Monday, May 26, 2014

So That Crazy Misogynist Murder Thing...

As you're already obviously aware, a highly-deluded Men's Rights Activist (redundant) killed several random women for not sleeping with him. I don't know of a better way to summarize it than with that seemingly incomprehensible sentence. I say that sentence is incomprehensible because it shouldn't be a sentence that exists and it should make no sense, but unfortunately it's exactly what happened. Even more unfortunate is the number of men who are earnestly arguing this is why women should sleep with any man who asks, walks by them, or just exists, apparently.

There's already been about a thousand different think pieces written on this, but this one is probably the best I've read. It's short and very well written, so I highly suggest you go take the three minutes necessary to read it. I'll wait. Done? Good. I really like how Dr. McDevitt highlights the impossible double standard young women (well, all women, but especially young women) in our society face: if you do have sex with men, you're a stupid whore who deserves to be bullied to death; if you don't have sex with men, you're a stupid controlling bitch who deserves to die for being withholding (if you're a woman who has sex with other women, you're allowed to film it for the pleasure of men, but you should be denied all civil rights, if I understand the argument correctly).

What I would like to selfishly add to the conversation is that this is why discourse matters, why fighting against misogyny in all its forms matters, and frankly, why sociology matters. Because analyzing the incredibly toxic form of masculinity subscribed to by these MRA types is exactly what sociology does, but it's also exactly the kind of thing that creationists* use to mock sociology as a useless discipline. "Why would you bother studying this and taking these people seriously? They're just some losers on the internet. Only people with nothing better to do with their time would think this is worth talking about." I've gotten that exact response from all sorts of people when discussing these kinds of issues, the idea that how people talk about things doesn't matter, and that if someone is espousing reprehensible  garbage we can simply ignore them and they'll go away.

But such a position fails to understand how important discourse is in creating real, material social effects. For a dramatic example, see John Hagan's work on how racial discourse was used to spur the genocide in Darfur. In this case, it's extremely clear how the toxic discourse and ideology of the men's rights movement strongly contributed to, if not caused, this horrible tragedy. As much as anyone may want to blame this on mental illness (whenever white people kill someone, it's always because of mental illness), it's simple empirical fact the vast, vast majority of people with mental illness never harm anyone (in fact, they are far more likely to be harmed themselves). Even if there is some magical psychological cause is found to be behind this, the particular form such murderous rage took was unequivocally influenced by this loose collective of men who feel women are unfairly controlling them and deserve retribution for their unforgivable crime of not fucking any man who wants them.

And that's why studying (and fighting against) these horrible forms of discourse is important and necessary. Because they're not just words, they're words that clearly direct people to action. And this particular murder spree is far from an isolated case -- in fact, that very same night, three men fired eight rounds at a fleeing group of women who had refused to have sex with them. I could go ahead and link to about a thousand similar stories, but it's too depressing and you have google. But please do remember this the next time someone claims a social issue is not important and we should just all ignore it.

*I've encountered far too many people, even highly educated people, that just dismiss the entire field of sociology out of hand, with essentially no knowledge of what sociology even is. They're using the same logic of creationists -- they either don't understand or don't like what sociologists have to say (or both), so they just claim it's not real. I've taken to referring to them as creationists, because most educated people rightly take that as an insult. But science deniers are science deniers, regardless of the specific science they're denying.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

What If We Treated All Education Like We Treat College?

By far one of the most annoying and disturbing trends in discussions around higher education is the pressure to conform a liberal arts education to the trade school model. That is, according to many, we should quit teaching all of this namby pamby "theory" and "art" and "literature" and anything else that isn't immediately and directly transferrable to one's future employment (leaving aside, of course, the fact that many things which don't seem immediately applicable to the job market, like say a better understanding of how various cultures interact, actually can significantly aid one in finding employment. Or the fact that we can't chemical engineer or business administration away institutional racism and structural inequality, but anyway).

I was especially reminded of this when mindlessly scrolling through this typically obnoxious buzzfeed post of commencement speech quotes that someone posted on facebook. The most striking was a quote from Ed Helms, saying "if you majored in Classics, that one's on you. We'll be seeing you and your bust of Euripides at job fairs for years to come." Even going beyond how dripping with unearned condescension that quote is, the fact that it's coming from an actor is especially rich. Especially one with a degree in film theory. You know, the exact kind of major someone at his own commencement probably made fun of for being useless and never leading to employment. Except of course it's led him to roughly $20 million net worth, indicating maybe it was a fairly worthwhile major after all, if you're measuring in terms of future earnings.

