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.


COLLECTIVISM VS INDIVIDUALISM in IDENTITY POLITICS

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.


HIERARCHICAL ORDER and AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

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."

EXTREMES OF EACH SIDE: 

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.


ON POLITICAL CORRECTNESS:

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?


ABOUT THAT FEAR: 

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.


THE FAILURE OF THE LEFT:

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.


Thursday, May 24, 2018

The 9.9 Percent

The Atlantic has a great article about the 9.9% being the new American aristocracy. Matthew Stewart has separated the 0.1%, who are the super rich, from the moderately wealthy who tend to believe they're middle class, and might even, from time to time, feel like they're poor. The stats are American, so in Canada, we only need to gross about $95,000 a year to be in the top 10%.

It was during a careers class a few years back when it hit me that I wasn't 'of the people' in the way I had always thought myself to be. I brought in many guest speakers to talk about their jobs; they included a lawyer, professor, midwife, novelist, journalist, therapist, dentist, city councillor, and MPP. My students' most pressing question at the end of it all, was how could I possibly know all these people? I told them, they're just my neighbours, as if we all have neighbours like this. Stewart says,
"These special forms of wealth offer the further advantages that they are both harder to emulate and safer to brag about than high income alone. Our class walks around in the jeans and T‑shirts inherited from our supposedly humble beginnings. We prefer to signal our status by talking about our organically nourished bodies, the awe-inspiring feats of our offspring, and the ecological correctness of our neighborhoods. 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."
It's so easy to think we're on the side of equity, then take advantage of privileges in a way that hinders equity, oblivious to our impact on the world.

I won't be able to do it justice here. Settle in for the long read.


Saturday, May 19, 2018

What Should Teachers Do to Prevent Gun Violence?

Lots of us have students who don't quite fit in and spend all their time alone, friendless. They might have been bullied for being different, and we can't always solve the problems they have trying to better communicate with other people. But the vast majority are completely harmless.

Lot of us have students who are really angry. These are teenagers. I was a really angry teenager, outraged at the many injustices I felt I faced in the world. Nothing is fair when you're at the centre of your own world. (I'm still pretty angry, but my focus has shifted to injustices around the globe instead.) Adolescence is a necessary time of self-obsession as people figure out their place in this life, and that can heighten every possible sleight against them, provoking an attitude of quick-tempered defensiveness. But the vast majority are completely harmless.

Lots of us have students who let slip some racist or sexist or bigoted comments in class, and we shut that down but then linger over the comment a bit later, mentally reviewing it and filing it away, and maybe mentioning it to a few colleagues looking for a pattern. But the vast majority are completely harmless.

And lots of us have students with a mean streak: students who are trying out their power, looking out for the boundaries that might be able to reign them in. If they get away with too much, they sometimes keep pushing until a consequence helps them turn a corner. We know it's important to stop cruelty in its tracks, but we can't catch everything. But the vast majority would never consider harm at this level of violence.

But I'm left wondering about all the signs we're told to monitor. Is it remotely useful to psychologically profile students?

Friday, May 4, 2018

A Bit More on Free Speech

You're free to say the earth is flat and say it all day long on a wide variety of media platforms, and even write a book about it if you've got the time. You might not get much notice, but, if you persist, then some people will likely try to show you where you went wrong. Then, after enough time, because of the ability of the internet to help the fringe players find one another, you might generate a small following.

But, if someone decides you should be heard because that's what's free speech is all about, and invites you to give a lecture on your ideas, then I would hope there would be protesters that shut it down. I believe we need to hear out differing opinions, especially those we oppose, but I don't believe we need to help inaccurate information be disseminated any wider than already allowed by the internet. NASA doesn't have flat earth scientists on board in the name of inclusion and unbiased reporting because... that's just dumb.

And we definitely don't need to promote poorly studied claims that suggest we starve out the poor to keep them from reproducing since they're carriers of the employment-resistant personality gene.

Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Crackpot Posing as a Genius

I've been noticing many articles, recently, about the plight of loneliness. It's now linked to anxiety and depression, and addiction, and a former US Surgeon General calls it the most common threat to public health.

