an example of where dissent gets a person in sociology

From the Skinny Malinky:

I haven’t quite been able to wrap my head around the conversation about racism over at scatterplot. One thought I’ve had is that the pain inflicted by the cartoon under question, the pain of viewing the cartoon for people who know that monkey means them, has gone largely unacknowledged by those who question the racist content of the image. […] I mean to pause and remember the force of the accumlated and collective traumas of racism, and to think about what sort of failure it is for sociology to refuse a consideration of that force, and to what new traumas that failure contributes.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

30 thoughts on “an example of where dissent gets a person in sociology”

  1. VV: Ugh, I know. With the quote in question, it’s just that sociologists are so freaking morally overwrought sometimes. I suspect you know what I mean, even if we disagree about this particular issue. Maybe this is just me being an apologist for fascism yet again, but I really don’t think going back and forth in the nether regions of a comment thread ought to be chastised for “contributing” to “new traumas.”

    Plus, well, “the pain inflicted by the cartoon under question, the pain of viewing the cartoon for people who know that the monkey means them, has gone largely unacknowledged…” reeks of the sort of self-enamored moral posturing that drives me more to despair than maybe anything else in sociology. Honestly.

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  2. @3

    Hey Jeremy,

    I don’t think the hyperbole helps your point (“Maybe this is just me being an apologist for fascism yet again”). Casting yourself as a victim because you’ve been disagreed with (and politely, I might add) is not quite more than — in my estimation and your words — “self-enamored moral posturing.” It’s sarcastic and dismissive, and I don’t think it’s particularly productive given that we can all (at least) agree that this is a sensitive issue in the comments section.

    In turn, I think it’s pretty clear that the initial post isn’t attributing any pain to the actual discussion on scatterplot. The author is pretty clear that she/he is using this conversation to talk about the general experience that conversations LIKE these can end up disregarding the fact that there is actually an emotional stake in conversations about race for some people (it seems you don’t fall in this category, I’m not sure).

    As Eric Holder noted last week, we need to have conversations like these, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be difficult. In my estimation, the trick requires some basic decency on the part of everybody, and part of that is not disregarding those who actually are upset as invalidly upset, morally presumptuous, or only upset because of their own deficiencies (misreading, being too sensitive, having responded emotionally without first citing Derrida, etc.).

    Essentially, what I’m saying is that to make variations on arguments such as any of these, the stakes have to be pretty low for you:

    1. I don’t see it. Meh, not an issue.
    2. People are too sensitive.
    3. There can be multiple readings.
    4. This isn’t a problem of racism, instead, it’s a problem of grandstanding sociologists (read: those who are complaining about racism are the the one’s at fault, which effectively recasts complainers as wrongdoers and those who listen to them as the victims).

    In situations in which the stakes are low for you and higher for somebody else, it’s generally smart to validate somebody’s feelings and take them seriously before summarily discounting them (any of us who have ever had any successful relationship with another human being already knows this, a category you’re surely in as well). Sociology and being sociologists have nothing to do with it. It’s a matter of common sense and a matter of respect. I THINK the author’s point was that before trying on every hat available to debunk a claim of racism, it’s probably prudent to at least acknowledge that some people feel hurt.

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  3. I don’t know. I disagreed with Jeremy on cartoons, yet I think I’d need at least four Michael Phelps bong hits to even approach the depths of the navel gazing in that one….

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  4. ^^^ Fair enough.

    Just because I’m not entirely following you, can you explain how it’s an act of naval gazing? <—- I’m not doubting your interpretation, just trying to understand it.

    For me, the author is saying that when people summarily dismiss claims of racism it aggravates the initial sting of the remark/image/action that felt racialized in a targeted way. The language is admittedly florid, but the point seems to be a straightforward one.

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  5. monkeyfluffer: Whether Jeremy deserves your reproof or not I’ll leave to the reader, but I do want to say that I found your way of putting this to be very well done. I particularly liked the analogy to any human relationship.

    I have a lot more thoughts on this that would be my own elaborations on your basic point, but I guess I’ll leave it at this for now.

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  6. there is actually an emotional stake in conversations about race for some people (it seems you don’t fall in this category, I’m not sure)

    Yes, unlike all the other white people who have been participating in these threads, I am free from emotional commitments where race is concerned. After all, I did disagree with y’all, sort of. I must not care the way you do.

