Democrat-Gazette columnist Bradley Gitz recently offered readers a list of things he believes.
His beliefs in this list, as well as in previous columns, are interesting, but they don't always align with social scientific knowledge. One can have an unshakable belief in something that is empirically false.
And while some departures from the truth may stretch what counts as normality--such as believing that one can fly like Superman--other beliefs are vital to our survival: that our drinking water is safe, that bridges will support our automobiles.
Beliefs are held in social contexts. For instance, religious institutions create and sustain beliefs, as do small groups of like-minded individuals, such as the Flat Earth Society.
Beliefs, then, are as much about one's identity as they are about truth, especially when they have to do with values and social norms. In her book Rule Breakers and Rule Makers, cultural psychologist Michele Gelfand points out that societies vary as to how tight or loose their norms are.
Tight norms allow little room for deviation in beliefs, while loose norms provide opportunities for a dazzling array of beliefs.
Under loose norms, people may believe whatever they want about virtually anything. Some people believe that dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time and that the earth is only a few thousand years old (in the face of carbon dating to the contrary).
Belief systems, including science, are social by nature, but science is a self-correcting method that changes toward ever more accurate approximations of truth. Most other belief systems are self-perpetuating and self-validating.
Do Gitz's beliefs demonstrate his conservative bona fides or valid social scientific knowledge?
Gitz's belief: Capitalism is consistent with human nature. This makes sense if you believe that people are selfish and greedy by nature. "By nature" means that such traits are universal in all cultures.
Anthropology and sociology have compiled a vast literature that shows how plastic humans are, so much so that the very structure of the brain may be shaped by the normative structure of society, according to Gelfand. Some cultures stress collective action and others, individualistic behavior. Perhaps capitalism is consistent with some aspects of human nature, but not all.
Pure competition and rational exchange without constraints can be self-destructive. And among scientists studying human evolution, there is a growing suspicion, according to Scientific American (September 2014) that we as a species might be naturally cooperative, not competitive and calculating.
Gitz's belief: Mass incarceration is the result of disproportionate levels of crime among African Americans, and this is because of the disorganization of the black family.
This is a mis-characterization of mass incarceration. It is not about what causes blacks to commit crimes. It is a conclusion drawn from the analysis of data on who gets arrested for what crimes and how they are punished for those crimes.
In Arkansas, black men serve longer sentences for drug-related crimes, while white offenders serve lesser sentences for the same crimes, according to Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity's Criminal Justice Project.
Gitz likes mental experiments, so here's one to consider: A rookie white police officer arrests young black men dealing drugs on the streets and in hangouts in the 'hood. He is rewarded for doing a good job.
For comparison, a rookie black cop, following research results that show that young white and black men use illegal drugs at very similar rates, decides to use the power of no-knock policies to raid the bedrooms of white high school students in affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods. Imagine the reaction of the parents of those students!
Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow. It results from many causes, not the least of which is institutionalized racism which operates at every level of the criminal justice system, from investigation to sentencing.
Gitz's belief: Socialism inevitably fails.
This stems from his assumptions about human nature and from selective observations of struggling socialist nations. Dr. Gitz denies the success of democratic socialism in Europe by claiming that those countries are actually capitalistic. In truth, they are a mixture of both, as is our own economy, with our government subsidizing businesses and corporations through indirect payments and tax breaks.
Debates about definitions and histories of socialism obscure the truth that no pure forms of capitalism or socialism exist, and that U.S. meddling, through sanctions and interventions, in regimes in Latin America has stymied the development of left-leaning nations.
That so few socialist nations have developed outside of European influence is likely more the result of the political power of capitalist nations than it is the inherent nature of socialist economies. Socialism varies greatly, depending on historical and cultural contexts.
Gitz's belief: Gender is not socially constructed.
Gender refers to meanings imputed to biological sex; how masculinity and femininity are expressed in folkways and mores.
The customs and institutions of a given society vary and change over time. An action or an expression once seen as feminine may become masculine and vice versa; for example, hair dyes and makeup for men, muscles for women. These changes and their consequences are documented in a vast literature on the constructed nature of gender. Gitz's snarky remark implying that gender is somehow natural is misleading at the least.
Gitz's belief: Political correctness subverts free speech.
Human language is arbitrary in its meanings and usages. This means that language is obviously culturally constructed and used to accomplish social and practical ends. As society reacts to forces of change such as shifts in demography, technology, and changes in the structures of key institutions, language also changes.
Most of what is called "politically correct speech" is everyday language accommodating these changes. Women competing with men for scarce resources, the consequences of political drives toward equality, and many other social forces are reflected in contemporary speech.
And as with any rapid social change, there is resistance to new practices as people assess whether they will gain or lose from the changes. The issue of appropriate expression is as conflicted as the processes of social change themselves. Freedom of speech has always been political and will be decided at general and specific levels--in the courts and in everyday interactions.
My purpose in responding to these beliefs is to point out the difference between something believed in and something that can be empirically verified. Gitz's readers should keep this distinction in mind.
Belief and measurable, observable truth are not of equal value for solving complex social problems such as wealth distribution, justice in the criminal system, gender equality and freedom of speech.
Jeffrey Nash of Maumelle is a retired sociologist.
Editorial on 07/21/2019
Print Headline: Believing in/knowing about