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Archive for ‘February, 2013’

False Dichotomies and Binary Simplification.

datePosted on 16:46, February 22nd, 2013 by Pablo

One of the most useful analytic constructs in social science is the so-called “great dichotomy.” The idea is to distill an argument into a series of either/or propositions for the purposes of explanatory clarity. The point is not to see the world in binary fashion, as if all matters of social import can be reduced to good/evil, black/white propositions. Instead, the idea is to break down the logical and epistemological sequence embedded as component parts in any particular argument, particularly those of a normative nature. One can then deduce the overall strength of the case being made based on the logical consistency of those parts.

Scholars understand that complex realities are not reducible to mere dichotomies. But using the great dichotomy as part of a methodological approach to social science helps separate that which is relatively binary in nature and that which is a bit more complex. For example, X kills B. One dichotomous question, answerable with a simple yes or no, would be “was X drunk at the time?” That in turn can help illuminate the question as to why X chose to kill, as in “X killed Y after he caught Y in bed with his partner after being out on the piss all night.” The follow-up question would then be “would he have killed if he was not drunk?” If the answer is “yes,” then alcohol is not a significant contributing or mitigating factor. Although there is more to that sorry tale, the use of a dichotomous approach allows focus to narrow on its more complex aspects. That is the stuff of social science explanation. The key is to understand that dichotomous approaches are analytic tools designed to get to the gist of an issue, but are not meant to accurately represent or explain by themselves a larger and more complex question. They help remove extraneous clutter and provide better backdrop clarity on a given issue.

In contrast, binary or dyadic simplification is the practice of reducing explanations of social phenomena to an either/or, good/bad, black/white proposition. Not only is this a practice that deviates from the original mathematical use. It is one that ignore complex realities and which can lead to the construction of false dichotomies that impede clear and rational understanding of the subject in question. The danger of binary simplification is that it not only provides easy answers to complex problems for the intellectually lazy or dishonest. It also provides them with easy enemies and scapegoats because it poses the dichotomy as a zero sum proposition: things that are bad in the world or with which they disagree are the result of some other’s actions, and those actions are inimical, dangerous or otherwise contrary to their preferred version of reality. Thus the “other” must be resisted, vilified and in some cases defeated.

The real sad part is that many people, perhaps most people, are prone to accept binary explanations for complex phenomena. Thus we hear things like “guns do not kill people, people do,” “if gays are allowed to marry than marriage means nothing,” “feminism destroyed the family unit and has made men into girly boy eunuchs,” “abortion is murder,” or “you are either with us or against us.” These are one-line explanations for multi-volume problems or, said differently, comic book answers to complex questions.

I am prompted to write this in light of some stupid remarks in our own comment threads and another one-liner that made the rounds in the aftermath of Mr. Prosser’s cretinous opinions about Muslims. The one-liner, which was bandied about on the comment threads of right-wing blogs as well as those of the NBR goes as follows: “Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.”

I will not dwell on how ignorant that remark is. I will just point out that, among others, the IRA, the Oklahoma City bombers, the Red Army Faction, assorted Latin American guerrilla groups, Greek anarchists, the Tamil Tigers and–dare I say it–a host of non-Muslim governments practice terrorism on a regular and often sustained basis. Yet it is that binary simplification that allows people like Mr. Prosser to believe that actions such as banning Muslim (or presumably Muslim looking, whatever that is) men from boarding planes is the solution to the terrorist problem (and I should point out that the practice of using planes as guided missiles or blowing up commercial airliners did not start with Muslims).

What I find most interesting is that those most prone to adopting binary simplistic approaches to social explanation, to include the construction of false dichotomies in order to make their arguments, tend to inhabit the (dare I say dyadic?) extremes of the ideological spectrum. Those on the Left blame everything on corporate greed while those on the Right blame everything on socialism. White supremacists see evil advancing along racial lines, something that is reciprocated by those who think that only white people can be racist and the plight of non-whites is entirely the fault of white guys, colonial or modern. The arguments on each end blend together depending on the specific subject being addressed (such as arguments in NZ that Pakeha corporate elites or brown dole-bludging treaty troughers are the source of all ruin). In any case, their common bottom line is an absurd reductionism that poses the world in falsely dichotomous, binary terms.