We blame the internet and social media for a loss of connection between people, but this piece was written in the 1940s:
"Loneliness is not solitude. Solitude requires being alone whereas loneliness shows itself most sharply in company with others. . . . it seems that Epictetus, the emancipated slave philosopher of Greek origin, was the first to distinguish between loneliness and solitude. . . . As Epictetus sees it the lonely man finds himself surrounded by others with whom he cannot establish contact or to whose hostility he is exposed. The solitary man, on the contrary, is alone and therefore "can be together with himself" since men have the capacity of 'talking with themselves.' In solitude, in other words, I am 'by myself,' together with my self, and therefore two-in-one, whereas in loneliness I am actually one, deserted by all others. . . . The problem of solitudes is that this two-in-one needs the others in order to become one again: one unchangeable individual whose identity can never be mistaken for that of any other. For the confirmation of any identity I depend entirely upon other people. . . .  
Solitude can become loneliness; this happens when all by myself I am deserted by my own self. Solitary men have always been in danger of loneliness, when they can no longer find the redeeming grace of companionship to save them from duality and equivocality and doubt. Historically, it seems as though this danger became sufficiently great to be noticed by others and recorded by history only in the nineteenth century. It showed itself clearly when philosophers, for whom alone solitude is a way of life and a condition of work, were no longer content with the fact that 'philosophy is only for the few' and began to insist that nobody 'understands' them. . . . Conversely, there is always the chance that a lonely man finds himself and starts the thinking dialogue of solitude" (476-7)."  
It's from Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Seeing Jane Goodall

A post in which I gush a bit about it all.

Jane came to my city last Wednesday night. I had so much to do this week, but I had the tickets already, so I went begrudgingly. Yet when she walked on stage, I surprised myself by getting a bit teary. It's a curious reaction to meeting a pivotal role model from my childhood, someone whose life I envied right up there with Farley Mowat's life (possibly) in Never Cry Wolf. And I didn't even meet her - we were one row from the furthest point from the stage. But still...

She radiates warmth and humour and genuine kindness. She embodies love and patience. She speaks slowly and deliberately as she sipped from a flask of whiskey throughout the evening. She's on a tour of speaking engagements which she does without taking a speaker's fee so that all the proceeds can go to saving habitat and animals and people. She's living a truly ethical life; she should be revered as a wise woman, an elder - one of very few who might be able to guide us out of this mess.




And here's what she told us (loosely paraphrased unless in quotation marks):

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

On Entitlement and Unfettered Rage

One of the benefits or downfalls of the internet is that it allows fringe groups to find each other online. When it comes to feeling like nobody in the world knows about climate change or the Myanmar genocide (or philosophy), because nobody in my immediate vicinity is too concerned or interested, then it's invaluable to find clusters of intelligent people writing about them regularly online. Finding people with the same concerns about the world can be a game-changer when you've all but given up on working towards a solution for a grave social injustice.

But it's a tragic downfall of cyberspace when the "social injustice" is that you can't get laid. People in some fringe groups who, as individuals, would all be seen as rare deviants in need of help, are able to find each other now, and cluster together to reinforce and normalize their warped version of reality.

Such is the case with the van killer in Toronto. I won't use his name because I hope it's forgotten and he's forgotten rather than becoming infamous. But we can't forget that he was part of a movement of "involuntary celibates" (incels) who are outraged at their misfortune with women. Instead of blaming their own approach or attitude or maybe something they said along the way, they put all the blame on women for not flocking to them they way they expected would happen.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Happy Earth Day

It's the 48th Earth Day, and it's the 20th anniversary of Mann's hockey stick graph made famous in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.


So we've known, for sure, that climate change is a human-made issue for a couple decades now, but Trudeau will still do what it takes to get pipelines built.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

On Peterson, Political Correctness, and Postmodernism

Peterson was on Bill Maher last night. They're both people that have some clever ideas, but also promote a few questionable notions in a way that's slick enough to just get a pass from some intelligent people instead of necessarily getting the scrutiny deserved. Here's an innocuous and pleasant exchange between mutual fans:




ON POLITICAL CORRECTNESS:

In the video Maher defined political correctness as, "the elevation of sensitivity over truth," and lamented the "emotional hemophiliacs" who will bleed at the littlest thing, but instead of avoiding sharp objects, they make the world cover everything in bubble wrap. Peterson went one step further: "It's more like the elevation of moral posturing of sensitivity over truth." He explained a bit about resilience: "Security doesn't come from making the world safe, because that's not possible. You make people resilient by exposing people to things that make them uncomfortable . . . over-coddling leads to stupid and narcissistic people."

