Fighting Breaks Out Between Atlantic Voices!

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Finally! I've been an Atlantic "Voice" for six weeks, and until now I hadn't gotten into any fisticuffs with other Atlantic Voices. I knew fighting would break out sooner or later--but I had no idea that my opponent would be the kindly James Fallows.

Jim, a friend and a wonderful person, takes issue with a post I wrote about Jeremy Lin a couple of days ago. I'm afraid I have no choice but to launch a brutal counter-assault.

First, let's get clear on what I said.

Jim says I'm drawing on the work of social scientists who argue that Asians "perceive reality in a more 'group'-like than individually centered fashion." Not true. I emphasized that I wasn't drawing on "stereotypes about collectivist Asian values." Rather, the finding of these social scientists--and their research is now very well established--is about perceiving dominant foreground images as opposed to background scenes. In the example I cited, the background scene wasn't "a group" but rather a mountain stream.

Anyway the social science finding is that, compared to westerners, East Asians (most experimental subjects have been either Chinese or Japanese) pay more attention to the background scene and less to the central foreground image. I suggested that maybe this more "holistic" perceptual tendency (as the researchers call it) would be an asset to a basketball player as he surveys the basketball court and so might help explain why Lin is such a good passer.

And I emphasize the word "suggested". I called my theory about Lin an "armchair pop-psychology theory." I probably should have used the word "conjecture" just to emphasize that I have no great confidence that the theory is correct. If I had to put a number on it, I'd give it chances between 20 percent and 40 percent. But whatever the likelihood that this conjecture is correct, I certainly don't agree with Jim that it's "crazy" or "horseshit".

Before I address the points Jim makes, I'd like to ask why Jim--and no few of the commenters who read my piece--get so exercised about this particular conjecture. Columnists are always throwing out theories about what will happen in politics and very often the chances that the theories are right is way less than 50 percent. I've done a lot of that myself, and my theories rarely get called "crazy" or "horseshit"--certainly not by genteel people like Jim Fallows.

I suspect that in this case the reason for the inordinate energy devoted to criticism is that I'm discussing ethnicity. And, by itself, that's fine; I actually agree that certain kinds of theories about ethnicity shouldn't be tossed out casually. Specifically:

1) If the posited group trait (or statistical tendency) is one that could get a group persecuted, discriminated against, or even denigrated, then I think you should tread carefully. But I'm having trouble imagining any of these fates befalling an ethnic group because it gets a reputation for remembering the background details in a picture better than members of another group, and paying relatively less attention to dominant foreground images.

2) If the theory is that a difference between two ethnic groups is genetically based, I think that here, too, great care is warranted. But the leading researcher in the area I was discussing--the highly respected psychologist Richard Nisbett--has explicitly made it his premise that these differences are cultural, not genetic, and in my piece I explicitly subscribed to that premise.

OK, so on to Jim's argument. Actually, I should have put "argument" in quotes. With all due respect, I honestly don't detect an actual argument.

Jim writes:

But being Asian has nothing to do with how he plays ball. (Nor does going to Harvard.)

My evidence? Earlier this week, the Atlantic's sport columnist Jake Simpson analyzed Lin's game in terms of its real components -- shooting accuracy, willingness to take on double-team coverage, etc. I could leave it at that, with the reminder that considering his passing skills "Asian" is about as legit as saying that he has "a high basketball IQ" because he went to Harvard. Or a confident on-court manner because he's from Silicon Valley.

That's "evidence"? So far as I can tell that's just the repeated assertion that I'm wrong. (The Jake Simpson piece is interesting but it doesn't bear on my conjecture one way or the other.) Maybe I'm missing something, but I would expect evidence to come in the form of some actual empirical reason to think that my conjecture isn't plausible.

Jim says he has additional evidence. He shows us a video of basketball being played in China. He writes that the video features "crowd agitation, yelling at refs, general tumult, and some basketball. Virtually none of it fits with treatises on Asian 'philosophical heritage'."

I cannot overemphasize how utterly irrelevant this observation is to the argument I was making. Again, I explicitly said I wasn't talking about stereotypes about Asian "collectivist values." And I said nothing at all about "philosophical heritage."

So where did Jim get the idea that my theory has anything to do with these "treatises on Asian 'philosophical heritage'"? Well, in his (partial) defense, I now see that, right below my piece's headline (which I wrote) there is a subhead (which I didn't write) that was added sometime after I posted the piece. It says, How the New York Knick's philosophical heritage may be helping him win. I don't blame the person who wrote that as one of many chores on a no-doubt busy day. Maybe he or she was conceiving of the word "philosophical" in such a broad way that it seemed to encompass the "holistic" perceptual/cognitive tendencies I described. Still, Jim says he is critiquing the piece I wrote, not a subhead, and the piece doesn't mention "philosophical" heritage at all; nor does it mention any tendencies toward harmony, cooperation, or whatever stereotypes he thinks are being debunked by a video featuring agitation and tumult.

Then Jim shows us another video of a basketball game in which a fight breaks out. He notes, "The gratuitous aggression all came from the Chinese side." Um, OK. But did I say anything about aggression?

And that, so far as I can tell, is the sum total of Jim's "evidence."

Jim knows a lot more about Asia than I do, and has spent many years there. And when you spend a lot of time anywhere you start noticing distinctions that aren't apparent to outsiders. He once told me that the two most different cultures he's ever seen are Japan and China, and I don't doubt him.

Still, the fact is that the body of research I'm talking about has featured both Japanese and Chinese subjects, and certain tendencies do seem to hold up as statistical generalizations about them. It's another question, of course, whether my conjectural theory applying these findings to basketball is valid, but Jim never gets around to addressing that question.

My sense is that Jim has long been frustrated with various generalizations that are made about Asians and has long had, within him, a blog post about these generalizations waiting to get out. And I think he's now written that post--a post that was in some sense formulated before I wrote my piece, and that, not surprisingly, isn't relevant to my piece.

But let me emphasize--as I should have emphasized more with respect to my Jeremy Lin theory--that my theory about Jim is just conjecture.

Anyway, I'm glad to finally have some internecine Atlantic fighting under my belt, and I thank Jim for giving me my initiation. Now on to the next Voice!

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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