Journalism is vital to a free society; so, too, is criticism of the media. And yet SethBlogs doesn’t see as much oversight of the media’s methods as there is for other vital societal resources. SethBlogs suspects that this oversight oversight provokes a lazy complacency among our favourite journalistic representatives.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:
VI: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON RACISM) (you are here)
Recently, CBC Radio’s BC-based public affairs radio broadcast, On the Coast, has interviewed two UBC graduate students, discussing issues of gender and race. In general CBC Radio prefers not to ask critical questions of their guests, but when the visitor is saying something recognized as progressive about gender or race, the fawning faith in their testimony is turned up to eleven.
In today’s episode, our compassionate and deferential CBC interviewer speaks to a sociologist who argues that international students suffer significant racism at UBC. To my ear, this study is untroubled by the nuisance of scientific rigor or neutrality.
In her interview with CBC’s Matthew Lazin-Ryder, sociologist Tanvi Sirari based her claim that international students suffer significant racial discrimination at UBC on “dozens” of interviews over six years with the allegedly maligned population. Sirari explained:
“I was surprised that students that came from African and Carribean countries had encountered a lot of negative racism, which was often based on stereotypical ideas about their country, their culture, and so on. And it’s interesting that there is so much public opinion against racism, but when it’s disguised as cultural intolerance, or disagreeing with cultural differences, then it doesn’t seem so bad. So people almost feel free to do that. Perhaps it’s out of ignorance, but it’s also racism in a very subtle form, I would say.”
Given the seriousness of this accusation against Canadian society, you might think that the interviewer would take on the role of asking for evidence from the sociologist. Nope. Instead, Lazin-Ryder took in Sirari’s presentation as though it were infallible even though she seemed to be working from a broad and controversial definition of racism that included cultural criticism (which may be a serious problem if it is done unfairly, but which an expert on society should know is definitionally different from racism).
The distinction between cultural criticism and racism is significant. As any second-year philosophy student knows, the notion of cultural relativism (that morally correct behaviour is defined by what one’s culture thinks is right) is ethically suspect and can lead, by a variety of arguments, to nihilism (the denial of morality altogether).
The moral fact of the matter is that most cultures have gotten some ethical decisions wrong. Some societies, for instance, have a higher tendency towards imperialism, sexism, racism, slavery, and so on. The cultural practices that beget those results are flawed and should be criticized.
However, where someone criticizes a culture for practices that it, in reality, does not participate in or does not condone, then that accuser may be considered ignorant, and if they are motivated by malice or a racial double standard, it may be that they are in fact xenophobic or even racist.
Identifying such racism is tricky work, and requires a transparent psychological and ethical framework (and definition of terms) to distinguish racially versus socially motivated cultural criticism, and valid versus invalid perceptions of racism. Siari does not provide any such schematic; nor is she asked for one by her admiring interviewer.
Moreover, Sirari applied her troubled definition of racism inconsistently across cultures (that is, she allowed herself and her unassailable interview subjects to take shots at Canadian culture and subcultures—without any denunciations of bigotry—while defining any complaints against cultures not originating in Canada as racism).
Siari’s rigor-free definitions seem to have a purpose. As I argued in my post ATTACKING MEN, sometimes researchers and interpreters of research are motivated to find evidence of significant racism/sexism of a particular kind in their work (perhaps because it is in the interest of their career to do so). Evidence for this possibility can be found in Sirari’s observation that many of the international students want to “qualify” individual incidents of racism by, she says, pointing out that their overall experience is very positive. Sirari interprets that this “downplaying” of racism is a result of the our society’s stigmitization of those who claim racial discrimination; victims, she says, feel that “it is not right to talk about racial discrimination at all.”
Siari could be right about that, but why is she so confident that she can broadly intuit what’s motivating these international students, of diverse cultural backgrounds, to qualify negative interactions?
Another possible (although equally unproven) explanation for why the students qualify individual experiences of possible racism might be because most people they meet (especially at UBC) are not at all racist. Unfortunately, it just takes one idiot to say something awful to ruin one’s day, and such an experience will naturally stay in someone’s memory; thus, when asked, the victim will point it out, but they may want to simultaneously note that that doesn’t necessarily mean that their overall experience has been flooded with these horrible encounters.
Nevertheless, Sirari uses a double standard to analyze her subjects: where the students point out incidents that they indicate are racist, she sees them as infallible definers of racism, but when they say that their experiences have been good overall, she pats them on the arm and tells them they’re wrong.
Such a double standard gives new meaning to the term double blind study. Yet our public represenative, the CBC interviewer, either didn’t notice this is obvious research inconsistency, or was afraid to point it out.
If you would like to examine my examination of Lazin-Ryder’s interview with Sirari, I have included the transcript of their conversation as the first comment on this post.
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF LAZY JOURNALISM SERIES:
VI: THE EMPEROR HAS NO QUESTIONS (ON RACISM) (you were just here)