It’s hard to have a substantive conversation in the form of a series of Tweets

I had an odd little colloquy this afternoon on Twitter:

I had two things I wanted to say in response to this. First, if I hear someone using the phrase “fundamental racial inferiority,” I will be disinclined to argue against them, not because I am afraid they will be right, but because that phrase is gibberish.  It’s possible to argue that some trait or other that is the result of a genetic endowment specific to one population may be more helpful to members of that population in some environments than in other environments; so for example, a complex of genes that promotes hardiness in cold climates may be a disadvantage in people who carry it if they move to a warmer climate, and vice versa.  To translate that into “fundamental racial inferiority” of one group as opposed to another, you would have to declare that one kind of climate is, in some absolute and transcendent sense, more important than the other, so that adaptation to it would be of greater value than is adaptation to the other.  Since humans live all over the earth’s surface, had already done so for a long time before any existing social institution came into being, and show no signs of leaving any particular climatic zone behind, I don’t think anyone would be likely to declare that adaptation to one climate is more valuable than is adaptation to another, unless that person were looking for an excuse to declare that people adapted for one climate are of lesser worth than are people adapted for that other.

With that first thought in mind, I wrote this:

I should explain to anyone who may not know that Freddie deBoer is an academic who has written on ways that tactics which may originally have been intended as means for antiracists to shut down racist demonstrations have turned into devices that elites use to perpetuate themselves. He wrote a very memorable piece last year in which he told stories about well-to-do white undergraduate students of his who had gone to highly selective private schools and who used antiracist vocabulary to silence and humiliate less affluent students, including students of color, who had not had the training in that lingo that their expensive private schools had given them. He doesn’t say that we shouldn’t shun people who are actually being racist, but that we should not be quick to jump to the conclusion that people are guilty of this serious misconduct.

So I figured I could take it for granted, talking to a PhD with a professional interest in antiracist language, that when I said would not engage outright white supremacists  “on their own terms” that he would know that I would be shifting the terms of engagement. Not that I like to call people names, but the whole point of having words like “racist” or “sexist” or “extremist” or “terrorist” in the language is to terminate conversations, to tell a person that we are not going to talk with them in the way that they seem to want to us to do.   Laboring under that assumption, I may have been a bit confused when Mr deBoer replied thusly:

Along with some other tweets of Mr deBoer’s around the same time, I had a pretty clear idea that he was thinking of IQ variation among racial groups as a topic of study among psychologists and educationists. I’ve been around enough discussions of this topic to have reached the conclusion that it isn’t as scary as it is made out to be. That was the second point I wanted to make, so I decided to drop the thing about how, if someone came up to me and started telling me about the “fundamental racial inferiority” of some population or other, I would give that person the cold shoulder.

Maybe I should have explained what I meant by not wanting to talk with someone who was going on about “fundamental racial inferiority,” because that drew the following response:

And:

I wanted to focus on the point that “These ideas,” the ideas explored by mainstream psychometricians and by journalists like Nick Wade, are not in fact just the same as the ideas we might associate with nineteenth century racial theorists,  and that if you follow them through logically they are just as plausible as underpinning for vigorous affirmative action policies as for anything a white supremacist might like. So I let the “If we ignore this it will go away” line slide, and wrote:

Apparently that didn’t cut much ice. Mr deBoer’s response:

I will admit to finding this response a bit annoying. Here’s someone who has initiated a discussion by declaring that he is so open-minded that he will gladly debate someone who declares that populations can be marked by “fundamental racial inferiority,” and when I dissent from the proposition that this issue is actually at stake in mainstream academic work, he dismisses my case unheard. Further:

So I had to at least offer to clear up the false impression that I wanted to disregard the issue. I responded:

I suppose the best I could have hoped to elicit with that was “You’re not saying we should ignore them, what are you saying?” I didn’t get that. What came instead was:

Now Mr deBoer is a busy fellow, and basically very pleasant. He does discuss a lot of very sensitive topics online and in print, and I’m sure he gets lots of tiresome and abusive electronic communications. So, annoyed as I admit I was with him for implicitly classifying me as worse than the sort of person who is into notions of “fundamental racial inferiority,” I wanted to be gracious about it. So I closed the conversation with:

I leave it to the reader to decide whether I was being obnoxious, though apparently Mr deBoer found me so.

He then tweeted on his main timeline, apparently thinking of me:

So apparently, I really made him mad. I was tempted to respond to that tweet by saying that, if I were the liberal he was thinking of, he misunderstood my point pretty completely, but of course that would only have made it worse, so I left it alone.

 

Broken habits

The last couple of days there has been a lot of discussion about a minor incident on the campus of Indiana University in Bloomington. A Dominican priest named Jude McPeak, wearing the elaborate white habit his order dons on major occasions, visited campus and was mistaken for a Ku Klux Klansman. Here’s a picture of the gentleman in question:

indiana dominican

The Rev’d Mr Jude McPeak at a salad bar

And here is a picture of a group of Spanish Dominican priests wearing the full habit during a solemn procession in Seville during Holy Week:

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Dominican priests in Seville during Holy Week

 

Perhaps you can see why Indiana University students, not all of whom have spent Holy Week in Seville, mistook the Rev’d Mr McPeak for a member of the terrorist gangs that for several years dominated politics in the state of Indiana and that still have a considerable presence in towns near the I. U. campus.

I offered a comment about this matter in response to a blog post by Rod Dreher today; Mr Dreher hasn’t got round to approving comments yet, so I don’t know if mine will make the cut. Be that as it may, I’ll make the same points here.

Visual symbols, like spoken words, mean what people use them to mean. It is certainly a sad thing that the founders of the Ku Klux Klan copied the Dominican habit for the costume of their group, and that, to Americans, the Klan and its crimes are what that attire brings to mind. At what point does a group of people, entrusted with a symbol that is important to them, admit that abuse of that symbol by others has robbed it of the important, even holy, meaning that it once had for them? I don’t mean to disrespect the Dominicans; I realize that their order has a holy significance in their eyes, and that the connection to its history which the habit represents is precious to them. At a certain point, however, the only responsible thing to do is to acknowledge that the old meaning is lost and to move on.

