Thursday, April 30, 2015

Working for Cucumbers

But if we gave one of [the Capuchins] grapes while keeping the other on cucumber, things took an unexpected turn. [...] Upon noticing their partner's salary raise, monkeys who had been perfectly willing to work for cucumber suddenly went on strike. Not only did they perform reluctantly but they got agitated, hurling the pebbles and sometimes even the cucumber slices out of the test chamber. [...]
[...] The lucky grape recipients sometimes even supplemented their meal with their neighbor's abandoned cucumber slices. They were in a cheerful mood, as opposed to their poor partners who by the end of the test would sit sulking in the corner.
When Sarah [Brosnan] and I published this study under the title "Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay" it struck a chord, perhaps because many people see themselves as cuke-eaters in a world with lots of grapes.
Frans de Waal "Our Inner Ape," p.216
Of course, people are not monkeys.

But there is an parallel to be drawn. When you watch  Dr. de Waal's TED talk (jump ahead to about 12:30 to cut straight to the Capuuchin experiment), you notice that when the monkey who was given cucumber essentially throws a tantrum, nothing changes. Pelting the researcher with cucumber slices does not change her behavior. Nor does the other monkey give up on taking the grapes that it is offered. All that happens is that the Capuchin loses the food that was theirs for the taking.

This comes to mind whenever a visible act of injustice results in unrest and uprising in a Black community. What was gained by the violence and looting? What has changed? American society as a whole is no less unequal. And White America, as a whole, doesn't demand that we be treated just as they are. We put the gun to our own heads and threaten to shoot, but instead of winning concessions, we simply wind up blowing our brains out.

Yes, it's unfair that when others are routinely handed grapes, we have to subsist on a diet of cucumbers. It sucks to watch other people doing well for themselves when we feel as though we're barely getting by. But if the cucumbers are all that we are going to get, we should start seeing them as a resource and making use of them, rather than casting them aside in a fit of pique. Of course, this doesn't mean that we stop working to find a way to find a seat on the Grape Train. But the trashing of our communities (or taking our anger out on the others that live among us) isn't going to get us there.

(By the way, Chimpanzees have enough of a sense of empathy that they will refuse grapes until a partner is also offered them. But Chimpanzees also have a sense of reciprocity, something that, at time, I think that humans lack.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Friendly Fire

Ta-Nehisi Coates has penned an eloquent piece in The Atlantic concerning the disingenuousness of Baltimore city officials calling for calm after the funeral of Freddie Gray. "When nonviolence is preached as an attempt to evade the repercussions of political brutality," he says, "it betrays itself."

Which may be true. It does seem somehow self serving for an institution to provoke a populace to violence, and only then call for peace. I can understand perfectly why one would ask where Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Police Commissioner Anthony Batts were when the Baltimore police were beating up the city's residents.

And none of this can mean that rioting or violence is "correct" or "wise," any more than a forest fire can be "correct" or "wise." Wisdom isn't the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the community.
The problem is, in this case, Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Batts weren't the people on the sharp end of the disrespect for the hollow law and failed order. They're not the ones who are going to be on the phone to their insurers tomorrow, looking to have smashed and looted shops restored. Assuming, that is, that the shopkeepers have insurance. Sheranda Palmer's business, Tye and Company Salon and Boutique was looted by rioters determined to get at what was inside. The door was kicked in twice that evening. She's insured, yes, but there will still be costs for her. If she appeals for calm, yes, it will seem like she's advocating compliance with the brutal regime that the Baltimore PD has created. But if anyone should have to pay something for the bad acts of Baltimore's law enforcement establishment, it seems that someone likely to be the target of that very establishment is a poor choice.

It's been more than two decades since the acquittal of police officers in the Rodney King case lead to rioting in Los Angeles. And ever since that time, people have marveled at the fact that the most frequent outlets of Black rage are Black communities. When Mayor Rawlings-Blake and Commissioner Batts called for calm and peaceful protests, yes, they were calling for a truce in a war that their people had started. But when the détente failed, they weren't the ones in the free-fire zone. And I suspect that they were very aware of that fact. Had they been listened to, they would be no better off than they are now. But people like Sheranda Palmer would be. It may be helpful to remember that.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


The quick and dirty:

When I read, "I don't get why women objectify themselves by wearing sexy cosplay* and then complain when men objectify them," the first thing that comes to mind is that while the writer keeps using that word, I do not think it means what he thinks it means.

