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April 14, 2019

Ritual purity as evoked culture

Filed under: cognition,Cognitive anthropology,Ideology,Pollution,Purity — Razib Khan @ 1:34 pm

Jonathan Fast’s novel Golden Fire is set during the height of the Gupta Empire at the end of the 4th century A.D. The novel revolves around the origins and rise of Chandragupta II. But what remains with me after all these years is the depiction of social relations in an India where elite Hinduism as we understand it today is starting to take shape, and Buddhism is abating. Fast depicts a caste society, though not nearly as endogamous as exists today (this is probably correct from what the genetics tell us).

At one point, a former advisor to the king, a Buddhist monk, arrives at court. The current ascendant counselor is a Brahmin. When the monk, his old rival, arrives to address the king, the counselor turns around and faces away from the monk. Not only will he not speak to him, but he will not look at him. He explicitly contends that the rationale for this behavior is to minimize the ritual pollution that entails contact with a Buddhist who lacks caste.

This attitude persists in some ways in India. And South Asia more generally. Even after conversion, many Muslims continued to maintain habits of caste. My father’s mother’s family were converted to Islam from Hinduism in the early 20th century. They had been Bengali Brahmins and continued to maintain habits which reflected their origins without reflecting on or acknowledging their origins. They maintained separate dishes for guests, and would not drink out of other peoples’ cups. My father’s father was an ulem, a religious teacher. So he instructed all his children on the details of Hanafi shariah. But, the children were raised by his wife, and so all maintained the habit into adulthood of never drinking out of other peoples’ cups. Perhaps one way to describe her would be Muslim beliefs, Hindu customs.

I know the details of the origin of these practices (I also internalized my paternal grandmother’s habits in this area, to be honest) because one of my mother’s brothers converted to a reformist and fundamentalist variety of Islam, and he was conscious of the Hindu practices that Bengali Muslims maintained. He was ostentatious about drinking out of other peoples’ cups and eating off their plates because to him that was an important refutation of the separation between classes and castes which Hinduism fostered.

But of course, it’s not just Hinduism. Schools of Islamic law vary, but there are different rules as to the nature of interaction allowable with unbelievers. Muslim men may marry women who are Christian or Jewish, but not pagans. Muslims may establish friendly relationships with non-Muslims, but only in the interests of conversion (dawah). The psychology of pollution and contagion is widespread across human societies. The emergence of an outcaste population in Japan was due to ideas introduced by Buddhism, whose original Indian origin is reflected in attitudes toward killing and consumption of animals (they entail pollution). As in South Asia, individuals who engage in activities such as butchering or tanning animals were considered polluted by their activities and became a caste apart.

Ancient hunter-gatherer bands likely did not have an endogamous caste which engaged in “unclean” activities. Pleistocene humans were generalists for reasons of lifestyle. And, the number of cooperative humans on a day to day level was in the range of 10-100, too small to produce a distinct caste. The emergence of outcastes and stratification along lines of pollution is probably a cultural artifact of complex societies, with specialized groups segmenting across society. And, it seems a feature of most societies, where some groups are seen as “polluting” in a moral and metaphysical sense (e.g., Jews in medieval Europe). The Buddhist monk whom the Brahmin found polluting in the novel above was not dirty physically. Though pollution is often associated with dirty professions in a hygienic sense (e.g., sanitation), it is just as likely that low-status groups who were seen as polluting gravitated toward those professions because their ritual pollution was already so high that such occupations did not impact their position in the hierarchy.

The idea of ritual pollution of outgroups, lower-status groups, is a human universal because there were preexistent mental reflexes and intuitions developed during the time we were hunter-gatherers which were leveraged in dense, stratified societies. In other words, ideologies of moral and metaphysical contagion from lower-status outgroups is a natural part of an evoked culture that will emerge given particular social parameters. In plainer language, the cognitive muscles were already there, the task just had to be relevant. Making someone an outcaste, or expelling them for violations of norms, or reducing their status within a group, are all straightforward things that might happen in a “small-scale society.” They are functionally important in a group which has to cooperate to survive on the Malthusian margin. Troublemakers had to be expelled for norm violation, as norms were what bound bands together.

As humans began to agglomerate into large clusters, and develop sophisticated cultural tools to organize polities and even civilizations, they naturally drew upon their preexistent intuitions and folk beliefs and extended and elaborated upon them. The ritual pollution embedded within Hinduism is not just historically contingent, an invention of the South Asian milieu, but is an instantiation of a spectrum of ideas which bubbled up in all complex societies and drew upon a universal human nature.