It’s like an April Fool’s Day story I read in the news some years ago about a Swiss whose family name was Hitler. This man refused to change his name, saying that he had made it his life’s goal to rehabilitate the honor of the name by demonstrating in his own life that not all Hitlers were like the late Chancellor. Trying to salvage the good name of the Hitlers seemed like rather an overly ambitious undertaking.

That story was a joke. But other people are quite earnestly trying to detach from its association with the Nazis a symbol that calls to mind quite as effectively as does the name Hitler the horrors of his regime. The other day I was reading about some Hindu nationalists who have been working to rehabilitate the swastika. After all, people in India had been using it as a symbol of peace and prosperity for centuries before there was any such thing as a Nazi, and today, 71 years after the annihilation of the Nazi regime, India is home to over a billion people and one of the world’s principal civilizations. Nor is it just India; swastikas, also known as fylfots, can be found inscribed in the stonework of churches all over Europe from the millennium and a half when the bent cross was a significant Christian symbol. There’s even a town in Ontario named Swastika.

saint mary's great canfield

Saint Mary’s Church, Great Canfield, Northumbria

In India and neighboring countries, the swastika can still be used without evoking the Third Reich in the minds of most of those who see it. So this young lady, for example, is probably not a Nazi:

fylfot girl

Ready for Diwali

Nor is this one:

sleepy swastika

Ready for Diwali to be over

I don’t believe this gentleman has any desire to recreate the Hitler regime, either:

dalai fylfot

The Dalai Lama

I certainly wouldn’t recommend that all churches everywhere adorned with fylfots should mill them off the walls. But. Outside India, the swastika does bring the Hitler regime to mind. It may not be fair that it does, but it does. So Indian groups abroad do, as a matter of fact, have to be mindful of that association when they use it, and parishes with old church buildings do, as a matter of fact, have to at least put out flyers explaining what’s going on if they decide to keep their fylfots.

Now, if it’s Holy Week in Seville and you see a bunch of guys marching along in white robes with peaked white hoods covering their faces, it is reasonable that you should be expected to know that they are Dominicans. But if it’s southern Indiana, that outfit is a Ku Klux Klan costume and nothing else. It is a terrible shame that those morons were able to rob Dominicans in the USA of that form of their habit, but that is in fact what they have done. At this point, it is simply childish to pretend that it hasn’t happened and to walk around as if people are going to take you for anything else.

Presidential Deathmatch Revisited

When blogger Geoff Micks first raised this vital question in 2012, I responded with a spreadsheet rating the 43 men who have served as  US president on six variables: Coalition-Building Ability, Visual Inconspicuousness, Expertise in Hand-to-Hand Combat, Willingness to Kill (a.k.a. Badass Quotient, or BQ,) Physical Fitness, Spatial Awareness. The numbers I assigned each president under each variable came from the POOMA Institute, but I think they look pretty reasonable.  So here it is again:

President Coalition Building Visual Inconspicuousness Hand to Hand BQ Physical Fitness Spatial Awareness Total
Washington 5 2 4 4 3 3 21
J Adams 2 5 1 2 4 2 16
Jefferson 5 2 1 2 5 4 19
Madison 2 5 1 1 4 2 15
Monroe 3 3 5 4 5 4 24
J Q Adams 3 3 1 2 5 3 17
Jackson 5 1 5 5 3 5 24
Van Buren 3 3 1 1 4 3 15
W Harrison 2 3 3 3 1 4 16
Tyler 1 3 1 2 5 3 15
Polk 1 4 1 2 1 3 12
Taylor 2 2 4 4 2 5 19
Fillmore 2 4 2 3 3 3 17
Pierce 2 2 1 2 3 3 13
Buchanan 2 4 1 1 2 3 13
Lincoln 5 1 5 4 4 3 22
A Johnson 2 3 4 3 3 3 18
Grant 3 4 3 3 4 4 21
Hayes 3 1 2 2 5 4 17
Garfield 4 3 3 3 5 4 22
Arthur 2 1 1 1 1 3 9
Cleveland 1 1 1 1 1 3 8
B Harrison 1 3 1 1 5 3 14
McKinley 3 4 4 4 4 5 24
T Roosevelt 4 1 5 4 5 4 23
Taft 1 1 1 1 1 3 8
Wilson 1 3 1 1 5 3 14
Harding 3 3 1 1 2 3 13
Coolidge 2 4 1 2 3 3 15
Hoover 3 4 1 1 5 5 19
F Roosevelt 3 1 3 3 1 4 15
Truman 2 3 3 4 5 5 22
Eisenhower 4 2 3 3 3 4 19
Kennedy 2 1 2 2 2 3 12
L Johnson 4 1 2 3 2 3 15
Nixon 1 3 1 1 4 1 11
Ford 3 2 3 3 5 4 20
Carter 1 3 2 2 5 5 18
Reagan 3 2 2 1 1 3 12
G H W Bush 2 2 2 3 4 5 18
Clinton 3 3 1 1 4 3 15
G W Bush 2 2 2 1 5 4 16
Obama 1 1 1 1 4 3 11

 

The clean and the unclean

A few days ago, I left a long comment on Chris Dillow‘s blog “Stumbling and Mumbling.”  Mr Dillow had posted about a controversy that began when someone participating in a march protesting the results of Britain’s recent general elections (results which I predicted with less than total accuracy) added these words to a war memorial:

The controversy took on a life of its own after journalist Laurie Penny tweeted about it:

The furore that greeted Ms Penny’s remark reminded Mr Dillow of a book that I happened to have read just the other day: The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt.  I’d heard about this book more or less continually, from various people, since its original publication three years ago, and had been meaning to get round to reading it ever since. Professor Haidt, a social psychologist, argues that moral reasoning is best understood not as any one thing, but as a network of six interlocking systems.  These systems are the ways we have learned to differentiate between Care and Harm, Fairness and Cheating, Sanctity and Degradation, Loyalty and Betrayal. Authority and Subversion, and Liberty and Oppression.  According to Professor Haidt and his fellow advocates of “Moral Foundations Theory,” analyzing the opinions people express about what is right and wrong in terms of these six systems and of the relationships among them enables researchers to give more accurate accounts of the concerns of people who differ from them in class and culture than do other models, especially models drawn from reductionist philosophical projects such as utilitarianism.

