Friday, July 31, 2020

The Harpers Letter On Justice And Open Debate And What Followed. Prologue And Act I.



Prologue

You are going to lurve this story

It is about pizzas (and who doesn't like pizza (1)) and it is about Domino's Pizza in far-away and exotic places.  That would be in New Zealand and Australia.(2)  There the advertising people had a brilliant idea to spread a little warmth and human kindness around (and, ultimately to sell more pizzas) by offering a free pizza to all women whose first name is Karen.  Their actual, real first name, that is.

The backstory, for those who have not spent much time in social media recently is this:

A giveaway, titled "Calling all (nice) Karens" was posted on the pizza chain's Australian and New Zealand pages.
It asked those named Karen to tell Domino's in 250 words how they were one of the "nice ones".
"The name 'Karen' has become synonymous with anyone who is entitled, selfish and likes to complain," Domino's chief marketing officer in the region, Allan Collins, said while introducing the offer.
"What used to be a light-hearted meme has become quite the insult to anyone actually named Karen.
"Well, today we're taking the name Karen back.


You get their intention, right?  It's a little ham-fisted and I would have written it differently, but their point was to try to be nice to people who might have been suffering a little from watching their first names being rolled in human excrement and then used as pissoirs.

Well, what happened, you might ask.  The promotion in Australia is going on as planned while the New Zealand promotion had to be canceled.  This was because of a social media backlash:

The offer was immediately criticised, with many arguing "Karen negativity" was an issue that affected mostly "privileged white women".
"Most of the time Karens are entitled privileged white women. If a few people actually called Karen can't handle the meme they should try handling 400 years of oppression," said one user on Twitter.
"When you wanna reward more privilege to the most privileged in our society," another said.
Some brought up recent incidents where women were accused of acting like "Karens".
"Please Dominos, stop. Karens ask to speak to the manager and actively try to get low wage workers fired. Karens put people at risk by refusing to wear a mask. Karens don't need your defense," said another Twitter user.


Now that is some hilarious shit. 

After I stopped laughing (howling) at those quotes I wondered where the education system of such an advanced country as New Zealand could have gone so wrong (3) that many cannot tell the difference between Karen-in-the-meme and Karen-as-the-actual-real-name of actual real people who may have nothing (4) in common with the demographic group Karen-in-the-meme demonizes or with those nasty, entitled and racist white women whose antics are portrayed in many popular videos circulating in social media.

Act I

The above made me think about the famous Harpers Letter On Justice And Open Debate, signed by over 150 fairly famous journalists, writers and academics from both sides of the American political aisle and with many different specializations. 

I had just finished digesting not only that letter and the letter (with 180+ signatories) which was written in response to it,  but also a respectably large number of additional pieces of prose on the topic. 

Some of those agreed with the contents of the letter, some disagreed with those contents, while yet others demanded to know why certain named individuals had signed the letter even though other, quite nasty individuals also signed the letter. 

Were the former aware of the presence of the latter in the list of signatories?  And if so, why didn't they refuse to sign the letter?  And if they were not aware of the presence of wrong-thinkers, why didn't they ask their own signatures to be withdrawn later? (5)

Some signers did withdraw their signatures later, though not because others had demanded it.  Some who had not signed the letter (and perhaps not even asked to sign the letter) wrote in great detail about what someone else signing the letter meant for them. 

Almost everyone, however, reacted to the letter from their own standpoint.  In other words, they interpreted the vague words of the letter as code which actually referred to episode x in their own political career or political issue z which they had worked with. And so on.

Although I write about all the reading I did in a flippant tone (my hazmat suit today), I have no intention to belittle the issues the articles raised.  Indeed, while I was reading the various takes on the possible meaning of the letter, on the timing of the letter, on the signatories on the letter etc., I found myself agreeing at least a little with some parts of each article I finished.

And hence the need to take time to digest everything.  What did I/me/myself think about these issues?  The "eureka" moment then happened: 

I realized that I, too, was unable to approach the entirety of the arguments in the initial letter from any other starting point than my own personal online reading and writing experiences!

Was this, then, one of the beneficial outcomes of open debate?  For though the debate I carried on took place only inside my own head it certainly was quite open, because it was fed with a vast amount of arguments, facts and opinions.

