A Philosopher's Blog

Oprah’s Network

Posted in Race by Michael LaBossiere on February 6, 2011
Photo of Oprah Winfrey at her 50th birthday pa...

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Not content with but one show, Oprah recently created her own network. Interestingly enough, she has been getting some criticism for what some regard as insufficient diversity among her TV personalities. While her network is not exclusively white, the majority of the high profile programs are headed up by white people (most famously Dr. Phil).

While it might strike some as a bit odd that Oprah, of all people, would be subject to such criticism, such is the way of things. In any case, this does raise some interesting matters.

One obvious question is what would count as an adequate degree of diversity. One approach is to use the diversity of the general population as the standard by which to measure diversity on smaller scales, such as on Oprah’s network. If the United States is used as the standard, then it would seem acceptable for her network to have a majority of white people. Of course, she would need to hire people from all the various other ethnic groups in order to be properly diverse. This would also require sorting out what groups count as distinct groups and what groups should be lumped together. For example, should Mohawks get a a show hosted by a Mohawk or would having a show hosted by a “native American” suffice to cover everyone in that category? Would people who are “mixed” count multiple times or would they count as fractions?  Presumably all these mathematical details could be worked out in a formula of diversity. Or perhaps not.

While the numerical approach has some appeal, it would seem that there should be alternatives. Perhaps another foundation could be used for the measure of adequate diversity. And, of course, some might raise questions about whether diversity is a good in and of itself or not.


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  1. Asur said, on February 6, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Ethnic diversity is useless — well, I take that back, having an ethnically diverse general population is advantageous in that such intermixing tends to strengthen a population’s genetic pool. But, that sounds a lot like eugenics; in any event, it’s not really what people mean by “ethnic diversity”, is it?

    No one says, “We don’t have enough of Ethnicity X in the general population”; rather, they say, “We don’t have enough of Ethnicity X in Center of Power Y”, where Y is an academic field, an institution, a government, a business, a level of management thereof — or, apparently, a TV channel.

    Okay. So, why does anyone care about the ethnic distribution within a given center of power? Well, they care because disparities between the ethnic distribution of a general population and the centers of power located within it can be due to bias — hence, we use such imbalances as indices of racial discrimination.

    Of course, this is an inherently probabilistic index; it relies on the idea that, all else being equal, such ethnic distribution will be uniform. Familiarity with statistics — the mathematics of probability, no less — shows that while this idea is true in the ideal, the realities of random outliers and the potentially lengthy process of regression to the mean make such disparity only a necessary and not a sufficient indicator of racial (or gender, or intellectual, or whatever) discrimination.

    Hmm…if disparity itself does not imply bias, how can we tell if a given disparity is insidious or simply random? 50 years ago, it was easy; there were private rules and public laws all over the nation that clearly discriminated against specific groups. Fortunately, as a society we’ve become quite zealous in rooting these out and abolishing them; unfortunately, although things have gotten better, disparity is still easy to find in most centers of power.

    This is actually doubly unfortunate: it’s unfortunate for those so affected, and it’s unfortunate because it’s still there even after we made rules and laws for treating people equitably.

    If it’s not coming from our rules and laws, where is it coming from?

    The simple answer is that it’s coming from us; every rule and every law must be applied by a person. Hence, a degree of subjectivity unavoidably enters into every such application — in other words, the biases of the person applying an unbiased rule or law can seep through, resulting in a biased application.

    This is what’s generally known as the ‘implicit bias’ of a system, and it’s most noteworthy characteristic is that it’s existence is impossible to prove; short of people admitting that they’re racist, or sexist, or xyz-ist and that they’ve been corrupting the system, we can only speculate that implicit bias is present and never demonstrate that it is, no matter how much disparity we see in how power is distributed between groups — this is statistics rearing it’s head once more; however improbable we feel it to be, such disparity can be benign, essentially due to chance.

