Wednesday, February 14, 2007

On "Opinion" and Reality

All right. I said I would continue these thoughts from yesterday, and I will.

Here's a scenario. I'm over at SepiaMutiny, typing a comment to a post about the character Apu, from The Simpsons, and the idea that he perpetuates the stereotype of Indian immigrants as convenience-store workers with funny accents. The gauntlet was thrown -- "The average American is far less likely to interact with a desi IT worker than with a desi grocery store clerk/owner, or a desi taxi driver. Right or wrong?"

And so, feeling red-headed, I typed back "wrong." Actually, I phrased it in nicer terms; I wrote that if "average American" meant a white person from flyover country, I qualified on both counts -- and I had met and interacted with a variety of desis throughout my life, even when I lived in a tiny Midwestern town which was so small it didn't even have stoplights. In fact, I've seen nearly every episode of The Simpsons and I had to learn through the internet in college that Apu's occupation was an intended stereotype -- I had never thought to associate being Indian with working in a convenience store, any more than I had thought to associate being Scottish with working as a school groundskeeper or being Jewish with clowning.

I typed my response. And then I thought "Okay, Blue. That's your opinion. But some of the posters at SepiaMutiny have very strong memories of being taunted because of Apu, and they hold a well-earned belief that mainstream white America views them as a group of interchangeable workers with funny accents. And that's their opinion."

So -- in a case like this -- whose reality is more valid? It's no longer exactly a comparison between an undergraduate and Foucault; it's one set of life experiences against another. This is the problem that Olson does not address in his essay; that once we enter a truly diverse society (and no, we're not there yet) we are going to come up against competing opinions which are, or can be, of equal worth -- and yet we're going to lack the critical skills to deal with them.

This seems to be at the heart of the Senator Biden debacle, at least as far as I understand it. Biden's press secretary released, a few days ago, a list of all the people Biden had described as "articulate" in the week leading up to his comment on Obama. Since we're dealing with politics, who knows what is true and what is spun -- but there seems to be a paper trail of Biden liberally using "articulate" as if it were his highest form of praise. Yet when he called Obama articulate, two different realities collided.

And both realities were equally valid.

Was Biden a fool not to understand how Obama's realities would temper and alter his compliment? Perhaps. Does that make him insensitive and/or racist? I don't know. What it does do is make me worry about how people with different life experiences will ever manage a point of connection.

Perhaps in my case, it means simply that I should shut up and listen more; that if a group of people has a strongly-held belief that they are viewed negatively in a particular way, who am I to say... well, anything about it? If my reality becomes shared by enough "average Americans," their reality will incorporate that and the "Apu stereotype" will become a non-issue.

Hmmm. I'll come back to this, I'm sure. And to the SM team -- I am sorry that I tried to counter your reality with my own individual experience.

(EDIT: I have since learned that Biden's remarks to Obama were not an isolated misunderstanding, and that he in fact seems to have a great propensity for labeling and insulting people. Grrr. Damn politicians.)


siddhartha said...

And to the SM team -- I am sorry that I tried to counter your reality with my own individual experience.

Don't be silly! You speak your truth, other people speak theirs, and so long as folks are courteous, it's all good. There's no single experiential reality at SM -- quiiiiiite the contrary as you'll see if you look at some of the more contentious threads. Dialog it the point. Welcome. :)

HMF said...

Point taken. I didn't see your comment, I was busy writing mine. And your experience makes total sense, most of the desi run convenience stores tend to be near large metropolitan areas, I would think.

Blue said...

Siddhartha and HMF -- thanks for the comments. True that there is no single reality. (And I do like contentious topics.) Thanks for the welcome.