Sunday, April 15, 2018

On Progressive Education - Seven Questions

I recently watched a film, Most Likely to Succeed, which has inspired a lengthy post about educational reform.


FIRST, A BIT ON DEWEY AND SKINNER: 

(If educational theory isn't your bag, then just scroll down to the next bit.)

Is it true that, "If we teach today's students as we taught yesterday's, we rob them of tomorrow"? It's highly probable that John Dewey never said it despite the misattribution making the rounds online. If you read just one or two of his essays, it's clearly not his typical wording and syntax (and now we can easily "command-F" our way through his books). Regardless the source, I believe we also do a disservice to education by tossing what we did yesterday in favour of the newest idea. New isn't always better.

Here's what Dewey does say, though,

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

On Extra Time and IEP Designations

We administered the literacy test yesterday with one new twist that most teachers weren't privy to until the previous evening: There would be no specific accommodations for students with IEPs (Individual Educational Programs) that call for extra time. Instead, we would allow extra time for anyone that needs it.

This is a significant shift in accommodating special needs. It's something I've done for years in my classroom, so I'm already on board. My rationale is about access to the IEP designation. To get an IEP, many students get a professional assessment. This can be done for free through publicly available psychometrists, but there's a wait list that's years long. Or, if you've got the kind of job that insures this, it can be done privately at a cost of two to three thousand dollars. So, right off the bat, there's a bit of a class issue around the designation. Adding to that, there's the fact that many parents aren't aware that this is a thing. Or, if they've heard about IEPs, they don't quite understand what they are or what they're for, and they're not sure they're necessarily a good thing. This all boils down to the reality that in any class, I'll have some kids with noticeable barriers to their ability to do the work who don't have an IEP in place. So I make my tests a bit shorter, then let them do other work once they finish, but let everyone have the full period if they need it.

The downside of this is that some of them slow right down. They take their sweet time and might not  learn to work efficiently, to train their brains to read and think and write all at once in a timely fashion. Thinking quickly is a skill that's useful in most jobs and definitely necessary in college and university. I can only hope that the offer of time to finish other work is enough to make them get their test off the table. My oldest progeny, with IEP in hand, ran into difficulties at university after many years of teachers giving them all the time in the world instead of their specifically allotted time and a half. Their first term was a disaster because they had never learned to write quickly.

For the lit test, one effect was immediate. In previous years, we might have up to a third of our students needing an extra time accommodation. This year, offering an extra 15 minutes per booklet for those who wanted to take it instead of leaving for the full break, plus allowing them to go to a "late room" (I prefer "extra time room") if they wanted more time than that, meant only a handful of students actually took extra time to finish.

What I wonder is, had students known ahead of time (like they will next year), would they have slowed down to take the full double time available? And, this year, sitting in a room where everyone is scrambling to finish in the usual allotted time, with most people getting up to leave at the earliest dismissal time for break and at the end, how many rushed to finish, when otherwise, in a room where everyone was designated extra time, they would have taken the time to craft a better final sentence and more thoroughly check over all their work? That's a concern, for sure.

Despite these potential issues, however, there's something else I really like about the shift. I'm not a fan of labels. I hate when I see people's behaviour mocked, then a bit of backstory about their childhood or their condition, maybe ADHD or ASD or whatever, and suddenly they're treated with more kindness and compassion. But we've all got some issues. We're all a little bit something. Imagine if we could treat one another with kindness and compassion without knowing any backstory! With the IEP designation, some students reveal the framework of their abilities, but others don't. Ignoring the designation, but accommodating everyone as needed, takes away the expectation of always needing the extra time, takes away the 'specialness' of certain kids, and provokes us to see the unique needs of each of our students. And each other.

With my own experiences as a mother with two children with an IEP, I found the process of discovering specific barriers can be enlightening and incredibly useful for the child and parent about half the time. I don't want to throw that away. But how we attend to all these types of designations could use a reworking. It will be interesting to see how this change plays out in the coming years.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

