Category Archives: Society

Postmodernism, Progress, and Social Justice

My very simplified story of human progress is this:

Humans have improved their conditions over time, with incremental growth for most of history and exponential growth in modern times. These improvements have been made in all aspects of human life: technological, economic, cultural, social, political, medical, and ethical. There were grave setbacks along the way but we now live in the best time there ever was for our species.

I think this roughly applies to America as well, which makes the platforms of Trump and Sanders puzzling. As I wrote previously, the slogan “Make America Great Again” presumes that it is not already so, and the idea of “capitalism has failed you” coming from the other end of the spectrum is not much better. Between Trump, Sanders, and Clinton on this topic, only Clinton possesses a sane view, that “America never stopped being great.”

Anyways, I have wanted to write a longer post on human progress for a long time, ever since the bizarrely hostile responses to this 2014 post on social progress. Some people do not accept progress, and I feel like it is mostly because it doesn’t fit their narrative. If you start off with “The West is evil because colonialism,” etc., then it is difficult to also keep in mind all the progress made through human history, largely by the Western world.

The main points are:

  • We made progress.
  • It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress.
  • How postmodernism is related to this.
  • How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this.
  • How the presidential campaigns are related to this.

Once again, in anticipation of the response to later sections, I want to disclaim that I fully consider myself a liberal on social issues. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminist, pro-gun-control. I plan to vote for Hillary Clinton.

We made progress

I feel like this section is unnecessary but I also know there are people who deny progress. So let’s do a history refresher. In a prior post I wrote about a few pieces of progress in the last 10 years:

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

That was actually the hard part, limiting progress to just the last 10 years, with a start time of just before a global financial crisis. If you go back further, say since the dawn of agriculture, it is hilariously easy to come up with progress. Every item around you, from your clothing to electric lights to the smartphone or computer on which you are reading this post, could not have been created in earlier times. But you don’t have to worry about that, as there was a 25%-33% chance you died before reaching age 5. And if you did survive, you better hope you don’t succumb to illness, as death rates for some diseases were 70-80% and you didn’t have the luxury of modern science and medicine. Tribal warfare often killed a quarter of a tribe’s total population, a figure that makes even World War II seem tame. Assuming you survived, you were overwhelmingly likely to be in a position of no political power, a slave or peasant. The standard of living was, by modern standards, approximately zero for thousands of years.

[Graph 1, Graph 2Graph 3]

gdp_long_term

gdp_per_capita_slide

gdp_growth

The things continued for thousands of years, and then some different things happened in the 1500s–1700s. A Renaissance, a religious Reformation, a Scientific Revolution, an Enlightenment, and an Industrial Revolution lifted the Western world out of the darkness and into modern times. And the standard of living took off, alongside huge decreases in violence and big expansions in human rights.

It is easy to forget and/or be unaware of this progress

It’s so much easier to think of current problems than to think of problems that we have already solved. For example, we used to (and in some backwards regions of the world, still do) accuse neighbors we didn’t like of witchcraft and stone them to death.  We used to engage in ritual animal and even human sacrifice. We used to engage in fatal duels to defend our “honor.”

Regarding torture, here is Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature:

[T]he sporadic, clandestine, and universally decried eruptions of torture in recent times cannot be equated with the centuries of institutionalized sadism in medieval Europe. Torture in the Middle Ages was not hidden, denied, or euphemized. It was not just a tactic by which brutal regimes intimidated their political enemies or moderate regimes extracted information from suspected terrorists. It did not erupt from a frenzied crowd stirred up in hatred against a dehumanized enemy. No, torture was woven into the fabric of public life. It was a form of punishment that was cultivated and celebrated, an outlet for artistic and technological creativity. Many of the instruments of torture were beautifully crafted and ornamented. They were designed to inflict not just physical pain, as would a beating, but visceral horrors, such as penetrating sensitive orifices, violating the bodily envelope, displaying the victim in humiliating postures, or putting them in positions where their own flagging stamina would increase their pain and lead to disfigurement or death. Torturers were the era’s foremost experts in anatomy and physiology, using their knowledge to maximize agony, avoid nerve damage that might deaden the pain, and prolong consciousness for as long as possible before death.

And from another post quoting the same book, on the decline in rape:

“Well into the 1970s marital rape was not a crime in any state, and the legal system underweighted the interests of women in other rapes. Legal scholars who have studied jury proceedings have discovered that jurors must be disabused of the folk theory that women can be negligently liable for their own rapes…” (395). Stats from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics show that the annual rate of rape from 1973 to 2008 had fallen by 80%. Pinker notes, “In fact, the decline may be even greater than that, because women have almost certainly been more willing to report being raped in recent years, when rape has been recognized as a serious crime, than they were in earlier years, when rape was often hidden and trivialized” (402). Thus a decline by a factor of five in reported cases could and probably does mean an even greater decline in actual cases. On the flipside, since awareness of rape is up so much, people generally perceive it as a greater threat today than it was decades ago.

I point this out not to say “Tada, progress!” but to put these issues in historical context. Pointing out that things have gotten better does not mean that the status quo is acceptable. Much of it is not, and there is so much progress yet to be made. But it is delusional to want to return to the good old times because they were free of violence and conflict. They simply weren’t. They were far more violent and intolerant than today (see Pinker’s book).

In addition, we now have social media, where grievances that would have been considered trivial in the past can now instantly rile up thousands of people (perhaps rightfully). This creates a situation where fewer bad incidents cause the world to look worse.

Given how widespread the pessimistic view is, I don’t fault anyone for thinking things have gotten worse, but at the same time, I find the numbers quite startling. Some 46% of Americans believe life has gotten worse since half a century ago, versus 34% better and 14% same (via Pew Research). “By contrast, 88% of economists said the U.S. is better today than in 1960 and 87% see today as better than 1980” (source).

How postmodernism is related to this

One way to deny progress is to argue that progress as a concept is impossible. Progress implicitly assumes an objective measuring stick; thus, it cannot exist as there is no objective truth, only subjectivity—progress is nothing but a social construction. Another way is to argue that progress is a colonialist ideology developed by Western nations to oppress non-Western nations, and that anyone who argues for progress must be automatically racist.

That is my caricature of postmodernism, but I’m honestly not sure what else postmodernism is (as used in popular rhetoric).

Here are some passages from Edward R. Friedlander’s “Why I am Not a Postmodernist“:

The “postmodern” university gurus talk about the “dead white males” who produced the canon of literature that we have treasured over the centuries as cruel, oppressive, stupid, and deeply wrong-headed. But a fair reading of the classics — even before the enlightenment — will reveal a huge range of ideas — many of them far ahead of their times — about the rights of minorities, women, and the poor. There are many deeply sympathetic portrayals of LGBT culture and people, and appeals both for religious tolerance and religious skepticism. And no culture other than the much-maligned “European” (including America and Australia/New Zealand) has ever made a systematic effort to understand and value the other cultures of the world. Anyone who tells you otherwise is taking an obviously false political stance to deceive you.

And:

Postmodernists complain that science is a cultural prejudice, and/or a tool invented by the current elite to maintain power, and/or only one “way of knowing” among many, with no special privilege. For postmodernists, science is “discourse”, one system among many, maintained by a closed community as a means of holding onto power, and ultimately referential only to itself.

[…]

We still hear a great deal today about “multiculturalism” and “relative values”. But everybody that I know, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, or religion, seems to want the same basic things. This begins with health, reasonable personal liberty and security, and a reasonable chance to have one’s initiative rewarded. Postmodernists talk about being “dehumanized” by science and technology. If they really believed this, they would trade their academic positions for the lives of subsistence farmers in the world’s poor nations, or (if they could) the short, sickly, miserable lives of chattel-serfs in the ages “before technocracy”. There they will discover that what people want isn’t “cultural integrity” or “multicultural sensitivity”, but health, food, safety, and a reasonable opportunity to choose one’s own course through life. Those who would deny them these basic human needs aren’t the scientists. It is the tyrants and ideologues of the right and the left.

