When Chappelle Says It, It’s Funny

November 18, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Dave Chappelle, in his SNL monologue, offered an insight about language that I’ve used a few times in this blog. It’s about adding the definite article “the” to a demographic category.

Here’s how I put it in a blog post seven years ago after candidate Donald Trump (remember those good old days? they’re back) had told an interviewer, “I’d be phenomenal to the women.”

When you add “the” to a demographic group and speak of “the women” or “the Blacks,” you are separating them from the rest of society. Without the definite article, they are included. To say, “In our society we have Blacks, Jews, women. . . . .” implies that they are all part of our group. But, “We have the Blacks, the Jews, the women . . . .” turns them into separate, distinct groups that are not part of a unified whole.

Chappelle got more laughs.

In another post a year later (here),  I quoted linguist Lynne Murphy on the same topic.

“The” makes the group seem like it’s a large, uniform mass, rather than a diverse group of individuals. This is the key to “othering:” treating people from another group as less human than one’s own group.

Turning those individuals into “a large, uniform mass” not only allows for “othering”; it’s also the precondition for paranoid conspiracy theories. Even if, as Chappelle suggests,* there are a lot of Jews in Hollywood, you can still see them as individuals, as Jews trying to turn out successful movies and TV shows. To see them as a cabal conspiring against Kanye or Christians or America it helps to think of them as “the Jews.”

* See also Joel Stein’s 2008 article “Who Runs Hollywood? C’mon” (here).

Poll Problems — the Wisdom of Crowds or Pluralistic Ignorance

November 6, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the last few elections, the pre-election polls have gotten it really wrong. Partly that’s because cell phones and low response rates have made sampling difficult. But it also might be that pollsters are not asking the right question. Maybe the usual question — “Who are you going to vote for?” — is not the best way to predict election results.

The most recent episode of NPR’s Planted Money explored this question and in the end tried a less direct approach that some polls are now using. They went to the Marist College poll and got the directors to insert two questions into their polling on local House of Representatives races. The questions were:

  • Who do you think will win?
  • Think of all the people in your life, your friends, your family, your coworkers. Who are they going to vote for?

At the time, the direct question “Who will you vote for?” the split between Republicans and Democrats was roughly even. But these new two questions showed Republicans way ahead. On “Who will win?” the Republicans were up 10 points among registered voters and 14 points among the “definitely will vote” respondents. On the friends-and-family question, the corresponding numbers were Republicans +12 and +16.

Planet Money sees these results as an example of “the wisdom of crowds” — the idea that the best estimate comes not from the experts but from the collective judgment of everyone with an opinion on the matter at hand. The idea goes back to Galton at the Fair – statistician Francis Galton at the Plymouth (UK) farmers’ fair in 1906.

At the fair, Galton noticed people submitting their guesses on the weight of an ox. Galton the statistician kept track of all the guesses— some 800 in all— and computed the group mean. Galton the eugenist assumed that the guesses of the ignorant would detract from the overall accuracy, while the guesses of farmers and butchers would be closer. The mean of the group was 1197 pounds; the ox’s weight, 1198 pounds. The group did better than the most expert individual

That’s from one of the many blogposts I have done on the topic (here). I’ve looked at predictions in the Superbowl, the Oscars, and securities trading. In some cases, notably the speculation that led to the financial crisis of 2008, the crowd has not always been wise.

Planet Money thinks that the crowd — the people being polled — is wiser than the experts doing the polling and analysis and that Republicans are going to win big.

But there are two other ideas from social science that can also explain the discrepancy between the responses to the questions.
  1. Pluralistic ignorance. This is the cognitive error where people think, mistakenly, think they are in the minority. For example, college students may think that just about everyone else on campus is having great sex and having it frequently when in fact most of their fellow students are in the same unfulfilled boat that they are.

  2. Social desirability. When asked questions in a survey, people avoid answers they think will make them look bad. Ask “How many books have you read this year?” and you’ll probably get an overcount.
If Republicans — the politicians, the right-wing media, Trump, the MAGA hats, et al.  — are making the most noise and generally dominating the political discourse, supporting the Democrats may just seem wrong or at least not the sort of thing you want yo bring up. If Democrats then are keeping their preferences to themselves, even they will perceive Republicans as the dominant party, and that’s what they’ll tell the Marist pollster on the phone asking who’s going to win. They may also think that most others in their social world are going Red.

It’s complicated. The people you call, even the few who don’t hang up, might give answers that are inaccurate — about what others think and even about what they themselves think. That may always have been true, but in what Planet Money calls “the Golden Age of polling,” roughly from the seventies to 2014, pollsters could make the necessary adjustments. Since then, poll problems have been sort of like Covid — you manage to solve one, and then a new variant comes along.

Mona Lisa — Becoming Great

August 8, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

Carol Gillot, at her Paris Breakfasts blog, had a post about visiting the Louvre. When she was last there, she sketched some of the art works and added,”It was very common back in the day to copy paintings at the Louvre.” As evidence, she included this 1833 painting of a man (lower left) and a woman (center) each copying one of the many renaissance paintings in the room.

One of the commenters on the blog noted how difficult it was now to see the Mona Lisa. She was right.

Of course. The Mona Lisa is the greatest painting in the world, or at least one of them, and certainly the most famous.  

But take another look at that 1833 painting. Look at the lowest row of paintings, especially the one in the middle of the canvas.

Yes, it’s the Mona Lisa. Two hundred years ago, it wasn’t the greatest painting in the world. It was just another very good renaissance painting, good enough to merit a place in the Louvre, But it was not as great as the Titian portrait of Francis 1, which has a position two canvasses higher and closer to eye level.