Ritual pollution is often associated with religion because of the importance of religion in human societies over the past few thousand years. But as organized religion declines in the developed world, one should not necessarily see a decline in ideas of pollution and contagion. In fact, organized religion in Japan has been relatively weak over its history in relation to the Muslim world or the West, and one of the canonical examples of an outcaste population is from Japan itself, whose native animism has no problem with the idea of pollution.

In the film The Fellowship of the Ring* there is a scene where they utter the “Black Speech” of Mordor, to very negative consequences. J. R. R. Tolkien had some strange ideas about language, and its power (though in the pre-modern context he would not be thought of as a crank). But clearly, the “Black Speech” was polluting. This likely has its analog to modern discussions and political tribalism. The very act of speaking and engaging with people with very different views is polluting. One must not give “platform” to “wrongthink.” “Error has no rights.” The very act of a disreputable person agreeing with a viewpoint you hold results in a level of pollution that makes one reflect on the validity of one’s own views.

This has always been with us. But new technologies seem to be amplifying the dynamic, to the point where it’s an accelerant in social polarization.

Of course, Jon Haidt has said this in a different language for a long time. Scared passions are still with us because they were with us in the beginning. The metaphysical religions of the Axial Age refashioned intuitions which were part of our nature, to the point where enthusiasms and prejudices driven by these passions became associated with those religions. But limpieza de sangre wasn’t really an innovation. Just a reinvention. The fading of the old religions will not mean the fading of the old passions. They are just rebranded.

* I read the book so long ago I don’t recall if this scene is faithful to the novel.

August 27, 2018

The Limits of My Language are the Limits of My Stupidity

Filed under: 1984,Ideology — Razib Khan @ 11:12 pm

I think about this quote from1984 literally every day:

Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.” (1.5.23, Syme)

And more:

“It’s a beautiful thing, the Destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word, which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well – better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other is not. Or again, if you want a stronger version of ‘good,’ what sense is there in having a whole string of vague useless words like ‘excellent’ and ‘splendid’ and all the rest of them? ‘Plusgood’ covers the meaning or ‘doubleplusgood’ if you want something stronger still. Of course we use those forms already, but in the final version of Newspeak there’ll be nothing else. In the end the whole notion of goodness and badness will be covered by only six words – in reality, only one word. Don’t you see the beauty of that, Winston? It was B.B.’s idea originally, of course,” he added as an afterthought. (1.5.23, Syme)

1984 is a great book. But do you remember how it ended?

June 8, 2011

The limits of the mean and the moderate

Filed under: Data Analysis,GSS,Ideology,Politics — Razib Khan @ 11:57 am

Red States vs. Blue States: Going Beyond the Mean:

In recent years, many scholars have explored the degree of polarization between red and blue states (red states are those carried by Republicans at the presidential level; blue states are those carried by Democrats). Some claim that red- and blue-state citizens are deeply polarized, while others disagree, arguing that there are only limited differences between the two groups. All previous work on this topic, however, simply uses difference-of-means tests to determine when these two groups are polarized. We show that this test alone cannot determine whether states are actually polarized. We remedy this shortcoming by introducing a new measure based on the degree of issue-position overlap between red- and blue-state citizens. Our findings demonstrate that there is only limited polarization—and a good deal of common ground—between red states and blue states. We discuss the implications of our work both for the study of polarization itself and for the broader study of American politics.

Generating a statistical construct of the distribution of liberalism and conservatism on social and economic issues the authors produced a set of plots which illustrate the differences between “red” (conservative) states and “blue” (liberal) states. In the figures below ...

February 8, 2011

The academy is liberal, deal!

Filed under: Academic Bias,Ideology,Politics,Social Science — Razib Khan @ 1:02 pm

A new article in The New York Times, Social Scientist Sees Bias Within, profiles Jonathan Haidt’s quest to get some political diversity within social psychology. This means my post Is the Academy liberal?, is getting some links again. The data within that post is just a quantitative take on what anyone knows: the academy is by and large a redoubt of political liberals. To the left you see the ratio of liberals to conservatives for selected disciplines. Haidt points out that in the American public the ratio is 1:2 in the other direction, so it would be 0.50. He goes on to say that: “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.” Haidt now calls himself a “centrist,” but you define yourself in part by the distribution around you. ...

September 7, 2010

How much more racist are white conservatives than white liberals?

