FOUND SUBJECTS at the Moonspeaker
Change of Perspective (2022-07-11)
A change in perspective can reveal all sorts of remarkable things. Take for instance, the case of police officers in britain visiting women for thoughtcrimes like disagreeing with transactivism, or falling under suspicion of sharing sentiments with stickers, posters, or other media disagreeing with transactivism. In the midst of what must be a busy caseload dealing with investigating white and blue collar crime, including following up on charges laid and contributing to safety in the streets, they are doing this sort of work too. It mostly seems to entail either watching social media themselves or getting tweeted at by interested parties, and then they are off to follow up with accused wrongthinkers. I have read and heard people say that the police in britain have to do this now, it is how they've been trained and it's part of the law. I think the "part of the law" aspect is not true in the way those people think it is, but I understand that police in britain have been subjected to the same sort of gender training approved by transactivists there as many of them have in much of northern north america. Regardless, the explanation seems okay. The police have to do it because they are supposed to be following certain rules of practice, regardless of whether it is precisely what the law says. But, let's try changing our perspective by considering another example, one with at least the same sort of severity consequence as transactivists claim not agreeing with them in every way brings about for people who identify as transgender.
Those same police forces in britain and much of northern north america are involved in recording reports of sexual assault and rape. When charges are laid and pressed based on these reports, they are involved in subsequent further investigation. Before things get even that far, for rape the victim has to give a statement and will provide swabs and other material as part of a "rape kit" that will form part of the body of evidence used to identify and/or confirm a suspect. Sexual assault and rape are against the law in all these jurisdictions, and someone found guilty of either charge may suffer severe penalties in the form of imprisonment and the knock on effects of that including a criminal record. Police are trained in how to track rape kits, send them for processing, and pursue an investigation using the evidence from the kits, victim statements, and statements taken from any witnesses. The effects on the victim of these crimes is well-known and well documented. No pun intended, but this seems an open and shut case of when the police would have to take things seriously, get those victim statements and in the case of rape also rape kits processed and actioned. They have to right? That's the way they're trained, and it's the law.
Well they don't. Just do a quick web search on "unprocessed" or "lost" rape kits, and the uninvestigated reports of sexual assault. A little more work might even get you some information on sexual assault reports including collected physical evidence. A far from trivial number of reports go uninvestigated, far more than one or two rape kits – which is already too many – are left unprocessed, symbolic of another report ignored.
My specific point here is not that reports of disagreement with transactvisim should not be investigated by the police, although certainly anyone reading this will get that I think that teh police have no business trying to control how people think on any topic. Trying to bully and intimidate people into thinking in certain ways doesn't work anyway. No, my specific point is that if the conditions that make it necessary for the police to investigate disagreement with transactivism, with the implication that they have no choice, are also present for the examples of sexual assault and rape, then there should be no uninvestigated reports, no lost or unprocessed rape kits, except for those that are all too tragically recent. If that was really how things worked, then that is what we would see and hear about. And by the way, we would also see and hear about an aspect of policing that would directly contribute to greater safety for prostituted people, who are mostly women, children, and a significant contingent of racialized men who consider themselves transsexual.
The difference in how seriously disagreeing with transactivism is taken by the police versus how seriously they take sexual assault and rape despite being under similar training and legal constraints for each, if we don't question the transactivist claims about the law, must then be explained on some other grounds. (Top)
"Why Don't You Let Us Enjoy This First?" (2022-07-04)
Some variant of this complaint comes up every time some problematic competition has just finished, and a person or persons from a group that is disadvantaged in some manner is among the winners. There are quite a few types of event that fall under this rubric, from elections to award ceremonies for things like genres of popular culture. They are not usually sports competitions, which are generally sex differentiated for sensible safety reasons, and I will not include sports here precisely because what is at work there is more complicated and not just about politics or optics. On one hand, I have sympathy with the complaint, because it seems like for once "something nice happened," the group by proxy is finally getting some respectful attention and recognition for excellence. At one time it was easy to accept this rationalization, and to just go along without asking any troubling questions are noticing any troubling things. But on the other hand, there's a funny thing about these selections, because they are generally made by the group that originally kept all the prizes and recognition exclusively for themselves, in one way or another. And they have a way of stubbornly undermining the wins of the person or persons who are now winning prizes and recognition.
For one thing, no matter how genuinely excellent those people are, there is a sense that in the end, they have been "allowed" to win. This doesn't mean they aren't genuinely excellent. The point is, they had to be so insanely excellent relative to the people in the group that originally monopolized the prizes and recognition that they must know that they are indeed being "allowed" to win. The usual false reasons to bar them from success in the terms of these competitions have been dropped as a sort of noblesse oblige. There is not respect or recognition by the in-group here, but condescension. And shouldn't it logically cast doubt on the meaningfulness of the competition as a means to identify and recognize the better practitioners of whatever profession, when the selection process is revealed to be so unfair as to produce not realistic results, but results convenient to the status quo? This is precisely why so many people who are not in the "in-crowd" but win these competitions somehow decline the award and refuse to attend the accompanying ceremony. They don't wish to risk going along with the attempt to co-opt their image and work. This may not always be what is going on, but this is a real issue.
For another thing, the convenience to the status quo and the group controlling who gets to win is a huge issue. There is an underlying manipulative tactic that abusive partners like to use on a personal scale here, whereby they provide the appearance of going along with what the person they are abusing wants and values, but they do so in a way that makes the results as unpleasant as possible so they will never be asked for such a thing again. Having a few friends over for dinner for example, and then making a point of being rude, drunk, and a bad centre of attention until the abused partner is horribly embarrassed, and as a bonus, their friends have been driven further away. Politics in the united states and the united kingdom are chock full of these sorts of manoeuvres. Just look up the record of Margaret Thatcher or Phyllis Schafly, both of whom got much further and more powerful than women in patriarchal conditions usually manage, in this case by serving it to the hilt. In canadian politics there have not been examples of powerful women in this way, instead there has been an insistence on driving successful women politicians into sex role stereotype consistent portfolios, or only paying them serious attention when they speak up on issues deemed appropriate to sex role stereotypes. Or more infamously, the way the canadian federal government over time has manipulated commissions as a means to bleed off energy and interest from controversial topics and make it easier to do whatever thing the general public opposes.
So despite my sympathy for those who complain about not being able to just enjoy the "first so and so to win x," I can't go along with it or celebrate with them. Maybe after selection processes are at the minimum more fair, and when merely being of the right social group is enough to get things regardless of actual mediocrity or even outright theft of others' work. Maybe then. Otherwise, I think that it is more likely that the community from which "first so and so to win x" comes has in fact been handed a booby prize, and should get ready for the sloppy, rude drunk who will make a fuss until the guests have gone home early. (Top)
Supposed Single Issue (2022-06-27)
Among the many controversial statements made in the wake of the federal election in the united states was one that had several iterations to the effect that to insist on voting according to whether a candidate was better or worse for women – if that could be gauged in any meaningful way – amounted to one issue voting. I think that this is a vast oversimplification, in part because the prominence of specific issues affecting women seems to encourage seeing those as being the only ones and those as somehow affecting only women in a hermetically sealed way. Women are understandably upset and worried in the united states among many other countries, and in the united states there was insane levels of pressure from the two parts of the right wing there. On one side the more conservative and religiously oriented has done as it has done consistently since before the foundation of that country: advocated for restricting women and men to living according to narrowly defined sex role stereotypes and doing all they can to prevent women from controlling their own bodies, especially whether or not women have babies. The more liberal and individualist oriented has shifted in position over time to a begrudging acceptance that women should have a modicum of control over their own bodies in exchange for allowing liberal men free sexual access. And as it turns out, they are just fine with enforcing narrowly defined sex role stereotypes, as long as they can redefine things on occasion to change the definition of acceptable masculinity to match their demands for a sexual buzz. In other words, women in the united states got stuck with a horrible selection between two equally bad options, while trying to figure out which would be least harmful and give them the most space to continue organizing for effective defence.
Under such conditions, it can only be heinously difficult to see eye to eye on who to vote for, let alone consider seriously the idea that maybe voting for "the wrong candidate" constitutes a protest vote, or that lack of an overwhelming majority may in fact curb at least some of the excesses of the winner. It has taken some time for Feminist women who agree on basic principles but disagree on strategy to work their way through to a calmer place in the middle of this storm and work from those principles, but there is still a lingering accusation that voting according to a candidate's position on their behaviour on what may be one women's rights issue rather than a suite of them in the air. The thing is, it's a trap. What has happened is that each major party held up a single issue and waved it around, and it is mightily hard not to take such juicy bait for the purpose of making rhetorical points while trying to persuade others or indulge in accusing them of betraying women by not agreeing completely that the ultimate election winner is a sort of gift to women. A much milder form of this phenomenon manifested in the context of the canadian federal election. (Milder not because canada is better on women's issues per se, but because of attempts to make a three ring circus out of politics in the province of québec and that the leader of one fo the major parties is a Sikh and wears a turban.)
In fact, it seems to me that whenever we endeavour, as Feminists or people aligned with Feminists on the principle that women are human beings whose rights must be respected, to vote or otherwise act politically in line with that principle, we are doing the best we can in imperfect conditions. I don't agree at all that prioritising women's rights is in itself a type of "single issue" voting. One of the most powerful questions we can ask about any proposed policy is "how will it affect women?" This question is almost never asked, except in the most narrow of contexts. Yet, it is a good one to ask every time. How would policies that exacerbate global warming affect women, considering women are in fact the majority of the world's subsistence farmers and basic shelter builders, who ensure the kids get fed even when men piss off to live large in the city, for instance. By the way, if those women don't have a means to at least get enough education to support themselves, and thereby win and keep access to managing their own fertility and their own money, things get a hell of a lot worse for them in every country. In many countries that basic education is just learning how to read. In others it is completing a high school diploma. In still others it is completing a trade certificate or undergraduate degree. If women don't have the tools to win and hang onto management of their fertility and providing for themselves and any children and other family members they may be responsible for, policies intended to constructively deal with the biggest challenges of our time are unlikely to succeed. That includes policies meant to somehow curb or manage global warming, end the scourge of capitalism and corporations, or properly distribute food and medicine in the world.
How can I possibly make that claim? Easy. The men have tried everything bloody else, and not a single thing they have tried has worked or works. Nothing.
As long as in the end the tiny and predominantly male elite can use progressive policies when they can't avoid it or raw violence whenever they can take the chance, they will suborn every effort at meaningful change. After all, in their minds they are the only real human beings in the world. They are sure that in the end they can always insure their own comforts and power by co-opting others and applying all manner of violence to prevent the disobedient from eating. Keeping women down as a sex class is a key strategy for them, because that is their most powerful means to co-opt the men who have not managed to bully their way into the elite club or its posse of supportive gangsters. Not many men seem able to resist the lure of having "their own" woman to lord it over, or having women persistently paid less for the same work because supposedly that makes sure the men remain breadwinners even as it is used as a constant means to cut their wages.