This realization pleased me, and it looked like a fairly good reason to have more open debates:  They might make us learn more.

But if I hadn't come across that pizza debacle I might not have written on the Harpers letter, and the reason is that parts of it rang very true to me: 

The rules of debate have changed on us, without any particular group or individual having done that changing (though some boo at the changes while others applaud them), and the costs of being misunderstood or, perhaps, and more to the point, of being accurately understood can be far higher now than they ever were in the past.  Though this is not true for everyone in all contexts, it is probably true for almost everyone in some contexts.

This is because the online world creates a new kind of debating environment.  I wish to expand on that topic later in this post, but as a gross simplification every single online communication, however private it might feel,  should be viewed as the communicators yelling in extremely loud voices while the whole world listens to them.  And judges them.  And just might decide to punish them in some ways for that communication. 

The world, as we all know, is full of both wonderful and horrible things, and the horrible ones tend to be drawn to certain types of speech by certain types of people, like ants to honey. 

I have no desire to be the honey and I have real ants in the kitchen. 

Besides, I have been a most polite online arguer for such a long time that I have worn through all my hazmat suits and my thick turtle shield lets light through.  The negative consequences which might come from discussing challenging ideas now outweigh all the pleasures of the search for answers, the pleasure of getting good feedback and good respectful push-back and the pleasures of learning. 

And I do sometimes feel that many more Twitter debates now turn from mere bickering to something quite nasty and even frightening than was the case even five years ago.  Though most of that is, I believe, due to the characteristics of Twitter itself and not due to the people using it, the risks simply seemed too high for me to assume in my current condition.  Besides, I don't really have anything truly new to contribute. 

That was how I at first talked myself out of writing on this issue.  But then the pizza came, and I saw that I was avoiding the "open debate or not" (6) debate because I subconsciously expected it to turn into a clone of the pizza debacle. 

The people who "won" that particular debate didn't actually debate better!  They didn't even debate on the actual topic of the debate!   But  Domino's Pizza allowed them to win because it feared the power of a bunch of anonymous social media commentators to affect its ethical reputation and its revenue stream.  The anonymous commentators, on the other hand, had nothing to lose from playing this game.

And to the extent that pizza example resembles the state of today's debates, or at least their worst state, perhaps staying silent and demure isn't an acceptable ethical choice for me.

So whatever it is worth, the rest of the post will go on and on and on about various aspects of today's debating climate, as seen by me.  I will begin by looking at why having instant access to millions of strangers might create problems for those who are trying to control the contents and the scope of any particular debate topic.


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(1)  I love a white pizza.  I would love other colors on pizzas, too, but, alas,  I get migraines from tomato sauce and tomatoes.  The world of food is not a place of justice.

(2) They are exotic places because I have never been there.  I so want to see the cassowary before I change planets but, alas, this doesn't look likely now.  They are also exotic places for having accepted Domino's pizza there as if it was a valid food product.

(3)  Not enough cassowary time between lessons?  Or would that be in Australia?  I refuse to learn geography because it is too late. In any case the social media denizens were probably Americans pretending to be Kiwis.

(4)  And by that I mean that all sorts people might have that name.  Not all are white, not all are middle-aged, not all are middle class, and most are probably ordinary nice people, just like the rest of us.

(5)  This is "guilt by association" and has to do with a particular authoritarian mindset which is not terribly uncommon on the far right or on the far left, one which sees the world in all-or-nothing, black-or-white terms and has great trouble with nuances. 

People with that mindset are not necessarily wrong (or at least not always wrong), but debating them feels like rowing a water-logged boat against the stream and every step one takes is a misstep.  That should explain why I feel grumpy about them.  

I am aware of the alternative interpretations for the guilt by association.  For instance, if you frequently  eat free finger food at the cocktail parties capitalists organize in Washington DC,  you might not then be the most objective of labor reporters.  Achtung:  That was a made-up example.  I don't know a single labor reporter and I made the whole story up.

But if it upsets you I shall obviously cancel it! 

(6) The adjective can be contested, although it is not completely untrue.  Debates in the past were open in one sense but very closed in another also important sense. 

