Can We Mourn Yet?

2.

That segment of the population [the privileged segment] wants to be surrounded by people with similar characteristics.

—Kevin Sheehan, former chief executive of Norwegian Cruise Lines, as quoted by Nelson D. Schwartz in “In New Age of Privilege, Not All Are in Same Boat,” the lead article on the front page of The New York Times for Sunday, April 24, 2016 (the 100th anniversary of the start of the Irish Easter Rising of 1916, be it noted)

In my preceding post, the first in this series on whether we can mourn yet, I wrote about two articles that appeared in The New York Times for Sunday, March 20, this year. This new post will also concern pieces from The Times, but from an even more recent issue.

The first piece is itself a sort of recent reissue of an older one. Two years ago, regular Times contributor Nicholas Kristoff did a series of columns he called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.” Then just a few weeks ago, in The Times for Sunday, April 3, he wrote a reprise called “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Revisited”—a revisiting he wrote was necessary because “public attention to racial disparities seems to be flagging even as the issues are as grave as ever.”

“Why do whites discriminate?” Kristoff asks in his recent reprise. “The big factor,” he writes in answer to his own question, “isn’t overt racism. Rather, it seems to be unconscious bias among whites who believe in equality [that is, “whites” who, when asked, say they believe in equality, even and especially, I will add, if they are just asking and answering themselves] but act in ways that perpetuate inequality.” Kristoff then cites Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, whom he identifies as “an eminent sociologist,” and who “calls this unconscious bias ‘racism without racists.’” About such presumably covert racism, Kristoff says, “we whites should be less defensive.” One reason, he adds, that “we whites” don’t need to be so defensive about our own lingering, unacknowledged racism, is that, in his judgment at least, such bias “affects blacks as well as whites, and we [all of “us,” presumably: “blacks as well as whites”] also have unconscious biases about gender, disability, body size and age.” Then a few paragraphs later he ends his column by writing: “The challenge is to recognize that unconscious bias afflicts us all—but that we just may be able to overcome it if we face it.”

How likely Kristoff thinks it is that “we” will ever actually face the fact of such bias, he doesn’t say. Speaking solely for myself, I do not think it is very likely at all. Hence, I am equally skeptical that “we” have any real ability to overcome such bias.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Kristoff’s remarks about how we all have such bias makes me assume that what he means by that term bias is very broad. It would seem to cover such things as the simple uneasiness that we all have toward that which is different from us or unfamiliar to us. For example, if we grow up in a place where no one has red hair, and suddenly find ourselves visited by some red-haired stranger, then we will naturally tend toward being suspicious of, or at least not completely at ease with, our visitor, at least till we get to know him or her better: We will have an “unconscious bias” against any such red-heads, as Kristoff seems to be using that phrase.

It is precisely with regard to unconscious “biases” of that perfectly natural and universal sort that our chances of coming to face them, and then perhaps even to overcome them, are best. However, if we turn to a different subset of unconscious biases, the odds against such change rise sharply. That applies above all to that subset of unconscious biases with regard to which our not knowing we have them is all too often because we do not want to know—those biases we have of which we do not just happen to be unaware, but which we actually have a vested interest, as it were, in keeping secret—secret even, and perhaps especially, from ourselves. At issue are those biases that we actually have a vested interest in maintaining, precisely because of all the benefits maintaining such biases brings us, at the cost of the very people against whom we do maintain them. That very self-interest then also strongly motivates us unconsciously to hide those unconscious biases from ourselves.

To give an example that is still of great ongoing importance, when it comes to racial bias in this country, it seems to me that, in general, the benefits from such bias are overwhelmingly weighted in favor of those of us who think ourselves “white,” as Ta-Nehisi Coates puts it in Between the World and Me (and which I have discussed in some earlier posts), rather than those of us who are not encouraged—if even permitted—so to think of ourselves. It directly benefits all of us who think we are “whites” to think that the rest of us, all the “non-whites,” are inferior to us “whites,” since that lets us “whites” keep on denying such supposed inferiors their fair share of the communal pie, so that we can keep on getting bigger slices for ourselves.

