The phrase “Magical Negro” refers to the phenomenon in which a white character in a tv show or movie finds enlightenment through the wisdom of a Black character. It is widely considered an offensive trope in which Black people — imbued with special spiritual, religious, or primitive powers of insight, often ostensibly due to some disadvantage like poverty — serve only to support a white person’s transformation. The white person, and their ultimate redemption, remains the central story.
I couldn’t help but think of this when I watched the trailer for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, sent in by Katrin. In this trailer, the Magical Negro isn’t a Black person; it’s not even a person. It’s the entire country of India.
Last Wednesday, January 20 18, over 7000 websites participated in a massive protest opposing bills H.R. 3261, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and S. 968, the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). While these bills aimed to curb online piracy, many fear that they also pave the way for widespread internet censorship. Although consideration of SOPA and PIPA has now been “postponed,” the bills and the protests raise the issue of who has the authority to control access to knowledge. The different visual and technological ways that websites protested SOPA and PIPA demonstrate the importance we as a culture place on unfettered access to information. In imagining what a censored internet might be like, the protests also show how much the medium — in this case, technology — shapes our individual and collective knowledge and what kind of a threat censorship would be. In additional to concerns about free speech and access to information, the protests also remind us how many profitable businesses are based on assumptions that those things will remain uncensored.
Many sites (such as Craigslist, Pinterest, and icanhascheezburger, screencaps below) took a traditional web protest approach by posting informational messages encouraging visitors to take action against the bills:
Other websites (WordPress, Wired, Google), along with Facebook status updates and Tweets, visually depicted what internet censorship would look like. This kind of protest is particularly visually powerful — stark black blocks out the text, making the message unreadable:
Others shut down altogether (like Wikipedia, Reddit, MoveOn, and Mozilla), essentially removing their website’s resources and information for 24 hours:
Many of us are fortunate to take for granted open, easy access to information, including open access to everything on the internet (though the continued existence of a digital divide makes such information more available to some than others, and school districts routinely censor online content for students). The protests of SOPA and PIPA illustrate how much we rely on technology for access to information by raising important questions about what censorship would mean for access to knowledge. Seemingly boundless information is at the tips of our fingers everywhere we go:
As the cartoon shows, our knowledge is shaped by what medium is physically available to us for seeking new information. Students in my classes can’t fathom a time when they couldn’t look up any bit of information they needed on Google. They can’t imagine the way I used to do research for a school paper– by consulting my family’s dusty encyclopedia set, or heading down to the library. Though their experience is physically removed from the research librarian’s desk, they have access to much more information than I ever did in my local library. The protests against SOPA and PIPA — the website outages and blacked out texts — make real the idea that if the internet were censored, our avenues for learning would shrink.
Americans are notorious for their ignorance of global issues and international news. This may be because Americans aren’t interested or it may be that our news outlets feed us fluff and focus us only on the U.S. Probably it’s a vicious cycle.
This month, for example, Time magazine’s cover story is about the political strife in Egypt… everywhere except the U.S. that is. Americans get “pop psychology” (via Global Sociology):
It turns out you can go to the Time website and compare covers from previous issues going back a long ways. Here are some more examples from the last couple years (I cherry picked just a bit):
Dmitriy T.M. sent in these previous examples a while back.
The cover story for Newsweek magazine’s September 2006 edition was “Losing Afghanistan” in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. It was “My Life in Pictures,” a story about the photographer Annie Liebovitz in the U.S. (via):
The cover story for Newsweek magazine’s October 2006 edition was “Global Warming’s First Victim” in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. It was “Off Message,” a story about Republican Congressman Mark Foley’s sexually suggestive emails and IMs to teenage boys (via):
The cover story for Time magazine’s April 2007 edition was “Talibanistan” in Europe, Latin America, and Asia. It was “Why We Should Teach the Bible in Public Schools” in the U.S. (via, also see Time):
Talk about self-fulfilling prophecy: Americans are assumed to not be interested in international and global affairs… ergo, Time decides to replace a perfectly legitimate and newsworthy cover on a significant event in Egypt with some pop psychology item. As a result, Americans are less informed and knowledgeable on global affairs because they do not get intelligent coverage on that topic.
A new book by Erin Nieto inspired me to revive this post on bodies and BMI.
Click here to see a flickr slide show of dozens of people, starting with those below, with their BMI label (“underweight,” “normal,” “overweight,” “obese,” and “morbidly obese”). There’s something about seeing all these nice looking people with these judgmental labels applied to them that reveals that the BMI is a social construction. Also it’s a good illustration of the Foucauldian idea that knowledge (discourse, or even “science”) is used to label and control people, especially when it is internalized.
Erin Nieto’s project, How Much Do You Weigh, also puts the body front-and-center, challenging us re-think what numbers mean. She counterposes photographs of volunteers with the number on the scale. These women model a refusal to be embarrassed by their weight and show us the imprecision of the number itself.
by Guest Bloggers Dave Paul Strohecker and David Banks, Sep 15, 2011, at 10:43 am
A QR, or Quick Response, code on a bulletin board of a college campus:
Steve Grimes shared this image and some interesting thoughts about how Quick Response codes, or QR codes, can contribute to inequality. That is, QR codes such as these serve to make certain content and information “exclusive” to those who have smartphones. He states,
There is a general thinking that technology can create a level playing field (an example of this is can be seen with the popular feelings about the internet). However, technology also has a great ability to create and widen gaps of inequality.
In a practical sense the company may be looking for students who are tech savvy. Using the matrix barcode may serve that purpose. However, the ad also shows how technology can exclude individuals; primarily in this case, students without smart phones. Ironically it is especially the students who need work (“need a job”) who may not have the money to afford a smart phone to read the ad.