Filed under: Culture,Data Analysis,GSS,Ideology,Politics,Racism — Razib Khan @ 11:05 am

A few weeks ago there were a bunch of stories on how white the audience was at Glenn Beck’s rally. That’s empirically true, and the Tea Party movement as a whole is overwhelmingly white. So is the American conservative movement. This in a nation which is ~65% white in a colloquial sense (i.e., white Hispanics are excluded from the class of “white”). It makes one’s eyebrows go up I suppose when you see a very unrepresentative set of people. But what irritates me about media observation of this statistical reality is that the elite media is also disproportionately white. Much of the elite media and the up & coming pundit class reside in a majority black city, but if you check out their Facebook photos or flickr accounts you would be totally surprised at the fact that they reside in a “Chocolate City.” Why are the social circles of elite media types, liberal or conservative, not representative of the city in which they reside? There are pretty clear reasons of confounds of class and socioeconomic affinity with race. The demographics of one’s social circle don’t necessarily lead one to prima facie accusations of bias, rather, they’re embedded in a set of causal assumptions and conditionals. So, from a liberal perspective the whiteness of the SWPL milieu is situational, while that of the right-wing milieu is essential. The demographics of conservative political movements themselves are interpreted through a particular historical frame of racism for most liberals implicitly. In contrast, the white demographics of elite liberals, including the Netroots, are often “contextualized” as emerging out of a whole range of historical and social processes, which if not just in and of themselves, are structural factors which elite white liberals are not responsible for and are attempting to change.

It seems a pretty robust social science finding that white liberals have less racialist sentiment than white conservatives. My main beef, as a non-white conservative, is that a quantitative difference of degree gets collapsed into a qualitative difference of kind. Transforming a quantitative variable into a dichotomous categorical one totally changes the inferences one makes from facts. The whiteness of conservative movements and classes then entails the casting of particular aspersions, while the whiteness of liberal movements and classes tends to go under the radar as having a sociological cause out of the control of white liberals.

To explore the quantitative, as opposed to qualitative, difference between white non-Hispanics of varied political stripes I decided to look at the GSS data set. There are a variety of questions on racial issues, though I focused on the ones related to white opinions/attitudes/relations with blacks since they are more numerous. For example, in 1974 23% of white liberals and 36% of white conservatives favored a law banning interracial marriage. In 2002 the values were 8% and 13% respectively. In both cases you can see that white conservatives have more racialist feeling, but the difference is not dichotomous, but one of degree. Below is a table of responses to a set of questions by white non-Hispanics in the 2000s. I broke out the data set by liberal and conservative, and Democrat and Republican. Additionally, in addition to the raw frequencies I also calculated absolute and relative differences between liberals and conservatives and Democrats and Republicans.


Ideology Party Ideology Party
Response Lib Con Dem Repub Abs Gap Rel Gap Abs Gap Rel Gap
Favor law against racial intermarriage
Yes 7.3 13.6 12 10 -6.3 0.5 2.0 1.2

Black person over for dinner recently
Yes 46.7 39.2 36.5 41.5 7.5 1.2 -5.0 0.9

Would vote for black president
Yes 96.4 93.8 93.3 95.4 2.6 1.0 -2.1 1.0

Whites hurt by affirmative action?
Very likely 14.5 22 15.9 21.8 -7.5 0.7 -5.9 0.7
Somewhat likely 48.1 50 49.2 52.4 -1.9 1.0 -3.2 0.9
Not very likely 37.4 28 34.9 25.8 9.4 1.3 9.1 1.4

Close relative marry black
Strongly favor 17.9 9.5 14.3 9.7 8.4 1.9 4.6 1.5
Favor 11.8 12.7 12.5 12 -0.9 0.9 0.5 1.0
Neither favor nor oppose 50.3 37.4 43.8 41.7 12.9 1.3 2.1 1.1
Oppose 10.2 19.9 13.1 19.3 -9.7 0.5 -6.2 0.7
Strongly oppose 9.7 20.6 16.2 17.4 -10.9 0.5 -1.2 0.9

Have conditions improved for blacks
Improved 60 72.7 64.6 73.9 -12.7 0.8 -9.3 0.9
Gotten worse 4.8 3.6 3.7 3.5 1.2 1.3 0.2 1.1
About the same 35.2 23.7 31.7 22.6 11.5 1.5 9.1 1.4

Has most in common with
Whites 16 16.5 16.5 17.9 -0.5 1.0 -1.4 0.9
Blacks 20.7 11.9 18.5 15.4 8.8 1.7 3.1 1.2
Jews 22.5 20 22 19.9 2.5 1.1 2.1 1.1
Hispanics 10.1 17.7 9.6 17.4 -7.6 0.6 -7.8 0.6
Asians 5.4 12.4 7.3 9.8 -7.0 0.4 -2.5 0.7
Equal in common to all 21.2 13.2 19.9 13 8.0 1.6 6.9 1.5
Nothing in common with any 4.1 8.3 6.2 6.6 -4.2 0.5 -0.4 0.9