And:

Science isn’t a conspiracy of power-hungry monsters against the human race. The real enemy is superstition, ignorance, and silly lies. And if you live in America, Canada, Australia/New Zealand, or Western Europe, most people in the world would gladly trade places with you.

In the twentieth century, Norman Borlaug developed new agricultural techniques in wheat that are often credited with saving the lives of a billion or more people. Yet almost no one has heard of him. I’m guessing it might have something to do with the fact that despite his huge steps in solving world hunger, his life-saving results appear numeric rather than anecdotal. And his doing this while being a white male Westerner certainly did not fit the postmodernist narrative. I would bet someone has already complained that teaching about him in school is “problematic.”

Postmodernism the movement might be long dead, but its specter continues to haunt us. All of the following can be rooted to the postmodernist style:

  • Science is just another way of knowing, no different from emotion, etc.
  • The great counternarrative, that progress is a myth, that the Western world is evil.
  • The rise of New Age wisdom versus Western science and medicine.
  • The study of STEM fields is often considered inhuman/cold, whereas currently it probably has the highest benefit for humanity.
  • Over-sensitivity to criticizing other cultures.

The last point has to do with criticizing anything that is not Western. Here is an anecdote. (Anecdotes are inherently more valuable than statistical data because the latter implies a tacit Eurocentrism.) My very liberal Facebook feed contains lots of “social justice” posts. Yesterday there was a disturbing CNN headline that read, “Pakistani men can beat wives ‘lightly,’ Islamic council says.” Being someone in a civilized country that cares about the plight of others, I was pretty offended by this and expected a lot of outrage on my Facebook feed, but instead, I saw none. I’m guessing it has something to do with how the typical post fits the narrative of “The West/white people are evil,” and this story, about how an “Islamic council” of non-Whites in a non-Western country has been/is doing something evil, does not fit that narrative and is thus rejected.

How the “coddled” college student and “social justice warrior” phenomena are related to this

Still one of the greatest articles on this is “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt. I fully encourage everyone to read that if they have not already. And earlier this week, Nathan Heller wrote in The New Yorker a piece called “The Big Uneasy“:

Aaron Pressman, a politics and law-and-society major, told me that he has always felt free to express his opinions on campus, but has faced “a lot of social backlash.” One of his ambitions is to become a public defender, and he has studied the free-speech work of the A.C.L.U. Last year, when he noticed a broadly worded clause about flirtatious speech in Oberlin’s new sexual-harassment policy, he advocated for more precise language. (His research told him that such broad prohibitions were often used to target ethnic groups.) “A student came up to me several days later and started screaming at me, saying I’m not allowed to have this opinion, because I’m a white cisgender male,” Pressman recalled. He feels that his white maleness shouldn’t be disqualifying. “I’ve had people respond to me, ‘You could never understand—your culture has never been oppressed.’ ” Pressman laughed. “I’m, like, ‘Really? The Holocaust?’ ”

And:

How, then, to teach? Two years ago, when the Black Lives Matter movement took off, “it felt like it was going to be a moment when we were really going to have a national conversation about police brutality and economic inequality,” Kozol said. She was excited about her students’ work in Cleveland and elsewhere. “But then, at some point, it became really solipsistic.” A professor who taught a Comparative American Studies seminar that was required for majors went on leave, and, as she was replaced by one substitute and then another, Kozol noticed something alarming: the students had started seating themselves by race. Those of color had difficulty with anything that white students had to say; they didn’t want to hear it anymore. Kozol took over the class for the spring, and, she told me, “it played out through identity politics.” The class was supposed to be a research workshop. But students went cold when they had to engage with anyone outside their community.

Seriously, what is happening? Have tribalism and postmodernism returned?

Don’t get me wrong—social justice is one of the best things ever to happen, one of the few parts of history that can be universally viewed as good. The affirmation of human dignity for every person regardless of circumstance is the most important one that can be made. But the contemporary movements resemble one-sided yelling more than discussion.

Questions of justness and fairness are hard, but you do not gain voice by preventing others from voicing theirs. A democratic society should not base its decisions on whose echo chamber is bigger, or by whichever group can frame the narrative to disqualify the other group on the basis of race or sex or other identity. The way to counter a bad idea is to present a good idea, not to call for tribal hatred and witch hunts against its proponents. Some of the most intolerant people are those who preach tolerance the loudest.

One paradox here is that as more progress is being made in social equality, the bigger an issue it becomes. From “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” (Campbell and Manning 2014):

According to Black (2011), as noted above, changes in stratification, intimacy, and diversity cause conflict. Microaggression complaints are largely about changes in stratification. They document actions said to increase the level of inequality in a social relationship – actions Black refers to as “overstratification.” Overstratification offenses occur whenever anyone rises above or falls below others in status. […] a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality… In modern Western societies, egalitarian ethics have developed alongside actual political and economic equality. As women moved into the workforce in large numbers, became increasingly educated, made inroads into highly paid professions such as law and medicine, and became increasingly prominent in local, state, and national politics, sexism became increasingly deviant. The taboo has grown so strong that making racist statements, even in private, might jeopardize the careers of celebrities or the assets of businessmen (e.g., Fenno, Christensen, and Rainey 2014; Lynch 2013).

Basically, places that have progressed the furthest toward equality are precisely where further microagressions feel like they matter most.

In this sense, one might be delighted that the university ruckuses are going on as evidence of increasing equality. But it is also the dangerous arm of postmodernism where feeling is regarded as highly as fact.

I am frightened that this movement is not only ignoring progress, but also actively trying to reverse it. You saw the self-imposed seating segregation from earlier. Freedom of speech is gradually receding in favor of oversensitivity, especially of criticizing cultures that are blatantly regressive compared to the Western world. Diversity of ideas is frowned upon, and even the idea of democracy is now considered part of a sinister colonialist agenda.

How the presidential campaigns are related to this

Here is Bernie Sanders yesterday:

As cited before, 88% of economists disagreed, saying that living standards are better than they were in the 1960s (and 87% say better than in the 1980s). Yet from popular sentiment, it would seem like Sanders is right.

To be fair, Sanders supporters are still more grounded in reality than any group of Republican supporters. Here is a poll via Pew Research on whether life has gotten better or worse than 50 years ago:

pew_better_worse

Basically, Republicans generally are more pessimistic than Democrats, with Trump supporters the most pessimist. Democrats are more optimist, with Clinton supporters the most optimist.

This is kind of surprising as everyone I know who is against the progress narrative is Democrat, but then again, I don’t know many Trump supporters, nor do I expect many people reading this to be Trump supporters. The one I really want to address is Sanders and the tendency to pin all of society’s problems on capitalism.

Two years ago, when I graduated from college, I never thought I would quote a former hedge-fund manager on capitalism non-ironically. But here is Andy Kessler to college graduates [via WSJ]:

Those of you I hear gagging in the humanities section are going to have to unlearn a few things. Harvard recently released a survey showing that over half of Americans ages 18 to 29 do not support capitalism. Ouch. You can almost feel the Bern.

Don’t be fooled. Capitalism is what allowed you to wander around this leafy campus for four years worrying about finals instead of foraging for food. It delivered the Greek yogurt to your cafeteria and assembled your Prius. The basic idea is to postpone consumption. Then invest in production to supply goods and services that delight customers. Next, generate profits. Rinse and repeat.

It’s widely known that Sanders supporters tend to be young people. I feel out-of-place as a 24-year-old that supports Clinton, but in 2012 I voted for Jill Stein, whose platform is essentially identical to that of current-day Sanders. I definitely felt the Bern (the Stein?) when I was in college, so I can understand where all the Sanders supporters are coming from. I learned a lot about economics and capitalism since 2012, and I no longer support the Stein/Sanders camp. When you look at those three graphs from earlier where the line is roughly zero for most of human history and then skyrockets to the current day, that is the force of capitalism in action. That is progress. That is the constant exchange of bad ideas, systems, tools, governments, and moralities for better ones.

