Tuesday, August 14, 2018

On Transgressions

I've been enjoying a podcast "This Jungian Life," in which three Jungian analysts discuss various questions. This one in particular discusses the difference between sin and transgression, but then it goes further to help us understand the state of the world today.

A transgression is an act of stepping across a boundary. To feel any guilty for our actions, we have to know that there was a cultural or internal boundary. And we often know we're crossing a boundary and doing something immoral, but we do it anyway, like having an affair. But Jung isn't puritanical. Known transgressions aren't necessarily bad things. Life is too complex for morality to be so certain.

To determine the value of a transgression, one of the analysts suggests to ask, 'Will this action make my life bigger, or will it make it smaller?' Sometimes a transgression can significantly improve our lives and our society. Holding hands with a partner of a different race or of the same gender was a transgression that helped develop equity in our culture.

But even if we realize the action is making our lives smaller, then it's important to benefit from recognizing that fact and becoming aware of our moral fallibility. It's vital to us individually and to society collectively for us to get to know our deepest darkest shadow side. There's a gravitas to being fully aware of our worst parts. And then once we see it, the simple effect of suffering guilt is profoundly transformative.

What seems to be happening more and more, instead, is scapegoating. It's a false resolution that seeks to ignore any possibility of a personal flaw, avoid that painful experience of guilt, and transfer it through vengeance on others. They want to shift their sin to another, the way we once had animal sacrifices to help us atone for our actions. The result is that individuals aren't going to begin the process of  'individuation,' as Jung would say, but, in plain language, too many of us are just not growing up.

It takes courage to see ourselves clearly, especially when the leaders in our society are choosing otherwise.

Monday, July 30, 2018

On Manne's "Down Girl"

With thorough argumentation and heavily footnoted facts brought to the table, Down Girl, by Kate Manne delineates misogyny from sexism and hopes "to offer a useful toolkit for asking, answering, and debating" (13) issues centred around misogyny.

Right off the bat, let's clarify that it's not remotely a man-hating thesis. It's about looking at how we all are affected by the beliefs floating around us.
"One need not be a man to be a misogynist either: women can fit the description too, as can non-binary people. . . . many if not most of us at the current historical juncture are likely to be capable of channeling misogynistic social forces on occasion . . . unwittingly policing and enforcing distinctively gendered norms and expectations but also, on my analysis, over-policing and over-enforcing gender-neutral and potentially valid norms, e.g., genuine moral obligations" (77).
A primary issue discuss is that women who compete for typically male-dominated roles: "will tend to be perceived as morally suspect in at least three main ways: insufficiently caring and attentive with respect to those in her orbit deemed vulnerable; illicitly trying to gain power that she is not entitled to; and morally untrustworthy, given the other two kinds of role violations" (xiv). Women have an extra layer of barriers to wade through to get to positions of powers because everyone (men and women) has been socialized to believe women are the caretakers of the world. It's similar to what Neil deGrasse Tyson describes in the world's reactions to his efforts to excel in science - the path of most resistance:

Sunday, July 29, 2018

End of an Era: On Buying My First Car

I bought a 2009 Kia Rio. I went with a friend because I had no idea how it all worked, and I had lots of stupid questions, like: How do I get license plates before I have the car, or do I leave the car at the dealer and get them afterwards, and then walk up to the dealership carrying them? And when does insurance happen? I was a bit baffled by the sequence of events about to transpire. I thought I'd leave with the car, but it took three days to do all the things to be done.

I intend to live north when I retire, so I knew a motorized vehicle would be in my future eventually, but I was banking on getting a car in another year or two, once some of the newer electric cars had been out and tried and tested for a while. Once Ford got in, and that rebate disappeared, though, I reconsidered. I went for an old car that will hopefully make the five years until Ford is gone and the rebates return with a more reasonable premier.

If we're not all burnt to a crisp by then.

Three other events provoked decisive action:

1. My youngest leases a horse now, thanks to her dad, but she needs to get back and forth to the stable, thirty minutes away by car, three times a week. I had been borrowing vehicles to take her, since her dad can rarely make it, but that route was wearing thin. The deal I made when I agreed to the horse, of course, was that I'd only have to take her once in a while here and there, but we know how those things work.

2. My older two suddenly started making noises about getting their licences. Neither wants a car of their own, but we're beginning to realize how handy it would be if they had the ability to drive - not to mention how much more employable it makes them. And the youngest is just two years away and chomping at the bit to be at the wheel. It's hard to learn to drive without access to a vehicle to practice with. Rentals won't allow it, and I wouldn't impose that on my closest friends.

3. Whenever I rent, I throw a bike carrier on the back (like this, but for three bikes), and it often leaves some little scratch or indent, and I stress out about it for the entire trip. Before returning cars, I've sometimes had a buddy take a piece of wood and a hammer to tap the dents back out. It made it more tolerable when a slimy rental guy charged me for a dent I definitely didn't make when I used a car for a brief trip sans bikes. I figure that's just karma. I wrap the entire carrier in towels and sponges, and put socks on the pedals, but there's no great way to install one without a trailer hitch. With my new car, I pretty much immediately made an indent on the tailgate thingy, so I don't have to worry about that anymore!

A neighbour who was also scammed by the same slimy dealer considered buying a car together with me, but that started sounding complicated. It makes a whole lot of sense for neighbourhoods to share vehicles, but so many just want their own. And, with four of us using the car on my end alone, sharing with another family would be difficult.

So it's done. And now I'm dealing with a bit of buyer's remorse.

The car is really, really small. We all went up to a cottage, and it barely fit one bag each. Then a camping trip was a feat for a Tetris master, with the cooler just barely making the cut. I almost got a slightly larger car, but it was shiny orange, and it felt a bit ostentatious buying something so bright. That's the mennonite in me talking.

And the hills! I'm used to driving almost brand new cars when I rent, and the crappiest of them can easily overtake tractors with minimal extra pressure on the pedals. I never think twice about passing. This baby can barely make it up the hills once you get north enough that the roads run through blasted rock. I'm not used to being that annoying person everyone is desperately trying to pass, but 80 is a bit of a struggle sometimes. Sorry everybody. It helps to laugh at myself by listening to John Mulaney's bit about driving:
"If you're ever on the highway behind me, I hear you honking, and I also don't want to be doing what I'm doing."
Driving a piece of crap is reminiscent of driving my first boyfriend's car: a Chevette with 300,000 km on it. Whenever it hit 60, the entire car would shake. I was always pretty sure one of the doors would fall off from the vibrations. It was low to the ground, like my car, so it always felt securely on the road, and you could take the corners crazy fast, but I worried about breaking through the floor like Fred Flintstone. I drove it on its final trip: a block from home, the brakes completely failed, and my bf had cut the emergency brakes the last time he replaced the brake pads (They were in the way!!), and it was just a magical stroke of luck that the lights changed just in time for me to be able to turn left at the bottom of a hill and coast my way home in one piece.

But it's great on gas. Muskokas and back for $40.

I figured if I could drive it for five years, that would be about the cost of renting each year, but I forget insurance. Insurance alone is about the cost of all my rentals and taxis and bus rides. So it definitely won't save me any money. It's just saving me the time and trouble of booking a car, trudging to the rental place and filling in the forms to get the car, and having to bring it back later. And sometimes there isn't a car available. Rarely, but it does happen. Yes, of course I've looked into car sharing, but it costs more than renting and isn't significantly more convenient.

So now I feel a bit like a traitor to the movement. I let convenience tip the scales away from concern for my GHG production. But, really, I'm not driving more (hopefully), I'm just driving an extra car that wasn't in circulation previously. Philosopher Luke Elson, in The Conversation, recently concluded that buying carbon offsets makes air travel a moral option, and his argument could be extrapolated to work for cars as well, except I don't really agree with it. He takes a consequentialist stance banking on offsets actually having a 1:1 exchange, which is a thin premise creating a shaky foundation. Even if it were the case that we could pay someone to plant a tree whenever we drive and the GHGs produced would be fully subtracted again by the tree growth or some other fix, it's still adding GHGs to the total. Morally, it's clearly better to avoid adding those GHGs to the atmosphere AND to pay for some trees instead of paying money for a flight or a car or an air conditioner or a steak dinner. We need to get into the negatives when it comes to GHG production. There's no time for bargaining on this one.