And one of the best parts about Feminism is that as a theory and as a practice, it is able to handle the fact that while women are all female, they are not identical. They have different backgrounds and histories, which means we have available to us multiple lessons already on what works and what doesn't in winning and keeping respect for women as human beings without throwing anyone under the bus on the basis of any of a nasty handful of "isms." There's nothing about breaking the structures that recreate women as less than human that is "single issue" in nature. (Top)
Statistics, Damned Statistics, and Random Numbers (2022-06-20)
The title here refers of course to the quotation which looks to have origins going back at least to the end of the nineteenth century, according to the findings of the late Peter M. Lee and Stephen Goranson. Lee was a member of the department of mathematics at the university of york, while Goranson is an archaeologist specializing in regions and records associated with the christian bible at duke university. Goranson's interest may seem surprising, but archaeologists have been doing their best to apply statistical analyses to their finds for almost as long as they have had a formalized, university-based discipline to work from. In any case, one thing that has grown more and more controversial over time is the frank abuse of statistics for all manner of purposes, from goosing the stock market to terrifying people into doing things they otherwise wouldn't. Statistics are not magical, but because mathematics generally are inappropriately mystified and we are living through a period of severe anti-intellectualism that pressures everyone not to check receipts, they can seem both impossible to understand and impossible to challenge.
Based on my admittedly limited experience and observations, which for formal purposes would not be adequate statistical sampling, I suspect that the majority of us have had at least a nodding acquaintance with the bell curve, and practically all of us have used dice or cards in games. Which means we all have just enough to get started figuring out how statistics work with, but not enough to make a sensible connection between such day to day experiences and references to "p values," "statistical deviations," and "Bayesian probabilities." For my part, I heartily disliked the statistics sections of my mathematics classes in high school because the explanations made no sense to me. This is really tragic, because statistics are among the few areas of mathematics where students can perform experiments to see how the basics work. There is a real possibility that fear of accusations that students were learning to gamble at school is part of the reason these opportunities weren't taken, though. And that of course flags the fact that statistics as an area of study have rather disrespectable origins among people who were trying to figure out how to win consistently at cards, bets on horse racing, and the like. So a non-trivial issue for the field is those origins. We humans are pattern-matching animals, and those proto-statisticians strove to find patterns in apparently random chance. What they found, and as scholars in the field have found since, there sort of are patterns, but not really. From an amateur perspective, what makes statistics seem like little more than fancy lies is at least twofold. One aspect is unavoidable. The other is but that would require a great many dishonest people to stop being dishonest and kill off a lucrative sideline in the type of news headline that today we refer to as "clickbait."
The fundamental issue is that statistics is a whole field meant to help us identify the likelihood of certain outcomes. Statistical methods can't tell us what will definitely happen beyond all doubt except for such trivial cases as eventually we all die, and everything that goes up must eventually come down somehow. This is how we can get told the most likely outcome in the context of something like a baseball game or drawing from a small pool of numbers, and still get the least or at less likely outcome. The simplest illustrative example of this phenomenon I know of is the results of flipping a coin. A regular coin has two sides, heads or tails, and we ignore such pathological cases as somehow managing to flip it onto its edge and have it stand up, as some coins do because they have polygonal edges. We can also take as given that the coin is not weighted to one side, which would skew the results. With all that given, the probability of getting heads on a given toss is 50:50. The same is true of course, for getting tails. for each single toss. But after say, 10-20 tosses, perhaps the ratio of heads to tails is something else, like 12:8 or something of that nature. The prediction is not wrong. A key challenge with statistics is to count enough instances to get consistent results. If there are too few tests, then the statistics can be skewed. After at least 100 tosses, chances are the ratio of heads to tails will be at minimum converging rapidly with 50:50. If they aren't well, I would suggest you do some checking into the nature of that coin.
Lack of enough instances to draw a conclusion from is one of the biggest issues with applying and interpreting the expectation of a Gaussian curve, better known as a bell curve. I encountered the misuse of these at one point in my academic career, where the administration of the university demanded that all classes should have final grades falling on such a curve. This could potentially work in the case of courses taken by hundreds of students at a time whose grades can be pooled together and the basic course content is consistent. Such conditions are most common in large basic science and mathematics courses, where first and second year courses may have up to three hundred students per section. But it all goes to hell once total student numbers start slipping below something like three hundred or so, because then all manner of confounding factors start to impact the results. Now quality of instruction, textbook choice, and idiosyncratic earlier education backgrounds wound be drowned out as near-random to random noise, and the Gaussian curve will become prone to having its highest point shift towards the left or right end of the graph instead of sitting nicely over the middle.
Polling is probably the most vivid example of how awry sampling can go. Pollsters must poll enough people, and the people must not all be from the same small subset of the population if they want to use their polling numbers to make claims about general views on a given question. All this even before dealing with such confounding factors as accidentally or deliberately leading poll questions, polling methodologies that persistently select out major portions of the population, and so on. It is all very well to survey 10 000 people, but if they all turn out to be college-age students from rural saskatchewan, even if the questions are as neutral as possible, the results will only pertain to that specific population and other populations very similar to them. This is why pollsters seeking serious credibility tell how many people they polled, how many answered all the polling questions, where they polled, and how they did the polling. Those details all matter. And of course, state of the art at one time was to make doubly sure the results were reported as some percentage x number of times out of y. That last part is an attempt to describe how much the results could be expected to change on rerunning the poll again. The struggle to push small numbers of hopefully randomly sampled data as far as possible has led statisticians to develop a wide range of techniques intended to yield accurate analysis of such small datasets. That's a big part of what Bayesian theory is about.
In the crazed media environment we are currently in, with the perverse incentivization of advertising constantly at work, the demand is for statistics that are dramatic, especially for those pertaining to medicine and vehicular accidents. After all, those impact on our lives every day. Even the least mathematically interested or inclined can read those statistics with a critical eye though. Always check for a number of samples, cases, or people. If there are none provided, then until any become available it is best to be skeptical. I am always particularly skeptical of any claim to "99%" effectiveness of a product or medicine that is so brand new hardly anyone has ever used it. That sounds too good to be true, and deserves careful scrutiny. Now on the other hand, it is a commonplace truth that we should be more afraid of car crashes than plane crashes, because we are in cars so much more than planes, and plane crashes are so infrequent that are always big news, while car crashes are so common they are not. While that is true, it is also true that this is no argument to have no qualms about such infamous planes as the Boeing 747 max, which has a crazy number of crashes already relative to its number of flight hours compared to other planes. In other words, it goes back to comparing like statistics to like. (Top)
A Complaint About Exclusion That Should Always Be Ignored (2022-06-13)
There has been plenty of clever manipulation of the term "exclusion" over the past decade or so, in tandem with those of "equality." They are clever, but dishonest and manipulative in the most crass of ways. They are being manipulated specifically to make it possible for unqualified or frankly criminal men to access resources and places they have business being in, because fundamentally that is what they think all policies intended to unjust "exclusions" and "inequalities" are for: letting the unqualified and undeserving get stuff they shouldn't have. This is a convenient and face saving belief for many of these men to be sure, and it is unfortunate that their life circumstances are so poor that they believe there is no other way for them to achieve any sort of meaningful success. I don't doubt that there is a real subset of these men who are indeed suffering injustices that are structural in nature, as this is what fundamentalist capitalism runs on, systematically undermining the life chances of most people period to maximize the profits of the fewest. I don't doubt that all of the men participating in this manipulation are well aware that it will do nothing to change those structural issues impacting them for the better, but for various reasons rooted in their own circumstances, they don't care.
One place to start thinking through the ridiculous way "exclusion" and "equality" have been manipulated as to consider the case of "discrimination." I have not forgotten my junior high encounter with a teacher who insisted that discrimination was not bad, but who did so in a way that was unhelpful. I like to think from my now adult perspective, that his point was that "discrimination" means recognizing differences, and this does not necessarily entail using those differences as excuses to treat others unjustly. This is not the common connotation of the word today, as my electronic OED notes. The first somewhat awkward definition it notes for this word is "the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, esp[ecially] on grounds of race, age, or sex." The "things" reference is what is awkward here, not the rest. The prejudiced aspect is key though, in that it refers to a prejudgement without reason or actual experience, to paraphrase my OED. So my junior high teacher was endeavouring to reassert the precedence of an earlier sense of the word discrimination, I suspect in an effort to get all of us in class to understand the importance of prejudice as a factor. We were probably a bit too young to fully grasp that yet, teenagers are notorious for black and white thinking.
What the people messing with "exclusion" and "equality" are trying to do, is guide the general consensus on what these words connotate into rather different, and thoroughly non-neutral things. They are trying to claim that "exclusion" can never be justified when it affects men, and that "equality" must mean treating men as having the same higher social position and privileges that men get in patriarchy regardless of whether or not they are pursuing a form of personal deportment, clothing, and even body shape that is widely considered masculine. This is a great way to totally undermine policies and practices specifically designed to do one or both of at least two things: mitigate negative impacts of specific injustices related to prejudice based on such factors as sex, race, and age; change or remove the structures that support and reproduce those injustices.
In november 2020, philosopher Kathleen Stock published an essay dealing particularly with the first of these things, the exclusion of men from women-only and girl-only spaces. As Stock notes, this means that all men are being excluded even though many men may never so much as dream of doing injury to a girl or woman. The trouble is, the impact of the men who do far more than dream of doing such harm is so disproportionate in its impacts to the safety and life chances of women and girls, and the few bad apples cannot be easily excluded on a case by case basis, that all men are excluded. If we check from the other direction, whether this exclusion in turn disproportionately damages the safety and life chances of men, we find that no, it doesn't. That there is a small subset of men who may be perceived as effeminate and therefore in danger themselves in male-only spaces does not magically give them an access card to women-only and girl-only spaces. It certainly does give them the right to insist on their own exclusive spaces and to campaign fiercely against male against male violence, which the moe effeminate gay male portion of the group has been quite effective on, in part because they are able to leverage the parts of their male privileges in patriarchy.
I have read fly by comments rather than arguments that female-only spaces, shortlists and such are either unnecessary now because patriarchy is over, or ineffective because there is still patriarchy. Both claims are absurd on their face, because if they weren't effective, there would be no reason to demand an end to them on any basis. Nobody campaigns to end a practice that does nothing. That just the existence of minimal female-only spaces has not vanquished patriarchy by itself is no surprise, because it takes more than just one strategy to destroy and replace invidious social structures. The mistake more liberal- or mainstream-oriented Feminists are prone to making is thinking that they can complete one successful campaign and then stop because they won. I suspect this is a terrible temptation for women in better financial and social conditions generally, because they are insulated from the worst direct impacts of patriarchy, and after the high of a win, there is of course the exhaustion that comes afterwards because there is still plenty of work to do.
Okay then, what about that vexed term "equality." I think the best explanation of how to deal with this term is from the philosophers and policy developers who insist on specifying what is being made equal. There is a fairly common illustration of what a just version of equality is, meaning specifically equality of outcome rather than flat equality that does not consider differences between people. A version of it is reproduced at the left. The concern here is of course to make conditions fair in way that is fair in itself. This comic shows a good simplified example to start from. In the case of competitions for jobs, there is strong evidence that at minimum sorting resumes should be done with candidate's names masked to help curb entrenched and at times unconscious biases against the names of women or racialized people. It's not perfect, but it does help to push assessors to keep their minds on actual qualifications, not preconceptions about what women or certain types of men versus another single type of man. There is documented evidence that women's and racialized people's achievements are rarely accorded as much celebration or preserved as assiduously in the historical record as those of elite men. Therefore to overcome this and thereby provide role models that demonstrate that "anyone" really is able to perform whatever job or feat, there are various projects used to make them more visible and keep them in the records. These are the currently imperilled shortlists and such projects as the recent, brilliantly successful book The Philosopher Queens compiled and edited by Rebecca Buxton and Lisa Whiting. That these sort of efforts matter and make a real difference can be found in such cases as that of Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who has wryly acknowledged that in the end the frank injustice of her not even being included as a candidate for the Nobel prize given for her discovery of pulsars led to a serious, positive head shake in her field and more appropriate recognition for her ongoing work.