It is difficult to talk so much about what seems so obvious, but yes, humans have made lots of progress, especially in the very recent past. It is easy to forget about this progress with the 24-hour news cycle and social media, but it happened. We may live in the best time there ever was, but we have to be careful to not seek return to a false mythical world of the past. Instead, we should work to better the very real world of the future.

GDPs, Feelings, and Mountains

vintage-phone-ad

Human Progress, cont’d

The media is pretty good at reporting the most attention-grabbing headlines: popularity contests, controversies, and catastrophes. This part is fine. Companies should try to generate profits within reasonable moral bounds, and selectively reporting news stories that are the most interesting does not feel unethical.

But this causes us to miss the tiny incremental changes that have resulted in a better world, and instead focus on the seemingly endless problems that pop up every day. One would naively think, from things like the Flint water crisis, the popularized incidents of police brutality, random shooting deaths, terrorism worldwide, stagnant wages, and the growing rift of income inequality, that the United States and the world are eroding away. But this narrative misses all the positive things.

Remember 10 years ago? That’s not even the 1990s. That’s the early 21st century. In these dark ages of 2006, there was no iPhone, no Snapchat, no Twitter. There was neither Tumblr nor Tinder nor Uber, while Facebook and Youtube were in their infancy. 55% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage while only 35% were in support; today, those numbers have flipped. New art and new science have developed. The US emits less CO2, and global wind power capacity has increased by a factor of 6. Global poverty has continued to decline, infectious diseases take fewer lives, US cancer mortality rates have fallen, global childbirth mortality and child mortality rates are down, and even as the world population goes up the number of people undernourished is decreasing.

(And for computer geeks: The laptop I had in 2006 had 1 GB RAM and a 40 GB non-SSD hard drive. The one I am using to write this post costs about the same and has 16 GB RAM and a 256 GB SSD. )

So it is very puzzling that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have engaged so many people by essentially ignoring progress and calling on their followers to ignore it as well. The very idea of “Make America Great Again” is based on the narrative that the US has declined, yet there has not been a better time for the US or for the world. And the “capitalism has failed you” narrative from the other side of the spectrum is no better. Get rid of your iPhone first and then talk about capitalism produces nothing of value. Hillary Clinton understood this when she stated, “America never stopped being great.”

And here is The Economist:

Which would you prefer to be: a medieval monarch or a modern office-worker? The king has armies of servants. He wears the finest silks and eats the richest foods. But he is also a martyr to toothache. He is prone to fatal infections. It takes him a week by carriage to travel between palaces. And he is tired of listening to the same jesters. Life as a 21st-century office drone looks more appealing once you think about modern dentistry, antibiotics, air travel, smartphones and YouTube.

The question is more than just a parlour game. It shows how tricky it is to compare living standards over time. Yet such comparisons are not just routinely made, but rely heavily on a single metric: gross domestic product (GDP). This one number has become shorthand for material well-being, even though it is a deeply flawed gauge of prosperity, and getting worse all the time […]. That may in turn be distorting levels of anxiety in the rich world about everything from stagnant incomes to disappointing productivity growth.

And my favorite part from the ad at the top is, “Even use on your boat,” as if everyone had boats back then.

“I Feel Like”

Here is Molly Worthen, whose article in the NYT is titled “Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’“:

In American politics, few forces are more powerful than a voter’s vague intuition. “I support Donald Trump because I feel like he is a doer,” a senior at the University of South Carolina told Cosmopolitan. “Personally, I feel like Bernie Sanders is too idealistic,” a Yale student explained to a reporter in Florida. At a Ted Cruz rally in Wisconsin in April, a Cruz fan declared, “I feel like I can trust that he will keep his promises.”

These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

Hedging my written remarks is pretty useful when I say things on the internet that are archived permanently. It is so easy to take things out of context that I preemptively qualify statements to avoid misunderstanding.

On the other hand, I agree with all the reasons against over-hedging as discussed in the article. I am in favor of things that are rational and encourage discussion, and I detest things that shut down debates.

Yet here is the paradox: “I feel like” masquerades as a humble conversational offering, an invitation to share your feelings, too — but the phrase is an absolutist trump card. It halts argument in its tracks.

When people cite feelings or personal experience, “you can’t really refute them with logic, because that would imply they didn’t have that experience, or their experience is less valid,” Ms. Chai told me.

“It’s a way of deflecting, avoiding full engagement with another person or group,” Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, a historian at Syracuse University, said, “because it puts a shield up immediately. You cannot disagree.”

This is also the primary reason why recent campus social justice movements go too far: they stifle debate rather than encourage it.

That said, there is a difference between hedging a statement and expressing an opinion:

  • If I recall correctly, the speed of light is 299,792,458 m/s.
  • I feel like Ted Cruz would make a bad president.

The first statement makes a factual claim but also expresses some uncertainty as to whether it is true. It doesn’t deflect engagement.

But the second is an opinion, and technically speaking, the claim is not that “Ted Cruz would make a bad president,” but that “I feel like Ted Cruz would make a bad president.” In this sense, you can’t really argue with the statement even if you miraculously provided evidence that Ted Cruz would make a good president, because that would not affect the person’s feelings that Ted Cruz would be a bad president.

So hedge more, “feel like” less.

Misc

NYT on Margot Robbie:

“It’s always a hustle,” she said. “I thought it would be a mountain, where you get to the top, and then it’s like: ‘Wheeee! It’s so easy after this.’”

Instead, Ms. Robbie said: “Any time I get near the top, I’m like, ‘There’s another mountain!’ The hustle continues.”

WSJ on making friends:

People with higher I.Q.s were less content when they spent more time with friends. Psychologists theorize that these folks keep themselves intellectually stimulated without a lot of social interaction, and often have a long-term goal they are pursuing.

Harvard on young people:

Sanders remains most popular candidate for America’s 18- to 29-year-olds; Nearly half believe today’s politics are unable to meet the country’s challenges; Majority reject both socialism and capitalism.

 

Brains, Stories, and Yelling

Cognitive Styles

I’m always skeptical of any explanation that involves “culture,” but here is Jennifer Richler in the latest issue of Scientific American Mind:

Previous research has shown that people from cultures that are Western,educated, industrialized, rich and democratic (“WEIRD,” in psychological parlance) tend to think analytically, using logical rules, whereas those that are non-WEIRD process information more intuitively. They even perform differently on problem-solving tasks: Americans, who are more analytical, remember individual components of a complex visual scene better than East Asians, who are more holistic.

They compared the minds of liberals and conservatives by giving them three words, e.g. “panda”, “monkey”, and “banana”, and asking which two were most related:

Liberals acted more like Westerners, pairing items that belonged to the same abstract category (for instance, two animals), whereas conservatives tended to pair items that were functionally related (monkey and banana), as non-Westerners do. One other classic test of holistic thinking also suggested that liberals tended to use a more typically WEIRD cognitive style.

The finding that conservatives think more like those from collectivistic cultures might sound counterintuitive. Aren’t liberals, who favor safety-net programs for the needy, the collectivist ones? Thomas Talhelm, now a professor of behavior science at the University of Chicago and lead author of the study, explains that true collectivism “doesn’t mean general sharing with other people. It’s about social ties and responsibilities to those within your group.” Antipoverty programs usually serve to help individuals get a leg up rather than strengthening groups—thus aligning with WEIRD cultures’ focus on individuality.

This confuses me a little because when I think about recent “liberal” examples in individualism vs collectivism, the thing that jumps out is the “check your privilege” movement, which is ultra anti-individualist. You belong to X racial group or Y social class? Privileged! Your “identity” is based on pre-defined groups (often which you did not make a choice to join) and not on your individual experience.

The counterintuitive story, that liberals are the individualistic ones, makes more sense after some thought. If you go through liberal vs conservative stances on social issues, it does seem like liberals in general favor the individual. The most glaring example is abortion, with the liberal position literally called “pro-choice.”