Number of blacks one is acquainted with
0 19.4 26.8 24.3 25.4 -7.4 0.7 -1.1 1.0
1 7.2 9.3 13.8 6.9 -2.1 0.8 6.9 2.0
2-5 37.1 35.5 33.1 37.2 1.6 1.0 -4.1 0.9
6-10 11.8 11.8 11.6 13.3 0.0 1.0 -1.7 0.9
More than 10 24.5 16.6 17.1 17.2 7.9 1.5 -0.1 1.0

Number of blacks one trusts
0 36.3 47.7 40.9 46.6 -11.4 0.8 -5.7 0.9
1 16.9 16.4 21.3 14 0.5 1.0 7.3 1.5
2-5 32.3 25.9 24.4 28.2 6.4 1.2 -3.8 0.9
6-10 9.4 4.9 8.1 5.5 4.5 1.9 2.6 1.5
More than 10 5.1 5.1 5.3 5.7 0.0 1.0 -0.4 0.9

Number of blacks in neighborhood
0 52.4 61.5 55.4 59.3 -9.1 0.9 -3.9 0.9
1 12.7 10.2 12 9.3 2.5 1.2 2.7 1.3
2-5 22.3 20 20.7 21.2 2.3 1.1 -0.5 1.0
6-10 2.6 4.6 1.7 4.6 -2.0 0.6 -2.9 0.4
More than 10 10 3.8 10.1 5.7 6.2 2.6 4.4 1.8

Number of black family members
0 77.7 83.7 80.1 81.8 -6.0 0.9 -1.7 1.0
1 11.3 13.4 10.4 8.9 -2.1 0.8 1.5 1.2
2-5 8.5 2.9 5.8 9 5.6 2.9 -3.2 0.6
6-10 0.8 0 0.6 0 0.8 0.6
More than 10 1.7 0 3 0.3 1.7 2.7 10.0

Number of blacks in voluntary associations one involved with
0 41.2 43.4 40.8 42.7 -2.2 0.9 -1.9 1.0
1 11.2 8.2 10.3 7.4 3.0 1.4 2.9 1.4
2-5 28.4 26.6 26.3 25.9 1.8 1.1 0.4 1.0
6-10 9.2 8.3 9.4 10.9 0.9 1.1 -1.5 0.9
More than 10 9.9 13.4 13.2 13.1 -3.5 0.7 0.1 1.0

Number of blacks in current or previous work
0 23.5 33.3 26.3 30.6 -9.8 0.7 -4.3 0.9
1 11 8.2 14.6 8.6 2.8 1.3 6.0 1.7
2-5 28.3 25.9 29.2 24.5 2.4 1.1 4.7 1.2
6-10 16.2 11.6 11 12.3 4.6 1.4 -1.3 0.9
More than 10 21 20.9 18.9 24.1 0.1 1.0 -5.2 0.8

To replicate:

Row: RACMAR  MARBLK ACQFMBLK  RACHOME  BLKSIMP   TRTBLACK ACQBLACK   DISCAFF       ACQNHBLK    RACPRES MOSTCOM ACQVABLK ACQWKBLK

Column: POLVIEWS(r:1-3″Liberal”;5-7″Conservative”)  PARTYID(r:0-2″Democrat”;4-6″Republican”)

Selection Filters: RACE(1) HISPANIC(1)

For those who don’t know the GSS URL: http://sda.berkeley.edu/cgi-bin/hsda?harcsda+gss08

The question of Hispanic or non-Hispanic status was only asked starting in the year 2000, so  the data are all constrained to the aughts. I know tables are kind of hard to read, but I wasn’t sure as to the best way to visualize the results. But if someone wants to try, or has some ideas, here’s the data as a csv.

I’ll let readers engage in interpretation, but be warned that if it’s obvious you didn’t read the table your comment may not be published, or, I’ll just delete it. The only thing I want to add is that it isn’t a surprise that the political party division is narrower than the ideological one. Republicans are the conservative party, but there are wealthy social liberals within the party, while Democrats have some downscale socially conservative types.

Note: Sample sizes are small in some of the cases above, so don’t necessarily draw too much of an inference if the absolute value difference is marginal. That’s why I looked at a lot of questions.

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