The men trying to maliciously manipulate the consensus definitions of "equality" and "exclusion" on top of eliding serious considerations of justice and practical outcomes insist equality of outcome is wrong. They insist this because as I noted at the start of this piece, they think such effort is about letting the unqualified and undeserving have stuff they shouldn't have, and therefore they should, because they believe men are entitled to whatever they want. Nevertheless, it is quite clear that complaints about exclusion where that exclusion does not in fact injure the safety and life chances of the people complaining. They may have reason to complain, maybe even just reason. It's just that the actual source of their complaint is not their exclusion. (Top)
Politicians and Fundraising (2022-06-06)
Quite some time ago, I read a person expressing great and thoroughly understandable annoyance at political fundraising in the context of recent national elections in the united states, though the critique can be applied at other levels and in other places. It would be easy to just leave this frustrated exclamation to stand on its own: when the main people running for office are millionaires, how can they be begging for money even in small amounts from $5-$25 dollars from people nearly half of whom are in severe distress? But I don't think it would be quite fair or wise to leave this explanation alone, because this person has actually stuck their finger on the serious sore spot that the ludicrous "citizens united" court decision finally brought to the surface in the united states. They don't have a democracy there, they have a hyper-exploitative oligokleptocracy run to wring the maximum amount of cash out of every possible person who is not on that small group of super thieves. Please note that I am not suggesting this is an issue exclusive to the united states, far from it – canada has a sort of envious imitation of it for example. It's just that people there are stuck in the horrifying situation of living in what is the most extreme form of having a rich oligarchy manipulating the government and economy for their own benefit of any industrial nation.
Now on one hand, yes, millionaires and billionaires can easily bankroll these campaigns. Indeed, several billionaires have indulged in such things in recent united states election cycles, and they very noticeably did not win, though there are non-trivial arguments that they didn't intend to. They likely intended to nudge or outright shove the outcome of specific decisions about which candidate would be run for president in a specific direction. We can see Donald Trump as the exception that proves the rule, in that he ended up becoming the republican nominee to run for president in what I think started as one more in a long line of publicity stunts intended to keep himself basking in media attention. Much to even his shock, he won the dubious nomination, and the rest as we know, is history like it or not. The level of vitriol hurled at him is much more about the unseemly way he went about things, obviously throwing his own money around and playing the corrupt media like the professional he is at such things. Competency for the job is hardly required, or Ronald Reagan could never have planted his senile self in the same position. Before it was co-opted, the #metoo hashtag and speak out definitely made it harder for some powerful men to get away with raping and abusing women and children with impunity. But generally every possible excuse is made to ignore such crimes in the men selected as potential presidents, based on the historical record. Yes, people pick on Trump for what is still officially alleged criminal behaviour, and his vulgarity is no secret. Yet he is far from the first vulgar president or presidential nominee.
No, Trump basically looked at the usual fig leaf on this corrupt political process, and seeing no point to it, pulled it off.
I think we should simply face up to the fact that a big part of the visceral disgust with Trump in the liberal right wing and the established political oligarchies not just in the united states but in much of the "western world" is that he made it impossible to pretend the system isn't corrupt or that it is working for the benefit of the citizens there. That on top of global warming, a pandemic, and economic problems that were already coming to awful fruition even before the pandemic has added major insult to injury. People don't need mass propaganda to upset them about how things are going, I think especially in the united states where citizens are beside themselves with anger and frustration at the state of their communities and their country at large. But as long as it was somehow deniable that an oligarchy was passing around political power based on how much money they could spend, there was some chance to distract them from the reality of what was going on. Part of that fig leaf not tearing apart depended on both not blatantly buying elections and curbing the urge to squeeze the pips until they squeaked. Well, the pips are beyond squeaking because many of them have been crushed. So the cover of a superficially mass-funded political campaign was needed to do the whole job.
Truth be told, I am caught between wondering if the final pleas for small bills to fund the oligarchy into office is a last bit of cynical pip squeezing, or staffers following the campaign plan to the absolute letter in every way and to the greatest extreme as a means of protest. After all, it seems pretty clear what would capture all important votes, and that would be setting out a feasible plan for real positive change for the majority of citizens. This is true even in a messed up, oligarchic system, anywhere. A candidate and party who actually carried out the plan would be so unheard of that would put us in an entirely different framework. Yet, generally political candidates won't do that in north america generally, not just the united states. And this makes awful sense. In a perverted system that rewards having more money above all things, they don't want the votes. They want the money. (Top)
Conspiracy Theorizing (2022-05-30)
The web continues to be its wild and wooly self, although the ongoing corporate effort to enclose it and recreate into a total system of propaganda bubbles for maximum exploitation of those surfing or otherwise participating on it continue. In the course of tracing some material related to questions of censorship and the challenge of appropriately balancing the need to have free discussion of ideas while discouraging the influence of bad ones, I happened upon an unusual site, called ampoli.com. Those with some basic ancient greek or bioscientific terminology under their belts will recognize in the title a claim to represent or be open to "both sides" of a discussion. As the about page explains, the site founders want to have diverse contributions and discussions that do not devolve promptly into name calling, even with respect to a whole range of what are regularly derogated as "conspiracy theories." Overall the site certainly leans politically to the right, but what particularly caught my eye was a cross-referenced essay on The Origins of the Term "Conspiracy Theory" by Arthur Blair and published in june 2019.
The article reminded me of Erica Lagalisse's closing section to her book published that same year, Occult Features of Anarchism. The section in question runs from pages 89 to 114, titled "The Conspiracy of Kings: Attending to the 'Conspiracy Theory' Phenomenon." I suspect that Blair would find possibly unexpected common ground with Lagalisse on their shared topic here, in part because of the former's unpacking of the slightly newer term "conspiracy nut" as follows: "Conspiracy nut is similar to the term conspiracy theorist, a term which has been used for decades to automatically discredit anyone that questions the mainstream narrative of recorded events." He then goes on to argue that the source of both terms, conspiracy theory and effectively conspiracy nut, is the dubiously named "central intelligence agency" of the united states. He includes some important relevant links and reproduces a relevant document. He doesn't seem to have heard of Conspiracy Theory in America be Lance deHaven-Smith published in 2013. This is no mark against him of course. I hadn't heard of this book either until I read Lagalisse's. In fact while "conspiracy theory" does go back much further as a genre and even a term than when the cia decided to manipulate its use in the media, so Blair has ended up tracking the origins of this disinformation campaign more than the genre itself. Again, this is no mark against him. He is striving to explain a specific type of conversation about conspiracy theories in the united states context.
Lagalisse draws out some further points about the term "conspiracy theory" and how it is deployed that are well worth exploring via some quotes from the beforementioned chapter, which I hope further encourages readers to see the book as a whole for themselves. She is from a working class background and has an admirable allergy to heavy duty postmodernist and other theoretical jargon.
Insofar as the phrase "conspiracy theory" has meaning, it resides in its function as a phrase used to refere to popular (subaltern) ideas for the purpose of disqualifying them from respectable consideration. Theories of conspiracy that are communicated by those "above" are not labelled "conspiracy theories," even if they are false and involve fantastic or incredible premises, whereas theories of conspiracy expounded by those "below" can rarely shake the "conspiracy theory" label once it has been publicly applied. (90)
Perhaps social scientists might grant more often that "conspiracy theories" happen precisely because the public notices that secretive government institutions are continually lying. (94)
In fact, insofar as we may discern a consistent substantial difference between the ideas commonly referenced as "conspiracy theories" and those commonly understood as "social theory," it is simply that social theory takes "society" as its unit of analysis, whereas "conspiracy theories" grant more power to individuals. (106)
This is, of course, another way of saying that considering "conspiracy" among elites is uncomfortable for elites because it highlights the social power they do structurally enjoy and, therefore, inconvenient responsibilities they do actually have. (108)
As Lagalisse notes, "conspiracy theories" are often imputed to and perceived to be most popular among people deemed to be "white trash" by those who think of themselves as white and who are in better economic and social circumstances. They are stereotyped as irredeemably and by default racist, sexist, antisemitic and so on, and may find themselves attributed an affinity with a few embarrassing richer whites who manage to behave atrociously in public by among other things, espousing and spreading "conspiracy theories." Just in case my excerpting has muddied this a bit, Lagalisse is not denying in any way that explanations and ideas labelled as "conspiracy theories" are in many cases wrong. Her point is that the way the term has been weaponized, it is used to shut down conversation and drive "wrongthinkers" out of communities. This is done instead of respectful engagement to help redirect those who are raise these forms of explanation away from accepting antisemitic and racist ideas while appreciating their efforts to raise a genuine social critique. Yes, the guy whose answer to every different question is a variant on "It's ALIENS!" probably is not going to be too interested in a constructive conversation. But such people really are outliers.
This reminds me all over again of the idea that we all have a sort of mental lumber room with all manner of bric a brac in it, much of it heard or seen when we were younger and more impressionable. Part of the lumber is an awkward pile of generally inconsistent and often rather glib explanations for social problems, tacked onto genuine critiques and concerns, but with unhelpful or at minimum thought-confusing stuff attached. An old example that has faded a little over time is the antisemitic claim that Jewish interests control the newspapers. It is far from news that this idea is ridiculous. Yet it is true that people have had reasonable concerns about concentrated ownership of newspapers and other mass media and their use to spread propaganda for many years. When Lagalisse talks about alternate ways to challenge a person in a good way that firmly opposes this type of antisemitic claim or invocation of it as "just something that they heard," I am also reminded of a concept I just learned from the late Haudenosaunee Elder John Mohawk. He explained how in Haudenosaunee diplomacy, the approach is to start with what both sides agree on, and then work towards and through what they disagree about. Start from a point where there is shared ideas and respect, then with a good mind work on the harder stuff. (Top)
Let's Talk About "Liberalism" (2022-05-23)
Well, add that word to the list of words stretched and expanded in ways that have made it near meaningless at best, pernicious the rest of the time. In fact, let's go right to the nub of it, not just "liberalism," but "liberal" itself. I have already written a bit of dictionary exploration about the meaning of "liberal" in the context of the humanities and the liberal arts. I am also fed up to the back teeth with lying claims that to be "liberal" is to be "leftist" or somehow by default on "the right side of history" (no pun intended by me or the people who say this) on any and all topics. Quite an effort has gone into claims that to be "liberal" means to "be open to new behaviour or opinions and willing to discard traditional values," quoting my electronic OED. To some degree, this is a pleasant thought. But the people loudly thumping their chests and calling themselves liberals would sooner engage in violence and censorship than tolerate so much as a hint of a new opinion or behaviour that does not already match what they have decided is the only answer. Furthermore, they are quite happy to keep all manner of "traditional" in the sense of things handed down from the past, including patriarchy, legalized violence against women, children, and anyone racialized or deemed effeminate, and the monopoly they have achieved over most economic and political power. They are totally fine with all those hand me downs, and rabidly against anything that enforces respect for the human rights of women and children, which already includes the vast majority of people whose rights those liberals would also like to continue ignoring, anyone who is poor. These are the same people who like to pretend that everyone is like they are, making totally free choices under no constraints whatsoever. This is the kind of stupid that leads them to insist that no, really, people in prostitution have chosen to do an ordinary sort of work they'd never so much as dream seriously of doing themselves.
