Why I Support Black Lives Matter

black lives matterWhy I support Black Lives Matter
by David Stein

Black Lives Matter MN first came to my attention when protests shut down I35. My initial reaction was similar to that around the water cooler at work. Ferguson had happened a few hundred miles away from liberal, progressive and certainly un-racist Minneapolis. We didn’t get it. We didn’t think that it was necessary. We were exempt.

I pulled out my iPhone and spent a few minutes finding another way home. Once of the nice things about the Twin Cities is that there’s always three different ways to get anywhere. But I felt irritated, annoyed and inconvenienced. “Shutting down the highways aren’t going to make a difference. This isn’t going to change anyone’s mind” I thought.

My next thought was of Tamir Rice’s mother. I wondered how inconvenienced she felt after she was cuffed by the cops that shot her child. I wondered if Eric Garner’s family felt annoyed when they got the call that Eric had died. It was that moment that I knew why they were marching. From that point on I started paying more attention to what they were marching for.

The status quo is never going to work for everyone. As a realist and pragmatist I recognize that some people are going to be born into privilege and some are people are going to be dealt a tougher hand from day one. That will always be the way of the world to some extent. But when a disparity of equity is as great and as arbitrary of racism and sexism are today I feel that we have a moral imperative to exhaust all reasonable efforts to promote equality before claiming “victory” and calling it a day.

So far we have failed to do so as a culture. There is more we can do, even more that we should do, and I believe a vast majority recognize that in principle even if we differ on the degree. I understand the criticism, concern and even outrage that many of my friends and colleagues expressed over blocking of I35 and organizing at MOA without permission. “They should try something else” is a common sentiment, but it’s rarely expounded. Whenever I hear “why can’t they just x, y or z?” the answer that almost always pops into my head is that they tried that already and it didn’t work.

If you have any degree of commitment to combating cultural racism you have a duty to provide an alternative to any course of action that you criticize. If you criticize something without providing an alternative idea, it’s not criticism at all it’s whining.

Civil disobedience does not offend my value system. My personal value system recognizes honesty and pacifism over cultural obedience and legal compliance. The conditions of civil disobedience are that your actions are not violent and that you are fully open and honest about what you are doing and why you are doing it. The U.S.A. has had a proud history and tradition of pacifist activism and civil disobedience ranging from Henry David Thoreau to Martin Luther King Jr.

I have the greatest respect for Black Lives Matter Minneapolis because they carry on the spirit of that tradition. They’ve reminded me that acting with integrity sometimes means stepping outside the cultural norms of “good behavior.”  I understand that any group that challenges the established comfort zones of a population is going to be reprimanded, opposed, and even demonized. But I believe that real progress and productive change, both personally and culturally, can only be achieved in the unfamiliar realm of disquiet that lies just beyond the guarded borders our comfort zone. Contentment will never create new meaning for our lives or our character. Without challenging ourselves there can be no element of bravery.

So next time you hear the phrase “no one is going to change their mind over these protests” I present myself as evidence to the contrary. I am a different mind than I was as a direct result of the protests. I am thankful for Black Lives Matters movement for the difference they have made in my life. They have my full support and I stand will all protesters around the country that make personal sacrifices to continue the longstanding American tradition of activism in the name of equity and integrity.

photo credit: you don’t have to be Black to be outraged via photopin (license)

Is It a Sin to Listen to Iggy Azalea?

iggy azaleaIs It a Sin to Listen to Iggy Azalea?
by David Stein

 

Lately I’ve read a few items pegging Iggy Azalea as a prime example of cultural appropriation of hip hop in pop music. In fact most of what I’ve read to the contrary has either tried to hyper-rationalize cultural appropriation out of existence or marginalize the question by painting Iggy as a rare example. The former merits no response and the latter serves to reinforce the notion that Iggy Azalea is in fact a prime example of cultural appropriation.