The long form:

"Objectify" is one of those words that a lot of people use, but because it's effectively grown up organically, it's one based more in connotation than denotation. I think that one of the primary drivers behind men whining (and I do regard it was whining, even though that may be an inaccurate assessment) about it is that many of them have a much broader understanding of what "Objectify" means, in large part because of the "I know it when I see it" way we tend to treat it. To me, "I don't get why women objectify themselves by wearing sexy cosplay and then complain when men objectify them," says that this person's definition of "Objectify" is: "to portray or think of a person as being sexually desirable and/or available."

I don't get why women portray themselves as being sexually desirable and/or available by wearing sexy cosplay and then complain when men think of them as being sexually desirable and/or available.
This is an argument that I hear a lot. And typically in the way it's used, one can take the (incorrect) definition of "objectify" and, if you want to be more vulgar about it, and boil it down to "slutty."
I don't get why women dress all slutty by wearing sexy cosplay and then complain when men think of them as slutty.
Sluttiness comes into the picture, because there is a certain self-serving attitude about women that's something of a holdover from the days when women were placed on pedestals. To wit, any woman who steps off the pedestal is fair game. Once a woman fails to uphold a certain (and often very arbitrary) standard of purity and propriety, she in effect loses any justification to maintain her own standards by exercising her right of refusal to sexual advances or even sexual activity. The binary line of taboo strikes again.

On the other hand, a more formal definition of "objectify" (as found in a dictionary) goes something like this: ": to treat (someone) as an object rather than as a person."
I don't get why women treat themselves as objects rather than as people by wearing sexy cosplay and then complain when men treat them as objects rather than as people.
While you can still make a viable English sentence with a dictionary definition of "objectify," it seems a little off. Because what does it mean for a person to treat themselves as an object rather than as a person by wearing certain clothes? How, for that matter, does one even treat themselves as an object rather than a person at all, given that we understand certain fundamental and irreconcilable differences between persons and objects? A Real Doll, for instance, is an object. It has no legally recognized rights or responsibilities. A person in possession of one can treat it any way they wish to. Nor does it have any biological functions to maintain. Accordingly it lacks sentience and nearly all things we regard as objects lack any awareness of themselves as individuals or their surroundings in the way that we understand them.

So given that none of this is true of an actual person (more or less regardless of what that actual person may want), how does one treat themselves as if it were?

To be sure, I'm delving into a somewhat pedantically philosophical understanding of what it means to be an "object." But we often view people as complicit in the way that we treat them, because that supposed complicity becomes at once our own justification and alibi. And we often use language to facilitate that, in a way that wouldn't be possible if we were more careful with our words.

h/t: Annah Madriñan

* For the uninitiated, "Cosplay" is a portmanteau of Costume Play, which is essentially wearing a costume of a particular character. The differences between "cosplaying" as a character as simply dressing up like one (for, say, Halloween) are fairly esoteric and context based. As the term is, oddly enough, a loanword from Japanese, it's typically used when the costumes in question are those of animé characters.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Pass It Along

When you cannot get a compliment any other way pay yourself one.
Mark Twain
And then, pay one to someone else. The world may suffer from many things but an overabundance of kind words between people is not one of them.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Interest Sections

While "the shadowy corporate overlords" make for nice villains, I think that they do so because they relieve us, or more accurately, some subset of previous generations, from responsibility for our current situation. "Freedom" and "Liberty," which most people seem to define as "not feeling that I'm losing at life when compared to the Joneses" aren't birthrights. There is no biological freedom process - physicists have yet to find a liberty particle. Freedom and Liberty are characteristics of the broader social values of an entire society that exist almost exclusively when there is consensus to create them, share them and protect them.

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part.
James Madison. The Federalist No. 51 - "The Structure of the Government Must Furnish the Proper Checks and Balances Between the Different Departments"
I, for my part, am of the opinion that for vast majority of its history, the United States has completely botched the second part of Madison's admonition, and we're paying for it with a growing realization that it's leading to the first. Interestingly, I think that James Madison may have also had his finger on how it would happen.
Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority -- that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable.
If you look at the things that have befallen the Native American population of the United States, immigrants from the Far East and immigrants from Latin America, at various points in the history of the country, you can see the insecurity of their interests, and how that insecurity was driven by the relative unity of the European-descended class of the overall population. Whether one refers to the open breaking of treaties with the Native Americans, the Chinese Exclusion Act (and the fact that ethnic Chinese were barred from ownership of property and businesses) or the current state of strange semi-personhood faced by Latin immigrants who have come the country illegally, it's easy to see how poorly minority groups have fared when the majority felt they had a common interest that was at direct odds with said minority. The was no will in the community independent of the interests of the majority. And so self-service won out over against guarding against injustice.

