January 24, 2007


Perhaps some of you have heard about the row that has been sweeping Britain lately over ‘Celebrity’ Big Brother. If not, let me boil it down for you: an ignoramus, who is so blithely naive as to almost escape being contemptible (and who is a celebrity in the first place only because she was on Plebeian Big Brother a few years ago), started calling one of the other contestants ‘Poppadom’, in an extremely subtle reference to the target’s ethnicity. Much scandal ensued (weighed in upon by both Tony Blair and Tony Blair II, aka David Cameron), and Jade, the ignoramus in question, got voted off the show with a walloping 82% of the vote.

Now, some people have looked at this and said, “Wow, 82% of British people hate racism!” For example:
The 82% who voted to eject Jade Goody are testament to the work already being done by schools to develop respect, understanding and tolerance.
Which I’m afraid I need to call mighty large bullshit on.

(No offense, Sean, this is just my attempt to better articulate what I was trying to say the other day.)

(Wow, did I really just begin my attempt at “better articulation” with the word “bullshit”?)

I won’t even bore you with my usual methodological quibbles about the nature of the sample and whether or not we can actually draw any conclusions about ‘Britons’ per se; because, in fact, the social psychology behind the whole thing is far more interesting.

See, one of the things that gets beat into you at sociology school is that questions of the type “Do you hate racism?” tend to yield remarkably invalid results. When you publicly put someone on the spot and ask them to declare an opinion, they’re less likely to give you the truth and more likely to declare the opinion that they think will make whoever’s asking happy. This is true even when the “public declaration” is an anonymous response (I have a feeling I’ve used this example before, because it really is one of my favourite pieces of social psychological research, but here goes): when researchers insert questions about fictional political issues into surveys (eg. “What do you think of the proposed Penniweather Bill?”), the majority of respondents claim to either strongly agree or strongly disagree with it. They do this, most likely, because they don’t want to appear foolish in the eyes of others – and it’s that driving desire for positive self-presentation that lies behind a lot of what we publicly profess to believe in. (Rick Mercer’s Talkng to Americans is another good example: when a Canadian with a camera asks you to congratulate Canada on something, you’re not very likely to say, “No, get lost, you stupid Canuck!”).

Anyway, let’s look at the whole Big Brother thing from Joe Bloggs’s point of view:

Woman says racist thing on TV; papers publicise woman’s racist statement in growing public scandal; leading public figures come out condemning woman’s racist statement; a record 40,000 complaints are made to the industry regulator about the woman’s racist statement; the international press pick up on the story, and woman’s racist statement is made into a global disgrace; public vote is announced pitting woman who made racist statement against woman towards whom racist statement was made.

Now, I ask you, who, after all that, is going to vote for the Indian woman? The underlying question isn’t really “Do you hate racism?”, it’s “Do you agree with the rest of the country?” – and because you have to see the rest of the country again tomorrow, you’ll tend to go along with it.

I would also point out that the argument “82% of viewers voted Jade off, therefore 82% of the country are not racist” is completely one-sided. I haven’t seen anyone make the logically complementary statement, viz., that 18% (one fifth!) of the country are racist – because who would be silly enough to make sweeping judgements about a person’s socio-political views based on how they voted on a TV show, right?

Anyway, long story short, I don’t buy it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that I think British people are racist; it just means an impromptu TV poll doesn’t really prove it one way or another. Please reserve your angry flame comments for another time.

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