Sunday, February 04, 2007

Stupid Answers to Snappy Questions

I am always amazed and delighted when I find scientific answers to questions that you never thought would have one. At one point in my life, for example, I had a crippling addiction to 24/7 cable news networks. I would surf through MSNBC, CNN and, when I felt like slumming, FOX, while surfing through blogs and newspapers on the internet. This, for obvious reasons, led me to constantly wonder - mostly to myself, but sometimes aloud- why is everyone so fucking stupid?

I was amazed when I found out the answer. I wasn’t looking, I was trying to figure out cybernetics. I ultimately realized that was futile - I like the theory but cant stomach the math. But reading about it, I learned that communication consists of messages. Messages are not the transference of information between to people. Every message has a certain probability of successfully transferring information. The more information in a message, the lower the probability of it being successfully transmitted.

There you go. Why is there poverty in America, you ask? You could stand on one street corner and give the most nuanced and insightful analysis of why there is poverty in America there is. Stand on a street corner and explain it to people as they pass by. If, on the opposite corner, someone is shouting “People are poor because they’re lazy,” why is going to reach an audience?

Its not that people are stupid, per se. It’s the cost of doing business in a world governed by entropy.

I thought of that last night as I was at a family gathering. My uncle was spouting off some racist nonsense. Not the kind that burns crosses, or yells racial slurs. The more pernicious racism that is acceptable in polite company over casual conversation.

He said that he feels that Black culture is pathological, which is why there is such a high crime rate, such high unemployment, so many unwed mothers irresponsible fathers in the Black community. I asked him what culture was, how it is that culture is created, passed on, and how it causes people to act.

He did answer.

I was about to suggest that culture was a system of symbols, meanings, and practices that are embedded in historically constructed networks of power. I was going to say that we internalize cultural values and meanings into an internalized subjective principle that spontaneously generates culturally meaningful actions. I was going to say that the culture of a given segment of society isn’t a discrete entity among entities placed next to each other. Rather, they exist in a network - each part of which reflects on the nature of the whole. Thus, a pathology in any subculture is merely the expression of the pathology of the wider system.

I decided not to get in to it. Why bring up post-structuralist theory in mixed company?

And besides, I suspect that a lot of casual conversations about why inequality exist isn’t there to find out an acutal answer. It exists to assure us that it is rational, not accidental and certainly not due to any viciousness that is deeply ingrained in society.


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