Here is a passage about where libertarians fit in this framework, from this article:

Historically, libertarians and modern liberals share an ideological ancestry, both tracing our roots to the classical liberal tradition of Locke, Hume, Smith, Mill, and others. In the 19th century, the classical liberals triumphed by advocating the primacy of the individual against the status quo of monarchy, mercantilism, aristocracy, theology, slavery, and the like. While the progressive movement stole our liberal terminology in the early 20th century, modern liberals and libertarians today still share that same valuation of the individual in society. This is most easily seen today in the issue of marriage equality, where social conservatives try to use the power of the state to control marriage because it is an important social institution, while liberals and libertarians focus on the importance of marriage in the lives of all individuals. It is the same core conflict between a holistic worldview that emphasizes tradition against a more analytic worldview that prioritizes the individual.

Oh, and I’m totally on team panda+monkey rather than monkey+banana. I would guess most people I know (liberals and math people) would pick the two animals as well.

Bonus: Here is a chart from the Scientific American Mind article on political party and Twitter language. It does further the story that “liberals are the real individualists”:

twitter_democrat_republican_language

Stories

Saw this on Tyler Cowen’s blog, so here is the story within a story. Just to be clear, I am quoting Tyler Cowen quoting Marti Leimbach:

“A question of privilege”

An excellent short essay by Marti Leimbach.  Here is the opening:

My university-aged daughter is always telling me about the “privilege” that people like me have and how it makes it impossible for me to understand and empathise with those whose lives are without such privilege. I do see her point. I’ve never been black or gay or trans or gender queer or mentally ill. I don’t know what it would be like to grow up in a derelict building in a dangerous neighbourhood, to have drug addicts for parents, to fear for my safety while walking to school, to be openly despised for being female, denied education or refused employment based on my skin colour or gender. And while I have been poor enough not to be able to afford a car or health insurance, I have never been so poor I had to steal food. Clearly, I’ve not suffered the worst of what society can throw at a person.

Nonetheless, this whole notion of “privilege” vexes me. We talk about it as though we can all recognise what it is. I am not always so sure. I can tell one narrative of my life and it seems to describe someone who grew up without privilege, and I can tell another narrative and it seems almost as though my life was one of ease and privilege from the time I was born.

The story continues…it is hard to excerpt with its various twists and turns, definitely recommended…

As advertised, Leimbach paints two widely differing narratives of the same set of events. It is definitely worth a read. (It also reminds me of the underrated movie Vantage Point, which shows the same plot unfold several times from the perspective of different characters.)

The power of narrative is strong. You can take the same set of facts and wind up with opposite interpretations, as was the case in Leimbach’s story. For very different example, here is a graph of US stock market investment, via Gallup:

gallup-stock-market

So should you buy into the market?

  • Story 1: “It is obviously a time to buy stocks. When the number of investors in the stock market recovers and comes back to normal levels near 60%, tens of millions of Americans will have bought stocks, making the market much higher than it is now.”
  • Story 2: “It is obviously a time to sell all your stocks. Fewer Americans are investing in the market than ever before, and this trend will only continue. Combined with the market near all-time highs, a crash is imminent.”
  • (Meta-story: “The markets are efficient and have priced in both stories 1 and 2, so it is not obviously a time to buy or to sell.”)

Do violent video games increase crime? [from this post]

  • Story 1: “People who play violent video games are likely to imitate the characters they play, thus becoming more aggressive in real life.”
  • Story 2: “People who would otherwise commit violent crimes satisfy their urges in video games and not in real life, thus decreasing the crime rate.”

So unless you have numbers to back you up or comprehensive explanations for complex issues, stay away from explaining things via simple stories.

These kinds of narratives make me skeptical of many political movements as well, whether from the right (e.g. the “war on Christianity” narrative) or from the left (e.g. the “privilege” narrative mentioned in Leimbach’s article).

Here is Cowen again, really hammering the point in a TED talk on narratives.

Basically, make sure you understand as much of the situation as you can, not just some simplified narrative.

How to Social Activism

Earlier this week, The Huffington Post on President Obama on Black Lives Matter:

President Barack Obama on Saturday praised the work the Black Lives Matter movement has done to highlight racial inequality, but also strongly cautioned activists that they needed to be realistic about their proposals and be willing to compromise.

Speaking at a town hall in London, the president mentioned Black Lives Matter specifically as he laid out his vision of how activists can achieve social change.

As a general rule, I think that what, for example, Black Lives Matter is doing now to bring attention to the problem of a criminal justice system that sometimes is not treating people fairly based on race, or reacting to shootings of individuals by police officers, has been really effective in bringing attention to problems,” Obama said.

But the president went on to say that activists needed to be realistic about what could be achieved immediately and sometimes needed to compromise to achieve long-term goals.

One of the things I caution young people about, though, that I don’t think is effective is once you’ve highlighted an issue and brought it to people’s attention and shined a spotlight, and elected officials or people who are in a position to start bringing about change are ready to sit down with you, then you can’t just keep on yelling at them,” Obama said.

Thanks Obama! And no, that was not sarcastic. As a rationalist and individualist, I generally disapprove of schemes in which your identity is based on something that you had no control over, such as race.

I’m on team Clinton and I think many of Sanders’s plans are insane. However, I fully support Sanders’s right to speak at his own rallies, especially with so many supporters there to see and listen to Sanders, not some random people who hijacked the podium, which happened in Aug. 2015.

Things like this just alienate would-be allies. I was generally favorable towards Black Lives Matter before this and certainly had a lower view of the group after the event. And it’s not like Sanders did anything horrible to them before or during the event. I am glad President Obama was not afraid to address this.

2015 and What I’m Thinking About

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Effective Altruism

One thing I’ve never discussed on this blog is effective altruism. It is basically a movement to optimize doing good, and it does so by number crunching rather than by random donating. Here are a couple of main results:

  • Certain charities are 10 or 100 times more efficient than others. The most effective of them all is to distribute mosquito nets to sub-Saharan Africa, according to the famous site GiveWell, which ranks charities in effectiveness.
  • A high income earner can create more social impact than a social worker. The idea is that a software engineer earning $100,000 a year and donating 50% of it (to efficient charities like above) can generate a lot more good than a non-profit worker. The site 80,000 Hours has more about this.

I am fine with this movement and I really enjoy the discussions it causes. I would defend effective altruism against many of its usual criticisms.

But I am still personally skeptical for now. Which brings me to…

Markets

One thing about working in trading is that I now see everything in terms of markets. (Tyler Cowen’s blog often highlights “markets in everything“.) I naturally think about the cost and value of everyday things and decisions. This mindset probably makes effective altruism become more understandable. If every $3000 in mosquito nets saves one life, why would I ever donate to my alma mater?

Yet the same market mentality also raises some questions. I believe people are generally good, that markets are generally efficient, and that companies are generally beneficial to society. So when billions of dollars go into a tech company like Facebook (market cap of $300 billion as of this post) instead of anti-mosquito nets, there is probably a lot of hard-to-measure good that Facebook is providing and which is widely ignored.

Disenchantment with the Left

I wrote only 3 blog posts this year, and sadly two of them were about terrorist attacks in Paris. Back in college I blogged about atheism, and I kind of want to get into this again considering the Paris tragedies, and I believe that combating religion is still important.

That is also why I am becoming disillusioned with being a liberal. Both in the media and on my Facebook feed, people are too afraid (of being called racist or worse, Islamophobic) to criticize Islam and its role in the attacks. The Koran says to do horrific things to infidels, and it is emphatically not a tiny minority that believe this literally.

Liberals do a great job standing up for women, LGBT people, and religious minorities—in America and Europe. But in entire swathes of Islamic countries, in both the Middle East and Africa, women are considered second-class, legally beaten by their husbands, and even sentenced to 200 lashes for the crime of being raped. And we liberals just look the other way because it would be racist and colonialist to criticize their culture. (That last sentence is just out of anger, I hope nobody actually thinks that.)

Here is a very graphic New York Times video from just yesterday, showing a woman literally beaten and stoned to death by a mob, in a public space in broad daylight, because of rumors she burned a Koran. Can you really watch that and claim Islam had nothing to do with it?

My other disillusionment with being a liberal is the whole safe-space/microaggression/trigger-warning/check-your-privilege movement, which I talked about previously.

