Wednesday, September 18, 2019

City Tree

Sunday, September 15, 2019

On Second Thought

I was wondering if anyone would get around to bringing up the idea of simply revoking Britain's Article 50, the one that kicked off the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union. If as many people in the UK oppose the idea of leaving as many people (especially Members of Parliament who oppose leaving themselves) seem to think, then there should be a fairly decent amount of support for the proposition.

But it's going to be trouble, one way or another. Even if there is another "People's Vote," as many of Britain's Liberal Democrats have been calling for, the idea that it would lay the issue to rest is overly optimistic. One thing that I've noticed about voter referenda and ballot initiatives here in Washington State is that if things don't work out the way they were sold to the public, backers are often quick to lay the blame at the feet of the state Legislature. They note, correctly, that the Legislature can intentionally botch implementation of policies that they oppose. Whether or not the Legislature does deliberately screw things up is a different matter, but the possibility is always there. And I suspect that there will be those Leave campaigners in Britain who accuse Remain parliamentarians of blocking progress on an agreement with the European Union specifically to make backing out of leaving seem like a good idea. It's a no-win situation, as someone is going to be unhappy. (I can also see turnout for another referendum being low. If there are simply going to be do-overs until the "right" answer comes out of the vote, why bother?)

It's worth noting that the basic reason why people voted to leave the E.U. in the first place, the idea that the cost-benefit analysis did not work in the U.K.'s favor, hasn't actually been resolved. And it's unlikely to. I don't really see the E.U. being willing to make concessions on the items that some number of Britons had been dissatisfied with. I can, on the other hand, see other E.U. member states deciding that making an example of the U.K. being a good way of preventing further talk of defection in the future.

But, if I were a betting man, I'd be willing to put a few dollars (or even Pounds) on Article 50 being revoked, and the can being kicked down the road. Politics is not really a place for decisiveness in decision making or problem solving. Otherwise, there wouldn't have been a referendum in the first place.


According to Mirriam-Webster Online, part of the definition of "shame" is: "a painful emotion caused by consciousness of guilt, shortcoming, or impropriety." Dr. BrenĂ© Brown, who has made a name for herself addressing shame, goes a bit further, defining "shame" as: "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection." And I'm sure that there is room enough for a million other shadings between the clinical-sounding dictionary definition and Dr. Brown's more intimate one.

Both of the above, however, can offer insight into why and how people use shame as a tool or weapon against others: leveraging pain as means of altering the cost-benefit analyses of behavior that meets with personal or social disapproval. Personally, I agree with Dr. Brown's assessment that shaming is, generally speaking, ineffective as a tool for behavior change, at least in the modern world. (I would submit that it was likely much more effective when the consequences of being ostracized were more severe. Human mobility means that it's easier to leave a community behind without needing to be entirely self-sufficient.) But this, of course, doesn't stop that many people from using it. As a result, the general debate that we have about shame and shaming is centered more on who is eligible for, or deserving of, being shamed, and who is not.

As I see it, the calculus is as follows: Shame is considered appropriate in cases of willful misbehavior. "Misbehavior" here is something of a nebulous concept; like beauty, or pornography, it is in the eye of the beholder, known upon being seen. As a result, much of the public debate about shame is, in part, a debate over what should be counted as willful misbehavior. When James Cordon took Bill Maher to task over comments to the effect that being overweight (and the health issues that stem from that) is the result of poor individual choices, Slate Magazine's Matthew Dessem cheered the pushback against "fat shaming." This is part of a broader movement to discourage the idea that being overweight is the result of shortcoming, impropriety or something that people have done or failed to do. On the other hand, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, currently in the United States to urge action on climate change, sailed across the Atlantic, rather than flying. This is in keeping with the flygskam, or "flight shame" movement in Sweden, which "suggests that people should feel embarrassed or ashamed to take planes because of the negative impact they have on the environment." Ms. Thunberg is something of a heroine in environmental circles, being seen as stereotypically "speaking truth to power."

But from outside of either issue, is there any more willful misbehavior in one than the other? Is traveling by airplane more within the control of an individual than their weight? I'm not sure. And this is where I tend to have a problem with habits of shaming; in the end, they tend to morph into variations on "you're different, and that's bad." And the assignment of moral significance to observed differences between people a) has never ended well and b) is unlikely to start ending well anytime soon.

But the impulse to shame, and the impulse to seek relief from shame in changing behavior exist for a reason. Small bands of hunter-gatherers likely needed an instinctive means of enforcing certain behavior norms within the group that didn't entail resorting to violence. And shame appears to be tailor-made for this purpose. And one can understand both Bill Maher's "fat-shaming" and Greta Thunberg's embrace of flygskam to simply be attempts to enforce particular norms on larger groups, but for the same basic reasons that hunter-gatherers did: behaviors that make sense for the individual at a given point can be bad for the group as a whole. While people tend to see the United States as being better able to fund health care than the world as a whole will be at dealing with the impacts of changes to the Earth's climate, in the end, the arguments are fundamentally the same. And in both cases, perhaps the real problem with shaming is that there are more effective means to the same ends. They're just also more expensive. And in this, we see perhaps the fundamental allure of shaming, it's a cheap way of combating cost-shifting. So it's unlikely to ever really go out of style.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Oh, Grow Up

Recently, I've seen Unicorn Store and Dave Made A Maze. They're interesting movies with a theme of completing the maturation process. Kit and Dave, respectively, are middle-class White Millennials, with supportive families and, apparently, the sort of carefree childhoods that make the responsibilities of adult life burdensome. Interestingly the love interests of both protagonists are non-White; these characters bring the audience into the protagonist's world. Both movies also have a magical element to them that, while central to the plot, undermines the story to some degree or another. In Unicorn Store, belief in the actual existence of the creatures is very rare; Kit and the unicorn salesmen are the only characters at the start of the movie who believe and it's not 100% clear to the audience (and some of the other characters) that Kit isn't undergoing a psychotic break, which is somewhat at odds with the theme of the movie overall. Likewise in Dave Made A Maze, Dave has nearly created a cardboard TARDIS; it even has artificial life inside. But the fact that the other characters aren't supposed to appreciate the creation at first forces them to come across as somewhat less impressed with this feat than one would expect. Of the two, I think that Unicorn Store is a better movie. Kit's coming to understand how to allow human beings to love her, rather than wishing for a Unicorn to fill that role, comes across as more natural and authentic-seeming than Dave managing to bring the world around him to his way of thinking, which has more of a deus (or perhaps Minotaur) ex machina feeling to it.

