Tuesday, November 18, 2008

I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

A post last week at the Neuroanthropology blog indexed some research into the role of internet communities in reinforcing "delusional" thought patterns.

An interesting question raised by the featured researcher (and blogger), Vaughan Bell, is what criteria must be met to classify a belief as a delusion; if an individual's self-selected culture (e.g., a supportive internet community) validates a particular belief, then marginalizing it as psychopathological would be a failure to maintain the neutrality of an ethnographically etic perspective, let alone the ideal of cultural relativism.

This is a problem as old as anthropology itself. Is it ever the right, or even the moral duty, of a cultural outsider to criticize or intervene in the practices of insiders? This leads directly to questions of universal morality, of which there are as many answers as philosophers, so as one might imagine, consensus has not been forthcoming.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Gimmie Shelter

Since the story first broke some weeks ago, I've been pondering the situation in Nebraska, in which parents had been abusing the state's "safe haven" law in order to relieve themselves of their young-adult offspring. There are two outstanding questions raised by this behavior that make it seem especially surreal to me.

First, how were these teenagers coerced into cooperating with their abandonment? If at least some of them were indeed left because of "out-of-control behavior," would they evince so little autonomy in this situation? And those abandoned for other reasons - had their daily existences been so traumatic that they were utterly dependent upon their parents? Or were some of them so antipathetic toward their families that they welcomed release, regardless of the circumstances?

As for the parents themselves, how utterly alienated from mainstream society must they have been in order to neither seek the social welfare services applicable to their situations, nor apparently have the kind of social networks that could apply sufficient normative pressure to deter them from abandoning their children?

Separately, each of these situations is an entirely realistic, and unfortunately all-too-pervasive, possibility in our society. But the fact that several of them must have necessarily coincided in each of these abandonings makes the fact that nearly 30 such occurred in a four-month period seem to indicate a chronic undercurrent of dysfunction.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

"Sure, his ideas are crap, but I can tell he really believes what he's spewing..."

As I continue trying to avoid delving into topics explicitly dealing with the impending presidential election - an abyss that it is all too easy to drown in, and which plenty of others have already sacrificed themselves to in my stead - the following post has been draped with a thin veil of anonymity. -Ed.

In the course of a recent political debate with a regular interlocutor of mine, I became aware of a previously unrecognized polarization in the spectrum of theories of what should be valued in choosing a candidate to support. On one hand there is my own position, which is that one should vote for the candidate whose policy proposals one most agrees with, in the understanding that, even if none of those policies are successfully implemented, making the attempt to realize them is the most logical action toward securing one's interests.

My friend, however, took a position that I don't agree with, but can't criticize as logically unsound: he says that, all else being equal, he would vote for the candidate whose policy proposals seem most likely to be actualized, even if he disagreed with their motivating principles. His reasoning was that he could not trust a politician who campaigns on a platform that the candidate him- or herself must be aware is impracticable; it is nothing more than disingenuous, political posturing to win votes.

The core difference that I see this polarization deriving from, is over the question of whether one takes a basically optimistic or pessimistic view of human intentions. I dunno... am I just a pollyanna?

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

In Just Seven Days I Can Make You A Man

A post today on the Situationist blog points to a recently-published paper by Donald Braman, Dan Kahan, and Gregory Mandel (of my sometime alma mater Temple U., what what!) that analyzes the differential attitudes of socially and metaphysically hierarchical versus egalitarian individuals toward the engineering of synthetic life, in contrast to their attitudes toward other potentially dangerous technological interventions into natural processes.

Their research indicates that, whereas egalitarians are generally more sensitive to potential man-made threats to the ecological order, and hierarchically-oriented individuals tend to be more skeptical of such dangers, these perceptions are basically reversed regarding the creation of artificial life.

The authors conclude by providing some insightful interpretation of their findings:

What explains this unusual alignment? A likely possibility relates to the distinctive social meaning of synthetic biology risks. Individuals tend to impute risk to activities that symbolically threaten their values; they resist believing that society might be harmed by activities that affirm their values (Douglas 1966). Historically, concerns about acid rain, nuclear power production, global warming, and the like have connoted challenges to societal and governmental elites. This is a resonance congenial to persons who hold egalitarian views, but noxious to persons who hold hierarchical ones (Douglas &Wildavsky 1986). Synthetic biology, however, seems to be attended by a different constellation of meanings that are themselves symbolically threatening to hierarchs. Like evolution, which conveys an uncompromisingly secular understanding of the origin of life, synthetic biology, because it presupposes human license over the career of it, seems to denigrate a set of cultural understandings that subordinate man to the authority of God. The denigration of those understandings is in turn subversive to the authority of certain institutions and norms traditionally integral to a hierarchical social ordering. Hierarchs, consistent with the logic of cultural cognition, thus impute danger to synthetic biology.