Excerpts from Mr Dillow’s post:

The left and right don’t understand each other’s conceptions of morality, and don’t even try to do so. This is the message I take from last night’s row about Laurie Penny’s reaction to the vandalism of a war memorial….

“Destruction” isn’t entirely hyperbole. The Tories’ proposed £12bn cut in welfare spending is equivalent to £45 per week per working age benefit recipient. That would impose horrible hardship upon many.

Instead, Laurie’s mistake consists in doing exactly what Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind accused the left of: she’s seeing morality as comprising just one idea whereas the right sees others.

Haidt and his colleagues claim that there are (at least) five foundations of morality: care/harm, fairness/cheating, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion and sanctity/degradation. The left, he says, stresses the first two of these but underweights the last three.

And this is just what Laurie was doing. She was emphasizing the care principle, whilst being blind to the sanctity principle – to the idea that we believe that some things, such as vandalizing war memorials, are wrong because they break taboos even if they don’t do material harm to anyone…

Which brings me to the problem. Far too many – on left and right – are so wrapped up in their own narcissism and so quick to condemn others that they fail to understand (or even try to) where others are coming from: the virtue of Haidt’s framework is that it facilitates such understanding.

What’s being lost in all this is Mill’s classical liberal idea – that there is a strong case for cognitive diversity. For me, Laurie’s voice is a welcome contributor to this diversity. If the herdthink that rushes to condemn leads to her being more inhibited, something valuable will be lost.

My comment was largely directed at earlier commenters who were too fired up about the issue to address the material about Professor Haidt’s theories that Mr Dillow had raised, and so consisted largely of an elaboration on some points Mr Dillow had already made:

Just the other day I finally got round to reading The Righteous Mind, and here you bring it up.

I think Professor Haidt gives us a very clear vocabulary for explaining, among other things, why religious freedom is so hard to maintain. Different religious groups have different conceptions of sanctity. What one person sees as deeply holy another person might see as purely functional, so that Laurie Penny’s comparison of the welfare state to a war memorial might be unintelligible to someone who regards the welfare state simply as a set of policies and institutions to be evaluated by their effectiveness at helping poor people get on, rather than as a transcendent force that sanctifies society. Likewise, the depth of horror that many people feel when a war memorial is vandalized is unintelligible to those who regard that memorial in purely functional terms; clean it up, and it sends the same message it sent before. The uncleanness that bothers those who are most horrified is a ritual impurity, not the marks that bleach or acetone can remove.

What really makes it difficult for people with different senses of the sacred to share a homeland is that something which one group regards as the most sanctified of all things might strike another group as the vilest of all pollutions, and vice versa. Go to an old church and look at the niches from which the Puritans tore the visual artwork during their days of iconoclasm, and think of all the other religious conflicts in history.

War memorials are very much part of this kind of thing. They appeal to Professor Haidt’s Loyalty and Hierarchy axes, but to Sanctity as well. So, if you regard a particular war as an abomination, a particular cause as hideously unjust, then a memorial commemorating those who died to advance that cause may strike you not only as a symbol of disloyalty and subversion, but also as a pollution of the space it occupies. Imagine if a memorial to the Kouachi brothers were erected outside the front window of the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Would it be enough to drape that memorial with a cloth so that no one could see its message? Would it be enough to remove it quietly and replace it with a flagpole flying the Tricoleur? Or would you feel an urge to destroy the memorial as noisily and dramatically as possible and to put some object on the site to which the Kouachis would have objected (perhaps an obscene image of Muhammad)? Indulging that urge would hardly be necessary to display one’s loyalty to France, and would likely involve violation of the hierarchy of the French state. It would make sense only as an attempt to exorcise the ritual impurity that association with the Kouachis would bring upon the site.

Now, the protestors who scrawled “Fuck Tory scum” under the words “Women of World War Two” were probably not objecting to the women of World War Two, not even to those among them who took Tories with poor hygiene as lovers. Still, to the extent that the war memorial is a symbol of the state and the Cameron government has come to be identified with the state, presumably they would have seen the memorial as an unclean thing and their graffiti would be an attempt to purge its uncleanness.

In fairness to Ms Penny, I should probably mention that she does seem to be more aware of these issues than either Mr Dillow or I have implied in the remarks above.  So the first tweets she posted after the one that caused all the trouble describe her grandmother’s contribution to the United Kingdom’s efforts in the Second World War and the role that the postwar development of the welfare state played in improving her lot.  Ms Penny tells us that her story and those of women like her consecrate the welfare state as a monument to the memory of the “Women of World War Two,” and that the Cameron government’s policies are a desecration of this monument:

So Ms Penny explicitly acknowledges the importance of the Sanctity/ Degradation axis as part of moral reasoning.  For her, that axis may be subordinate in its importance to the Care/ Harm axis and the Fairness/ Cheating axis.  But those who responded to her tweet in ways like this:

don’t seem to be treating the Sanctity/ Degradation system as an independent thing either- calling Ms Penny a “cunt,” libeling her late grandmother, etc, are not obvious ways of increasing the overall holiness of Twitter.  For these tweeps, Sanctity seems to be a function of Loyalty and Authority, Degradation a function of Betrayal and Subversion.  Perhaps healthful dialogue between people who disagree on moral questions requires, not only that we all acknowledge the full spectrum of moral concerns, but that we respect each of the six systems on its own terms, not trying to reduce the concerns of one to the terms of another.