Fundamentally, liberalism and the very definition of a "liberal" to start with came from a specific group of men who either were nouveau riche or had pretensions to it, who wanted to justify and valorize the paths open to them to get those new riches. They had to rationalize outright theft of land from farmers everywhere, Indigenous people everywhere, and using every means possible to willfully impoverish the people they strive to prevent from growing their own food in order to maximize their own profits. Cutting off alternate access to food is absolutely critical here, because otherwise, those people could more effectively resist the moves of the new liberals to maximize profits. Those new liberals were absolutely insistent that people "deserved" to be freed from the land, and pretended they were ending feudalism. They insisted that women, men and children "deserved" the supposed confidence and structure that came with coercion into embodying and upholding sex-role stereotypes. Funny enough, those sex-role stereotypes also helped give those new liberals multiple ways to manipulate them to push down wages and co-opt resistant men by persuading them that at least they would have one permanent servant whom they could treat as they wished: a wife.
There's nothing good or nice about this. What the early liberals and their successors are very good at is the tactics of co-optation. Since so many unjust practices and systems are indeed old to some generation of people, there is always a way for them to claim that liberalism is about freedom and debunking and throwing away traditional and unjust practices and systems. The trouble is, they have no desire to replace them with just practices and systems, they just want different unjust practices and systems that benefit them instead of the older entrenched men. Every time I see something relabelled as having a liberal version, due to the grim experience of checking receipts, I keep finding that this means that whatever the thing was before, especially if it was meant to seriously change the status quo, the liberal version is eviscerated. Hence so-called "liberal feminism" is all about destroying all enforcement and respect for women's rights. "Liberal politics" are in fact one more version of entrenching a greedy and conscienceless oligarchy. Then we have such travesties as "neoliberalism" which is supposed to be a modification of "liberalism" in favour of "free market capitalism." Funny enough, my OED folds in on itself and lacks a proper definition of liberalism, but by implication of the description of liberal politics, liberalism is supposed to be about maximizing individual freedom. Which gives away that the so-called "capitalist free-market" is actually a structure that impinges upon individual freedom.
I agree, it sounds like maximizing individual freedom should be a default good thing. The trouble starts, as such troubles often do, with the definition of the individual. The default individual is a white man who has managed to take control of something considered property, whether that be money, land, or something else. Women and children and categories of racialized men have more often than not been defined as a type of property, because supposedly they are all permanently incapable of freedom due to lack of rationality, and inability to hold property, at minimum. This is exactly why early feminists and abolitionists, many of whom were the same people, fought so hard for the redefinition of the individual to include women, children, and all those categories of otherwise derogated men. They were endeavouring, quite reasonably, to short-circuit the liberal rationalizations of injustice by redefining the presumed central actor of the whole thing, the individual. They weren't wrong in their tactics or anything. What has happened, and what people have rediscovered more recently, is that too many people let themselves be gulled into believing once they did one thing, i.e. end the most obvious forms of human slavery, force respect for women's right to vote, and so on, that then they could stop, because that supposedly took care of the root of the problem. Well, no. People who benefit by an unjust system will take those kind of changes as mere setbacks as long as there are any avenues for them to suborn or ignore them, and liberal men are vicious masters of this. That includes making full use of present-day versions of "cancel culture." Liberalism is not the answer. (Top)
Supposed Season of the Introverts (2022-05-16)
I have observed more than a few comments that suggest that somehow being in lockdown or carrying out most paid work and unpaid learning activities online is somehow an "introvert's dream." While there is no question that some people have found these sorts of scenarios congenial and would like to stick with them to the extent possible, I have to call bullshit on the claim that this situation is somehow a turn to conditions especially suited to introverts. Superficially there is a lot going for the conflation of "interactions via remote options" and "the sort of interactions introverts like." Superficially, so long as we accept the unspoken assumptions that what we are dealing with here is a preference and the preference is for avoiding direct interactions with other people. These assumptions are both unmitigable bullshit, and while they play well into a general mainstream north american claim that people presumed to be extroverts are hypersocial go-getters who insist on shaking everybody's hand and who always succeed and therefore are better than introverts, they don't help us make sense of our actual experience of "online interaction."
Now of course, part of what is causing difficulty here is that the implied definitions of extroverts and introverts are caricatures. What people who are more extroverted share is being energized by meeting new people and generally spending time with others. People who are more introverted share an experience of being tired out by spending extended periods of time meeting new people and spending time in large groups. We can expect that people will tend to prefer spending more time in conditions where they feel energized rather than tired out. But actually, there is only so far we can push that expectation. How energizing or not being with other people can be depends on many factors. Meeting new brand new people where we need to learn the particulars of their body language, social queues, and reactions entails some real effort, even if we only have to meet those people once. In a gathering of people we already know well, the effort is much less, and so long as the gathering isn't so large that the issue of noise and heat levels begin to impact things, chances are those can be fairly neutral, whatever amount of extroversion or introversion a person may have. Okay, but this is still all predicated on direct personal interaction, and it is levels of direct personal interaction that have been cut.
So does removing the direct personal interaction element make it easier? Well, it sounds like actually, it doesn't. Just do a search in your preferred search engine for the newfangled phenomenon of "zoom fatigue." It turns out that video meetings are exhausting, I suspect especially those including more than two people, because monitoring body language and getting a sense of "the room" is much harder. Truth be told, I am skeptical of the possibility of gauging "the room" at all, although of course we all try, while trying to build an appropriate mental model of what "the room" means in such a context. This is leaving aside the headaches of fouled up cameras, slow connections, outages on the servers for whatever video meeting software is being used, and interruptions and other challenges for each person who is working from an ad hoc or even planned office at home. Many people live in smaller homes today because of the level of dementia in the housing market whether in sales or rent, and one of the means of managing this was having access to alternate working, learning, and socializing spaces. Not everyone comes from a culture with techniques for handling a busy space in which household members can't depend on a wall or other divider to create a private or merely quiet area.
So my suggestion is that the idea that this might be an introvert's dream is precisely backwards. It's an extrovert's nightmare, because much of what makes them energized in an interpersonal interaction is contingent on the enjoyment of meeting the challenge of rapidly and effectively responding to social and body language cues. That is, more extroverted people are stuck trying to carry on in conditions that muffle and block those cues, so that they aren't getting that happy rush of getting into synch with others as quickly or consistently. And furthermore, I suggest that this is also an introverted person's nightmare, because while an introverted person may find ordinary interactions draining rather than energizing, those interactions are nevertheless satisfying in many cases for the same reasons they are for extroverted people. We humans are social animals, we like hanging out together more often than not, and even the most solitary of us whither without a bit of basic back and forth with others. When the more introverted person goes home early, that shouldn't be read negatively, although I have friends who are prone to doing so, anecdotally speaking.
End result looks to me like everybody is doing the best they can with a less than ideal need to use video meetings to do an important portion of their professional meetings and socializing. It's not a slam dunk for anybody, and that adds to a level of persistent resistance among some people to the types of precautions needed to reduce the severity of the covid pandemic. I doubt acknowledging this in and of itself would help those most determined to resist doing anything like that, but maybe it would help everyone to at least let go of such unfortunate formulations about how certain people must be flying high doing everything through their computers, including meetings. (Top)
The Web Forgets What It Should Remember, and Remembers What It Should Forget (2022-05-09)
Truth be told, my first response to reading or hearing that someone has lost all of their blogposts or similar to censorship, company shut down, or just plain mishap, tends to be bewilderment. Not that such things can happen, evidently they can. What bewilders me is what a change in web culture these sorts of incident represent, that a whole shared teaching about back ups and offline copies has been completely lost. Bret Victor seems to have written his comments and concerns about the web's inability to remember what it should and forget what it should into a void. I think this is dangerous, and deeply cruel to the many people who are set up to lose much of their hard work and evidence of their engagement with the web as an entity and with other people participating on it. Sometimes that engagement is negative, sometimes it is positive, and I do agree that it is critically necessary in order to properly respect the human rights of everyone involved, not just the vicious greed and power hunger of so-called elites, to enforce respect for the human right to remove inaccurate and libellous material. People who posted more unwise things in their younger days should have options to reduce the potential harm that material may cause them. I suspect that more often than not that is going to wind up being an offline, social solution, in which society at large rediscovers that people do dumb things when they don't understand consequences, and that the ones who will go on to be and do worse stand out from the rest in non-trivial ways.
Still, the thing that bugs me more, is that so many people have been mistaught into believing apparently not just that they don't need to back up their own work, but even that they shouldn't or are not allowed to. Let alone the ways in which "free" systems make it difficult to back up your work in its original form in a quick and easy fashion. My point here is not that everyone should back up everything always, just that it is worth definitely backing up what it would definitely be regrettable to lose. Then again, perhaps I have this the wrong way around. Perhaps a big part of what is going on for a significant portion of people is that they don't realize at first that the blogposts and comments they wrote are things they would be sad to lose, until they do. If I take that angle, I can see a major difference between myself and those people with that hypothetical view: as a writer, I am conscious that a portion of my writing has real ongoing value to me, and sometimes to others too. Therefore I take steps to curate it separate and independent from corporations and other organizations. But if these others do not see themselves as even amateur writers, whose thoughts and contributions have value, then it would be easy for them to forget that it is quite reasonable to save some writing because it has value to them. It needn't be valuable to anyone else.
I suppose a common protest to this could be, "isn't that selfish or egocentric?" Obviously I don't think so or The Moonspeaker wouldn't exist. Which is not to say that such curating couldn't become selfish or egotistic, if it came at the expense of others who depend upon the writer in question, or if they become so obsessive about it that they become isolated and unable to be an active person in the world. But I think we can agree that such cases are quite rare, and that there is a remarkable level of reasonable wiggle before that is a genuine risk. I have acquaintances and am aware of other writers who do much of their journaling, planning, and braindumping in the cheapest exercise books, usually eighty or a hundred twenty pages, that can cost as little as a dollar apiece. Part of this is also to curb the way that expensive notebooks and journals can be hard to write in and use, because they are expensive. Plus, it's usually not a big deal to lose a few of them, and if it is, they have an archiving practice to manage the risk. I appreciate these are writers, but since most writers, me included, don't make gigantic loads of money, balancing cost and maintenance for our writing with the rest of life's necessities is unavoidable.