If we all run on Elson's moral code, then we'll keep burning fossil fuels and just trying to plant trees faster than they can burn to the ground. The overriding problem with consequentialist ethics is that we can never guess the future with accuracy. For this issue, we have to err on the side of contributing less GHGs, rather than being hopeful that subtracting them might work.

There's no moral way to justify convenience of my family over the survival of our species.

But now I'm one of the normals. I was invited to a far away cottage this summer, and the owner gave me a convoluted route to take to get to there including trains and several busses, rather than the obvious choice of carpooling with another guest. Many people just can't get their head around how to live without a car. They aren't intuitively aware of all the other options, like getting rides from friends, and borrowing vehicles, and they don't recognize how far they can actually comfortably walk and bike, or how cheap it can be to take cabs and use rentals. I'm thankful my family made it this far so we've got the knowhow that makes alternatives obvious and second nature.

I still plan to bus when I go into Toronto. It's just over $10 if I book it online ahead of time, which is cheaper than parking downtown, and I can read on the way instead of stressing out on the 401.

And today I biked 7 k to MEC for my very first life jacket for my next trip. Look at me, buying all my own stuff instead of renting and borrowing like I have for five decades, starting with all my sib's hand-me-downs! To too many people, my life looked like I was cheap, or worse (because of inherent prejudices), a "poverty case." Nobody congratulated me on going without for so long. Nobody encourages others to borrow instead of buying - well, nobody in my circle. That's a paradigm shift that's got to budge soon.

On Discovering Ourselves Through Choosing Others

Online dating, or, I suppose, regular dating (but I barely remember what that even is anymore) is a fascinating exercise in identity discovery. To take part in the game, we have to know who we are and what we want. Those are huge questions.

We carefully choose what to reveal in an attempt to surmise our most important vitals. Some go for the best portrait of themselves: casting a wide net by glorifying parts that will most likely entice the most people. I opted for the most necessary bits for connection: the parts that people need to like for anything to work. It's a process of weeding out rather than a sweeping in, which I prefer regardless how thin the weeds were to begin with. But even just this question is a struggle. How can we ever know the parts that are most important? I went for reading, cycling, and canoeing, but that's barely what I'm about. That's just what I like to do. It's so superficial and artificial. We find ways to pigeon-hole ourselves to be understood by others, whether we're funny or smart or adventurous. What an odd expectation that we can boil ourselves down to a list of adjectives.

And then there's the choice of the important traits of another unknowable human being. Everybody thinks they're nice and good listeners and all that jazz. Even with the most honest and authentic profiles, it's impossible to describe the self to another to determine compatibility. An attempt to even know the self, which is always in flux, may be a targetless exercise. And "common interests" is such a ruse, a red herring that can send us careening down the wrong path with expectations held high. I might find someone who loves canoeing as much as I do, but they might be just a bit too overbearing or chatty or serious or something that a fleet of Old Towns couldn't override in a cost-benefit analysis. 

But it's fascinating to me to observe myself making decisions about people based on scant information. What do my choices say about my own identity and where I think I fit in the world? And what do they say about my prejudices? And what's the difference? If I pass on the guys in suits, is that about attraction or an anti-corporate bias? I think biases are completely enmeshed in our preferences for another, and I don't think there's much we can do about that. I could date CEOs over and over, but I can't make myself like it. And I might find one that has a similar value system as I do. It's possible, but less likely that some guy in jeans, I think. But I only think that because of stereotypes based on previous experiences and media. But we need some way to decide.

This is all so very unsavoury and dehumanizing.

Is the guy in the suit with the expensive watch in front of the fancy car just adding that pic because he thinks it will impress girls because our culture provokes us towards that image, or is this a reflection of what he actually values in life? I'm not sure which is better or worse.

Does sense of humour matter more than interests? Does hamming it for the camera even correlate to being funny in person? Doesn't everyone have a sense of humour, but just of a different type - like having a taste in food? And is a similar sense of humour important only because I hope to be entertained? I tend toward people who have different interests or abilities so I can learn from them. We look down on people who light up at the prospect of a partner with wealth, the golddiggers, but is coveting a wealth of ideas that different? Isn't it still just looking to get something rather than to share in something? In the back of my mind through it all, I have Aristotle looking down his nose at relationships of utility over the infinitely more laudable relationships of virtue. But we can't easily assess morality from a self-description. Everyone thinks they're virtuous.

Should I just ignore the too formal living room in the background, the ratio of photos of their face to their vehicle, or the number of sports they list as interests? These things seem to warrant a quick pass, yet I've been happy in the past with a hockey playing motorcycle enthusiast with a more formal aesthetic than my hippy decor. When I ignore education levels, is it because I really see no correlation between intelligence and education or because I just want to believe that about myself? I'm fully aware that it doesn't really matter. I might do as well if I threw a dart at my computer screen. But we have to whittle down the numbers. And we need an in, a starting point for conversation that isn't necessary in a more natural meeting where spontaneously disagreeing with someone else's comment or randomly having the same shoes could be a point of connection. Or sometimes there's just a smile that makes us weak in the knees and renders those details superfluous.

That one was too difficult to navigate realistically. But that sudden overwhelming electric surge flooding my body when our eyes connected reminded me of the painful nature of desire. It's easy to pick and choose when it's a matter of interest. It's so much harder when suddenly there's a longing that you didn't expect. But where would we be if we lived life with a surge protector!

On top of being near impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff, the whole enterprise is also fraught with emotional turmoil. It kills me not to respond to someone who seems a poor match, but any comment, even, "Thanks but I don't think we're a good fit," is often met with a defensive hostility. There's a raw vulnerability in revealing a desire for connection, in displaying a wanting, in making overt that there's a missing piece in our lives otherwise outwardly illuminated as a perfectly content. Mid-conversation with several prospects at once (something that goes against my monogamous nature in the first place), I went into the woods for a time without access to wifi and returned to an onslaught of "arrogant cunt" and the like. I've narrowed my search to people old enough to have spent the majority of their adult lives before cellphones, yet many nevertheless have fallen into the expectation of immediate responses. I'm too thin-skinned for some of the fear-induced hatred coming my way. I can tolerate it when people react heatedly to a perspective I hold, but not to my silence threatening their self-esteem. The message boards are rife with a sense of feeling completely misunderstood by one another. Instead of helping us connect, this tawdry process can eat away at our belief in our worthiness of connection.

Many demand "no baggage," but who among us is that untouched by the world? Who would want to be? Relationships are never about not having any flaws or issues, but about being able to overlook or forgive or understand the more difficult idiosyncrasies of the other. I'm fond of poet David Whyte's discussion of the purpose of relationships, that it's not about improvement or growth:
"the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone."
And then, of course, there are the booty calls. Yuck.

It takes time to meet people and really get to know them in order to weed out the crooked ones, time I could be actually weeding my garden or my pile of books to read. And from time to time I think I'm less interested in a partner than in a people. I grew up in a large family where there was always someone who had time to play a game with me. I still idealize communal living or intentional communities as they're now known. We can't expect one person to cover all the bases, the reading AND the canoeing. It makes sense to have a wider base. My most content moments were never because of a partner, but because of a group affiliation, typically when I was living in a house full of friends. But once people couple up, that form of relationship sits at the top of the hierarchy. It's seen as better, an improvement over communal formations. As Fredrick Engels explained in Origins of the Family:
"[Monogamy] develops out of the pairing family, as previously shown, in the transitional period between the upper and middle stages of barbarism; its decisive victory is one of the signs that civilization is beginning. It is based on the supremacy of the man, the express purpose being to produce children of undisputed paternity; such paternity is demanded because these children are later to come into their father’s property as his natural heirs. . . . We meet this new form of the family in all its severity among the Greeks. While the position of the goddesses in their mythology, as Marx points out, brings before us an earlier period when the position of women was freer and more respected, in the heroic age we find the woman already being humiliated by the domination of the man and by competition from girl slaves."
There's lots to unpack there! But I'm just going to move on and leave this little Wagoner poem here. It feels entirely relevant, even though I can't quite explain why:

From here.

