Friday, December 27, 2013

What Happens When You Say Something Bigoted in Public?

The confluence of events sometimes teaches us  what might happen.  First, take the case of Justine Sacco:

Roxane Gay writes about it:

PR executive Justine Sacco wrote an offensive tweet before boarding a flight from London to Cape Town, South Africa. “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” she said. Between the time Sacco tweeted and when she landed in South Africa twelve hours later, the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet trended worldwide. A great many of the tweets including the hashtag were downright hilarious. Even Donald Trump, a paragon of ignorance, chastised Sacco on Twitter, saying, “Justine, what the hell are you doing, are you crazy? Not nice or fair! I will support @AidforAfrica. Justine is FIRED!” 
Internet sleuths figured out which flight Sacco was on and when she would land. Her work and cell phone numbers were uncovered. Her entire online footprint was revealed. She had made inappropriate tweets before. She had Instagram and Facebook accounts. These have all been deleted but nothing on the Internet really disappears. The digital echoes of her mistakes will endure. Sacco’s former employer, InterActiveCorp, immediately distanced themselves, condemned her words and she was fired. During her flight, Sacco gained thousands of Twitter followers, an audience raptly waiting, somewhat gleefully, to see what would happen next. Justine Sacco unwittingly scripted a gripping, real-life soap opera and she wasn’t even there to watch it unfold. 
Here was instant comeuppance for someone who said something terrible. Here was comeuppance for a white person generalizing shallowly about Africa, the continent, as if it were one large country with only one story to tell. Here was a woman reveling in her whiteness and assuming that her whiteness was some kind of shield against a disease that does not discriminate. I was amused by the spectacle. I followed along even though something in my stomach twisted as the hours passed. It was a bit surreal, knowing this drama was playing out while Sacco was at 38,000 feet.
Sacco's tweet was racist and stupid.  What happened next?  This:

At first the discussion around her tweet was relatively trivial, with people wondering if Ms. Sacco’s account had been hacked. Yet as soon as it was clear that she had made similar comments in the past, the Internet turned into a voracious and vengeful mob. Ms. Sacco was tried and judged guilty in a public square of millions and soon attacked in a way that seemed worse than her original statement.
Within hours, people threatened to rape, shoot, kill and torture her. The mob found her Facebook and Instagram accounts and began threatening the same perils on photos she had posted of friends and family.* Not satisfied, people began threatening her family directly. The incident was a trending topic on Twitter and a huge forum thread on Reddit.

That was Justine Sacco.  Now compare this to the case of Phil Robertson, the patriarch of "Duck Dynasty," cable television's largest show.  Robertson has expressed opinions which many would call bigoted.  For instance, in a recent interview he states:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men," Robertson said before paraphrasing a Bible verse. "Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers—they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”
Though he's worried about the state of this country, Robertson seemed even more concerned about non-Christian cultures.
"All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero," Robertson explained. "That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.”


As a devout member of the Church of Christ, Robertson has been a frequent speaker and preacher around the country, especially since gaining fame from the highest-rated nonfiction series in cable TV history. Anyone who takes the time to watch those videos will find plenty of things to discuss and debate.
Check out these nuggets:


A good woman is "hard to find. Mainly because these boys are waiting until they get to be about 20 years old before they marry 'em. Look, you wait till they get to be about 20 years old, they only picking that's going to take place is your pocket. You gotta marry these girls when they're 15 or 16, they'll pick your ducks. You need to check with mom and dad about that, of course." -- Speaking at Sportsmen's Ministry in Georgia in 2009.


In a recent interview with GQ, Robertson made anti-gay comments that sparked his indefinite suspension from “Duck Dynasty” by A&E. In the same article, in remarks that haven’t gotten as much attention, Robertson also talked about growing up in Louisiana before the blossoming of the civil rights movement, saying  “I never, with my eyes, saw the mistreatment of any black person. Not once. Where we lived was all farmers. The blacks worked for the farmers. I hoed cotton with them. I’m with the blacks, because we’re white trash. We’re going across the field…. They’re singing and happy. I never heard one of them, one black person, say, ‘I tell you what: These doggone white people’—not a word!… Pre-entitlement, pre-welfare, you say: Were they happy? They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”

That indefinite suspension Robertson got?  It's already over:

A&E announced Friday that it will "resume filming" the hit reality television show "Duck Dynasty" with star Phil Robertson following his indefinite suspension from the network last week for comments he made in an interview with GQ Magazine about gays, non-Christians, and African Americans. The network also promised it would work with Robertson to promote "unity, tolerance and acceptance among all people." A&E announced the decision to end Robertson's suspension with a statement provided to the Hollywood Reporter.
"Duck Dynasty is not a show about one man's views. It resonates with a large audience because it is a show about family… a family that America has come to love. As you might have seen in many episodes, they come together to reflect and pray for unity, tolerance and forgiveness. These are three values that we at A+E Networks also feel strongly about," the statement said. "So after discussions with the Robertson family, as well as consulting with numerous advocacy groups, A&E has decided to resume filming Duck Dynasty later this spring with the entire Robertson family."