On the flip side of the equation, we can see how "comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens" renders large-scale action next to impossible. The squabbling between the simple divisions of Right and Left is proof enough. Add to them the myriad of different identities that citizens have pitted against one another and the situation grows even worse. In this, our problem isn't that we failed to act in accordance with Madison's advice - it's that we waited to do so until the status quo had become one that works to the apparent disadvantage of large portions of the populace. My own understanding of society tells me that the situation we find ourselves in was engineered by hateful plotters in a back room with locked doors - it came about while the majority of the citizens were paying attention to more immediate concerns - "the shadowy corporate overlords" were simply adept at taking advantage of beneficial circumstances. The rest of us, in the meantime, have become (with varying levels of justification) wary of one another, and this has rendered a just combination of a majority of the whole both improbable and impracticable.

In the end, the problem with Madison's advice is that the circumstances needed to create broad coalitions against commonly-understood injustices are rare. Mainly because injustices are not the result of intentional diabolism. They're the result of people following their own interests. And while for some those interests lead to riches, for others, they lead only as far as the basics. Rare is the starving man who will let the common humanity of mankind stand between them and a meal. Maintaining an entire society in a state of justice long enough to put the means in place to allow it to be self-sustaining is perhaps the most difficult undertaking that any culture has ever attempted. Given this, the sheer number of failures littered through history, including our own, should not surprise us.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Hit the Road, Jack

It's a Random Quote From the Internet, but one that resonates with a lot of people.

I've been told, "If you don't like here...leave." Sadly, those that are brainwashed, believe that is the answer.
I'm going to stand up for the idea of leaving places where one doesn't like the system for a moment. I know that this will have people looking for traces of shampoo in my gray matter, but it's like that sometimes. When most people say: "If you don't like here...leave," it comes across as a mean spirited-dismissal, especially when people follow that up with statements like: "Because if don't like Government, Somalia doesn't have one," or "If you want Socialism, North Korea's trying it," or "If you think Christians are bad, go to Iran," or something equally bitter. It is, to be sure, an outgrowth of an American habit of wishing bad things on people who irritate us by failing to parrot or values back at us.

But there is a different perspective to be had, and it's one that I tend to take. I currently live in the suburbs of Seattle, Washington, a bit over two thousand miles from my native Chicago, Illinois, and its suburbs, where I grew up. The reason for this is a simple one - the Puget Sound area was presented as a better place for me than Chicagoland, so I made the switch. Purely by chance, I'd timed it well, and was fairly quickly doing much better for myself here than I was there. So allow me this one question - how long do you think it would have taken me to reshape, say, Batavia into something more like Bothell? Especially if the people living in Batavia were happy with Batavia. The current population of Batavia is about 26,000 people - given the choice between picking a fight with them and simply packing up and moving, moving makes more sense to me.

So why not apply that on a broader scale? We allow our attachment to the places we consider "home," a discomfort with significant change and a level of parentalism to push us into working to reshape the places where we live, in the face of opposition from other people who live there, rather than looking for places that fit our requirements (at least more closely than where we currently live does) and simply moving there.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Bennets in the 'Hood

