Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Interlude: On the Sweet Tooth, Identity, and Justice

Over the weekend I had been reading Walter Benn Michaels' book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality.

In The Trouble with Diversity, Michaels offers an interesting thesis about something he feels has gone awry in our country. His thesis reminded me of some of my comments regarding the Magic Moral Number 150. So, I'd like to share Michaels' thesis with you and then connect it to what I've been saying about cognitive sweet tooths and evolutionary psychology.

Michaels feels that the liberal left has made a mistake. Specifically, he feels that our current focus on identity over equality is stalling efforts for a truly transformative politics. Generally, identity--who we are--dominates the American political and cultural conversation. The most salient marker of identity is generally race and ethnicity. Consequently, America and its institutions of higher education tend to focus of issues of diversity. Achieving diversity is the great moral and political goal.

Michaels claims that this focus on identity and, hence, diversity, is muddled and woefully off target. For Michaels the issue isn't diversity but equality. For Michaels the salient issue should not be race but class. The real problem in American is not race, its poverty and the shrinking of the middle class. It is true that race and ethnicity are correlated with socioeconomic status, but this only confuses the political conversation. You don't address poverty by celebrating diversity. As an example, Michaels points to post-Katrina reactions. Most of those who bore the brunt of Katrina's devastation were poor blacks. For Michaels the important issue was that these people were poor. But for the media and most political pundits the talking point was race. But Katrina wasn't about race, it was about class. Thus America, on a wide scale, missed the point.

Let's hear some from Michaels from his first chapter. On his main thesis:

"[My] argument, in its simplest form, will be that we love race--we love identity--because we don't love class. We love thinking that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of us who have money and those who don't but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever. A world where some of us don't have enough money is a world where the differences between us present a problem: the need to get rid of inequality or to justify it. A world where some of us are black and some of us are white--or biracial or Native American or transgendered--is a world where the differences between us present a solution: appreciating our diversity. So we like to talk about the differences we can appreciate, and we don't like to talk about the ones we can't. Indeed, we don't even like to acknowledge that they exist." p. 6

Regarding the misstep of the American Left:

"Giving priority to issues like affirmative action and committing itself to the celebration of difference, the intellectual left has responded to the increase in economic inequality by insisting on the importance of cultural identity. So for thirty years, while the gap between the rich and poor has grown larger, we've been urged to respect people's identities--as if the problem of poverty would be solved if we just appreciated the poor. From the economic standpoint, however, what poor people want is not to contribute to diversity but to minimize their contribution to it--they want to stop being poor." p. 7

On the goals of his book:

The goal of the book is that "by shifting our focus from cultural diversity to economic equality [we can] help alter the political terrain of contemporary American life." p. 7

Summing up his first chapter:

"...we should not allow--or we should not continue to allow--the phantasm of respect for difference to take the place of that commitment to economic justice. In short, this book is an effort to move beyond diversity--to make it clear that the commitment to diversity is at best a distraction and at worst an essentially reactionary position--and to help but equality back on the national agenda." p. 16

This is an interesting stew of ideas. Rarely do you hear an intellectual who is fighting against poverty be so negative about cultural and ethic diversity. Those two commitments tend to move together in the current political conversation.

I'm intrigued by Michaels' thesis and feel that he may have a point. Is the focus on diversity confusing us? Causing to miss the real problem, poverty and inequality? What do you think?

As you think about that question I'd like to suggest a connection between Michaels' diagnosis and evolutionary psychology.

Michaels believes that the focus on identity (currently dominated by issues of race) is due to the fact that issues of identity have easy solutions (i.e., celebrate diversity). In contrast, he suggests that we ignore issue of equality because those solutions are hard and troublesome. I agree. But I also think that evolutionary psychology offers another, complementary perspective.

Specifically, we can SEE race. It's harder to see class. Thus, the focus on race is another a cognitive sweet tooth, an evolved mental bias.

Let me explain. Many evolutionary psychologists believe that our minds are equipped with social recognition devices. That is, it is adaptive to be able to sort familials from non-familials and friends from foes. Further, as we'll cover later in this series, it is also adaptive to recognize exchange partners and to recall the faces of those who have cheated you in past exchanges. Neuroscientific evidence supports the existence of this social recognition device in that we know that there is a specific sector of the brain exclusively devoted to the memory of faces. Damage to this area leads to prosopagnosia ("face blindness").

My point is that as the brain scans the environment it is sorting people into two categories: Friend versus Stranger. Obviously, in this task the brain is drawn to salient visual and auditory cues (e.g., skin color and accent) just like it is drawn to sugar.

So, what I'm suggesting is that one other reason that race may insert itself into political conversations at the potential expense of more important concerns (poverty) is that brains are drawn to observable Stranger/Friend signals. As I said, we can SEE race. It's harder to see class.

To conclude, here are some discussion questions for churches:

1. Are churches also missing the point, focusing overmuch on diversity rather than on equality?

2. If the brain cues more easily off of visual stimuli, are churches working to make class more VISIBLE so that the church isn't trapped or sidetracked by yet other sweet tooth of the mind?