There were always people not invited to participate in the debates or even allowed to sit in the audience.  That specific aspect of closing the debate from some disadvantaged groups, say, is gone thanks to the online environment.  Well, mostly gone.   

Friday, July 24, 2020

Roy Den Hollander. On Murders And Online Misogyny.


 The Online Incel Movement As Domestic Terrorism


  While lounging in my sick bed I bookmarked lots of stuff for potential blog posts, because I always hoped I would feel better the following day and wanted to be ready (1).  Many of those sources will now never be used as the world of news now moves so fast that even a week-old scandal provokes little interest.

Still, I did make a note of the fact that Canada is now treating a murder based on the online incel theories as an act of domestic terrorism (2):

Police in Canada are treating a machete attack in which a woman was murdered and two others injured as an act of terrorism, after discovering evidence suggesting that it was motivated by violent misogyny.
The move is thought to be the first time that terrorism charges have been brought in a case connected to the so-called “incel” ideology.

The case involves a seventeen-year-old boy who entered a massage parlor in Toronto last February, killed one woman and attempted to kill (at least) another woman.  He was already facing first degree murder and attempted murder charges which have now been raised to the terrorism charge because:

In a joint statement, the RCMP and Toronto Police Service said their investigation had determined the attack “was inspired by the Ideologically Motivated Violent Extremist (IMVE) movement commonly known as INCEL.”

This case joins several earlier cases of murders and mass murders which can be at least partly attributed to various online misogyny sites (3), and at least two other attempts at violence in the US also have incel motivations at their root (4).

When I read about this most recent incel murder case I planned to use it to focus on the dangerous role online hate sites have because of their bubble nature: 

It is not that such sites exist which is the biggest problem (though it is very unpleasant and sad to realize how many people hate perfect strangers they have never met), but their insular nature, the way anyone proposing a more nuanced view is instantly banned, thus maintaining the "purity" of the world inside the bubble,  and the way they distort data, theories and interpretations so that only the most deranged arguments are allowed to prevail.  As at least some of those who frequent such sites are mentally vulnerable individuals (who will also be victimized by the false information they receive concerning their pain), the resulting combination is flammable.

I wrote about my worries about these sites many years ago.  I even contacted some authorities and people expert in the relevant fields.  I don't remember all the responses I received, but I do remember that a common advice was to ignore the incel sites, because they represented an extremely tiny minority, and giving them attention was going  to make them grow.  Besides, what could anyone do about them?

Now that particular advice, about ignoring the sites,  seems extremely misplaced.  But it's the advice many of us follow when we come across a concentrated form of extremist hatred.  It is certainly a common strategy in how many learn to live with the existence of violent misogyny and the easy online access to it. 

Misogyny is sometimes seen as just one of the unavoidable flavorings in our cultural stew and trying to fight it is seen as both pointless and unproductive, like trying to hold back the tide with your hands. I think this is a common form of mental coping:  One minimizes and isolates the risk, tries to avoid it as much as possible while also avoiding thinking about it.

Roy Den Hollander


This is the background against which I read the recent news about the murders Roy Den Hollander committed.  Hollander was a lawyer and a well-known Men's Rights Activist (MRA) who firmly believed that the world was governed by feminazis. He spent much of his career suing institutions for what he viewed as discrimination against men (5). 

Those suits were well known to some of us.  I wrote about one of them in 2009 and the New Yorker wrote a long profile of Hollander in 2007 when he sued nightclubs for charging men more than women at the door. 

Re-reading those now makes me shocked with the rather sarcastic tone of both, including mine.  But then sarcasm and ridicule are also among the few tools that ordinary citizens can use to cope with misogyny or with any other similar hate.  Indeed, it seems to me that Hollander was largely tolerated by many, though that tolerance might have been laced with sarcasm.

Two years ago Hollander received a terminal cancer diagnosis.  It seems  that he decided to go out with a bang by taking some of his favorite enemies with him.  Thus, earlier this July he traveled from New York to California where he killed another Men's Rights lawyer, Marc Angelucci with whom he had had a disagreement.  He then returned to New York and attempted to kill Judge Esther Salas, but succeeded in only murdering her young adult son, Daniel Anderl, and in wounding her husband, Mark Anderl:

Roy Den Hollander gunned down Judge Esther Salas' son in New Jersey on Sunday and badly wounded her husband.

