Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

We need more differentiation, not integration.

March 2, 2015

So, over at Skepchick, Olivia has put up a post talking about women’s sports and what she sees as some bad stereotypes about them. Ultimately, her push in the post is to eliminate the distinction between men’s and women’s sports through various means, an argument that strikes me as odd because for me the best women’s sports are the ones where women aren’t trying to play the game like the men do, but instead take their natural abilities into account and play according to that. To me, every woman’s sport becomes massively less interesting and exciting the instant they start being able to play/playing the game the way the men play it, but without the attributes that the men’s game was targeted for. As soon as women start being able to win with big serves or with the big weight or with the big slapshots but while still having less powerful serves, less weight, or slapshots that are not as hard as the men typically do what you have is an inferior copy of a men’s sport, and the women’s sport loses what makes it special and interesting to watch. But let’s look at what Olivia is saying. She starts talking about stereotypes about women’s sports that annoy her:

More often than not I just hear that women aren’t as good, their bodies don’t allow them to be as powerful, as strong, or excel to the extent that men do. So it’s not interesting to watch them.

This often leads to me yelling about how women are just as athletic and impressive as men, and that we need a better system for differentiating leagues in sports than “men” and “women” …

So, I’ll (mostly) agree with her here. It isn’t the case that women’s sports aren’t as exciting as men’s sports because women are less athletic or competitive. In fact, I’d argue that in general taken in isolation when you watch a sport it is the competition level that drives the excitement of the sport, which means that your enjoyment is normalized to the competitors that you are watching. So as long as they are well-matched, the game will be interesting. The problem is that we don’t really have these things in isolation, as we have a choice of what sports and what leagues to watch. So to use a completely non-gendered example, it’s clear that in general people won’t choose to watch, say, minor league baseball instead of major league baseball because the game is the same in both cases, but the overall skill level is higher in the major league game, and so if you want to maximize your sports watching entertainment you’ll go for the equally competitive but higher skilled option. And so, in general, a woman’s sport that is the same game as the men’s league but has less skill at the elements of the men’s sport won’t be as interesting to watch as the men’s version. And vice versa (more on that later).

Because there’s no absolute value that says being bigger or stronger is always better in sports. There are sports in which female athletes do beat male athletes (equestrian events are integrated and women win medals regularly, Billie Jean King beat out Bobby Riggs in tennis, and many of the top rock climbers in the world are women), and even some sports that favor women overall, such as gymnastics and volleyball. The problem is that people don’t take those sports as seriously.

No, she’s right, there isn’t anything that says that bigger or stronger produces the better sport. However, her examples are a bit weak, because tennis, for example, is not a sport where female athletes beat male athletes. As was pointed out in the comments, her example was of a female player in her prime against a male player past his prime. If you took the top male tennis player and the top female tennis player and had them play, I don’t think that there’s any doubt that the male player would win handily. The raw power of his serve would almost certainly overwhelm his opponent, while her serve would be average at best. On the other hand, gymnastics is a sport that follows my model: the women’s sport is radically different from the men’s, focusing more on flexibility and the like while the men’s version focuses a lot on upper body strength and power. And women’s gymnastics is far more popular than men’s gymnastics, and I think it is, at least in part, because of that sharp distinction. Women’s gymnastics is not just men’s gymnastics done by people with less upper body strength, but is a sport shaped and formed by the things that women’s bodies are best at doing. I’ve also talked in the past about women’s curling and how I like it better than men’s curling because it’s a completely different game, and one that I enjoy more. My excitement with women’s hockey from the Nagano Olympics turned to massive disappointment four years later when it turned from being a different game to the same game as men’s hockey, but with players that simply weren’t up to that level.

Also, she’s a bit off in talking about how those sports aren’t taken as seriously. They all fit into a category of sports that could be considered, well, generally amateur sports, and essentially include in North America everything outside of the big professional leagues. Hockey in the United States was at least at one point in the same category, while soccer in North America generally is as well while it isn’t outside of North America. I guess the best way to describe them — instead of calling them “amateur” — is to call them “Second-Tier”. They are sports that you see on your sports shows and that are popular when there are big tournaments or at the Olympics, but are generally filler most of the rest of the time. These sports include skiing, volleyball, figure skating, gymnastics, curling (in Canada), tennis, golf and a host of others. It’s hard to explain how a sport gets into that sort of role and how it gets out of it, but it seems that right now tradition has more to do with it than anything else; the First-Tier sports tend to be the sports that have been there for ages, and perhaps more importantly have had leagues built around them for ages, as opposed to simply having tournaments week in and week out. They’re also generally strongly team sports, and sports that you can associate with geographically, and so cheer for a team rather than a person. But it is somewhat mysterious how this happens, because there are more masculine sports that are clearly Second-Tier — boxing, for example — and so contrary to Olivia’s opinion that doesn’t seem to be the driving factor. Heck, baseball and soccer aren’t anywhere near the top of the heap in terms of what you’d consider “toughness” and yet outdraw the tougher hockey pretty much everywhere except Canada. So the implication that it’s a culture of masculinity doesn’t quite seem to work.

There are many similar examples, like upper body strength in swimming, or weight in football. But the sports that take advantage of women’s abilities like gymnastics, open water swimming, figure skating, or shooting, are not pushed on the media, supported, or even really considered sports in the way that the big male sports are.

