From the weblog :

Henry Louis Gates Jr :

Are white racists forcing black teenagers to drop out of school or to have babies?

Dunno. What proportion of MTV shareholders are white racists?

I gotta CallBullshit on this one, Phil.

  1. categorizing "showing TV shows demonstrating poor personal choices" as "force" demeans the true force/violence faced by billions around the globe.
  1. do you really think that MTV managers show the crap they do because they want black teenagers to have babies, to continue the cycle of PoverTy? I'd say it's more a combo of (a) younger limo-liberals wanting to embrace populist culture, and (b) managers deciding their job is simply to show what "sells" - if it bleeds it leads.


Yep. I accept that. It was an over-the-top assertion and I'll pull back from it.

But I think there are a some important points raised :

1) categorizing "showing TV shows demonstrating poor personal choices" as "force" demeans the true force/violence faced by billions around the globe.

Clearly there is "true force / violence" out there and it's a lot worse than other harms you can do to people. And we must preserve the sense of difference. Certainly I'd reserve special holding areas like prisons for people threatening "real" violence.

But I'm not sure I'd accept that the two are as cleanly separable as I think you would like to believe.

More specifically, I wouldn't accept that there is a clear and obvious cut-off point between "bad behaviours which cause harm" which include physical violence or the threat of it, and "innocent behavious which don't cause harm", which includes mere conveying information.

I most definitely believe you can harm someone by teaching them false things. And I think you can harm someone by teaching them particular interpretations of the world and particular values. I think that's pretty much Gates's point too, that there are beliefs within the black community which are destructive for it. For example, that studying is "white" or a betrayal of black culture. Psychologists are always discovering that if you start telling people that they are different or stupid or telling one group that another group can be hated, that this causes those symptoms. (StanfordExperiment, BlueEyesBrownEyes)

Now, does MTV force you to drop out of school to have babies? No. Does it contribute to a climate where kids value beauty, sexual success, and consumption more than study and academic achievement? Sure. Though it's not the only factor. School is stupid (as everyone from JohnTaylorGatto to PaulGraham keeps reminding us.) Teenagers are going to value beauty and sexual success anyway. (I will accept that's HumanNature, as well as the message of almost all human culture throughout history). And although I don't think consumption is human nature, I think it's pretty easy to implement it on the human virtual machine. (TheWantingWithoutAName)

2) do you really think that MTV managers show the crap they do because they want black teenagers to have babies, to continue the cycle of PoverTy? I'd say it's more a combo of (a) younger limo-liberals wanting to embrace populist culture, and (b) managers deciding their job is simply to show what "sells" - if it bleeds it leads.

No, I don't think MTV managers (or shareholders) want that. My political understanding is driven very much by SystemsThinking and belief in unplanned / "emergent" / self-organized effects; in InvisibleHands and BasinsOfAttraction. I'm extremely resistant to analyses in terms of ConspiracyTheories, guilty groups, "who's fault" it is, or human malice. That's one reason I don't get depressed by politics. If I spent my time thinking problems existed because people were bad I'd be a lot less happy (and a lot less polite to people who I disagreed with.)

But because I don't think people are necessarily "at fault" here, doesn't mean I don't think there's anything wrong. There is a case to be answered, and somehow, there needs to be some kind of intervention in the system to change it. If we recognise a CycleOfPoverty, we ought to do something about it! Such an intervention might even have to inconvenience some people who are, in this sense, innocent.

What kind of intervention should that be? I don't know. That needs some thinking. And more important, some piecemeal experimentation. And there are lots of other things that should be balanced. I believe FreedomOfSpeech is a very important value we should try to preserve at (almost) any cost. I love HipHop and would hate to be denied access to what I think is arguably the world's current richest, most innovative, cultural form. So I'm open to good suggestions. Maybe we need a ChessNerd channel? Maybe school needs to be rethought. Maybe we need quotas for black scientists on TV. Maybe we need to pull the plug on MTV.

What I don't see a good argument for, is to divide these suggestions a priori into "thinkable" and "unthinkable". Where "unthinkable" is defined rather like a NashEquilibrium, with anything that might economically "hurt" someone automatically rejected.

So, to return to your point. My comment was over-simplistic. It was wrong. (I'll let you define the CallBullshit page :-) But I want to remind people to wonder about this. Is there a role or a causal arc from MTV to the problems Gates diagnoses, and if so what needs to be done?)

There's also a meta-issue for me, as I'm always fascinated by left and right political thinking. I suspect that left and right are very much influenced by intuitions about personal responsibility and "causation". One of the reasons I'm getting into PollsAndCompasses is because I want to produce something where self-defined left and right thinkers can answer a bunch of questions about causation and responsibility and try to extract what the core intuitions of both are.