The gunman dressed as a FedEx delivery man before opening fire at their North Brunswick home, police said.

Den Hollander wrote on his website that the jurist was "a lazy and incompetent Latina judge appointed by Obama".

A package addressed to Judge Salas was found inside his car, sources said.

After this second murder and attempted murder, Hollander apparently took his own life.  It is at this time unclear whether the list of names found among his belongings was a longer planned hit list or not.

What Turned Hollander Into A Murderer?

Time, now, to try to understand what motivates men like Hollander to go on a killing spree.  Is it purely a mental health condition, akin to being utterly obsessed with an inaccurate explanation for his rage and unhappiness?

Is it misogyny?  Or is it something similar to the way some ancient rulers had their favorite concubines, horses and slaves killed to accompany in the afterlife? Or was it his badly failed marriage to a Russian woman and some generalized anger he felt at and about her that was the beginning of all things going wrong?

I am not sure that we need to select only one of those explanations, because the next-to-last one is based on the same feeling of entitlement which caused Hollander to rage at feminists and women in general.  His mental health appears to me to have been broken a long time ago, too, and he clearly was closely involved with online misogynist sites, in particular the MGTOW, a movement advocating that men should try to live their lives without any contact with women, but also pretty much based on pure misogyny as the justification for that choice.

Then the truly difficult questions:  Could Hollander have been turned away from the violent path he chose to pursue, and if so, how?  Is it possible that the society at large, and many of us, chose to ignore his clear misogyny and rage at uppity women, and that it is this particular path we are too often taking, as a society?

Could the court system itself have somehow intervened when it became crystal-clear that he was suing all possible entities as a private vendetta?  And what are the responsibilities of all those online misogyny sites which actually may have been able to reach him? 

I don't have the answers that we need, but I do wish to finish with a quote from one of the newspaper articles I quoted, because it reflects something which deserves more attention (6):

“Misogyny is probably the most overlooked ideology that fuels men’s violence, '' Horgan said. “This ideology is out there, it's pervasive, and we are barely paying attention to it outside dramatic acts of violence like this."




 


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(1)  It was not possible to write in the state I was in then.  Whenever I tried, I made more spelling mistakes than words and every chain of thoughts ended up in a knot.  Even writing a shopping list was hard work, like trying to swim across a pond full of oatmeal porridge. 

At the same time, my creative thought processes worked just fine (well, at least fast) and produced the most outlandish and hilarious models of the world and people in it!

(2)  The state of Texas in the US also regards the incel movement as part of domestic terrorism.  Though it is not that important how the threat is named, it is important to take it seriously, and if naming it a form of terrorism helps in that I am all for it. 

(3)  Elliot Rodger was a well-known mass murderer motivated by his feelings of entitlement to sex and by his beliefs in the theories of the online incel movement.  In 2014 he killed six people and injured fourteen others in Isla Vista, California.


Chris Harper-Mercer murdered nine people at an Oregon community college in 2017, citing Rodger as an influence. Scott Beierle shot up a yoga studio in Florida in 2018, killing two women and injuring four other people. Alek Minassian ran his van into a crowd in Toronto in 2018, killing 10 people and injuring 16, and also cited Rodger as an influence.


(4)  Some more recent cases of violence based on the incel movement are these:

Emmanuel Deshawn Aranda threw a 5-year-old boy over a railing at the Mall of America in a fit of outrage that women wouldn't have sex with him.
...
In May, 20-year-old "incel" Armando Hernandez live-streamed his shooting spree at an Arizona shopping mall, apparently targeting heterosexual couples. Just last month, another "incel" blew his hand off trying to make a bomb designed to kill "hot cheerleaders".

The total number of killings so far attributable to the movement in the US and Canada is around fifty.

(5)  Some of his suits, such as the one against the male-only military draft, can be defended, or at least understood, on feminist grounds, too, though of course the draft is not currently in use.