Alison Bechdel is pretty great

Putting everyone in the picture (click for source)

Cartoonist, memoirist, and Broadway legend Alison Bechdel has found herself involved in the controversy over PEN’s decision to give an award to Charlie Hebdo.  She explains her mixed feelings about this situation, and why she took the action she took, in this blog post.

I added a comment to that post, in which I expressed my admiration for Ms Bechdel (she really is quite admirable!) and briefly rehearsed some of the points I made in posts here and here.

I disagree with David Gerrold

A friend of mine posted a link to some remarks David Gerrold wrote on Facebook on 17 February.  Mr Gerrold is responding to this essay by William Lehman.  I have some reservations about Mr Gerrold’s remarks.

William Lehman has written a screed about how he who controls the mythology of a nation controls the identity of the nation. I’ll agree with that original assertion. But then he uses that as a springboard for a somewhat ill-considered extrapolation that people afflicted with fuzzy-wuzzy thinking have spoiled his precious nuts-and-bolts science fiction.

I think the words “his precious” get us off to a bad start there.  I’d be the last to say that nuts-and-bolts science fiction is the only kind we should have, but it is precious to lots of people other than Mr Lehman, and for good reason.  Any work of art, whether literary art, dramatic art, visual art, whatever, derives much of its power from the way it intrudes itself into your experience of the rest of life,  sort of annexing other aspects of life to itself.  So with a nuts-and-bolts science fiction story, the actual science that is related to the events and setting of that story blends in with it in the reader’s imagination, so that you can’t be quite sure where one ends and the other begins.  Other kinds of science fiction have equally great strengths, and graft themselves onto other parts of the reader’s experiences, but nuts-and-bolts is uniquely strong in that particular area.

SF is not a narrow domain, it’s a smorgasbord.

And if nothing else, science fiction is about sociology — because it’s not just about the engineering, it’s also about who we become when we reinvent our technology. It’s about the continuing evolution of the human culture. Lehman’s essay seems to imply that even after we have jet packs and flying cars, robots and starships, we should still keep our twentieth century “golden age” attitudes. Um, no. The history of the last seventy years isn’t just about computers and smart phones and the internet and electric cars — it’s also about how we as a people have progressed in our attitudes, some good, some not so.

That’s certainly true; the great promise of science fiction is in its ability to help readers visualize whole societies. This always involves a degree of commentary on the society in which the authors are working, though sometimes this commentary can be far down the list of reasons why we like a work of science fiction.  I’d cite my favorite nuts-and-bolts science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke.  Clarke’s social vision was rather horrifying; read his early drafts of Against the Fall of Night/ The City and the Stars and note the patronizing attitude Clarke takes at the Earth-bound characters objections to the plan the men from the Empire bring to demolish the planet.  And of course Childhood’s End also comes to its climax in the demolition of the Earth.  Anyway, Clarke’s geocidal vision not only does not ruin his novels, it doesn’t even stop them being great achievements of their kind, because even works like Against the Fall of Night/ The City and the Stars, which are set so far in the future that there is almost no actual science in them, do lead the imagination back into the real world of science and technology and merge with that world to create an unforgettable artifact in the reader’s imagination.

So … here’s where I kinda pull rank. He points to Star Trek, The Original Series as a catalyst for the engineering students. And to a great degree, he is right. The optical disk happened because two engineers saw “All Our Yesterdays” and wondered how you would store data on a big silver record. Sliding doors and flip phones and tablets and phasers all showed up on Star Trek and certainly there were people wondering how to make those devices.

But where Lehman has completely missed the point is that he uses Star Trek to justify his own beliefs while overlooking the much more important fact that Star Trek, The Original Series wasn’t about the engineering as much as it was about the “Social Justice Warriors Glittery hoo ha” stuff.

I was there. I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned. He went on at length about it in almost every meeting. He wasn’t about technology, he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out. Gene Roddenberry was one of the great Social Justice Warriors. You don’t get to claim him or his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.

Most of the stories we wrote were about social justice. “The Cloud Minders,” “A Taste Of Armageddon,” “Errand Of Mercy,” “The Apple,” “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield,” and so many more. We did stories that were about exploring the universe not just because we could build starships, but because we wanted to know who was out there, what was our place in the universe, and what could we learn from the other races out there?

Star Trek was about social justice from day one — the stories were about the human pursuit for a better world, a better way of being, the next step up the ladder of sentience. The stories weren’t about who we were going to fight, but who we were going to make friends with. It wasn’t about defining an enemy — it was about creating a new partnership. That’s why when Next Gen came along, we had a Klingon on the bridge.

Lehman blew it. He missed the point. He uses science fiction — and Star Trek — as a justification for playing a game of “us” v. “them.”

Here’s a clue. When you divide humanity into us and them, you automatically become one of them.

The continuing denigration of women and minorities as “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” leaves me wondering … are you folks in favor of social injustice?

If you’re against “the Social Justice Warrior Glittery Hoo Ha crowd” then we to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities?

Because if that’s what you stand for — a return to the days of sexism, racism, misogyny, and discrimination — then you really shouldn’t be pointing to Star Trek as your inspiration. Because that’s not what Star Trek was about. Honest. I was there.

In these closing paragraphs, things get very problematic very quickly.  Mr Gerrold may not know what Mr Lehman is talking about when he uses the phrase “Social Justice Warriors.”  This phrase is not synonymous with “people who advocate for social justice,” still less with “women and minorities.”  It is a sarcastic phrase that refers primarily to internet trolls who try to bully people into silence by accusing them of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, speciesism, and other forms of hatefulness.  Right-wingers are quite fond of the phrase “Social Justice Warrior,” since it focuses attention on ugly behavior perpetrated by people who think of themselves as being on the left, but no one can seriously deny that there are at least as many right-wing trolls online as left-wing ones.  There just isn’t a name that covers all right-wing trolls as a category the way “Social Justice Warrior” covers left-wing trolls.

