Liya Yu — Writing. Neuropolitics. Activism.

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The mystical, magical negro who threatened me

I write this with some urgency, that’s why this post is more hastily written than usual. As you surely have heard, the US is gripped by a wave of police brutality ending in the tragic deaths of young black men such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Tamir Rice in Cleveland and most recently, Eric Garner in New York. Right now, people are protesting in the streets of New York against the acquittal of the police officer who killed Garner with a chokehold.

In the stilted and nonchalant seminar proceedings at Columbia University’s Political Science Department, the current protests are hardly mentioned (maybe not incidentally, black Ph.D. students and faculty are severely underrepresented there), but sometimes, a comment still crops up in a way that makes you realize that this uncomfortable reality is nonetheless on people’s minds, especially those who might have brothers, nephews and cousins who are potential targets of that very police brutality.

I have written before about dehumanization of out-groups and how the way we stereotype the lowest social groups through disgust reactions. Social neuroscientists have subsequently shown that disgust towards ‘the lowest of the low’ can lead to dehumanizing them, and that this dehumanization can be detected at the brain level. The groundbreaking work done by Susan Fiske and her colleagues at Princeton on stereotypes shook up the psychology world because it showed that stereotypes are often mixed, whereas people previously assumed that stereotypes were straightforwardly negative.

For example, in the US, Asians and Jews are perceived as low in warmth but high in competence, putting them into the ‘envy’ category of stereotypes. You might have encountered a situation like this yourself: someone treats you based on your skin color, gender or nationality in a way that could be interpreted as complimentary, but it just makes you feel awkward and sometimes even angry. Stereotyping is such a slippery social phenomenon because it often appears as a mixed bag of simultaneously negative and positive ascription of traits.

It’s important to point this out because otherwise, stereotyped or even worse, dehumanized groups, can quickly be silenced in their protest against mistreatment by telling them that someone ‘meant well’ with that comment. One of my students who grew up in Kansas as a Chinese-American told me that her classmates and teachers often portrayed her as a kind of clever and efficient machine without feelings (this is actually called mechanistic dehumanization; Asian Americans are usually targets of this, see Haslam 2006). On top of this, one of the social behaviors resulting out of envy is aggression. So even if a stereotype contains ‘positive’ elements, it can still lead to actual treatment of the stereotyped person that is far from benign.

How is all of this connected to the police brutality committed against Brown, Rice and Garner? Coinciding with the violence committed against these young African-American men, social psychologists at Northwestern University have discovered something called superhumanization, which Whites commonly ascribe to Blacks. Previously, the film director Spike Lee has criticized the depiction of the “mystical, magical negro” in films and popular culture. Now, this new research shows that White Americans like to ascribe supernatural, magical, or paranormal characteristics to Blacks, and as a result of it, deny them feelings of pain (Waytz, Hoffman, & Trawalter 2014).

If you look at the testimony of Darren Wilson, the White police officer who shot the unarmed Michael Brown eight times, superhumanization is written all over it. Wilson describes Brown as this abnormally tall Hulk Hogan with a face that looked like “a demon” . In his description of the incident, Wilson repeats over and over how supernaturally tall Brown appeared and how he was intimidated by the sheer appearance of this ‘superhuman’. You can imagine how the ensuing denial of pain by Wilson towards Brown might have resulted in the excessive and cruel firing of so many shots.

Following from this, it’s important to realize that dehumanizing, just as stereotyping, doesn’t manifest itself always in a straightforward way. People who are being superhumanized will probably be told that this is meant as a compliment, that they shouldn’t take it so seriously. The cognitive research on this shows though that even seemingly complimentary perceptions of an out-group can result in hurtful and even violent treatment, and that what we have to look out for in situations of exclusion and discrimination – beyond the grand ideological debates on the Left and Right on what constitutes exclusion, racism etc. – is whether someone is able to see us as fully human.

