Sunday, August 21, 2005

Power and Politics in the Culture Wars

Is there some sociological common thread in the Isreali pullout from Gaza and our own culture wars? Our culture war, to give you the soundbite summary, works something like this: What ideas will define our public life and morality? The ideas of Christianity, especially fundamentalist Christianity, or the "modern" ideas of secular humanists and other progressive types?

The common thread in all of the battles in our culture wars, and the Gaza pullout is not so difficult to understand. We are seeing battles for power over peoples' minds. The weapons are mostly soundbites, fear-mongering, sloganeering, and philosophical trickery. OK, there is also some real logic and sound science involced sometimes.

Consider these illustrations of two sides in current debates:

Is the universe a mindless and amoral physical phenomenon? Or, was it created with a purpose by a Creator whose intentions have been revealed to humanity?

Did life arise on earth through the intervention of a designer (possibly a god), or was there just a bunch of biochemical activity? To put it another way, is the existence of intelligent life on earth the simple result of time plus chance?

Can we say that God wanted a group to have such-and-such a piece of land? Or, can we merely try to work out some sort of understsnding based on a mixture of force, political calculation, coercion, and the (crossing my fingers) application of some moral principles?

The implications are complicated in their details, but simple in a way. Somebody is going to develop and promote the ideas that dominate your social environment, and then your mind, and then your behavior.

You may claim some control over the ideas that pervade your consciousness and over how you behave. You may have it right, but remember why the chicken really crossed the road (see my "Everyday Decisions" blog).

What's a soul to do? Hmmm..., uh, I'm really more of an idea person, actually. I can try to offer some concrete suggestions in future blogs.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Media Reporting on Social Issues

I was thinking of the news last week that Peter Jennings died of lung cancer and Dana Reeve has breast cancer. I don't know why anyone would care about some celebrity's health problems, but that is a subject for another blog entry. The subject for this blog entry is how the media manipulates our perceptions, and why they do it.

In the case of cancer, I'm in favor fo any effort to get people to do something to protect themselves. But there is something insidious about the way media accounts focus on problems. This problem may undermine our ability, as a society, to effectively mobilize our resources against real threats to society and to the individual.

The problem is that the media tend to sensationalize the instinctively terrifying but unlikely.

Other threats to our health, safety, and prosperity are also threats but don't have the eame emotional appeal. Climbing consumer debt is a problem how, for what? Yawn! Religious fundamentalism may undermine our ability to innovate? Who cares? Corporate misbehavior of the illegal or unethical variety is objectively worse than ever? Ugh, I'd rather watch Entertainment Tonight.

(A brief aside: Unlike some liberal wackos I do not sense a capitalist consipiracy to distract us from issues like income inequality through the production and promotion of mindless but stimulating entertainment products, "bread and circuses" to use a more poetic term.)

No, I'm not saying people are lazy or stupid for not paying attention to those things. I'm saying that media types are lazy and manipulative (in pursuit of profits). Making a threat to your children into a show or a special report is much easier than making interesting programming on the potential dangers of a celebrity-obsessed culture. I'll return to each of those topics in future blogs.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Intelligent Design, Creationism, and Power

My sense of timing is kinda screwed up (Don't ask!) but I believe it was early last week when Bush announced his belief that intelligent design deserved attention in our nation's schools.

For those not in the know, intelligent design is an approach to explaining the origins of life on earth. It posits that a being or beings created life on earth. The nature of this "designer" is not specified. The whole, supposedly scientific, thing is offered as an alternative to both creationsim (God created the world and everything in it.) and evolution.

What's sociological here? Well, the history of the struggle over what explanation for the origin of life shall dominate our minds is sociological. Bush's pronouncement is part of the latest episode in this ongoing struggle over what we believe about the origin and nature (moral and otherwise) of life on earth.

Bush and supporters of intelligent design (Christian or not) want to sell us on one definition of how life came to be. Supporters of evolution want to sell us on another definition, one that makes the biological sciences even more powerful and important. The intelligent design side wants to sell us on what one scientist called "creationsim in a cheap tuxedo", so we accept their theological explanation. Both sides are simply vying for control of how we view one important part of reality. And the more either side can claim to explain the more important they are, at least in their own minds.

These same sorts of power struggles over how we define reality take place in other arenas as well. Consider debates over animal rights, the state of the global environment, globalization, and capitalism versus socialism, and gender roles. What are sides in these power struggles and what do they want? There's something to bring up in your next sociology class or keg party. OK, maybe not a keg party :-)) Or, if you were floundering around looking for a term paper (thesis? dissertation?) topic, now you have something!
Find Blogs in the Blog Directory