Others, however, were considerably more frivolous.  I wrote about his 2009 suit which argued that having women's studies in colleges without men's studies is discriminatory.  The problem with that suit was that the women's studies were created because much of the rest of all universities were all men's studies at the time.  (How weird to think that women's studies are a vanishing breed today!  Hollander got his way, I guess, even when not winning the suit.  Or others got his way for him.)

But it is crucial to realize that Hollander did not base his suits on the idea that men and women might have some inherent kind of equality and that this has been violated by what he weirdly saw as an anti-male bias in a world run by feminazis. (Isn't that hilarious?  Feminazis are a dying breed, too, now, and only a few years ago all sorts of weird people saw them running the world).

His views about women seem bifurcated:  On the one hand he was one of those nudge-dudge-did-you-see-that-rack-walk-past guys (with strong feelings of entitlement to those bodies) and on the other hand he venomously hated both feminists and professional women.  He also criticized one men's rights movement part in a way which tells us about how he defined masculinity and femininity:

“I don’t belong to that group of wimps and whiners,” he wrote. “They’re trying to win back their rights by acting like girls instead of men.”

Hollander certainly detested feminism, in general, and wanted to toss as many hammers as he could find its works.  But his grievance lists were odd.  From 2007:

He reached into his pocket and produced a typed forty-one-point list headed “Discrimination against men in America.” (Sample gripes: child-custody laws, circumcision, “5% of females have borderline personality disorder.”) “What I’m trying to do now in my later years is fight everybody who violates my rights,” he continued, bringing to mind a combination of Leon Phelps, Che Guevara, and Travis Bickle.

I call his grievance lists odd because they are actually mostly not grievances against something women have created. 

The draft, for one example, was made men-only because the military in the US (and in all other countries I know about) earlier explicitly excluded women from serving in the military.  Even today those who fight against women's presence in the military are often men who share the other anti-feminist values with Hollander.

Likewise, the cheaper door charges for women in nightclubs is something the clubs created for business reasons:  Lower door charges for women will attract more female customers, more female customers will attract more male customers looking for a date.  Thus, the reason why women "enjoyed" this perk is not because feminists demanded it.  In fact, the underlying reasoning is pretty sexist and objectifying, because women are used as bait for the fatter wallets of the men they attract.

(6)  I have never heard of a mass killing which would have been motivated by misandry.  Indeed, none of those supposed feminazi-rulers-of-us-all that Hollander so hated ever engaged in acts of murder on misandric grounds (and most likely on no other grounds, either).  I think it's worth thinking about this difference.



Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Housekeeping Issues


I am trying to put together links to the most useful blog posts from my archives (which span almost seventeen years), especially on the topics of neurosexism, pseudoscience, and sex-based oppression.  I was one of the very few people who wrote about them to amateurs, so perhaps the front page should offer easier access to them.  I was also almost the only one who wrote about the bad popularizing of research into gender and sex, and I think the archives should be easier to search for that topic, too.

What would be the best way, in your opinion, to create easy access to posts which still are useful and have not dated?  Something in one of the side columns?

And if you have read here for a longer time period, do you remember any particular posts which you found especially enlightening?  I could add unrelated posts if they get votes.  Like  adding not only Ms Universe, but also Ms Congeniality.

Anything else you would like to remain available online?  Thank you for any help.


Monday, July 13, 2020

My Virus. A Biography.


Only because someone might be interested in the life of a mild case of the coronavirus.

I caught it around the tenth of February, without knowing what it was I had at the time.  I had spent a long weekend at one of the early epicenters of the disease, and had not taken any special precautions, other than some extra hand-washing.

The symptoms appeared around a week later*.  The most obvious of them was one that I have never seen mentioned:  I felt that whatever I was suffering from was totally different from all the colds and flus I had had in my life.  It was something new, a different feeling of being, full of truly incredible fatigue and lassitude.

My other symptoms were very minor.  I had a fever which rose and fell repeatedly over a few days, extreme joint and muscle pain, and I lost both my sense of smell and my sense of taste.  I did cough, but not much, I had a mild headache and a sore throat, and one night I felt that hot, red-raw feeling slowly sink down towards my lungs but somehow I managed to stop it from getting there**!