There's another perspective on this that I learned by accident while still living in a different city than I do now. In that city there was, and hopefully still is but the pandemic would have been very hard on it, a store specializing in quirky, "ethnic" furniture and decorations. It sounds like it should be awful, and looked a bit sketchy to me at first, but one day, on observing they were selling remarkable clay jar stoves on legs in three sizes that are quite practical, with directions on how much space they needed for safe use, I headed inside. To their credit, this was and hopefully still is not a store that peddles "curiosities." Instead, it had developed a range of relationships with artisans to build sensibly priced custom furniture, artists who had various items to sell from paintings to woven cloth, and many, many lamps. One tiny section of the packed store was devoted to hand bound blank books, with one of the largest examples set out on its own stand, labelled with a card that read "The Legacy." I have my own reasons to be interested in such projects, including being a vocational hand bookbinder myself. Still, there was clearly a story behind this display, and I was interested in hearing it. Of course, the person on staff that day was happy to oblige, because as it happened this aspect of the book corner was one of her projects.
One day, a customer had come in hunting for some sort of large, blank book. The store hadn't carried much by way of that at the time, which I can vouch for because I walked by the store regularly for many of the years I lived in that city, and the book nook is visible right in the main window. This other person, not a customer quite yet, happened to see one of the two or three of these large, handmade books in the window, and shot inside to purchase one. Her purpose, she told the clerk, was to use it to gather up written and pasted up bits and memories in it for her children, inspired by the example of her beloved father, who had passed away recently. It turned out that he had collected and filled up a box full of three ring binders with jottings, clippings, memories, and thoughts for his children and grandchildren to have even after he was gone. Those homely binders were an important source of comfort and solace, let alone turning up all manner of intriguing details about events during her father's lifetime.
Perhaps now it may seem to many younger people that the web should be able to do this sort of job easily. After all, what else are search engines and wikipedia and the rest for. For those of us with a bent towards designing webpages, and those with an even bigger interest in scrapbooking, there are many analogies to websites available, and remarkable ease in bringing together complex multimedia assemblages. But for good or ill, we still have to take steps to make sure we have offline archives, because the web is not yet able to remember what it should remember or forget what it should forget. Worse yet, if we don't do it, that leaves it to be done as a greywashed anglophone average between search engines and crowdsourced projects. It is more important than ever we resist the temptations to homogenize, including those that derive from being taught what we have to say or what we choose to collect and reflect on is not meaningful or worth preserving. (Top)
Too Effective Words? (2022-05-02)
Some time ago now, I finally had a chance to read Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt's book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting up a Generation for Failure. It is well worth the read, especially for anyone who is not from the united states and trying to understand just what is going on with many younger people there and why they are so insistent that their understanding of the world must be everyone's even as they decry colonialism. It is a nuanced read, critical in the best way, and treating people across the political divide in the united states in a respectful manner. That is hard to find right now there and in many other anglophone countries that I am familiar with at the moment. It was also quite eye opening in terms of how such a wild confluence of factors have come together in such an unwanted way when what people wanted and are trying to do is quite different. One aspect of their discussion has particularly stuck with me among others, because issues fo what speech is permissible in my workplace has gone in some peculiar directions.
I have worried at the knot of whether words can be dangerous, whether words can be violence. The idea that words can literally be violence is so widely accepted at least in the media right now, yet it seems to me that something is seriously awry with it. Lukianoff and Haidt observed that there is a big difference between acknowledging that speech may be used to provoke violence, and claiming that mere speech by itself is violence. They also carefully unpack the problems with insisting that the only measure of whether speech is somehow harmful or meant to incite violence is the perception of the person hearing it. The reality is that context is everything, and if people go into a scenario expecting that they can't trust others, they will be prone to leaping to the bleakest interpretation of what they hear when others speak in order to disagree with and challenge them.
A powerful vector of psychological abuse is indeed speech, but it never starts with speech. A person who engages in psychological abuse with malice aforethought is in a position where they are acting most likely in one of two major types of scenarios. One type is now more often recognized for what it is, one in which name calling, insults and the like are considered okay to use against a particular group. When many people engage in this behaviour together, it makes for a hostile environment that even if it is not physically dangerous may still be intolerable for a member of that group because it interferes with their ability to be there. The other type is much smaller scale, typically within a household, where more often than not a male member of that household has instilled fear and anxiety in other members of that household using violence, then shifted to invoking that violence by verbal reference. Either way, that's an entire environment of nasty, and there is plenty of additional evidence demonstrating that yes, those words are being used to make a toxic environment and at times even to incite violence.
Some words are deeply upsetting even if no element of these scenarios is present. But as Lukianoff and Haidt point out, how upsetting words are doesn't actually tell us what the other person meant by saying them. So it's worth holding back, calming down a bit, and then gathering more information before deciding whether the other person was up to no good. Sometimes they are. Then it is necessary to decide whether they are trolling, in which case the thing to do is actually to walk away rather than feed the troll. More often, they aren't, and they need constructive feedback, if there is sensible space and time to give it in. This all sounds like what should be common sense, but as most of us learn, "common sense" is what a group of people know together, not what everybody knows everywhere. I am not sure how to express how disappointing it was when many years ago I realized that common sense isn't actually universal. It would be so nice to have at least one simplifying thing turn out to be genuinely applicable past the age of fourteen.
Words are powerful, to be sure. But there is no real reason to assume that almost everyone in the world is out to do us harm just because they don't agree with everything we say or they say something that surprises or discomforts us for any other reason. These days, with so many things changing and so many assumptions challenged, I think that many of us are running more often into situations where we trip over the contents of our own or others' mental lumber rooms. By that I mean that most of us have preconceived ideas and responses that we picked up when we were impressionable, and we can end up repeating them without thinking because we learned them as "what you say" without necessarily appreciating their actual content. That is where quite a few racist and sexist and expressions have fossilized, and when they pop out they can be left field blindsides from someone we never expected such a thing from, or that we didn't realize we had piled in a corner of our mental lumber room. So either we are shocked by somebody else, or embarrassed that we had that piece of rotten mental furniture. But that doesn't in itself make or us or them bad people. It makes us responsible for getting rid of that rotten mental furniture to be sure, under conditions where we are feeling awkward indeed. But that is not violence. It is an unwanted surprise and one of those necessary lumber room cleaning moments. (Top)
Adult Infantilization (2022-04-25)
There's something uniquely frustrating about having to do so many things online nowadays, even when there are good reasons to, such as most recently doing our bit to curb a pandemic viral illness. Some frustrations simply can't be helped, such as overloaded servers or learning multiple new procedures via poorly written and often out of date documentation. But the absolute worst aspect of the whole mess is the infuriating efforts to infantilize adults using new systems to get work done online. It's hard to express in polite terms how deeply enraging some of this stuff is, with its official rationalization as "making the software more intuitive" or "more playful." Would that is how it actually worked out, and perhaps it does in small doses. But in regular and repeated unasked for doses, it becomes at best less than optimal. If I see one more system offering me a "playspace" to try out software modules under unrealistic conditions in bright colours as if they are offering me round edged primary coloured blocks, it will be too soon.
The trouble probably lies in the level of contempt that unfortunately most programmers actually have for the people who have to work with such a huge pile of new systems. They seem to be labouring under at least three major misapprehensions. Leaving aside the first one, that they seem to think that anyone who can't code their own solution or is blocked from doing so must be stupid or a crook, the other two are at least as destructive. The other two could be bunched together under the heading of "make it more intuitive" and they are both flat wrong. The one starts from the assumption that primary colours and terminology suggestive of kindergarten or elementary school will make it possible for people who have not engaged with a given system before able to magically do whatever they need to in it. The other starts from the assumption that if only the user interface is made to look as much like whatever social media high flyer of the moment among middle and high schoolers, then everyone will again, magically figure out how it all works. Much as I dislike social media, this is not in itself what the problem is. The problem is that neither model of how people supposedly learn is applicable to most of the tasks people are now carrying out using online software.
I have had the dubious fortune of dealing with a "learning management system" in which the pisspoor design of the software gets in the way of learning and instructing at every possible opportunity. There are no fewer than three navigation systems in this program, each doing their job utterly differently. Two of the systems are constantly visible. One, a horizontal bar across the bottom of the top third of the screen, lacks default links to the most commonly used elements of such systems for students and instructors alike, not least because several of those links are used by both. The navigation menu on the left hand side works in counterintuitive ways, includes links to tools that are perfectly useless and can't be removed despite insistence in the documentation that it is possible to "personalize" the interface. The third one is of course, a search engine, and one day I may be able to figure out what arcane interconnections are at work so that when I dare use it, it actually searches the area requested. Oh, and the system offers a "playspace" so that I can infuriate myself on two dimensions by bashing away until things seem to work there, then release them into the real world only to discover that actually they don't and can't for unclear reasons. The suport documentation, such as it is, consists of either short videos or point form web pages. Both refer to a different version of the software. Searches on the web have revealed so far that everybody using this software suite is stuck with out of date documentation – and I also searched the website of the vendor to pull up the latest documents available. This is awful for everybody all around. I can hardly imagine what misery this must inflict upon technical support, who never asked for this mess. Well, no wait, let me correct that. It's not awful to the vendor. The vendor is still getting paid.
Treating adults as infants cannot make up for bad documentation, and perhaps contrary to expectation, good documentation is hard to write. The last people who should ever work on documentation are programmers, and probably they are also in the bad position of also structuring the program in the first place, and that is also bad, and forces a situation in which the documentation is pressed into service to overcome misunderstandings and bolted together implementations. For the particular "learning management system" I suspect part of the problem is that it was not designed from the ground up for the purpose of facilitating learning or teaching. Instead, it likely began as a system designed to track evaluations, that was then extended to track progress completing items and calculating grade books. Then it had more and more stuff bolted on top of it, probably as a stopgap. But now it has lots of stuff all strapped together and there is a panic consensus that there is no time to do it right. Or a cynical consensus, which is what the glorified and bloated spreadsheet itunes became before it got broken down into three or four applications again.
But suppose that the software you've got is the software you're stuck with, and somehow you need to write documentation on it. It seems to me that the solution here is well known, but is considered too expensive when supposedly we can all get by using a search engine and spending our own time experimenting to get it all working ourselves. Again, that is great for the vendor. Either they never have to cover the cost in time and money, or they demand exorbitant costs for technical support to make up the difference, while indirectly tormenting their technical support team. The solution, for good or ill, entails beta-ing the software, with the documentation writers learning from the people who are actually applying the software in real life how to modify their draft documentation so that it is up to date and legible. To my knowledge, the best software company at this is Bare Bones Software, whose flagship program is BBEdit. Their documentation is regularly updated, reads well and to the point, and includes humorous touches that provide a quick break rather than talking down to the reader. (Top)
Dishonest Usage and "Whiteness" (2022-04-18)
Over the past year or three, I have written several thoughtpieces that deal with aspects of "whiteness" and the way it is constructed and used in structural ways against racialized people. Not too much, but enough to get a very rough sense of the current approaches. It is not one of my favourite topics so it doesn't as many rants about it as more indirectly tied topics like the state of the web. Yet here I am poking this particular invented bear again, because it presents another example of a nasty form of DARVO that has become so appallingly common in the currently highly poisonous media environment. It is worth poking this invented bear too, because it seems to me that for people who think they are white but who also want very badly to end structural racism and its correlates, they are potentially if not actually getting caught up in this tactic, and it is eviscerating their efforts. Nastily clever tactics are like that, they can drag us in by the ankles before we realize what has happened to us.
