Thursday, January 12, 2012

Facts, Prejudice & Pessimism (Pharaoh & Politicians)

"But it’s true!”, cry out those accused of racism. It seems that to avoid prejudice, we are expected to pretend certain facts are not there. Pessimists would make a similar truth argument against optimism. Martin Seligman convincingly argues in Learned Optimism[1] that we do not need to ignore the evidence to be optimistic, rather we can choose among alternative honest explanations of all the “facts”. This approach can also work with prejudice. In one of the earliest records of prejudice, against the Hebrews in ancient Egypt, some of these issues play out. The key idea in this article is that we can be truthful and still beat prejudice and pessimism by focusing, when appropriate, on positive aspects of the truth, while at other times we can choose to face up to the negatives.

Head in the sand?
Recently, Australian parliamentarian Teresa Gambaro suggested that migrants be taught about using deodorant and waiting in a que, and Rick Santorum, an American presidential candidate referred to blacks on welfare[2]. Gambaro unreservedly apologised and said she was taken out of context, while Santorum denies he said the word black. I wonder about the facts, is there a real deodorant and que problem? NAACP President Benjamin Todd Jealous, blasted Mr. Santorum, “In Iowa for example, only nine percent of food stamp recipients are black, while eighty-four percent of recipients are white”. Jealous ignores the fact that there are far more whites than blacks in Iowa (91% white to nearly 3% black[3]). It seems that we are all supposed to be nice and just pretend that this obvious hole in the argument is just not there. I do not think either statement as reported, was appropriate, but why not? 

Realists in Ancient Egypt?
According to the Torah’s account of “social integration” in ancient Egypt, the truth did not look good. The Hebrews were not going to fit in, it did not matter how long they were in the country they could still be described as those “coming to Egypt[4]” in the present tense, as if they always just arriving[5]. They did not change their language or their names[6]; “They did not call Reuben, Rufus, nor did they call Shimon, Lulini[7]. In contrast to the sexually liberated Egyptians, they had very conservative attitudes to women; they would not even look at each other’s wives[8]. Shepherding, a common occupation of the migrants, was an abomination to Egyptians[9].

They were not a marginal group. These outsiders had already managed to occupy the second highest office in the land, secure the best agricultural land[10] and they were rich[11]. Their birth-rate was as high[12] as that of rodents[13] to the point where the land was filled with them[14]. It was like an infestation of reeds[15]. Whenever an Egyptian went to get some entertainment they found the theatres were full of them[16]. These internationalists could also migrate out of the land[17] of Egypt just at the moment when their labour was needed most[18]. Was it unreasonable for the Egyptians to be concerned and pessimistic about those people? 
Realist and pessimist
Until this week, I would have described myself as a realist rather than an optimist or pessimist. I do not agree with the idea that if you think positive thoughts about something you want, “the universe” or God for that matter will give it to you. There is evidence that pessimists are generally been better at discerning reality than optimists[19], at least when thinking about them calmly. On the other hand, pessimists are more likely to fail to achieve their goals, feel depressed and have poorer health[20].

I did a test to measure my degree of optimism and pessimism, particularly the degree to which I think of both good and bad events as being permanent, pervasive and personal. I found that in some ways I think like an unrealistic pessimist. With negative events, I have been likely to think of them as reflective of what happens generally (permanent), as them being part of a broader pattern rather than isolated to that particular issue (pervasive) and I tend to take responsibility for it (personal). With positive events, I am more likely to think of it as a fluke or a lucky break (neither permanent nor personal) and more specific to that issue rather than thinking of it in a broader sense (not pervasive). I was not being consistent or logical and that alternative explanations could be even more realistic so I was free to choose those[21].

Methods for honest positive living
In some cases, our negative perception is backed up by a set of facts. With those situations, it depends on the context and the timing. If a lot is at stake, we might do well to take a pessimistic view about the risks, rather than just hope it will all take care of itself. If we are in a position to take action and deal with it, we can replace our worry with determination to address the problem[22]. If we are worrying about them when we are in middle of something else, it would be sensible to tell ourselves that this not the time for thinking about this, and actually schedule an alternative time to deal with it[23].

Other than dealing or delaying dealing with the problem itself, Selikman’s main strategy for dealing with pessimistic beliefs is disputation with oneself, which can still be relevant in spite of a negative set of facts. Disputation has four main components, i) evidence, ii) alternatives, iii) implications and iv) usefulness. For example, it is late at night, I am feeling washed out and I notice that I am doing less than my fair share of the house work, so I think I am lousy person and feel sadder still. I can challenge the idea that I am a lousy person with evidence; “no I am not a selfish person there are other times when I do pull my weight or act altruistically, although I can do better in doing my fair share of house work”. When the evidence is against an optimistic view, I can still question the usefulness of a negative view, consider its implications and look for alternative ways of explaining the event. Eg. seeing myself as a lousy person will not motivate me to do anything about it, like the Chasidic saying “to be depressed is no a sin, but the harm it can cause, no sin can cause[24]. It is more useful to think of my selfish act as a wrong choice, which I can make differently next time.

