular is the notion of “faith”: recognizing that something is logically impossible but believing it anyway. Throughout this whole discussion, but particularly in the previous installment, we see cognitive dissonance being a key component of the wacky outcomes of SJT. [Read more…]