On gender, bubbles, sociology and prejudice

There’s a fine line between prejudice and sociology.

I can’t remember when I first said that, and I can’t remember if someone else said it first. Google can’t help me with that because the thought somehow got in my head so many years ago. I found an interesting piece on the fine line between profiling and stereotyping, but that was obviously written much later.

That’s not to say I don’t respect sociology. It’s not just an easy major for Duke athletes. In grad school, I learned a lot about identity and explored the intersection of sociology and economics.

Sociology and other academic fields are very good at pointing out who lives in a bubble. We learn about white privilege, male privilege, etc.

Here’s the issue:

We are ALL flawed in our perceptions. We ALL have valid but partial experiences to share.

I emerged from grad school with some skepticism about postmodernism. The theme in some of my classes was that academia and the media had, over the generations or even centuries, typically overlooked the voices of people who were not in places of power. And that’s true. But many academics take this noble idea to an extreme, dismissing expertise in favor of experience, even if that experience only covers a small part of the complexities of a given issue.

The right wing, of course, has hijacked this notion. “Don’t listen to those pointy-headed East Coast elitists talking about global warming and citing stats on economics and crime that refute your perceptions. You live in “real America,” so your viewpoint is more important than theirs.” And in the media, we fall for it — fanning out to understand and empathize with Trump voters even when they’re blaming immigrants and supposedly unneeded government regulation for their economic woes.

We all bring unique flaws to the table. Men can’t fully comprehend what it’s like to be a woman, which we realize when we share pictures of ridiculous all-male panels discussing women’s health. We may be too old to understand youth culture. We may be too young to have experience. We may have insecurities that force us to reach for convenient labels to dismiss views that make us uncomfortable.

In short — we all have bubbles.

At the last meeting of one of my grad-school classes, our professor (a sociologist) said she enjoyed teaching our liberal-studies classes more than she enjoyed teaching undergraduate classes because we were more diverse. We weren’t. We were nearly all white NPR listeners. Yes, we had a wider range of ages — some fresh out of undergrad life, some in their 60s — but that’s just one of many metrics.

The perception this professor had was that Duke undergrad students were all ridiculously wealthy, moreso than the people who had spent their own hard-earned money to take these grad-school classes on top of their regular jobs. But I also went to Duke as an undergrad, and that wasn’t my experience.

Duke, being a well-known and often infamous university, spills out into the mainstream at times. New York magazine recently ran something about Duke’s role in the birth of the alt-right. Richard Spencer spent time in grad school there. Stephen Miller had a column at The Chronicle and the good timing to be there when the rape accusations against the lacrosse team turned out to be Exhibit A for identity politics run amok.

That piece included a few comments from Shadee Malaklou, who was also a Chronicle columnist overlapping with Miller’s time. It does not cite Malaklou’s recent piece taking her classmates to task for their letter criticizing Miller as abhorrent to Duke values. Duke shares the blame for Miller, Malaklou argues, because his columns ran in the school newspaper and people didn’t adequately protest against him or controversial statements in the lacrosse case. Those who regularly castigated Miller in the Chronicle’s letters section, or those who remember that Duke punished the lacrosse team so severely that it wound up spending the better part of the last decade in court, may beg to differ.

But this isn’t the first time I’ve seen Malaklou’s perceptions not aligning with mine. I remember her Chronicle columns well. She wrote extensively on Duke’s hookup culture, participating in it but finding it unsatisfying.

As a retired sex kitten, I understand the appeal: The echo of a pounding beat in a dimly lit room, the triumph of a dry hump, the print of rosy lipstick on a frat guy’s cigarette and the sound and fury of college life, a la Old School and Animal House. It’s almost irresistible. until about midway through college.

When it comes to sex, Duke women don’t have much of a choice. It’s either hookup or bust. Duke is not a sexually predatory campus, but in the words of Donna Lisker, director of the Women’s Center, men set Duke’s social rules.

Malaklou’s Duke exists, though I don’t think that many students smoke. But it’s not my Duke. And my Duke also exists, and it shouldn’t be dismissed.

