Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Monster Mash

Languages change over time. And, occasionally, in real time; or so it seems. For example, the definition of "racism" is in a state of flux. When I was young, it was more or less understood that racism referred to an active dislike, if not outright hatred of, one or more groups of people based on their, well, race. The actual number of races and their boundaries was never really all that well defined, but if someone felt that all Asians were shifty or all Jews were greedy and dishonest, they were a prime candidate for the label.

Presently, there is a sizable constituency, mainly on the political Left, for the idea that racism is a form of wrongthink about race. The actual number of races and their boundaries are still not at all well defined, but if someone feels that Black Americans are actually in a somewhat decent place, or that there are broad cultural concepts common to all Latin Americans, they're a prime candidate for the new label.

But the old definition isn't actually dead yet. Unlike "terrific" which has pretty much lost any connection to "terror" over the past 150 years or so, the shift of the term racism from active hatred of a group of people to a systemic social force isn't yet complete. And so for a lot of people, the terms racist and racism still conjure up monsters, like literal Nazis, the old Skinhead movement or Ku Klux Klansmen; people who one would expect to do genuinely terrible things to people, simply for the crime of being different.

And I suspect that this monstrosity that lingers on the term is a large part of the reason why it's become so difficult to talk about race in the United States. A person who considers themselves "woke" may call out someone else for being racist for their support of something seen as cultural appropriation, but that someone else hears themselves being lumped in with the 20th century's worst villains. There might be many degrees of racism, but in day-to-day language one word to rule them all simply makes for confusion.

Not to mention shutting down conversations. Two parties to a conversation may realize that one of them is simply defending what they've come to think of as a neutral meritocracy. But if the only way to describe that is with the same words one would use to describe someone who's open bigotry allows them to assault or even kill someone, it's going to lead to a lot of misunderstandings.

But it's the nature of the beast. Language refuses to remain static, otherwise, modern English might still bear a passing resemblance to it's medieval roots. Eventually, I suspect, the transition will be complete, and racist will have lost much of its sting, that having been loaded onto another term for monster. But in the meantime, an unwillingness to recognize that language isn't the same thing to everyone will continue to torpedo attempts to communicate.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Casualty Counts

When National Public Radio first launched their Planet Money podcast, they had a Flickr photo stream to go with it, and I contributed photographs. I thought of that today while looking through some recent photographs I'd taken. Like this one:

During the "Great Recession" small business closings were everywhere, and they were something of a big deal. Now, small business closings are everywhere, but given the general state of anxiety over the pandemic, they receive much less notice. Part of it is, of course, the pandemic sucking all of the metaphorical oxygen out of the room. People are very much concerned with their health, and its understandable. But I think that it's also that these sorts of business closings are considered a secondary effect. During the financial crisis that kicked off the recession, business closings and job losses were the primacy means that the situation impacted a number of people. Now, they're a side effect.

But one with lasting consequences. It's likely that some of these businesses will be replaced when things settle out, however that comes to pass, but many will likely be simply absorbed. Maybe Costco Travel broadens its portfolio a bit, and obviates the need for something to take the place of Cruise Holidays. If that happens, where do those former employees go?

Friday, January 22, 2021

Missed Messaging

The recently greenlit COVID-19 vaccines represent our best chance at ending the pandemic, so it’s particularly jeopardous to have the American public spending time fighting over a basic fact: vaccines are safe, effective and necessary for public health.
Kaleigh Rogers "Why Fights Over The COVID-19 Vaccine Are Everywhere On Facebook" FiveThirtyEight
While I completely understand the impulse here, there is one somewhat pedantic point I'd like to raise: "safe, effective and necessary for public health" are not part of the definition of "vaccine." And, as a result, it's entirely possible for something to lack some or all of those characteristics, and still be a vaccine. It's unlikely to be a vaccine that makes it to market, given the generally rigorous testing that goes into such enterprises, but it doesn't then become something else, in the same way that a car that doesn't start or that bursts into flames or that people don't like to drive doesn't suddenly transform into some other class of object. And to the degree that people don't trust the people and organizations making or administering the vaccines, simply repeating the idea that the vaccines themselves are fine isn't going to cut any ice.