"Maybe we need to pull the plug on MTV. "

What is your specific beef with MTV? That it encourages valuing (and thus spending money on) stupid things? That it encourages sexual promiscuity without a balancing sense of responsibility? Something else?


Nothing specific to MTV. Just like McDonalds, Nike etc. it's a brand-name which has become an easily identifiable short-hand for a category.

But I guess your question is something like : why do I accuse, or how do I justify the accusation of, MTV-like things as causal agents in the CycleOfPoverty system?

Which might also be rephrased :

a) what are the possible causal links?

b) can I justify them?

Actually, this question is trickier and more interesting than I first thought.

a) The answer to your way of phrasing the first question is "yes to both. And maybe some more".

It's certainly to do with "encouraging valuing ... stupid things." And that it teaches certain sexual norms of behaviour and expectation. (Although I wouldn't characterize that problem quite the way you do. Your way makes it sound like if there were only enough adverts for contraceptives to make up the "responsibility" quota, I should be satisfied. The problem is down at a more fundamental level than that. The problem is what it shows men about how they should persue sex, and what they should expect from success and from women. And it shows women how they ought to be to be valued by men and by society in general.)

As an example of another possible causal arc, remember that Gates says : Too many of our children have come to believe that it's easier to become a black professional athlete than a doctor or lawyer.

Reality check: According to the 2000 census, there were more than 31,000 black physicians and surgeons, 33,000 black lawyers and 5,000 black dentists. Guess how many black athletes are playing professional basketball, football and baseball combined. About 1,400.

Now I believe, absolutely, that children think it's easier to become a black professional athlete than a doctor or a lawyer partly because they see a lot more black athletes represented in the media. And, although I haven't done a statistically significant study of MTV, I'll also bet you 10 quid (trivial but real money) that there's more video-time and more advert-time on MTV showing blacks in sportswear and sport-fantasy situations, than blacks in doctorwear and doctor-fantasy situations.

  • I can't prove it, but a couple other factors here that smell significant: (a) people fantasize about glory regardless of the odds of success in achieving it through a particular path, (b) they don't televise operations and then have big cheers for the surgeon (that would be pretty cool), (c) I think that in sports there's more commonality between what the amateur does (shoot baskets, perform well in a game vs peers) compared to what a doctor does (if you're 12 and you want to be a doctor, they don't let you try a little surgery) (so there's much more of a DelayedGratification issue here) –BillSeitz

That's probably true for whites as well, but I'll bet another 10 quid that as a proportion of airtime portraying blacks athletes get more than the other "role-models", relative to the amount white athletes get relative to other white role-models.

  • well, certainly black athletes get more airtime than black doctors, as a function of SpectatorSports getting more airtime than hospital shows (hence general concern over the total number of people pursuing, say, engineering, regardless of color). And also there's an IncreasingReturns issue here. –BillSeitz

As to b) All these causal arcs are, of course, empirically open questions. I don't have (or know of) any good studies of MTV-like things that try to quantify their influence. I guess there must be some studies of the influence of advertising in general. I'll have a look. Although I suspect this is the sort of thing it's almost impossible to do methodologically well. (Maybe politics is what we have when the systems are too complex to tackle with statistically sound methodology. See also TestingMarxism.)

  • Note the parallels to this and the congressional hearings on TV content and Internet porn.

Meanwhile, I do have intuitions derived from observations of my own experience : times when I see a lot of ads I start to think about consuming more, and I valorize consumer stuff more. Times when I don't, I tend to forget about it. When I see sexualized entertainment, some ideas and images find their way into my sexual fantasies.

Everything I know about other minds comes from extrapolating from such personal experience, and so I'm on no-worse ground here than attributing any other belief or desire according to my FolkPsychology theories.

But, like I say. These hypothesized arcs could turn out to be falsified by some large scale test. Eg. MTV gets banned in one statistically representative state, people watch a lot fewer adverts and so go out and do more sex and shopping to entertain themselves. Teenage pregnancy and other phenomena contributing to the CycleOfPoverty increase. We can't find any alternative causal arcs which might explain the rise. It gets conjectured that MTV has an inhibitory effect. We re-introduce it, and the cycle attenuates.

Could happen ...


See also :

  • OnPrison where Cringely points out that prison contributes

: which links to this interesting research : which which has a couple of points :

** who your friends are is a better predictor of "problem behaviour" than typologies such as EconomicClass, race etc. Strike one up to the power of SocialNetworks

** Blum also stresses that the study supports "the importance of adolescents having after-school and evening programs and places that provide structured time that is supervised by adults." Instead of watching too much trashy television?

** I'd really like to know more about the SelfEsteem question which was analyzed, but who's results aren't mentioned.

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