References

Haslam, N. (2006) Dehumanization: An integrative review. Personality and Social Psychology Review 10, 3, 252-264.

Waytz, A., Hoffman, K.M., & Trawalter, S. (2014) A Superhumanization bias in Whites‘ perception of Blacks. Social Psychological and Personality Science, published online 8 October, 1-8.

 

Nomadic minds, music and concert halls

In our times, concert halls for classical music are strange places. Why do we still frequent them if we could listen to the same piece, in a more superior sound-quality recording, at home? I know, you could potentially say the same for pop concerts. But there, the focus is decidedly on the performing star, whereas in classical music concerts, people at least pretend to be there mainly for the music itself (in New York, there are of course those Upper East Side ladies that come to check out whether Anne-Sophie Mutter looks as stunning in person in her Dior gowns as she does in the pictures – but that’s New York for you).

I was confronted again with this question last week when I went to my first concert at the Lincoln Center since I had returned to New York. I hadn’t been to many concerts in Europe this year and was thirsty for music – that day, they played Mahler’s tortured First Symphony – and drank up every note with my eyes closed. I still couldn’t help noticing the anthropological differences in concert behavior of the New York crowd to Berlin though (or indeed, Beijing, but that’s for another post), not least because New Yorkers are fantastically noisy.

Our grand German writer on Kultur, Thomas Mann, claimed that the Western theatre and concert hall manners are a secularized version of Christian church mass rituals: the performers stand on the sacred stage in the front, the audience is asked to be quiet and reverent, the performance is not to be interrupted by individual outbursts of emotion from the audience, and the at the beginning of the performance, a besinnlich, a kind of reflective and introspective silence is supposed to be taken up by each audience member. All of this is very hard for impatient, impulsive and constantly fiddling New Yorkers, but they really do try (during my visit though, they still couldn’t help clapping sporadically in between the movements).

Most of all, what I realized this time is that New Yorkers and possibly Americans in general, are nervous about their own cultural self-identity in concert halls. Actually, they are not just nervous, they are terrified. They know that they are ‘doing’ a cultural event right now, that this is Old Europe and they are supposed to know it, that there are social norms and rules of restraining one’s usual behavior in this setting, but at the same time, they cannot help feeling out of place in some profound way. Some will flick restlessly through the program notes and study the pages with the fundraising party photos that display botoxed Upper East Side ladies (there they are again!) sipping champagne a tad too long. Others will simply join the Platinum Circle with a hefty yearly donation that makes them feel like they own the place.

I don’t mean to be unkind here. There are also those who carry some of that nervousness to a level where they become open to the music in a naïve, sensual way, and of course, there are those who don’t experience that nervousness at all. I always feel more comfortable in New York concert halls than in Berlin or elsewhere in Germany – exactly because there is so much insecurity about Western identity hovering around, Americans don’t have a rigid conception of who should attend the concert with them. I don’t get strange looks with my Chinese appearance, or if I occasionally turn up in traditional hanfu clothing.

In Berlin, it’s another story. There, I am almost bound each time to get benevolently condescending comments and looks about my ‘Asian’ presence there. At a performance by the pianist Mitsuko Uchida, people will ask whether I am Japanese (despite the fact that Uchida grew up in Vienna with Japanese diplomat parents and speaks perfect Wienerisch), in a way that makes me feel as if I am a cultural tourist at this concert where usually only the ‘real’ Germans are allowed to go. Because I am not white, people will address me in English (from the ticket booth person to the person who seats me and my neighbor in the row) because they assume that the possibility of me living and having grown up in Germany and of me deciding to attend a concert with them and needing to hear this music just as much as they do is a sheer impossibility.