The recovery was fairly fast except for the fatigue which hung around for several months.  But the after-effects have not been pleasant, if they are after-effects of the virus.  I got the first urinary tract infection of my life, simultaneously with a sinus infection (which is a more repeated problem with me), the sinus infection returned three times before it finally succumbed to very strong antibiotics.  I got two gum infections, and dental checks found no explanation for them.  I got severe pain in my toes and slightly less pain in my fingers.  I suffered from moving pains in my intestinal tract which seemed to have no correlation to what I ate or what I did. And so on.

I am glad to say that all that is now in the past.  About ten days ago I realized that I was running up the stairs for the first time in months, and that carrying the laundry basket down to the basement (where the washing machine is) didn't have to be carefully planned beforehand like a polar expedition!  I had muscle power back!  I felt human again!  But getting to that point took four months.

So wear your masks, practice social distancing, wash your hands and avoid large public indoor gatherings.


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* I assumed that I got the ordinary flu, despite being vaccinated against it, and that the weird overall feeling was linked to it being a version one gets with the vaccine.  For purely random reasons I probably didn't give the virus to anyone else.  At first I was too tired to go out, and then I thought I had the flu so had someone else get me groceries and that person didn't get the virus.  But none of that is to my own credit.

**  All I can say about that weird sentence is that it felt that way.  I did a lot of qigong breathing exercises that night, but the outcome probably was just good luck. 


On Donald Trump As A "Karen"




Here is a picture of Donald Trump someone created online.  My apologies for not finding the creator, to provide proper credit:




Why it is a funny picture requires a) knowing that the Supreme Court of the United States recently decided that president Trump cannot hide his tax information, b)  knowing that this would obviously create narcissistic rage in our Donald who would therefore scream about it, and c) knowing the online Karen meme.

The Karen meme may have been* created by Black women to describe the type of a White woman who would act in overly entitled and racist ways while dealing with people of color working in customer service, often demanding to see the manager.  The Karen of this original meme is a racist middle-aged, middle-class White woman, and the point of the original meme was to draw attention to racist behaviors by White women.

The meme, however, has also taken on a life of its own**, so that is now be used as a general slur about (mostly) White women who do stupid things (such as not wearing the mask against the covid virus) or about (mostly) White women who express controversial opinions.

Returning to the above picture, the joke that we are supposed to get from it is that Trump has now turned into a Karen!  The only way we might ever be able to realize that Donald Trump (an extremely powerful, rich, entitled and rude White man)  truly is overly entitled is by depicting him as a woman called Karen!

And that, my friends, is sexist***, whatever your opinions of the popularity of this meme.

=====
*  I have not done the necessary research on the very first appearance of this meme.  I have also seen someone argue that the first use of the term was by a man berating his ex-wife and that even earlier uses exist. 

**  The male-centered Reddit discussion site has several large Karen subreddits where people collect their stories about entitled women calling the manager, being racist, or doing something else the posters found irritating or stupid or anger-causing. 

These stories are not necessarily sexist in themselves.  Many of them describe (alleged) bad behavior by some (usually) White woman, and  doing that would be okay if similar subreddits also existed about White men who do stupid things (refuse to wear the covid masks, say), who act in racist ways, or who feel overly entitled and want to see the manager when things aren't to their liking. 

Those types of behavior are not less common among White men than among White women.  But White men who behave badly are mostly not given a name (Bubba?), and that name is therefore not employed in creating a meme about a large sub-group of people.  The only exception I can think of to this rule is "the Florida man" meme, but it is nowhere as widespread as the Karen meme is today.

What all this means is that the individual acts of really stupid or rude or entitled White men are seen as just that:  Individuals who are acting like assholes.  Here is one example of that.  (My apologies for losing the source for this one, too. I blame my illness.)  The original didn't give this man a generic name which would create a meme applicable to all White men of his age and general looks out of his behavior.



But that is what seems to be happening to the Karen meme.  I have seen a few attributions of a possible Karen status to someone just because of a particular haircut (short and fairly straight) and hair color (blond), even when that person is a stranger who has done nothing Karen-like and is not planning to do anything Karen-like.  So one can become a Karen simply because one looks like what someone thinks Karens do!