I’ve read some good pieces about the damage that left-wing trolls, or “Social Justice Warriors” if you must use that phrase, have done to the left.  Michelle Goldberg write a good piece in The Nation a year ago about the success bullies on Twitter have had in poisoning discussion among feminists.  More recently, Jon Ronson admitted in the New York Times Magazine that he had once been been a left-wing online bully, intoxicated with the power to whip up virtual mobs that did real harm to people for offenses real and imagined.  Mr Ronson covers the case of Justine Sacco, who, because of the response to one poorly-phrased joke that she posted on Twitter, lost her job and found that “no one could guarantee her safety” if she were so reckless as to travel.   And Fredrik de Boer wants “a left that can win,” and shows how leftists who busy themselves bullying each other have done as much as any rightist could wish to prevent the formation of alliances that could actually advance social justice.  I’d think that reading any one of those pieces would relieve Mr Gerrold’s concern that we have “to wonder if you’re in favor of the denial of civil rights to women, blacks, LGBT, immigrants, and other minorities” if you use the phrase “Social Justice Warrior.”  Though I admit, I try to avoid the phrase, since it does conjure up the same image of a sullen bigot that comes to mind when we hear complaints about “political correctness.”  I understand that, of course.  But if you still think that “Social Justice Warriors” is a code word for “women and minorities,” I’ll have to refer you to Mr de Boer’s piece linked above, where he gives example after example of working-class women and people of color hounded out of university classrooms because they didn’t discuss social issues in the “progressive” language that the richer white students had learned in private schools.

The part where Mr Gerrold discusses Star Trek is troubling in several ways.  First, a work of art always means more than its author intends it to mean.  I think D. H. Lawrence said that, and it is the sort of thing that would have to be true.  Otherwise you’d have to have the artist standing around explaining the work to you every time you encountered it.  So even if Roddenberry were the sole author of Star Trek, and even if Mr Gerrold’s interpretation of Roddenberry’s intent were exhaustive and infallibly true, it would still not follow that “You don’t get to claim… his show as a shield of virtue for a cause he would have disdained.”  And thank goodness it doesn’t follow; imagine how impoverished the imaginations of those of who support gender-neutral marriage or transgender rights would be if we couldn’t learn from the writings of authors who had never had the opportunity to consider the case for those causes.

Second, Roddenberry was not the sole author of Star Trek, any more than any other single individual can ever be the sole author of a collective endeavor like a television series.  Line producers Gene Coon, John Meredyth Lucas, and Fred Freiberger made tremendous contributions, rewriting every script and overseeing innumerable practicalities in the making of the episodes.  Coon invented huge slabs of the Star Trek mythos; in the third season, after Roddenberry effectively left the show to find a more lucrative way of spending his time, Freiberger was for all intents and purposes the primary creator of the show.  This is all spelled out in marvelous detail, along with documentation and photographs, in Inside Star Trek by Robert Justman and Herbert Solow.  As associate producer, Justman was also one of the leading architects of the show, and as executive in charge of production during the first two seasons, when the show was made by Desilu Studios, Solow also played a key part.  Other major authors would include story editor Dorothy C Fontana, John D. F. Black, and also “nuts-and-bolts” science fiction patron saint Robert A Heinlein, whose story “Space Cadet” NBC bought as the basis of the series.  Indeed, the single episode which Mr Gerrold wrote for Star Trek, “The Trouble With Tribbles,” was very similar Heinlein’s novel The Rolling Stones, which Mr Gerrold had read many years before.  Offered payment for the screen rights to the novel, Mr Heinlein asked only for Mr Gerrold’s autograph on a copy of the script.

And then, of course, there were the writers who were credited with particular scripts or stories, the actors, the composers of music, the set designers, video editors, special effects people, etc, etc.  I bring all of this up to show how implausible it is to say of Gene Roddenberry that Star Trek was “his show” in some simple sense.  To give one obvious example, there were few causes that Gene Roddenberry “disdained” more openly or more vigorously than the Roman Catholic Church, yet John Meredyth Lucas, line producer for much of the second season, was a devout Catholic who became producer of Paulist Productions’ Insight: Stories of Spiritual Conflict in the Twentieth Century. So there’s an example of two of the major authors of the series taking utterly different positions on a big question.

Third, Mr Gerrold raises a question about levels of intentionality when he says, “I know what Gene Roddenberry envisioned… he was about envisioning a world that works for everyone, with no one and nothing left out.”  I’m sure that’s one of the things Mr Roddenberry envisioned.  But if you read Justman and Solow’s book, it is crystal clear that the number one thing he envisioned was himself having lots of sex with lots of attractive young women.  That makes him a more pardonable figure than he would be were it true that he goal to structure a life around than if he had been “one of the great Social Justice Warriors,” in the sense in which that phrase is actually used.  Further, it suggests that Roddenberry’s politics should be taken with a grain of salt.  I think that goes a long way towards explaining how the pro-Cold War politics of episodes like “A Private Little War” or “The Omega Glory” found their way into a series that was usually so clearly left of center.  The politics Roddenberry really cared about were those built into his interpersonal relationships with women whom he wanted to take to bed, and national or international politics were a means to that end. So to the extent that we think of Roddenberry as the author of Star Trek, and to the extent that author’s intentions inform our interpretation of the show, we will need some kind of critical methodology to separate one of his intentions from another.  Simply saying, “I was there!  He told me so!” is no answer at all- Roddenberry told different people different things for different reasons, not because he was dishonest, but because he was human.  That’s what we all do.

