Thursday, November 8, 2007

My brief encounter with Jim

'Jim' maintains a very interesting blog which, in the interest of protecting his privacy, I won't name. He has high standards of his commenters, as any attempt to figure out how to comment will show. After being granted probational commenting priviledge, I stopped by his blog and noticed a post regarding reparations for Blacks in America. Jim made some very good points, but I noticed something in one of his subsequent comments that I thought worthy of discussion. He said:

...[Blacks] need to be more like the Italians (predictably enough his racial stock) who came to this country and faced discrimination. Don't whine and complain, work hard and make something of yourself...

So I replied (in keeping with the question-asking mode I promised in my 'application' to comment):

Did the Italians come here in chains? Were the Italians hung from trees? Were the Italians barred en masse from educational opportunities and other public services? When was the last time you read of an Italian being dragged to death behind a pickup truck because he was Italian? Can you think of other circumstances that differentiate the American experience of Italians and Blacks?
Do you think there is some inherent inferiority in Blacks that accounts for their problems? If not, then what might?

Jim, it seems, was irked:

"Did the Italians come here in chains?" No, but neither did contemporary blacks. You've missed the point entirely. And you have completely ignored the argument I gave. Since this, your first comment, is so obviously worthless, I will now delete your account.

Not wanting to have any bad feelings loose in the ether I sent Jim a personal e-mail:


My point was that in America there is an undercurrent of bigotry towards Blacks that continues to this day; this is not the case for Italians or any other racial group. I was calling attention to an issue which, although broader than the topic of reparations, is nevertheless fundamental to any worthwhile discussion of the topic.

I admit to being ignorant that such discussion was not welcome. Sorry.

It's unlikely that Jim will get my message as this notice was at the bottom of his e-mail form:

Please Note: Your IP Address is being logged with this message to help prevent abuse.

...with which Jim, I suspect, is well acquainted...being Italian.


wunelle said...

Not having read his initial post, your comments to me seem right on the mark. Talking about what a whole ethnic group "ought" to do is at best a path to nowhere and at worst patently offensive. Groups are perceived ethnically, but our paths are made individually, and discrimination affects us individually.

Whatever the pertinence of your comment to the original post, your point is a good one.

Laughing Boy said...

Thanks, wunelle.

Question for you: Certain group-types can discriminated against with impunity and other group-types cannot. What, in your opinion, differentiates these group-types?

wunelle said...

In a democratic society it's a question, I suspect, of prevailing views, of who is in power (or of what view is currently in vogue or ascendancy).I think the majority gets to decide what is offensive en masse, and these things shift.

In Abraham Lincoln's time it was considered quite forward to state publicly that blacks were inherently inferior but ought to be treated humanely. Today that statement would earn a just scorn.

Today I think we'd be torn a bit by, say, allowing a Nazi rally in our town. I suspect that people denying courtesy to someone in a Nazi uniform would not upset very many people.

Laughing Boy said...

So what is the difference between the two group-types—an ethnic group and a ideological group—that currently makes discrimination scornful in the first case and acceptable in the second?

wunelle said...

I suspect (though I don't know, of course) that it's not the group type, but the prevailing view which makes the determination. (My examples were just of the two types.) If enough people feel a distaste for something, discrimination is deemed acceptable.

Laughing Boy said...

Discrimination against (insert group-type here) is acceptable because ____________.

Filling in the blank with "it's the prevailing view" is to say no more than it's acceptable because it's acceptable, which is saying nothing.

Let me adjust the question a little.

Is the concept of right (correct, proper, ought to be) fully contained within the concept of acceptable (ok with most people)? If so, then how could what's right/acceptable ever change? Reform is always a minority view (i.e., unacceptable) at first. How can an unacceptable view become acceptable if acceptability is foundational?

Enlighten me.

wunelle said...

Alas, what comes from my corner is unlikely to be enlightening. But I'm happy to ponder aloud.

I suspect were not really talking about a single thing. Rather, we're lumping a mass of cultural norms under an umbrella of our making and saying "these things represent X." But I bet there IS no X. The acceptability of discrimination towards this or that group is not the essential thing, I think. The underlying issue might be group think or clannishness or what is involved in our aligning ourselves behind a leader or something of this sort. Go deep enough, and you're probably dealing with some survival mechanism (collective action, maybe), while more surface things might be social constructs.

In many cases, I imagine it really IS as simple as saying that "discrimination against ___ is acceptable because it's the prevailing view." (I understand, though, that this is an unsatisfactory answer to your question. But I think social inertia and group-think is a huge part of discrimination generally.)

"Right" and "proper" are concepts with more moral force behind them than "acceptable," but I imagine the line between then is gray and indistinct.

Your point about reform ideas becoming prevalent is a good one. Is it a question of how powerful the people enforcing the status quo are? Hitler did not allow dissent, and so a lot of people who might have opposed him didn't do so. Yet there was still a bubbling "reform" movement.

Public opinion may change gradually. The country's views of the acceptability of the Iraq war have shifted over the years, beginning with widespread acceptance (though not support necessarily) and coming now to about equally widespread condemnation. Is this event-driven? Is it media-driven? What was once a reform view has become a prevailing one.

Is this a good example?

Laughing Boy said...

I welcome your pondering, wunelle.

I pondered and pondered but I got stuck in the following pond:

You seem to be defining 'acceptable' strictly as that which most people think. I could say...

"The Iraq War was acceptable to the majority a few years ago, but now it's not acceptable."

...and who could argue? I've merely stated a fact about public opinion at two points in time and said nothing at all about the reason for the change. The reason is what we're interested in, right?

I could append the following to my statement...

"The reason it's not acceptable to the majority is that the majority is now against it."

...but that would not really be adding anything would it?

wunelle said...

I do appreciate the dilemma--and the weakness of my explanation. But I just wonder if the question is not more interesting than the actual answer would be if we could suss it out. Does the weakness of my explanation mirror the weakness of the phenomenon itself (if not the consequences to individuals)?

You want a REASON for the acceptance of discrimination, (which is a different thing, the other side of the coin, from the discrimination itself); and I think discrimination is a zillion things with a zillion reasons.

Maybe we'd make headway with specific examples.

Laughing Boy said...

I've lost my train of thought in this thread. Sorry. I think it's worth a dedicated post anyway, rather than tacked on to this one, which is not really about any aspect of morality, but, well... about how I think Jim is a big jerk.

I look forward to your comments then.