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is a widely-known literary work. Enough so that people who are otherwise unfamiliar with it may still recognize the opening line:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
But, like most tales, it goes on from there, and the second sentence starts to get to heart of the matter.
However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighborhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other or their daughters.
While I have yet to start in on Pride and Prejudice in earnest, I will confess to being somewhat curious about the work's overall themes. According to The Economist, "Jane Austen’s characters took it for granted that men with money made more eligible mates." And as the first two sentences make clear, that eligibility was also viewed as something of an obligation. While the Regency era United Kingdom and the 1990's United States might appear to be worlds apart, I suspect that in certain ways, they are very similar.
Young never-married black women outnumber young never-married black men with jobs by a startling two-to-one. This helps explain why although African-Americans are more likely than other races to say they value marriage, only 26% of black women are actually married, compared with 51% of whites.
"I dither" The Economist
While I don't know what the ratio was in 1990, when I was just entering the "young never-married black man with a job" demographic, I suspect that it was pretty high even then - during my year at an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) it seemed that women outnumbered men on campus by four or five to one. So it wouldn't surprise me if the 2-to-1 figure were true back then. Had I paid any attention to demographics at the time, I wouldn't have been surprised at the ease with which one could have updated Austen's words.
It is a truth commonly understood, that a single Black man in possession of an education, job and, if called for, a car, must be in want of a wife. Regardless of the feelings or views of said Brother about the topic, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the African-American public that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other single, marriage-minded Sister.
I'd come to understand myself as notoriously un-romatic while in high school and college had taught me that I was much better off that way. But it also taught me, as Slate's Jacob Weisberg would note in 2005, that people "find the idea of nonsexuality more bizarre than deviant sexuality," and so my disinterest in being coupled was best kept strictly classified. Which caused trouble of its own. While my parents, and thus other adult members of my extended family, understood (sort of) that I was uninterested in relationships and a family of my own, their friends and co-workers were in the dark, and so they saw me as someone who should be looking for a Black woman to marry. Yesterday, if it could be managed.

And I most certainly felt the pressure. The Black adults of my parents' generation tended to regard the fact that I was unmarried with impatience, resentment or both. While the idea that there was something inherently selfish about remaining single struck me as fairly common, when speaking to African-Americans of my parents' generation especially, I would sometimes pick up a vibe that with so many Sisters looking for good husbands, I was being derelict in my duty by not marrying one. I joked to friends that I should have had a sweatshirt made up that read: "Property of the African-American Community," but there was a genuine feeling of being seen as owned behind it. Being unwilling to share the fact that I'd rather be watching animé or reading a book than out on a date, I simply allowed people to assume that I was seeing someone, and that led them, I think, to see me as either something of a cad or only interested in White women. I don't know which people felt was worse. (Once I took a housemate, who was white, out to dinner. We wound up seated near an older black couple, and if looks could kill, poor Diane would have spontaneously combusted. Fortunately, she had her back to them.) Moving away from Chicago, and the community of people that my family knew, removed most of the pressure, although there were still a few isolated incidents. Being in the technology industry and living in the suburbs of Seattle meant that interactions with Black people a generation older than myself were rare to non-existent, and even when they happened, they tended not to be in circumstances in which my relationship status was a topic of conversation.

Being more informed in my middle-age than I had been at the beginning of my adulthood, I understand the demographics and the identity politics; and it all makes sense to me, for all that I still have no intention of playing the game. Given, as The Economist noted, that things haven't much changed in past nearly 30 years, I suspect that there's a satirical novel of manners lurking in the African-American community, waiting for a new Jane Austen to set it to paper. I'm pretty sure I'd enjoy reading it.

Thursday, April 16, 2015


Because what good is forgiveness if it requires you to forgo feeling superior?
A better form of forgiveness comes from the recognition that people are free to make whatever choices they will and that in doing so, they don't owe us anything. But that's unsatisfying, perhaps because it feels weak and small. And so, instead we buy our own self-regard by seeking to put others down. And we tell ourselves that they deserve it.

When I talk to people, and I tell them that I haven't done anything such that anyone owes me anything in return, I am often accused of despair. Because, the reasoning goes, I should want to see myself as powerful, important and worthy. But these are not real things. Were a physicist to examine an atom from my body, they wouldn't describe it in terms of its importance, or worth, just as they wouldn't see it as privileged or marginalized. These are labels that we created, and we attach them to ourselves because they serve our purposes to do so. Usually.
The world owes you nothing. It was here first.
Mark Twain
One day, it dawned on me that the world was not the only thing that was here first. That was also true of everyone in it. Everyone I've ever met has, despite any differences between them, one thing in common - they had an understanding of themselves before they had an understanding of me. Simply, they were there first. And therefore, they have no debts to me. As a result, every bit of consideration, politeness, friendship or love that another person chooses to give to me is a gift, not an entitlement. If inconsideration, impoliteness, disdain or indifference better suit their purposes at that moment, then the gift is withheld. Such is the way of things. It is not the obligation of others to look out for my needs or wants. It's mine. If I can satisfy those things, wonderful. If not, then without a gift, I do without. Beggars cannot be choosers.