Sadly, people can make a name for themselves by playing the binary simplification game. This is very evident in political blogs and the rhetoric of the ideological extreme. It also is a common tool for politicians of all stripes. The media gravitates to such people because it prefers simple sound bites and one-liners to complex explanations. After all, there is only so much information one can put into a 700 word story or 3 minute video spot. As a result, the practice of binary simplification becomes commonplace and widely accepted as expert commentary or even “truth.”

For a guy who lives in a multivariate universe in which multiple explanations compete for my understanding of what occurs to and around me, it is depressing to think that we are increasingly governed by those who trade in binary simplification and false dichotomies.

Then again, perhaps the beginning of  an explanation for that can itself be posed as a great dichotomy.

 

With stereotypes, timing is everything.

datePosted on 15:23, February 13th, 2013 by Pablo

Richard Prosser’s xenophobic and bigoted remarks about Muslims (which are not racist, since he was targeting a religion, not an ethnic or racial group) has rightfully met with wide-spread opprobrium. More than a comment about Muslims, his remarks say a lot about him on several levels. Let’s just leave it at this: That he was prompted to air his views by having his pocket knife confiscated at an airport security gate, then actually took the time to write out his thoughts in a magazine op-ed, make it clear that somewhere in Aotearoa a village is missing its idiot, and that idiot has been found spending lots of time in the Beehive.

However, the current repudiation of his views has not always been as wide-spread, and in fact his appeal to negative Muslim stereotypes was, if not all the rage, widely accepted just ten years ago.

Consider that when Ahmed Zaoui attempted to seek political refuge in New Zealand in late 2002, his arrival was met with official alarm and a chorus of exactly the sort of xenophobic invective that Prosser has voiced. The Fifth Labour government branded him an “Islamicst” with ties to al-Qaeda, then worked with the SIS to manufacture a “terrorist” case against him in order to justify his indefinite detention and eventual expulsion. It even changed domestic spying laws and created new anti-terrorist legislation (both still on the books and enhanced by National) so as to counter the Islamicist threat. The SIS went so far as to claim in its 2005 annual report that local jihadis and their sympathizers were a serious threat to New Zealand, only to drop the claim entirely in the 2006 report.

Zaoui was not the only Arab who got the heavy treatment. In 2006 Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali, a Yemeni-Saud flight school student overstayer, was summarily deported and handed over to Saudi security officials after he was caught (apparently following a tip-off to Winston Peters from a member of the public related to Ardmore Flying School). Despite concerns about his fate once he was turned over to the Saudis, he disappeared after being placed in their custody. The Fifth Labour government, through then-Immigration Minister David Cunliffe, refused to comment on his whereabouts or well-being and did not seek assurances from the Saudis regarding his treatment. As a justification for his summary deportation under escort, the Fifth Labour government claimed that he was a threat to national security, with his alleged “crime” being that he briefly flatted and shared pilot training with one of the 9/11 hijackers. No evidence has been produced to suggest that Abdullah Ali was aware of, much less involved in, the 9/11 conspiracy. Yet in the eyes of the New Zealand authorities at the time, relying in part on disputed FBI reports, he was guilty by association.

Shortly after Zaoui’s arrival Winston Peters, who now says that there is an element of truth to Prosser’s remarks but that his choice of words was unwise, demanded that Zaoui be expelled forthwith and went on to say that the NZ Muslim community was a “hydra” with extremist cells within it. Along with NZ First, National supported Labour on the Zaoui matter. Only the Greens questioned the official narrative (and Keith Locke needs to be congratulated for his staunch defense of Zaoui’s rights). Eventually, and with the help of some steadfast supporters and a few critical media types, the courageous work of Deborah Manning, Richard McLeod and Rodney Harrison destroyed the government attempt to frame and scapegoat Mr. Zaoui. After nearly five years the case against Zaoui was withdrawn and he was set free (he now runs a kebab place on K Road). For a good documentary overview of the case, see here.

My point is that timing is everything when politicians choose to stereotype so-called “out” groups. Back then Islamophobia ran rampant and it was fine if not fashionable to Muslim-bash, which the Clark government did adroitly and with aplomb. It did so by being subtle in its talk and thorough and focused in its actions. It publicly maintained it had nothing against Muslims or Islam, yet ordered its security apparatus to increase its surveillance of Muslim males (something that is ongoing) and enacted draconian security legislation with an eye towards the purported Islamicist threat to NZ (although truth be told, it first tried to use its new anti-terrorist legislation against the Urewera 18, and we know how that turned out).