On a larger scale, studies show a big gap in perception and reality when it comes to the hookup culture. Like misinformed voters who think the federal government spends most of its money on foreign aid and PBS, we think everyone else is doing it, but the numbers just don’t back that up.

My Duke, the one Malaklou and my grad-school professor may have missed, included a bunch of people on financial aid with work-study jobs. It included Muslims and Christians whose religious views weren’t compatible with getting drunk and getting laid. It included all the people in my artsy coed dorm (or The Chronicle) who dated each other, in some cases leading to happy marriages.

Today’s Chronicle neatly captures Duke’s diversity. One column is a fond but slightly cynical look at the “secret society” that pops up to do weird things at the end of the school year. Another is written “to the sorority girls I never talked to.”

None of this means Malaklou’s experience is invalid. (And thankfully, she’s a much better writer than most academics.) It’s merely incomplete.

And that brings me to a a long PDF file on “emotional labor,” shared by a wonderful senior at a California college who has the intellect and idealism to make a difference in this world, for which we should all be grateful.

The rough definition, according the first paragraph, is “the work of caring.” But not just caring — it’s also figuring out what to do to make caring work.

The assumption here is that women do this “work” and “figuring out,” while men do not. Ouch. And it depicts a lot of would-be male feminists as the femi-bros in the great SNL sketch with Cecily Strong at the bar.)

The experiences shared, mostly complaints and realizations that women are expected to carry more of the “emotional labor” burden in our society, are valid. But as with everyone else in this discussion (and in the real world), it’s prone to bubble-thought.

I can counter one post with my own experience. A woman says that her husband who always took their daughter to ballet got “pity or adulation from women for doing this stuff.” I can relate to a point — I do most of the pickups at school and other activities. But I didn’t get pity or adulation. For a while, I got a lot of standoff-ish body language, as if I shouldn’t be there. After a couple of years, people got used to me, and I’m generally more accepted. I’m still not pitied, and any adulation I get comes from the fact that I have a reputation as a “dog whisperer.” It’s still not easy for me to start or maintain conversations with women at school pickup — I’m often ignored and frequently interrupted by other women on the assumption that their conversation is going to be more important than whatever I was saying.

I’m the one in our family who keeps up a lot of social contact — and frankly, it’s sometimes awkward. I’ve sometimes felt uncomfortable setting up a playdate with a friend’s mom — not because I’m unwilling to do the emotional labor, but because I sometimes get the sense that the mom is creeped out by this conversation with a heterosexual married man.

And there are a lot of specific examples from which you simply can’t draw a general conclusion. One example: A woman frets that her husband was mad that she wasn’t sending birthday cards to all of his relatives. I’d argue that guy isn’t that way simply because he’s a guy. He’s just a jerk.

My fear in this case is that men — all men — are simply the scapegoat here. She married a bad guy, and she doesn’t want to ponder the possibility that she made a mistake. If she’s able to chalk up her man’s faults as an issue that all men share, then voila, she couldn’t have done better. Men are labeled as the faceless, dehumanized “other.”

Again — this discussion has plenty of valid points, and no, I’m not empathizing here with the whiny “men’s rights” movement. Women are under tremendous pressure to be the workers in the emotional labor force. And it’s a pressure I can never fully appreciate, just as I can’t fully appreciate what it’s like to pulled over for Driving While Black or to struggle with gender and sexual identity issues. Having an identity forced on you seems like a really terrible experience to me, but that’s about the extent of what I can say about it, because I haven’t lived it first-hand. And I have to accept that limitation and just try to empathize as best I can.

But we ALL have to do this. AND we have to recognize that the people with whom we’re empathizing are as error-prone as we are.

Should we listen to people who voted for Trump out of economic fear? Absolutely. Should we accept their scapegoating of immigrants and others? No. It’s not even the empathetic thing to do. They’re actually voting against their own self-interest because they think government programs benefit federal workers and lazy “others,” failing to realize how much those programs do for them and their neighbors.

Should we listen to the sorority girls and fraternity boys? Sure.

Should we listen to the academic left, which is so underrepresented in modern life that we actually consider Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton “liberal”? Yes.