ETA - and it's just bizarre that horoscope counts as ethnicity!

ETA - This study suggests we're all looking for someone out of our league, but for women over 40, that's pretty much everyone.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Music is a Necessity

. . . After food, air, water, and warmth, music is the next necessity of life. ~ Keith Richards

Things are really messed-up. The kids got out of the cave alive, which is amazing. But Ford is already making backwards plans for education in Ontario, and the U.S. might see some new and frightening abortion laws, and we seem completely unable to stop a drippy pipeline from being shoved through our precious land and water.

So I went to a folk festival to recharge.

We need more of them. I feel like we need them everywhere right now! There's not much that rekindles feelings of connection and community like singing and dancing with total strangers, especially when you're standing in the grass under the shade of sun-dappled trees. It's the elixir to our days spent inside on social media sickened by the angry and violent exchanges that fill the comment section of the most innocuous piece. (Yes, of course, stop reading them, but they're like a traffic accident!)

There are tons of festivals every summer, and if you can't make it to check out live music, consider singing and dancing anyway. Remember to recharge and reconnect with the notion that human beings can be absolutely wonderful!

"We possess art lest we perish of the truth [dammit!]." ~ Nietzsche (Will to Power, section 822, p 435).

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

On Half Earth

The headline says, Scientists call for a Paris-style agreement to save life on Earth. Monbiot says this often, and E.O. Wilson, and so many others. We have to let parts of the world rewild, and stop covering every inch of the planet with concrete and asphalt and golf courses:
"In 2016, E.O. Wilson — arguably the world’s most lauded living evolutionary biologist — published a book called Half Earth where he proposed that to save life on Earth (and ourselves) we must set aside around half the planet in various types of reserves. . . . In less technical parlance, this is a ringing call for a massive, global agreement that would look at drastically increasing the amount of the world covered by parks — in some cases up to the Half Earth goal — and indigenous protected areas. Indigenous people are now widely recognized as some of the best defenders of nature after decades of being sidelined. . . . 
Such an agreement would likely fall under the United Nation’s Convention on Biological Diversity, first established in 1992, as an international treaty. . . . The CBD has had a number of disadvantages. For one, much like the Paris Agreement, it’s non-binding and largely voluntary. This has been a necessary concession in order to get so many nations sign on — just like with Paris — but it also means there’s no legal way to enforce action. Just international peer pressure. For another it’s lacking a major signatory. Guess who? Yes, of course, the United States. . . . Finally, the CBD has not been able to garner the same kind of media attention and interest as the various climate change declarations. For some reason, an agreement about the fate of millions of species on Earth just hasn’t grabbed our attention-deficit media. 
But these drawbacks need not ensure that the CBD be toothless or ineffectual. And if there’s a time for it to prove its mettle, it’s now. . . . "It is certainly a major challenge, as has been the case with the Paris Climate Accord. But we need to start somewhere. If all this sounds like utopian fiction, Dinerstein pointed to the fact that Chinese scientists have already published a paper on how they could hit 50 percent protected land in one of the most populous countries on Earth."

It's possible.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

First Time for Everything

I wonder what would have happened to Sleeping Beauty had she slept for, oh, say 20, 30 years or so, but continued to age. I'm thinking Shrek, but with the change preempting the story instead of driving it. And what if she was not only wizened with time (like a hag, not like a man), but she also had her lady bits unceremoniously removed, leaving her sexless in all but desire. I imagine Prince Charming, also older and wiser, mounting the steps to her room to greet her and quietly gazing down at her sleeping there with laugh lines created as she dreamt each night and age spots from the sun peaking in her window during the day, and her hair sticking to her head a bit from the hot flash that steeped her in sweat at the most inopportune moment, as it always does.

Would he embrace the woman laying prone, thus saving her life, or would he cringe a bit, think better of it, and then tip toe away?

It's a weird place to inhabit to have been a bit of a princess, sometimes with more than one suitor offering a selection to choose from and the ability to make decisions about whom to sleep with and when, to suddenly wake up and be hidden from, avoided. To go from Ariel to Ursula in the blink of an eye with age, illness, and an absolute inability to give a shit about fashion.

And then poor Sleeping Beauty has to slip past the dragon on her own, not to avoid being seen as edible, but to avoid being seen as undesirable. How embarrassing!

I've never been stood up before, and it kinda sucks. It's not as bad as movies make it out to be, but it's definitely annoying.

It was my first date in almost this century, and could have possibly been my first kiss in a full decade. I ventured into online dating after a friend, recently engaged from an online encounter, explained that for every ten people you say "Hey" to online, one will likely lead to a conversation. And every ten conversations will likely lead to a date. And every ten dates will likely lead to one relationship. It's a numbers game, apparently, and it would only start, if you do the math, with 1,000 "Hey"s. It's all about persistence. I just let batchelor buttons completely overrun my back garden, so I'm not sure if persistence is my strong suit.

But he didn't show. My son thinks it's because I'm so awkward with people, but this dude didn't have a chance to see just how truly awkward I could be. He also didn't have a clue about my leftist politics or my feminism or the extent to which environmental concerns and basic morality affect my day-to-day lifestyle. He was good to go online, the initiator of the event, spurred on by well-angled photos, until he beheld my outer casing waiting for him, all three-dimensional and poorly lit, and he silently demurred.

LUCKILY, I had brought a book to rescue me from the tedium of waiting, and I welcome a respite form the heat. I arrived thirty minutes early to get through a chapter or two, and I sat by the door to be the found rather than the finder because I am the worst at facial recognition. I was in a bar full of soccer fans watching the match on many screens, and I would have had little chance of picking him out of the crowd. All people generally look alike to me. I thought I was just not paying attention to people until my kids came to my school, and I couldn't find them in the hallways either. It's a thing. Anyway, I was one of very few females in the place, and alone, and with a book and a beer, acting like I was just there for the A/C; I'm pretty sure I stood out.

I waited two hours.

It was exactly enough time to finish Kate Manne's Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. I didn't bring it purposefully, and I kept it flat on the table to avoid frightening my potential suitor with the cover; it just happened to be what I was reading at the time. And it was delicious. All about that another day.

What makes it all an an annoyance rather than a tragedy is that, unlike Sleeping Beauty, I don't need to be saved. I'm not waiting to be awakened. I cast my net from time to time when everyone's busy with their partners and I can't find a canoe buddy. Sometimes I recognize that I'm missing out on the benefits of being first on someone's list of people to please. While it's been a while since I've been seized passionately, a warm embrace is always within easy reach. And the fortuitousness of reading that particular book on that particular day helped make me roll my eyes instead of feel pathetic as it reminded me of the inane social dynamics we've accepted as normal: the princess scenarios, the authority of maleness, the routine of giving to instead of sharing with. It's not about not being chosen, not being worthy, and therefore losing the race for a mate, but about not fitting that time-worn stereotype. It's not that men are lacking because they don't rise above the superficial, but that, in our society, it's amazing that any of us are ever able to see outside of the dominant perspective of what a mate should encompass.

He messaged that he had been there, and I simply wasn't to be found, but then he neglected to responded to my reply offering another time and place with my phone number to prevent another madcap mixup. Of course I apologized for not being sufficiently visible. My son (and dating coach) is pretty sure that's all bullshit. It's just so much easier for the guy to say he couldn't find me than to say the other thing. You know: you're not really up to my standards, or you're not my type, or, even, you're uglier than I thought you'd be. So, only eight more crappy dates until I get a good one, if the odds are in my favour, and if I'm up for it.