Grimes’ thoughts are judicious, and reveal the inherent structural difficulties in alleviating inequality. QR codes are one form of“digital exclusivity,” the tendency of technology to re-entrench (mostly) class disparities in access to information. Though they may be able to access the information later when they have access to a computer, the person who has the smartphone is certainly living in a much more augmented world than the person without.
If we take as our assumption that access to information is a form of capital, than we can easily see how such technologies are implicated in the field of power. We can also see how digital exclusivity can contribute to the larger digital divide. In this sense, digital exclusivity, as a characteristic of particular technologies and forums (in this case as an access-point to particular forms of knowledge and information), contributes to larger inequalities of power and access to information in the digital age.
QR codes, though, may not be the best example of a digitally-exclusive technology. That is, QR codes have yet to serve as a common conduit of important information—access to such information has similarly meant little in terms of social or economic capital. It turns out that even most people with smartphones don’t know what they are or aren’t interested in using them. Grimes’ understandable frustration the digital divide, combined with the uneven usage of QR codes among mobile phone-using countries, leads us to believe that those black and white squares do more to instill a feeling of digital exclusivity than anything else.
by Guest Blogger Nathan Jurgenson, Aug 30, 2011, at 10:59 am
That’s Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and, behind him, his “law of information sharing.” The equation and graph illustrate, in his own words:
…that next year, people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and next year, they will be sharing twice as much as they did the year before.
The norms surrounding privacy are changing and new apps and services for us to display ourselves are being invented. Because of this, Zuckerberg predicts that we will share more and new types of information as time passes.
Facebook and the rest of social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and so on) need us to share more and more information. Facebook, for instance, uses our personal information to attract advertisers who want to better “target” their advertisements to us. Change your relationship status to “engaged” and you may be quickly targeted with wedding ads.
Karl Marx said that we are “exploited” when we are not paid in wages the full value of our labor (our bosses, instead, skim some off the top). Since our sharing makes Facebook valuable, it is our work that makes it the digital goldmine that it is (valued at around $84 billion). We, in turn, are paid no wages at all.
Should the average Facebook user feel exploited?
Facebook users get non-monetary rewards from using the site, such as self-expression and socializing with others. Perhaps personal connection or social attention is just another type of currency, one that Marx didn’t fully account for. Then again, Marx never argued that workers weren’t compensated at all, only that their compensation was not equal to the value they brought to the employer.
So, what do you think? Is Facebook exploitative? Are monetary and social currencies fundamentally different?
Does a Marxist analysis work on Facebook? Or do we need a different theory to make sense of it all?
Is a university admissions office the same as the basketball team? Should selecting an entire student body for the college be like selecting players for the varsity?
Remember that kid at UC Merced, the one who argued that the graduated income tax was like redistributing GPA points? He found students who supported a graduated income tax and programs for the poor but who wouldn’t sign his petition to redistribute GPA points from the A students to those with lower GPAs. None of the students could articulate, on the spot, their reasons for not signing the GPA petition (assuming that he didn’t edit out any who did offer a reasonable explanation). (My earlier post on it is here.)
He’s baaaack. This time he’s asking students to sign a petition for affirmative action in sports – specifically to give preference to whites trying out for the team. Get it? If you support affirmative action in college admissions but not in sports, you’re a hypocrite. As before, students support one use of race preference but not the other, and as before none can give a convincing reason. The students all say, “It’s different,” but they can’t explain why.*
(To save time, I’ve set the video to start near the end – most students say the same thing. To see the whole thing, just drag the slider back to 0:00.)
Nyahh, nyahh – you’re for preferences for blacks where they’re a minority but not for whites where they are the minority. You’re a hypocrite.** Either that, or your thinking has been muddled by liberal ideas, which is pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?
The video concludes with the dictum that college admissions and sports should be the same. “Race-based preferences are wrong.” Ah, moral clarity.
Is college really the same as a sports team? They are certainly different in their consequences. If you’re a student now, in the coming years when you apply for a job, will HR ask you if you played varsity? Maybe. But unless the job you’re applying for is power forward, your answer won’t matter very much. But HR will absolutely want to know if you have a college degree. And your answer will matter. A lot.
Sports and school are different in another important way. Schools seek out minorities more for the sake of campus diversity than for the benefit of individuals. Yale probably gives preference to applicants from Montana or Mauritania over those form Manhattan. (Yale also might give preference to a power foward if the team this year is short of guys who can work the low post.) The purpose of this admissions policy is not to benefit Montanans (or power forwards) but to provide other students with the experience of living with a diversity of people (and to provide the basketball team with the right diversity of skills).
That same goal of demographic diversity does not apply to the competitive teams or the glee club or orchestra for that matter because those groups have a much more narrowly defined task. It’s that difference in purpose, rather than the difference in which race gets helped, that underlies the responses in the video. Take those same liberal students who support admissions policies that bring more blacks to campus; ask then if they would also support race-based preferences to get more blacks into crew, the glee club, or the chess team. I’m sure they would say no. As in the actual video, they would probably be unable to explain why giving preference to African Americans is acceptable in admissions but not activities.
They’ll say that the two are different, even though they can’t immediately explain why. Does that make them hypocrites, natural or un-?
The next time someone shoves a microphone in your face and asks for a justification for some distinction you make, smile at the camera and say, “As Michael Polany wrote in The Tacit Dimension, ‘we know more than we can tell,’ an insight that Richard Nisbett later developed with much social science evidence in his book Knowing More than We Can Tell.” See if you make it into the version that gets posted on YouTube, or into Robin Hanson’s blog.**
*I had assumed that the petitioner and his camera people were students at Merced. But in this new video, he’s at UCR.
** As with the previous video, Robin Hanson, on whose blog Overcoming Bias I found both of these, files the students’ attitudes in the folder marked “natural hypocrisy.”