While this is no doubt a valid analysis, I wish to draw attention to an element of the cultural construction of these perceptions of danger that I feel the authors may have under-emphasized, namely the role of metaphysical, rather than purely social, values. The authors do touch upon this element in their hypothesis regarding hierarchicals' attitudes toward synthetic biology - people who see biogenesis as the purview of a higher power are likely to see attempts by man to replicate the process as the height of insolence - but then immediately subordinate it to concerns of social order. Likewise, their interpretation of attitudes toward other conflicts between technology and nature resolves ultimately upon attitudes toward "societal and governmental elites."

I think the authors unnecessarily circumvent the possibility of a metaphysical (e.g., religious) hierarchicalism independent of social hierarchicalism. Surely the interests of "societal and governmental elites" are not necessarily the same as those of theological fundamentalists. Couldn't it be the case that "concerns about acid rain, nuclear power production, global warming, and the like... [are] noxious to persons who hold hierarchical" views, not because they "connoted challenges to societal and governmental elites," but rather because they connoted challenges to the idea that the mechanisms of the physical world are solely the responsibility of an omnipotent intelligence, and thus immune to disruption by the efforts of mortals? This interpretation more closely parallels the argument against synthetic biology on the grounds of "cultural understandings that subordinate man to the authority of God," and need not attempt to rationalize itself with an appeal to secular concerns.

My suggestion here is that, while secular, rational values certainly factor into attitudes toward the morality, or even the possibility, of human alteration of the biosphere, so too - and, I argue, independently - may metaphysical values.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Obsessive Disorder

In an earlier post, I mentioned in passing a piece of anti-Islam propaganda, the DVD video Obsession, being distributed via newspapers and direct mail in key U.S. states by a group called the Clarion Fund. I implied that carrying material such as this as legitimate advertising compromises the moral standing of any publication that does so (fully aware of the irony in pretending that no publisher might secretly harbor sympathy for such campaigns). Now, however, we can see that - surprise! - purveying messages of hate also has real consequences, often for the very people those words and images attack - who would have thought?

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

I Could Put Some Pink Floyd Lyrics Here, But I Won't

There was recently a brief discussion at the Open Anthropology blog concerning the commoditization of academic work, and its implications for the quality of higher education. One correlate of this restructuring of the academy, a shallowing of content in the work of both students and educators, is also implicit in this discussion at the Savage Minds blog regarding celebrity prof. Tony Blair's new course at Yale (and explicated further in the comments).

Saturday, September 27, 2008

By a Nose

Well this is interesting (courtesy of the Washington Post, via the Tabsir blog). The "this" I'm referring to, in case you were unsure, is the rather exuberant advertisement in that screenshot of the Wall Street Journal's website, from the A.M. hours of September 26, proclaiming "McCain Wins Debate!" The "interesting," of course, arises from the fact that the debate didn't occur until the evening of the 26th.

(Disclaimer: I've visited the actual page for the WSJ article, and after reloading it a couple of dozen times, none of the handful of ads that appeared were the alleged McCain piece. I can only assume that the Washington Post writer that passed it along checked its veracity.)

Whether it is/was real or not, what I find interesting is the concept of an ad such as this one, and what, exactly, it's intended to do. The ad plays upon the foregone assumption in public discourse about presidential debates that one of the candidates "wins." I've always found this idea odd because, unlike in a typical competitive debate, there is no officiating party to adjudicate the merit of opposing arguments. This complicates the question of how a winner is determined - most topics conceded by the opponent? But of course no candidate ever concedes a point... What makes an argument "successful" in this context?

My point, I guess, is that, like most of the political jousting that takes place in the public eye (debates, campaign ads, monologues of talking points), the purpose here is not to facilitate the electorate's objective decision-making. Their minds have already largely been, and continue to be, unconsciously made up through processes of identification, affection, etc., and only subsequently consciously justified to themselves in rational terms of public policy. A debate, then, can only provide fodder to reinforce preexisting identifications - everyone believes "their" candidate won, and if the victory was less than resounding, it was only because the other guy behaved in a despicable, immature manner anyway, thus evoking even more sympathy for "the noble underdog" (Didn't Orwell play with something like this? Though I seem to recall more screaming...). The "winner" existed in the mind of each observer before the debate even began.

So what does an ad preemptively declaring disputational victory do to potential voters? As far as I can tell, pretty much the same thing as the debate itself.