    Whether this affects my ability to have successful relationships will be left to the reader.

    Yes also, I recognize that my tendencies toward sarcasm and dismissiveness are not always productive.

    (Incidentally, if anybody cares about my actual position, I don’t think the cartoon “is not racist.” I don’t really like the “is racist”/”is not racist” dichotomy, but that’s a longer matter. That a more benign interpretation is readily available is important to me for the question of whether I believe people should be fired over this. Some people care about that question more than others. It is possible that I focus too much on what-should-be-done rather than feelings in debates about social issues.)

    As for the different ideas about the point of the post I linked to:

    I THINK the author’s point was that before trying on every hat available to debunk a claim of racism, it’s probably prudent to at least acknowledge that some people feel hurt.

    or

    For me, the author is saying that when people summarily dismiss claims of racism it aggravates the initial sting of the remark/image/action that felt racialized in a targeted way.

    I will admit I had trouble figuring out what the point was, beyond it being florid in expressing whatever it was saying and somehow linking the scatterplot thread to contributing to “new traumas.” But I think both of the above seem wise, so I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt that it was what they were saying.

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  7. “Yes, unlike all the other white people who have been participating in these threads, I am free from emotional commitments where race is concerned. After all, I did disagree with y’all, sort of. I must not care the way you do.”

    Is it even possible to discuss this without escalation? Here’s the thing. You obviously do have tension around this issue or you would not have put this post up. So now I’m in the position you are with respect to the other post. I can’t figure out why you are upset with it. I don’t agree with the other post, but I don’t find it upsetting. I have come to terms with the reality that other people often see my actions and motives and speech differently from how I do, and that this is quite likely to happen when highly charged issues are on the table. Your reaction seems excessive and disproportionate to me. So I can either just ignore what you said, make some kind of dismissive and insulting comment about it, offer some sort of interpretation that is meant to be sympathetic but probably would be interpreted by you as just more insult, or figure that you must see the world differently from how I do and, if we ever have a chance to talk about it, maybe learn more about your world view and why you think the way you do. But with too little information about why you would get so upset about something that does not seem upsetting to me, there is nothing I can say that is likely to be perceived by you as constructive. If I did not actually know you as a person, I might even start making wholly unwarranted attributions about your character and motives and possibly even turn it into some kind of commentary about what is wrong with blogging or sociology or the world or today’s youth or something.

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  8. @9–

    OK, this is helpful. Let’s rewind. Here, for any possible imputers of bad character and motives out there, is My Perspective:

    The initial post that I linked to started with people who “questioned” the “racist content” of the cartoon not acknowledging the pain of people, and ended with a line about contributing to new traumas. I couldn’t make much sense of the middle, but it seemed like it must be connecting those dots. As such, I read that post as being some kind of statement about how the racial-content-questioners should be fretting about how, through their questioning, they are complicit in new traumas.

    Now, I am someone who does not want to be inflicting new traumas upon the world, and so, well, this was a bit hurtful to me and certainly pissed me off. Especially as it was accompanied by a kind of writing style that I find incredibly grating. So, I reposted it with implicit snarkitude.

    First comment is sarcasm from VV, which I responded to.

    Then, I get a longer comment from this person who seems conscientious enough, but who starts off by saying “there is actually an emotional stake in conversations about race for some people (it seems you don’t fall in this category, I’m not sure).” I’m not sure how this is not supposed to annoy me. I would invite you to imagine there was a 100+ comment discussion thread in which you had tried to articulate what you think is a reasonable view, and someone comes back with “there is actually an emotional stake in conversations about this topic (it seems you don’t fall in this category).”

    So, then, the person goes on to enumerate some points and say, well, here is a caricature of some of the arguments people have made, and if you make any of these arguments, the issue must have low emotional stake to you. To me, this is obviously a bullshit argument and, lo, I resent it being applied to me.

    Interspersed with this, the same person says some quite wise basic points about the importance of decency and what-not, and they offer them as readings of the post I linked to. I don’t really see how you get from the actual text of that post to those interpretations, but, hey, I don’t want to belabor the point so I say fine.