Application to Prejudice – then and now
There is a clear application of these types of arguments to prejudice, especially the usefulness and implications arguments as well as the possibility of change. The ancient Egyptians had their negative facts, but in a remarkable midrash, Pharaoh first tells his people they would be crazy to act against the nation that produced Joseph who saved them. They responded by deposing him for three months. He then agreed to see it their way[25], so he was reinstated as if he was a new king[26] and became the fear monger in chief. Their conservative family life could be seen as an asset, people in stable relationships are likely to be less distracted and more productive at work. Their abundant children and wealth could be seen as opportunities for Egyptian business, the Hebrews were not shopping on-line! In fact our sages say that the land was blessed because of the Hebrews[27].   

Mr. Santorum is not factually wrong when he refers to blacks on welfare, nor can one argue with his ethical point about wanting to replace welfare with work[28]. The problem is the implication of his statement; it reinforces a negative image of blacks. A more useful alternative would be to talk about people on welfare generally and as Mr. Jealous pointed out the total number of whites in this predicament is greater than that of blacks. If the context was different, if it was a conference about the welfare of blacks, that statement would have greater justification. Similarly, I was involved in a work situation where someone who happened to be a migrant had a problem with hygiene, if this was found to be a broader problem than addressing this in a focused, tactful way is appropriate. The way it came across in the media, it reinforced some prejudices about smelly foreigners[29].  

The Torah prohibits speaking about the faults of others unless it is for a legitimate purpose[30], eg. providing accurate information about a prospective marriage partner or to deal with a crime. It even avoids denigrating anything, except where this is needed for a purpose[31]. If we are convinced of a fault in another group and we can do something practical about it then we should, otherwise we need to consider additional evidence about whether it is as pervasive, permanent, or essential to people as it seems. Not everything that is true is worth saying. We also need to be mindful of the implications of what we might say and seek the most useful way to talk about it. Often it is optimistic.
When Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Beditchev saw a wagon-driver, wearing tallit and tefillin (holy prayer objects, normally only worn during prayer and treated with respect) whilst oiling the wheels of his wagon, Reb Levi Yitzchak exclaimed, “What a holy people is Israel! Even when they oil the wheels of their wagons, they are praying![32]

[1]     Seligman, M, E, P, (1990), Learned Optimism, Random House, Australia
[4]     Exodus 1:1
[5]     Rabbi YY Tronk of Kutno, cited in Greenberg, A. Y.,  (1992), Torah Gems, Y. Orenstein Yavneh Publishing, Tel Aviv
[6]     Mechilta Mesechta Pesachim Bo 5
[7]     Shir Hashirim Rabba, cited in Torah Shlaima, Shemot, p 9, note that the rejected names were latin, which was relevant to the times in which this was written
[8]     Yelamdenu
[9]     Genesis 46:34
[10]    Genesis 47:6
[11]    Lekach Tov
[12]    Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei 9 ,states that there are some Rabbis who state that they were giving birth twins while others say they were having sextuplets
[13]    Midrash quoted in Rabbenu Bchai, and Daat Zekainim Mibaalei Hatosafot, cited in Torah Shlaima, Shemot, p 15
[14]    Exodus 1:7
[15]    Midrash Tanchuma Shemot 5 eg. bamboo is considered a weed in Australia, we have some growing on the side of our driveway and we have seen them grow and spread very quickly).
[16]    Old Midrash Tanchuma Shemot 5
[17]    Exodus 1:10
[18]    Bchor Shor
[19]   Seligman, p.109-111
[20]   Seligman
[21]   Seligman addresses the question about the need for taking personal responsibility, which is a strength. In some situations it is the right way to think about a problem so that we can solve it. In other situations, one can take a disproportionate amount of responsibility for things that are not entirely under our own control, in such cases one cannot correct the problem and instead it is just demoralising and depressing. A variation of this dilemma is discuss in Tanya, if I see myself as wicked I will become depressed, but if I am happy despite seeing myself as wicked then I will become callous  or irresponsible (Rabbi Schenur Zalman of Liadi, chapter 1).
[22] Tanya, Rabbi Schenur Zalman of Liadi, chapter 31,
[23]  Tanya, chapter 26, Seligman p. 218
[24]  R. Shlomo of Karlin, same statement with different wording,
[25]   Midrash, Shemot Rabba 1:9, Midrash Tanchuma 5
[26]  Exodus 1:8, and there arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph
[27]  Midrash Chefetz, from a manuscript cited in Torah Shlaima, p.18
[28]  Mimonedes’ highest level of charity is to help someone get on to their own feet.
[30] Hilchot Lashon Hara, sefer Chafetz Chaim,
[31]  The Lubavitcher Rebbe
[32] with some variation in details reflecting the way the story was told to me 

No comments:

Post a Comment