And should we listen to middle-aged white dudes who are laden with all sorts of guilt (I’m Anglican, which gives me some residual Roman Catholic guilt as well as the knowledge that we basically broke away so Henry VIII could marry someone else, and I’m descended from Confederate officers) and would like to contribute to any discussion that makes us more enlightened? I hope so.

Not that everyone deserves a platform. I wouldn’t invite Ann Coulter or Richard Spencer to speak at my campus. I also objected when some Duke students promoted a speech by an African-American man who was a little less than enlightened about Jews.

But when we tally up all the issues in modern society, we rarely find that we’re listening too much. We don’t have to accept everything outside our safe space, but we should at least take a peek.

On race, bias, identity and other grad-school bullshit

Last night, Jonathan Coulton opened for Aimee Mann on the first night of their tour in Washington, and this happened:

JC: This is a song about a giant squid who hates himself

Crowd: Whooooooooooooo!!!

I laughed. Then something hit me.

This is really, really “white.”

And suddenly I felt a little guilty.

Ridiculous, right? Just because the crowd is about 95% white (I scanned after this feeling hit me and saw one African-American woman along with a handful of Asian people) doesn’t I should feel bad about being there. Right?

I may have been a little more defensive because I had just read, along with everyone else online yesterday, the profile piece on Rachel Dolezal, who managed to pass for “black” for a while before some investigative journalists found that she was not.

A couple of lines deep in the piece struck me:

And with that, the anger that I had toward her began to melt away. Dolezal is simply a white woman who cannot help but center herself in all that she does—including her fight for racial justice.

and …

Perhaps that itself was the secret to the power of the Dolezal phenomenon—the overwhelming whiteness of it all.

As I read this, I started to think the writer meant “white” as an insult. “Oh, I can’t be mad at this arrogant, condescending woman (Dolezal). She can’t help it. She’s white.”

But was I correct in thinking that way? I wasn’t so sure.

So I did a little experiment. I posted the link on Facebook and Twitter and asked people to give me their reactions before I countered with mine. I didn’t want them to be influenced by what I had to say, and I wanted to see if anyone saw the same thing I did.

The short answer: No. No one did. The bulk of the reaction: “This is brilliant.” One right-leaning Twitter respondent countered that the story was 10 minutes of her life she’d never get back. On Facebook, someone else (who is not writing from a place of white privilege) called the writer “really annoying.”

All of the feedback was good. I don’t know how that happened. That might be a first on social media.

And we had a few interesting thoughts on entitlement. Dolezal felt entitled to choose her race, and she still feels entitled to compare her experience as “black” to the experiences of actual black people.

white-choice

So what we could say is that Dolezal isn’t necessarily representative of all whites. But the mentality she has is uniquely white — or, at least, unique to people who don’t experience appearance-based discrimination unless they seek it out like a tourist.

Of course, it’s tricky because racial labels are slippery. Many years ago, I read a piece from a writer traveling in Brazil who found that people who would be considered “Latin(a/o/x)” in the USA and elsewhere considered themselves “white” in Brazil. I also found myself in a conversation recently in which a fellow Person of Likely European Descent (PLED, a perfect acronym) was accused of seeing a relatively harmless issue through the lens of “white privilege,” and others piled on, saying we needed to listen to the accuser because she’s a “person of color.” She’s Asian-American, and while I don’t know too much about her, I know she went to very good Boston-area colleges for undergrad and law school. My Starbucks barmate, an African-American man who’s old enough to have seen some shit, got a good chuckle out of that.

That’s not to deny that Asian-Americans have ever had it tough. Rosa Parks isn’t part of their experience, but WWII internment and other atrocities are. They’re simply different experiences. Not all “persons of color” have the same circumstances, just as not all white people do.

“White privilege” is real — in certain contexts. A Trump child and a poor kid from a meth-addicted family in Appalachia may not have much in common other than the fact that they’ll never face discrimination based on the color of their skin. But that one thing in common is huge.

And, as the person in our discussion insisted, “white privilege” isn’t inherently evil. It just is. It’s just a blind spot. We have them when we’re driving, and it takes a lot of effort to see what’s there, and even then, we don’t get the best view. And we all have those blind spots, whether it’s from race, class or whatever.

