About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Big Brother, racism and violent anti-racism

Ah, the pleasures of “reality” shows! The latest coming to us from the British version of “Big Brother,” broadcast on the island by Channel 4. This season's show features “celebrities” (i.e., people famous for being famous), including a “Bollywood” (the Indian Hollywood) star Shilpa Shetty. Apparently, she has been singled out by the other participants, some of whom don't know how to pronounce her name and refer to her simply as “the Indian.” Racism or simple minded ignorance?

Doesn't matter, because the perception of racism has led to riots in the streets by Indians who feel that their entire nation has been “insulted” (where did I hear that before?). As a result, of course, they started to burn the effigy of the show's producers. You know, the sensible, non-violent response to abuse. Hey, if Muslims can do it to flags all over the world, why not Indians? At least, this time, they are burning effigies, not some of their compatriots who happen to be women, members of a different cast, or believers in a different religion. That's progress, no?

A whopping 19,300 viewers have filed complaints with the broadcaster, which means that way too many people have too much time on their hands, or simply have their priorities a bit off, considering everything else that is happening in the world (including in India itself, of course).

Even Tony (the lapdog) Blair has been drawn into the controversy, as he had to respond to a formal inquiry in Parliament concerning the Big Brother incident. With predictable inanity, he responded by simply saying that "we should oppose racism in all its forms." Yes, well, I believe he lost only the votes of local associates of the American Ku Klux Klan with that one.

Of course, all of this is good news for Channel 4, since the controversy has caused a spike in the ratings (from 3.5 to 4.5 million viewers in one evening). Am I too cynical to suspect that perhaps Shilpa and her three co-celebrities may be playing an act simply to boost their own shabby game?


  1. I wouldn't underestimate the stupidity and ignorance of the people that go on that program. Jade Goody one of the contestants who is accused of the racism said a few years ago that Cambridge was in London.

  2. While the actors might not be faking (who knows, I haven't seen the show) the news agencies definitely have incentives to play this up. This was the top story earlier today on CNN.com, which is utterly ridiculous.

  3. my theory:

    The most effective way to arrest the 'collective indignation' is to place such an unbelievable affront before people so that lesser (less ridiculous looking insults) seem benign.

    But they are not, of course. And so, one ought not watch nor participate in the mindless activity. To do so is to validate a worse than dark ages belief/practice, that should not even be given air time.


  4. At the insistance of a friend I tuned into a reality show a couple of years ago, watched for maybe 10 minutes and turned it off. Reality? It was the most contrived piece of junk I've ever seen (well almost, I watched Bush intervied on 60 Minutes last Sunday, gag). Why anyone would watch these things is beyond me. I assume MP watched this one for academic reasons, I certainly hope so.

  5. Dennis,
    The purpose of a reality show is to cause those participating and those observing to replace their old ethics with "new" ones.

    It is, as such, a excursion into situation ethics. That is, each new person and conflict requires a new approach or rethinking of how we know "such and such" should reasonably and normatively be handled. "Kicking certain people out" of whatever it is the particular situation is warranting, gives each of the other members of the group reasons to devalue, dehumanize that person, and essentially get to experiment with being "unethical".
    Don't you wonder how the Germans got their population to re-evaluate what makes a person a "human being"?

    The link is for the segment of following article on SE.:


    A Critical Look at Situation Ethics
    March 1, 1999
    by Wayne Jackson

    How do you determine what is right and wrong?

    Basically, there are three schools of thought regarding human moral responsibility. First, there is nihilism. Nihilism argues that there is no God, hence anything one wishes to do is permitted. There are no rules—absolutely none—for human conduct; according to this ideology, every person is a law unto himself.

    Second, there is relativism. Relativism contends that all conduct is relative to the circumstance. Thus, each individual must decide what is moral or immoral in a given situation. Ultimately, every man is his own judge of the matter.

    Third, there is absolutism. This concept affirms that there is an absolute, objective standard of right and wrong (grounded in the holy nature of God Himself), and this code of moral conduct is set forth in the Bible—reaching its zenith in the New Testament. Elsewhere we have discussed these ideas in greater detail (Jackson 153-160). For the present, we will address “relativism,” or, as it is more commonly known, “situation ethics.”

    There are two fundamental categories of situation ethicists. There are atheistic situationists—those who totally reject the Scriptures as having any bearing on morality. Then, in addition, there are religious situationists—including those who allege that the Bible actually endorses this code of action.
    Atheistic Situationism

    The former category finds expression in the following statement found in Humanist Manifestos I & II: “[W]e affirm that moral values derive their source from human experience. Ethics is autonomous and situational, needing no theological or ideological sanction” (p. 17).

    The foregoing declaration is wholly void of reason. If man is “autonomous,” i.e., he is a self-governing creature, there could never be a “situation” in which he could do wrong! It is an exercise in futility to attempt to construct any sort of ethical system apart from the concept that man has a soul that ultimately will be accountable to God in eternity; that Heaven has revealed that concept, and regulated human activity, through the Scriptures.

    The French philosopher Pascal wrote: “It is certain that the mortality or immortality of the soul must make an entire difference to morality. And yet philosophers have constructed their ethics independently of this: they discuss to pass an hour” (p. 79).

    In his Diary of a Writer, the Russian novelist Dostoevsky observed: “Neither a man nor a nation can live without a ‘higher idea,’ and there is only one such idea on earth, that of an immortal human soul; all the other ‘higher ideas’ by which men live follow from that…” (Berdyaev, p. 105).

    No skeptic can consistently argue the case for situational morality..."

    at link.


  6. I saw the clip of Blair's response during Question Period. He used that all purpose hedge phrase "in principle", i.e., he ducked the question.

  7. suf,

    Anyone can totally be the expert armchair philosopher until the problem is actually and literally theirs to solve, don't you think?

    So how does one REALLY solve the racial problems of the world without ignoring key components that created the tension in the first place?

    And remember that "beliefs" are part of us as is our DNA. So one is never going to eradicate beliefs without killing the human (like hiv) who holds em. And every human with brain function does.


  8. As for reality shows - I think I'll just kick back with some good books and wait for baseball season. Trying to attach importance and/or meaning to these abominable TV programs is out of my league.


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