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10 thoughts on “Theology and Evolutionary Psychology, Interlude: On the Sweet Tooth, Identity, and Justice”

  1. Without having read the book in question, the problem I see with the thesis is that I don't think the issue of economic difference and cultural difference can be separated that easily. A while ago the Internet Monk wrote a really interesting series about life in the poor Appalachian community he ministers, which I linked and discussed here (sorry to keep pimping my blog -- I don't even add to it any more but you keep bringing up topics I've covered!). Much of the issue was about how much certain aspects of the culture there were maintaining poverty, and how much well-meaning helpers should try to change them. And since Jesus was so critical of the pursuit of money, adding the Gospel to the mix makes things even more complicated.

  2. 1. Maybe churches should focus on equality but I didn't realize churches were focusing on diversity.

  3. camassia,
    I agree the issues are interrelated and that by addressing racial diversity we are, for the most part, addressing socioeconomic inequality. But I think Michaels is correct to get those two switched around: To place class rather than race at the center of national attention.

    In conversations at my church I’ve heard talk about how white we are with associated hand wringing at how the white and black churches are not integrated enough. So, although I've heard a few conversations about being too white I've never heard a conversation about being too rich.

  4. That isn't quite what I meant. To some extent I agree with his idea that there's a tension between respecting cultural difference and promoting economic equality, but it's because culture and economics are intimately related. So I don't think that culture is just a distraction from economics -- to improve a group's economic conditions means changing the culture. That seems to be what's basically behind the phenomena the Internet Monk writes about: everyone wants more money, but they have mixed feelings about it when it means changing their values, lifestyle, social relationships, etc. It sounds to me as if Michaels is taking the vaguely Marxist view that economic equality is so important that it should steamroll everything that gets in its way, but I don't know if Christians should go along with that. For Marxists income equality is the ultimate end, but I'd think that for Christians it should only be considered as a means to a holy community.

    The most important question is, what are we equalizing everything to? Between starvation and Donald Trump, there are a lot of possible benchmarks for the proper level of consumption. Is it the middle-class American idea of adequate provision? An African farmer's? A monk's? When Jesus urges people to help the poor, does that mean arranging things so that we should never have to help the poor? When he warns against the desire for money, does he speak to the poor as well as the rich? I'm not settled on the answers to all these questions myself, but I think that the voices of other cultures that have different attitudes towards money and possessions are worth listening to, before we simply declare (as Michaels apparently does) that what the poor want is really very simple.

  5. camassia,
    I see your point now. Thank you for clarifying.

    From what you are saying, I can see that Michaels' thesis is fairly shallow. And I agree with you. A biblical notion of Shalom is much deeper and richer than mere economic equality (although issues of social justice are surely a part of that equation).

  6. Oh my gosh...I think this man's thesis is GREAT, not shallow AT ALL and immediately to the point.

    (Richard, you post too often; I can't get over here to read fast enough...slow down!)

    Micheal's point is not shallow because of when he's writing and who his audience is. We are, in 21st c. USA, completely confusing race and class, and his point (as Richard has summarized it) seems a fantastic place to start--with broad, generalizing strokes that begin smaller, more pointed arguments.

    I see evidence to his argument all around me. Affirmative action has caused much division among minorities, and between those who benefit from those who do not. Moreover, many minorities cannot agree on what upward mobility for their RACE is; howerver, it seems "moving up financially" is celebrated by all.

    True, the nuances of what that looks like is not ironed out, but so what?

    To me, Camassia, culture and economics are so interrelated only because we speak of them that way. Capitalism is about managing resources, and I agree with Michaels (ala Beck) that we've been focusing too long--erroneously--that white capitalists want to harm non-white resources because they're non-white.

    I'll stop for now until I read this book. Thanks, Richard.

  7. To me, Camassia, culture and economics are so interrelated only because we speak of them that way.

    Culture and economics are interrelated because a lot of cultural organization is around economics. A society where most people are family farmers is not only likely to have less money than an industrial one, but a different view of family. How did the Old Testament desire to have as many kids as possible turn into our current 2.1-child average? There are a number of factors, but the most obvious one is that children turned from economic assets into liabilities.

    If you're narrowing your purview to 21st-century America the difference is not so vast, but the fact that we're still arguing so ferociously over "family values" indicates that these issues haven't left us. I think it would help, actually, to be more aware of the economic components of our cultural arguments, as well as the cultural components of economic arguments.

    I realize though that I'm talking about culture here while everybody else is talking about race, and it should be acknowledged that the two aren't identical. In fact, I suspect that the sort of divisions you mention in African-American society come from the fact that they no longer have the cultural solidarity they had from being universally poor and oppressed. However, a class-based solidarity is no more stable a category, especially if the goal of your social class is to not be in that class any more.

    Capitalism is about managing resources, and I agree with Michaels (ala Beck) that we've been focusing too long--erroneously--that white capitalists want to harm non-white resources because they're non-white.

    I think I agree with this, but I'm not 100% clear on what the sentence means.

  8. Cole and Camassia,
    I don't have much to add (you both know more about these issues than I do), but I appreciate the conversation here. Just know, if you care, that I'm still watching the comments on this post and chewing over the various perspective you raise.

  9. Seems like this needs bumped to the present especially before the next election cycle...

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