Monday, August 30, 2010

Prejudice and Metaphysics

I was really hoping not to discuss the "Park51" mosque, especially after Politico essentially ended my interest in the story by showing that building the mosque was a long-shot even before the bigoted backlash ignited a media frenzy.  But Stanley Fish has an interesting take on the issue, using the example of the Oklahoma City bombing to reveal insightful truths:

"In the brief period between the bombing and the emergence of McVeigh, speclation had centered on Arab terrorists and the culture of violence that was said to be woven into the fabric of the religion of Islam. 

But when it turned out that a white guy (with the help of a few friends) had done it, talk of "culture" suddenly ceased and was replaced by the vocabulary and mantras of individualism: each of us is a single, free agent; blaming something called "culture" was just a way of off-loading responsibility for the deeds we commit; in America, individuals, not groups, act; and individuals, not groups, should be held accountable." 

We tend to consider high-level philosophical beliefs (like whether human beings are possessed of free will) as relatively stable for individuals; deep-seated epistemological and ontological beliefs underpin our more mundane preferences (e.g. politics) and indeed even our identity.  Not so: the Oklahoma City example is startling because it reveals how transitory deep philosophical beliefs can be.  The abrupt shift from a structural to an agency explanation after Oklahoma City leads us to question how fundamental these questions really are. 

Social psychology and sociology have long provided compelling explanations for such behavior changes with concepts like the ingroup/outgroup bias.  The Oklahoma City example is scary because it utterly trivializes our beliefs and forces us to confront the harsh truth that much of our behavior is capricious and governed by unconscious structural factors.  Even metaphysics, the most cherished manifestation of objective, self-aware reasoning is apparently not beyond the reach of our animal spirits. 

The biological and evolutionary basis for prejudice is well known, but metaphysical beliefs are not normally viewed as a mechanism through which unconscious prejudice operates.  Perhaps we should all re-evaluate some things with that in mind.

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