But my point is not about whether more esoteric majors can lead to good future earnings, and in fact, I think that is a profoundly misguided way to look at college majors. Because not everything learned in college needs to be exclusively and directly applicable to some sort of job. Beyond the obvious fact that the job market keeps evolving and there's a decent chance today's graduate may end up in a few years applying for a job that doesn't exist right now, a liberal arts education is not meant to be a vocational school. It's meant to teach you applicable skills, sure, but it's also meant to teach you how to be a well-rounded person with knowledge about the world.

I write this as someone who majored in Sociology and Humanities with minors in Music, History, and Philosophy. Every last one of them a "worthless" major according to the college-as-trade-school crowd. Yet here I am, gainfully employed in my chosen field. But the bigger point is that I didn't take those classes to get a job, I took those classes to learn things. Sure, my philosophy courses provided me with few skills applicable to the various jobs I've had, but they challenged my worldview and understanding of life in profound ways. Ways that made me a significantly better person for having pondered and worked through.

So I often wonder what elementary education would look like if we applied this same mentality. Learning to tie your shoes? No one's going to pay you for that. Learning right from left? No one's going to pay you for that. Learning addition and subtraction? No one's going to pay you for that. In fact, there's no job that's going to pay you for what you learn in grade school, so we should probably get rid of the whole thing, right?

Friday, May 09, 2014

Obamacare and Fun With Latin Logic Phrases

One of my favorite time wasting activities is looking up Latin phrases for logical fallacies (I clearly have a very active social life). It's not just that whipping out a Latin phrase at the right time makes you look super smart and/or pretentious, but that often they have a beautiful simplicity that captures a rather lengthy argument in just a few words.

But since I never studied Latin, I often find myself looking for a specific phrase but having to reverse engineer it through the magic of google (so I often find myself searching something to the effect of "Latin phrase meaning your conclusion does not follow your premises," or some such). Today's Latin logic phrase of the day is Ignoratio Elenchi, meaning when one presents an argument that is solidly logical, but does nothing to support the conclusion they're advocating.

I thought of this while reading yet another complain about the Affordable Care Act this morning and wondering why I find myself so often in disagreement with conservative critics of the ACA when I myself hate the ACA. I think it's because while there are many, many valid criticisms of the act, so many of the most vocal critics of it use what are basically non sequiturs in their attacks, clearly starting from the position that Anything Obama Does = Bad, and then working backwards from there to figure out why any particular action itself is bad.

For instance, one of the most common criticisms of the ACA I see from very vocal opponents is the idea that it will not be financially solvent unless enough healthy young people who rarely use their benefits sign up for it to defray the costs of taking care of older and/or sicker people who use many more resources.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that the idea that a health insurance program will only work with enough healthy people to offset the people actually using their benefits is not a criticism of the ACA, it's a criticism of the concept of health insurance itself. This is the exact logic the entire private insurance system is based on, a logic that was in place long before Mitt Romney and co. developed the plan that would eventually become the ACA. Now, if you were proposing an alternative in which our health care is socialized and the government uses the awesome purchasing power of 300+ million people to negotiate affordable rates on medical care, then you could criticize this model. But if your alternative is to return to the system that invented this model in the first place, the critique rings pretty hollow.

Which is what I think makes it such a good example of in ignoratio elenchi. Because the idea that young, healthy people who use very few medical resources are necessary to offset the costs of people who actually use medical resources is a valid critique of a system of medicine. But when your counterproposal to what exists is based on the exact same logic, well…again, that's just not a very good criticism. Instead, it's clearly a criticism that began with the assumption the ACA is terrible and then worked backward to find specific faults. Of which there are many, but this one doesn't work.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Donald Sterling, "The Free Market" as Coded Language, and a McDonald's That Sells Spaghetti and Blankets

I've been following the whole Donald Sterling fiasco pretty closely and one of the most interesting arguments I've come across in the many pieces I've read about it is from a faction of people who believe the NBA should not have done anything and should have instead let the "free market" sort it out. Of course here I'm using the term "interesting" in the passive-aggressive Midwestern sense, in that anything that doesn't make sense gets politely termed interesting. Because this argument most definitely does not make sense.

What is this free market argument? As always, it involves the free market magically doing the right thing, but more specifically, these folks are arguing that the NBA was wrong to intervene, because had they just left everything alone, fans would have decided not to patronize the Clippers, players would have decided not to play for the Clippers, advertisers and other corporate sponsors would have cut ties with the Clippers, and on and on until the market forced Sterling out.

