Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Geminis and Germans

This post is about an example of the technique of Substitution. It comes from the excellent 2 part documentary series, The Enemies of Reason (this is from Part 1), written and hosted by Richard Dawkins (embedded below – you can download it via google video - it’s a “must see”). Dawkins discusses the pseudo-science of astrology. He points out that it seems to be okay to stereotype people based on their star-sign (about 6 minutes into the documentary). Dawkins points out the hypocrisy of this by substituting nationalities in place of star signs. He asks us:
How would we react if a newspaper published a daily column that read something like this:

Germans: It is in your nature to be hard working and methodical, which should serve you well at work today. In your personal relationships, especially this evening, you will need to curb your natural tendency to obey orders.

Chinese: Inscrutability has many advantages, but it may be your undoing today.

British: Your stiff upper lip may serve you well in business dealings, but try to relax and let yourself go in your social life.
Dawkins goes on to point out that astrology columns are hardly as offensive as above, but there is no difference in essence.

With the substitution, all of a sudden the politically correct sensibilities swing into action. We don’t accept facile and artificial differences in any other way.

I often use substitution when acquaintances are having fun “American bashing”. They make statements such as: “Americans are so stupid”, or: “Americans are gun nuts”, or: “Americans are religious fundamentalists”, etc. The technique I learned from Jef, was to ask them to repeat their sentence, but substitute the word “Blacks”, or “Jews”, or “Women” for “Americans”. For some reason they never seem to do it?

Back to astrology. If asked what my star sign is, I steal Bill Bryson’s reply: “Necrophilia”.