And now she sits in her own separate room, roped off from the masses who flock to see her beauty and to experience the greatness of the painting. In two centuries, Mona Lisa has raised her game considerably.

Of course that’s ridiculous. The painting didn’t change. But what did? The conventional explanation is that the greatness was always there but that art critics and ordinary people came to perceive and appreciate that greatness only later.

Aside from the arrogance — assuming that we are better at art appreciation than were people in the 19th century — this explanation ignores the social component of tastes and evaluations. Duncan Watts, in Everything Is Obvious ... Once You Know the Answer argues brilliantly and convincingly that the Mona Lisa’s rise to the top depended on two things – luck and cumulative advantage. Luck — in 1911, the painting was stolen from the Louvre. When it was recovered two years later, it was shown all over Italy, and its arrival back at the Louvre was widely covered in the media (or as it was called then the press).

As a result, critics turned their attention to the painting, pointing out all the qualities that made it great and that made the theft and recovery so important. Other people would read these accounts and see for themselves how great the painting was. The snowballing cycle of fame and attention, what social scientists call cumulative advantage, raised Mona Lisa’s position on the charts in much the same way that a song becomes a hit. As it becomes more popular, it gets more air play, and that air play makes the song more familiar and popular, further pushing it up the charts.

*          *        *        *

This is much too brief a treatment of Watts’s essay. His tour of artistic successes has stops at the Billboard charts and Harry Potter, all with the same insight. It’s not the qualities inherent in a book, song, or painting that account for its success. There are lots of similar works, indistinguishable in quality, that we’ve never heard of. It’s the lucky break and cumulative advantage that take it from just another painting to GOAT.

Only “Guys and Dolls” in the Building

July 21, 2022
Posted by Jay Livingston

I saw on a local news site that Nathan Lane is moving into the Dorilton, an elegant building on New York’s Upper West Side just a few blocks from where I live. Lane and his husband are paying $4.1 million for the seven-room apartment. 

I have been inside the Dorilton only once, and it was the site of one of the more embarrassing moments in my life.

In May of  1992, my son was invited to a birthday party for twins who were turning two. They were a half year older. We knew them and their parents from the nearby playgrounds, mostly the Elephant Playground in Riverside Park but in cold weather an indoor playground,  a large open space on the upper floor of a church. The family had an apartment in the Dorilton. There were only two apartments on that wing of the building. When you got off the elevator, if you turned right, you were in their apartment; if you turned left, you were in the other.

I knew some of the other people at the party — playground parents — but certainly not all.  At one point, I was passing through the foyer, and I came face to face with a man who I was sure I had seen before —  good looking, dark hair, 35-40. “You look familiar,” I said. “Do I know you maybe from the playground?” I thought he might have been an uncle who sometimes took the twins.

“No,” he siad, “I just live across the hall.”

“But I think I’ve seen you someplace,” I said.

“Well, I’m an actor, so maybe that’s it.”

Maybe so, but where had I seen him? On TV? A commercial?  New York is full of actors, and most of them are, to put it euphemistically, between roles — waiting tables and going to auditions. So not wanting to embarrass him, I asked as tactfully as I could what he was doing these days.

“I’m in the new production of ‘Guys and Dolls’”

I was too embarrassed to admit that I knew nothing about this production — the staging, the stars, etc. — except that it had opened just a few weeks before to rave reviews. I guess this guy had gotten lucky and landed a part. I didn’t want to reveal my ignorance, but I did know the show pretty well, so I asked, “What role do you have?”

“I’m Sky Masterson.”

Oh my god. He was the star of the show – well, one of the four stars.  Peter Gallagher, and he looked familiar because two or three years earlier, I had seen him in the movie “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” where he played one of the four main characters. I said something and slinked away. OK, it probably didn’t look like slinking. It looked like moving on, mixing, coffee in hand. But it felt like slinking. In the same way, the questions I’d asked him proabably didn’t seem offensive or denigrating to him, but in my mind, I knew that I was treating a Broadway star as though he were merely one of the thousands of unsuccessful hopefuls.

Eventually, the Gallagher family moved out of the Dorilton and went back to Los Angeles. But here is where we come full circle. The other important male character in “Guys and Dolls” is Nathan Detroit, and in that 1992 production, the part was played by Nathan Lane.

1. Here is the sociology I cropped out of the above narrative and have relegated to this long footnote:

Why was that incident embarrassing?

 Embarrassment, says Goffman in his famous essay on the topic, is about identity. “Identity” may be too grand a term here – “being a certain kind of person” would do — but “identity” is the term Goffman uses.

In a social situation, people must act in accordance with the identity they claim so that others will ratify that identity. If there’s a glitch on either side, you get embarrassment. Often, embarrassment disrupts a situation when a person does something that casts doubt on their “projected identity.” It’s hard to project an identity as a person who knows the norms of dress and decorum if you’re standing there with your fly not zipped.

But embarrassment also happens when we unwittingly fail to acknowledge or ratify someone else’s identity. This includes mistaken identity, like greeting someone warmly who turns out to be a total stranger, or making a remark to the “wrong” person. It also includes not knowing the relevant aspects about the other person’s identity, like the fact that they are the star of the biggest Broadway hit of the season.

2. Peter Gallagher made an appearance in this blog a few years ago (here) in a post with a video of him making the cast recording of the show.
3. The title of this post alludes to the Hulu TV series “Only Murders in the Building.” Nathan Lane will be a regular in the cast next season. The fictional building in that show is The Arconia. In real life, across Broadway from the Dorilton and two blocks north is a building called The Ansonia. It appears in several Hollywood films. Walter Matthau lives there in “The Sunshine Boys” as do Jennifer Jason Leigh and Bridget Fonda in “Single White Female.” In real life, I live there.