It can make for a life that is difficult and frightening. Or simply short. But I am already living on borrowed time. Death knows who I am and where to find me. She may be kicking it at Starbucks over a tall cup of something that I can't pronounce, but the clock is counting down. Eventually it will reach zero, and the world, as I understand it, will cease. And then, after a time, it will forget me, and it will go on as if I was never here. No-one has an obligation to change that.

And so I forgive. And forgiveness, too, is a gift. But not to others - to myself. Forgiveness may matter to someone who cares about what I think of them, but for a great majority of the world, that isn't the case. If I fume and stew in my own anger and impotence, they will never notice. So why wallow in something that does me no good? Better to brush it off, and go on.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

All Together

Yesterday evening, I spent some time on the Internet reading about divorce. "Christian" attitudes on divorce, to be specific. I place "Christian" in quotes because Christians are not a single, monolithic group - Roman Catholicism is different from Easter Orthodoxy is different from Southern Baptist is different from Seventh-Day Adventist et cetera, et cetera. And just as the dizzying number of Christian denominations in the United States have different liturgies, congregational structures and the like, they also have different understandings of their god, and, accordingly, different dogmas. And so there are different understandings of the appropriateness of divorce.

Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf, ever the optimistic bridge-builder between conservative and liberal elements of American society, made the point that conservatives should be happy with the way that the current debate over marriage equality is shaping up. Even if conservatives are unhappy that the liberal wing of American culture is pushing for same-sex couples to have access to the institution of marriage, Friedersdorf feels that the very fact that "marriage equality" means "marriage for all couples" rather than "civil unions for all" represents a victory. He reasons:

[The glass-half-full traditionalist] might reflect on the fact that attacks on "traditional marriage" date back to Plato; that there were 19th Century feminists who'd have loved to abolish the institution; that a long line of socialists has sought to undermine it; that the Free Love movement and other parts of 1960s counterculture saw no need for anyone to marry; and that gay-rights radicals of the 1990s had no use for marriage either. And recalling all that, they might imagine the many trajectories under which secularists would've abandoned marriage entirely by now.
Had that happened, it would be harder for the traditionalists who stuck with marriage to live out their vocation in a society organized around different arrangements.
This makes sense. But I think that it's also beside the point.

Which takes me back to ideas about divorce. Friedersdorf makes the point that "heterosexuals long ago changed the meaning of marriage to encompass (for example) a thrice-married, post-vasectomy male and a post-menopausal female joining together in a union that excludes, via prenuptial agreement, most of their assets." Or, to borrow a line from a Southern Baptist perspective that I came across yesterday: "Then, a (not so) funny thing happened.  Divorce swept through our nation and churches were filled with people who had been divorced.  As so often happens, the doctrines and convictions of the church conveniently changed to reflect the new culture of divorce."

While it's a convenient narrative, I'm not all that convinced of it's accuracy. Of course, I'm not a scholar on the practice of religion in the United States, and this prevents me from speaking to the issue with any real authority. But while it makes sense that churches, being made up of individuals, would reflect the opinions of their members (and thus would change over time as their membership changed) it also explains why there is such a wide range of difference between various churches in their attitudes concerning marriage and divorce. It wouldn't surprise me to find that is holding the line against the imagined "secular culture" of homosexual people and their various allies, there isn't an attempt to forge a common Christian identity. Evangelicals may consider even conservative Roman Catholics to be Christians in name only, but a shared stand against an understanding of marriage as something that exclusively serves the interests of the adults in question allows them to be allies in adversity.

Take away the various civil legal benefits that accrue to married couples, and what you're left with is mainly symbolism. It's fairly important symbolism, which is why so many people want it, but it's symbolism nevertheless. The fact that it's possible to become married in less time than it takes to eat a casual restaurant meal does a fairly good job of demonstrating that. But I suspect that it will never be a symbol of a singular "Christian" United States.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

All Around the World

"Mexican manufacturing doesn't harm US workers"

It's a simple enough statement; designed to be a debunking of a common myth that Americans hold about Mexico. It's been a bone of contention for some time, generally split down ideological lines, as part of the growing tension over globalism. I found it in a BBC "Viewpoint" piece penned by the Council on Foreign Relations' Shannon O'Neil. In the end, though, it was unconvincing, mainly because in the end, the defense of it that Ms. O'Neil puts forward somewhat misstates the concerns that people have.