One of the people in our Facebook discussion argued that I should try to consider that the author was writing this “to and for other black women.” I took issue with that. Then I second-guessed myself again. Here’s why:

I’m surely a little defensive this week because I’ve been shredded on a message board (and elsewhere, but the message board is pertinent here). This message board is by and for lesbians. Years ago, when I noticed it was sending me a lot of traffic and people were discussing my work (at the time, a nice even split of appreciation and criticism), a couple of people from the board reached out and asked me not to identify the board. I agreed, and I agreed I would never post to it — even though it’s anonymous and no one would know.

Over the years, that message board has gotten a bit more hostile. I know several people who no longer participate. They hate me, and they hate most women’s soccer journalists. But they also hate each other, so we shouldn’t take it personally.

It’s also become a classic “bubble” in which false narratives and fake news take root. People on that board accused me of taking money from the Washington Spirit to write a blog post that devoted most of its words to criticizing the Spirit but defended the club on two counts most important to them — the “homophobia” charges against the owner and the Ali Krieger trade. (Not the scant return on that trade, just the notion of trading her in general.) And they accused me of other unprofessional conduct as well.

The way it works on that board is this:

  • Post A: “I wouldn’t be surprised if Joe falsified evidence.”
  • Post B: “Yeah, he’s a jerk.”
  • Post C: “Yeah, can you believe he falsified evidence?”
  • Post D: “Yeah. I bet he’s also cruel to animals. That’s just typical for someone who falsified evidence.”

The flip speculation becomes the “truth.” It’s as true on this board as it is in any obnoxious community of wingnuts who start blaming immigrants and liberals for everything in life.

All a valid concern. But was I incorrectly applying it to this piece on Dolezal? I think so. The target audience may have been “black women,” but it’s out there for all to see. There’s nothing false in it. And others who’ve read it don’t believe that it props up any unfair stereotypes of white people. An intelligent person isn’t going to read it and think all white people are like Dolezal. Anyone who does read it that way … well, that person probably brought a few issues to the table already.

And there’s value in having a community. A piece that’s written “for black women” (or for Hispanic men or Scandinavians or whatever) isn’t inherently feeding a malicious bubble. For one thing, there’s no barrier to entry. Nothing stopped me from reading that piece. If something had been factually inaccurate (and I didn’t see anything of that sort), nothing would stop me from being able to point it out.

That piece may be “for black women.” But not in any discriminatory sense. Anyone’s welcome. (Now, if a white person tried to pretend to be black … well …)

And that community brings me back to the Aimee Mann/Jonathan Coulton show. Should I feel guilty that I was in a theatre in D.C. watching a show in which we white people joke and write sad songs about how much our lives suck? I don’t think so.

lame

It did occur to me that there’s some “white privilege” at play in the sense that most of the people in the theatre live relatively comfortable lives in which they can afford to make fun of their own lameness. It’s not exclusively white, of course, and there are surely plenty people of color who can relate to Coulton’s sad/witty take on suburban ennui and isolation:

And I don’t think people would want Coulton writing about the African-American experience, at least not with any pretense of living it first-hand. That would make him … Rachel Dolezal.

But the important thing about communities like the one at the concert or the one reading the Dolezal article isn’t who’s there. It’s who’s welcome. Singing or writing a piece that’s going to resonate mostly with people of your own skin color isn’t inherently wrong. Telling people they’re not welcome — that is wrong.

Seems obvious, doesn’t it? And yet, the Internet seems to be splitting into communities that refuse to converse with each other. It might be some alt-right race-baiting site. It might be a message board that slanders people in ways that can be Googled, then tells them to quit reacting on Twitter, let alone coming onto the board to try to reason with anyone. We’ve seen the havoc that such things can wreak in politics. And I have to admit it’s been getting me down on a personal level. It’s tough to find a place where we belong. Sounds odd coming from someone with more than 1,000 Facebook friends and more than 7,000 Twitter followers (most of whom signed on years ago when I was one of USA TODAY’s first Twitter users), but that’s where we stand.

Not sure what to do about it. If I were as brilliant as Aimee Mann or Jonathan Coulton, maybe I’d write a song about it.