And yet, despite all the sensory and emotional distractions that I await me (and that I dread) each time I visit a concert hall, I keep going back. There is something about being physically present in the auditory range of the music that is deeply compelling, both intellectually and sensually. There is a communication that happens between the musicians and the audience that is hard to put into words. Indeed, Gao Can, a renowned young Chinese violinist and old family friend, told me that when he performed this year in the Berlin Philharmonic concert hall, he experienced an incredible kind of dialogue with the audience – they seemed to anticipate and understand each musical turn – that he had rarely encountered in other concert halls before. That’s Old Europe for you, too.

One could of course take a different approach to these distractions and like Sviatoslav Richter, one of the great pianist maestros of the 20th century, demand in his old age that performances should take place in small, darkened rooms where the audience could not see the performer’s facial expressions and movements. But I believe that being able to visualize the moving music through the bodily movements on stage gives us a particular cognitive satisfaction. Recent brain research on the neuroscience of music discovered that listening to (classical) music is vitally connected to mental state attribution of others and our social brain functions, and that the ability to recognize emotional intentions in music can potentially hold off dementia (there will be a dedicated post in the near future about the neuroscience of music, so I’ll stop here). In that light, being able to see who performs the music and how they perform it is an integral part of the social aspect of our musical experience.

When talking about the social aspect of music, I am reminded of the way how music was performed in Ancient China. Apart from the more formal performances in Confucian temples, where music was an integral part of the religious ceremonies, musical performances in Tang Dynasty China, for example, were highly intimate and informal occasions. A handful of scholars and poets would gather around the musician, get drunk on rice wine, philosophize, and write calligraphy and poetry on the spot. The famous Tang poets Li Bai and Bai Juyi, for example, discuss music in many of their poems – music serves as poetic inspiration, melancholic expression of exile and home, and has an undeniable sensual-erotic aspect as well.

This is why when I see someone playing the Ancient Guqin string instrument at ‘Chinese Culture Weeks’ in Western-style concert halls today, I always feel that the setting is way too vast and formal. This problem cannot be alleviated simply by moving the Guqin player to a smaller stage and room, because, if you remember Thomas Mann’s analysis, the dynamics there between the musician and the audience are meant to be more hierarchical and rigid. The Chinese Tang musician, however, has to be able to pick up their instrument, carry it for miles and up mountains, and set foot wherever the next occasion of a meeting between nomadic minds arises…

 

Who am I between the cultures? Cultural neuroscience’s new questions for the Self

I stand at the iron-cast main gate of Columbia University and look back one last time onto the snow covered campus before I take down the stairs to the 116th Street subway station. Today was one of those days again on which I did not have to ask myself perpetually who I am. In the seminar rooms, the library, the food halls and rambling corridors of Morningside campus’ pre-war buildings, the peculiar combination of my Chinese looks and British English with a German accent passes without comment. Rather, in the good old New York convention of unshakable indifference and mild impatience, people focus on the essentials: their response to my comments on the seminar text, my overdue library fees, my signature for the Earl Grey tea bill…

It has been a good day for me. This way, I could also focus on the essential part in me. But what does it mean, to be oneself? This question jumps at me the moment I leave the snow covered campus and walk into the noisy subway train filled with identities and chatter from everywhere. Whereas on campus it’s all about the distillation of the thinking Self (and the apparatus that keeps it running), outside of it, we are thrown into expressing, negotiating, enjoying and suffering at the hands of our identities and self-experiments, in wrapping yet another one of those countless cloaks of cultural norms around what we call the Self.

But is the idea of the cloaked Self not in itself a naïve fiction – as if there were something at our core that is awaiting to be peeled out and distilled? Is it possible at all to distinguish a specific Self from all the cultural identities that make up who we are? How far, in Hegel’s sense, can Sitten and Bildung permeate us? Are we literally our cultural customs or is there something that can escape these cloaks? Who am I when I move effortlessly over the snow-muffled Columbia campus and think and talk without having to constantly be reminded of my skin color, my whimsical biography and my language barriers, and who am I indeed when I feel so deeply touched by the snippets of Chinese, German and English that fly across the subway train?