I have a lot of books to read. We'll see how enticing the prospect of A/C is this summer.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Progress or Ruin

Monbiot's recent article sits in my belly like lead:
As a child and young adult, I delighted in being able to identify almost any wild plant or animal. And now it has gone. This ability has shrivelled from disuse: I can no longer identify them because I can no longer find them. Perhaps this forgetfulness is protective. I have been averting my eyes. Because I cannot bear to see what we have done to nature, I no longer see nature itself. Otherwise, the speed of loss would be unendurable. . . . I have lived long enough to witness the vanishing of wild mammals, butterflies, mayflies, songbirds and fish that I once feared my grandchildren would experience: it has all happened faster than even the pessimists predicted. . . . The United Nations reports that our use of natural resources has tripled in 40 years. The great expansion of mining, logging, meat production and industrial fishing is cleansing the planet of its wild places and natural wonders. What economists proclaim as progress, ecologists recognise as ruin.

I've left out the worst of it.

We need to find politicians willing to take a stand against lobbyists and corporate rule. As a society, we need to just stop doing anything beyond what's necessary for our own survival. If you don't need it to live, then don't buy it. If you don't need to go there in order to survive, then just stay and sit still a while. Travel under your own steam and live within your means as well as within the means of our ecosystem. But none of that's really going to happen, is it.

17/10/18 is the new 420 here. At least we can sedate as we watch it all unfold before our eyes.

The Trouble with Relativism

From a comment on a social media post advocating that we stop protesting people with Trump hats:
"The trouble with refusing to serve someone because you abhor their views, is that tomorrow someone else will do the same thing to you."

Here was my response:
That's like saying we have to tolerate everything in order to support tolerance. We don't. As Popper said, "We should claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant." It's not that one principle has to govern all actions, but that we have to look at the use of the principle and decide from there. Someone with a Nazi armband can be ousted from a restaurant by the owner because they clearly and openly advocate harm to a group of people, which we can all agree is heinous and wrong. But someone with a rainbow shirt isn't advocating harm to anyone; they just want to be allowed to exist. So refusing them service should cause an outrage. 

This is an increasing problem with relativist views. I see it in my students often who really want everyone to be right all the time. "He's not wrong; he just has a different idea." But there can be right and wrong ideas. In fact, there HAS to be. We have to all agree that holding a view that harming other people based on their group affiliation is just plain wrong. People who hold that immoral view have to be TOLD they're wrong over and over by everyone they meet.

Or else. If that view gains traction, which it is, then we KNOW the path our society could take. It's up to us, right now, to stop it in its tracks.

ETA in brief:

Her: Allowing the state to dictate what we're allowed to do or not allowed to do is advocating totalitarianism.

Me: That's a slippery slope. Canadians have lived with hate crime laws on the books for decades without becoming totalitarian in nature. We are able to stop discrimination without lumping in non-discriminatory actions. It is possible to create a clear line.

For the Popper quote, see Notes to Chapter 7, in The Open Society and Its Enemies, or page 544 of this PDF.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Right to Free Speech, not to an Audience

In Brian W. Van Norten's article in today's New York Times, "The Ignorant Do Not Have a Right to an Audience" he carefully argues the stance that I've attempted to argue over the years: We can offer people free speech, but that's different than offering them a venue and audience. He starts with some questionable arguments from a few famous names, and closely examines the argument that society benefits from hearing all sides:
"Even if Coulter and Peterson are wrong, won’t we have a deeper understanding of why racism and sexism are mistaken if we have to think for ourselves about their claims? And “who’s to say” that there isn’t some small fragment of truth in what they say? If this specious line of thought seems at all plausible to you, it is because of the influence of “On Liberty,” published in 1859 by the English philosopher John Stuart Mill. . . . The problem, though, is that humans are not rational in the way Mill assumes. I wish it were self-evident to everyone that we should not discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, but the current vice president of the United States does not agree. I wish everyone knew that it is irrational to deny the evidence that there was a mass shooting in Sandy Hook, but a syndicated radio talk show host can make a career out of arguing for the contrary. . . . 
I suggest that we could take a big step forward by distinguishing free speech from just access. Access to the general public, granted by institutions like television networks, newspapers, magazines, and university lectures, is a finite resource. Justice requires that, like any finite good, institutional access should be apportioned based on merit and on what benefits the community as a whole. There is clear line between censoring someone and refusing to provide them with institutional resources for disseminating their ideas. . . . For these prestigious institutions to deny Murray an audience would be for them to exercise their fiduciary responsibility as the gatekeepers of rational discourse. We have actually seen a good illustration of what I mean by “just access” in ABC’s courageous decision to cancel “Roseanne,” its highest-rated show. Starring on a television show is a privilege, not a right. . . . 
What just access means in terms of positive policy is that institutions that are the gatekeepers to the public have a fiduciary responsibility to award access based on the merit of ideas and thinkers. To award space in a campus lecture hall to someone like Peterson who says that feminists “have an unconscious wish for brutal male domination,” or to give time on a television news show to someone like Coulter who asserts that in an ideal world all Americans would convert to Christianity, or to interview a D-list actor like Jenny McCarthy about her view that actual scientists are wrong about the public health benefits of vaccines is not to display admirable intellectual open-mindedness. It is to take a positive stand that these views are within the realm of defensible rational discourse, and that these people are worth taking seriously as thinkers. Neither is true: These views are specious, and those who espouse them are, at best, ignorant, at worst, sophists. The invincibly ignorant and the intellectual huckster have every right to express their opinions, but their right to free speech is not the right to an audience."

Many of the commenters on the article have a unifying concern: "Who will be the judge of what's right?" And they then conclude, like Mill, that we simply have to have a forum for everyone or else the government will get its hand in the mix, and it'll be hell for everyone. But that's not the only option. Van Norten makes it clear that TV producers are able to fire overt racists from their shows, and, similarly, universities have a right to refuse a venue to guest speakers who promote bigoted views. It's a matter of 'my house, my rules.' If you don't want to go to a university that refuses to give space for 'white nationalists' like Faith Goldy, then you're free to choose to go elsewhere. I'm hoping enough universities take that position that it becomes difficult for racists and homophobes and flat-earthers and climate deniers to find an institute that shares their views so openly.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

On Limits to Free Speech: Hate Crime Laws and Defamation Suits

Watching the excellent series The Handmaid's Tale, at first I questioned the glaring lack of racism in the show. It's supposed to be happening just a few years in the future, and somehow racism has completely disappeared. Homosexuality is outlawed, but they're totally cool with mixed race relationships. But, on further thought, obviously they're okay with it. The crisis they're facing in Gilead is infertility. The realization reminded me of Reagan's line,
“I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.”
We can give up our prejudices on a dime when there's a bigger threat looming over us. Prejudices are arbitrary and developed for their usefulness, for instance, to control groups of people, or to help the masses to blindly accept any suffering experienced by the group of choice, whatever group we've decided don't quite count today. Because it's all so slippery, and we're often so easily led, we must have stoppers in place, barriers to prevent the development of practices that harm a random group of people. We must have limits to speech.

Our Charter gives us freedom of opinion and expression. However, since society won't be improved and our freedom better secured by allowing people to publicly incite hatred against a group of people who are identified race, religion, gender identity or expression, age, ability, etc., we rightfully have laws, an Act, and a Code preventing that very specific type of speech that incites hatred against people. We also have limits to our speech when it comes to harming individuals, and laws (right next to the hate crime laws) and a Code for that too. But beyond that, legally, anything goes. You can still openly criticize people for identifying as left wing or an SJW or any other position that's become an insult recently. Our legislation indicates that we recognize the power of words.

It's curious to me when people who believe we should have zero limits on free speech will happily use legislation that limits free speech when it works in their favour. To be consistent, if they're against free speech boundaries when it comes to hate speech, then they should oppose defamation laws as well. If the argument is that we should be free to say anything, no matter how harmful it is to a person or group of people, and then people who oppose us are free to counter our claims openly, then that obliterates both hate crime and defamation laws.

