Rick Jones, a drama professor, deep thinker and superb writer, weighed in on the controversy over the tasteless Independence Day float in Norfolk, Nebraska. (As an aside: did my trip to Nebraska last week unleash something in the Ethics Cosmos? First this story, then the Nebraska judge telling the Supremes to “stfu”?) Rick courageously wades into the messy and contentious area, often discussed here, of racial motivations behind criticism of Barack Obama. Here is his Comment of the Day on the post, The Obama Outhouse Float: Not Racist, Just Wrong:
I’ve about this incident, as well, and we generally but don’t totally agree.
I’m intrigued by the discussion of racism. Certainly I agree that nothing in the events described qualifies as inherently racist… but I think the word “inherently” matters here. The fact that there is not an obvious racial motivation for what is clearly an intentionally offensive float, one which displays its creator’s “disgust,” does not mean that it is intrinsically devoid of such volition. Even the little boy who cried “wolf” was right once. Similarly, whereas there are those who reflexively scream “racism” at every criticism of the current President, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t expressions of anti-Obama sentiment which really are grounded in the fact that he has a little more melanin than you or I do.
In this case, Ms. Kathurima and her daughter have experienced racism—or believe they have—and you say that you “don’t blame her” for perceiving it in this instance. Nor do I. That Mr. Remmich intended to insult the POTUS, I think goes without saying. Why, specifically, he set out to do so is an open question. Maybe it’s racial. Maybe it’s political. Maybe he knows his neighbors and pandered to their predilections. I certainly don’t know, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t, really, either.
I grapple with a variation on this theme constantly in my professional work, especially in the area of communication theory as it applies to aesthetics. Oversimplified a little, the modernist/positivist view is that the sender of a message creates and encodes meaning, and the receiver’s job is to “find” the meaning through a process of decoding. The post-positivist view, however, is to argue that the sender catalyzes rather than creates meaning, that meaning is in fact created by the receiver of the message. To me, the two positions are equally valid.
One of my standard approaches to this dilemma is to suggest to students that “somewhere in this room is someone who has had a major fight with a loved one because what one of you thought you said was not what the other thought he/she heard.” Moreover, whether the “blame” for a misinterpretation should be placed with the sender or the receiver is likely to be influenced in your mind not so much by philosophical or theoretical concerns as by which of those positions you happened to occupy on the occasion in question.
We are left, then, with two significant questions, neither or which I am prepared to answer with confidence. 1). Is the meaning of a communication determined by the sender, the receiver, or by some presumably objective external agent? 2). At what point does a particular reaction pass from confirmation bias into, well, experience?
I’m back, and I will briefly give my answers to Rick’s questions:
1. The meaning of a communication is determined by the sender’s intent.
2. Since most bias is based on experience, I think the answer is both “always” and “never.” Experience doesn’t excuse or validate bias, it just explains it.