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Interpreting Personal Experience
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Created: February 4, 2000.
Latest Update: January 22, 2001
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Perceiving Racism: Structural Violence and The Halo Effect

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: February 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

Recent fining of baseball player for racist statements, Dershowitz, in LA Times, in late January and before Feb. 4, 2000. Compare Hockenberry, Moving violations, conclusion that only black new yorkers care, when they helped him with his wheelchair. We condemn one but not the other. The structural violence is the same, even though the racism is harder to discern in Hockenberry's case. This is the harm in generalizing the conclusions we draw from personal experience.

The "halo" effect here refers to how we tend to interpret personal experience in a way that will not disturb our perceptions. If someone says what we agree with, then we tend to accept his reasoning because it does not conflict with our beliefs. If someone comes to a conclusion that conflicts with our beliefs, we tend to see the problems with his reasoning. (Cognitive dissonance theory)

In the case of the baseball player who was fined for his "hate speech," Dershowitz pleads First Amendment freedom of speech, and objects to the fining of the player. Perhaps we could discuss "hate speech" more openly and readily if we understood how it comes about. One of the examples the baseball player spoke of was poor and different-looking people in the subway. If we tend to ascribe the cause of criminal behavior and violence to the appearance of those who engage in such behavior, then when we encounter people who appear to be impoverished, or look different from us, then we will fear that they may engage in criminal behavior or violence, endangering us. Thus, poor and different people on the subway made the baseball player uncomfortable. That discomfort was probably due to his identification of incidents of crime and violence as being committed by poor and different-looking people. The problem is that he was basing his judgment on the status characteristics of poor and different-looking, not on any valid measurement of who, in fact commits crime and acts of violence. On the basis of their appearance he attributed certain characteristics to the people riding on the subway. His was a spurious conclusion. That means that he decided that appearance was related to the behaviors which made him uncomfortable, because on the surface that looked like a reasonable conclusion. But, in fact, most who are poor and different-looking do not engage in the behaviors he feared. This is very much like the drank water, got drunk example. Yes, they may have drunk water, but that isn' what made them drunk. Yes, these people might be poor and different-looking, but that isn't what makes people commit crimes and acts of violence.

Will put up excerpt from Hockenberry shortly. Nag me. jeanne February 4, 2000.



Perceiving Evidence: Structural Violence in Interpreting Courtroom Communications

by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Copyright: February 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

P. 43, Watterson's Women in Prison, Northeastern University Press, 1996. This excerpt from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was chosen to give you a sense of what it's like in court. Compare this to Albert Camus' The Stranger. We have an annotated the excerpt to give you a sense of what Watterson is saying about the fate of poor women in the criminal justice system and as an example of structural violence in the interpretation of communications, such as those concerning evidence in a courtroom.

The King turned pale, and shut his note-book hastily.
"Consider your verdict," he said to the jury, in a low trembling voice.
"There's more evidence to come yet, please your Majesty," said the White Rabbit, jumping up in a great hurry: "this paper has just been picked up."

More to come . . . February 5, 2000