Just who is responsible for the “unconscious”: meaning, intent, and the use of “false consciousness” in the making of identity politics
At the risk of bringing up a sore subject… From NPR, “How ‘The Hidden Brain’ Does The Thinking For Us”:
After making a silly mistake, it’s not uncommon for a person to say, “Oops — I was on autopilot.” In his new book, The Hidden Brain, science writer Shankar Vedantam explains how there’s actually a lot of truth to that.
Our brains have two modes, he tells NPR’s Steve Inkseep — conscious and unconscious, pilot and autopilot — and we are constantly switching back and forth between the two.
First, let me interrupt here to point out the obvious: even if we wish to argue with Mr Vedantam’s formulation — that is, even were we to take issue with the reduction of the brain into binary modes — what is important to keep in mind here is that both of these modes, conscious and unconscious, belong to us and so are ours, a product of the agency that is, in fact, us. This seems like a simple enough observation, but as the political arguments stemming from such descriptions tend to develop, this truism often gets lost, or at least “bracketed” by those who wish to use the observation in incoherent (and yet politically powerful) ways, as we will see momentarily.
“The problem arises when we [switch] without our awareness,” Vedantam says, “and the autopilot ends up flying the plane, when we should be flying the plane” [my emphasis]
— And there it is, the subtle switch, the moment at which what begins as a descriptive metaphor becomes a political tool that deviates from its own kernel assumptions. To wit: Notice that what Vedantam does here is maneuver from a binary brain mode — conscious and unconscious, both of which we have established belong to us — to something like two separate and unique brains, one that runs the autopilot, the other of which belongs to a “we” that is now divorced from the “autopilot” mode.
And if it isn’t we who are running the autopilot, Vedantam will wonder, how then to account for it?
The autopilot mode can be useful when we’re multitasking, but it can also lead us to make unsupported snap judgments about people in the world around us. Vedantam says that when we interact with people from different backgrounds in high-pressure situations, it’s easy to rely — unconsciously — on heuristics.
Racial categorization begins at an extremely early age. Vedantam cites research from a day-care center in Montreal that found that children as young as 3 linked white faces with positive attributes and black faces with negative attributes.
Now we’re off and running: a day-care center, in its own specific geographical and political context, will be allowed, for the sake of this argument, to stand in as representative of how ALL children learn racial differences — a dubious control group for a scientist to use, especially when drawing conclusions from what is a rather pedestrian hypothesis. But no worries: he can be forgiven, provided he reaches the right conclusions.
Of course, were the data reversed (had, for instance, the day-care center under review been located in the basement of Reverend Wright’s church, say) — with whites linked to negative attributes and blacks viewed positively — that data almost certainly wouldn’t be extrapolated out as normative the way it is here. In fact, such data would likely be used to exhort the force of identity politics to “empower” historically disenfranchised groups, the result being that we must now believe that identity politics is simultaneously ameliorative (when it empowers certain identity groups) and “racist” (when it empowers other identity groups), even as the mechanism is precisely the same.
“Now, these were children who are 3 years old,” Vedantam says. “It is especially hard to call them bigots, or to suggest that they are explicitly racially biased or have animosity in their hearts.”
Vedantam says the mind is hard-wired to “form associations between people and concepts.” But he thinks that the links the children made between particular groups and particular concepts were not biologically based — those judgments came from culture and upbringing.
He says that for every 50 times a year a teacher talks about tolerance, there are many hundreds of implicit messages of racial bias that children absorb through culture — whether it’s television, books or the attitudes of the adults and kids around them.
“And it’s these hidden associations that essentially determine what happens in the unconscious minds of these children,” Vedantam says.
And here you have the last two maneuvers: 1) It is silly to call children as young as 3 bigots, Vedantam will (pretend to) concede; and yet they are showing bigoted behavior — like, for instance, they draw “bigoted associations” or make “racist statements” — which transgressions Vedantam will trace to “culture and upbringing”. Are these children responsible for their own culture? Their own upbringing? Of course not, the argument will suggest. And so their bigotry, which is undeniable (given the “associations” drawn by the kids in one Montreal day-care center) must come from somewhere else, and must be lodged somewhere outside of the conscious reach of these children (where presumably it could be corrected).
Once we are here — once we begin to give power to deeply-seeded attitudes learned through acculturation and rote indoctrination (and buried deep in our “sub-conscious”) while simultaneously divorcing the conscious mind from the unconscious mind in such a way that the unconscious mind is no longer a part of the intentional “we” — it is an easy next step to argue 2) that “we” are not responsible for any kind of unconscious racism or bigotry; thus, we can say racist things, or make racist associations, without those associations or statements being intentionally racist. More, we can’t be expected to recognize in ourselves such unconscious bigotry precisely because it lies in our unconscious mind, which is the “autopilot” to our “we,” and as such stands apart from our conscious control over it. Which means we’ll have to rely on others to spot our bigotry for us. God bless ‘em.