Or this:

Of course I'm talking about recent lawsuits filed against WLU. Despite that Shepard, a T.A.,  surreptitiously taped a conversation and publicized it herself, she claims the conversation made her unemployable (for $3.6 mill), and Professor Peterson's lawsuit (for $1.5 mill) claims that Laurier staff,
"intended, in making these statements, that the comments could be available, potentially widely discussed, and would damage Peterson’s reputation … now and in the future"
The Globe and Mail reports that,
"Several experts in defamation law, however, said the university could argue that any comments made in the meeting are protected by “qualified privilege.” “The law wants to give people the ability to speak freely without fear of a libel lawsuit in certain situations,” Toronto defamation lawyer Gil Zvulony said. Disciplinary meetings could be one such situation if the people in the meeting are fulfilling their duty, according to defamation and media lawyer Peter Jacobsen."
So I imagine this will end soon, but not without further infamy for the parties involved and further black marks on Laurier's reputation. I have an acquaintance whose son will be going in the fall, and she commented that they won't let the kids say anything there. I remarked that they're just trying to prevent people crossing the line into hate speech, and she lamented that we're all gotten too carried away. I have no idea how to bridge the divide between our views.

It doesn't help that there are people who have gotten carried away:

Peterson clearly has a sense of humour, and the use of airhorns and chanting during a discussion is absolutely obnoxious. The bit starting at 4:40 has been circulating, with many claims that it's out of context, so I included the entire clip. There are people stopping others from being heard, and security should be on them to cut it out. Absolutely. Chanting while people are speaking isn't part of hate crime legislation.

But, as Peterson asks, who does define hate speech? How do we decide that someone is inciting hatred? In Canada's actually use of the legislation, it's typical extreme speech that includes a threat to bodily safety: in one case a man incited hatred and issued threats to a Muslim group, another had a message that "could lead to an altercation," and one was a matter of violent speech, and this article clarifies that it's speech made to,
"intimidate, harm or terrify not only a person, but an entire group of people to which the victim belongs. It applies when the victims are targeted for who they are, not because of anything they have done, and can involve intimidation, harassment, physical force or threat of physical force against a person, a group or a property. . . . to call for, support, encourage or argue for the killing of members of a group."
So calling someone 'him' instead of 'them' won't get you arrested. And using an analogy that compares someone to Hitler also won't be enough for a conviction.

I've written previously about the importance of limits to free speech when it incites hatred, and I've also written that where protecting free speech is most imperative: we must be allowed to question figures of authority and present dissenting views. Gilead is a great example of the what the reverse of that would look like: where hate speech is rampantly promoted and questioning authority figures is punishable by death. And it's horrific.

ETA: Now it's coming out that Peterson appeared as an expert witness in a court case, but the judge dismissed his testimony for lacking any scientific rigour.

And Matthew Sears compared Peterson to Cleon:
Cleon, however, was not particularly big on free speech, at least not as it was practised by Aristophanes. The demagogue apparently took Aristophanes to court several times in an attempt to silence him, as historian Todd M. Compton recounts in detail. Aristophanes, however, only resolved to intensify the barbs he slung at his rival. In The Acharnians, produced in 425, Aristophanes lets loose:  
 “And Cleon. Him I know from —shall we say? —personal experience. Last year’s comedy provoked him. To say the least. He dragged me into the Senate House, sued me, and opened the sluicegates. Slander and lies gushed from his tongue in torrents, and down the arroyo of his mind there roared a flash flood of abuse. To purge me, he purged himself —and in the offal, filth and fetor of his verbal diarrhea, I nearly smothered, mortally immersed.”  
 Three years after The Acharnians, Aristophanes produced a comedy called Wasps, in which two competing characters are respectively named Philocleon and Bdelycleon. The former means “Love Cleon” while the latter means something like “Cleon Makes Me Puke.” So much for being deterred by lawsuits.
Sears saves the most important point for the end:
Who is going to talk about Peterson negatively now without worrying that they might be contacted by a lawyer and have their livelihood threatened? Peterson is by any measure a public figure, and is quite forceful —and even deliberately provocative — about getting his own views across. He should be fair game. I worry now that he’s not. In the end, Peterson just looks like a hypocrite, claiming to be free speech’s champion while stifling the free speech of others in very tangible ways. Like Cleon, this suit makes him look ridiculous. Perhaps someone should write a comedy about Peterson with a main character named “Peterson Makes Me Barf” or a new name in the spirit of Aristophanes, like, say, “Rottenlobsterpeteypants.”
ETA: The Beaverton

ETA: And then there's Laurie Penny's article:
The fact that this is being taken seriously, that it demands to be taken seriously, is frankly embarrassing to converts and critics alike; a symptom of an intellectual and political culture running on fumes. . . . watch a grown man who makes a living telling other people to toughen up rebound into spasms of outrage, threaten to sue you, threaten to punch you, and whip up his followers into such a storm of harassment that a great many critics are now nervous to push back on his ideas at all. And this is the great free-speech defender.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Left Wing Opposition Rebuttal

Here's a facebook response to my previous post about left-wing ideology, and the post included a link to this article about Peterson.

First claim: the left are promoting racism and sexism by looking down on people who can't reach their potential on their own:  It's only "looking down" on people if you believe that anyone who can't fulfill their potential without any help is beneath us. In fact most people need help, and many at the top got help without ever asking because it was waiting for them: the connections, the money, the positions that waited to be filled until they were ready to fill them. But many people are so knocked down by history and by the current climate that they need help from their group affiliation in order to reach their individual potential. The people at the top already get help from their group affiliation. There's little difference in how much help people need; there's only difference in what kind of help we see as acceptable. Daddy gives you a hotel to run; you probably deserve that. People are marching in the streets to fight oppression; they're radicals. 

On the Employment Equity Act, aka Affirmative Action: It's not a matter of using power to privilege one small group over other groups, but to restrain the implicit biases people have when they hire. There are many studies that prove that most of us hold implicit biases towards our own group, towards people who look like we do. The Employment Equity Act is there to ensure that non-dominant groups get a fair chance at employment. The first round of resumes typically cut most names that don't fit the white male bias, but then, once people get to the interview stage, and IF two people have identical qualifications for the job, then we're required to choose the minority in that field. The minority could be a while male if, for instance, it's a primary school full of female teachers. People don't expect a 50/50 split, but if it could take us from a 99/1 split to maybe a 70/30, then it could affect people's recognition of varying abilities of different races and genders as role models as well as enabling society to benefit from the abilities of a wider variety of people. FYI, in Canada, the Employment Equity Act was introduced under Brian Mulroney and the Conservative Party.

It's not the case that people who haven't managed to achieve equity of outcomes need help because they are in any way inferior, but that some people have faced unbelievable odds stopping them at every turn throughout history, and the left wants to right past wrongs, acknowledge the past injustices, and provide a means for people to reach their potential despite rampant prejudices against them.

I'm unaware of anyone being remotely able to shut down anything Peterson says. His employer required him to use terms of respect with his non-binary students, but nobody has in any way prevented him from speaking out about that or anything else that comes to his mind. Many people over the years have challenged the view that people we've harmed in the past should get a leg up now, and they haven't been shut down either. People are disagreeing with him, for sure. But that's what happens to anyone who puts their voice out there. 

Saturday, May 26, 2018

Defining the Left

This is a continuation of my previous post on the political correctness issue raised in last week's Munk Debates with Jordan Peterson, Michelle Goldberg, Michael Eric Dyson, and Stephen Fry (who stayed on task, so won't be discussed here). The rest of the debate skirted around the issue of political correctness but focused more on the extreme versions of left and right. Again, this is what I heard in the most charitable reading I can give it. That being said, I find Peterson difficult to follow at times. He has a tendency to mix clear and obvious truisms with a suggestion of something more controversial. Then when that controversial point is questioned, he can easily insist it's not what he said at all, without then clarifying what it is he actually meant by the suggestion. It's all a little slippery.


