Thursday, 26 May 2016

“Innate” ≠ “inevitable”

I’m old enough, and Left enough, to remember when science was merely a tool of the patriarchal Western capitalist military-industrial hegemony. If you tried to argue a scientific point that seemed to be in conflict with leftist politics – even to demonstrate that it wasn’t, in fact, in conflict with leftist politics – people would refer you to Thomas Kuhn, assure you that a “paradigm shift” was on its way, and change the subject. I never could see why Kuhn was supposed to be so liberatory. If science is constrained by “paradigms” which are themselves determined by politics, then politics dictates what’s a fact and what’s not. This would imply that power controls the truth as it controls everything else, and therefore there can be no such thing as an inconvenient truth wherewith one might challenge power.

Thankfully science is much more accepted among people of my political persuasion now than it was fifteen years ago. Contrary to the dire warnings we Humanities students used to congratulate ourselves – sometimes for hours at a time – on grasping, we now seem as a result to be more critical, not less, of scientific concepts served up in the media. But this is an overall trend, not (hah) a paradigm shift. There are still plenty of people about who will criticize science on the basis that it doesn’t suit the Left and think they’re being helpful. And last week I came across one such criticism, in the form of this address by John Horgan to the Northeast Conference on Science and Scepticism.

I’m not going to pull apart the whole thing. That’s already been done by others, such as David Gorski and Steve Novella. Horgan has a bee in his bonnet about something he calls the “deep roots theory of war”, most famously promulgated by Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature. Broadly, this means the idea that human societies have always known war, going back to our common ancestor with chimpanzees. It’s hard to determine exactly what Horgan thinks is wrong with this idea; the goalposts in his discussions of it are stricken with chronic wanderlust. He’ll flag up particular archaeological sites where relatively few of the skeletons show signs of violence and go “Well, these people didn’t have deep roots of war in their nature!” He’ll flag up sites where there are a lot of signs of violence and say “This was murder, not war – yet another mark against the deep-roots theory!”

For the record, I disagree with Steven Pinker’s position on a lot of political questions. I don’t think warning women to dress conservatively reduces rape or sexual harassment. I’m broadly in favour of trigger warnings and safe spaces (without denying the possibility of excesses in their application). If crime rises when the police lose the public trust, then I think it is the police’s responsibility to win back that trust. I consider nuclear power at best a stop-gap measure against climate change, since uranium is unrenewable, and I fear that long-term accumulation of radioactive waste may seed a different, but equally acute, global environmental problem. I think disinvesting in fossil fuels is a good idea while we’re waiting for the world’s governments to divorce Big Oil and bring in a universal carbon tax. But I’m not going to dismiss Pinker’s contributions to the science of humanity just because politics would be easier if some of them weren’t true, and I’m especially not going to castigate him for two opposite and mutually incompatible faults, as Horgan does on the deep-roots-of-war issue.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Please argue with me about reality

I have been remiss. I’ve been writing this blog for three and a half years now, and I think I’ve mentioned twice, in passing, the guy who’s guided my thinking more than any single other person on the internet. That would be Mark Rosenfelder, or Zompist as he calls himself online. He has a blog, which you’ll see on my sidebar, but that’s mostly about computer games. The essays on his website are much more interesting. A large part of it is devoted to a fantasy world he’s created, which may or may not be your thing – it’s more detailed by now than Middle-Earth. But Rosenfelder is also a sophisticated political thinker, and that’s where this blog post starts.

Recently Rosenfelder posted a piece called The Morality of Liberalism. It’s a follow-up to one from four years ago, simply titled Liberalism – which goes to show that Rosenfelder writes like me. (I will finish the Imponderable series some day...) Liberalism was mainly about why the political philosophy of Franklin Roosevelt and his successors was pragmatically better than the one which has prevailed since Ronald Reagan’s presidency; the recent essay is about why it’s also morally better. I can find very little to disagree with, and hence write about, in either one. I’m just about reduced to nitpicking side details like this:

Some researchers claim that liberals aren’t motivated by feelings of moral disgust, but I disagree. Liberals think incidents like these are disgusting. Racism is viscerally wrong, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

I take this to be a reference to Jonathan Haidt, who doesn’t actually say that liberals, as people, aren’t motivated by disgust. The moral instinct is cross-wired with the disgust response; that’s a feature of most human brains, liberal or conservative. What Haidt says is that liberal moral philosophy doesn’t begin with disgust. Things like racism are disgusting because they are immoral, but nothing is immoral because it is disgusting.