Now I am quite serious that this tactic is nastily clever, it can be quite difficult to understand quite what the hell is going on. After all, when some white person storms around demanding some other person or persons "check their white privilege" and stop being a "white [fill in political activism type]," those can seem like reasonable demands at first. We have been so encouraged to simply equate "whiteness" with evil, even though plenty of us who are racialized keep trying to reiterate that "whiteness" is a decoy. It is a decoy that redirects non-racialized people out of challenging structural racism and many other forms of structural injustice, especially ones that are affecting them as well. It is not difficult to read up on how racialization was developed as a deliberate tactic in the united states, with a focus in the former confederacy, to head off the elite classes' great fear lest poor whites join forces with poor blacks to overturn the systems of exploitation grinding them both down. For example, interested readers can start with Keri Leigh Merritt's 2017 book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South. That doesn't mean being working class gives people who think they are white a pass to be racist or to never consider whether they may be engaged in wittingly, or unwittingly in supporting structural racism. Of course not. It means that as frustratingly usual, it's complicated, but as wonderfully usual, we have ways to bridge gaps and help people who think they are white realize they've been sold a bill of goods, and they don't have to think that way. They can even redefine whiteness into a state of being that does not depend on racializing others, which of course, would end whiteness as a concept and the racialization process.
So I have observed the weird and bluntly dishonest tactic of some ostensibly "social justice" or "anti-racist" activists screaming at racialized people who challenge aspects that they are "white [fill in political activism type]," and had better check their "white privilege" that clearly demonstrates that these are mere invectives for them, handy for convincing people to attack the ones they scream at. They are depending on people knee jerk responding with hostility against anyone accused of having "white privilege" or engaging in "white [whatever]" and not bothering to learn what that person actually said or did. This is full bore reverse offender and victim bullshit. To indulge in screaming over racialized people in public for disagreeing with you, and you funny enough, just happen to be an apparently white person, well, that is not opposing structural racism. That is enacting structural racism, in the form of creating an atmosphere in which racialized people are prevented from speaking for themselves and challenging tactics or claims about their circumstances that may desperately need those challenges. A constructively engaged with challenge will strengthen activism for justice, not weaken it.
Of course, yes, I have heard of these demands being screamed by white people against other whites. Here I am using what seems a broader term, in order to acknowledge that maybe some people on each side of the shouting match may realize that they have been encouraged to think of themselves as white, that is as people inherently superior to anyone they racialize, and they don't want to accept that or enact that anymore. But demands for "white privilege" checks aren't about that. They have slipped into just another way to say "shut the fuck up" and get away with it because supposedly the screamers can plausibly deny that was what they meant. Not that I don't understand what could be the appeal of this. It must seem like finally an opportunity to rudely tell somebody to shut up and be on the side of the angels, while indulging in DARVO tactics that usually never land on that side.
Well folks, I have some bad news. There is no way DARVO tactics can be on the side of the angels. If you have been convinced that using them is, you've been had. (Top)
Reducing the Centrality of Sex-Role Stereotypes (2022-04-11)
I have been pondering this particular topic for some time. At first I considered whether the topic would be better described as decentralizing sex stereotypes from the media. That is part of what I have in mind, but only a part, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed all too sadly clear that the problems go all the way down. It put me in mind all over again of Aliette de Bodard's and Foz Meadow's excellent blog posts challenging default narratives and united states cultural tropes. They are taking different angles on closely related challenges than what I have in mind here though. What finally helped me put some specific words to the not quite clarified enough notions rumbling around was watching the excellent documentary Radical Harmonies. This is an excellent documentary anyone can watch for free online, and contrary to what a more hostilely inclined viewer might think on learning it is about the women's music movement, it is making a structural argument, not an identity-based one. The women's music movement illustrates a whole range of powerful reasons that the mainstream and frankly malestream cultural industries are different because of how they are structured, and why and how those structures at their least destructive reproduce an obsessive sameness, and at their worst generate and support grave injustices. What I was rattling on about, and what this documentary illustrates, is about more than just making media and culture free of sex-role stereotypes. It is also, whether we like or not or really want it or not, about decentring men.
Radical Harmonies, or indeed almost any work of art or design by women only or at least with a view to centring women's concerns and ideas, which, for good or ill tends to only happen when the people working on it are only women, shows a few striking differences from the mainstream right away. In this documentary, there are almost exclusively women, women of all ages, shapes, sizes, and some though not many, women living with visible disabilities in view. Those women doing a far broader range of tasks than baby minding and all the tasks dismissed on sex-role stereotype basis as beneath the dignity of men. This is a particularly strong example because of the topic, but some notable parallels turn up in the context of women-led projects that challenge sex-role stereotypes and are not necessarily part of projects that include creation of women-only spaces, as major parts of the women's music movement did. In this I am thinking about such filmakers as Patricia Rozema, where she breaks down sex-role stereotypes of men in her films by refusing to depict them all as cardboard cut outs, whether good or evil. They are not all "good ol' boys" or ruthless businessmen or whatever. I can think of various novelists who insist on writing men who have emotional depth and how they are pressured by sex-role stereotypes to pretend they don't have any.
But it is not just about images and depictions, which is the broader point Radical Harmonies brought home to me. There is also a powerful difference in expectations. There is none of the condescending tone endemic to discussions of the early stages of women developing knowledge and skill in new areas of work. Instead, there is a calm recognition that at first things were done on shoe strongs and luck and women learned by doing. It took time before things began to look more streamlined and professional, and then they began to make choices about whether to emulate the sort of heavily produced and managed look of mainstream examples. That has really interesting implications for anyone watching such a documentary and learning about the wide range of art and practical works women have been producing before Feminism was an active word and both before and after women set out as a matter of political challenge and analysis to produce women's cultures. The implications are exciting, and constructive.
After all, they start from the basic point that women can do this stuff. Sex-role stereotypes try to persuade women otherwise, and if all else fails lean on lies familiar to anyone learning any art form. Those lies all come down to, if a person is unable to make a perfect drawing, painting, film, paragraph of writing, scarf, or whatever, then they will never be any good and they should quit. Funny enough, these lies emanate out of the same people who out of the other side of their face will insist on the necessity for practice and continuous improvement to embody sex-role stereotypes. Going back to the implications, not only that women can do this stuff and improve at it over time as they learn, but also that there is no need for each woman to do it all alone. No need to pretend to be a hero or crazed genius who somehow reinvented everything and redid every aspect to achieve perfection. Far from it, get started, gather some friends and get cracking. The basics are simple, start small and work your way up.
All of this is completely logical. Sex-role stereotypes are nonsense. If they weren't, then it would be reasonable to expect men and women to become spontaneously completely expert in whatever they were stereotyped as supposed to be expert at. The only thing slowing them down and preventing them from enjoying what they were doing would be say, not having immediate access to needed materials, or having to do something else to pay the bills instead or whatever. The differences we can observe in events and cultural materials that genuinely decentre and challenge sex-role stereotypes is that it won't just be about appearances. It won't just be that there are three women from three different ethnicities and three white men on screen, and one of the men wears pearls and doesn't get perpetually teased about it. It will be possible to observe differences in who is taking action, and who is speaking. Radical Harmonies has a number of great examples on the speaking part too, in that women who have critiques and other viewpoints speak for themselves. They are introduced by acknowledgements by those who need to act on the critiques, but the description and analysis starts with the women who are impacted by such issues as racism and ableism, they set out the framework and the standards. And the other women work on respecting and acting on that constructive feedback.
I suppose it is possible to put this far more briefly in conclusion. In this documentary and the other examples I had been pondering on, I saw evidence of deeds, not words. (Top)
In Lieu of Search Engines (2022-04-04)
The debate about giant propaganda companies has been rumbling messily despite the best public relations efforts of those companies, and this drew my mind back to the challenge of search engines. I have explored some alternate approaches, from search engines with different priors that are still based on the same basic model of indexing the web and then searching the index, with either centralized or centralized servers. At one time or another I have touched on the older category approaches of the very earliest iterations of yahoo!, altavista, and the blip known as excite. The sort of nonsense that aol and similar used to peddle is in -2.0 form as "social media" and that isn't merely a bad approach but a seriously pathological one to finding relevant materials online. Meanwhile, like many people, I have found that message boards focussed on my areas of interest are better for finding specific and well curated content, proposed by people whose leanings I get to know over time. Then there are specific archives that are of great use, generally run by non-profits that have their own internal search engine services independent of google or similar. From the quality of the results, I think it is fair to say that since these archives are structured and they apply focussed effort on developing and curating a synonym thesaurus, those internal search engines are well tuned and doing solid to excellent jobs. But then I found myself pondering a harder question. Supposing that the big internet search engines weren't there for whatever reason, or were going to stop working for whatever reason. Then what would be the optons available?
I suspect that in that event, the first thing many people would do is depend upon one another to acquire links to needed websites. For example, a call out on one of those message boards I mentioned, and many people on social media would likely use that if it was not taken down by whatever mysterious thing I am pretending removed the current web-wide search engine system. That might even spur a renaissance of link swaps and old time web rings. Still, those sound like short term solutions, and I suspect quite a few people would be dissatisfied with them after a few weeks at best. No doubt there would also be teams of coders reimplementing search engines using different servers, perhaps switching wholly to a decentralized mode to avoid the issues that likely would have fed the mysterious issue. That is definitely a way to go about it. But suppose that was still going to take a considerable while, including rebuilding indexes and figuring out if and how this was going to be rebuilt into something international.
In that case it seems to me that the thing to do would be to take full advantage of something that most websites already have, or could easily be generated if they are not too poorly designed from an website architecture perspective. That thing is the site map, the last port of call when a website's navigation system is hopelessly confusing or broken for whatever reason. Also an important alternative when using a site in other than your first language. So, supposing that there are all these site maps at the ready the first step is to contribute them to what in effect become a new, decentralized partial index of the web, based on a catalogue of those site maps. Maybe at first that means we end up with a rough catalogue of say, university or library site maps or what have you. The great thing about well composed and edited site maps is that they are full of appropriate and useful key words. This would be a serious head start on reindexing. It would not allow the kind of serendipitous search once so readily available at least to begin with, but it would be a reasonable start. It would still be necessary to index the resulting collections of course, at least from this angle I can't see any way to get away from that. Nobody has managed to find a means to avoid indexing books in a library or bookstore either, and not for lack of trying.