***  We tend to use most of the  -ism terms without thinking of their basic definitions.  It can be useful to do so, however.  In this particular case the correct way to think about this term is to ask if anything changes in our responses if the only thing we change in some incident is the sex or perceived sex of the culprit while leaving what the individual does intact.


 
 



 

Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Getting Back In The Saddle. Or Writing After Illness.


I have never ridden a horse though I have sat in a sled pulled by a horse, called Lotta.*

Okay.  That's the entirety my post title produced inside my feeble brain. 

The goal of this post is to get the writing machinery started again, which may mean that its contents are not going to be exciting for anyone else.  Or who knows?

Here it goes, a list of the brilliant thoughts  my recent illness has incubated:

On online political commentary in social media:

1.  I am stunned by the innumeracy of so many otherwise intelligent people.  It's not about most people not understanding the difference between the mean, the mode and the median as measures of central tendency or that the concept of exponential functions (important during this pandemic) is so often utterly misinterpreted.  Those gaps are normal for people who have not taken statistics in college.

It's the more basic type of innumeracy which frightens me.  Not seeing a difference between very small and very large numbers, not understanding that "minority" implies a head count of less than fifty percent of the total,  not seeing that one example of something does not, in itself, tell us anything about how common the phenomenon in the example might be. 

Percentages are often interpreted incorrectly when the size of the base used in the calculations is ignored.  If the prevalence of some illness in a country rises from ten cases to twenty cases, the percentage rise is 100% and looks enormous, but the absolute number of new cases is quite small.  If the prevalence of another illness in the same country is initially one hundred cases and rises to 110 cases the percentage increase is ten percent while the increase in absolute numbers of new cases is the same. 

This matters when we compare, for instance, two states with very different initial Covid-19 cases and the later increases in those cases.  It also matters when interpreting percentage increases in some phenomenon which starts from a very small base.  Any increase will be a big percentage increase when the base is tiny and doesn't necessarily support writing about "the group where the rates are rising most alarmingly."

2.  Because of the nature of online commentary, its major focus tends to be in words and persuading others by using words.  Words and gestures do matter, don't get me wrong.  But what might matter even more is how material resources are distributed or re-distributed.  Or at least the two, communication and resource provision, must dance together.

Take the Black Lives Matters movement.  For the US to really improve racial justice it is ultimately necessary to address racial and/or class inequalities in wealth and income.  There are various ways of approaching the needed re-allocations**, but ultimately money must change hands.  And social justice movements must also focus on the necessary work to achieve that outcome.

3.  While sick I spent some whole days reading political comments on Twitter and in many other places.  Doing that made me think how very important it is to go back to one's basic principles about fairness and justice, or at least to visit those principles once in a while.  Specific examples of injustice are important and useful, but that is because they put flesh on the bones of the underlying principle***.  It is that principle we must remember.

Whenever I get confused about some specific example of unfairness, and in particular about an example where the rights of two groups or individuals clash or appear to clash, I get clarity by going back to the basic principles I hold about justice and fairness.  When I don't do that I sometimes drift into focusing on other aspects of a particular example than what it truly is about.

On reading while bed-ridden:

Do you ever re-read books which changed your life?  And how do they seem to you on that re-reading?  I have read a lot in the past month, for obvious reasons (didn't have the energy for ditch-digging, say), and when I found nothing new that looked interesting enough I began to read my old favorites again.

Some of them retain their initial flavors to me, some now read outdated, and in a few cases reading a book again made me detest it. 

But what I certainly learned from that project is that the "me" who once existed does not exist today, and the "me" that exists today does not need the same literary diet the old "me" benefited from.  The Buddhists who say that there is no such thing as a constant and permanent "me" are most likely correct.

Then there's the odd realization that my memories of many books were distorted.  I would remember, vividly, one scene from a novel, thinking it provided the major focus of the book, and then I would read the book again and find that this vivid scenes took all of two paragraphs in the story.

