May 09, 2014
If a curious Martian were to suddenly visit Earth, the brouhaha surrounding Donald Sterling’s racist rant would be deeply perplexing. You see, Martians are like Vulcans, and can only think logically and scientifically, so severely punishing a harmless private conversation would baffle them. Surely, the Martian would ask, Mr. Sterling must have done something terribly wrong, perhaps poisoning the LA water supply or molesting children. After all, to roughly translate an ancient Martian proverb, sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me.
Since such illogic is painful to Martians, I would explain to my guest that, yes, the draconian punishment does appear irrational in your terms, but it makes perfect sense to Earthlings. The culprit is “magical thinking,” a phenomenon totally alien to Martian brains but commonplace among our species”although we do treat it as a mental illness if it becomes extreme.
Central to magical thinking is the belief that thought in and of itself can have tangible real-world consequences. For example, someone dies after you imagined his death, though you are totally innocent of causing it. Add magical thinking and pure coincidences become a causal relationship: “I thought him dead and therefore he died.” In many Earth cultures, silence prevents hexing the outcome; this is why you don”t count your chickens before they hatch. Jews, fearing His wrath, are forbidden to utter God’s name and instead use multiple substitutes. The anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski associated magical thinking with primitive tribes (“savages”); Sigmund Freud saw magical thinking as a childhood trait, e.g., trying to receive a gift simply by wishing it.
The mother of all examples is white racism. There is a belief common among blacks that a white’s mental state can debilitate black people independent of any overt harmful behavior. The very invisibility of this force makes it magical. Invisible white racism differs from discrimination and comparable white behaviors where, for example, a white deliberately denies a job to an African American solely on racial grounds. By contrast, magical harm might be unintentional. President George W. Bush tried to exorcise this nonmalignant phantom in a 2000 speech before the NAACP’s 91st annual convention, in which he condemned the soft bigotry of low expectations. That is, blacks perform poorly when whites expect a dismal performance. Implied was the idea that unarticulated thoughts did the damage. Hardly surprising in today’s political climate, the proposition that white expectations explain black (and Hispanic) academic failure has become a research cottage industry.
Thus understood, Donald Sterling’s racist rant, delivered in private, was dangerous not because it inflicted physical or emotional harm on its intended listener (obviously untrue). Rather, it revealed to the world an extraordinary high level of toxic thinking, and as one would quarantine bubonic plague or TB carriers, Sterling had to be banished to the wilderness; he was told to sell the Clippers basketball team and never, ever again associate with the NBA. He was also disinvited from addressing an NAACP banquet despite past financial largess. He was so radioactive that UCLA refused a $3 million “tainted” donation for kidney research from his Sterling Foundation. Conceivably, a black program administrator might touch the money and thus be incapacitated.
Yet our imaginary Martian visitor persisted: Why would “bad thinking,” apart from any bad behavior, elicit this outrage? My response was that any scientifically sound explanation must be tentative. Nevertheless, magical thinking is widespread and perhaps hardwired into human DNA, though its evolutionary competitive advantage is uncertain.