Saturday, March 31, 2012

Trayvon Martin, Fox News, and the Web of Belief


We were all deeply saddened by the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. For some of us, the shooting reaffirmed our belief that, despite the optimistic talk of a "post-racial" America, this country is still deeply divided along racial lines. Martin's shooting caused others to question their belief that America is now "post-racial."

Still, others remain reluctant to view this shooting and the Sanford police department's treatment of George Zimmerman as revelatory of the racial problems that continue to plague this country. Geraldo Rivera claimed that Trayvon's hoodie was to blame. Sean Hannity wondered if Trayvon's shooting could have been "just a big mistake."

But, how can this be possible? How can these geniuses at Fox News be so blind to the gravity of Trayvon's death?

I'll try to offer an answer to this question, utilizing W.V.O Quine's "web of belief," metaphor.

Quine believed that our beliefs form a web, so to speak. Each belief, for Quine, is connected to all other beliefs via inferential relations. For instance, my belief that my name is "Brandon" is connected to my belief that my parents and relatives have not lied to me about my name. I can infer the former belief from the latter. Additionally, for Quine, if I have reason to question the former belief, I have reason to question the latter. If you damage one part of the web, many other parts are affected.

For Quine, there is nothing supporting the web, no belief(s) that ground all other beliefs. As such, all of our beliefs are subject to change. While Quine takes it that there are no foundational, unalterable beliefs, he does believe that there are some beliefs which are more resistant to change than others.

For example, if one day my uncle referred to me as "Joe," I would not immediately start to question whether my parents had been lying to me about my name all these years. I'd most likely figure that my uncle was confused, or that I was mistaken in believing that he was referring to me.

My belief that my name is "Brandon," is very resistant to change, it is a core belief. On the other hand, my belief that my uncle is not confused in this instance is a belief that lies on the periphery of my web. I'm willing to give up this belief without much worry.

Quine believes that our core beliefs change when we reach a point at which we can no longer square them with the evidence we are faced with. To continue the example, assume I find out that my uncle was referring to me and wasn't simply confused. In this circumstance, I would try to come up with another explanation for his referring to me as "Joe."

If, after racking my brain for an alternative explanation, I came up with nothing, I may decide to just give up the belief that my name is "Brandon." This would be a drastic move, but, for Quine, there is nothing about the nature of belief that rules it out. In fact, Quine thought that even our beliefs about math and logic could be revised.

Now, what does all of this have to do with Rivera and Hannity?

It seems that the beliefs that America is in fact a post-racial country and that most charges of racism are misplaced or exaggerated are a core beliefs of many who work for and watch Fox News. Because these are core beliefs, the Fox News crowd seeks to explain Trayvon's shooting in a way that allows them to deny the reality of racism in America.

"Maybe it was a mistake."

"Maybe Trayvon was shot because he was wearing a hoodie."

"Perhaps Trayvon attacked Zimmerman."

"We shouldn't rush to judgment before we have all the facts, right?"

"It could be that the Sanford police have a really good reason for not arresting Zimmerman."

"Zimmerman has a black friend, so he's probably not a racist, right?"

All of these statements represent attempts to keep the conservative web intact. We know why this happens. No one wants their web to fall apart. When one gives up one's core beliefs, one feels a sense of homelessness, as Heidegger puts it. But, to face the world with courage and intelligence is to risk giving up one's core beliefs, to risk (temporary) homelessness.

It is past time for people like Rivera and Hannity to wake up. I doubt, but hope, that Martin's death will cause many of the Fox News conservatives to question their core beliefs about race in America. But, I admit, asking the Fox News conservatives to approach the world with courage and intelligence may be asking too much?

What do you think?


Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Importance of Recognition


I'm in full dissertation mode. It has been hard to post regularly or even think about non-dissertation-related topics.

So, I've decided to write about what I've been thinking about in relation to the dissertation.

In the past few months, I've become really impressed with Hegel's understanding of self-consciousness.

If you're anything like me, you don't like having to depend on other people. I liked wrestling more than football because in wrestling, it was totally up to me whether I won or lost. The wrestler has no teammates to blame for his or her lack of success. I also hated doing group assignments in school because I didn't like having to depend on others for my grade. I value my independence.

But, in reading Hegel, I came to realize that I have to depend on others in order to have a coherent conception of myself. More specifically, I came to realize that I have to depend on the recognition of others in order to have a coherent self-conception. I'll try to explain. [For a more complete story, check out a draft chapter of my advisor's book on Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit, here].

Let's suppose the opposite, let's suppose that I can have a coherent self-conception which is independent of the recognition of others (let's call this the "independence view"). Assume that I wish to think of myself as good singer. What determines whether I actually am a good singer? On the independence view, I determine whether I'm a good singer.

It only takes a moment of reflection to see why this view is problematic. If only I can determine whether I'm a good singer, then any of my performances which seem good to me are good. On the independence view, I simply can't be wrong about the quality of my singing. But, if I can't be wrong, it makes little sense to say I'm right either. On the independence view, I end up just giving my singing meaningless praise. (Think of the rejected American Idol contestant who declares that she can sing despite what everyone else says).

I want it to be the case that the label "good singer" means something, but on the independence view, I strip the label of its meaning. My self-conception, on this view, is incoherent.

I'll now explain how dependence on the recognition of others can solve this problem. First, I have to say something about what recognition is. To recognize another is to view that other's judgments on some particular matter as largely correct. If I recognize Simon as a good judge of talent, I take it that his judgments on which persons are talented are, for the most part, correct. Likewise, for Simon to recognize me as a good judge of talent is for him to take it that my judgments on which persons are talented are, for the most part, correct.

We are now in a position to see how the recognition of another can allow one to coherently recognize oneself as one thing or another.

Say I recognize Simon as a good judge of talent. Now assume that Simon recognizes me as a good singer. Since I take it that whoever Simon recognizes as a good singer probably is a good singer, I can then recognize myself as a good singer. But, this is only possible because I recognize Simon and he in turn recognizes me. In this way, my self-conception is dependent on Simon's recognition.

Also, on this understanding of what it is to be a good singer, I can be wrong in thinking that I'm a good singer. If the people I recognize as good judges of talent fail to recognize me, then I'm not a good singer. As such, the label "good singer" does not fail to be meaningful.

I find this view very compelling, but I still value independence. I just realize now that my independence cannot be complete independence. Otherwise, I wouldn't even be able to coherently think of myself as "independent," or anything else for that matter.

What do you think?