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  9. @ 8

    Hey Jeremy,

    Just a couple things:

    1) I absolutely didn’t mean to imply that you don’t have “successful relationships” (sheesh, that sounds horrible). I put the aside to the aside in – “a category you’re surely in as well” – after the fact to make sure this was clear. If it wasn’t, my apologies. That would be ridiculous, and a low-blow that absolutely isn’t even remotely warranted in this or any conversation. If it came off as if that was what I was saying, sincerely, I apologize and that was not my intent. My point was just that just as in all conversations where emotions are present, I think it’s a good move to defer to the validity of the existence of those emotions (even if you disagree about cause) before proceeding to debase them, which happens all the time online, and in my estimation happened in the previous thread.

    2. “Yes, unlike all the other white people who have been participating in these threads, I am free from emotional commitments where race is concerned. After all, I did disagree with y’all, sort of. I must not care the way you do.”

    A. It’s presumptive to assume all of us are white, or that being white invalidates differing opinions.

    B. From this assumption you’re essentially making a “limousine liberal” argument and assuming that if the people who disagree with you are all white (they’re not), they are disagreeing with for the sake of self satisfaction and to signal to other people that they are superior for “caring more.” This discounts the simple fact that they may simply be disagreeing with you for perfectly good, non self serving and purely rational reasons.

    C. From your comments you seemed to not be too emotionally involved (you’ve said again you’d rather talk about what will be done than get involved in the emotions of it). If a misread the level of emotional involvement you do have (before or now), I apologize.

    4. In regards to emotional involvement, I’m surely not saying (just to be clear) that emotional involvement is a pre-requisite to participating in the conversation. I am also not saying that those who find themselves emotionally involved have any more right to the conversation or toward directing it. My point is only that in discussing sensitive issues (like race), it’s good and standard practice to enter the conversation recognizing that people are reasonably and rationally emotional about the topic, and that similarly to how we all would acknowledge upsetness over any myriad of things that would make someone upset (a friend getting their house broken into, a friend being made fun of or humiliated, someone you know losing a friendship or relationship) proceeding with some degree of caution is warranted. Much as in any social situation, you wouldn’t start off by telling anybody who found themselves in any of these situations that they’re overreacting and/or wrong. You can certainly share that opinion after acknowledging their upsetness, but just discounting their feelings is kind of aloof. In my estimation race and visible (and widely disseminated) displays of racism works the same way. It’s fine to not see it, but by summarily dismissing the fact that others have seen it or proceeding to discount their reasons for being upset without any attention paid to the sensitivity of it is, in a word, hurtful. The author’s (over florid point) is that responses such as these (instant dismissals) contribute to the overall problems that those who are upset have already found.

    I’m not trying to dress you down in anyway, and I hope it doesn’t come off like that. We’re in agreement that the “racist” and “not racist” dichotomy is wildly over-used, and pretty unproductive in most circumstances.

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  10. Oops, just saw that you posted before I hit submit. Ah, the Internet.

    In any case,

    1. I certainly don’t think you’re inflicting “new traumas” on the world. I don’t think the author meant that either. Sorry if it came off that way.

    2. Re: emotional involvement. I can see how that comment annoyed you. I wasn’t trying to create a hierarchy of emotional involvement that you were being placed at the bottom of. I don’t think somebody has to be emotionally involved every single time (quite frankly, it sounds exhausting). My short-hand list of things that signal emotional non-involvement was a bit unfair. You’re right. I’m unclear as to if you’d consider yourself emotionally involved or not. To be frank, I think I may have gotten us off track and I don’t think it matters. The basic point is that we should acknowledge that people ARE emotionally involved (regardless of whether we as individuals are or not) before proceeding to dismiss their readings.

    3. I think you’ve kind of become the stand-in for “People Who Disagree,” and that’s unfair to you. I’ve probably contributed to that, unfortunately. Sorry.

    Okay, off to watch Gomorra.
    Thanks for your response.

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  11. @11/12 —

    Thanks for these comments. Obviously, these are very emotionally charged issues for everyone. I understand your position much better now. I could go into some exegesis of @11 of “well, I didn’t mean that, what I really mean was…” but I don’t think that would be productive. I agree that it is very wise to recognize the importance of thinking about the emotional investment other people have in issues when responding, and, surely, I could be better about that than I sometimes am.

