21 August 2009

Purchasing-as-expression; Manners; Gibson, Polanski, Wagner & Guthrie

Julian Sanchez, discussing the Whole Foods boycott:
I think it’s actually a significant achievement of liberal societies that, not only do we refrain from clapping you in irons if you’ve got the wrong religious or political views, but that we’re more generally disposed to bracket those things in our non-intimate relationships and just take them out of the calculus when we’re engaged in most forms of polite interaction and market cooperation, at least when we’re not talking about views that are really wildly beyond the pale. One of the ways markets and liberalism more generally dovetail is that they function by giving us the luxury of ignorance: I don’t need to know why the goods I’m selling are suddenly in greater or lesser demand, or what particular purpose they’re being put to, and vice versa for the money I give others for goods—I just need to respond to the price signals generated by that demand. And in social life more generally, I treat my neighbors with a certain level of respect just as fellow citizens without much bothering about what they do in the bedroom or whether it’s Ronald Dworkin or Michelle Malkin on their bookshelves, even if I happen to know these things.
(Emph. mine.) I think that's mostly true, but as people have begun to define themselves less by what they produce and more by what they consume, they have intentionally undermined this. People don't just want to buy coffee or lettuce or cars or blue jeans, they want to buy them and in doing so say something. Many people these days are specifically trying to circumvent the efficient ignorance they can have about the people they buy things from. Of course they freak out when the people who buy things from them — i.e. employers — make similar non-objective judgements.

This purchasing-as-expression is the principal reason that I'm fine with a bit of "culture war." As I said last summer:
As far as the culture war goes, I don't need people claiming that they represent the "real America." And I'm not interested in hearing about the Starbucks crowd versus the Dunkin' Donuts crowd. I don't really care what my politicians tastes are in hot, caffeinated beverages because the way they like their coffee doesn't say anything about them. But I also do not think it prudent to remove people's eating and drinking habits from discussion entirely. Joining the locavore movement says a lot about the value one places on the environment and what one know about economics, as well as how rational one is and whether one is more swayed by emotional or scientific arguments. (Ditto people's consumption of cloned meat and their opinions about biotech.) That's a piece of culture that I'm perfectly willing to include in the culture war. Generally I don't care what kind of pants my politicians wear, or cars they drive, or beer they drink. But if they only buy Wrangler jeans, drive Fords, and (formerly) drank Budweiser because they wanted to buy American, then I know a lot about where they stand on nationalism and free trade and probably immigration as well.
Anyway, Sanchez lead off the post with this observation from Dworkin:
On the familiar account of somewhat ritualized behavior like tipping your hat to people you encounter, or saying “Please” and “Thank you” at the appropriate times, these are ways of showing respect. But he suggests an alternative, quite plausible, interpretation on which these little rituals are ways of smoothing social interaction by making it less dependent on or reflective of personal assessment of respect. Etiquette and politeness, in other words, are ways of making our behavior somewhat more automatic so that we treat people reasonably sociably under certain conditions whether or not we particularly like them.
I've always thought the second explanation is much stronger. You don't hold the door for someone because of how you feel about them, you hold the door despite how you feel about them. It's not a way of expressing your feelings, it's a way of making your feeling irrelevant. This whitewashes a lot of noisy signals from he environment and reduces everyone's cognitive load. You know how some people get when they have a crush, and they start analyzing every little thing the object of their desire does? Politeness is a way of keeping us all from doing that all day long. When it comes to going through a door with someone, you can only send two signals: obviously refuse to hold the door for them, sending the unambiguous "I don't like you" signal, or hold the door and send a signal devoid of information.

PS This is maybe only loosely related to our ability to decouple the private lives of our economic partners from our interactions with them, but it reminds me that no one can seem to make up their minds about whether it's a good idea or not to take artists' personal lives into account when assessing their work. I've had people tell me they won't see a Mel Gibson movie because he's antisemitic, but they're cool with Roman Polanski movies, despite the pesky "raping a 13 year old" thing. Not because they think antisemitism is worse than rape, but because "it's just different." This is just one of those things that almost no one does consistently, instead using them as a post-rationalization, or using their refusal to comsume some bit of culture as a cultural expression itself. Also on my list of specific occurrences of this phenomenon: not listening to Wagner because of (again) his antisemitism, but being totally cool with Woody Guthrie's Stalinism, and before the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact broke down, his opposition to fighting the Nazis.

PPS A new biography claims William Golding, Nobel laureate and author of Lord of the Flies, tried to rape a 15 year old when he was 18. Take that for what you will.

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