Fourth, and rather awkwardly, there are some, how does one put it, surprising bits in Mr Gerrold’s recollections of his involvement with the original Star Trek.  Mr Gerrold has written extensively and quite informatively about his experience as the author of one teleplay for that series, even publishing a book in 1973 called The Trouble With Tribbles: The Birth, Sale, and Final Production of One Episode.  Mr Gerrold’s references to episodes from all three seasons and to what Gene Roddenberry said in “every meeting” leave one with the impression that Mr Gerrold was a regular member of the staff, behind the scenes on a daily basis from beginning to end.  This is not the impression that one gathers from his book, or from other accounts he gave when Roddenberry, Justman, and others were alive, nor does it jibe with information published elsewhere.  All of that material suggests that his single writing credit is a fair representation of his contribution to the series. Dorothy Fontana and others kept in touch with Mr Gerrold and encouraged him to submit more scripts, but I haven’t seen any indication that he was involved in the show in the way that he here suggests. Just how many meetings were included in the “every meeting” which he and Roddenberry both attended?  I hate to bring this up, but Mr Gerrold is leaning so heavily on the “I was there” in his attempt to shut Mr Lehman down that it is impossible not to point out that the place where he was and the place where a person could learn the information he wants us to think he has are not, in fact, the same place.  Maybe Mr Gerrold is auditioning for Bill O’Reilly‘s job, or Brian Williams‘, but I don’t see these remarks helping him in this fight he’s picked with Mr Lehman.

I’m puzzled by today’s xkcd

Here’s today’s xkcd:

My hobby: Pretending to miss the sarcasm when people show off their lack of interest in football by talking about

It’s true that not knowing much about sports is culturally isolating, far more so than not knowing much about meteorology or space probes.  In the USA, where xkcd creator Randall Munroe and I both live, ignorance of American football* is more isolating than ignorance of meteorology and space probes even among faculty and students of universities with departments of meteorology and aerospace, as witness the relative pay scales and promotion schedules of football coaches and professors of those subjects.

Considering how much money and power are put into promoting football in the USA, it is simply absurd to claim that football fans are vulnerable to some kind of power that an individual acquires by not caring about the sport.  Whether or not you care about football, if you live in the USA you have no choice but to pay taxes that subsidize football, to seek employment in businesses managed by people whose small talk consists largely of discussions of football, to receive news and entertainment through media outlets that are saturated with football, and to be educated in schools where football is enshrined as the supreme collective experience.

Indeed, Americans are so heavily incentivized to like football, and football games are so intensively covered by US media, that I find it hard to believe that there are a great many people in the USA who haven’t tried to like football.  I suspect most Americans who dislike football simply find it impossible to overcome the stupefying tedium of watching a bunch of costumed men standing around doing nothing for hours at a time, and that most who complain about football or mock football fans resent the power that football has in American social life.

I would hasten to add that the experience of playing football isn’t dominated by the 90% of the time that players spend standing around doing nothing.  I have far more vivid memories from my high school days of the 9% of the time that players spend striking and holding poses in formation.  I remember the many times I was called off-sides, which in football means that a player is posing incorrectly.  While from the spectator’s perspective football is like staring at people milling about at a bus station, from the player’s perspective it is much more like being a fashion model.

There is so little action of any kind in an American football game that I cannot help but be suspicious of the reports one hears about the rates at which players suffer head injuries.  I find it particularly incredible that the almost perfectly immobile players of the National Football League can all suffer concussions during their games.  Perhaps they all sustain heavy blows to the head before coming onto the field, and that’s why they do so little during the game.

A blog post today by Rod Dreher reminds me of a hypothesis of mine about how football became so popular in the USA in the twentieth century.  Dreher quotes and comments on a conversation between Jon Ronson and Adam Curtis about how financial institutions and financial markets are able to exercise enormous power without much public scrutiny simply because their operations strike most people, including most reporters and certainly most politicians, as intolerably dull.  I suspect that the average American is aware of the fact that a high threshold for boredom is key to gaining wealth, power, and high status in our society, and that as this awareness grew in the last century football, the most boring of sports, crowded out boxing, horse racing, and ultimately even baseball to become not only the king of American sports, but the lingua franca of social interaction in corporate America.

*Hereinafter referred to simply as “football,” because this post is all about conditions within the USA.

Why I am not a utilitarian

Jeremy Bentham, under surveillance at University College London

Yesterday I visited Oxford’s “Practical Ethics” blog and read a post titled “Why I Am Not a Utilitarian,” by Julian Savulescu.  Professor Savulescu says that he is not a utilitarian because utilitarianism advises us to act in a way that he would find impossible:

As we argue, Utilitarianism is a comprehensive moral doctrine with wide ranging impact. In fact it is very demanding. Few people if any have ever been anything like a perfect utilitarian. It would require donating one of your kidneys to a perfect stranger. It would require sacrificing your life, family and sleep to the level that enabled you to maximise the well-being of others. Because you could improve the lives of so many, so much, utilitarianism requires enormous sacrifices. People have donated large parts of their wealth and even a kidney, but this still does not approach the sacrifice required by Utilitarianism.

For these reasons, one criticism of utilitarianism is that it is too demanding.

Bernard Williams, a famous critic of Utilitarianism, once infuriated Dick Hare, a modern father of Utilitarianism, in a TV interview by asking him,

“If a plane had crashed and you could only rescue your own child or two other people’s children, which would you rescue?”

Utilitarians should rescue the two strangers rather than their own child.

People think I am a utilitarian but I am not. I, like nearly everyone else, find Utilitarianism to be too demanding.

I try to live my life according to “easy rescue consequentialism” – you should perform those acts which are at small cost to you and which benefit others greatly. Peter Singer, the greatest modern utilitarian, in fact appeals to this principle to capture people’s emotions – his most famous example is that of a small child drowning in a pond. You could save the child’s life by just getting your shoes wet. He argues morality requires that you rescue the child. But this is merely an easy rescue. Utilitarianism requires that you sacrifice your life to provide organs to save 7 or 8 lives.

Easy rescue consequentialism is, by contrast, a relaxed but useful moral doctrine.