Today all of that is water under the bridge although the laws remain on the books. NZ Muslims are no more of a threat today then they were a decade ago, but with the exception of the usual right-wing fanatics ranting in the blogosphere, the public mood is largely relaxed on the issue of the danger to NZ posed by Islamic extremism. Most politicians understand that even in election years scapegoating Muslims is now a losing campaign strategy. Thus Prosser is being made to wear a hair shirt over his contemporary remarks when he would have been applauded as a non-PC realist just a few years ago.

I would simply say that more than his stupid words, his timing if off. Politics is the art of hypocrisy disguised as righteousness, but the key to a successful disguise lies in the timing of the public posture. The Fifth Labour government timed its stereotyping just right, which allowed it to curry favor with its Western security partners in the anti-Islamic crusade by strengthening its anti-terrorism laws and internal security legislation. Zaoui was the precipitant and scapegoat used to that effect.

Prosser, on the other hand, is simply an uncouth political neophyte spouting rubbish at the wrong time. Had he made his remarks ten years ago he would have fared far better in the court of public and political opinion.

 

Maori Socialism versus Maori Capitalism?

datePosted on 13:18, February 6th, 2013 by Pablo

Woe be it for me to venture into the minefield of Maori politics on Waitangi Day. Yet the ructions around “Escortgate” at Te Tii Marae got me to thinking that perhaps there is more to the story than arguments within Ngapuhi and the inevitable displays of division that seem to mark the yearly event. At risk of stating the obvious, it is not just about different forms of identity politics.

Instead, what may be on display is the fundamental conflict between what might be called maori socialism and maori capitalism. By that I mean maori identity superimposed on a class base. Maori socialism is a view that is working class and lumpenproletarian in perspective, while Maori capitalism is propertied and bourgeois in orientation. The Hareweras and the Mana Party are a good examples of the former while the Maori Party and entities such as the so-called “Brown Table,” to say nothing of numerous trusts and boards, constitute examples of the latter. The conflict between them is not so much rooted in personalities, iwi and hapu (although there is clearly a strong element of that), but in fundamental differences in economic perspective and the proper approach to the Pakeha-dominated socio-economic and political status quo.

To be clear, I am not referring in this instance to pure forms of socialist or capitalist thought. Communal and egalitarian beliefs are as strongly represented in maori economics and society as are ownership and hierarchy. In the realm of Maori politics it seems that hybrid approaches rooted in one or the other ideological perspective have come to dominate political discourse. But the broad division between “Left” and “Right” seem fairly distinct.

The “militant” (although it is not truly that), “socialist” (although it is also not really that) approach is to largely reject the Pakeha rules of the game as given while working on what generously can be called a war of position strategy: raising consciousness amongst subaltern groups within whom lower class maori constitute the core around which issues of praxis are addressed. In this strategy alliances with Pakeha leftists are feasible because the ideological line vis a vis the common class enemy is roughly the same.

The “moderate” (phrased nicely) capitalist approach is one of pragmatic accommodation and incremental gains within the elite system as given. Alliance with Pakeha elites is possible given the division of potential spoils available in a system constructed by and for elites, but which increasingly has the potential to be colour and ethnicity-blind. Here the strategy is also one of a war of position, but in this case from within rather than from without.

Needless to say, there is some blurring between the two (e.g. Mana plays within the institutional rules of the political system and the Maori Party is not averse to relying on extra-institutional means of getting their point across). There are also significant agent-principal problems on both sides.

Even so, it seems that the main source of conflict within maoridom is grounded in class orientation and its corresponding strategic approach as much if not more than anything else. Put vulgarly in leftist terms, it is a conflict between the staunch and the sell-outs. Put bluntly in capitalist terms, it is a conflict between losers and realists.

From a practical standpoint, the underlying class differences are more difficult to resolve than other aspects of maori identity. It is in the Pakeha elite interest to keep things so.

Given my ignorance of Maori politics I could be wrong. I defer to Lew, Anita and more informed readers in any event. My intent is not to stir.  Instead, this post is written as an inquiry rather than a statement. Your views on the issue are therefore welcome.