    My take is that we are embedded in a social regression to the mean (i.e., movement toward equality); however, due to implicit bias and the average lifespan of those carrying it, I think it will take about 150 years from the outlawing of explicit bias to the final sublimation of its implicit counterpart…so, we have about another 100 years to go, though I think we’ll be very close to the equity mark within another 50 or so.

    I just realized that I have a lot more to say on this and that I’m already in danger of transitioning from a comment to a post, so I’ll wrap up here with a quick look at what value ethnic diversity actually brings (aside from, y’know, the eugenics thing):

    There are two benefits: diversity of perspective, and a feeling of inclusion. The first of these is, however, illusory; perspective is generated by social and economic strata, not ethnicity. We’ve come to associate ethnicity with it because of the rampant discrimination of our past, which was reasonably consistent in dividing socioeconomic strata according to ethnicity. However, depending on where someone grew up and the like, hiring that Black person could actually be getting you a Chicano perspective — or an Asian perspective, a White perspective, an anything perspective. This is actually a very good thing, because it’s an index of social equity; the more egalitarian our society becomes, the more intense this effect will become.

    The real benefit, then, seems to be the feeling of inclusion people experience when they see others they perceive to be like themselves, especially in positions of prestige and power; it’s a personal affirmation, like someone saying, “Hey, this could be you!”. Conversely, when it’s difficult or impossible to find anyone you feel to be like yourself within a given system or power structure, the feeling is more like, “Hey, no one else like you has made it here, so you probably won’t either…”, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hence, this is an argument for either 1) ensuring equal representation of population groups, or 2) disassociating our personal identity from our accidental traits.

    As a devotee of reason and self-empowerment, you can probably guess that I favor option 2.

    • T. J. Babson said, on February 6, 2011 at 10:02 pm

      The Superbowl is on as I write. Players are mostly black, audience is mostly white. Nobody seems to care.

      • Asur said, on February 6, 2011 at 10:52 pm

        In the everyday world, people just want to live their lives; they might complain now and then, but daily reality is more pressing.

        Society is, however, an engineered thing, and it’s engineers obsess over its theory and the application of its parts.

        It’s like an airliner…most people just use it, it’s just a thing that’s in the background to them, a means to their own ends. To its engineers, it’s something else entirely.

        • WTP said, on February 7, 2011 at 1:02 pm

          Hence the problem. People who have no idea what Engineering is think that they can “engineer” a society, a task that no real engineer would touch.

          • Asur said, on February 7, 2011 at 4:05 pm

            Engineering is just applying knowledge to design. Every society we have record of has been engineered; the relation is necessary, as the alternative is not society but chaos.

            If you doubt, I am willing to illustrate the social counterpart to any thing or relation you think unique to ‘traditional’ engineering.

            Have at me.

            • WTP said, on February 7, 2011 at 4:37 pm


              en·gi·neer·ing   /ˌɛndʒəˈnɪərɪŋ/ Show Spelled
              [en-juh-neer-ing] Show IPA

              1. the art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences, as physics or chemistry, as in the construction of engines, bridges, buildings, mines, ships, and chemical plants.
              2. the action, work, or profession of an engineer.
              3. skillful or artful contrivance; maneuvering.

              I take Def. 3 in the context of 1 & 2. Any broader and it’s just mush IMHO.

            • Asur said, on February 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm

              Since #2 is circular and you want to toss #3 (putting it in the context of #1 makes it a subset of #1 and hence not a separate option), let’s look at #1…

              “The art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences.”

              Okay, so what’s a “pure science”? You seem to like Dictionary.com, so…


              Pure Science: “Systematic observation of natural phenomena solely for the discovery of unknown laws relating to facts.”

              Well! Unless knowledge can’t be derived from “systematic observation of natural phenomena”, your definition of engineering in no way conflicts with mine; since mine — the application of knowledge to design — applies to how societies arise and develop, so too does yours.

              Do you have another objection?

