Tuesday, February 13, 2007

racism, offense and discrimination (blue)

I read with much interest the comments thread of the article written Speranza Nouva in Singapore Angle on the "No Pork" Podcast. Multiple issues were raised, and I believe Dansong did a good job in presenting a structure to the different issues (in addition to voicing his own opinions).

The scope of this article is to explore the question "Was the podcast ethical?" I am deliberately not going to talk about issues related to freedom of speech, nor issues related to criminal law.

The first test of the question "Is X morally permissible" is usually a test of intuition. Upon viewing the podcast, did you feel that this was something which was unethical? Unfortunately, the intuition test fails us because there is very little consensus. Reactions to the podcast range from "highly offensive" to "no big deal". [Prima facie, I will take "offensive" to imply not morally permissible.]The fact that we do not have a consensual intuition is something worth investigating in itself, and I will say more about that later.

What could be a second test of "Is X morally permissible"? Ben (commenting on SN's article) suggested that we could start first with the question "Who should decide if this is offensive?", and offers two possible answers. Either the minority community, or the state (represented as the "reasonable man"). Let's try both. What does the minority community feel about the podcast? Anybody knows? I can supply my intuition, but short of real statistics, I can't say for sure. Has someone done a survey of the Muslim/Indian community? As for the blogosphere, I only found one response from a Muslim (found at Kitana's blog):

"i’m muslim and i’m not at all offended. People really need to have a sense of humour and stop acting like some self-righteous guardians of this and that."

I'm not suggesting this view is representative of the minority community. But if it is really not representative, then it begs the question, what if there is no consensus among the minority community? What if they cannot agree among themselves if the podcast is offensive or not? Do we take a majority vote then? Or perhaps we take the decision of an appointed leader of the minority community?

Ben himself thinks that the "reasonable man" is a better candidate for this test (probably because he thinks minority communities should not be given special status when it comes to deciding what is or is not ethical). But Ben also admits that "we are not sure in this case what the minority reasonable person truly thinks of feel". If that is so, how about the non-minority reasonable person? But how accurate is the non-minority person in deciding the amount of offense the minority community feels? Are we not back at the problem of the first test of intuition?

So now we resort to the third test. We "reason" about it. In philosophical ethics, there are two general approaches to such an ethical question. The first approach has to do with evaluating consequences. What are the negative consequences (potential harm done) of the podcast? SN has suggested 2 possible detrimental consequences: the provocation of "communal emotions", and copycat behavior. It appears to me that the main consequence we ought to be concerned with is still the amount of offense the minority community feels. If there is minimal offense, for example, communal emotions and copycat behavior would not be issues. But how to measure or calculate the amount of offense inflicted by the podcast? We're back to the same problem again.

The second approach has got to do with irreducible moral principles, such as rights. This is usually the approach taken when we label something as "racist" and claim that it is wrong. When we say that racism is wrong, we mean the act of racism is wrong, regardless if anybody got offended. So perhaps we might, as a principle, accept that whatever is racist must definitely be wrong and not morally permissible. Hold on a sec. What do we mean by "racist"?

Consider a thought experiment. Imagine there is a minority community of an ethic race/religion called "Ralgon". Ralgonians don't eat chicken because they worship a chicken god, and hence chicken meat is sacred and not to be eaten. However, they live in peace and harmony with the rest of the people in the nation who do eat chicken. One day, someone made a podcast of a bunch of teenagers ordering chicken from a Ralgonian popiah stall, and soon this podcast spread to the whole Ralgonian population. Consider the below scenarios:

1) 0% of the Ralgonians found it offensive. Many found it funny in fact. Would you call the podcast racist?

2) 10% of the Ralgonians found it offensive, but 90% thought it was okay, and think that the other 10% are getting too worked up over something which isn't a big deal. Would you call the podcast racist?

3) Same as above, except 20-80%. Racist or no?

4) 30-70%.

etc etc.

My guess is that, for different individuals, we have a different intuition of which threshold when breached, becomes "racism". Some of us may think only at the 50% mark, others might think around the 30% mark, maybe some others the 5% mark. But I believe few would have the intuition that if there is 0% offense, it is still considered an act of racism. But if the podcast is exactly the same for each scenario, and if the determinant factor of racism (and hence moral permissibility) is the act and not the consequence, then why does our intuition change with each different scenario?

