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Archive for the tag “binary opposition”

Black Hats and White Hats: American Stereotyping

Nearly 50 years ago I had an American friend, Dave Trumbull, whose father, Howard Trumbull, a missionary, was the treasurer of the United Congregational Church of Southern Africa, and came to a youth meeting to represent his son, who couldn’t be there on that occasion. Before the meeting he asked me who were the black hats and who were the white hats.

Seeing my bemused expression he explained that in Western movies (in the pre-spaghetti Western days) it was a convention that all the “good guys” wore white hats, and all the “bad guys” wore black hats. Audiences apparently needed these cues as to who were the heroes and who were the villains.

He said (in a rather ironic self-deprecating way) that it was something Americans always wanted to know about every situation they were involved in.

And I said that in the particular situation we were facing, it was not an easy distinction to make. It was rather a matter of good guys making bad decisions. He made some comment to the effect that Americans didn’t like messy situations like that.

I was reminded of him and his comments last week when I posted some links to a blog post and a few newspaper articles on Facebook, and the response of American commenters on them was immediately to look for the “black hats” and put the blame on them.

One of the articles was on my other blog, on The Death of Liberalism in the West, which was mainly about the leader of the Liberal-Democratic Party in the UK feeling compelled to resign because he thought his faith was not accepted in the UK political arena. Two American friends responded with comments on Facebook rather than on the blog post (so I don’t know if either of them actually read the blog post, much less the statement by Tim Farron, the Lib-Dem leader). One identified the Black Hats as right-wing bullies, and the other identified them as left-wing bullies.

I was rather disappointed, as I was trying to understand a phenomenon, rather than looking for scapegoats.

The other thing was that I posted links to some articles about a recent fire in a block of flats in London, in which many people had lost their homes and some had lost their lives. One thing that was clear from the articles was that there had been a lot of bad decisions by various people and organisations, including commercial firms, political parties and and local authorities. But some American commenters were specifically trying to pin the blame on particular people or firms. But not only is the jury still out — it hasn’t been summoned yet to hear the evidence. All the reports show is that there is prima facie evidence of the need for some sort of judicial enquiry. Yet Americans seem to feel an immediate need to pin the blame on someone, to identify the black hats.

I mentioned this to Val on the way to church this morning, and she said, but isn’t that typical of Americans — they love to identify the “bad guys”, and sooner or later go in and bomb them. They did it in the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession in the 1990s, where there were no good guys. The Americans appointed the bad guys, put black hats on them, and then bombed them. A few years later they did it in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, and then in Libya. Now they are doing it to Syria and Russia.

This legalistic American tendency to look for scapegoats and find them before the evidence is available is probably the biggest threat to world peace, and has been for the last 60 years.

It’s more than 50 years since the publication of The Ugly American, which dealt with this phenomenon, but it was so effective that most people don’t realise that the eponymous ugly American was the good guy. He was the guy in the white hat.

A few years after my conversation with Howard Trumbull a couple of friends of mine met a US foreign policy boffin by the name of George Kennan. He had the reputation of being one of their biggest fundis on foreign affairs. They came back from lunch with him thinking that he was so naive that it would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. He asked them who the good guys and bad guys in Namibia in the early 1970s were, and seemed to believe that a flick of a switch in the depths of the Pentagon would eliminate the bad guys and solve all the problems.

But most of the American I’ve met have been like the ugly American in the story. I’ve met them outside America, because they don’t have this binary opposition attitude. Many of them, like Howard Trumbull, are, or have been, Christian missionaries. So not all Americans are evil scapegoaters.

So, in conclusion, I think that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t, and there are even some Americans in the latter category.

 

Privilege and prejudice: the dangers of binary opposition

Someone posted this graphic on Facebook this morning, and like many such things it paints a simplistic picture of the world in terms of binary opposition. It portrays a binary opposition between privilege and oppression, and presents them as mutually exclusive.

privilegeIt’s a lie, and a dangerous one.

Believing such a lie can lead to stereotyping, and stereotyping can lead to prejudice, and prejudice can lead to bigotry, and in some cases it can lead to genocide.

Consider, for example, a child born to rich parents.

Such a child is privileged in enjoying adequate food, housing and clothing, and probably gets a better education than most children.

I don’t think one could deny that the child is privileged.

But the child is living in Germany in 1938, and its parents are Jewish. As a result, the child is bullied at school. Can one say that bullying is not a form of oppression, because the child is privileged, and its problems therefore cannot arise from oppression? I find that a difficult concept, a very difficult concept.

Or look at an example closer to home, for South Africans anyway.

Consider Bram Fischer.

In South Africa in the 1950s and 1960s he was a white Afrikaner male, the most privileged class of all in  that period. He was the son of a judge and the grandson of a prime minister, and his wife was the niece of another prime minister. He was a lawyer, one of the most privileged occupations. So there can be no doubt that he was privileged.

He was also a communist, and after the passing of the Suppression of Communism Act in 1950 communists were oppressed in South Africa. He was sentenced to life imprisonment for promoting the aims of communism, and though he escaped he was recaptured and was only released a fortnight before his death, because he was dying.

Bram Fischer was both privileged and oppressed.

Perhaps one reason that such binary opposition concepts are not difficult is media spin. The media love to promote stereotypes, and to put metaphorical black hats and white hats on people.

Perhaps in my old age I’m getting a bee in my bonnet about media spin. Is it actually getting worse, or is it just that I am getting more and more aware of it, and more obsessed by it?

Another example, now that it is an election year in the US, is the stereotyping of “Evangelicals”. We are told that US Evangelicals are divided — they don’t know whether to vote for Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. It seems inconceivable, to the media at least, that US Evangelicals might just possibly vote for someone else. You’ve heard of Islamophobia, but now there seems to be a growing Evangelicalophobia.

If you’ve been conned into believing the media stereotype of Evangelicals, please read this: So What, Then, Is “American Evangelicalism?”

If the media spin has led you to become prejudiced, or even bigoted about Evangelicals, print it out and read it daily until you are cured.

Another example of the binary opposition mentality surfacing is the recent South African debate about racism. There is no doubt that there has been a lot of racism in South Africa — the system of apartheid could not have lasted as long as it did if there hadn’t been racism, at least among white voters.

But I also believe that there is less racism now than there was. I found this article quite interesting, as it seems to indicate that we are less racist than some of our neighbours, as shown in the accompanying map:

racism10

Racism, though diminishing, has been around since before the end of apartheid, and some of the racists are quite vociferous. The white ones have mainly surfaced in the comments sections of online newspapers, where you see them in all their ugliness. The black ones mainly seem to surface on radio talk shows. At least that is where I have mainly encountered them, though if you look and listen carefully you can see that is usually the same people phoning in to the radio station, and the same people commenting on the article today as were commenting last week. They also appear sometimes on social media like Twitter, where I generally become aware of them though the chorus of disapproval of something that one of them has said.

Sometimes reaction against racism tends to promote stereotyping of the “All Xs are racist” or “They’re playing the race card again” kind, and that can lead to more binary opposition thinking. But we don’t have to go down that road. You can find a simple test for your own level or racism here: How racist are you?

Boolean algebra and logic with their simple opposition of True and False can be useful in many fields, such as electronics and computing, but in the field of human behaviour and human characteristics and human relationships, they can lead to some very distorted thinking.

 

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