Anyway, I want to make a hobby out of writing in 2016, and I’m not sure if I should stick with tame topics like effective altruism and markets, or also include charged ones like religion and politics.

Bonus: My 2015 Reading List

  • The Occupy Wall Street Handbook, Various Authors: This is a compilation of essays written on the Occupy movement. I read this to challenge my positive views towards Wall Street, but I was mostly unpersuaded. The essays presume that you are against Wall Street and then talk about the movement or stats about inequality, without much attempt at persuasion.
  • A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton G. Malkiel: A decent chronicle of the rise of finance and Wall Street.
  • The Millionaire Next Door, Thomas J. Stanley and William D. Danko: An eye-opening book about American attitudes on saving, spending, and the accumulation of wealth. It provides so many instances where two households have the same income yet have vastly differing net worths, even when age, location, education, previous incomes, etc. are similar.
  • Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand: I expected Atlas Shrugged to be pure evil based on so many peoples’ hatred of Ayn Rand and this book, but I actually enjoyed it. At least within the story, I cheered at the end. Does this make me a bad person? I definitely agreed with the reverence of scientists/inventors/creators.
  • On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin: We are all familiar with classics in literature, so why not in science? Its force and detail are impressive.
  • Average is Over, Tyler Cowen: The title says it all. Jobs will increasingly cluster towards high-wage and low-wage, with little in between.
  • The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen: Good discussion of low hanging fruit in economic growth.
  • The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan: Excellent treatise on voter rationality and the public’s views on economic issues, and how frighteningly different they are from economists’ views.
  • The Intelligent Investor, Benjamin Graham: I didn’t find it very useful.
  • The Sense of Style, Steven Pinker: A useful writing-style guide.
  • The Price of Inequality, Joseph Stiglitz: I had a similar reaction as to the Occupy handbook. It basically listed some facts but wasn’t that convincing. I mean, I agree that too much inequality is bad, but this book somehow made the case weaker for me. It had at least one “are you kidding me” moment.
  • Humans Are Underrated, Geoff Colvin: An interesting take on the idea that machines will take over even more jobs than today and that jobs will be all about human-to-human interaction.
  • Islam and the Future of Tolerance, Sam Harris and Maajid Nawaz: A very refreshing, actual dialog between an unapologetic atheist and a pro-reform Muslim. More discussions like this need to exist.
  • Brief Candle in the Dark, Richard Dawkins: Full of captivating and often humorous tales of Oxford, science, and atheism.
  • You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), Felicia Day: Really, thank you so much for creating The Guild and this memoir. It also feels good to read another person’s experience with World of Warcraft.

Caplan’s book discusses anti-market bias, and I feel like I did had lower expectations for books that were pro-market and higher expectations for ones that were anti-market. Both sides surprised me.

Safe Spaces and Universities

I’ve always considered myself a liberal. I am pro-equal-marriage, pro-choice, pro-feminism (at least in the classical sense), and pro-gun-control. When Donald Trump utters words, or when people complain about red Starbucks cups, I feel ever less proud to be an American. So it pains me greatly then, to ask, what the hell is going on in our universities?

Safe space is an innocuous-sounding term which, despite its reasonable and even praiseworthy historical origins, seems today to really mean safety from any encounter and discussion of opposing viewpoints. And it is unfortunately part of a larger phenomenon. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a well-known Atlantic piece:

A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense.

What kind of discomforts or offenses? Here is another passage (emphasis mine):

This new climate is slowly being institutionalized, and is affecting what can be said in the classroom, even as a basis for discussion. During the 2014–15 school year, for instance, the deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system schools were presented by administrators at faculty leader-training sessions with examples of microaggressions. The list of offensive statements included: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

Just read the whole article.

Influence

The main surprise is that this is happening at all. For a long time, I thought terms like safe space, trigger warning, check your privilege, and microaggression were confined to the echo chambers of Tumblr and occasionally seeped out to other social media sites. But to take prominence among real college campuses, including the most elite ones—that is surreal.

Last month the Yale Halloween Costume fiasco was ignited by this letter:

Even if we could agree on how to avoid offense – and I’ll note that no one around campus seems overly concerned about the offense taken by religiously conservative folks to skin-revealing costumes – I wonder, and I am not trying to be provocative: Is there no room anymore for a child or young person to be a little bit obnoxious… a little bit inappropriate or provocative or, yes, offensive? American universities were once a safe space not only for maturation but also for a certain regressive, or even transgressive, experience; increasingly, it seems, they have become places of censure and prohibition. And the censure and prohibition come from above, not from yourselves! Are we all okay with this transfer of power? Have we lost faith in young people’s capacity – in your capacity – to exercise self-censure, through social norming, and also in your capacity to ignore or reject things that trouble you?

Responses included:

  • “I don’t want to debate. I want to talk about my pain” in the Yale Herald (now taken down),
  • “I have had to watch my friends defend their right to this institution. This email and the subsequent reaction to it have interrupted their lives. I have friends who are not going to class, who are not doing their homework, who are losing sleep, who are skipping meals, and who are having breakdowns. I feel drained. And through it all, Christakis has shown that he does not consider us a priority.” (from an archive of the post)
  • this video incident:

From a professor writing in a Washington Post op-ed:

An additional problem that affects the current generation of college students even more is that it is so easy for these contretemps to balloon so quickly into national debates. That’s extremely unfortunate. One of the purposes of college is to articulate stupid arguments in stupid ways and then learn, through interactions with fellow students and professors, exactly how stupid they are. Anyone who thinks that the current generation of college students is uniquely stupid is either an amnesiac or willfully ignorant. As a professor with 20 years of experience, I can assure you that college students have been saying stupid things since the invention of college students.

Two years ago, I still roamed the halls of Cornell University as a student and I’m thankful I didn’t have to witness any of this nonsense. The most I have observed was a TA who used the term “freshpersons” instead of “freshmen”, and this is something I’m perfectly fine with. Other than that, nothing. So that means either:

  1. I went to a safe haven from safe spaces, or
  2. I managed to avoid contact with these people.

I’m guessing (2) is more likely. Perhaps it helped to have certain expectations for college life. It has become an antiquated notion that college is a place to open your mind and challenge your beliefs. Instead, certain students would persuade you that it is a place to close your mind and guard your beliefs as if they were more sacred than God.

College campuses should be safe spaces. They should be safe spaces for bright and motivated students to exercise free speech, challenge social norms, and learn new things. Picture that. And now picture that the people who want to place restrictions on these rights are not the administrators, but the students themselves.

On a similar string, here is an op-ed from The Daily Californian, calling on people to occupy the syllabus:

We are calling for an occupation of syllabi in the social sciences and humanities. This call to action was instigated by our experience last semester as students in an upper-division course on classical social theory. Grades were based primarily on multiple-choice quizzes on assigned readings. The course syllabus employed a standardized canon of theory that began with Plato and Aristotle, then jumped to modern philosophers: Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Marx, Weber and Foucault, all of whom are white men. The syllabus did not include a single woman or person of color.

We have major concerns about social theory courses in which white men are the only authors assigned. These courses pretend that a minuscule fraction of humanity — economically privileged white males from five imperial countries (England, France, Germany, Italy and the United States) — are the only people to produce valid knowledge about the world. This is absurd. The white male syllabus excludes all knowledge produced outside this standardized canon, silencing the perspectives of the other 99 percent of humanity.

The white male canon is not sufficient for theorizing the lives of marginalized people. None of the thinkers we studied in this course had a robust analysis of gender or racial oppression. They did not even engage with the enduring legacies of European colonial expansion, the enslavement of black people and the genocide of indigenous people in the Americas. Mentions of race and gender in the white male canon are at best incomplete and at worst racist and sexist. We were required to read Hegel on the “Oriental realm” and Marx on the “Asiatic mode of production,” but not a single author from Asia. We were required to read Weber on the patriarchy, but not a single feminist author. The standardized canon is obsolete: Any introduction to social theory that aims to be relevant to today’s problems must, at the very least, address gender and racial oppression.