While this line of thinking obviously ignores quite a bit of what we know about reality (ranging from the fact that many fans have continued to support their teams through far worse controversies, players are under contract and can't just up and leave the franchise without huge difficulties, advertisers have shown their complete willingness to work with utterly despicable people, etc.), it's interesting in how it not only shows how humorous free market fetishism is, but how it's becoming a loaded code word on the level of "states rights."

Much as proponents of states rights will say that slavery or segregation were really bad and they truly, honestly disagree with the practice but just think the federal government doesn't have the right to intervene in such situations, the "free market will fix it crowd" similarly pretends to be upset with Sterling, but just doesn't like the heavy-handed actions of the NBA.

But I say "pretends to" because that's obviously not the case. Because the NBA has neither acted with a heavy hand according to their own corporate franchising model, but even more so because this is actually a pretty prime example of the market forcing this change (without any government intervention whatsoever).

Why isn't it heavy handed for the NBA to force a sale of the Clippers (which has not happened yet but appears quite likely at this time)? Because the Clippers are not an independent business, but a franchise of the NBA. This is why the NBA can have things like salary caps or the ability to trade their employees, because technically the teams are all just subsets of one corporate entity (the NBA). These things would be gross violations of labor and business law if all 30 teams were actually completely separate businesses. So it's more akin to how individual McDonalds are independently owned and operated, but at the discretion of the McDonalds corporation and the ability to run one can be revoked at any time.

Which brings mean to the McDs that only sells spaghetti and blankets, as imagined by the late, great Mitch Hedberg (the joke starts at about 44 seconds in):

For those to lazy to watch or for when the video is inevitably taken down, the crux of the joke is that Mitch notes the end of McDonalds commercials always end with "prices and participation may vary," so he jokes about opening a McDonalds that doesn't participate in anything. It's a good joke. But of course in reality if any McDonalds owner were to do anything even close to that their franchise would be yanked away immediately. Which is more-or-less what the NBA is doing to Stern Sterling (whoops! confused my S-named morons associated with the NBA).

But what really exposes the "Oh, I totally oppose what Stern Sterling has said and done, I just believe in the purity of the free market" argument to be a lie is that the free market is exactly why Stern Sterling is losing the team. The NBA, a private corporation, seeing the mountains of bad press, the threats of fans and advertisers to quit supporting the league until something was done, and a potential strike of both the Clippers and their first-round playoff opponent Warriors, decided that to protect their revenue streams, they needed to discontinue their relationship with Donald Sterling. This was all done without even the threat of government interference. A purely business decision made by a private business. The ouster of Donald Sterling couldn't get more free market if Ayn Rand came back from the dead to team up with Ron Paul to personally arrange a hostile takeover of the Clippers.

And this is why the free market argument is clearly a code word meant to derail the conversation from one about the continuing presence of racism in our society to one of how private businesses should be allowed to act. Because again, this was pretty much the model example of the free market taking care of things with no outside intervention. So if you're going to use the notion that it should have been left up to the free market when that is unequivocally what has already happened, it makes it pretty clear that maybe your problem is more that this was one of those rare occasions in which someone's life-long legacy of overt and institutional racism finally brought some consequences...

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Privileged White Guy Does Not Believe In White Privilege

A you've probably heard or read by now, a Princeton freshman wrote an article for an astroturf conservative collegiate newspaper about how he's never experienced white privilege (despite, you know, being a freshman in college whose poorly written essay has now been featured in Time magazine, among many other outlets). I'm not going to link to it directly because the last thing dude needs is more page views, but here's a great take down of how moronic it is.

The reason the piece has blown up is pretty obvious, as it taps into a ton of white resentment over the fact that it's no longer particularly acceptable to publicly proclaim people of color stupid/unworthy and how that's apparently super unfair to white people.

I'm not here to explain what white privilege is or to prove it exists (I've written about it tons and tons and tons and tons before, and at this point in the development of the term and empirical findings in the field, if you're denying it exists you're basically the social science version of a creationist).

What's most annoying about this kid's tone deaf essay is the deliberate misunderstanding of the term. Literally no one is asking him (or any other white person) to apologize for being white or for getting where they are. The entire point of asking people to check their privilege is to simply remind them that the world is not particularly fair, and to remember that the unfairness of the world tends to work in their advantage. No one's saying you haven't overcome difficulties in your life, just that other people also have difficulties, and probably more than you do if you're a straight white guy at Princeton. Which, to borrow a popular analogy, is pretty much the lowest difficulty setting possible.

But this kid wrestling with the concept of privilege actually reminded me of a bizarro version of myself at his age. As a college activist only beginning to learn of the many horrors of our world I, like many others, began to feel like I was not allowed to be sad or upset about anything. Sure, that girl dumped me and broke my heart, but do you have any idea what's going on in Darfur right now?!?

