Woke Signaling

I’m aware that — against my usual habits — I had a cup of coffee this morning. My mental state and thoughts are probably more agitated as a result. All the same, since I had some similar thoughts already yesterday, I feel comfortable pinning some of them down…

It occurred to me that the difference in public audience scores of two recent TV shows on Rotten Tomatoes, The Sandman on Netflix vs. Rings of Power on Amazon Prime, might be attributable not so much to casting decisions. Both shows have clearly deviated from the source material by making the cast (and characters depicted) more diverse in their racial and sexual identity composition.

The big difference I perceive is that Amazon — or, if not orchestrated centrally, the actors and producers — chose to “play the race card,” by providing repeated soundbites to the effect that, “the Rings of Power is the most diverse show ever produced.”

In other words, I assume that there exists a segment of fans — which probably is true for both source materials — that does not mind a change in depiction so much as being told that the reason for this change is, from their perspective, a cheap marketing trick to appeal to an ideological position that affirms a “reverse victimhood” applied to people’s value.

It goes along with the principles applied in Affirmative Action decision making in institutions of higher education. Put into plain language it might go something like this:

For a long time, people who display and/or express certain identity characteristics have been disenfranchised from fully participating — especially in high visibility and prestigious areas of life. The benign explanation is that, in the past, they were “overlooked” by those who made “casting decisions,” and the tilting-towards-evil explanation is that this was conscious discrimination. In order to rectify this past wrong, and to help people of those identity groups to experience that the culture around them does care about their wellbeing, “for a while” we will now specifically elevate people from those groups to show that we have learned from the past.

In theory, this actually sounds like a not too unreasonable approach. However, the devil is in the details. And I believe that the difference in public ratings given these two TV shows demonstrates one of those details.

There is a vast difference between the acknowledgment of past problems paired with a general commitment to looking for highly qualified candidates among certain groups and a blanket decision to give people from those groups a kind of unfair and unearned bonus during selection. The way the difference is perceived primarily as just how much “in your face” the intention of leveling the playing field is presented, and — even more importantly — how much public approval and applause the people who implement those decisions seem to want to get out of it.

Similar to the backlash that the Rings of Power series and Affirmative Action (among non-academics at least) seem to invite, two other areas immediately come to mind: the way in which (then front-runner) Presidential candidate Joe Biden vowed to elevate a black woman judge to the role of Justice on the Supreme Court, and the way in which many corporations seem to publicly declare their support for diversity, equity, and inclusion principles as an effort to schmooze with the (presumed) current mainstream of American culture.

Unfortunately, I believe that the mainstream organs of reporting the truth are more or less broken. A self-selection bias in higher education has perpetuated and, over time, exacerbated a situation in which people who pass through college and receive a degree might erroneously believe that the average American supports the more extreme versions of “correcting past mistakes” by over-selecting individuals from certain groups into highly coveted roles, even if that requires applying different standards to individuals from those groups.

And social media is entirely inadequate for capturing the reality of what “the average American” actually thinks about the real and true fairness in bending the rules in a manner that treats people from these groups in such obvious preferential ways that whoever remains (including white men), this is experienced as a direct challenge and threat to not only their groups, but honest conversations about the value of such differential treatment in the first place.

My hunch is that, if one could find a (large enough) jury to look at The Sandman and Rings of Power completely devoid of a diversity lens and perspective, both series might garner very similar ratings. But once this dimension is foregrounded to a point where some people simply love it, while others find it more than just objectionable, it naturally polarizes people.

As such, I wish that rather than using diversity as a cudgel to further an ideological position — and garner approval from those who are considered the desired target audience — corporations and media producers would simply apply whatever criteria they see as reasonable, and then let the audience decide on the actual merits of the work. If the decision making is sound — that is, giving people of certain groups more attention, while at the same time applying criteria of high performance as a standard — the end product will likely be enjoyed by many. If, on the other hand, the choice is poor or touted as essential for the quality of a product, well, the market will reject the outcome as insufficient and likely lacking in quality…

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