This is just so rich. You speak of racism? You speak of sexism? Like, you are talking about theory in a time when the world was far more racist and sexist than it is today. If anything, rewriting the past to hide racism and sexism is making matters worse.

Jumping in time, just yesterday in the UK, certain students made death threats and actively disrupted a lecture in the name of “safe space”. The speaker, “Ms Namazie, 49, is a leading secularist and member of the ‘ex-Muslim’ movement which campaigns to give Muslims the freedom to leave their faith without reprisals.” An excerpt from the Daily Mail  regarding what occurred:

Speaking after the event, Ms Namazie said: ‘After my talk began, ISOC “brothers” started coming into the room, repeatedly banging the door, falling on the floor, heckling me, playing on their phones, shouting out, and creating a climate of intimidation in order to try and prevent me from speaking.

‘I continued speaking as loudly as I could. They repeatedly walked back and forth in front of me.

‘In the midst of my talk, one of the ISOC Islamists switched off my PowerPoint and left. The university security had to intervene and remain in the room as I continued my talk.’

Another excerpt:

Goldsmiths Islamic Society has previously hosted a number of radical speakers including Moazzam Begg of Cage, the charity which described ISIS terrorist ‘Jihadi John’ as a ‘beautiful, kind man’.

If you are advocating killing apostates and praising ISIS terrorists and leveling death threats against your critics, then sorry, you don’t get to claim the “safe space” defense.

And what’s worse is that people feel they have to be respectful of anything safe space, so they are stuck in a position where they can’t criticize what just happened above. “I’m offended” trumps any logical argument.

Jerry Coyne calls it the “death of liberalism“.

And we cannot leave out Yale’s twin, Missouri. Regarding the media incident at the University of Missouri, specifically this Youtube video, Conor Friedersdorf annotates:

Here the doublethink reaches its apex:

  • As the video begins, a man tells the photographer that he is not allowed to push the wall of people which has formed to stop him from moving forward.
  • Around the 20-second mark, a woman shouts that the photographer needs to respect the space of students, just as they start to forcibly push him backwards.
  • Just after the one-minute mark, having been pushed back by students who are deliberately crowding him to obstruct his view, things grow more surreal as the photographer is told, “Please give them space! You cannot be this close to them.”
  • At the 1:24 mark, as the students are chanting at the photographer and some are visibly smirking at him––and as he’s frustrated but doing his best to keep his cool––a protestor tells him, as if he is disrespecting them, “You think this is funny.”
  • Around 1:42, after several rounds of students chanting and yelling loudly at him in unison, he raises his voice to politely insist that he has a First Amendment right to be there. And a student interjects that he must not yell at a protestor.
  • At 1:50 or so, a student tells the photographer that the members of the large group outnumbering him 20- or 30-to-one need to protect their space as human beings from him.
  • Around 2:08, a woman walks right up to the photographer and says, “You know what? Back off of my personal space. Leave these students alone.”
  • That woman then spreads out her arms and starts pushing the photographer back more––and as she makes contact with his body other students tell him, “Stop pushing her.”
  • At 2:33, the same woman tells the photographer that one of the students doesn’t want to talk to him. He explains that he has no desire to speak with anyone. And she replies, “She doesn’t want to see you,” as if he’s infringing on a right to not stand in a public space in a way that makes him visible.
  • Another surreal moment comes at 2:47, when a student who has been there the whole time approaches the wall of people preventing the photographer’s forward progress and says, “I need to get through, are you not going to let me through?” as if the photographer is the one transgressing against her freedom of movement.
  • At 3:32 another student says, “They can call the police on you,” as if the photographer is the one breaking the law.
  • A moment later, the photographer puts his hands and camera directly above his head to try to snap a photo. The women in front of him pushes her hands in the air to try to block the lens. They make fleeting, inconsequential contact, and a bystander accusatorially says to the photographer, “Did you just touch her?” Because that would be beyond the pale, never mind he has been repeatedly pushed!

And on it goes like that.

This behavior is a kind of safe-baiting: using intimidation or initiating physical aggression to violate someone’s rights, then acting like your target is making you unsafe.

“You are an unethical reporter,” a student says around 5:15. “You do not respect our space.” Not 30 seconds later, the crowd starts to yell, “Push them all out,” and begins walking into the photographer. “You’re pushing me!” he yells. And even moments after vocally organizing themselves to push him, they won’t fess up to the nature of their behavior. “We’re walking forward,” they say, feigning innocence. Says one snarky student as the crowd forces him back, “I believe it’s my right to walk forward, isn’t it?” Then the photographer is gone, and only the person holding the video camera that recorded the whole ordeal remains. Ironically, he is a member of the press, too, which he mentions to one of the few protestors who is left behind.

By then, the mask has fallen.“Who wants to help me get this reporter out of here?” an unusually frank protestor yells. “I need some muscle over here!”

The woman calling for muscle? An assistant professor of mass media at the University of Missouri … who had previously asked the campus for help attracting media attention.

mizzou

So campus protesters have devolved into hypocrisy, blatant threats, and intimidation. This is now the example? I can hear Martin Luther King Jr. rolling in his grave.

You don’t have to sacrifice free speech or human compassion to advance your causes. It is not a tradeoff. My TA who said “freshpersons” didn’t feel the overwhelming urge to censor or threaten people who said “freshmen”. She was the most politically correct instructor I knew at Cornell, but she was a rational person who seemed to also understand the vital importance of free speech. It was not even close to these other stories.

Why Now?

Why did this phenomenon arise, and why so recently? The following sociology paper (Campbell and Manning) is a good answer. It argues there is rise of “victimhood culture” which is distinct from its predecessors, “honor culture” and “dignity culture”, and that the rise is based on social conditions—namely the college campus, a more egalitarian society (kind of surprisingly), and 21st-century technology that grants us the ability to mass-publicize grievances.

Abstract:

Campus activists and others might refer to slights of one’s ethnicity or other cultural characteristics as “microaggressions,” and they might use various forums to publicize them. Here we examine this phenomenon by drawing from Donald Black’s theories of conflict and from cross-cultural studies of conflict and morality. We argue that this behavior resembles other conflict tactics in which the aggrieved actively seek the support of third parties as well as those that focus on oppression. We identify the social conditions associated with each feature, and we discuss how the rise of these conditions has led to large-scale moral change such as the emergence of a victimhood culture that is distinct from the honor cultures and dignity cultures of the past.

Among other things, it provides a wealth of examples of academically documented cases of microaggression and claims of microaggression. Some interesting passages here:

A third notable feature of microaggression complaints is that the grievances focus on inequality and oppression – especially inequality and oppression based on cultural characteristics such as gender or ethnicity. Conduct is offensive because it perpetuates or increases the domination of some persons and groups by others. Contemporary readers may take it for granted that the domination of one group by another, or for that matter any substantial kind of intergroup inequality, is an injustice to be condemned and remedied. But people might have grievances about many other kinds of issues. For instance, they might condemn others for vices such as drunkenness, sloth, and gluttony. They might criticize or punish people for illicit sexual acts such as sodomy, incest, or bestiality. And cross-culturally and historically, people might harshly judge and persecute religious, ethnic, and other cultural minorities merely for being different. Such grievances are largely absent from microaggression complaints, and those who promulgate such complaints would surely consider criticism of cultural minorities and unconventional sexual practices to be examples of the very oppression they seek to expose and eradicate. The phenomenon thus illustrates a particular type of morality that is especially concerned with equality and diversity and sees any act that perpetuates inequality or decreases diversity as a cause for serious moral condemnation.

And this:

…a morality that privileges equality and condemns oppression is most likely to arise precisely in settings that already have relatively high degrees of equality.

And this:

When the victims publicize microaggressions they call attention to what they see as the deviant behavior of the offenders. In doing so they also call attention to their own victimization. Indeed, many ways of attracting the attention and sympathy of third parties emphasize or exacerbate the low status of the aggrieved. People portray themselves as oppressed by the powerful – as damaged, disadvantaged, and needy….

