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Narcissism as vocation

[ 350 ] December 24, 2013 |

A helpful reader points me to a remarkable ongoing research project:

As a precursor to a new research project, which I’ll discuss in later posts, I’ve done some firsthand qualitative investigation of dating websites, including Match, OK Cupid, Plenty of Fish, Craigslist, and Ashley Madison. At this point my investigation has consisted only of the following: creating two identical profiles (not at the same time) in the “women seeking men” section of each site with the same racially ambiguous photograph; identifying myself as Asian in one profile and White in the other; and then simply reading the responses that each profile generates. Different websites have different options for signaling one’s race: for example, Match provided an array of boxes to check as well as the option not to answer, while on Craigslist it was necessary to take affirmative steps to signal my race in a free form response box.

With the caveat that all of this is preliminary and anecdotal, I noticed a remarkable difference in the responses the white and Asian profiles generated. The Asian profiles received about 20-30% more responses, depending on the site. But to me the much more interesting phenomenon was the difference in the content of the responses. Not a single response to the white-identified profiles even mentioned race. Yet about a quarter of the responses to the Asian-identified profiles said something racial. Sometimes the responses were superficially flattering, describing Asian women as “exotic” or “beautiful.” “I’ve always wanted to date an Oriental woman,” one said wistfully. Sometimes the responses invoked tired stereotypes about Asians writ large: “I love your culture’s food and family values,” one message earnestly explained (because all Asian cultures have identical food and family values, obviously). There were more iterations of the phrase “let me love you long time” than I hope ever to see again. And, of course, plenty of responses were vulgar: “i know what u asian sluts like ill give u what u need,” asserted one gentleman, followed by a lengthy description of what he thinks we Asian sluts need and some distinctly unimpressive pictures.

The racialization of responses was particularly overt on Ashley Madison, which, for the uninitiated, describes itself as a website for people who want to engage in “married dating” or “have an affair.” (For those curious about how the site works, Julie Bort went undercover on the site and writes about it here.) My own experience was that people became even more uninhibited about expressing their preferences. “We should get together! I LOVE Asian women and they love me!!!” stated one gentleman, whose screen name was “AZNLUVR69.” Another explained that he “knew how to please an Asian lady,” adding, by way of proof, “my wife is also an Asian.” A number expressed “geisha fantasies.” (My background is Chinese and Native Hawaiian, but close enough, I guess.) And several noted that their favorite porn stars were Asian.

All told, my Asian-identified Ashley Madison profile received about three hundred responses within a month of its creation, and over a third of them mentioned some sort of affinity for Asian women.

I don’t want to make this primarily about Nancy Leong. I’ve never met her — for all I know she may be a perfectly admirable person in her personal as opposed to her political life — and in any case she is merely a single example of a very widespread phenomenon, rather than being herself in any way the cause of the scandal that is contemporary legal academia.

But that scandal is almost perfectly encapsulated by the fact that Leong is a rising young star in the law school world. Why is she a star? First, as Bored JD noted yesterday, she had “great credentials” when she got a tenure track job. Those credentials consisted of being an honors graduate of a top university and an elite law school, where she was also a board member of the law review. After law school she did a federal appeals clerkship, and then after spending a year in the kind of unicorny public interest fellowship that people with gold-plated resumes get, she went straight into academia, spending a year at Georgetown and another at American in VAP-type positions, during which time she published four academic pieces of various sorts, before “finally” getting a tenure-track job in 2010.

Those are, in the contemporary legal academic world, very good if not great credentials for somebody trying to get a tenure track job. These credentials don’t actually feature either any experience practicing law or any formal academic training per se, which you might assume would be a serious problem for someone trying to become a lawyer-academic, but you would be wrong.

Legal academia is stacked to the rafters with people like this, and the results speak for themselves.

Yesterday some people weren’t too happy when I described Leong as “tenuously racialized” on the basis of her photos, but it turns out that Prof. Leong’s new research project is literally an exploration of the fact that she is tenuously racialized on the basis of her photos.

Leong’s preliminary findings seem to indicate that certain ethnographic categories of gender identity are fetishized as especially desirable within a hetero-normative frame in which the social concept of “white” identity functions as an unmarked category. One problem with this research project is that such an empirical conclusion would not be considered particularly novel within the relevant literature.

Another is that this is just the sort of human subject research that universities tend to have strict protocols regarding, since trolling surveying sleazy transgressive web sites for narcissistic kicks legitimate research purposes is the kind of thing institutions understandably maintain all sorts of rules about. Hopefully Prof. Leong didn’t wing itignore relevant bureaucratic protocols before launching this particular investigation.

Yet another is that my helpful commenter explains, it seems like a badly designed experiment on its own terms:

Her experiment isn’t very interesting. It’s actually pretty puerile. Again, she posts two profiles on an infamous online hook-up website, one in the “white” section and one in the “Asian” section. She then observes that the Asian post is somewhat more popular. (Query: How many total profiles are in the respective sections? If, as I suspect, there are exponentially more women posting in the “white” section, you’d EXPECT the “Asian” profile to draw a lot more interest. Alas, Leong doesn’t address this issue.) She also observes that the people responding to the “Asian” profile seem to reference the fact that she’s identifying as Asian. Oh how shocking. Someone who logs on to the hook-up site, goes specifically to the “Asian” section, and starts browsing profiles, just might have a particular interest in Asian women. Go figure.

As I said above. What’s the point? Really, what was she trying to show? That some (presumably white) men have a predilection for Asian women? That Asian women are sexualized in a way that white women aren’t? Her experiment was really crappily designed if it’s either of those (not to mention I don’t think she’s come close to supporting the latter statement, even on the face of her findings).

This really smacks of someone who starts off with an ideological hypothesis and designs a heavy-handed experiment to prove that point. That’s not research. It’s propaganda.

And yet another is that some people might question exactly why University of Denver law students are expected to incur nearly $180,000 of expenses over three years to subsidize this sort of thing.

But as I said, this isn’t ultimately about Leong, because in the legal academy today, people like her — brandishing impressive credentials that don’t actually have much if anything to do with either carrying out serious academic work or training people to practice law — are legion. (Indeed I’m one of them).

So none of this is coming from a putative position of superiority. Not at all. We are all, as a great philosopher once observed, part of the same hypocrisy. Recognizing that is merely the first step toward doing something about it.

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