In the case of cultural appropriation the primary victim is clear. The artists whose creativity and style has been appropriated is responsible for cultural benefit of their art but are denied the full commercial and critical benefit of their endeavors. But what is the offense and who is the perpetrator? Who is due the brunt of the blame? Iggy? Her label? Ultimately I believe not only that the consumers bear the brunt of the responsibility, but that they are also the secondary victims of their own offenses.

I don’t blame Iggy. Not for what she puts on her albums. Artists are free to express themselves however they see fit. I may not always like the result but to maintain integrity in art it is important not to restrict an artist’s vision with cultural standards. They do their best to be as creative and expressive as possible and if they can make a living out of it good for them.

I don’t blame her label or her managers either. They’re in it for the money. If they can market an artist they can put food on their table. I don’t always agree with their techniques but such is the way with all commercial sales. If no one was buying it wouldn’t make money.

But I can’t initially fault the listeners either. I don’t judge people based on their taste in music. I don’t believe in guilty pleasures and I believe that everyone should make their own decision on the art they consume that makes them happy (or sad, if that’s their thing). Listening to music is a personal experience and an individual’s choice of art is unchallengeable because the exact context and intent of that choice is ultimately undeterminable.

A key element to “cultural appropriation,” as it applies to music and as I understand it, is the idea that a white artist is replicating, rather than innovating, existing elements of music from minority culture. This is distinct from innovating or collaborating.

For example is we consider the question of whether or not the Beastie Boys were guilty of cultural appropriation the case in their favor would argue that they were using elements of hip hop to create a unique and distinct style that innovated hip hop. Whereas the case against them would argue that they copied and replicated elements of hip hop in a manner that was not unique or innovative. I think there’s a good case to be made in favor of the Beastie Boys but the same argument made in defense of the Beastie Boys is weaker when made for Iggy Azalea because she does not come near as close to meeting the criteria for being unique or innovative.

This returns us to the earlier argument, that one cannot fault a musician for being unoriginal. But recognizing that an artist is unoriginal is different from faulting them. I believe that I can safely objectively claim that Iggy Azalea does not have near the critical acclaim that the Beasty Boys had. Whether she can be faulted or not the perception is that her art copies minority culture without innovating it. I’m willing to take it on her word that she had no intent in copying or co-opting anyone else’s style or culture but consequence can be considered separate from intent.

The harm of cultural appropriation in music is that you have established artists, who happen to be part of a minority culture, exploring their culture and their identity through their art. This degree of introspection and identification provides a lot of the value to the art. When another artist comes along and reproduces their creations in manner that makes them less personal but more popular they are replacing the artistic value with commercial value and claiming the resulting profits as their own.

The original artists are a victim of this process and it has the undesired affect of deterring minority artists from pursuing work that expands and develops their own identity. It suppresses diversity but also has the double effect of encouraging white artists to pursue popular and commercial projects rather than personal creative projects, which leads to a general devaluation of music as a general discipline.

The real “perpetrators” are the consumers. Faced with a choice between an original music product and a commercial music product they choose the commercial music product. Make no mistake the Big Music corporations spend millions of dollars to make this choice easy for them*. Part of the appeal of popular music is its convenience and consistency. Which is a fair and personal choice. People decry popular art as “too predictable” which is true but part of the appeal is consistency. The primary appeal of a brand like McDonald’s, Budweiser and Coca-Cola is that it is universally consistent. They know exactly what they are going to get every time they put money down. It’s a low-reward but low-risk exchange.

Choosing a macro brew over a craft brew because of its relatability and consistency is one thing. Choosing culturally appropriated music is another because of the racial subtext. Faced with two identical products white consumers are choosing the product sold by the person that looks more like them. I believe it’s an unconscious attraction to a more relatable image rather than an overt practice of racism but to me that’s an academic distinction because the consequence is identical regardless of intent and a clear case of allowing the desire of comfort to trump risk in favor of a less challenging experience.

Aside from the cultural implications of appropriation a separate effect is that white consumers are cheating themselves out of the best available product due to their own prejudices. Beyond the inherent benefits of working to overcome one’s prejudices there is a personal benefit to choosing a product that devotes more efforts and resources into the craft and creation of a product than the packaging, marketing and distribution of a product.