Certainly the distinction between offender and victim always has moral significance, lowering the offender’s moral status. In the settings such as those that generate microaggression catalogs, though, where offenders are oppressors and victims are the oppressed, it also raises the moral status of the victims. This only increases the incentive to publicize grievances, and it means aggrieved parties are especially likely to highlight their identity as victims,emphasizing their own suffering and innocence. Their adversaries are privileged and blameworthy, but they themselves are pitiable and blameless. To the extent that others take their side, they accept this characterization of the conflict, but their adversaries and their partisans might portray the conflict in the opposite terms. This can give rise to what is called “competitive victimhood,” with both sides arguing that it is they and not their adversaries who have suffered the most and are most deserving of help or most justified in retribution (Noor et al. 2012; Sullivan et al. 2012).

And this:

The emerging victimhood culture appears to share dignity’s disdain for risk, but it does condone calling attention to oneself as long as one is calling attention to one’s own hardships – to weaknesses rather than strengths and to exploitation rather than exploits. For example, students writing personal statements as part of their applications for colleges and graduate schools often write not of their academic achievements but instead – with the encouragement of the universities – about overcoming adversity such as a parent’s job loss or having to shop at thrift stores (Lieber 2014). And in a setting where people increasingly eschew toleration and publicly air complaints to compel official action, personal discomfort looms large in official policy.

Jonathan Haidt wrote a good outline of the paper here with comments.

What Now?

It doesn’t appear that this trend will subside anytime soon. What will happen? Will this cause a right-wing backlash? To protest this, will I have to vote Republican?

Bonus read: The word “colonial”/”colonialism” only occurs 12 times in this NPR denouncement of a Taylor Swift music video.

Paris and Campus Activism

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January 2015. Getty Images.

Paris

I like to wait some time after a current event and see people’s reactions. To the Paris attacks, everyone is responding exactly as you would expect:

  1. ISIS takes credit.
  2. France declares the attacks an act of war, bombs ISIS stuff in Syria, and smokes out related suspects.
  3. The rest of the world sympathizes with France.
  4. Conservatives in Europe and America want to stop taking in Syrian refugees, and more right-wing backlash, etc.
  5. Liberals criticize conservatives.
  6. People on the internet say all the usual stuff which they think are new and clever arguments on terrorism/tolerance/religion even though these arguments literally appear every time there is a terrorist attack.
  7. I get angry as an atheist because many people still try to tiptoe around calling this “Islamic” terrorism because the thought of accidentally offending people is so much worse than a hundred people being murdered.

The only thing sort of unexpected was the universal support against terrorism this time, in contrast with Charlie Hebdo in January. The last blog post I wrote, which seems like a really long time ago, was about the backlash against Charlie Hebdo after the attacks as many people thought their cartoons were too offensive and that in some way they deserved it.

Even the Pope changed his mind about it. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch,” said Mr. Francis in a victim-blaming allegory regarding the January attacks which killed 12 people. On the other hand, regarding the November attacks, he stated that there is no “religious or human justification for these things.”

So I’m pleased that the world is finally starting to rally together against ISIS. But it has unfortunately taken so many lives, not just in Paris but around the world, to get us to this path.

Missouri and Yale

One thing the Paris attacks did was to totally shut out the campus “activist” incidents from the news.

The Missouri protests seemed mostly legitimate, other than the whole fiasco of stepping in front of a car and touching it to obtain instant victimhood status, or the part where  protesters refused media into their safe spaces and then complained about not getting media attention. There was blatant racism at the school (like not microaggressions* but literally dropping cotton balls in front of a black community) and it seemed like the administration didn’t do much about it. Even if the president was totally not a racist but just incompetent at his job, it more or less justifies the protests.

For Yale though, I have to denounce the Halloween costume protests and instead take the side of Erika Christaki. Her apparently biggest mistake in life was to encourage students to think and exercise free speech, in an institution where students are supposed to think and exercise free speech. The backlash against her from some of the students seemed completely out of line, given that it took place at such an elite university. I basically agree with this Atlantic article by Conor Friedersdorf—its title, “The New Intolerance of Student Activism”, sums it up.

Bonus read: a protest at Dartmouth, with students’ own responses here and here. The first link is disconcerting. A passage:

The large group of protestors began to move up and yell at students on first floor Berry. Students were again yelled at to stand up in support of the protest, and many did so, either out of support or fear.

After making a girl cry, a protestor screamed “Fuck your white tears.”

I was startled by the aggression from a small minority of students towards students in the library, many of whom were supporters of the movement.

When I was at Cornell just a couple of years ago, I never saw anything like this. The closest to campus controversy I witnessed was the day after some rockets from Hamas hit Israel and killed some people. A group of pro-Israel, presumably Jewish, students organized a demonstration on Ho Plaza (yes, that place exists at Cornell). While I watched, another group of students, who I would guess were Muslim, started shouting profanities at the Jewish organization. From what I later heard, the second group was trying to kick out the Jewish group but the Jewish group had already cleared the event with the administration and thus had the right to be there.

But this incident seemed respectful of free speech and was about actual legitimate issues, not Halloween costumes.

*WordPress hilariously auto-corrects “microaggression” to “nonaggression”.

If You Think Charlie Hebdo Needs to Tone It Down, You Don’t Understand Free Speech (Or Satire)

Je_suis_Charlie

In response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting, there have been roughly two kinds of sentiments:

  1. I support free speech, and the attacks were unjustified. (“I am Charlie”)
  2. I support free speech, and the attacks were unjustified, BUT Charlie Hebdo went too far and shouldn’t have been so offensive. (“I am not Charlie.”)

The second sentiment is what I have trouble with, and it is one that I feel needs to be addressed.

We should be on the same side here. Extremist Islam is not just anti-free speech—it’s also anti-feminist, anti-LGBT, and anti-Semitic, to name a few examples. In fact, to blow your mind further, Charlie Hebdo is actually a left-wing paper. This is just one of the problems of satire, that some people will confuse what a satirist is making fun of with what he or she is actually supporting. Unfortunately, this “some people” category includes people who I would normally view as very intelligent, and perhaps they just flew too quickly into the contrarian nest. (I say this because it’s the left that should be MORE supportive of Charlie Hebdo, whereas it seems that all the detractors I know of are from the left.) I imagine that if the terrorists had attacked an women’s rights convention, the response from the left would be far different. (“I don’t profess to be a scholar of Islam. But it’s plain that some branches or interpretations of the faith view any depictions of gender equality as blasphemy.”) After all, it’s extremist Islam, not offensive cartoons, that brought you Boko Haram’s kidnapping of schoolgirls, lashes for women as punishment for being raped, and the shooting of an oh-so-offensive Malala Yousafzai. You should have the right to call these out without having to worry about your life.

Now, the way of calling these out is where some people disagree. They think free speech is the right to say what you want so long as it doesn’t offend people. But this is a contradiction in terms: by definition, free speech isn’t free if there are restrictions on what you can and can’t say.

“This is because, in part, the use of printed (and now digital) satire is an old and honorable response to the excesses of government and religion. When the people have no other voice, when the main media outlets are controlled by the state (or too fearful to challenge the state), satire flourishes. One of the few ways the citizen can hold the rich and powerful accountable is to employ humor and satire.” —Robert F. Darden (source)

The right to free speech is the right to ridicule, the right to offend. By arguing that Charlie Hebdo should essentially censor itself, you are calling for the destruction of your own human rights, and this sentiment I find much scarier than a terrorist shooting.

*

I also feel the need to address the main side point surrounding the issue, which is the claim that Charlie Hebdo is “racist” or “hateful” or “Islamophobic.” I’m afraid most of the articles or comments I’ve read that make this claim seem completely unaware that Charlie Hebdo is a left-wing satirical newspaper as opposed to a right-wing serious newspaper, which you might think it is if you didn’t get the satire. Here’s an example where several articles that I know of seemed to completely miss the joke:

charlie_hebdo_welfare

Yep, at first it looks quite offensive, even though I’m not sure what it’s saying. Other people had the same idea, but went ahead and created their own story for what it is saying. For example, this Chicago Tribune article titled “Sorry, I am not ‘Charlie'” interpreted this trivially and lumped it with a list of other “offensive” drawings, with the description:

One cover cartoon of four young black women in burqas was headlined: “The sex slaves of Boko Haram are angry. ‘Don’t touch our child benefits!'”