Overall then, this sounds awkward but quite doable, and it probably would take surprisingly little time relatively speaking. Not many websites curate related links or links of interest pages any more, so those are not available to contribute to building additional interconnections in the way they may have done in the early days of the web. Truth be told though, I don't know that they actually did or that anyone tried to analyse whether they could actually do that job. My perusal of the website naked capitalism showed me that google has taken specifically to downgrading the ranking of pages of links even if those links can be shown to be human curated and linked together in a non-random fashion. That may not be a new position as such, since attempts to game search engines via something like link gardening was an obvious tactic thirty years ago. For my part, I have kept a page of useful links apart from the bookmark collections web browsers can be used to make for some time, although my unscientific sample of colleagues and friends suggests that few people do this today. (I took it up due to the nuisance that trying to export and reimport bookmarks is, and have found it useful enough to keep doing.) Otherwise link swapping using a selection from such pages would be a practice worth instating or reinstating under conditions in which search engines are deemed less dependable. In any case, what this all has in common is a dependence on widespread participation by people who participate in adding material to the web and using the web as a source of information and entertainment. Not so long ago suggesting crowdsourcing could work in this context would have drawn derision rather than serious consideration, but the real life evidence suggests it is possible. (Top)
A Platonic Allegory (2022-03-28)
As the slow moving implosion of social media continues, something about the way it was being described reminded me again about the cave allegory in Plato's long dialogue on what is necessary to create and keep an ideal society, The Republic. That something is the repeated concerns expressed about people being prevented from seeing or adequately recognizing the truth because they are being fed fake news. The sting in the tail of the similarity is that in Plato's allegory, all people have to do to see the real things is turn around and look, but they are unable to turn their heads. So if taken at face value, paralleling the effects of social media to the hypothetical conditions in Plato's cave would be to effectively claim that people are unable to look away from social media, unless somebody else comes along and breaks their virtual chains. This is actually not where my thoughts went in noticing parallels as such. It's the obvious way to go, to be sure, but that also makes it less interesting. The angle I noticed is a bit different, and rather more interesting. What if we consider so-called social media as effectively an attempt to make real Plato's allegory of the cave?
After all, ideally from the perspective of the propagandists flailing "social media" and making obscene amounts of money from it, no one should be able to look away from it. They should figuratively trained so that they can look nowhere else, and the puppeteers are supposed to be the propaganda companies working as proxies for the people paying them to spread propaganda. In the dialogue one of the points made is that without knowing their true circumstances, the people chained into staring at the "fake news," which stands in here for the shadow puppet show arranged for the trapped audience in Plato's cave, they would have no means to tell that they were not seeing the truth. Furthermore, if one of them somehow got loose, learned the truth, and then came back to tell the others, the others would respond with hostility, perhaps even to the point of endangering this person who bravely came back to tell them the truth. Indeed, this would be an ideal situation for propagandists, to keep the audience not merely enthralled, but inclined to respond with total resistance to anything challenging the grip of the propaganda. But according to Plato's dialogue, the prisoners can be released, and then they will find out the truth. Plato has to concede this by the way, or there is no way that there is any point to setting up this analogy in the first place, let alone writing a dialogue like The Republic.
With this laid out it would be easy to go, oh well, it's all good then. As long as a way out is possible anyway, then what is there to worry about? We can stop any time in the real life case of social media. We aren't chained by the neck like Plato's hypothetical prisoners, we don't need to wait for anyone to release us. We can just turn "social media" off. We can continue having "social media," just on our own schedule. And I agree, that all sounds plausible and true to me too. This sounds plausible and true to the propaganda companies' staff and technicians. So they have a puzzle on their hands. How to create in the real world something like a chain about the neck that the rest of us won't notice, that we can be persuaded to willingly put on, that is all but impossible to remove for ourselves or anyone else. Alan Cooper in his book About Face on user interface design identified the ideal chain, from the seller's perspective: addiction. Or at least, it seems like an ideal chain, the creation of dependence for dopamine rushes from a particular source. The doubt here is not just because we have evidence about avoiding and overcoming addiction.
No, I am reminded of the quietly submarined evidence about addiction. The evidence is that addiction is a risk we run when we are deprived of any other source of positive stimulus. There are famous, but what should really be infamous because they are cruel, experiments on rats, that show they will hardly indulge in any of an available addictive substance unless deprived of toys and companionship. This suggests that lacking other ways to experience the rewarding experiences of social companionship, play, and intellectual stimulation, we will be inclined to resort to whatever we can to ease the subsequent misery of our lot. At the moment we are in slow recession from the peak of neoliberal atomization and economic hyperexploitation of the vast majority to fill the pockets of a very few who can no longer figure out what to do with themselves. Many people are stuck in miserable jobs with minimal mental stimulation and ever higher demands for "efficiency" and "productivity" for someone else's profit. Add in asocial amplifiers, which we are all encouraged as a way to "keep in touch" even when we are busy. It sounds nastily like a miserable day to day life with little by way of escape except for "social media" hits, opiates, and other mood altering substances.
In some places it is that terrifyingly bleak, especially where offshoring practically all manufacturing jobs has left people to choose from trying to make a basic living by working in warehouses or service positions that were already miserably paid because they are perceived as "feminine" labour. The company towns have gotten it the worst, because of the very centrality of a company that has now pulled up stakes and gone. Yet, all unexpectedly, a weird positive aspect of the COVID-19 pandemic is that so many of us have rediscovered the world outside of "social media" – we have been accidentally made aware of this near simulacrum of Plato's cave just in time to not only question it, but also rediscover genuine alternatives even under the most difficult of conditions. (Top)
Let's Get Critical (2022-03-21)
I have been thinking a lot for the past while about the problem of how to critique a given whatever or "critically think" about contentious issues. Until very recently, many of us had been persuaded to give away our right to be our own critics to other people who were supposedly experts and better informed than us. This has drifted even further into persuading many of that we don't have any time or means to get properly informed ourselves, so we supposedly need these typically self-appointed experts. On top of that, the term "critic" itself has been buried in favour of "expert" or "commentator" because supposedly the real definition of "critic" is someone who "expresses an unfavourable opinion about something" as my OED notes. Now this is very interesting wording, because it slips very easily into paraphrasing as "someone who complains about something," "someone who is negative." Naturally, most of us would rather not hang around someone who is always negative and complaining, or expressing unfavourable opinions about something. So we are perhaps not so subtly encouraged not to look more carefully at things for ourselves, for fear of seeming "negative" because supposedly that is the real issue of something is wrong. Not the situation or a badly designed whatever, but ourselves for noticing something is awry and saying something about it. This is really strange. Let's take up a couple of examples to demonstrate what is strange about it.
First example is rather minor at first glance. We're eating dinner, something we have had before, and we notice that it hasn't turned out quite as well as usual. Maybe it needs a bit more salt, or the vegetables were a bit too old and so it is not as flavourful as we are used to. Suppose we cooked it, or we are learning how to cook it, and so we take note about what works. We think something like, this could use fresher tomatoes, but that is difficult to arrange at this time of year, it's so late in the season. Or maybe just that we need to add a little salt to our helping, because it happens to not be salted to our personal taste. But the point about the vegetable and whether it is in season is more important, because on one hand, it ties to something not wholly positive about the food, but a nuanced reflection on what we find not great about it. The person who cooked the food didn't try to make a bad meal or dish. They may have been in a position where they had to use up older tomatoes, or this dish best met the needs of the diverse group of people eating dinner together that night. These are admittedly minor details on many levels, but the point is that they are context, and they are part of what we can and should acknowledge when drawing conclusions about whether that meal or dish could have been better, and how we might want to make it ourselves in future.
The second example should be a trickier one, in fact, let's consider one that is still impacting us and still be reconsidered and argued over, that being the correct approach to managing the risks of having COVID-19 spread without any attempt to slow it down or otherwise control it. People do have nuanced thoughts about this, including those struggling with balancing their reasonable need to make a living while avoiding serious illness for themselves or others, including both their families and people they don't know. They argue about how best to ensure that people get the protective gear they need against the virus, and how to make sense of the scientific data about virulence, transmission, and illness severity, while balancing respect for individual choice with broader social needs in the long, medium, and short term. That's a big and sophisticated head full that most of us have had to strive with repeatedly over the past year to eighteen months.
Of course, readers already know where I am going with this. These two examples are both illustrative of the earlier meanings of being a critic or thinking critically. That entails recognizing not just negatives, but also positives, and balancing them, including figuring out when an apparent or short term positive actually backfires versus an apparent or short term negative that works out better. Sometimes we need to carefully experiment as well as observe and learn from what other people have chosen and done in the same circumstances. Either way, the next step is always action after the identification and balancing, in what is hopefully a constructive cycle as we adjust to the results in what is admittedly a tricky and complex set of circumstances. That's something we can all do, and there is nothing wrong with that. There is no necessary relationship with this process and attacks against any person. There is certainly room for expert input, we are not on our own. But the decisions can't be safely or reasonably delegated forever, nor can we avoid making a considered decision because we are afraid to be responsible or supposedly hurt someone's feelings. It is convenient when trying to avoid any questioning to pretend that any question can only be about hurting a person's feelings, but that doesn't make this foolish claim true.
I suppose this desire to avoid seeming "critical" in any sense whatsoever, old or new, is itself another peculiar manifestation among adults who should know better of applying a five year old's version of "fair." I agree that thinking through things in a way that demands we make a judgement can be difficult and uncomfortable. Sometimes we realize that some position we have taken that for a long time has been deeply meaningful for us needs at least some modification, or even a complete overturning. Those are difficult and upsetting cases, because then we feel embarrassed about being wrong. But in this we are also being unreasonable. We will inevitably feel a bit embarrassed, that is human. But it is also human to grow and change, and take responsibility for facing up to the risky situation where we have to make and apply a judgement, including the risk of being wrong. The risk part sucks of course, but at least we are all in the same boat. (Top)
Troubling Monopoly (2022-03-14)
I am not among those with especially fond memories of the board game monopoly. The first time I played it was fun because of course it was the first time, and part of what happened was my uncle won the right to take the first turn. He then managed to roll the right numbers to buy the most expensive properties straight away, and those who know this game also know that the person who gets those properties generally manages to win the game. What was fun about the first game for me was that after maybe an hour or so – we weren't playing all that intensely, it was a leisurely game – my uncle and I were the only players left, him being of course mister moneybags and holding nearly all the properties and all the utilities and such. He then made a critical mistake. He let on that he felt I should just give up, and I said, nah, let's go around the board again and see what we can come up with. Of course he had won the game, it was just fun to see how the dice would play out. He got very annoyed. I began to seriously enjoy yanking on his chain, and the dice being dice, and randomness being what it is, I still managed to keep going another thirty minutes or so before he stormed off in a huff. By the end I actually wasn't interested in him, it was all so revealing about the mechanics of the board and the set up of the game. Thinking about it as I got older, something seemed a bit funny about the game to me, but probably it was just something ridiculous about it, like the contrast between the cast metal player counters and the cheap plastic houses and hotels. Probably those player counters are plastic now too. Little did I know that actually, there is something peculiar and even scandalous about the game.
Now I am not quite sure how the story of who really invented the game later branded as monopoly by parker brothers came to my attention. The whiff of scandal and somewhat offbeat nature of the story suggests I may have run into it on boing boing, which I gave up reading when it succumbed to the lure of a certain crooked real estate mogul's presidential run. Well, that and the repeated use of whatever cheap filter that replaces a person's eyes with copies of their mouth. The only trouble with that being where is that I had heard about this long before ever reading boing boing, in which case I must have heard on the news or read in the paper about a long-running court case in which parker brothers tried to sue someone for an infringement of some kind on their rights to exclusively market the game. The earliest article I have found online referring to it is on the washington free press website, date line november/december 1998. No doubt there are others from the time and far earlier because the case dragged on for over a decade and had an afterlife.