On Masculinity

Pankaj Mishra, author of Age of Anger: A History of the Present, wrote an interesting article in The Guardian last Saturday on the rise of a new idea of masculinity as linked in part to industry:
The moral prestige of Gandhi’s murderer is only one sign among many of what seems to be a global crisis of masculinity. Luridly retro ideas of what it means to be a strong man have gone mainstream even in so-called advanced nations. In January Jordan B Peterson, a Canadian self-help writer who laments that “the west has lost faith in masculinity” and denounces the “murderous equity doctrine” espoused by women, was hailed in the New York Times as “the most influential public intellectual in the western world right now”. . . . 
As manly virtues arose, attacks on women, and feminists in particular, in the west became nearly as fierce as the wars waged abroad to rescue Muslim damsels in distress. In Manliness (2006) Harvey Mansfield, a political philosopher at Harvard, denounced working women for undermining the protective role of men. The historian Niall Ferguson, a self-declared neo-imperialist, bemoaned that “girls no longer play with dolls” and that feminists have forced Europe into demographic decline. More revealingly, the few women publicly critical of the bellicosity, such as Katha Pollitt, Susan Sontag and Arundhati Roy, were “mounted on poles for public whipping” and flogged, Barbara Kingsolver wrote, with “words like bitch and airhead and moron and silly”. At the same time, Vanity Fair’s photo essay on the Bush administration at war commended the president for his masculine sangfroid and hailed his deputy, Dick Cheney, as “The Rock”. . . . It is also true that historically privileged men tend to be profoundly disturbed by perceived competition from women, gay people and diverse ethnic and religious groups. In Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle (1990) Elaine Showalter described the great terror induced among many men by the very modest gains of feminists in the late 19th century: “fears of regression and degeneration, the longing for strict border controls around the definition of gender, as well as race, class and nationality”. . . . These majestically male makers of the modern west are being forced to think twice about a lot today. Gay men and women are freer than before to love whom they love, and to marry them. Women expect greater self-fulfilment in the workplace, at home and in bed. Trump may have the biggest nuclear button, but China leads in artificial intelligence as well as old-style mass manufacturing. And technology and automation threaten to render obsolete the men who push and pull things – most damagingly in the west. . . . 
It is as though the fantasy of male strength measures itself most gratifyingly against the fantasy of female weakness. Equating women with impotence and seized by panic about becoming cucks, these rancorously angry men are symptoms of an endemic and seemingly unresolvable crisis of masculinity. . . . Pop psychologists periodically insist that men are from Mars and women from Venus, lamenting the loss of what Peterson calls “traditional” divisions of labour, without acknowledging that capitalist, industrial and expansionist societies required a fresh division of labour, or that the straight white men who supervised them deemed women unfit, due to their physical or intellectual inferiority, to undertake territorial aggrandisement, nation-building, industrial production, international trade, and scientific innovation. . . . Upper-class parents in America and Britain had begun to send their sons to boarding schools in the hope that their bodies and moral characters would be suitably toughened up in the absence of corrupting feminine influences. Competitive sports, which were first organised in the second half of the 19th century, became a much-favoured means of pre-empting sissiness – and of mass-producing virile imperialists. It was widely believed that putative empire-builders would be too exhausted by their exertions on the playing fields of Eton and Harrow to masturbate. . . . 
The first victims of the quest for a mythical male potency are arguably men themselves, whether in school playgrounds, offices, prisons or battlefields. This everyday experience of fear and trauma binds them to women in more ways than most men, trapped by myths of resolute manhood, tend to acknowledge. Certainly, men would waste this latest crisis of masculinity if they deny or underplay the experience of vulnerability they share with women on a planet that is itself endangered."

Sunday, March 18, 2018

On the Necessity for a Public Takedown

When, a couple months back, I read Katie Way's depiction of a date between "Grace" and Aziz Ansari, at first I felt badly for him to be outed as such a crappy date. How embarrassing. Then in the New York TimesBari Weiss responded that Ansari was being asked to be a mindreader. My rejection of that idea led me to a more nuanced understanding of the issue. I commented there,


But then, as is so often the case, a discussion with students in my class clarified the issue even further.

This is an important issue to be raised. It's still seems, based on this conversation with a room full of teenagers, a common problem on dates. Guys will ignore body language and use subtle leaning, pushing, guiding, and grinding as a way to progress an event that isn't explicitly desired by the pushed and leaned upon party. By using movement rather than words, it feels easier to act as if they merely misconstrued the situation. By taking it out of the realm of verbal communication, they can better claim a problem with interpretation instead of straight up consent.