But the Internet’s not all bad. It allows me to write long self-examinations that prove that I engage in long self-examinations. (And if the colleague who accused me of never doing that is reading — hi!)

And Jonathan Coulton has released a lot of songs under a Creative Commons license, so you can enjoy this or several other animations of a song about a zombie trying to convince his co-worker that it’s simply not “big picture” of him to try to keep the zombies from eating his brains:

 

Link Dump, 5-22-16: Emerson/Tufnel, the death of facts

If I shared everything I read, I would have such a high volume of social media output that no one would follow me any more.

So, on occasion, I’m going to do what I’m calling “Link Dump.” It’s a potpourri of … stuff I found online and enjoyed. Or found interesting. Or stupid.

Here goes:

FACTS, SCHMACTS

Fact-checking in a “post-fact world”The question of what is propaganda and what is truth has plagued politics since politics began. But the nature of information in the social media age means it keeps getting easier for politicians, partisans, computerized “bots” and foreign governments to manipulate news, and it keeps getting harder to correct this.

Why Are the Highly Educated So Liberal?Raises a better question — why are academics so terrible at explaining facts?

How Philosophers at Stanford Have Mastered the Online EncyclopediaWikipedia with a little less vandalism.

Why Wikipedia cannot claim the earth is not flat: A Wikipedia guide to editing fringe beliefs on Wikipedia.

BUT WE MEAN WELL …

The end of empathy: I’m not convinced empathy is dead. I just think people feel more entitled to be as mean as they wanna be.

Can the Christian Left Be a Real Political Force?: I kind of doubt it, but it’s interesting.

CLIMATE CHANGE WILL BE REAL WHEN WE CAN MAKE A BUCK ON IT

Atlantic City Gambles on Rising SeasThe casinos will be fine. But if you live there …

Miami businesses say it’s a moneymaker to adapt for warmingBy a fellow News & Record alum

YE NAIRN LABBE … WAIT, THOSE ARE SOCCER PLAYERS

17 Utterly Charming Articles on Scots Wikipedia: I still have no idea whether this is real.

AND A MUSIC BREAK …

A Brief History of the Devil’s TritoneC to F-sharp? Heresy!

Are Algorithms Ruining How We Discover Music?Not really, but I’d still argue Launch was better at algorithms than Spotify and Pandora are.

When I met Clint EastwoodSort of. The Chronicle has more archives online now. Check page 3.

Independent Label CEO Still Very Dependent on Mom Making DinnerDateline — Athens, Ga.! (Not real.)

Echobelly – now it feels right!At least, that’s what the translation from Russian says. Includes clips of this charming Britpop band, now making a comeback of sorts.

Run-DMC/Aerosmith oral historyThough it’s pretty clear that some of the people involved did a few things to alter their memories.

Meet the Moog: Video of Keith Emerson demonstrating his complex gear while channeling Spinal Tap …

 

 

 

 

Philosophy majors will destroy ISIS

At the very least, if we could get you engineering types to study some dadgum humanities, you might not view life in binary:

Martin Rose of the British Council blames the “engineering mindset” for why scientists and engineers make for such good ISIS fodder—students with a technical background might tend to see the world as a fundamentally rational machine that can be repaired like any non-abstract mechanism and exists in an array of binary states, like “on or off” or, say, “Halal or Haram.” There’s typically a right answer or more efficient route in the sciences, as opposed to the deliberate uncertainty and endless perspectives of the humanities.

Source: Study: More Useless Liberal Arts Majors Could Destroy ISIS

Rolling Stone and Rush mythbusting

On its 40th anniversary tour, Rush has officially broken down the last of the rock establishment’s resistance. They’re on the cover of Rolling Stone.

Even better, the article is terrific. It doesn’t just rehash the band’s history. It captures them as a vibrant group of human beings. They make mistakes in rehearsals and struggle to play their difficult songs. Geddy Lee gets clever revenge on Joe Perry.

The story should also drive the last nail in the notion that Neil Peart is a right-wing role model or even a good Ayn Rand disciple. He gives money to a homeless person and talks about regaining his generosity, which admittedly seems to run counter to the message of Anthem.