I was out driving on Monday, and came across this guy on a street corner in Woodinville.

It's clear that whatever he thinks about vaccines in the abstract, that he's convinced that something nefarious is going on with this one. And likely, that he knows what it is. I don't know what to say to that guy to change his mind about that, but "you're putting the rest of us in jeopardy" likely isn't it. Because as far as he's concerned, getting the vaccine puts people in jeopardy as it is.

If part of the rift that's forming in the United States is a division into factions that fear and loathe one another, the fear and the loathing are what need to be tackled. And because those emotions were a number of years in the making, they're likely to take a number of years to unwind. In the middle of an emergency is not the time for trust-building measures. But that doesn't mean that it makes it possible to just demand people's trust, and have them comply out of some form of civic-mindedness. People desiring to see the SARS-2 coronavirus outbreak become a thing of the past may be angry that this guy and his ilk for pushing that time farther into the future, but he believes that he's doing everyone a favor.

The real problem with treating the idea that vaccines are somehow automatically safe, effective and necessary for public health as a fact is that it's a difficult position to defend against a knowledgeable attacker. All it takes is one valid counterexample, and one is open to charges of being ignorant, gullible or actively dishonest. Especially when one is viewed as defending people who are otherwise considered suspect. Part of the reason why anti-vaccine sentiment tends to cluster in affluent suburbs is that many people there are suspicious of corporate power and influence. Making the case that Facebook's shareholders are greedy and grasping but Pfizer's are upstanding and public-minded quickly becomes something of a stretch.

While there is a tendency to respond to fear with more fear, or sometimes anger, understanding may be a better option. If more steps had been taken over the past 20 years to address people's fears and distrust, there might be less of it to deal with now.

Thursday, January 21, 2021

A Friendly Wager

"As Biden era begins, Democrats are more likely than Republicans to favor trying to forge compromises." Uh huh. If you've been around here a while, you might have read what I think about political attempts to forge things.

Often, the questions that Pew Research Center poses are fairly straightforward. Which isn't a problem in and of itself, but they sometimes leave me wondering what people were thinking when they answered. Consider the 7% of people who are Republicans or lean Republican and the 9% of people who are Democrats or lean Democratic who say that they want President Biden or Republican members of Congress respectively to "Stand up to [their side] on issues that are important to [the other side's] voters, even if it means it’s harder to address critical problems facing the country." I find myself dying to know what the thought process is.

To be sure, it being "harder to address critical problems facing the country" is not the same as those problems going unaddressed. And so part of me suspects that the wording of the question has a lot do with things.

To be sure, there likely is some sentiment in favor of bipartisanship. After all, the totals in favor of "reaching across the aisle" add up to 128% on the Republican side and 151% on the Democratic side. Therefore there seem to be a decent number of people who said "collaborate" to both questions, while it's possible (if perhaps unlikely) that no-one said "stand-up" both times.

But in the end, the whole thing comes across as an exercise in partisanship, with the answers being reliably skewed by political party. And I, for my part, really didn't need a Pew Research survey to tell me that. But understanding what people are really ready to give for that partisanship, that would be interesting. When people say they'd rather it be "harder to address critical problems facing the country," than that their man or woman should compromise, what problems do they have in mind, and how much extra difficulty are they thinking? And that, I think has value, because just knowing that people are going to side with their tribe isn't news. People willing see the SARS-2 CoV outbreak last six months longer than it otherwise would, for instance, would really communicate something that I don't think that I, and maybe others, currently really understand.

There was an article in The Atlantic that noted that a guy was making a small, if steady, amount of money by figuring out what Q-Anon supporters were willing to put money on an betting against them. Understanding the degree to which the public at large is willing to put their money where their partisanship is could be very educational.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021


There's a pretty good-sized colony of cormorants that hangs out at the northern end of Lake Washington. And one can generally find a number of them on the old pier pilings of a long-removed dock. I always wondered about this behavior, and then I learned that unlike most waterfowl, cormorants don't have waterproof feathers, so they have to dry off  now and again.