*     *     *     *     *     *

To give another example: It happens that in the same op-ed section of the Sunday issue of The New York Times in which Mr. Kristoff has his column revisiting how, still, “whites just don’t get it,” there also appears another column, by Margaret Sullivan, who was then serving as the “Public Editor” for The Times (she’s since stepped down), called “Are Some Terrorism Deaths More Equal Than Others?” The answer editor Sullivan gives to that question is clearly in the affirmative, at least insofar as it comes to coverage of such deaths in dominant United States news media, including The Times itself. After devoting the first half of her column to various readers’ letters to her about the matter, Sullivan asks the most pertinent question, that of “why [there is] the persistent inequality that readers rightly observe?”

Her own answer to that question is four-fold. “Part of the answer,” she writes, “is access. It’s far easier to get a number of staff members to Paris or Brussels than, for example, to Pakistan [. . .] .” Next she addresses “another factor,” that of “deployment of resources,” of which she writes: “The Times has more than a dozen correspondents working in bureaus in Western Europe; far fewer, for example, are based in Africa.” As a third factor, according to her, “there is a legitimate question of newsworthiness. News is, by definition, something out of the ordinary. In some places, like Iraq, the tragic has become commonplace.” She then gives Egypt as another example (besides Iraq), citing a former Times correspondent stationed there who says that, while it used to be that “a bombing in Cairo would have been ‘a shock’,” that is no longer the case. Today, as the former correspondent says, “We can’t cover every attack there.” Finally, Sullivan cites as a fourth factor “the relationship between the United States and the country where an attack takes place.” In effect, she is saying that since France, for example, is important for our own interests (and, we might add, we even feel fondness for the French at the moment, a moment when it is no longer de rigueur for all good United States patriots who want to be politically correct to substitute “freedom fries” for “French fries,” and to call attention to themselves for doing so), we pay more attention to what happens there than in some place that has far less strategic importance for us (such as, say, Somalia or Haiti) or that we don’t like so much (such as, say, Finland or Indonesia).

Sullivan then draws her piece toward its end by patting her own employer on the back, writing that she is “glad that Times journalists recognize the need to reflect the importance of all human life lost to terrorism—whether it happens in a place where we Americans [by which she means United States citizens in good standing, of course] may have gone sightseeing [if we’re fortunate enough to be part of the minority of the United States population that can afford global tourist-travel] or one we will probably never set foot in [probably because the amenities there are not up to our standards for “exploring the world in comfort,” to borrow a slogan from Viking River Cruises]. And regardless of whether the victims seem ‘like us.’” In her following, final paragraph Sulllivan concludes by writing: “Because, in fact, they surely are”—by which I assume she means that, even if some other people don’t “seem” so, all people really do turn out, upon thorough enough investigation, to be “like us.” That assumption is confirmed by the rest of her final paragraph, where she writes: “And it’s part of The Times’s journalistic mission to help its readers not only know that intellectually, but feel it in their hearts.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

I find that I am even more skeptical in the face of Margaret Sullivan’s apparent optimism that her employer is fulfilling a high “journalistic mission” than I am in the face of Nicholas Kristoff’s apparent optimism that those in the United States who most need to face and change their “unconscious biases” will ever do so. I have already given one reason for my skepticism in contrast to Kristoff’s optimism, a reason that has to do with how, for some of us, such biases are too deeply grounded in preserving our own privileges.

Among my reasons for skepticism about Sullivan’s optimism, I have one that is similar, which is this: Among the factors Sullivan lists to account for the “persistent inequality,” in dominant news sources such as the New York Times, of coverage of “terrorism deaths” in diverse places, she nowhere even mentions the factor of profit. But after all, what really accounts for the four factors she does address—the factors of “journalistic access, deployment of resources, and the admittedly subjective idea of what’s newsworthy,” as she summarizes her account (leaving out, for some reason, the fourth factor she mentions, that of being more concerned about deaths in nations that are of more strategic importance to our own national self-interest than deaths in nations with less such importance)—being factors in the first place? One need not even be as cynical about such things as I tend to be to suspect that the reason for those reasons themselves is above all because it is far more profitable to The Times to keep things that way, rather than to face its own biases, let alone change them.

Nor is that all. I have other grounds for skepticism. Indeed, even in the very same Sunday edition of The New York Times that contains Kristoff’s and Sullivan’s two columns, there are two more articles that remind me of those grounds. In my next post, I will turn to those two remaining pieces from that morning’s Times.

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