You’ve Got to Walk that Uncanny Valley

Though it’s not often directly referenced, one of the things that’s always held over the heads of people who want social justice is Reconstruction.  Just think back to Nina Simone singing “Mississippi, Goddamn” when she talks about “people keep saying, ‘go slow.'”

Go slower than what?  At the time it had been roughly a hundred years since the Civil War.  Asking one hundred years after the Civil War to have the voting rights and the social equality the amendments passed right after the Civil War actually upheld seems pretty damn slow.

So, slow.  Why do you have to go slow?

Because of Reconstruction.

Let’s talk briefly about the reality of why Reconstruction failed.  The reality is that Reconstruction failed because southern whites opposed it and the Federal government, in order to smooth the reincorporation of the South into the Union, threw black Southerners to the wolves.

But the story we’ve been told is that Reconstruction failed because black people were failures at governing.  Not just failures, but completely unready.  No, more than that, not just unready, but incapable of ever being ready.

Take a look at this cartoon:

You don’t have to be a great cultural theorist to see how this cartoon works.  The black people are drawn with thick dark lines while the white people are drawn with thin lines.  The white folks look like drawings of white people, but the black images are more clearly caricatures.  And the point is clearly that these central figures are a joke, that they can’t really govern, because they’re just “aping” leadership and governing, not actually leading.  I mean, look at how they’re drawn.  Not only aren’t they politicians; they’re only almost human.

And this, America, is always there in the background, images like this, of black people who can’t handle the responsibility of governing, drawn up by white people who are afraid of black people governing.

In the shower this morning, it got me thinking of the Uncanny Valley.  This is a… thing… they talk about in video game development, how the more something looks human the more humans respond positively to it–up to a point.  Then, after that point, if something looks almost human, but not quite, we have a very negative reaction to it.  This also, clearly, is one of the reasons we find certain kinds of robots and sex toys kind of viscerally repulsive.

In general, though, I’ve only ever heard people talk about the Uncanny Valley in terms of things moving closer to resembling humans and what happens when they become almost human.

But it seems to me that there might be very, very fertile ground for thinking about how that applies when the movement is the other way–from human into the Uncanny Valley, when we move people from the status of “human” to “almost, but not quite human.”  The more I think about this, the more I think there’s something to understanding how images such as the one above or other types of racial and ethnic characterizations work.

Look at the image again and look at how the tallest black dude is portrayed.  You could read it as suggestive of him being monkey like, with the shape of his mouth and the arm raised above his head.  But I think that the reason it worked/maybe still works to repulse the intended white audience is that it portrays him as something that is not human coming too close to being mistaken for human.

I don’t know.  I’m going to have to give this some more thought, but for me, it starts to put some pieces in place.  If people can come to believe that a group is almost, but not quite human, they will feel a gut revulsion towards that group and the terrible treatment of that group seems justified and natural.

Anyway, it got me thinking that these portrayals of black politicians from the Reconstruction era still shape at some level our ideas about black politicians and our notions of needing to go slow, to take our time, to not try for too much, less it backfire on us, are a direct result of our common understanding of Reconstruction.  And the Uncanny Valley.

I don’t know what to make of all that.  But it seems to me important.

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14 thoughts on “You’ve Got to Walk that Uncanny Valley

  1. I think you’re right abouot the negative response to “almost human, but not quite”. I think it might be rooted in our desire to identify flaws. I’m thinking to that whole primordial need to select the best mate, and keying in on things like lack of symmetry, etc.

    Just a thought.

  2. “uncanny valley” — I’ve been trying to figure out why awful plastic surgery (i.e. the windtunnel look) makes me feel off balance… now I have a name for it. I learn so much here. ;-)

  3. The “uncanny valley” concept ties in a lot with reactions to immigration and mass religious conversions over the generations. Studies from the US and Israel show that second generation immigrants are always so much more welcome than the first, but the third generation gets a lot of anger because they haven’t assimilated completely, down to the last teensy detail. And the ethno/religious evaluations of descendants of mass (usually forced) conversions to Christianity and Islam during the middle ages show a suspect first generation, increasingly tolerated second and third generations, and then, wham! absolute resistance to the almost-assimilated further generations. This has been blamed for the breakup of the caliphate, for the institution of the Spanish Inquisition, and for other very big deal political changes. The uncanniness of people who aren’t quite, quite, quite us is a potent thing.