On UW's Mental Health Recommendations

After another suicide on the campus of the University of Waterloo, the university compiled 36 recommendations to try to alleviate the mental health crisis and held (and taped) a forum as well. It really says something about our lives that one of the recommendations is about the process of communicating suicides to students. At my school board, when I was a union rep, we had long conversations on this same topic. Suicide is now common enough to elicit developing a standard operating procedure for WHEN it happens.

We are clearly in the midst of a profound mental health crisis everywhere, not just in the universities. But because we're still on shaky ground trying to determine the cause of the problem, it's so hard to find the best solution. I had a good discussion with my class about Johann Hari's Lost Connections, and they were quite defensive at the suggestion that anxiety and depression are anything but biological conditions. People with these conditions are "actually sick," they insisted. Of course they are. But we can be sick without the cause of the illness being an inborn chemical imbalance. Clearly we can get lung cancer from living in a city where we swim though polluted air on our daily commute. So, like particulates physically affect our lungs, loneliness, trauma, ongoing stress, a lack of control over our environment, losing hope for the future, and perfectionism physically affect our brains. The effects can be seen in an MRI. It's no less real and no less an externally imposed condition in our brains than pollution is in our bodies.

Monday, February 19, 2018

On Hari's Lost Connections

"There's violence to knowing the world isn't what you thought. . . . Sometimes the world doesn't make a lot of sense, but how we get through it is, we stick together, okay?" - Gloria Burgle, Fargo


I watched Joe Rogan's interview with (interrogation of) Johann Hari about his new book, Lost Connections. Rogan wasn't quite buying what Hari is selling, which is unfortunate because his premise is intriguing. He told a few stories through the podcast, but his book, while still a casual read, is heavily footnoted, and his view thoroughly supported with the most up-to-date peer-reviewed research. He even encourages us to "Kick the evidence. See if it breaks. The stakes are too high for us to get this wrong" (14). It's just this: Anxiety and depression are not primarily caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and drugs only work a little bit for very few people.

He needs all the footnotes because his claims are extraordinary, and the worst thing would be if this were seen as a mere conspiracy theory against Big Pharma. This is just a brief summary without all the data and examples. He interviewed many contemporary researchers and compiled the evidence necessary to convince the masses of our wrong turn on this one. And it's not about the cellphones!

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Swimming Lessons

"As for our bodies, there comes a time when no one wants to come near them." ~ Mr. Perlman speaking one of the saddest line from the lovely film Call Me by Your Name.

I took my youngest daughter to the gym with me one Saturday. She wanted to use the treadmill, but there were actual other human beings in the room, so she just used the bike. She's not confident with the treadmill yet and doesn't want to look stupid. I told her, "Don't be silly; nobody in the room will even notice how you look on it!" But, apparently, I just don't understand.

Well, she's young, right? She'll get over that feeling of being observed and judged.

Right?!

The very next day, I headed to my first swimming lesson in about forty years. I mean my lesson, not one for my kids.

On Free Meds and Mental Health Care

Perfect timing.

My son just finished telling me about his trip to our family doctor in which he tried but failed to get a form filled out that will enable our benefits to cover his ridiculously expensive drugs, when I came across this post on my Twitter feed from the perspicacious Jenny Lawson:


I don't usually rant on social media. I save it for this blog where there's more room to clarify the issues in carefully worded posts. But I was just jazzed enough to fire off this whiney retweet:

Sunday, January 28, 2018

On Conflict

We're raised to understand conflict from the perspective of good guys and bad guys. But it's rarely so clear. The battle for land and resources can be utterly nonsensical, particularly where there is plenty to go around. I watched the documentary Jane last night, in which Goodall described the horrors of the Chimp Wars of the mid-70s when a peaceful group of chimpanzees divided into two factions, seemingly randomly, and then one completely slaughtered the other over a period of about four years. They didn't stop until every single one was dead, even though some of the chimps were killing former childhood friends. Primates kill other primates. And we're primates. But we have something no other primates have: complex language. At what point will we use it instead of violence?

Turkey launched an assault on Rojava last Saturday, sparked by a US announcement that the US wants to create a border force 30,000 strong to patrol the area, which will include the Kurdish military. So far, at least 23 civilians are dead, and 5,000 displaced. It's a tragedy that must be stopped, absolutely. In the words of Sean Crowe, it's wrong on so many levels and must be condemned:



In one sense it seems simply a territorial war not entirely dissimilar to conflicts between animals everywhere who don't want that group in this place. But it's also very complicated. (Or complicated to me.) I'm just trying to figure it all out here.