    So, then, let us trod gently and good-spiritedly away from this. I did have a friend ask me earlier, “Whoa! Is this cartoon-thing going to kill Scatterplot?” To which I replied, “Puh-leeze. We are far more robust than that.”

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  12. I think I have to back up Jeremy here. My first reaction was much like VV’s. And I also thought, “Calling out a grad student blogger, Jeremy?!? Come on! You’re a full prof, he’s about to be on the market. Don’t cause more trauma!!!” (That last bit is a joke).

    But as I re-read the comment and Jeremy’s notes I have to agree that the suggestion of new traumas is a little much. I still maintain my disagreement with him on the cartoon. But I don’t think the disagreement about “is it racist” creates yes/no answer where the “no” answer is ITSELF racist. I called it white privilege. But as Jeremy’s comments in the original thread noted, it’s also simply a disagreement over what the implications of each position are.

    I’m fine with the disagreement. I’m not so fine with the implication that either position causes more traumas or is akin to an inquisitor lining up folks to die.

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  13. cough, cough, cough, cough….

    You gotta understand, four Michael Phelps bong hits is a shitload of pulls for me….I still can’t find my navel…where are the cheetos?

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  14. Kill scatterplot? It’s so compelling I’m spending some of my best material here rather than hoarding it for my own blog. (And since I’m the Derrida-fiend you might wish otherwise.)

    I don’t think the conversation about feelings is counterproductive; I think it’s what this thread is about; and I think it’s mostly what the last thread was about. So here’s my take on that, informed by a mid-longish lifetime of both trampling upon and elaborately cherishing the feelings of various others.

    I heard an old (Black) guy talking about conditions of work once. He was bemused by the younger generation and put it this way: “Used to be, guys just worked. Now guys got feelings.”

    I’m with just working. This position is properly called stoicism, a venerable and coherent philosophy of life. On this view, feelings are what they are but generally irrelevant to whatever the task at hand is. We are each responsible for managing our own feelings. Trying to make tasks-at-hand about feelings is inherently counterproductive and, at minimum, RUDE, because now for everyone else in the situation the task becomes whatever it was in the first place PLUS managing the feelings of others. This should be an embarrassment for competent adults.

    Anyone who’s been around 2-year-olds knows how important feelings are, how tyrannical they can be, and how welcome it is to emerge from the chaos of feelings into the light of a more systematic and truly dialogic reasonableness. Yes, a whole wave of feminists pointed out in relation to the Enlightenment that “Reason” can also be tyrannical. And Horkheimer and Adorno showed that reason ultimately loops back and collapses itself. And Damasio showed neurologically that reason cannot generate motivation, only emotion can. But in an open, moderated form dispassionate reason is really all we’ve got to work with when there’s disagreement, short of escalation into shouting or generic uncritical empathy, which in principle all humans deserve.

    There are two kinds of conversations I have: polite ones where there’s nothing at stake and feelings can be ventillated freely; and serious ones, where there’s something at stake so the task at hand requires the full focus of calm mindfulness. I was reading recently about people who function well in crises. They’re not the one going all frenzied, who tend to get themselves and others killed. They’re the ones who zero right in on the details of the situation and get down to business.

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  15. @14 – Yeah, actually, I had thought that person was a soc prof blogger. I should have clicked the “About” tab and (dis)confirmed this, but I was too busy proto-fulminating after having read their post. I probably wouldn’t have posted the above.

    Granted, I broke the “don’t call out graduate students” rule before, that time when I posted about the guy who called us all “asshatted wankers” and, worse, likened us to the sociology group on LiveJournal. That one, I have no regrets about.

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  16. Carl, I agree with you but want to add a personal comment, at the risk of inflaming passions but at least a different set of passions that have little to do with the past debate and nothing at all to do with Jeremy’s remark. In my personal experience, it is often exactly the same men who say that they want to keep people’s feelings out of the workplace (i.e. they don’t want to worry about other people’s feelings) who get hurt and angry at any dispassionate attempt to discuss the possibility of gender bias in the work place and who insist that their hurt feelings must be the central agenda, not the empirical question of whether there was or was not gender bias in a given situation.