So my appeal isn’t for listeners to put social conscience over personal taste for the sake of some greater good. My appeal is for all listeners to make a conscious and deliberate intent to set aside prejudice in the interest of making choices of personal taste that a) result in the best possible personal artistic experience and b) serve to expand and develop one’s personal taste to allow for even greater and more personal future artistic experiences.

 

 

*The case against the big music companies is that they actively collude to deny the consumer choice, or that they conspire to dissuade or mischaracterize consumer choice. This much is true but I the extent to which the consumer is responsible for buying misinformation is debatable. I feel that the consumer bears a substantial portion of responsibility.

photo credit: Iggy Azalea – Irving Plaza NYC via photopin (license)

Two Types of Truth

Truth is tricky. It is not just complex but compound.

Some say that truth is completely objective: black and white, true or false, polar, binary, however you want to describe it. Others may say that is it subjective: partial truths, gray area, depends on perspective, etc. And people argue over whether or not truth is objective or subjective.

The paradox is the fact that “truth is subjective.” It is easy to claim this statement to be absolutely false. But to claim it to be true would seem to also claim that it cannot be false thereby contracting itself by exemplifying an objective truth.

The resolution is that if you agree that truth is subjective, truth can simultaneously be both objective and subjective. Objectivists may reject subjective truth, but a subjectivist does not reject objective truth. So a subjectivist can account for more degrees of truth and therefore more elements of understanding than an objectivist.

The answer is compound: truth is completely objective, but it is also completely subjective. There are two elements of truth. I’ll illustrate this with playing cards.

Before we deal I have to point out something about facts. A “fact” is commonly defined as something that is totally true no matter how or if it is perceived. But logic uses a different definition. A fact is a premise that can be proved to be either true or false. So a statement can be a “fact” even if it is false, or if it is not yet known to be true but can be proven one way or another.

Deal a card face down. Let’s start with the fact that this card is the ace of spades. The statement “this card is the Ace of spades” is a fact because it is either true or false. It is not an opinion. Your belief or feeling has no bearing on the actual value of the card. If one person says it is the ace of spades and another says that it is not the ace of spades, you can flip over the card and see who is right and who is wrong. So their difference is not a difference in opinion but a difference of fact. This is objective truth.

However until the card is flipped the veracity of the fact is unknown. This is probability. Deal ten more cards face up. And consider instead the statement “the face down card is a spade.” If three of the shown cards are spades then we know that the face down card has an 8 in 42 chance of being a spade and a 34 in 42 chance of being a heart, diamond or club.

At this point let’s compare two statements: 1) The hole card is not a spade. 2) There is a 19% chance that the hole card is a spade. Which statement is more true than the other?

The correct answer is that it depends. In one sense the first statement is more true, and in another sense the second statement is more true. For the sake of this argument let’s say that the card is flipped over and is fact a heart. The first statement turned out to be true. Even if Schroedinger himself flipped over the hole card, the card did not manifest itself as such the moment it was perceived. The card was a heart the whole time whether we knew it or not.

But in the context of game theory the second fact was initially more true. A gambler who bases his or her guesses on probability is going to be more correct in the long run than someone who fails to take probability into account. If this game is played out hundreds of times and wagers are placed on the outcome, the bettor with the greater understanding of probability is going to win a great deal of money from someone who doesn’t. In this what we think of as “subjective” truth is more correct that the “objective” truth.

The point is that the answer to “which statement is more true than the other” does not depend on opinion, or subjectivity, or perception, or epistemology or any of those things. It simply depends on when it is asked. If it is asked before the card is flipped over, then the subjective view is more correct. If it is asked after the nature of the card is revealed, then the objective view is more correct. This settles the long standing debate on whether or not truth is subjective or objective.

Opinions are essentially guesses. By eliminating opinions and dealing instead with the compound veracity of perceived facts (i.e. treating facts as having both subjective and objective elements) we will be more correct in the long run.

Part of the focus of the Agency Mandate is to create a system in which opinions are eliminated, or recognized as statements of probability rather than statements of fact.