As is now fairly well known since Ralph Anspach reconstructed the game's origins in his legal fight to be allowed to continue selling his board game anti-monopoly, he being the person on the other side of the parker brothers lawsuit, the original was invented by Elizabeth Magie, who called it the landlord's game. Her purpose in inventing the game, was to help her communicate her political and economic ideas to a broader audience. Although she patented the game, in time it's design was taken by the man falsely vaunted as the inventor of the eventual bestselling version of the game under its familiar modern name. In 2015 Mary Pilon published her book on the origins and development of the game with bloomsbury press, The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury, and the Scandal Behind the World's Favorite Board Game. Somehow I missed this book at the time, and will be reading it soon. I plan to read the book more for Elizabeth Magie, whose story is more interesting than the game.
Elizabeth Magie, Magie Phillips after her marriage, was a remarkable woman for her time, and it says a great deal about sex stereotypes and the nature of her own ethics and politics that she was never held up as an example of a polymath, self-supporting american. In an interview excerpted for an article in corporate crime reporter, Mary Pilon noted that Magie invented the game specifically to oppose monopolies and critique capitalism. More often than not the mainstreamed version of the game is interpreted in exactly the opposite fashion, and this is probably inevitable because of the way it is distributed. It turns out that although she patented the design, Magie didn't seek to market it or claim a regular royalty from anyone as such. In fact, the game spread by hand in that she taught it to people who taught to others including making home made boards, counters, deeds and so on. History Today gives a teaser of just how remarkable the landlord game's distribution was in The Monopolisation of Monopoly, its article reviewing the overall history of the game, including documentaries and books up to 2015, culminating with Pilon's. Reporter Rhys Griffiths writes, "The Monopolists is essentially a gripping write-up of the legal case pursued by economics professor Ralph Anspach in the 1970s.... Incredibly, Anspach's detective work allows Pilon to trace Monopoly's evolution almost exactly from player to player."
Meanwhile, as part of the publicity for her book, Mary Pilon wrote up excerpts for publications including february 2015's Monopoly's Inventor: The Progressive Who Didn't Pass 'Go' in the new york times and april 2015's The secret history of Monopoly: the capitalist board game’s leftwing origins in the guardian. I should acknowledge here that article headlines are not written by the same people as write the actual articles. Pilon of all people knew very well that the actual origins of the monopoly board game were hardly secret. Christopher Ketcham wrote a lengthy feature on it for harper's magazine in october 2012, and the David and Goliath court case was hardly obscure. Unfortunately, he refers to Magie as "an actress" which underplays her role and background to a ridiculous degree. It is all very odd, because he doesn't even mention a point that Pilon took care to, that Magie was the first person to develop a board game with a looped path players moved their counters around. Before that, it seems that the default layout was in practical effect the same as the well known board for the card game cribbage. Only one path, get to the end first. It seems obvious that Magie had more going on that just acting. But at the time Ketcham was writing, he was apparently unable to access information about Magie that Pilon was later.
In the end, Magie's Landlord's Game has gone on to a remarkable second life through the efforts of Thomas Forsyth, who has been producing limited edition replicas of it. His website is a treasury of information on the game, including an excellent reading list and many photographs of different versions of the game. It is remarkable to think that the board game sold under the name "monopoly" by hasbro today has roots going back to a remarkable woman at the turn of the twentieth century and controversial ideas about land ownership, rent and tax. It didn't begin as a mirror of the united states' gilded age or the great depression in quite the way corporate marketing would have us think. (Top)
Refuse the Bait (2022-03-07)
The thing about ever corrosive social media, is that it gets into things and affects the rest of the online discussions around it, so that even if you aren't on social media it is remarkably difficult not to hear about what is happening on it. I have written previously about the gentle verbal art of self-defence as explained by the late, great Suzette Haden Elgin, and one of the most powerful lessons I remember from her books even when I haven't checked my notes in some time, is this one.
Don't Take The Bait.
No matter how big that lump of virtual peanut butter is, no matter how sweet, shiny and glistening the chunk of terrible virtual "children's" breakfast cereal, don't ever take the bait. If you take the bait, you have accepted a lie about you as a person, whatever you said or are arguing, or both. It is important to ignore the bait at all costs, and challenge the presuppositions behind it. The challenge needs to be fact based, clear, and in what Elgin refers to as computer or Spock mode. The most common version of false presuppositions in these days of establishment men pretending they are the most oppressed people on Earth right now is embedded in statements like this one: "If you really cared about the rights of the oppressed, you'd agree with an end to all single sex bathrooms." The second half is the bait.
There is a much more sophisticated form of bait, and I have read and watched Feminists, especially younger Feminists gulp it down without a second thought, and then flail desperately with their heads stuck in the trap. It is another inaccurate recounting of history, and there are so many right now, but this one has particular pull because of the influence of cultural elements derived from the united states. The false claim goes like this. "Feminists shut down other people's free speech. If they are having their free speech shut down now, it's their own fault and they should sit down and shut up." The logical issues with this statement even without knowing it is false are evident, and this is not a caricature. The first part is the bait. It is a lie. Period.
At no time have Feminists ever been in a position to stop anything men in power have declared to be speech. Death threats and vile insults hurled at women on twitter go completely unfettered, because they are supposedly free speech. A woman points out that sex is real, which remains a scientific fact, and gets immediately suspended if not permanently banned. Women can be banned for asking such questions as why messages about cervical smear testing can't refer to women and transmen, even though that does seem quite logical. Women working against the production of pornography are regularly accused of trying to prevent the free speech of pornographers, no matter how much of their supposed "speech" is predicated on abusing the primarily women in front of the camera. Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin developed an ordinance that went specifically after the abuse, the physical actions harming the people used in making pornography, and they took care by the way, to include children and transsexuals as people who would have the right to sue under that ordinance. The establishment men in effect conceded that pornography cannot be made without doing harm to those used in making it, and declared that this was fine and okay, because it was speech. I would be interested to hear who thinks that the ever growing online porn market is somehow evidence for that form of supposed speech being silenced.
Now, I get that in some cases the Feminists in question may have taken part previously in their lives in what is now called "cancel culture" and then realized what was going on and stopped. But then they are making two mistakes by taking the bait, not just one. They are agreeing that previous Feminists who had nothing to do with "cancel culture" somehow were busy trashing anybody's free speech they didn't like when this has never been the case. It boggles my mind when they get caught up in this when it isn't difficult to look up the hellish difficulties faced by early women public speakers in north america, who were primarily Feminists and fiercely committed to free speech. They understood free speech as also being about being able to speak up in public and take part in politics. They are also accepting ancillary bait, the indirect claim that no one can change, or that even if they have they should be punished forever for the mistakes they made before realizing they were making a mistake and correcting it. This is obviously absurd.
Don't take the bait. A major part of what Feminists are dealing with right now is materially and factually inaccurate information being spread around about women, men, gender, and sex. We should also be firmly challenging inaccurate information being spread about Feminist, lesbian, and gay history, including firmly kicking into the long grass bullshit claims that somehow actually oppressed people have been shutting up establishment white men and their racialized tokens all these years. The bait is part of DARVO tactics. Don't take the bait. (Top)
Oh, That's What Heroic Medicine Is (2022-02-28)
A couple of years ago I read an intriguing book called Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, by Rachel Hope Cleves. It has many levels, and a person who hasn't read many history books of this type may be surprised by how much they learn about the immediate and broader societies the protagonists lived in. There are only so many books about small to mid-sized towns in the united states that I have read to be sure, yet this is probably one of the best for giving a sense of what it was like to live in those towns, which were at once supportive social networks and very difficult to have a genuinely private moment in. The reasons for such pervasive and invasive social surveillance that seems to have a special affinity for anglophone cultures and communities, or perhaps more broadly colonial and colonized cultures and communities is a broader question. Among the smaller questions that were certainly less important but persistent all the same, was a reference to "heroic" medicine, as both Charity Bryant and Sylvia Drake dealt with persistent ill-health at different times in their lives. I had heard the term before, often in the context of discussions of chemotherapy for cancer, and it seemed to me there was additional nuance in them that I had missed. Like many people who grew up in canada in the late twentieth century, in grade school I watched a biopic of Terry Fox, who after losing his right leg to cancer strove to run across canada to raise money for cancer research. The cancer spread to his lungs and he died before completing his marathon, and his memory is honoured with an annual Terry Fox Run to raise money for cancer research to this day. I vividly remember several scenes in which the soundtrack was all vomiting sounds and a voice over by the actor playing Terry Fox talking about trying to find a remedy for the blisters developing in his mouth. Then I read in Charity and Sylvia about one medicine being especially good for provoking vomiting, therefore good for its purpose.
Then the penny dropped, and some of the other nuances of those old discussions finally became clear. Practically speaking, chemotherapy for cancer is not premised on the same logic as what was originally referred to in the late nineteenth century as heroic medicine at all. Chemotherapy is directed at disrupting and preventing the further growth and division of cancerous tumours, and to that end they are designed to mess with fast duplicating cells. That's logical because cancer tumours are made up of exactly that sort of cell. The trouble is, so are the linings of our stomachs, the cells that support hair growth, and so on. A terrifying challenge of chemotherapy in cancer is stressing a person's entire system terribly long enough to make it inhospitable to the cancer, while avoiding making the treatment unbearable to stick with or accidentally deadly in its own right. Hence today more and more work is going into literally injecting tumours themselves with the chemotherapy drugs or developing drugs that take advantage of other features of tumours that are distinct from the rest of the body. On top of that is ongoing work on immunotherapy, since our immune systems do a remarkable job of knocking out precancerous and potentially cancerous cells when they are in good working order.
Heroic medicine on the other hand, still harked back to the humoral theory of health developed in the ancient world. According to this theory, our bodies contain four humours, blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. When these humours are in balance, when we are tempered, then we are healthy. A predominance of one or sometimes two of these caused illness. Therefore, doctors treating such illnesses would strive to release humours that were in excess, and to increase humours that were too low. This led to considerable study of the effects of diet and climate in a time when nobody really understood that there were extremely tiny organisms or virii that could and did cause disease. It also led to the development of the usual three main treatments mentioned when describing this type of medicine in its eighteenth to nineteenth century european iterations, "bloodletting, puking, and purging" to quote the essayist for the online art exhibition, Very Ill! The Many Faces of Medical Caricature in Nineteenth Century England and France. And in truth, sometimes these sorts of treatments can actually be the right thing to do. After all, the proper remedy for occasional constipation is a laxative, nowadays we know preferably a mild one so as to avoid making the issue worse with further dehydration. A recognized treatment of hereditary hemochomatosis (excess iron held in the body) is regular, physician-supervised bloodletting. Inducing vomiting is a common treatment for some types of poisoning.
Where doctors and patients got in trouble was overextension, use of "heroic medicine" for many conditions in which it was at best useless, at worst, actively harmful. This includes a number of conditions, like pathological water retention of dropsy, that have every appearance of seeming to be properly described by humoral theory and therefore treatable by its logic. On top of that, the more wealthy patients who would be most able to access doctors were more prone to suffer from illnesses related to overeating and alcohol consumption, so puking and purging could at the least genuinely relieve acute symptoms. Over time rote application of humoral theory failed to work so often that finally even the male-dominated licensed doctors had to admit that something was wrong, and began paying more attention to actual results and what a patient's specific symptoms were. And apparently for at least awhile, "heroic medicine" became a term for treatment applied in extreme circumstances that often caused severe vomiting and diarrhea as side effects of the drugs administered to the patient. (Top)