  4. the “uncanny valley” is one of those things that are almost certainly true, just not factual. it’s handy, but can’t be proven real.

    think about zombies. (if a discussion comes back to zombies this quickly, it’s got to be worthwhile!) they’re about as human as you can get without yet being human, yet they’re scary as hell because of the difference. regular old real-world corpses, similar phenomenon. awful plastic surgery, somewhere in there too. but go further out, and you start climbing the far end of the valley; those toy-like robots Sony put out a while ago — much less human but much more cute. or Pixar kids’ movies, same thing there.

    yet it’s all gut feeling and guesstimation, because how do you measure either of the variables on this plot? what’s the quantification of “humanness”, or “revulsion”, either one?

    the uncanny valley is pseudoscientific, but not untrue. it’s useful, but not really factual. which is kindof interesting in itself, i think.

    never seen it applied to a cultural context before, though, as nm just did. but that too makes sense; why should the “us-recognition” that’s involved here be limited to aesthetics alone, after all? i’ll have to think about this more.

  5. Nomen, the whole “true but not factual” is the basis of just about every literary and social theory out there. If you start relying on facts I WILL HAVE NOTHING!!! NOTHING!!!

    Whew. Sorry. Little panic there.

    No, actually, I think the whole Uncanny Valley thing works best as a social theory, not a scientific fact at all.

  6. I’m currently working on my PhD exploring the uncanny valley effect, so I was really interested to read this.

    You said:

    In general, though, I’ve only ever heard people talk about the Uncanny Valley in terms of things moving closer to resembling humans and what happens when they become almost human.

    But it seems to me that there might be very, very fertile ground for thinking about how that applies when the movement is the other way–from human into the Uncanny Valley, when we move people from the status of “human” to “almost, but not quite human.” The more I think about this, the more I think there’s something to understanding how images such as the one above or other types of racial and ethnic characterizations work.

    I’m very interested in this idea of sliding backwards down the uncanny valley, from human to less humanlike – I think this tie in neatly to a lot of psychological research on disgust and ingorup/outgroup distinctions. It’s something I’m currently working to incorporate into my research plans.

    I’m interested by the comments about whether the UVE is something that can be scientifically proven. I’m working to do just that exercise of defining what the two axis on Mori’s classic chart do equate to – I think that like pretty much any hypothesis, there are ways to operationalise the measurements and – for example – demonstrate whether it’s a cognitive or an emotional effect, and what that effect involves.

    But then, I’m a cognitive psychologist and do believe that it’s possible to gain insight into human experiences through experimental manipulation, controlled testing and careful measurement.

  7. Fascinating discussion. B., I think you are spot on once again. Furthermore, I think a point you touch on needs to be discussed even further.

    While it can be argued that certain aspects of human nature lend themselves to the perpetuation of widely held “Uncanny Valley” viewpoints, that doesn’t mean such viewpoints are inevitable products of human nature. Constructed racist social paradigms have long served various interests in human history, and in few places and times has this been more so than in the development, founding, and expansion of the Land of the Free.

    In short, B., I agree with you. The cartoon is saying “See? We have to keep the niggers down. Just look at how they are!” It isn’t much different than Reagan’s “welfare queens” or Bush’s Willie Horton ads.

    Bonus related historical anecdote, from David Halberstam’s The Fifties:

    These are not bad people,” he said of the Southerners who were defending themselves in the segregation cases. “All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in schools alongside some big black bucks.”
    — President Dwight D. Eisenhower to newly appointed Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren, circa 1953

  8. Shut up! We’ve got someone who actually studies the Uncanny Valley to comment here?! God, I love this blog.

    CS, I think exactly that the Uncanny Valley isn’t an end-all explanation. It’s not how things work; it’s why they’re effective. If we weren’t primed to see race, for instance, as something that marks one as “not us,” then humans who look almost like us, but for a different race, wouldn’t slide into the Uncanny Valley for us.

    But the reason I like this is that to me it explains something I just could not understand about slavery as perpetuated in the U.S. South. If you fathered a child with a slave woman, how could you look at that child–who would look like you and look like a sibling of your other children–and still be willing to keep that child enslaved, and often sold away from you?

    I have always thought that the recognition of sameness–you look like me–would have to overcome the seeming dissimilarity of being a different color.

    But, if we take into account that white slave owners were primed to view slaves as less than human, more closely resembling your master could, in some circumstances, be more threatening than less. It would be the fact that you so closely resembled him that would make you a target of his hatred and revulsion.

    It seems to me that to work it must require a person to think–that thing is not like me and too much like me.

    Stephanie, I’m going to be on the look-out for your research for sure.

  9. As a gamer and geek I’d run across the uncanny valley before, but never in reverse. Thank you for the insight, and I will have to sit and chew on how it relates to trans acceptance (one of my main concerns right now ;P )

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