And he gets more explicit in his politics:

Peart outgrew his Ayn Rand phase years ago, and now describes himself as a “bleeding-heart libertarian,” citing his trips to Africa as transformative. He claims to stand by the message of “The Trees,” but other than that, his bleeding-heart side seems dominant. Peart just became a U.S. citizen, and he is unlikely to vote for Rand Paul, or any Republican. Peart says that it’s “very obvious” that Paul “hates women and brown people” — and Rush sent a cease-and-desist order to get Paul to stop quoting “The Trees” in his speeches.

“For a person of my sensibility, you’re only left with the Democratic party,” says Peart, who also calls George W. Bush “an instrument of evil.” “If you’re a compassionate person at all. The whole health-care thing — denying mercy to suffering people? What? This is Christian?”

So perhaps the last decade of Rush going mainstream is simply a matter of seeing them as thoughtful, compassionate people. Not wind-up machines who play every note perfectly and pledge allegiance to libertarianism.

 

The Attack on Truth: Postmodernism and propaganda

In grad school, I worried that the same “postmodernist” tools that ivory-tower professors used to question reality were also being used by propaganda merchants to question climate change, evolution and so forth.

I hate being right. But this Chronicle of Higher Education piece, The Attack on Truth, confirms it.

“But now the climate-change deniers and the young-Earth creationists are coming after the natural scientists,” the literary critic Michael Bérubé noted, “… and they’re using some of the very arguments developed by an academic left that thought it was speaking only to people of like mind.”

Granted, the seeds of doubt go back a bit farther than that:

Of course, some folks were hard at work trying to dispute inconvenient scientific facts long before conservatives began to borrow postmodernist rhetoric. In Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010), two historians, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, have shown how the strategy of denying climate change and evolution can be traced all the way back to big tobacco companies, who recognized early on that even the most well-documented scientific claims (for instance, that smoking causes cancer) could be eroded by skillful government lobbying, bullying the news media, and pursuing a public-relations campaign.

And to some extent, our discussions have never been about finding truth:

In a recent paper, “Why Do Humans Reason?,” Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, both of them philosophers and cognitive scientists, argue that the point of human reason is not and never has been to lead to truth, but is rather to win arguments. If that is correct, the discovery of truth is only a byproduct.

So we’re talking about deeply ingrained human nature. But we often fight against that human nature and come up with the occasional Age of Reason or Enlightenment, pushing our scruffy species a little farther up the road toward good government, good decisions, and technology. If our species could never agree on truth, Apple engineers would still be yelling at each other about how to make an iPod. We’d never have an iPhone.

The bad news today is that we have the means to amplify every crackpot, and the media business landscape makes shouting pundits more profitable than careful research.

An obvious solution might be to turn to journalists, who are supposed to embrace a standard of objectivity and source-checking that would be more likely to support true beliefs. Yet, at least in part as a result of the competition that has been enabled by the Internet, we now find that even some mainstream journalists and news media are dangerously complicit in the follies of those who seek to disrespect truth. There have always been accusations of bias in the media, but today we have Fox News on the right and MSNBC on the left (along with a smattering of partisan radio talk-show hosts like Rush Limbaugh), who engage in overt advocacy for their ideological views.

Yet those are not the kinds of journalists we should be so worried about, for they are known to be biased. Another tendency is perhaps even more damaging to the idea that journalism is meant to safeguard truth. Call it “objectivity bias.” Sensitive to criticism that they, too, are partisan, many news sites try to demonstrate that they are fair and balanced by presenting “both” sides of any issue deemed “controversial” — even when there really aren’t two credible sides. That isn’t objectivity. And the consequence is public confusion over whether an issue — in the case of climate change or childhood vaccination, a scientific issue — has actually been settled.

 

A lot of this was written in some guy’s grad-school thesis in 2000:

With readers choosing the news they see, vital bits of information may not get to the people who need it. Readers may not hear that the food on their shelves has been recalled because of a possible salmonella contamination. Voters may believe erroneous reports about the economy; a Los Angeles Times poll in 1994 found this to be the case, with 53 percent of respondents saying they believed a recession lingered in the United States despite considerable evidence to the contrary.  Readers have new power to get around the gatekeepers, but journalists have less power to ensure that important messages get through the gates.

I hate being right.