But the different endpoints of the characters make for an interesting contrast, given the gender differences between them, and it makes their processes feel gendered, as well. Kit's unicorn represents not only unconditional love, but a love that has no choice but to see one as one wishes to be seen. And once the audience understands this ideal, of a love that doesn't ask anything in return, there is a certain poignancy in Kit eventually learning to make peace with the idea that the adult world, the real world, doesn't work this way. Dave's maze represents the feeling of mastery and competence; Dave Made A Maze has Dave be quite explicit about this. And only when Dave is able to convince his friends to back him in his quest to follow the maze trope to its conclusion (a process that itself was quite unconvincing) can Dave be okay with who he is. Dave Made A Maze is also hampered by it's need to obscure the price that the people around him may be paying. When a number of friends and strangers alike, lead by Dave's stereotypically long-suffering girlfriend Annie (the only non-White member of the cast), enter the maze on a rescue mission, the booby traps that Dave had built into the place result in several apparent deaths. While the audience is shown that the maze is capable of drawing (and apparently consuming) blood, streamers and construction paper fill in. The result makes the apparent deaths less openly horrific, but have the effect of allowing Dave to be unclear on whether or not they're genuine. The closing credits imply that everyone survived none the worse for wear, but it struck me as both dubious and cheapening.

In any event, when compared to one another, the tropes that women's maturation requires that they change themselves, while men's maturation requires that the world change to accommodate the conditions that men place on the willingness to change come across clearly. It would be interesting to see gender-swapped, but otherwise exact, remakes of these movies. I would like to see what the audience response to them would be. although it is worth noting that the themes of each movie don't come across as so strongly gender-linked when viewed independently. (Perhaps this is one of the problems with the movie industry more broadly, in the minds of activists, it sees itself as fragmented and a group of independent voices, while outsiders often see a single, monolithic entity.)

In any event, both movies struck me as interesting. As a non-White Gen Xer who has little to no real nostalgia for my childhood, it's an interesting glimpse into a particular vision of the Millennial process of growing up. I don't know that I would have been interested if I'd know what the themes were going in, but having seen them, I find myself with a broader interest in this cinema niche. Perhaps that's worthy of being seen as a measure of success.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019


Recently, there have been a number of severe respiratory illnesses that have been linked to e-cigarette use; some 450 cases thus far with 6 reported deaths. On the heels of this, even the President is acting, having announced a planned nationwide ban on the devices. When i first heard of the illnesses, I was curious. Vaping isn't new; the devices have been around for a decade and a half now, and it seems odd that if the practice itself were that dangerous, that we'd just now be seeing serious health impacts.

When I was listening to the radio yesterday, the story came up; the question being if Washington should follow Michigan's lead in instituting it's own ban on flavored e-cigarettes. (Of course, the nationwide ban proposed by the Food and Drug Administration would preempt this.) During the story, vitamin E acetate and THC additives were brought up; according to Washington Department of Health office Kathy Lofy, "only a small minority of these patients have reported using nicotine-only products" and that this "suggests that the THC products may be causing this illness." "But," she continued, "I think it's really too early to draw any conclusive, to make any conclusive statements."

USA Today makes a similar point, noting "Some state health department and news reports suggest many of the cases of lung problems involve tetrahydrocannabinol, known as THC, the chemical in marijuana that causes psychological effects." They then go on to state that "Boston University public health professor Michael Siegel said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is being 'unnecessarily vague' about describing the injuries as simply vaping-related when many people might have been injured by vaping THC oil." Indeed the title of the article is "People are vaping THC. Lung injuries being reported nationwide. Why is the CDC staying quiet?"

I don't smoke or use e-cigarettes myself, so I don't really have a dog in this fight, but it does seem to me that the general disagreement with e-cigarette use in the overall public-health community is at work here. It strikes me as unusual that the CDC would make a broad statement, when the evidence appears to point to a narrower cause. I think I understand, however. I suspect that if certain people in the public-health field had their way, nicotine would simply be banned outright, and the overall problems with maintaining these sorts of prohibitions be damned. And a ban would at least be more honest and straightforward than the maze of regulations and restrictions that governments seem fond of erecting to drive people away from the practice of smoking.

To the degree that implying that e-cigarette use broadly is dangerous comes across is deceptive, it weakens people's trust in these sorts of institutions. Granted, state health officer Lofy was fairly straightforward about the THC link when asked about it. But this sort of paternalism in the public-health community generally creates suspicions like those that my father expressed to me when I was younger; that the truth can't be allowed to stand in the way of a useful call to action. Now, as then, I believe that part of the problem is with the public, which is has proven disinclined to mobilize against e-cigarettes in the way they have against conventional tobacco smoking. But is that really a problem? I'm not sure that it is, and if it isn't, attempting to convince the public that there's a crisis afoot may not be called for, and public health officials risk their credibility when perhaps they shouldn't.