Peterson indicated his concern with the collectivist nature of the Left, in which you're not an individual, but a member of a group categorized along lines of ethnicity, sex, and race. The problems with this perspective, he says, are that it leads to tribalism, it doesn't allow free speech because "when you speak, you're just playing a power game on behalf of your group," and we can't have group rights because we can't have group responsibilities.

Goldberg and Dyson both referred to Peterson's view of the left as a caricature that, if the case at all, is an insignificantly small minority.

About group identity in general, Dyson said, "Identity is foisted on people of colour. Who wants to be part of a group attacked at Starbucks? We're treated as a group and denied the ability to act as individuals. . . . Nobody is a bigger snowflake than white men who complain 'they won't let us play with the old regime where we hated other races.'" And Goldberg said,
"Wanting more minorities in power is not because we're looking for crude equity, but because many individuals are not able to reach their potential on their own. It's classical liberalism. . . . A huge part of politics is groups struggling for rights for individual members: women seeking the right to control over their own body and minorities seeking redress from police brutality. We can't contend with those social problems if you see society as just atomized as individuals. There's nothing pernicious about people banding together to redress injustices." 
Goldberg also took him to task for the false analogy between individual and group responsibilities. We can have group rights and then take individual responsibility within that group.

Their main argument is that being a member of a group is the only way for the disenfranchised to get freedom for the individuals within the group, especially now that we're at a point where technology and outsourcing are taking even more jobs. Nora Loreto has a similar concern with Peterson's slant:
"Researchers at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, have demonstrated that there is a link between precarious work and increased anxiety, depression and emotional difficulty. These trends can change only when people work together and demand improvements, whether it’s locally through community activism, or on a larger scale. But that kind of thinking would put Peterson out of work. Peterson’s logic preys on people already in despair and puts them into a cycle that they cannot improve on their own. He’s creating a cadre of dependent disciples.
That being said, however, there is a legitimate concern that political correctness is a surreptitious way for people to get power. It can be seen as a type of vigilante justice in which small groups try to define the rules for the rest. I saw this first hand as I had to gently remind a parent that the province sets the curriculum for my course, so, no, I can't remove an entire unit in order to accommodate her daughter's comfort in my class. That's new and weird, but it feels like it just takes a little push back to remind people that what makes them personally uncomfortable can't be solely what determines what's available to the rest. As I said yesterday, we need limits to political correctness, but let's not thrown the baby out with the bathwater. And, when we use these terms, it's imperative we discuss specifics so we can have real arguments about the true consequences of ideas rather than nebulous theoretical debates. If people feel persecuted, it can help to scrutinize the barriers to freedom they're addressing in order to assess whether or not our pity is warranted. We have to start talking about this issue with real examples on the table to be able to get at the nitty gritty of the border between demanding respect for others and abusing power from the bottom up.

ETA a little de Beauvoir (America Day by Day, p. 94):


According to Peterson, we live within a hierarchy, and they tend towards tyranny when they're corrupted, but we have mechanisms to stop corruption. Our current hierarchy is one of merit. He said, "Foucault* believed the only basis for hierarchy is power, which is part of the PC doctrine. In our imperfect hierarchy we have constructed, it tilts at least somewhat to competence and ability as evidenced by staggering achievements." If we aim for equality of outcome, we'll regress to a state of tribalism.

The moderator asked, "How does Peterson get an equal voice back if it's implied that white privilege doesn't allow it?"

Dyson was incredulous considering Peterson's bid for equal access to the masses despite his popularity on YouTube: "How can Peterson get his equality back?? Why the rage? You're doing well!"

It brought to mind a similar exchange with my own children. When my children were little, about ages three and one, a wall in our kitchen was dedicated to their artwork. At the time, it was entirely my oldest's creations, but one day I added some artwork from her little brother. She balked at the intrusion, complaining that, "You're covering all my work with his!" So, together, we counted the twenty or so pieces she had up, and then that one piece from him. It really felt to her that her space was being taken over. As the oldest, she hadn't had to compete with anyone like this before. For two- thirds of her life she had my undivided attention. She learned to get a better feel for equity later on. She was just little. As for the others: "When you're accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression." It's time to give others a chance to speak.

Dyson and Goldberg addressed the idea that if we don't make any accommodations for people previously left behind, then those people never have a chance to reach their individual potential. It reminded me of a Chris Rock joke about white men having a 400-year head start. And there have been a few studies (herehere, and here) that sent out identical resumes with different names at the top to show that people with names that sound white and male get significantly more calls for an interview than their identical counterparts. Equality of opportunity is only logically fair if we really believe that racism and sexism are over. But they're so clearly not.

Dyson added, "If you free a person after oppression, with no skills or means of status, then you've liberated him into oppression. Peterson is not suffering from anything but that his privilege is invisible to him." And then he reminded him of some of the horrors being faced by minority groups, currently and historically. This takes me back to what Matthew Stewart said in a recent Atlantic article about the wealthiest 10%.
"We have figured out how to launder our money through higher virtues. . . . Our new multiracial, gender-neutral meritocracy has figured out a way to make itself hereditary. . . . If the system can be gamed, well then, our ability to game the system has become the new test of merit."


Peterson suggests that the left goes too far in its bid for diversity, inclusivity, and equality of outcome.  His view is that equality of outcome is abhorrent. And if that's not the worst case of the radical left, then, he challenged his opponents to answer, what is? At what point should we be concerned that the left has gone too far? He's trying to differentiate the reasonable left from the pathological left that has dominated the universities according to irrefutable studies from Johnathan Hiadt (duly refuted here and here).

Goldberg responded with "violence and censorship," but Peterson didn't accept the answer. "Saying the radical left goes too far when it's violent is not sufficient. It's a set of ideas that led to catastrophes in this century."

However, at the extremes, equality of outcome in which everyone ends up with the same stuff isn't what anybody's hoping to achieve. Even Marx didn't hope for that result. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx explains,
"The average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence, which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labour, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence. We by no means intend to abolish this personal appropriation of the products of labour, an appropriation that is made for the maintenance and reproduction of human life, and that leaves no surplus wherewith to command the labour of others. All that we want to do away with, is the miserable character of this appropriation, under which the labourer lives merely to increase capital, and is allowed to live only in so far as the interest of the ruling class requires it." 
Nobody wants everybody to get the same pay regardless their effort or ability or marketable skills. Guaranteed Basic Income only works if most people continue to work, as they will, to improve their lot beyond the basics. But the left hopes that the basics are covered. We don't want anyone to be scrambling to survive while others have more than they can use. It's not a matter of destroying the hierarchy entirely, but of flattening it enough that the bottom are able to thrive, not at the expense of the top, but merely without exploitation at their hands.

And nobody wants the extreme view at the other end either: equality of opportunity. That, I imagine, would look a little like Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron," in which characters have to accept disabilities imposed on them in order to create a true level playing field. That side wants complete freedom as if it's entirely merit based. Peterson mentions that our imperfect hierarchy has mechanisms in place to prevent corruption. Isn't the Employment Equity Act just one such mechanism?

If we can keep from the extremes of the political dichotomy, and get specific about what the world should look like, then I think we're all uncomfortable with needless suffering, aren't we?


*This is besides the point, but Peterson claims that Foucault said the only basis for hierarchy is power, and because of that, it's implied that Foucault wanted to dismantle or had a problem with, or saw something wrong with hierarchies, and then Peterson objects to this. But that doesn't jibe with what I've read on Foucault. For instance, this is Foucault on power: "We must cease once and for all to describe the effects of power in negative terms: it ‘excludes’, it ‘represses’, it ‘censors’, it ‘abstracts’, it ‘masks’, it ‘conceals’. In fact power produces; it produces reality; it produces domains of objects and rituals of truth. The individual and the knowledge that may be gained of him belong to this production" (194). If it IS the case that somewhere Foucault said hierarchies are only based on power, then surely they can also be based on productive power. It would appear that Peterson and Foucault are more in agreement than the former would prefer to admit.

