Thursday, September 01, 2005


One of the things I'm always on the lookout for in my interactions with other people is signs of unconscious bias. Not that I have anything against being prejudiced per se - I certainly don't think that all people are created equal, for example - I'm quite willing to be biased as long as it's a bias I'm aware of. It's the idea that I may be biased unthinkingly that frightens me. I think there's an important difference between being a bigot and being opinionated - an opinion is something you form consciously, bigotry is a filter that keeps you from looking clearly at the world.

More importantly, there are distinctions I consider valid and others that I do not. I'm quite happy, for instance, to look down on Britney Spears fans or people who think Dan Brown is the greatest writer in the world, but I'd hate to think that I'm prejudiced against someone based on his / her gender, race or nationality.

I think the difference in my mind is that it's valid to discriminate against people based on choices that they make - partly because they're controlled forms of self-expression, and partly because these are valid indicators of deeper interests / abilities - but it's not okay to discriminate on the basis of things that people are born with / into. This may, of course, be a naively individualistic view, ignoring the effect that social parameters have on individual personality, but I still think it's unfair not to give people the chance to prove that they don't conform to the stereotype. The flip-side of everyone not being equal is that people within a particular sub-group are not equal either. So one shouldn't stereotype.

It disturbed me therefore that while I was writing a review of Hilary Mantel's Beyond Black yesterday, I found myself referring to the author as Ms. Mantel. This may not seem like such a bad thing, except that two days ago I wrote a review of Dan Jacobson's All for Love and had no compunction calling him Jacobson all through. Why the sudden formality with Mantel then? Why this need to patronise? Hilary Mantel is as serious a writer as Dan Jacobson is; in both cases the novels reviewed were the first books by either author I'd read [1], why then did I feel that I could be familiar with Jacobson but had to treat Mantel with kid gloves?

Some people would argue that what motivated me was merely a chivalrous impulse - a reluctance to express too easy a familiarity with a lady I don't really know. This is a horrifying thought. I do not, repeat, do not believe in chivalry. I believe that chivalry is just chauvinism put politely. At the heart of the chivalrous ideal is the assumption that women are 'special' creatures who require (and deserve) protection and preferential treatment. But once you make that assumption and assume that all women, independent of their individual preferences / personalities, are the same, once you make gender the sole discriminatory variable guiding your actions, then it's a short step to treating women as inferior. And isn't chivalry ultimately about marking women out, making them feel more like women (whatever that means)? By putting a 'Ms.' before Mantel's name, am I not insinuating that the fact that she's a woman is somehow relevant to the understanding of her book, and that it entitles her to be treated with greater compassion than I would treat a male writer?

I didn't finally use the Ms. of course - I called her Mantel, just as I called Jacobson Jacobson. But the fact that my instinct told me (still tells me) that I should put the Ms. in continues to disturb me.

Two (exceedingly thin) arguments I can advance in my own defense: First, could my need to patronise come rather from my assessment of Mantel's novel (which I disliked) rather than from the fact of her being a woman? Could it be that I felt comfortable addressing Jacobson less informally because having enjoyed his book I felt much closer to him than I did to Mantel? Or second, could it me something about the sound of the two names - the three syllables of Jacobson standing well enough alone, but Mantel seeming to short, too cursory, a chair too thin to sit on without that extra cushion of Ms. on top?

Is this just me? Does this happen to other people? Do they worry about it too? Am I just being paranoid?


[1] Thinking about it, I realised that I have no problem addressing women whose writing I'm familiar with by their unadorned surnames. I would never dream of saying Ms. Austen or Ms. Woolf or Ms. Murdoch for instance. So my first theory was that it was just because Mantel was an author I'd never read before. Unfortunately, the same applies to Jacobson so the argument doesn't hold.


Heh Heh said...

dude. you're nitpicking here, methinks.

The Black Mamba said...

speaking of unconsious bias, there were interviews of Ice-T and Ice Cube (on Fresh Air last evening, by Terry Gross) that made me think of the same thing.

I have always had this unconsious bias against hip-hop and rap artists. never realized how smart they could be. check this out to know what I mean,

Anonymous said...

not only nitpicking, but apparently slipping out from the bottom of that 2x2 into the top. the gnomes and trolls of the world unite and welcome you, my friend. and black mamba, for sure. the origins of hip hop can be traced back to the socially conscious poetry of giants like gil scott-heron and the last poets. check out something like “pieces of a man” - the album is brimming with brilliance. that tradition is still alive in the music of artists like outkast and the roots. in terms of arrangement, outkast has done to hip hop what dylan did to folk music - blown its doors wide open. from the hendrix-style wah-wah guitar funk of “gasoline dreams” to the ambient trip-hop grooves of “aquemini”, outkast is having a lot of fun with their hip hop. the pimpin’ lifestyle and the bling bling is just the sex, drugs and rock&roll phenomenon transplanted to a different context. look beyond that, to how the best hip hop artists turn a phrase, its totally wicked! the liner notes to the epic “filles de kilimanjaro” remarks that had miles been alive, he would have figured out a way to break into the hip hop domain. i couldnt agree more. musicians have no boundaries, only listeners do. thank god for small mercies.