It isn't that globalization doesn't lead some jobs to foreign lands. It does. But by expanding abroad, companies become more competitive, supporting and creating jobs at home.
A study by two Harvard business professors and a University of Michigan colleague shows that for every 10 people hired overseas by American corporations, two new jobs are created in the United States.
I don't think that Americans are so uncharitable or paranoid as to feel that the very fact that someone in Mexico has a job is a threat to them. They're concerned because they don't understand American companies to be expanding operations into Mexico - they understand companies to be moving operations, and the work that makes them possible, to Mexico. If a corporation creates 10 new jobs overseas, which in turn creates two new jobs here, you could make the case that one of the Americans who didn't get a job because it was created in Mexico was harmed by that fact, but it will be a somewhat tenuous argument for many, as the understanding of harm has to become fairly broad. But when 10 jobs move from the United States to Mexico, while two replacements are created here, it's a net loss of 8 jobs, and people are likely to see the persons who jobs have been moved as having been directly harmed in the bargain. And this doesn't account for the fact that two new domestic jobs are likely to require different skills than those that moved.

In my own experience, what many Americans are concerned about is being caught in a race to the bottom with the world's poor, where the cost of being unwilling to work for third-world poverty wages is having no wages at all. Casting them as fearing harm from globalization leading some jobs to foreign lands rather than to their doorstep mischaracterizes both their worries and themselves.

Generally speaking, it's difficult to make the point that changes in the employment market driven by globalization are a good thing for the "high-wage" workers who find themselves being undercut by workers in nations with favorable exchange rates, lower standards of living, or both. (Note however that globalization being driven by the employment market can be viewed as a cause for celebration.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

Roll Out the Barrel

In everything, you have bad apples. This is just one bad apple at this time that - you know, that's cast a very negative situation on all police officers.
Charleston County Councilman Teddie Pryor Sr.
S.C. Shooting: Isolated Incident Or Symptom Of Bigger Problems?
I had been expecting a bad apple comment to surface in the context of the shooting of Walter Scott, because, as National Public Radio's Geoff Nunberg once pointed out:
Back then, nobody ever talked about "just a few bad apples" or "only a few rotten apples" — the whole point was that even one was enough to taint the group. These days, those are the phrases people use to imply that some misdeeds were an isolated incident — a couple of rogue cops, a handful of unprincipled loan officers, two or three sociopathic soldiers. Then there's the version that goes, "There are always going to be a few bad apples." That's a counsel of moral realism: as in, there's evil in the world; get over it.
Bad Apple Proverbs: There's One In Every Bunch
The two conflicting meanings of bad apples, as an infectious blight that ruined everything with its poisonous influence (the original meaning) or as wrongheaded individuals who aren't indicative of greater issues, both miss the point in this case. In the current usage, calling someone a bad apple is basically scapegoating them - making them out to be the source of the problem. Throw them under the bus, and everything's fine. And the binary condition that's often suggested, that a person is either "good" or "bad," plays into this. When we call someone out as a bad apple, and especially when we're intending to say that they don't reflect the rest of us, we're separating them from us. We're placing them on the other side of a line that we've drawn in our heads.

But this isn't the way people work. Simply calling out Officer Michael Slager as a violent, racist, bad cop doesn't automagically make anyone who isn't Michael Slager into a peaceful, egalitarian, upstanding citizen. There is a continuum of attitudes and behaviors that each of us lives on, and there isn't an objective bright line of a propensity to answer difficulties with force that makes one "violent," a willingness to judge based on appearances that makes one a "racist" or a level of disrespect for the rules that makes one "bad." But despite the fact that few people would be able to describe such lines to you (and perhaps even fewer would agree on where they would be drawn) it's easy to fall back into the old habit of taking someone who's clearly beyond the pale (or was at least caught on video acting that way) and using the fact that they must be on the wrong side of the line to decide that the rest of us are on the correct side of it.

It makes for a much neater, and more predictable, world, but it blinds us to the way the world around us really works.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Leveling the Field

I was listening to Marketplace in the car on my way to work this morning, when a story came on about Streit’s matzo factory, a New York business that plans to relocate out of a space that it has occupied for the past century. One of the interesting tidbits of data from the story was the fact that Streit’s holds about a 40% share of the domestic matzo market. But they’d like to both expand and modernize their business, and so they’re moving to a new space.