Research in the novel field of cultural neuroscience is asking exactly those questions. Studies have shown that the influence of cultural practices can lead to profound differences in brain mechanisms – affecting how we perceive objects, colors, other human beings, ourselves, and even the way how we reason mathematically (Ames and Fiske, 2010). For example, both Western and East Asian people display activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex when asked to think about themselves (Kelley et al., 2002; Zhang et al., 2006), but only East Asian people exhibit activity in the same regions when asked to think about their mother (Zhu, Zhang, Fan und Han, 2007). What this means is that East Asians have a distinct conception of Self that includes not only themselves but also immediate others – the Self is not understood in an isolated fashion but in a relational manner to others and society.

Cultural psychologists have been claiming cultural differences in one’s sense of Self for some while. The evidence at the brain level confirms psychological theories of the independent Western and interdependent East Asian Self developed by Hazel Markus and Shinobu Kitayama (1991). This theory is based on the hypothesis that cultural influences such as Confucianism contribute to East Asians viewing themselves as socially contextual beings who mainly make sense of themselves through their ties to family and friends. Unlike in the West, the East Asian Self is not treated as an independent entity. Other cultural psychologists studying Western and Japanese children’s idea of self were able to show that this dichotomy might be flawed, since Japanese children could make self-descriptions in both independent and interdependent styles (Killen et al. 2002). However, the brain evidence from cultural neuroscience is still compelling – it shows that at least once people reach adulthood, cultural influences can be powerful enough result in distinctly different brain mechanism during self-processing.

Cultural neuroscientists have also looked into the effect of religion on our sense of Self. For example, only Christians exhibit brain activity in their dorsal medial prefrontal cortex, a brain area engaged in third-person perception, when thinking about themselves (Han et. al 2008). Once again the brain evidence confirms psychological theories; previously, we assumed that Christians judge themselves through the eyes of God and that this affected from which perspective they viewed themselves. Buddhists, however, in accordance with the Buddhist principle of “anatta” (i.e. no-self), do not exhibit brain activity in the typical regions when thinking about themselves – through repeated religious practice of self-denial, they have managed to modify their neuronal dynamics altogether (Wu, Wang et al. 2010). Curiously, the experiment on the Christians and Buddhists were conducted at Beijing University with Han atheists, Han Christians and Tibetan Buddhists, reminding us that differences in self-perception do not just appear between different cultural societies but also within one society.

This kind of intercultural variation in our self-perception opens a host of hard philosophical questions. It certainly throws the universal application of the Western liberal model of Self in a critical light. In John Stuart Mill’s famous work On Liberty (1859), only “cultivation of individuality brings humans nearer to the best thing they can be” because only the individual Self that has freed herself from society’s restraints can find true happiness. Although Mill does take into account the significance of society’s influence and the need to consider our fellow human beings in the ultimate quest for individuality, his message is clear: we can only become full human beings when we are our own last judge and have emancipated ourselves from our surrounding cultural norms. But in light of cultural neuroscience’s discoveries, Mill’s thesis becomes questionable. Are East Asians or Buddhists unable to attain true happiness because their cognitive experience of Self is not based on Mill’s ideal? Can we only find happiness and true humanity in the cultivation of Western individuality?

A rejection of these questions points to the field of postmodern critical theory and its questioning of the liberal idea of Self. Postmodernists argue that non-western and pre-modern societies deserve at least the same level of recognition and consideration as the prevailing post-Enlightenment, modern Western ideal of society. Critics of postmodernism object that this kind of perspective can lead to the circumventing of important normative questions, and even a kind of moral relativism in relation to universal values such as human rights.