            • WTP said, on February 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm

              No, I still have the same objection. No need to go back to the dictionary. The meaning of “pure science” is right there in the original post: “the knowledge of pure sciences, as PHYSICS or CHEMISTRY”. You know, HARD sciences.

              I strongly object to the misuse of a well defined, well understood term like engineering by belief systems that wish to prop up their weaknesses. There is similarity in the use of the more serious word, “science” when a more fitting word like “studies” would be more appropriate. Of course the word “science” is weak due to its root meaning of “knowledge”, in spite of the more colloquial usage, so that fight is lost before it begins. Yet terms like “political science” and “social science” still grate.

              If you really believe you can engineer a free society you either do not understand what a real engineer does or you do not understand people. Engineers design and test in controlled environments using materials that they can predictably count on to work within a scientifically determined degree of confidence. They must take into account what will happen in the real world when all conceivable applications of their systems are implemented. This is simply not possible when dealing with humans in a free society. Not to mention the enormous number of other variables such as weather, earthquakes, plagues, etc. that affect societies. Now if you choose to enslave your populace, well maybe you’ll find an engineer willing to take the job. I wouldn’t trust the SOB, however.

              When I was younger I thought the biblical story about the Tower of Babel was a silly tale concocted to explain why people speak so many different tongues. The more I see of the abuse of language, the more I understand what the good Lord is trying to tell us. I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.

            • Asur said, on February 8, 2011 at 2:36 pm

              So you would say that a “software engineer” is a misnomer, likewise with “genetic engineering”?

              All concepts represent relations between things, not the instances of those relations themselves — this is why you can say that a given ball is an instance of the concept ‘ball’ but you can’t that it’s that concept itself.

              In the same fashion, “engineering” isn’t defined by any particular instance of engineering but rather by the underlying relation common to every instance of engineering. Once you identify that relation, WTP, you’ll see that it isn’t limited to a narrow of view of physics or chemistry — you’ll see that it’s in the form x R y, where R is the ‘engineering’ relation; x and y can be anything.

              I appreciate your point about the Tower of Babel, but what it misses is that language attempts to model a reality that doesn’t have any inherent lines of division; hence, clinging to definite conceptual boundaries between things is a lost cause. Those boundaries just don’t exist.

            • FRE said, on February 8, 2011 at 3:01 pm

              As near as I can tell, “software engineer” is nothing more than title inflation. Before I retired, I worked as a computer programmer / analyst which seems to be exactly the same thing.

            • Asur said, on February 8, 2011 at 3:12 pm

              Heh, when I was in high school, I worked at a Home Depot collecting shopping carts from the parking lot and loading people’s stuff into their cars; the official position title was “Lot Engineer” — now that is title inflation!

            • FRE said, on February 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm

              And now store clerks are called “associates,” as if they had some important decision making functions.

            • WTP said, on February 8, 2011 at 9:57 pm

              While I agree with FRE’s point about title inflation to some degree, perhaps the difference will better illustrate. Personally, I don’t think there is much of a Software Engineering discipline. New software is developed in a cyclical process as the requirements for most systems are, to my mind, impossible to concretely define. Hence I consider Software Development a different animal than Software Engineering. Software Engineering applies to areas where the inputs and outputs are well defined, such as routing or load balancing tools, or in redesigning existing systems to function more efficiently without significant changes to functionality.

              As for genetic engineering, such is for all practical purposes applied chemistry.

              As I said before, engineering requires testing and retesting under controlled conditions to established specifications. Something that is impossible with human systems. The closest you may come is to Systems Engineering, but even there your human elements are only utilizing a very limited subset of their total functionality. Thus you can replace them somewhat easily.

              I really don’t think you understand the tremendous difference between some sort of systems engineering and trying to engineer a society. But such is the fundamental philosophical mistake made by those who try to build utopias. Oscar Wilde once said that the only thing we know about human nature is that it changes. You can’t engineer a society as dynamic as a human one. Nor should you.

