Physicists love spontaneous symmetry breaking. It’s a great way to reconcile the messiness of reality with our belief in simple and beautiful underlying mechanisms. We posit that the true fundamental dynamics of the world has some symmetry — X can be exchanged with Y, and all relevant processes are unchanged — but the actual state of the world does not respect that symmetry, which leaves it hidden (or “nonlinearly realized,” if you want to sound all sciencey). Deep down, a (left-handed) electron is completely interchangeable with an electron neutrino; but in the world as we find it, this symmetry is broken, and we end up with an electron that is charged and massive, a neutrino that is neutral and nearly massless. The Higgs boson that the Large Hadron Collider is looking for would be the telltale sign of the mechanism behind this symmetry breaking.
For reasons which escape me, this concept has not been borrowed (as far as I can tell) by social scientists and pundits more generally.* Which is too bad, as it explains a great deal. For example, appealing to the concept of spontaneous symmetry breaking would have been really helpful to Whoopi Goldberg on The View recently, as she patiently tried to explain to a distraught Elisabeth Hasselbeck why it’s just not the same when black people use the word “nigger” as when white people do. (From Sociological Images, via The Edge of the American West.)
Which is not to say that it’s always okay, or that there is no thoughtful critique of the re-appropriation of derogatory language by targeted groups, etc. Just that “If it’s wrong when white people say it, it should be wrong when black people say it too! It’s just not fair!” is far too simple-minded to carry any weight.
Let’s imagine that, in our view of a happy future utopia, all races find themselves in situations of perfect equality of opportunity and dignity. Everyone enters society with equal status, and people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. (The “symmetric vacuum.”) In such a world, arguments like “If you can do it, why shouldn’t I be able to?” would be perfectly legitimate. But even if we want that to be the world — even if we believe that the grand unified theory of social ethics involves a symmetry of rights and obligations under the interchange of various racial categories — it’s not the world in which we live. In the real world, different races don’t go through life with the same masses and charges (if you will). There really are such things as discrimination, legacies of poverty and exclusion, and so on. We can argue about the best way to deal with those features of reality, but pretending that they don’t exist isn’t a very useful strategy.
As Whoopi explains, many blacks have chosen to re-appropriate the n-word as part of a conscious strategy of fighting back against a power dynamic that uses language to keep them at the bottom. Again, one can argue about the effectiveness of that strategy, and the circumstances under which it is appropriate, and whether Jesse Jackson should really have used that term in referring to Barack Obama. But it doesn’t follow that “if it’s fair for you, it should be fair for me.” Here is a guy who sadly doesn’t get it; a white high-school teacher who is genuinely puzzled about why he got in trouble for calling one of his black students “nigga.”
I was contemplating writing this post for a long time, with the relevant symmetry being men/women and the social milieu being the scientific community. Too many physicists reason along the following lines: “Men and women should be treated equally. Therefore, any time we privilege one over the other, as in making a special effort to encourage women in science, we are making a mistake.” That would be a reasonable argument, if the symmetry weren’t dramatically broken by the state in which we find ourselves. Which happily is not a stable vacuum! (Note that the underlying assumption is not that different genders or races are necessarily equivalent when it comes to innate abilities; that is largely beside the point, and obsession about those questions gets to be a little creepy. But they should certainly have equal opportunities — and right now, they don’t.) Treating one group differently than the other isn’t what we ultimately want to be doing — it’s not part of the happy utopia — but it might be the best response to the current state of unequal treatment overall.
But Whoopi’s little teaching moment was too good to pass up. If the discussion of race and gender in the rest of the MSM rose to that level of sophistication, we’d all be better off.
*I’ve been searching for an excuse to mention Kieran Healy’s Standard Model of Sociophysics. I’m not sure if this is it, but I’ll take it.