An unexpected dissenter of this postmodern turn is V.S. Naipaul, the Trinidadian writer and literature Nobel prize winner, who himself is a traveler between the cultures of his birth place Trinidad, his Indian heritage and his self-chosen home of England. In a speech given at the Manhattan Institute of New York (1992), he pleads for the ideals of a ‘universal civilization’, which he describes as

“(…) the beauty of the idea of the pursuit of happiness. Familiar words, easy to take for granted; easy to misconstrue. This idea of the pursuit of happiness is at the heart of the civilization to so many outside it or on its periphery (…) I don’t imagine my father’s parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But is it known to exist; and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.”

For Naipaul, this ideal could not be found within the cultural confinements of his birth place Trinidad, but only in the Great Britain – and particularly London – of his time. Sure enough, Naipaul mocks the flawed self-conception of the people in the Trinidad of his childhood with a tenderness and empathy that at once forgives and understands them for who they are – yet he is certain that as a writer, he could have only flourished in the societies of Western modernity.

Naipaul’s unusual biography of arriving in 1950s England as a dark-skinned young man from a small postcolonial Caribbean island would not surprise us that much anymore today. In our current hypermobile world people travel and immigrate – whether that is due to economic or political pressures or due to the privilege of socio-economic resources – from non-Western peripheries to the centers of the Western world all the time. So many unforeseeable identity cloaks will be put on within a lifetime. It gets increasingly more difficult to draw clear lines between Western and non-Western narrations of ourselves and within self-conceptions at the brain level. I and other people who are moving along Columbia University’s campus and in the streets of New York are witnesses of this new experience of carrying multiple cultural identities within one brain.

Naipaul’s position has been rightly attacked for many reasons (I cannot help admiring him for doing such an excellent job at being loathed though – it would be much easier to make himself being loved by the postmodern crowd): the arrogance and arbitrariness of his cultural judgments, his limited and unfair depiction of pre-modern and non-Western societies, his haughtiness, his glorification and misconstruction of modernity and Western ideals. And yet, when he speaks of the ‘universal civilization’ in this still crisp talk in New York over 20 years ago, I knew immediately and exactly what he was referring to. It is this experience that I encounter on Columbia campus and many places within New York – but sadly not in my twin homeland, my Zwillingsheimatland, Germany, where I am always the perpetual foreigner to too many Germans – this experience of partaking in what feels like a universal way of being human together, which becomes the basis of a precious sense of freedom. I would counter Naipaul however that this freedom is not necessarily particular to a specific culture but can blossom wherever people find ways within their culture to humanize the foreign Other.

The German original of this blog post can be found here at the Hannover Philosophy Institute’s blog.

References

Ames, D.L. & Fiske, S. (2010) Cultural Neuroscience. Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 13 (2), 72-82.

Kelley, W.M., Macrae, C.N., Wyland, C.L., Caglar, S., Inati, S.&Heatherton, T.F. (2002). Finding the Self? An event-related fMRI study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 14 (5), 785-794.

Killen, M., McGlothlin, H., Lee-Kim, J. (2002) Between individuals and culture: individuals’ evaluations of exclusion from social groups, in: Between Culture and Biology (eds. Keller et al.), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Markus, H.R. & Kitayama, S. (1991). Culture and self: Implications for cognition, emotion, and motivation. Psychological Review, 98 (2), 224-253.

Mill, J.S. (1993) On Liberty, London: Orion.

Naipaul, V.S. (2002) Postscript: Our universal civilization, in: V.S. Naipaul, The Writer and the World, New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wu, Y., Wang, C., He, X., Mao, L. & Zhang, L. (2010) Religious beliefs influence neural substrates of self-reflection in Tibetans. Social and Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 5 (2-3), 324-331.

Zhang, L., Zhou, T., Zhang, J., Liu, Z., Fan, J. & Zhu, Y. (2006). In search of the Chinese self: An fMRI study. Science in China Series C: Life Sciences, 49 (1), 89-96.

Zhu, Y., Zhang, L., Fan, J. & Han, S. (2007). Neural basis of cultural influence on self-representation. Neuroimage, 34 (3), 1310-1316.