Also besides the point, several pieces have been written about Peterson since Nellie Bowles wrote that New York Times article about his solution to the incels just over a week ago. Tabatha Southey compiled his most sexist views in Macleans, and McSweeney's satirized it in verse. And then, just yesterday, a former colleague of his, Bernard Schiff, called him 'dangerous' in The Star.
"Jordan has studied and understands authoritarian demagogic leaders. They know how to attract a following. . . . Douglas Murray described the atmosphere at one of Jordan’s talks as “ecstatic.” I have no way of knowing whether Jordan is aware that he is playing out of the same authoritarian demagogue handbook that he himself has described. If he is unaware, then his ironic failure, unwillingness, or inability to see in himself what he attributes to them is very disconcerting. . . . 
Jordan has a complex relationship to freedom of speech. He wants to effectively silence those left-wing professors by keeping students away from their courses because the students may one day become “anarchical social revolutionaries” who may bring upon us disruption and violence. At the same time he was advocating cutting funds to universities that did not protect free speech on their campuses. He defended the rights of “alt right” voices to speak at universities even though their presence has given rise to disruption and violence. For Jordan, it appears, not all speech is equal, and not all disruption and violence are equal, either. . . . If Jordan is not a true free speech warrior, then what is he? . . . He is a social order warrior. . . . He is a biological and Darwinian determinist. Gender, gender roles, dominance hierarchies, parenthood, all firmly entrenched in our biological heritage and not to be toyed with. . . . 
I have been asked by some if I regret my role in bringing Jordan to the University of Toronto. I did not for many years, but I do now. He has done disservice to the professoriate. He cheapens the intellectual life with self-serving misrepresentations of important ideas and scientific findings. He has also done disservice to the institutions which have supported him. He plays to “victimhood” but also plays the victim. . . . Jordan may have, however, welcomed being fired, which would have made him a martyr in the battle for free speech. He certainly presented himself as prepared to do that. A true warrior, of whatever. . . . Jordan is seen here to be emotionally explosive when faced with legitimate criticism, in contrast to his being so self-possessed at other times. He is erratic. . . . 
“Bernie. Tammy had a dream, and sometimes her dreams are prophetic. She dreamed that it was five minutes to midnight.” That was our last conversation. He was playing out the ideas that appeared in his first book. The social order is coming apart. We are on the edge of chaos. He is the prophet, and he would be the martyr. Jordan would be our saviour. I think he believes that."
I wonder if the debate was his swan song, unbeknownst to him, or will his followers relish the attempted sacrifice and grow in numbers? Time will tell. Until then, here's some Charles Taylor to bring us back to political correctness:
"Misrecognition shows not just a lack of due respect. It can inflict a grievous wound, saddling its victims with a crippling self-hatred. Due recognition is not just a courtesy we owe people. It is a vital human need."

Friday, May 25, 2018

Munk Debate On Political Correctness

Immersed, as I have been, in the political correctness / free speech dichotomy, I looked forward to the recent Munk Debate with Michelle Goldberg and Michael Eric Dyson on one side, and Jordan Peterson and Stephen Fry on the other. The debate was supposed to be about whether or not political correctness is a form of progress, which I take to mean, Does socially ostracizing or legislating certain language and behaviours benefit society in the future? Unfortunately, it went largely off the rails. Munk Debates aren't always as illuminating as they could be, despite the excellent moderator. I've written about a few of them: on the environment, on men, and on religion. They tend to fail in two ways: if any one person diverts from the central question or if all of them are too kind and not nearly critical enough of their opponent's arguments. One of the best questions a moderator ever asked, that I've copied in my classroom, was "Which of your opponent's arguments is most convincing?". I think in this recent debate, it would be impossible to answer because so few points were clearly argued.


I'll try to frame the ideas presented as charitably as possible, but this is merely what I heard being said. Here's the upshot of the response to the actual question in a flowchart:

On the con side, Fry lamented throughout that nobody was actually debating the original claim. He was left alone with his defence of the opposing side, and he so wanted a playmate in the game! His position was that there's no evidence that monitoring and limiting language has any benefit. His evidence to the contrary wasn't clearly explained, however, but it was implied ("look around") that he's using the fact that we still have sexism and racism everywhere as an indication of political correctness's failings.

I would counter that there is evidence of a benefit. That the fact that, back in the early 80s,  I had teachers that used racial slurs openly in class and that now that's an offence that could lead to termination, does in fact affect our culture in a positive way. Going to school with teachers who were openly sexist and racist has a marked affect on students, and it's a very positive thing that HR Departments have taken these issues seriously. And then, in the mid-80s, working at a corporation where we all just rolled our eyes at ongoing sexual harassment, I once came to work at 21 in a tailored dress, and my boss demanded that I stand up and do a spin so everyone in the department could see how "there's not an ounce of fat on this one!" It wasn't until 1991, when Anita Hill decoded her experiences that we began to learn how to speak out and demand that some behaviours be legislated. Absolutely the political correctness movement has been progressive. Yes, of course, if we look around racism and sexism still exist. But in many small and large ways, it's better than it was. And that progress was, at least in part, due to the stifling of some language and behaviours.

Fry suggests that it's an old rationalist idea that limiting languages changes thinking, and it lacks any empirical evidence. But now we know about neural pathways and cue exposure with response prevention (CERP). When we stop ourselves from a behaviour repeatedly, our desire to act in that manner decreases. If we continue a behaviour, it increases. That seems like plain common sense, but studies are discussing neural pathways in the brain. I picture it like trudging through deep snow in the winter. The more you do it, the more the path is formed and easy to travel, so you can do it without any effort. If we allow ourselves to make derogatory statements, the more we do it, the easier it gets, and the more acceptable it begins to feel. The corollary of course, is the more we actively stop ourselves from the behaviour, the more the pathways close up and we stop desiring to behave in bigoted ways. Changing how we talk and act consistently does change the way we think.

Fry thinks we should take to the streets to really make a change. I love a good march, but I rarely feel like anything's being accomplished from them. But Fry also argues that advances in culture were primarily a result of basic human decency. I agree that one thing that has had a marked affect is just being shown that non-dominant groups are pretty normal and maybe should be treated as well as dominant groups. I often credit that one episode of Ellen, when a much-loved character, we by default considered heterosexual, suddenly came out as gay, as being the turning point in the movement. Suddenly somebody everyone liked was in a group that made many people uncomfortable at best. That changed things for sure. Decades earlier, Mr. Rogers was a trendsetter in a similar vein:

Pop culture can help to teach us decency, but it can also work against those teachings. If human decency is the fulcrum that determines if we progress socially, then wouldn't it be advisable to put some barriers on the views that are most detrimental to decency? Will we improve our prospects of greater kindness with children (and the rest of us) immersed in "free speech" or surrounded by people curbing their more colourful vitriol?

The moderator asked a good question to Fry: "Why won't we look back at the PC movement in the same way as the civil rights movement?" He didn't answer it directly, but I think the movements are markedly different because the issues are different. What we're dealing with today, in many ways, is slipperier. Instead of refusing to tolerate segregation and staying seated on the bus, it's a matter of refusing to tolerate a word or tone and calling it out. It might seem petty, but it's all part and parcel of the fight, yes fight, to diminish the hold that racism and sexism still have in our culture. Fry suggests fighting instead of limiting words and behaviours, but can't it be both? Isn't is always?

We have to shut down the pejorative use of "fag" and "gay" in the classroom, AND we have to march and petition for LGBTQ+ rights and freedoms and ensure adequate inclusion in the charter and human rights codes. We have to complain about sexual harassing acts in the workplace, AND we have to fight for policy changes to ensure equal pay for work of equal value.