It's a long process for many activists to realize that just because other people have it objectively worse than you doesn't mean you're not allowed to feel shitty when shitty things happen to you. A much healthier way to approach it is just to remember some perspective when you're feeling shitty. So I hit on a new way to think of the concept of checking one's privilege.

When I was a senior in college, I broke my ankle in a pick up basketball game. Not in the figurative sense that someone juked me out of my sneakers, but in the literal sense that I displaced a number of the "floating" bones in my ankle. And that really, really hurt. Like, "scream a string of obscenities every time I even tried to move my ankle for months" kind of pain. It took months of physical therapy to regain the use of that ankle, and to this day I only have about 75% motion in it.

Contrast this with a friend of a friend who a few years ago died from a very aggressive cancer. In fact, by the end, it had so thoroughly spread throughout his skeleton that his bones were literally snapping  due to the pressure of the enormous cancerous growths inside of them. His last weeks were spent writhing in unimaginable pain.

No obviously that guy's situation was simply objectively worse than mine, no matter how you slice it. Although breaking my ankle like that was by far the most physical pain I've ever experienced, it's not even a sliver of what that guy went through. To compare them on any level is frankly insulting to his memory.

But that doesn't mean breaking my ankle didn't hurt really, really bad. You see, both things are possible: just because he went through something exponentially worse does not mean my situation didn't suck pretty bad. For me to compare the two would be absurd, and people would be right to be upset with me were I so stupid as to do so.

And that's all we're asking when we ask you to check your privilege: we're not saying you don't have any difficulties in your life, or that you have to apologize for anything. We're simply pointing out that your broken ankle is not nearly as difficult to overcome as that guy's super-aggressive cancer, and that you probably shouldn't complain to the dude with cancer about how your ankle hurts. That's all.

Thursday, May 01, 2014

A Long Semester is Finally Over

Been updating far less than usual lately due to the time crunch of the end of the semester. This is not only a busy time for all the obvious reasons (grading, mainly) but also because this is the time of the semester when students suddenly develop debilitating problems that only effect them retroactively, which is why they don't deserve the D they earned but instead should really get at least a B. I mean, come on, if I don't get at least a B my GPA won't be high enough to get into the business major and this is somehow your problem even though you don't know me. It's a fascinating mindset.

So I've been digging out from under a deluge of panicked student e-mails. Sometimes they're at least legitimately hilarious, but it always makes me feel like if these folks put half the effort into class that they put into coming up with elaborate excuses as to why they did terribly in the class, they wouldn't have to make up said excuses in the first place. But then I guess they'd be forced to learn something, and that is most definitely not why one goes to college.

I thought I could head off a lot of this by announcing in class (multiple times!) that I would not entertain any e-mails asking for a change in grade (if something that monumental actually happened to you, it shouldn't take you 3 months to inform your professors of it) nor would I answer any e-mails asking when they'll get their final grades. Because the final grades come out in a pretty timely manner, and it shockingly turns out that knowing your grade two days earlier doesn't at all effect what the grade is.

While for privacy reasons I can't actually copy any of those e-mails here, I will say they take on a bizarro, almost gonzo spirit of making no sense. So far the winner is an e-mail I got literally less than an hour after a class meeting in which I repeatedly announced that any e-mails from students asking to get their final grade early would be immediately deleted with no response. Sure enough, by the time I grabbed some lunch after class and got back to my office, there was already an e-mail from a student asking if I could please send them their final grade. Leaving aside the notion that I am apparently able to grade 60 term papers and finals in less than an hour, I'd like to think this person was intentionally trying to be funny, but I fear that's giving them way, way too much credit.

What makes this even more aggravating/darkly hilarious is that in addition to my repeated announcements (and the inclusion of this on the syllabus), all students in our department are required to take an introduction to the major that doubles as college skills orientation in which I know for a fact the professor who teaches it covers exactly this kind of thing (e.g. what it is and is not appropriate to e-mail your professor over). So the students have gotten this message multiple times before they get to the point of annoying me, and yet either assume that such rules of decorum do not apply to them or (more likely) weren't paying attention the multiple times when they were given this information.

And that's the most dispiriting thing of all -- if they're not even able to listen closely enough to grasp what is already common sense even after hearing it multiple times, it doesn't give me a ton of faith that they're grasping any of the actual course content. Which is something I (and most other professors) already knew, it's just unpleasant to receive constant reminders of this fact.

But hey, I'm done with students for the summer. Here's hoping next fall brings a batch of folks who are interested in their education, or failing that, at least are able to listen to simple instructions...