I have no deep conclusions to draw from this comparison, and I am not implying that there's some conspiracy that would explain why the two cases, somewhat similar, resulted in such very different outcomes. 

Money matters in the Robertson case ("there's no such thing as bad publicity"), but it's also true that social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, have broken through the brick wall which we used to imagine was erected between the public and the private sphere. That brick wall is still around those who exist in the public mainstream (commercial) space, but not in the social media more generally.   
*A different example of unrelated individuals getting harassed is given here:

In October, after an Ohio University woman was photographed receiving oral sex in public and later filed a report saying she was assaulted, “men’s rights” supporters attempted to harass the women in question. They incorrectly identified her as a different Ohio University student, and posted that student’s contact information online. After she was flooded with messages calling her a liar, she withdrew from her classes and was afraid to leave her home.

The Christmas Scrooge. Wal-Mart.

The honorary Scrooge of this year's Christmas is  probably Wal-Mart:

U.S. companies, forbidden to give money directly to political action committees, are taking advantage of controversial federal rules allowing them to ask employees to do it for them in exchange for matching charitable donations.
It’s legal and gives businesses from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to Coca-Cola (KO) Co. to Hewlett-Packard Co. a way to fund their PACs, which direct money to political candidates. The matching contributions provide an incentive for employees, most of them managers, to contribute to the PAC.

Got it?  So Wal-Mart management-level employees give money to pro-business political candidates (of both major parties) while Wal-Mart reimburses them by giving to charities on their behalf.  But wait!  There's more:

Employees receive no tax deduction for the donations, as they do by giving to a charity directly. When soliciting employee contributions to PACs in exchange for charitable donations, companies typically say they want to increase voluntary participation in the political process and support pro-business candidates. Many companies offer a one-for-one match and donate the money to a charity of the employee’s choosing. Coca-Cola and HP both do this.
Wal-Mart goes further. It offers a two-for-one match, and the contribution must go to the Associates in Critical Need Trust, or ACNT, a charity the company started in 2001 to help its own store workers facing financial distress. Wal-Mart gave the ACNT about $3.6 million in double-matching funds in the year that ended January 31, according to an audit of the charity’s financial filings.
“It’s rare for a corporate PAC’s charitable match program to be restricted to a charity that the corporation wholly controls and finances,” Laurence E. Gold, an attorney at Trister, Ross, Schadler & Gold, a Washington law firm that handles campaign-finance issues, said in an e-mail.

Bolds are mine.

All that sounds stinky to me.  The problem?  Employees are persuaded to both support certain candidates which might be better for Wal-Mart than for a particular employee and then they are persuaded to make up the shortfall in the wages Wal-Mart pays its floor-level workers.  A win-win for Wal-Mart.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Micro-Posts for Boxing Day 2013

1.  Two Pussy Riot members have been freed which is good news.  But read about their experiences in prison.

2.  Why the Republican Party has a tiny problem with  women:  Their main pundits find women really yucky people unless properly controlled.  The question why those are the main pundits deserves a much deeper post than this but you can figure the answer for yerselves.  Also check out what Fox News thinks of the frightening wussification of America, because that, too, is linked to the Republican war against womenfolks.

3.  Contents:  Violence.
This series of pictures on mass killings at USAToday earlier in December is informative.  But one of the pictures (the second under "suspects") and the attached text are utterly weird.  The picture tells us the percentages of mass killing suspects who are men (94%) and the percentages of mass killing suspects who are women (4%). Yet the text goes: "While both men and women commit mass killings, their choices of weapons and the outcomes of their cases are different."

That is truly weak tea, to ignore the difference in the percentages.  An occupational field with those percentages would be regarded as almost totally sex-segregated, for instance, and there could be something we can learn from that gender difference, and that something could help in reducing mass killings more generally (better social support for men in trouble?  less access to guns which kill quickly and easily? different ideas about what masculinity means?)

4.  On economic inequality:  Is that the greatest economic challenge of our time?  That's the debate which took place during December 2013.  Brad Plumer threw a pebble into the churning waters by writing about the various theories explaining how inequality could hurt economic growth and the fact that research hasn't been able to decisively prove those hurts.  Ezra Klein argued that unemployment is the real challenge today, not economic inequality.  Paul Krugman and Kathleen Geier vote for inequality as the most urgent underlying problem.

I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about this debate, only that the impact of increasing economic inequality on our political outcomes shouldn't be ignored in it.  Given the way the US political system is financed, rising inequality is likely to a) increase the relative power of the 1% over the 99% and of firms over workers, and b) to the extent people want their own interests to be considered when they donate money, the political outcomes are going to produce more inequality, not less, because the higher the inequality in wealth and income becomes, the more the concerns of the wealthy and the less wealthy will diverge.  Or that would be my guess.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013


If you celebrate Christmas, have a very happy one.  If not, enjoy this end of the year.  To all of you, a wonderful 2014!

The Default Gender in Politics and Science

President Obama reads political columnists.  His top ten list*  is 90% white and 100% male.