On the pro side, Goldberg argued that complaining about PC culture is a means to dismiss concerns that might affect the dominant group's comfort. She said, as I've argued before, "The dominant group is still really free to speak their mind." They've all been publicly chastised by Twitter mobs, yet they're all able to continue to speak. It's really a question of freedom or security (aka freedom from): "One group thinks their feelings should be accommodated. They feel uniquely that their feelings of being censored need to take primacy over groups feeling threatened." We tend to lean towards freedom in our culture, but there are times a little security can go a long way.

Dyson asked, "Of the things in the past that were once acceptable and now are not, what would you want to bring back?" We're so used to never saying the N-word that we don't even say it when talking about not saying it! Once upon a time, the offensiveness of the term was explained, and restraint requested, and it stuck because it does help society progress when citizens aren't chipped away moment by moment by people insisting that their right to use derogatory language is more important the that right to be free from verbal barbs thrown in your direction. Goldberg reminds us we've been here before. People react when their power is being challenged. We can't call Indigenous Peoples "Indians" anymore, and we've had to add people of colour to our curriculum. It's hard because it's new, and some of the ways we've tried to change have stuck, and some haven't. "We might look back at gender neutral pronouns and wonder that it was ever an issue."

It's really a matter of scale. We know from Gordon Allport that antilocution is the first step towards hate crimes and genocide, and we've seen that play out in real life, and it still happens within some groups and communities in the U.S. and Canada. The more we think is acceptable to say, the more we think is acceptable to do. I'm reminded of a story in one of Chris Hedges books: A man was in a crowd shortly before WWII, and a couple Nazi youth started harassing an elderly Jewish man with a long beard. They sat him on a barrel and cut his beard with hedge clippers in an exaggerated way, and the audience in the marketplace laughed, and the man watching it all knew this was the beginning of the end for them.

But what's the net harm caused by refraining to say bigoted words? How far can it go?


Fry says, "There's a general feeling that we can't speak our minds. . . . There is a real fear to speak honestly about statements publicly. . . . I've never experienced that before. . . . The mistake of the left is to underestimate the right. I fear that PC is a weapon they value. The more we tell the world what words and attitudes are acceptable, all of this opens the door to ban bad actors."

Addressing the last claim first, it's a slippery slope to suggest that getting HR to stop a coworker from referring to a female boss as "babe" will lead to a full-on 1984, Big Brother level of censorship. We do, however, have to be awake enough and always thinking and questioning to make sure our rights aren't stripped away beyond a call for basic decency. I think we're up to the task. But what makes that claim a slippery slope, and the opposing one not? It's all in how the steps from one stage to the next are clearly linked to one another. Can we just use the words we associate with hatred without ever acting on them? Most of us can, but some people are testing the waters when they say things, preparing to take it further. It's the hateful citizens we have to worry about in this direction. Can we ask people to stop using them without adding to the list of words and phrases until we can no longer openly criticize Trump? It's a controlling government we are wary of down this path, and I'm banking on that we have enough people paying attention that we'd revolt at the inclusion of useful criticisms. (ETA - I believe this is the weak link in my argument, and I might address it another day.)

Goldberg addressed a different part of Fry's fear: "Men with a history of predatory behaviour were losing jobs. It created a cultural earthquake, an anxiety that it will go too far. Due process is important. When you look at who's actually lost their jobs, it's not people in general, but people who took their dicks out at work. . . . It's not the case that men everywhere can't talk anymore. . . . Who is silencing you? You're scared, but it's a feeling that is an intangible result."

BUT, I also think there is something to the fear that political correctness is currently going too far. My vision in my head of what it means had the brakes on a while back. This is a timely and important debate not to figure out if it's useful as a concept, but to determine where it should end. So, for me, it is the case that political correctness definitely can be progressive, but the more pressing issues for us today, then, are around who gets to determine what's acceptable or unacceptable, a tolerable level of scrutiny of behaviours, the consequences, and what that 'due process' looks like?

We run the risk of shutting down everything from a warm touch to playful flirting. Can we hug a colleague without it being legislated how close we stand? Can a teacher physically console a weeping student without threat of losing their livelihood? We're cautioned not to, but sometimes it's a sign of character to throw caution to the wind. And can I make a joke without getting arrested? Peterson, with typical hyperbole, formerly shared his concern that "all manifestations of male sexuality are going to be brought under legal control" (here), and he claimed it an injustice to have to use gender neutral pronouns at a student's request, much like I might ask to be referred to as Ms. instead of Miss and actually expect people to comply. But we don't have to raise potential extremes to be concerned. Teachers worry about losing their careers for one unthinking, unintended glance or comment. There definitely has to be a transparent process that allows people to feel secure in their positions knowing that they'll be exonerated once their intentions come to light, yet also catch the rare few with malevolent intent, the ones that have many complaints against them, for instance. One mistake is a mistake, but four or five might be an intended misuse of their power.

One of Fry's concerns is that the "ability to play gracefully with ideas is disappearing from our culture. . . . I don't think we should underestimate the feeling in the culture that the liberals are . . . undiverse in their call for diversity. You can be diverse but not diverse in your opinions, in your language, in your behaviour." I completely agree that we need to be able to continue to raise difficult issues in open discussions. I think that can still happen, and we have to be very watchful that touchy debates and discussions aren't shut down, but, as always, it must be done with care and respect for all those present.


Fry says, "The reason for Trump's success isn't the triumph of the right but the catastrophic failure of left. Fuck PC, resist and fight. Fight through democracy, not through universities and language."

Dyson argues, "The reality is that people don't have access to a means to affect democracy. . . . We need to engage in tough criticism in a way that speaks to the needs and interests of those whose voices are not amplified." There is little possibility for the least powerful to have any effect on democracy any more. Chomsky and Reich agree with the assessment that the left is in a mess. Both major parties are neo-liberal in nature. The left should be the party that addresses the basic nature of inequities, but we can see how well that works here with Justin at the helm.

A Harvard professor, Dani Rodrik, agrees:
"Had political parties, particularly of the center left, pursued a bolder agenda, perhaps the rise of right-wing, nativist political movements might have been averted. In principle, greater inequality produces a demand for more redistribution. Democratic politicians should respond by imposing higher taxes on the wealthy and spending the proceeds on the less well off. This intuition is formalized in a well-known paper in political economy by Allan Meltzer and Scott Richard: the wider the income gap between the median and average voter, the higher the taxes and the greater the redistribution. Yet in practice, democracies have moved in the opposite direction. . . . Part of the reason for this, at least in the US, is that the Democratic Party’s embrace of identity politics (highlighting inclusiveness along lines of gender, race, and sexual orientation) and other socially liberal causes came at the expense of the bread-and-butter issues of incomes and jobs."
I think they didn't necessarily come at the expense of, but, perhaps as a distraction to: I'll give you gender neutral bathrooms, but I'm keeping the Koch cash and pushing my pipeline through your wilderness. Rodrik continues,
"The French economist Thomas Piketty has recently documented an interesting transformation in the social base of left-wing parties. Until the late 1960s, the poor generally voted for parties of the left, while the wealthy voted for the right. Since then, left-wing parties have been increasingly captured by the well-educated elite, whom Piketty calls the “Brahmin Left,” to distinguish them from the “Merchant” class whose members still vote for right-wing parties. Piketty argues that this bifurcation of the elite has insulated the political system from redistributive demands. The Brahmin Left is not friendly to redistribution, because it believes in meritocracy – a world in which effort gets rewarded and low incomes are more likely to be the result of insufficient effort than poor luck."
I think, for the states, the biggest problem wasn't that Clinton lost to Trump, but that Sanders lost to Clinton. Sanders's policies were actually of the left, and that's so very rare. Now we'll see what happens in Ontario.

Possibly the brightest point in the debate came with Fry's closing:
"Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly. It's very important for us, who are privileged . . . to take ourselves a little more lightly, not to be too earnest, too pompous, too serious, and not to be too certain. It's a time for really engaging in emotionally fulfilling, passionate, and positive doubt." 
Some of the participants, more than one, had difficulty really hearing one another and addressing their very real fears in order to come to find the common ground. I'll get to the wayward path of the rest of the debate tomorrow.