Allow me to explain what I do NOT mean. I do NOT mean that it is okay (morally permissible) to not select someone at a job interview solely because of his skin colour, nor is it okay to insult and beat up someone on the street because of his skin color, even if for both these persons, they take no offense. The idea I'm talking about is harm done (perhaps, to echo Ben). If someone gets denied employment, or if they get physically injured, there is significant harm done even if there was no offense. But if someone makes a joke (and no real Ralgonians were hurt, injured or being made angry by the production of this podcast), and nobody takes offense, there where is the harm done? And if there is no harm done, then how is this not morally permissible? You may want to claim that it is not very virtuous to make fun of other people, even if they are not offended. Point taken. But virtues and morals are different.

I have nothing but respect for SN and Dansong, and think they wrote excellent articles. However, my personal opinion is that we sometimes cry "racist" too often, without thinking clearly what it really means. Some of us have very entrenched views that "racism" is evil and bad, and this is probably due to the influence of historical examples of how the "whites" treated the "blacks" in America, Europe and Africa, and how the oppressed fought for their civil rights. Again, I am NOT saying the "whites" were justified in treating the "blacks" that way. They were not. I am also NOT saying civil rights is a bad thing. It is a good thing. What I am saying is, out of that tradition, we have perhaps been too conditioned to label any identification of racial differences as "racist". and attach a stigma to that, when in reality, perhaps such a stigma or label is not quite as justified.

Racism is commonly defined as believing one's own race is superior to another race. I believe that should definitely not be encouraged. But is identifying differences and making fun of these differences (in the absence of offense) also by principle, racist? It appears to me not so. Afro-American comedians (such as Chris Rock) make fun about Afro-Americans (and white Americans as well) in the name of humour, yet nobody accuses them of being racist (however, if a white comedian makes fun of Afro-Americans, he might very well be labeled a racist. That however, is a separate, but interesting, issue to consider). When Chris Rock makes fun of a white guy, do you think anybody is going to claim that Chris Rock believes blacks are superior to whites?

Lets get back to the podcast. So is it ethical or not? To be truthful, I have no idea. I have not seen the podcast myself (for reasons why, check out my purple post). But it appears to me the key issue is about harm done, and the main harm we are concerned with is offense. My own suspicion is that some members of the minority community will be offended and some will not. But how much of each? None of us really knows. I believe this is something worth researching (and coming up with statistics). [PAPanons: yes I'm talking to you guys!] If we are serious about fostering racial/religious harmony, it may be a good idea to have a more in depth study on exactly how sensitive certain racial/religious groups are to certain stimuli, and hence have a better idea on how to manage racial/religious tensions.

Why don' we just play it safe? Since we don't know how many people find it offensive, why don't we just label this as "racist" and put a stop to such incidents? Even if it is an over-reaction, what's there to lose? Some individuals have raised the concern that if we restrict too much, we stifle creativity or we kill our sense of humour. That is probably true, but these arguments might seem frivolous compared to the potential harm racial tensions can cause. However, I still believe playing it safe is really not a solution in the long run.

One of the consequences of the civil liberties movements is the rise of political correctness. If you are a white guy, you don't ever call an Afro-American, a "nigger". Similarly, my impression is that we have a certain amount of political correctness being cultivated among ourselves in Singapore, when it comes to issues of race and religion (with perhaps the blogosphere an exception). But the problem with political correctness is, we are too concerned about not saying the wrong things, or only saying the right things. The real issue, as SN has pointed out, is in the hearts and minds of the individuals, not about what they say or do on the outside. I think the "play it safe" approach in restricting everything which could be potentially harmful, will in the long run, instead of better mutual understanding and harmony, it will result in greater political correctness. There will still be the same kind of tensions seething underneath the surface and outward appearances (since we never make any real effort to engage our differences), or worse, it actually breeds more resentment or tension.

I believe the "racist" label is causing more harm than good in Singapore society. We must admit that there are still racial tensions, and perhaps they cannot be completely eliminated. But I feel that how we ought to approach the issue is not to have heavy-handed restrictions on what can or cannot be done (or at least not to focus on them), but to have more dialogue, more studies and research, and the seeking of mutual understanding of those who are different from you.


1 comment:

cognitivedissonance said...

Aiyah. I wanted to tekan you for not elaborating about "the seeking of mutual understanding", then I go and read your purple post to find everything there already. Cheh.