Haidt contrasts this with the conservative stance (which Rosenfelder himself attributes to a fear of modernity) that most sexual practices are immoral not because they harm anybody but because they somehow contaminate some undefinable thing called “purity”. For reasons I do not understand, human sexuality, like morality, is cross-wired with disgust. Likewise, many conservatives oppose immigration and ethnic diversity not because there is anything objectively wrong with Them Over There but because, I don’t know, cultures are like wet paint and if you mix the colours up you lose them, or something.

But, like I said, side detail. The real reason I sat down to write this was because of a political-studies lecture I take notes for on Thursdays. The course is titled “Global Political Economy”, and the lecturer substantially agrees with what Rosenfelder says in the two Liberalism essays. The third quarter of the twentieth century was an era of increasing equality and rapid economic growth, with the market held in check by regulation, and tax-funded social benefits keeping things safe for humans. And then from the Reagan era onward we saw the return of market utopianism and the dismantlement of the welfare state, with a consequent ballooning of inequality and poverty.

The main difference between them? Rosenfelder uses the word “liberal” for the Rooseveltian welfare state. Our lecturer uses it for the Reaganite market-utopians.

I read a lot of internet political commentary in one form or another. Most of it these days is from my general region of the political spectrum, so that I don’t lie awake all night coming up with counter-arguments. I can cope with the heat that political debates generate – when they’re about substantive issues. What gets my goat is when people get into capslock-matches over nothing but words. Rosenfelder and this lecturer are both thoughtful people, who wouldn’t be taken in by that. But I can just see two people, one a POLS student at Otago and one a Rosenfelder fan, getting into a rancorous quarrel over “liberalism” without ever noticing that they’re on the same side.

Like more of my philosophy than I care to admit, I learned this principle from Rosenfelder himself:

A correspondent tried to define libertarianism at me the other day. Naturally, I didn’t stand for that nonsense.
People love to work out definitions, as if this told them something about the world. In Understanding Comics, to use a neutral example, Scott McCloud defines comics as juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence blah blah blah. It’s nice to say what you’re going to talk about, but it would have been simpler and no less accurate just to enumerate: “I’m going to talk about comics, but I won’t be talking about single images or animated cartoons.”
He borrows this method from academics, who love to begin by defining their subject. Generally you’d might as well skip to Chapter Two, where they’ll forget about their own definition and start to actually talk about things.
When it comes to political terms, definitions are little more than propaganda. Libertarians like to talk about “freedom” – with a very idiosyncratic definition of “freedom” such that if you can’t leave your house because the roads are privatized and you can’t get a job because the employers don’t care to offer a living wage, you are enjoying absolute “freedom”. If you accept this, they can then paint their opponents as enemies of “freedom”.
Anyone can play this game; for instance, I can define liberals as people who are for prosperity, liberty, and justice. Naturally, then, anyone who’s not a liberal is for poverty, slavery, and oppression.
Mark Rosenfelder, “Never define”

Our perceptions are not determined by our language (contrary to postmodernist claims), but we do use language to decide how to categorize the world, sometimes even when it clashes with reality. An example: apparently, wherever in the world a Medical School and a Dental School share a building, the corridor joining them is colloquially known as “the Time-Tunnel” – the dental students are about a century behind. Dentists just don’t get the respect, nor the funding, that doctors do. Now, by any rational standard, if an optometrist is an “eye doctor” then a dentist is a “mouth doctor”. But we don’t call dentists doctors; we speak of “doctors and dentists”. That contentless verbal distinction has consigned at least four generations to needless lifelong oral health problems.

So when Rosenfelder heads a section of his essay “Capitalism is . . . OK I guess”, that’s when I have to write a response instead of simply posting a link to him on Facebook. Because I know I have a mild allergy to the word “capitalism”, which I share with my sociopolitical tribe. I have to be very careful, when arguing about “capitalism”, to be sure I’m responding to the substance and not merely to a label. Under this heading Rosenfelder goes on to say

Corporations will put filth in your food, defraud you, poison the environment, and avoid paying a living wage if they can get away with it. Capitalism needs activist consumers, workers willing to organize, a nosy media, and a strong government to make it work for the population as a whole...
If you have some radical ideas besides “throw out everything” . . . I’m not necessarily against them, and I might even be convinced. My personal bugbear is the CEO system: I think we’ve kept monarchical rule in corporations long after realizing that it’s a terrible system for governments.