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  17. olderwoman you’re right, I’ve seen that too! Or the one where only men are really capable of reason, so if there’s a loud screaming argument it must be that the gal is being hysterical whilst the guy is being emphatic.

    The thing is that if the conversation is important, it’s very difficult for anyone invested in it not to escalate to emotional outburst once rational impasse has been reached, which can happen for lots of reasons. But that’s just giving up and changing the subject.

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  18. Long time lurker, first time poster here…For what it’s worth, I actually did find the original thread on the cartoon a little hard to read. Partly it was because the discussion felt like a rehashing of unproductive debates. But in many ways I also found the tone of the debate personally upsetting. I felt like the discussion evoked the same (yes, I’ll use the word) traumatic response I had upon seeing the cartoon originally. It struck me that people insisting on a non-racial interpretation were (1) really in the dark on the history of racial stereotypes or (2) they decided that black people’s hurt feelings, as articulated by their white stand-ins (which is another issue all together), were invalid (overreactions?) based on an erroneous interpretation, or (3) they felt that acting on hurt feelings has the potential to impinge on free expression. And that’s saying nothing about the posts that belittled the discussion of the issue altogether and instead wanted to shift attention to where it really belonged – on all the silenced and marginalized professors in the ASA.

    For me all those responses evoked the same sense I had upon seeing the originally published the cartoon: the folks at the Post either don’t know or don’t care about how black people might feel. Or they are well aware of both and just used this as a play to generate a bunch of publicity at the expense of some black people’s (and their allies) feelings. None are particularly uplifting thoughts. And many of the posts in the scatterplot thread displayed a similar disregard for how black people might feel about the cartoon. But really, I just chalked it all up as one of the constant, low-level indignities black people just have to deal with. It’s nothing new and certainly not preventing any of the black people I know from getting on with the business of living their lives.

    But beyond my personal feelings about the cartoon or the resulting thread, I think this guy raises legitimate questions about the implications of a sociology that ignores or displaces the emotional responses of some black people to the cartoon. You don’t even have to agree with those emotional responses to think that those feelings might be a legitimate and worthwhile (necessary even?) object of study. You also don’t have to agree with those responses to acknowledge that understanding them might be central to a broader racial understanding and certainly important for any analytical understanding of race in the contemporary US. And it doesn’t strike as unreasonable to suggest that ignoring those emotions might have detrimental consequences.

    So I guess I’m just wondering why that position makes this guy the object of such derision and ridicule from some of the posters in this thread. He doesn’t seem to deserve that and, frankly, it makes some of the posters here look like bullies only interested in using reason and “calm mindfulness” as a weapon to belittle and silence anyone who ruffles their feathers.

    Oh, and when it comes to florid, obtuse, self-indulgent writing, let’s remember than people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. And having read these comments and the work of many people engaged in this thread, I should be hearing the sound of stones hitting the floor in sociology departments across the nation.

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  19. Wow. I want the [expletive deleted] out of this thread, but let’s just review where people have gone in this thread and its predecessor. At various points, versions of the following have been used:

    1. How can you be a sociologist and disagree with me?

    2. People who question our interpretation of the cartoon [garble garble florid garble] are contributing to new traumas.

    3. For somebody to make any of the arguments that have been raised, they must not care about racial equality the way us righteous people do.

    4. (@21) The people who disagree in this thread don’t care about how black people feel, and in so doing provide another part of the “constant, low-level indignities black people just have to deal with.”

    Oh, and I’m also a bully. I must be a bully or else I would be all passive and conciliatory when people write crap trying to lay some of the greatest ugliness of our society at my feet because I have a dissenting opinion about a cartoon.

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  20. Excellent. I’m all for studying emotions as neurological, psychological and social facts. When people put their emotions out there and make them an issue for others, that fact and its consequences should be studied by all means if we are to understand the situation. This leaves wide open the question of whether the feelings of this or that person or group have anything at all to tell us about the accuracy of their perceptions and wisdom of their desires in comparison to conventions of critical analysis that might be shared by others whose emotional responses are different for whatever reason.

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  21. Yeah, I know, most people in a thread argue one thing, and I argue something else, and I call that “dissent.” What can I say? I’m interesting.

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