Falstaff said...

HWSNBF: Ya, maybe. i don't know.

Black mamba: interesting. I guess I've always given them credit for having smarts in the sense of having marketing savvy. In fact, given how pathetic I think the noise they make is, they must be really smart to make the kind of money they do playing it. Could you get a multi-million dollar contract for taking an unimaginative beat, putting together a bunch on nonsense rhymes interspersed with pointless sexual innuendo? I'm guessing not. So you have to have respect for someone who pulls that off. The people I have no respect for aren't the artists themselves (I think Britney Spears is as shrewd as they come) but for the people who listen to their music and think it's art.

Oh, and i'm quite willing to admit that it's an important form of expression - but so is suicide bombing - that doesn't mean i have to enjoy it (though if we could convince all hip-hop artists to suicide bomb their fans - now that would be something)

Anonymous: Whatever.

The Black Mamba said...

business smarts - undeniable.

but never respected them as plain old "good" human beings. never thought either of them would be so concerned about the world they live in. one of these guys does not even drink, let alone do drugs. the other reads about warfare in small nations, so he can pickup some information to sprinkle in his lyrics, for he understands that his audience will never pick up that book.

now that, I would never expect from someone who would call himself Cube ... Ice Cube.

Anonymous said...

"but never respected them as plain old "good" human beings."

no problem. because you are not a bigot. oh no, you are just "consciously" forming opinions.

"The people I have no respect for aren't the artists themselves (I think Britney Spears is as shrewd as they come) but for the people who listen to their music and think it's art."

hey, falstaff, we dont need your respect, dude. stuff it. its heartening enough to know that we are getting under your skin.

Falstaff said...

Black Mamba: Two things:

a) Call me a cynic, but I have to wonder how much of this stuff is just a publicity stunt. I mean the bit about reading about little known wars so he can sprinkle his lyrics with dope on the stuff. Ya, right. Like anyone actually listens to hip-hop for information. And i mean if someone can't be bothered to stay abreast of what's happening otherwise, why would they suddenly care because it's in a song they like. I wouldn't be surprised if this was just a convenient way to fight off the censors - you know - you can't stop me from talking about violence in my songs because they're about the situation in Sudan. Again, clever, but not necessarily 'good'. (of course, artists other than hip-hop stars are guilty of this kind of populist activism, but that's just the evils of celebrity)

b) I suspect that Ice Cube and co are more the exception than the rule - and if you think about it, that's both surprising and dangerous. To the extent that these people are heroes for a bunch of young people growing up in low income, high crime neighbourhoods, I think on the whole they serve as fairly bad role models - while there may be exceptions, I think it's largely undeniable that hip-hop glorifies violence, addictive substances, casual sex and the objectification of women; and creates the dangerous illusion that hanging out with your buddies in the hood is somehow cooler than getting a sound education and a good job.

Understand that I'm not saying that hip-hop is alone in this. Nor do I think that artists in general should have any responsibility for what other people make of their message - my principal objection to hip-hop is still that it's just noise. I only bring this stuff up because I'm unconvinced that the average hip-hop artist is a 'good' person (though as I said, there might be exceptions).

The Black Mamba said...

a) yes
b) yes

the thing is, these guys claim they choose to make music instead of joining gangs. so for them, its just great that they themselves escaped the cycle of getting into shooting/getting shoot etc. It sounded like music saved them and their family from a lot of pain.

when they started working, they were not really concerned about their audience. just making sure, they were able to make money and stay out of trouble.

all I was trying to say with this hip-hop example was - I have listen to a lot of people's interviews on the same show. But these guys made a lot more sense than many other 'serious' thinkers, 'social' activists, writers etc. their ideas and principles seem more grounded in their own reality. I might not accept some of the things they say/think. Then again, they don't live the life I do. and what I heard made some sense to me.

There is always a chance that its all a publicity stunt, then again, what isn't? all we can do is, hope, that our nonsense detectors are sharp enough and working all the time :)

Falstaff said...

That part of it I completely agree with - it's definitely true that most of these 'artists' understand the realities of the social situation they come from better than people who are experts on it by virtue of the fact that they did some abstruse PhD in sociology. That I think is one of the reasons their records sell so well - they really, really understand their audience.

And I agree that it's easy to fall into the trap of assuming that just because their 'music' is so incredibly dumbed down, they must have low intellectual abilities too. Though, usually, of course, that's not the case.