That's probably not because he would have explicitly chosen to focus his reading on white men's thoughts.  Most political columnists in the US are white men, after all.  But it's also true that being male and white looks like the default race and gender to most of us in the US.  That's how it works.

I'd guess that the reasons for the default race and gender are slightly different, however.  Though both of those may also be based on the societal ranking orders, it is true that whites are still the numerical majority in the US, so there will be more columns written by white people than by people of color.

The default gender is based on something different, given that men and women exist in roughly equal numbers.  Think of these kinds of pictures:

We don't interpret them as being pictures of white men but being pictures of "man."  That's because male is the default gender in most societies in that it stands for both the general humanity and for human males.  Pictures of women in the same contexts would only stand for human females.

Which brings me to an interesting post Andrew Gelman wrote about the recent Douthat column (I blogged about that here and here).  A snippet from Gelman's post:

Here’s the story. The other day on the sister blog I reported on a pair of studies involving children and political orientation: Andrew Oswald and Nattavudh Powdthavee found that, in Great Britain, parents of girls were more likely to support left-wing parties, compared to parents of boys. And, in the other direction, Dalton Conley and Emily Rauscher found with survey data from the United States that parents of girls were more likely to support the Republican party, compared to parents of boys.
Both these studies came out a few years ago (and I blogged on them way back when), but the Conley and Rauscher paper got a new burst of attention following its recent publication in a sociology journal.
We haven’t reached the fallacy yet, but we’re getting closer.
One thing I noted in my sister blog post was an oddity in the reporting of the Conley and Rauscher paper:
There’s something oddly asymmetrical about how these results are presented, both by the authors and in the media. Consider the following headlines:
“The Effect of Daughters on Partisanship and Social Attitudes Toward Women”
“Does Having Daughters Make You More Republican?”
“Parents With Daughters Are More Likely To Be Republicans, Says New Study”
“Parents Of Daughters Lean Republican, Study Shows”
“The Daughter Theory: Does raising girls make parents conservative?”
To their credit, the study’s authors and many of the journalists make it clear the the claims are speculative (consider, for example, the question mark at the end of the New York Times headline given just above). So that’s all good.
But here’s my question: Why is it all about “the effect of daughters”? Why not “Does having sons make you support the Democrats?” It looks to me like having sons is considered the default.

Bolds are mine.  And yes, I think Andrew got the reason.  Daughters are seen as the deviance from the norm, sons as the default.

As one commenter at Gelman's blog noted, researchers have studied (pdf) this tendency in scientific articles.  Here's the abstract of the linked study:

Androcentric thinking assumes maleness to be normative and attributes gender differences to females. A content analysis of articles reporting gender differences published between 1965 and 2004 in four American Psychological Association journals examined androcentric pronouns, explanations, and tables and graphs. Few articles used generic masculine pronouns to refer to both women and men. However, explanations of gender differences within articles that mentioned such differences in their abstracts and titles referenced attributes of women significantly more often than attributes of men. Most tables and graphs depicting gender differences positioned males’ data before females’
data, except when gender differences among parents were concerned. Psychologists have ceased to use male-centered pronouns, but female and male psychologists continue to report, explain, and depict gender differences in androcentric ways.

Another way of putting that is to realize that when a study is about gender it tends to report how women differ from men, not how men differ from women.  Though the message is ultimately the same, the emphasis most of us adopt means that how men are is assumed to be the default, and what needs to be explained is how women differ from that default.

I once drew a picture of this particular way of thinking, this one.  The top picture shows the actual reality (in very simplified ways), the bottom picture shows the common thinking pattern:


*I'm not quite sure if Obama has handed out that list or if it was collected from articles about his reading habits.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Technical Problems...

I've had those with the computer and the modem today, and earlier I had problems between the incompatibility of my old scanner (it scans but now saves just rectangles of black) and the Maverick operating system I downloaded.

All that made me think of the dependency technically more elaborate systems create, the impossibility of guaranteeing the absence of all bugs, lice or mice, the difficulty of getting  help from actual human beings (even when one pays for something) and the general helpless frustration I've felt today, trying to fix a problem two days before Christmas and while mostly talking to a very nice robot who can't understand my accented English. 

Or suppose that you pay for a program which then malfunctions.  You go to the website for help and find that there is NO WAY of sending a message that a person with at least one eyeball would read.  Instead, you are told to go to the discussion forum where people who ask for help often post the oddest stuff ever and even if they don't,  are just ignored.  But of course you can get human help!  Only you need to pay extra for it.

Another way of putting all that is to note that when you get a technical problem you better set aside about eight hours of your own time and labor first.  Now price that at the going wage rate for you and then add the cost of that times the average number of failures per year to whatever you are paying for the program.

Those troubles do not mean that the cyberspace and what it offers wouldn't be wonderful in many ways.  But imagine if car trouble was treated this way.  Computer systems are now as complicated as cars, yet ordinary people are mostly expected to sort the problems out on their own.

Anyway, back to our regularly programmed contents now.