The Hooded Utilitarian has an article titled “In the Wake of Charlie Hebdo, Free Speech Does Not Mean Freedom From Criticism,” where the author not only shows the above cover in a list of “offensive” covers, but also adds a clever (but in hindsight, non-intelligent) quip, saying “Yes, that last one depicts Boko Haram sex slaves as welfare queens.”

A quick Quora scan, on the other hand, reveals that some people just don’t understand satire. An explanation by Jean-Baptiste Froment:

This cover is mixing two unrelated elements which made the news at about the same time:
– Boko Haram victims likely to end up sex slaves in Nigeria
– Decrease of French welfare allocations

In France, as in probably every country who has welfare allocations, some people criticize this system because some people might try to game it (e.g., “welfare queens” idea). Note that if we didn’t had it there would probably be much more people complaining because the ones who really need it would end up in extreme poverty.

Charlie Hebdo is known for being left-wing attached and very controversial, and I think they wanted to parody people who criticize “welfare queens” by taking this point-of-view to the absurd, to show that immigrant women in France are more likely to be victims of patriarchy than evil manipulative profiteers.

And of course if we only stay on the first-degree approach, it’s a terrible racist and absurd cover.

And by another commentor, Adrien Lucas Ecoffet:

I can only confirm what Jean-Baptiste Froment and Stephen Reed’s answers have been saying: it’s easy now for non-French observers to imagine Charlie Hebdo as a right wing, racist, anti immigrant publication because of the fact that they have only seen covers about fundamentalist Islam.

The reality is, Charlie Hebdo is a far left, pro-immigrant publication, of which many contributors have been members of anti-racist organizations.

As the other answers have mentioned, this cover is simply the combination of two news stories to make a provocative joke. This is a very common occurrence in Charlie Hebdo front pages.

Overall I don’t think you should make much of this front page. Clearly people are cherry-picking Charlie Hebdo covers in an attempt to prove that it is a racist, anti-Islam publication, perhaps in some form of victim-blaming, when this assertion is absolutely preposterous to anyone who actually knows the newspaper.

Incidentally, this particular issue was preceded and followed by anti-Le Pen front pages, Le Pen being the front figure of the French anti-immigration far right.

I’m not French, I don’t speak French, nor am I familiar with French newspapers or political organizations, but with even a drop of critical thinking, I can say that these explanations make far more sense than what the “Charlie Hebdo is racist” crowd is shouting.

Let’s do more examples!

Here is a Tumblr post with 55,152 notes at the current moment of my writing this. I’m going to link one of the images and quote the entirety of it here (and I bolded a particularly interesting sentence):

charlie_hebdo_bleu

Before social media sparks fire and everyone claims the phrase #jesuischarlie I want to point out some lovely truths about Charlie Hedbo that the news media may “forget” to point out.

Though my heart goes out to the victims to the shooting at the Charlie Hedbo headquarters ( I ALSO DO NOT CONDONE THE ACT OF VIOLENCE AS A SOLUTION TO RACISM OR HATE ) I need it to be known that this newspaper was not some sweet periodical that used it’s platform of freedom of speech as a catalyst to social change in France. Before you allow Fox News to label the shooters as Muslim Terrorist and that all Muslims are terrorist and that Charlie Hebdo was a magazines for families and saints you need to know that this newspaper was infamously known for being racist, homophobic, and highly islamophobic. I am not one to laugh at a blatant racist comic as “oh lol free speech” because with free speech comes RESPONSIBILITY.

It should be no secret that the Muslim community in France has often been abused, push to the side, and ignored. Even laws are put in place to prevent then from practicing their beliefs comfortably. For Charlie Hebdo to be a left wing newspaper that questioned the actions of the right wing, why does it often look like they are laughing along with them? Why can’t this magazine question why we are racist and islamophobic than to continue to justify their belief in supposed “ironic” comics?

My prayers go out to the victims of this shooing. As an artist, a person who works in magazines, a human, and as a French woman I feel their pain.

MAIS

JE NE SUIS PAIS CHARLIE

I will not stand for this magazine, I will not celebrate the privilege of “free speech” to be a disguise for hate. I am a black woman who understands how frustrated one can be as whites continue to use laws as an excuse to be abusive to who we are whether it be religion, skin color, or sexual orientation. I know France is scared, I know people are hurting. But I cannot be this newspaper’s ally. I am an ally for the people of France, I am an ally to the victims and their families but I will not stand in solidarity for this hateful newspaper.

JE NE SUIS PAS CHARLIE

Clearly this author senses something wrong: “For Charlie Hebdo to be a left wing newspaper that questioned the actions of the right wing, why does it often look like they are laughing along with them?” But she doesn’t go any further or investigate, and instead concludes she understands what the newspaper is about.

The author included the above Charlie Hebdo cartoon, which at first glance looks incredibly racist. However, the first warning bell that went off in my head was the word “raciste.” Now, as I said before, I don’t know any French, but it seems like you’re actually a real racist and drawing a racist depiction of someone, you wouldn’t include the word “raciste” in your depiction. Indeed, some digging reveals the full story (by John Courouble):

In November 2013 a cartoon in Charlie Hebdo depicted the Justice Minister Christiane Taubira, who is black (not literally African, specifically she was born in French Guiana), as a monkey. This has been a very popular image to share on Twitter as evidence that Charlie is a racist publication.

The first clue that all is not what it seems is that the cartoon was drawn by Charb – the editor himself. He was a Communist, and his girlfriend’s parents were North African. A funny kind of racist. Next you have to note that the text next to that cartoon says “Rassemblement Bleu Raciste”. This is a play on “Rassemblement Bleu Marine”, the slogan of Marine Le Pen’s national front, and the tricolor flame next to it is the party logo.

So, what you then need to know is that the cartoon was published after a National Front politician Facebooked a photoshop of the woman in the cartoon as a monkey, and then said on French TV that she should be “in a tree swinging from the branches rather than in government”.

The cartoon is literally saying the National Front are racists. I’m genuinely not sure whether propagating the imagery is or isn’t a useful way of mocking the FN, but turning an antifascist cartoon into evidence of racism based on no understanding at all takes some real pathology.

Again, this makes way more sense. It’s like when Obama was portrayed in the following way in The New Yorker, and many people missed the joke.

obama_new_yorker

These are quite entertaining, so let’s do one more, and this time, a more relevant one. This one portrays Muhammad (which you basically aren’t supposed to do, if you believe in censorship and blasphemy laws):

charlie_hebdo_prophete

Once again, this looks quite racist at first.

Finished judging yet? Let’s look at a translation:

charlie_hebdo_prophete_translation

Yeah. Let that sink in for a while.

Basically, people in the second group assumed that Charlie Hebdo was a bunch of classic right-wing sweep-all-Muslims-into-one-category racists, but hopefully they realize now that it is not the case. As this cover illustrates, they are actually criticizing the extremist parts, by figuratively saying that extremists have turned on their prophet.

So basically:

  • Satirical newspaper staff was attacked.
  • People were sad.
  • People wanted to defend free speech.
  • Some people thought Charlie Hebdo shouldn’t be so offensive.
  • These “some people” don’t realize that Charlie Hebdo is actually satirical and making fun of racists.
  • Hopefully they will realize this and stop with the “I am not Charlie” nonsense.

Once again, to those I’m criticizing (those of you in the “I am not Charlie” group): I think we’re ultimately on the same side here, you might have just been misinformed or leapt too quickly to judgment without careful thought.  The enemy isn’t Charlie Hebdo, it’s religious extremists.

I haven’t looked at or evaluated every Charlie Hebdo cartoon for racism, but based on several examples that seemed clearly racist at first but were actually not (and were actually anti-racist), and based on their track record for supporting free speech, it seems like Charlie Hebdo is an excellent publication to support.

May the freedom of speech prevail.

I am Charlie.