I would go further than Professor Savulescu, and argue that it is not only unreasonably difficult to act as utilitarianism would advise in these extreme situations, but that the emotional attachments and personal drives that utilitarianism urges us to discard are the very things that make it possible for us to behave morally in the first place.  Professor Savulescu quotes research showing that the people who would in fact be willing to behave in ways that utilitarians urge upon us in their thought experiments are extreme egoists and psychopaths.  While such people might be willing to let their own children die in order to save the lives of a larger number of strangers, I would not envy those strangers were they subsequently to find themselves in any way dependent on their rescuers.

Other commenters on Professor Savulescu’s post had made this point by the time I got to it, so I did not say anything about it in my own comment.  Instead, I picked up on a remark that an earlier commenter had made about the various thought experiments in which utilitarians deal.  One of the more famous of these thought experiments is the “Trolley Problem,” in which one is asked to consider two hypothetical alternatives in response to a runaway trolley.  Left unchecked, the trolley will run over several people and kill many of them. The only way one has to check it is to push a fat man in front of the trolley, killing him but saving the others.

This and similar thought experiments raise the question of knowledge- how does one know that one will be able to push the fat man over, how does one know that his body will suffice to stop the trolley, how does one know that the others will be slower to get themselves out of the way of the trolley than one will be to push the fat man over, etc etc.  In posing the hypothetical, a philosopher can always dismiss these questions by saying that, ex hypothesi, the premises are all true.  But the closer you get to real life, the more pressing and more numerous the knowledge problems become.

When philosopher Jeremy Bentham developed utilitarianism 200 years ago, he built it around a notion often called “the hedonistic calculus.”  This calculus subtracts pain from pleasure, yielding a quantity of net pleasure.  The right action is that which provides the greatest amount of net pleasure for the greatest number of people.  Faced with the question of how any person could possibly know what action would provide this, considering that to do so one would have to know every consequence one’s action is likely to have on every person for all of future time, what precisely the feelings of each of those people would be about each of those consequences, and how intense each of these feelings would be, Bentham resorted to a utopian solution.  He coined the word “Panopticon,” naming a social system in which every person was under total surveillance at all times.  In such a system, the authorities might be able to form an educated guess as to what the consequences of their policies would be for their subjects.

The idea of the Panopticon in turn raises several questions.  How would such surveillance originate?  If it were instituted by people who were not themselves under surveillance, and who did yet not have access to the information surveillance would produce, how could they know that the surveillance they were crafting would itself serve to produce the greatest net pleasure among the greatest number of people?  Moreover, since the subjects of the Panopticon would know that they were under surveillance, the institution of surveillance itself would change their psychology quite dramatically, making it impossible for people living before the creation of the Panopticon to have an empirical basis for their expectations as to how such people would react to life within it.  Would those conducting the surveillance themselves be subject to surveillance, and if so, who would maintain surveillance on those conducting surveillance of those conducting surveillance?  Would there be other societies outside the realm of the Panopticon, and if so how would one know what policies would bring the greatest net pleasure to the members of those other, unsurveilled societies?  What about future generations, whom it is impossible to keep under surveillance as they do not yet exist?  How could the rulers of the Panopticon assess the feelings the consequences of their policies would produce in people of future times when they cannot monitor such people?  And, considering that the hedonistic calculus is essentially about subjective feelings of pleasure and pain, how do we respond to suggestions that our understanding of each other’s subjective feelings is always incomplete?  Finally, how does the existence of the Panopticon condition individual behavior?  Does every individual of every station have access to the complete records of the Panopticon?  Are all to use this information in making every decision in their lives?

Even in a society constructed as a Panopticon, then, it is far from clear how one could know enough to live as the utilitarians say we should.  Indeed, many forms of knowledge that are required, for example knowledge about future events or about other people’s subjective responses, may not be obtainable even in principle.  A commenter named Sean OhEigeartaigh pointed out that utilitarian thought experiments require unrealistic assumptions about the amount of knowledge a moral agent might have.  This was the point I was picking up on in the comment below:

I think Sean O hEigeartaigh makes the vital point, which is that these scenarios require more information than a person could reasonably be expected to have. Indeed, I would go further, and say that the whole concept of the hedonistic calculus requires that an agent have more information than a human being could possibly have. As such, utilitarianism is not an ethical theory at all, inasmuch as it cannot develop a set of criteria for judging human behavior. Its only possible use would be as a theodicy, a means of justifying the behavior of a supernatural being who is either omniscient or at a minimum radically better informed than humans can be.

Perhaps it is too much to say that utilitarianism is possible even as a theodicy. To make a theodicy go, one must grant, first, that a supernatural being exists, second, that that being is in some profound sense better than we are, and third, that the actions of that being require moral justification. None of these premises would appear to be particularly secure. Moreover, an attempt to use utilitarianism to justify the acts of whatever supernatural being we have posited would immediately run into a variety of other problems, some of them quite severe. Most obvious, perhaps, is the stubbornly ambiguous concept of “pleasure” at the stem of all theories of utility. I for one can think of no reason why a utilitarian theodicy would have an easier time meaning one thing at a time by this word than the attempted utiltarian philosophies of the last two centuries have had. Furthermore, the implications of conceding the existence of a supernatural being whose knowledge is radically superior to ours would seem to be rather wide-ranging and to call for a rethinking of the concept of rationality on which Bentham et al were trying to elaborate. So perhaps the time has come to discard utilitarianism altogether.

The bit about pleasure refers to another problem that Bentham tried to solve by accepting something horrid.  Asked what he would say if it could be shown that playing push-pin had given more net pleasure than high art, he would unhesitatingly say that in that case push-pin was better than high art.  Bentham’s most famous follower, John Stuart Mill, tried to escape from this by distinguishing among various forms of pleasure, high and low.