Nothing out of the ordinary there. What struck me was this rationale for the move from Aaron Gross, one of the people who runs the business: “We know how to work in four tenement buildings. We know how to load on the street. We know how to do all this stuff. But, the fact that our competitors don’t have to do it, puts us at an unfair disadvantage.”

I find this interesting because it seemed so out of place. The fact that Streit’s has been using the same building “after nearly a century” counts as an unfair disadvantage? What’s so unfair about it?

My own suspicion is “nothing.” It’s just that businesspoeple can become accustomed to describing any of the pressures that their businesses face as “unfair.” It’s the sort of thing that you hear quite often, although I will admit that this is the first time that I’ve ever heard a businessperson describe their own facility as constituting an unfair disadvantage. Part of me thinks that this is part and parcel of businesses working with governments to alter the conditions of business - the best way to lobby for a tax break or other benefit is to describe the status quo as unfair. And like anything else, if you do something long enough, it starts to seep into other parts of life.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Return of Spring

It's been coming and going, but decided to drop in again this morning.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Safety In Numbers

I haven't really been following the flap about Trevor Noah. To me, it's just another in a long series of teapot tempests that are quite literally sound and fury signifying nothing. But an acquaintance excerpted an article from Time Magazine where the author offers Americans the choice of either being addicted to taking offense or being "the most hypersensitive group of whining milksops ever assembled under one flag."

But he makes an interesting point about comedy in the piece, and since that was the part that stood out for me, I want to quote it at length, to capture its context.

The image people have of comedians staring defiantly over a stationary line of good taste is simply inaccurate. We don’t approach this line, put our toes over it arrogantly and then scamper back to safety. The line doesn’t exist. The correct image for people to have is one of a circle, with a comedian standing in the middle of it, surrounded by a myriad of races, religions, social beliefs, sacred cows and political ideologies. And in these groups are endless numbers of sub groups and personal boundaries. There is simply no way to consistently do the type of comedy that addresses these things without upsetting somebody. No matter which direction you turn to aim the joke, someone is getting hit. And while the person who has been hit jumps up and down and exaggerates their injuries, everyone else in the circle is telling them to shut up and learn to take a joke. Until they themselves get hit.
Jim Norton: Trevor Noah Isn’t the Problem. You Are.
While it seems to me that Mr. Norton is keen to indict people (other than himself, that is) for being willing to "jump up and down and exaggerate their injuries," he's strangely silent on the other factor that he notes - that "everyone else in the circle is telling them to shut up and learn to take a joke." Earlier in the piece, he had made the following observation:
[Trevor Noah] also neglected to take into account that Western culture as a whole has become an increasingly reactionary mob of self-centered narcissists who all have their own personal lines drawn in the sand. A comedian is fine unless he crosses their particular line, which, of course, in the mind of a self-centered narcissist, is the only line that matters.
While I understand his anger at what he perceives as America's love affair with "[b]eing outraged and upset and feeling bullied or offended," he's curiously silent about our habit of simply ignoring what happens to others, as long as it doesn't happen to us. Having read his piece, the issue seems less a national hypersensitivity than a national lack of empathy. If people can't be bothered to look after those in their midst who understand themselves as being injured is it any wonder that the response is to shout louder?

Yes, comforting people after trivial injuries or assuring them they will be alright after a minor wound is tiresome and feels like we're coddling people who should really be able to stand up for themselves. But it's by teaching people how to judge the extent of their hurts that they learn to understand what they can take and what really spells trouble for them. Especially when there's a history involved. I haven't read any of the Tweets that Noah is being called out for, but I understand that they're being seen in some circles as anti-Semitic and sexist. Now, I'm not a particularly astute student of history, but I seem to recall some rather high-profile instance of Jews and women being left out in the cold while the situation around them escalated. Sure those things were in the past, but once bitten, twice shy, and as I recall it, those were some serious bites.

The answer to the issue is not simply expecting people to suffer in silence, but to support them, stand them back up and demonstrate that we have confidence in their ability to take the hit, even when it seems serious. And to let them know that when things more serious than jokes are being flung around, that we won't abandon them to the hope that if we do, the only blood spilled with be theirs.