Sowell on "Filtering"

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thomas Sowell makes yet another of the kind of observation that has made him a favorite columnist of mine for a long time.

Long ago, Sowell was surprised to learn that he was rumored to refuse to see campus visitors from Africa. As a professor normally too busy to take any campus visitors -- and as someone nearly as enthusiastic about sky-diving as I am -- he replied that the rumor was about as accurate as saying that he "refused to go sky-diving with blacks."

Thus Sowell introduces a similar rumor from history:

If the history of slavery ought to teach us anything, it is that human beings cannot be trusted with unbridled power over other human beings-- no matter what color or creed any of them are. The history of ancient despotism and modern totalitarianism practically shouts that same message from the blood-stained pages of history.

But that is not the message that is being taught in our schools and colleges, or dramatized on television and in the movies. The message that is pounded home again and again is that white people enslaved black people.
Sowell goes on to note that the focus on race acts in much the same way the old rumor about him did: as a filter that makes Western civilization seem worse than it deserves. Said filter also hides in plain sight one of the greatest achievements of the West, the near-total eradication of slavery. Unsurprisingly, opponents of Western civilization take advantage of this same filter to continue tearing it down at every opportunity.

In a broad sense, Sowell's topic here is objectivity, but this is an angle I had never explicitly considered in exactly this way. Conceiving of an issue in terms of non-essentials is hugely detrimental to acquiring new knowledge. Very thought-provoking.

-- CAV


Kyle Haight said...

Yes, the concepts you use are crucial to the effectiveness of your thought. Coincidentally I had a brief blog post a few days ago on essentially this topic, dealing with the consequences of thinking in terms of "atheism vs. religion" instead of "reason vs. faith".

Concepts matter.

Gus Van Horn said...


It's interesting that you used the term "framing" in your post as I thought of George Lakoff when I was writing this morning.

Yes. That false dichotomy does fairly save a religionist from even having to stammer that reason is "limited," doesn't it?


Anonymous said...

I found it interesting to read some of the many comments to Dr. Sowell's piece. Those negative remarks perfectly illustrated the filtering described therein.


Gus Van Horn said...

Interesting to hear. I hadn't thought to look at those.

If I have an odd moment, perhaps I shall...