Okay.  That was pure fluff.****

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*  The horse belonged to my grandmother and my father borrowed it one Christmas eve when a late snow-storm and lack of plowing made the roads otherwise impossible to navigate.  We had presents to take to my cousins so my father harnessed the horse to a sleigh and I went with him, wrapped inside a thick blanket like a hot dog inside a bun.  It was great fun, until the sleigh overturned on a steep hill and I flew out of it like a rocket, landing in deep snow upside down.  My father dug me out and the horse was not hurt, but this memory is one of my earliest ones, both because nobody used a sled-and-horse anymore and because of that rocket flight.

** From reparations for slavery to changing systems so that they don't produce systemically racists outcomes, even as an unintended by-product.   Making sure that schools and health care and grocery stores and so on are equally good and equally available in all areas would be a small beginning of what is needed.

*** This particular thought also links to the previous one in that any single anecdote just tells us about that particular example and not necessarily about the total number of such examples occurring during a year, say.

****  Then from the wider angle everything is fluff.  We are born, we struggle and we die, while the gears of the universe go grinding.  Can you tell my illness has made me severely depressed, too?




Sunday, June 07, 2020

A Short Announcement



My apologies for the silence on the blog.  I  have not been well.  Things will resume when they can.  In the meantime, Black Lives Matter.  Stay well and healthy during the pandemic.

Friday, May 22, 2020

More Covid-19 Era Thoughts: On Gender Roles, The Role Of The Media And Trump's Masks


1.  I am not a fan of rigid gender/sex roles, because they are one of the main channels which have historically been used to keep women second-class citizens.  I would love such roles to be reduced to the absolute minimum.  Indeed, I see no alternative to that if we are actually ever to create a world where male and female people have roughly equal opportunities.

One recent example highlights the effects of the traditional division of labor at home, when combined with the covid-19 pandemic:

In April Dr Elizabeth Hannon, deputy editor of the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, noticed that the number of article submissions she was receiving from women had dropped dramatically. Not so from men.

“Negligible number of submissions to the journal from women in the last month,” she posted on Twitter. “Never seen anything like it.” The response was an outpouring of recognition from frustrated female academics, saying they were barely coping with childcare and work during the coronavirus lockdown.

This particular anecdote is about academic work from home but the same concerns would apply to all who now must work from home and who also have minor children to care for and educate under the lockdown conditions.

More generally, the pandemic-related job losses are hitting women particularly hard because women are more likely to be concentrated in the kinds of jobs which deal with people*, and those jobs are the ones most affected by the lockdowns.  At least some of that sex segregation in employment is linked to societal gender roles and beliefs about the most suitable occupations for men and women.**

2.  It's astonishing how much attention the various protest movements wanting instant reopening of the economy have gotten in the media.  Or at least I find it astonishing, given that clear majorities of people are opposed to the very idea.  Even the most recent Fox News survey found 55% of its respondents agreeing with the statement that the US should wait before reopening the economy, even if this means that the economic crisis will last longer.

I mostly blame the media's need to create angry debates in order to keep getting the most clicks on the stories that are published.  Advertising revenue goes up with clicks and, sadly, most of us are vulnerable to click-baiting.  Given that the ad-based business model is the only one that seems to work at all to fund journalism the situation is not easily remedied.

But still.  I find the outrage-based news media extremely irritating and depressing.  Social media, in general, is even worse.  Twitter, for instance, seems to monetize rage.

3.  Our Supreme Leader refuses to wear a Coronavirus mask in public.  I don't care why he refuses so adamantly.  It could be because of his narcissistic vanity or because of some belief that when a tough 100% manly warlord president glares at the virus the virus will disintegrate without any sissy masks needed.  Or because he wants to stick it to the media.

But in judging Trump's choice not to wear a mask, we should remember this: 

The Coronavirus masks we wear in public, when in contact with others, are there to protect those others, and their masks are there to protect us.  Should Trump catch the virus and not yet know that he has it, he would be somewhat less likely to pass it on if he wore a mask***.   So he is choosing not to care about that.

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*  These are also often low-pay jobs.  Even women with children who don't work in traditionally female jobs depend on the traditionally female job category of child care workers to be able to continue their own work outside the home.  (Or so it looks if we wear the traditional gender role blinders and see child care as the responsibility of mothers first and of all female people second).

**  For more on this wider question, see this 2018 article.

*** And considerably less likely if the others coming into contact with him were also masked.