            • Asur said, on February 8, 2011 at 11:23 pm

              Earlier, I claimed that all societies are engineered, but I never spoke of utopias; to be honest, I’m not sure what a utopia is — what qualities does it require a society to posses?

              I know you don’t really mean it like this, but if you are keen on preserving the traditional boundaries of words, I am keen on stamping out of existence those words that seem to refer to something but really refer to nothing at all.

            • FRE said, on February 8, 2011 at 11:52 pm

              Attempts to build a utopia can result in a dystopia. In the early 20th century, the Russian communists attempted to build a utopia and got a dystopia. Aldous Huxley has something to say about that too.

            • WTP said, on February 9, 2011 at 1:01 pm

              ” but if you are keen on preserving the traditional boundaries of words, I am keen on stamping out of existence those words that seem to refer to something but really refer to nothing at all.”

              That’s half of my point. The word “engineering” means something. Your use of it, re “Society is, however, an engineered thing” waters down the meaning of the word. Eventually, see FRE’s title inflation complaint, the word will lose its meaning and eventually will refer to nothing at all.

            • Asur said, on February 9, 2011 at 4:10 pm

              Hence out disagreement; rather than watering it down, I say it washes away the chaff to reveal the essence of the idea.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 7, 2011 at 5:34 pm

        Beer makes us all brothers and sisters. And better looking. 🙂

        • T. J. Babson said, on February 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm

          Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder. — Kinky Friedman

  2. FRE said, on February 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    Quite honestly, I do not see this as an important matter. It’s not as if she were the president of General Motors and implemented a policy of ethnic discrimination that was damaging to people outside of the ethnic groups who were being favored.

    Oprah is a TV program producer; the programs are for entertainment and also to help audiences understand a variety of human problems. Unless she discriminates in the hiring of regular employees, I see no reason for concern.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on February 8, 2011 at 7:23 am

    This just in:


    But the most talked-about speech at this year’s meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new “outgroup.”

    It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.

    “This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.

    “Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

    • Asur said, on February 8, 2011 at 6:01 pm

      TJ, discrimination (as a pejorative) is confined to how people treat other people; it has nothing to do with how people treat ideas, such as the ideas they believe to be true.

      If wiki is right that

      “Core conservative beliefs in the 21st century include reduced government regulation of business and banking, resistance to world government and to environmentalism, support for Israel and for American military intervention overseas, opposition to abortion and homosexuality, support for Christian education in the public schools, support for the right to bear arms, securing the U.S borders, and a sharp reduction in taxes.”

      …then the underrepresentation of conservatives among people working in the humanities is simply a testament to the broad perspective and common sense of professionals in the humanities. That wiki quote is a list of positions that range from the questionable to the outright absurd and morally deplorable.

      I wonder what sorts of professions tend to have high concentrations of people who self-identify as conservative?

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 9, 2011 at 8:41 am

        “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”

        Fine, you are simply making Dr. Haidt’s point. Statistical disparities are not automatic evidence of discrimination.

        • Asur said, on February 9, 2011 at 12:03 pm

          Of course statistical disparities are not automatic evidence of discrimination — I made that same point in the first comment on this thread.

          I am, however, not “making Dr. Haidt’s point”; I am pointing out that his point is predicated on a category error. Hence, it is not a point that can be made.

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 9, 2011 at 10:30 pm

        “…simply a testament to the broad perspective and common sense of professionals in the humanities.”

        Sorry, but the faculty lounge is not the first place I would look for either common sense or broad perspective.

        Do you really believe this?

        • Asur said, on February 10, 2011 at 2:27 am

          Sure; the empirical evidence is that they are apparently not “conservatives”, at least as wikipedia defines the term.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on February 9, 2011 at 1:23 pm

      Well, that is a safe place to store liberals. 🙂

      • T. J. Babson said, on February 9, 2011 at 10:30 pm

        Excellent point.

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