What Mill ended up doing was raising a question that has widely been considered fatal to the claims of utilitarianism to be taken seriously: what exactly is “pleasure”?  I think we know, when we say that listening to music gives us pleasure, and eating a fine meal gives us pleasure, and being reunited with a loved one gives us pleasure, and completing an important job of work gives us pleasure, that we are not saying that these experiences are interchangeable.  Saying that we have received pleasure isn’t at all like saying that we have received money.  If we set out to describe with technical precision what it is that each of those experiences has given us, we will not be surprised to find that the answer is a set of distinct and complementary feelings, not differing quantities of any particular substance.  Discard the idea that “pleasure” and “pain” are the names of substances, in the Aristotelian sense of the word “substance,” and it is difficult to see what, if anything, is left of the hedonistic calculus.

Three cheers for Liza Cowan

This morning I looked at Twitter and saw this from Liza Cowan

I mention such a wide variety of people on this site that I laughed out loud when I saw this.  Perhaps Catharine MacKinnon, Pope Benedict, Susie Bright, the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain, and Leonard Nimoy (to mention five names that have occurred here more than once) are all together in some darkened room plotting iniquity at this moment, but I find it hard to imagine.  So I wrote in reply:

Liza explained:

Apparently Liza’s nemeses had Googled her name and Pam Isherwood‘s together and found our old page of “Artists and Art Blogs.”   They are both mentioned there, because of course they are- they’re both very distinguished artists, and you’re in for a treat if you go to their sites.  But the inquisitors took the presence of their names on the same list as evidence that Pam is Liza’s “follower.”  Looking over the list, Liza seems to have a pretty impressive set of followers, including Harvey Kurtzman, the Hubble Space Telescope, and the Queen of England.  

This controversy stems from Liza’s view of transgenderism.  As I understand it, her view is related to that of the late Shulamith Firestone, who held that the relation between men and women is very much like the relation that Marxism describes between bourgeois and proletariat in the later stages of capitalism.  Women form a worldwide class of the oppressed, men a worldwide class of oppressors.  Femininity, on this view, is a scar left by abuse, masculinity a weapon wielded by the privileged.  Liza’s opposition holds that gender is a more playful thing, that it is a set of roles we play, some by choice, some under duress, and that by playing the game our own way we can subvert the oppression that certainly does characterize gender relations by and large.  

I am not qualified to have an opinion about this issue.  Maybe Liza is right, maybe the Politically Correct Thought Police who are calling her names are right, maybe the truth is something else altogether.  What I do know is that Liza is an exciting artist, a rigorous thinker, and a good friend.  So if someone is out to ban or silence or smear people associated with Liza Cowan, I hereby volunteer to be banned, silenced, and smeared.   As I put it this afternoon:

And:

 

Down the political rabbit hole

Cartoon by Joe Mohr

Recently in a comment on Alison Bechdel’s blog, I replied to commenter NLC, who added to a political discussion the observation that not everyone who supports the USA’s Republican Party is equally objectionable.  I agreed, and added:

@NLC: “There are Republicans and there are Republicans.”

That’s very true. I know some Republicans who, however hard I may find it to understand why they vote the way they do, are demonstrably quite all right in all the ways that really matter. I even know some Republicans who do yoga.

Fox News seems to be the separator, young people who are decent watch Fox News and leave the Republican Party, old people who are decent watch Fox News and turn into something like addicts- seriously, that channel is like crack cocaine for them. I suppose that means that in the long run Fox News will kill the Republican Party, but in the meantime it will kill a lot of worthwhile things.

In remarking on Fox News (a.k.a. the Faux News Channel,) I was thinking of some recent posts on a site that is for the most part at an opposite pole politically from Alison Bechdel’s, Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative.  Mr Dreher is still quite conservative, but no longer identifies as a Republican.  One reason for this seems to be the effect that he has seen right-wing media have on its elderly fans.  In a post titled “Fox Geezer Syndrome,” Mr Dreher quotes at length from several of his commenters who have told stories of aging their aging parents who have made themselves difficult to be around, not because of the opinions which Fox News and Rush Limbaugh and the rest of them have encouraged them to hold, but because of the belligerence, the obsessiveness, and the overall childishness with which they have begun expressing those opinions since immersing themselves in a constant stream of such material.  Adding to those comments, Mr Dreher writes: 

I recognize the Fox Geezer Syndrome these readers identify. This is what happens when conservatism becomes an ideology instead of an approach to life. It indicates an extremely unconservative temperament, frankly. I’m not deploying the No True Scotsman fallacy; these Fox Geezers may well be conservative in their politics, right down the line. What they’re doing, though, is allowing politics to consume their minds and their entire lives, such that they are making impossible the kinds of things that true conservatives ought to be dedicated to conserving: that is, the permanent things, like family. I have been around Fox Geezers before, and I see absolutely no difference between them and the kind of self-righteous loudmouths on the left that make reasonable discussion impossible, because all problems are reduced to a conflict between Good and Evil, and decided in advance.

The tragedy — and I think it is exactly that — is that the elderly often have great wisdom to share with the younger generations, to say nothing of the fact that it is they who have the long view, and who ought to understand how important it is to nurture bonds among family members, especially across the generations. Yet in these cases, it is they who behave like teenagers and twentysomethings, full of piss and vinegar and a toxic certainty, plus a radioactive impulse to crusade. What they lack is the principal conservative virtue: Prudence. I have some strong views too, as you know, but I strive never to let them come between myself and the people I am given to love. If I want them to tolerate me for the greater good, then I must extend the same grace to them.

Conservative that he is, Mr Dreher goes on to identify the same dynamic at work among the elderly liberals and lefties who predominate in the comments section of The New York Times.  I’ve certainly seen it at work among acquaintances who regard any criticism of the Obama administration as support for Mr O’s Republican opponents.  Such an attitude seems to be as natural a product of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Blue Team cheerleaders on MSNBC as Fox Geezer Syndrome is of habitually watching the rah-rah, Go Red Team cheerleaders on Fox.  

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