Re: Ethnocentrism and Racism

31 January 2009

In Response to a Reader’s Comment

Shadows, by lonecellotheory, with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)The blogosphere is a wonderful thing – it kicks up opinions both reasoned and unreasoned, considered and trite, and balances them against each other as though their values were equal. That makes for often intriguing conversation if you spend time reading down the comment lists on popular blogs, searching for actions, reactions and overreactions. It all makes for the drama of life, the politics of knowing, knowing not, or knowing too much. So I’m very pleased that a commenter going by that name ‘yourfriend’ has take exception to my post on the limits and possibilities of multiculturalism in China. Let’s have a friendly conversation.

First, the comment:

The fact that you don’t see China, a nation containing many peoples with separate thousands-years-old cultures, as multicultural only hints at ethnocentrism and racism on your part.

So, not a terribly good start, but let’s see what we can make of it. Early in my post I ask how we can define a multiculture, meaning that we shouldn’t presume that the presence of multiple ethnic groups in a definable geo-political space is necessarily evidence of a multicultural country. Purposeful multiculturalism takes a good deal of effort, encouragement and willingness on the part of the ethnic majority, however defined, to rank itself as only one of many.

Discarded Traffic Signs, by The Joy Of The Mundane with Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Noncommercial 2.0 Generic)I do criticise China for being ‘xenophobic’ in its dealings with non-Han people – not racist, but acutely aware of an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ division within the country, especially in relation to the way in which minority ethnic groups are given ‘nationality’ status. Now that might have been unbalanced had I not turned to my own country, Australia (as a representative of “the many failures of coexistence in Western societies”, no less) and considered the pretensions to multiculturalism there as well, grouping them under the same ‘xenophobic’ rubric. This might not be an exacting test to determine whether there are ‘hints’ of ethnocentrism and racism in my writing, but it suggests for now that such a conclusion is by no means obvious.

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Abuse is Cheap

16 July 2008

Or, a Rudimentary Comment Policy

Although it seems so much like a cliché, to say abuse is cheap is the most satisfying response to irrational and irresponsible comments left on blogs. Thankfully, Greetings Earthlings has only ever attracted pertinent comments, many of which have made me think again about important issues. Some – especially my exchange with Patrick Lambe about knowledge management – still have me thinking. But today the other blog I maintain, A Death in Hong Kong, received a ranting, possibly delusional comment about my wife and two close friends who have been working with me seeking justice for Vicky Flores and her family. So it’s time to reflect on invective, and think about what might pass for a comment policy here.

What makes someone rant at people who have given countless hours of time, significant amounts of money and sent themselves almost to exhaustion to help others? Jealousy could nail it, or derangement if the logic slips enough, but neither are particularly satisfying. Obviously the Internet offers convenient anonymity from which to fire barbs, although relatively few people realise just how simple it is to track down the IP address and thus location of a bitchy commenter. No, it’s not about ease of use. It’s got something do with quality.

Regardless of what else I could be accused, I pride myself in writing well, not only because I want people to read and agree, but also because I value ideas and their articulation. Not everyone sees things my way, but at least they can see what I’m getting at. Blog flamers, in contrast, really have no idea. Just as words strung out sequentially don’t necessarily constitute a sentence, a scattering of insults and wild presumptions are unlikely to comprise a comment.

As I mentioned earlier, abuse is cheap. Not only is it worth little in one sense of the word, but it’s also sleazy, both degrading of its context and demeaning for its perpetrators. And I intend to save abusive commenters from themselves.

So here comes what will pass for a comment policy on Greetings Earthlings. Any personal abuse of me or anyone else, including public figures, will be deleted. Attack my ideas or those of other commenters if you like. Attack the blog’s layout – criticise my choice of images if it pleases you – but I ask you to do so from a rational perspective.

After all, logic is everyone’s friend in this truly puzzling world.


Of Numbers and Knowing

4 April 2008

Social Group Size and Knowledge Management Concerns

Spiekermann House Numbers, by stewf, with creative commons licenceNumbers have a curious way of popping up in the most unlikely places. Think of social groups and their optimal dynamics and you’re likely to imagine somewhat fuzzy amounts. Large groups might be difficult to manage, but that shouldn’t be the case for small groups. This has been important for me lately as I’ve argued against the need for knowledge management in self-organising systems. But one number I’ve missed might well make a difference, and it’s rather precise.

