Friday, April 25, 2014

The amazing persistence of prejudice

Not really surprising, but still remarkable, this study by a "leadership consulting firm" called Nextion, just reported by Debra Cassens Weiss in the ABA Journal online:

Partners in study gave legal memo a lower rating when told author wasn’t white 

We have a long ways to go. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Spirit spouses and circumcision

I’ve written before about Susan Vogel’s fascinating study of the Baule and their art, African Art Western Eyes (1997). Here’s one more observation from it, this one not entirely about art.

Vogel explains that in Baule society, “[e]veryone originally came from the blolo” – the world of spirits – “and is never entirely free from relations with the spirits left behind there. Everyone had in the blolo an entire family that can continue to interfere with life after birth.” (67) Later Vogel revisits the issue, and comments that “[s]ome Baule people believe that before birth they also had parents and other relations, who—spirit mothers especially—may play a small role in their lives; but spirit spouses are ubiquitous, and are liable to influence crucial areas of one’s life at almost any point.” (247) In response, “a Baule man or woman often has a figure carved to represent and appease his blolo bla, or spirit wife, or her blolo bian, spirit husband.” (67) (For a photo of a sculpture of a spirit husband, from Vogel's book, click here.)

The resulting sculptures are a significant part of Baule art, though “the shrine or sculpture for a spirit spouse is normally hidden, like any personal shrine.” (253) As Vogel emphasizes, a lot of Baule art was actually hidden, despite its importance in Baule lives (see 291).

Perhaps one reason much of Baule art is hidden is that it may embody a striking and disturbing truth. Vogel writes:

In some sense the spirit spouse is an alter ego, a sort of opposite-sex twin of its human partner …. Spirits spouses seem to suggest the disorienting idea (found in other Baule artworks and in other parts of Africa) that humans might harbor in themselves elements of the other sex. The figures both express and remedy this contradiction by externalizing and isolating the male side of a woman and the female side of a man.” (267)

Vogel also observes that:

It is interesting and perhaps significant that most Baule groups do not practice circumcision or clitorectomy. Elsewhere in Africa, these "corrective" operations are credited with removing the male element in women and the female element in men, often for the express purpose of furthering fertility. Among the Baule, beliefs in blolo bian and blolo bla fulfill some of the functions of these procedures. (266-67)

If the Baule dissipated the psychic pressure towards clitorectomies with spirit spouse sculptures, that’s a happy result of art. But before we dismiss all this as part of a culture very different from our own, it’s worth pausing for a moment to ask what the roots of circumcision are in Western society (we don’t need to ask this question about clitorectomies since fortunately they are largely absent from the West). The Book of Genesis, needless to say, does not attribute the divine command of circumcision to sexual anxiety, but is that, in the end, what this practice stems from? Of course a practice can mean many things, one thing in one region and culture and another somewhere else. Of course, too, a practice can mean one thing when initiated and something very different thousands of years later. But still, this hint at where circumcision might have begun at least underlines the question – is this practice really a good idea?

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Three Forms of Prophecy

Among the Baule people in Cรดte d’Ivoire, “trance diviners” – many of whom, according to one sympathetic observer, Susan Vogel, “seemed to be powerful, imaginative, charismatic, and sometimes unstable personalities who might have had a hard time living ordinary Baule lives” -- can be “respected leader[s] of the community.” (Susan M. Vogel, African Art Western Eyes 225, 227 (1997).) Vogel pays close attention to the sculptures and objects that the trance diviners acquire, and explains that: “A diviner’s reputation rests in part on his or her personal presence and ability to create a persuasive and arresting performance, a process in which mystifying and interesting-looking paraphernalia are a great asset. They attract and intrigue the audience of clients, and they increase the diviner’s success in telling the truth” – this last because the spirits, the asye usu, “sit” on the sculptures. (231, 230).

The world of trance diviners may be coming to an end, but our need to discern hidden truths has not. James Surowiecki, in an essay on “Punditonomics” in the New Yorker of April 7, 2014 discusses “the peculiar economic incentives of punditry” (at page 23 in the print edition; the online version requires a subscription). What he reports is, essentially, that there’s a great deal of reward for being right when others are wrong, but not much penalty, in many fields, for having been wrong. So “[e]xperts in a wide range of fields are prone to making daring and confident forecasts, even at the risk of being wrong, because when they’re right the rewards are immense.” Once you’ve been uniquely right, you can “live off the success for a long time” – and that despite the fact that one study found that “people who successfully predicted an extreme event had worse overall forecasting records than their peers.” Moreover, we non-experts are bad judges of experts: still another study “found that experts who claimed to be more certain were more in demand in the media, even though they were less likely to be correct.”

Unfounded predictions may be reassuring, as Surowiecki notes, “because of our aversion to uncertainty.” But it would seem that while some of us look for reassurance, others are looking for, and exploiting, information. That seems to be the gist of Michael Lewis’ account of fast trading in the stock market (an adapted portion of which appears in the New York Times Magazine for April 6, 2014); whoever gets information in the fewest milliseconds in effect knows the future, as compared to those who haven’t yet heard the news. Knowing something a few milliseconds early is neither supernatural nor intuitive; but it is real knowledge, and it has apparently been worth a lot of money to some few people.