Can we therefore say something racist without being racist? Well, yes and no: “we” can be racist, but it is really “culture and society” that has programmed that racism into us. And so when we repeat those racist lessons taught us by culture and society, we are being racist — but the “we” in question is not so much us as it is the society and culture that inscribes (and so owns) our unconscious mind. It is the autopilot, the part of us that is no longer really us, separated as it is from the “we” that makes up our conscious mind. To deny it is to engage in “false consciousness” — and you are denying that part of yourself that others get to define. Which marks you as deluded and duped.
Or, to put it another way, yes, you are racist. But so is everyone else who was inscribed by the same culture and society as you. So don’t sweat it.
The upshot of all this is that we are left with an obvious way to fight “racism”: change society and culture in such a way that our “unconscious” mind — over which we have limited ownership (or rather, something akin to a rental agreement) — learns the “correct” lessons. We need to be taught which kinds of associations are acceptable and which are not. Our speech and thought needs to be cleansed; our autopilot re-educated.
And thankfully, plenty of folks from various identity groups will be happy to teach you the “non-bigoted” way you must think about them.
“We tend to think of the conscious messages that we give children as being the most powerful education that we can give them,” Vedantam says — but the unconscious messages are actually far more influential.
In American society, colorblindness is often held up as the ideal. And though it’s a worthy aspiration, Vedantam says it’s a goal that isn’t rooted in psychological reality.
“Our hidden brains will always recognize people’s races, and they will do so from a very, very young age,” Vedantam says. “The far better approach is to put race on the table, to ask [children] to unpack the associations that they are learning, to help us shape those associations in more effective ways.”
— And so we reach the end point.
Colorblindness sounds good, but because kids will always make associations (and one they will “always” make is based on “race”), our only choice is to teach them at a young age that much of what they learn from their own experiential encounters with the world is wrong, particularly when that experience rubs against some group-sanctioned narrative. And so we must teach children to stop believing themselves, and start believing only those with the “authenticity” to draw “accurate” and approved associations.
Of course, what Vedantam doesn’t say is that “race” is, itself, a learned category — one that differs from mere pigmentation — and so it would, presumably, be just as easy to “unpack” racialist arguments early on, which is precisely what the idea of “colorblindness” endeavors to do. More, Vedantam seems to believe that merely recognizing differences in pigmentation has some sort of causal relationship to bigotry — that the negative and positive associations attributed to different colors by those in some Montreal day-care center are the result of color alone as it is filtered through cultural markers and societal cues.
But just because culture and society leads one to make politically incorrect associations doesn’t mean they’ve made incorrect or unreasonable associations — ones that as they become more socially aware and more logically savvy they will be able to disentangle as either causal or not, as having merit or not.
Identity politics wants to “help” us through that learning process by taking us right to the conclusions we “should” be reaching. And to do so, it hopes to force on “culture” and “society” certain ways of thinking and talking that will shape the “proper” associations in children.
In short, it wants to brainwash them. But for their own good.
Because after all, a little bigoted autopilot is a dangerous thing…
Going back to the autopilot analogy, Vedantam says it’s not a problem that the brain has an autopilot mode — as long as you are aware of when it is on. His book, The Hidden Brain, is about how to “take back the controls.”
On offer here is the following prescription: you can only know your autopilot by learning what culture and society have imprinted upon you. Once there, you can only “take back control” by changing what culture and society imprint. Because otherwise, nothing else Vedantam writes makes sense: if you could consciously control your unconscious, that would be a form of consciousness that robs the unconscious of its (presumed) power; so the answer is that you must control your unconscious mind by consciously decided what is appropriate for it to learn in the first place.
Which is to say, you can only take back control by giving over control to those who will properly teach you.
So if the human psyche is just a big constellation of conscious and unconscious cognition — which thoughts represent the real you?
“Most of us think of ourselves as being conscious, intentional, deliberate creatures,” Vedantam says. “I know that I think of myself that way: I know why I like this movie star, or why I voted for this president, or why I prefer this political party to that.”
But doing research for this book changed all that, Vedantam says.
“I have become, in some ways, much more humble about my views and much less certain about myself. And it may well be that the hidden brain is much more in charge of what we do than our conscious mind’s intentions.”
If the “hidden brain” were really just our unconscious, Vedantam’s conclusion would read something like this: “It may well be that we are much more in charge of what we do than, well, we are.”
— Which doesn’t sound quite so thoughtful — and has the extra added problem of pointing out that we are, in fact, responsible for ourselves, if only because it is US who act as the filter between culture and society and what we become.
“You” are the sum of your agency, which includes both your unconscious and conscious minds. In fact, the two are inseparable as components of your agency.
And while it may be easy to blame society for bigotries that are yours, you own them, whether you are 3 or 33. Just because society tells you to jump off a cliff…
Once you recognize that, you can turn your attention to the proper question: what is it that makes some associations de facto bigoted in the first place? And who has the right to declare them such…?
Trace the answer back to the source, and it’s easy to see why some much time and energy is invested into dividing you from you.
h/t Terry H.
update: my response to Helian Unbound, here.