Debating me on a range of issues under the broad rubric of knowledge management today, Patrick Lambe mentioned what is often described as Dunbar’s number: 150. It seems dubiously even, but it’s rounded up from 148 and is only then the upper limit of individuals with whom you’re likely to maintain close personal relations.

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist who studies the size of the neocortex in primates – that part of the brain governing consciousness, sensory perceptions and language – and relates it to optimal group size. It turns out that our brains might be hardwired to work best in smaller organisations.

Actually, I should have known that. Malcolm Gladwell mentions Dunbar’s number in Tipping Point, which I read a few months ago, and I remembered the subsequent discussion about W.L. Gore and Associates (of Gore-Tex fame). Gore has broken itself into small units of what it calls “multidisciplinary teams” with largely horizontal staff structures to counteract organisational inefficiency. When I raised this issue today, Patrick recognised it as a “good example of organising to meet cognitive constraints”.

In that light it might also be an alternative to knowledge management, disaggregating a large organisation that’s cutting too many links between its members. Patrick thinksUnique Group! by Thiru Murugan, with Creative Commons licence “even those optimal size tea[m]s need to coordinate with each other if the organisation is to operate as a coherent whole”. Yes certainly, and it will be interesting to find out exactly what form of coordination would be needed, given that employees would be neurologically more capable of doing the inter-group organising for themselves.

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Knowledge Management Revisited

3 April 2008

In Reply to Patrick Lambe

I got trouble, by ndemi, with Creative Commons licenceIt seems I caused a stir with my comments on knowledge management a few days ago. Patrick Lambe, who featured on the second YouTube video in my post, took exception to my position in general and use of ‘snake-oil’ to describe his field in particular. Patrick’s response is over at Green Chameleon, and raises a number of issues beyond the scope of my initial concern, but equally valid.

I’m republishing my counter-comments here largely verbatim, with a few links added, so the debate can be taken to as wide an audience as possible.

Still questions to answer

Patrick, let me begin by saying that I very much appreciate you taking the time to respond in detail to my post on your own blog. But before I reply in kind I just want to clarify one small matter there was no ire to be raised in my post. Not everyone needs an agenda to be critical.

In framing my initial comments on knowledge management under the snake-oil rubric I merely meant to challenge what I see as a poorly defined field, to highlight one important challenge to it, and to say something about photocopier salesmen posing as anything but just that. I notice that you barely touch upon this final point, although I am glad to see that you acknowledge the charlatans on the edges of your field. Given my comments to come, you’ll have to forgive me for continuing to think that they are in the public eye far more than you might imagine.

In any case, therein lies the reasoning that you failed to detect in my post: knowledge management is not a field that shouldn’t have questions asked of it by outsiders.

2008 #50 Getting Clarity, by Jeroen Latour, with Creative Commons licenceInterestingly enough, your response passes over the variety of knowledge management definitions Ray Sims mentioned without giving any proof that they are “not as varied as the sheer number” suggests. Why not? How many definitions would you support?

I acknowledge that your field could well be grappling with problems of classification many are but failing to recognise a lack of clarity as a significant problem seems to me short sighted.

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Writing, Blogging, Learning

5 March 2008

Collaborative Reviews and the Battle for Literature

Gav Bad Speed-Reads, by andropolisThought in isolation is a little sterile, prone to fits and starts. Writing can help the learning process by forcing ideas into shape, but only conversation in its many forms can really beat out misconceptions. A blog is, or at least should be, a conversation in motion, and in that I’m thankful of the comments I received on my post yesterday.

I particularly want to mention John Quiggin’s rejoinder because it made me think more about the nature of the book review and what a certain type of blog can add to it. My position has been that online reviews tend towards the book report form, and I’ve been thinking – somewhat narcissistically – of blogs like this, single author affairs. In the first part of his comment Professor Quiggin pointed to the value of the book seminars on Crooked Timber, a multi-author blog to which he contributes and I read.

D’Oh.

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