If you’re wondering how someone could put all that under the heading “Capitalism is OK”, Rosenfelder points out that

Other folks, of course, think that capitalism is evil. But you know, working alternatives are hard to come by. Premodern societies were miserable for everyone except the elite. Fascism and communism were disasters... Anarchism is at best untried, and at worst seems completely unprepared to handle human violence and oppression.

The system Rosenfelder favours would run on private property and open markets, and thus meets the minimum diagnostic criteria for capitalism as used by our POLS lecturer. But if we ditch “monarchical rule in corporations” we’re looking at an arrangement where the working class controls the means of production, which is the diagnostic criterion for socialism. (Obviously you can’t have working-class control applied via the state and also private property and open markets, but not everyone who identifies as “socialist” favours the state as the instrument of working-class control.) What if firms trading in the open market were privately owned and democratically run by worker-shareholders? Is that capitalist or socialist? Or both?

Sunday, 1 May 2016

How should men respond to #freethenipple?

The #freethenipple movement is morally correct. Nipples harm no-one; therefore, it is censorious to ban them from public view, and unjust to discriminate by gender while doing so. I frankly don’t see much room for controversy here. Nevertheless, the issue is controversial. Many Western states have laws against toplessness. New Zealand is one that doesn’t, but we do have vaguely-worded offences like “breach of peace” and “offensive behaviour” to allow the police to enforce conservative norms without having to admit that that’s what they’re doing. I believe there is legal precedent here for topless protests being protected self-expression under the Bill of Rights Act, but I’m not a lawyer and you shouldn’t rely on my vague recollections in court.

So why haven’t I said anything about it before? It’s a feminist issue, and I have a lot to say about feminist issues. And it’s a body freedom issue and I have strong views on body freedom. Why have I kept all quiet about it? Well, because of the feminist thing. I’m male, and attracted (mainly but not exclusively) to women. There is a sarcastic hashtag #malefeminists for guys who try to dominate feminist spaces, and especially for guys who are enthusiastic about liberating women from their clothes and sexual inhibitions. It is not my business in the first place to tell women how to emancipate themselves, and on the specific topic of sexual liberation I have a conflict of interest. What I can do, what men who align with feminism need to do, is try and communicate feminist values to other men.

The basic principle here is: women are human beings and deserve the respect and consideration due to human beings, regardless of what they’re wearing. I don’t see that there are any limits on this principle in either direction. A naked woman is a human being, and a woman in a burqa is a human being, and if you meet either one in the street you should treat her exactly the same as if she were wearing jogging gear, smart casual attire, or a work uniform. Male responses to topless demonstrations tend to fall short of this ideal in one of two ways, both seen in the video above. One is to perve; the other is to try and make the women cover up. Let’s go through the justificatory arguments in turn.

With perving, of course, the argument we have to deal with is generally a post hoc rationalization. “If she didn’t want to be perved at,” men say, “she wouldn’t draw attention to herself like that.” If you see a woman in a clown suit, it’s OK to laugh at her, right? That’s what the clown suit is for, isn’t it? And if you see a woman in a ballet tutu, it’s OK to watch her dance, isn’t it? In each case the costume is intended to draw that reaction. On that basis, can’t we consider toplessness to be a costume intended to draw sexual attention?

Think again. Suppose the clown or ballerina is not performing on a stage, but waiting in front of you in the queue at the convenience store. Then it’s not polite to laugh or stare – the wise presumption is that she’s grabbing a bite to eat between performances and hasn’t had time to change. It’s not the costume that counts, it’s the performance. A woman dancing topless in a burlesque show can be presumed to be presenting her body for visual appreciation; a woman relaxing topless in a public park cannot.

To be sure, the Outdoor Co-ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society are there to send a message as well as to enjoy the spring air. The shock value and clickbait appeal of breasts can draw the attention of passers-by, media, and the internet to one’s cause. If a protester lifts up her T-shirt for the news cameras to reveal the words No to the TPPA (as it might be) painted across her torso, it’s reasonable to assume that’s her intention. The obvious response – obvious unless you’re just waiting for the first excuse to ogle or grope – is to attend to the message she’s trying to convey. Especially if that message is Still Not “Asking For It”.

Such protests help falsify what’s often the first objection raised by those who want to make women cover up, namely that women are actually perfectly fine with having to cover up and #freethenipple is all a fantasy of a bunch of #malefeminists. I once overheard a woman remark very loudly to her companion (it was a windy day and they were walking right behind me) that she welcomed the prospect of a Hooters outlet in Dunedin because “then I could go topless and people wouldn’t judge me”. I have to say I doubt that that would be the outcome of having a Hooters here, but conversations I’ve seen online confirm that she was far from alone in wanting that freedom.