Figure skating, at least in Canada, is actually given far more attention than swimming is. So is gymnastics. Shooting seems like a pretty boring spectator sport, meaning that I can’t see it gaining more attention in areas that don’t already have it as a sport of interest than, say, darts does (which is, to my mind, amazingly popular in the U.K.). It also seems like a prime masculine sport, but has never really enjoyed a lot of attention as far as I’m aware. So I don’t think “They’re just not supported” is a good explanation here; given the success and attention paid to Canadian figure skaters over the past few decades due to their success, it would seem that in Canada at least figure skating’s more than had its shot, for example.

Ultimately, she seems to want to solve this problem and bring about a host of other benefits by integrating men’s and women’s sports. And immediately runs into a problem that she tries to solve:

It also seems entirely possible that there could be leagues with slightly altered rules to make women more competitive. Some people might whine and moan about how this would destroy the sport, but all our rules are completely arbitrary anyway and the way we set up our competitions is completely arbitrary, so why not make it more accessible to women? We have rules against using steroids or against sticking a trampoline under the basket, both of which mean that players aren’t being as outstanding in their abilities as they could be. I know you all love dunks, but imagine a league in which dunks weren’t legal and how that would change the playing field for gender equality. Ok MenBA fans, stop throwing things, you can still have a dunking league too if you want.

The issue with simply integrating them, she realizes, is that if the rules are kept the same then the elite leagues would likely end up being defacto men’s leagues anyway. So then she starts talking about changing the rules. She refers back to her example of basketball and says that one way to eliminate the height issue is to remove dunking. Except that height is beneficial beyond dunking. There’s rebounding, for example. And shot blocking. And being able to pass or shoot over a defender without having to do a fade away. And all sorts of other things. If you changed the sport to allow for that that much, you’d have a radically different game … which you could achieve in some sense by just not integrating and letting women who are generally shorter play, and not providing any rule changes to adjust it for their height.

The problem with this is that it will end up being ruined as soon as you get women into the game who are tall enough to play the game the way the men play the game, because then again if the rules haven’t changed then they will be able to dunk, rebound, and shoot and pass over the smaller women just like the men would. Except that they’ll still be shorter than the men in the men’s league, and so you’ll have a league that plays the same as the men’s league but isn’t as good as it. This is what bugged me about the Williams sisters in tennis (which I don’t really watch), the Jennifer Jones rink in curling, and essentially all of women’s hockey: becoming more like the men’s game meant that you had nothing more than an inferior men’s game, which took away what made those sports interesting in their own right.

So, could you integrate? Maybe. But to do what Olivia suggests requires taking the existing frameworks and essentially making a new game, and it’s hard to see how that could be done without turning it into the gymnastics model: two completely different games, one for men and one for women. Especially since you have the issue of competition to deal with, as already mentioned. If you radically change a sport, then you essentially end up with two — or more — completely different versions of the same sport. If they compete against each other, unless you manage to hit completely different markets, one is likely to push out the others to become the dominant one. It’s not likely that dunkless basketball will outdraw “traditional” basketball. And, even worse, you might actually splinter your market and so lose out in ratings when you compete with more unified sports. So, then, trying to build a new alternative sport that could be integrated is not all that great an idea, but trying to change the existing one by taking out skill elements in order to integrate is not that great either. I’m not sure what the solution is here, but one thing that we can do right now is stop pushing women’s sports to be men’s sports, and for women to stop treating men’s sports as the major leagues, as we saw Hayley Wickenheiser, Michelle Wie, and others who strive to compete in the men’s league and get accolades for doing it. They should instead be treated as essentially traitors, people who are trying to play a different game (and generally not doing that well at it) not as people who are making it to the big time.

Simply changing the rules to integrate women isn’t going to convince people to value different athletic traits and abilities or new ways that the games might develop if women were integrated. Too many people will simply see it as artificially lowering the playing field because they value power and sheer strength over balance, flexibility, finesse, or skill.

So even if we could find a great way to integrate sports, there’s probably a lot of work to do at retraining our brains and societal expectations to appreciate new things. We have to choose as a society to care about other sports and other skills.

Well, let’s see. Darts and poker are, in fact, relatively big draws now. Women’s gymnastics focuses on all four of the things she promotes and is far more popular than men’s gymnastics, which focus on power and sheer strength. And many sports focus on both sheer power and finesse and skill (hockey and soccer being the best examples). So I don’t see that as being the problem. I see it as being the case that power and sheer strength in a lot of sports does mean greater success and better play, and so attempts to reduce that are rightfully seen as taking away from the sport. At this point, I think all I can suggest to Olivia is that she try to invent a new sport that focuses on what she wants focused on and see how it does. At the very least, then we’d know what she means by a sport that does that and, perhaps, what criteria for “popular” she’s aiming for.

Essentially, right now in order for women’s sports to succeed and take off they have to become something more than an inferior version of the men’s sport. Rolling women into the men’s sport is not in any way going to help with this. What will help with this is acknowledging the differences and maybe deliberately biasing the women’s game towards enhancing those differences and making them really stand out. If this is done, maybe more women’s sports can achieve the lofty heights of gymnastics when compared to the men’s version of the sport. And, as I’ve said on multiple occasions, those might well be the sports that I’ll decide to watch.

Shining the Light on the Dark Avengers.

February 27, 2015

So, the second essay in “The Avengers and Philosophy” is by Sarah Donovan and Nick Richardson and talks about the Dark Avengers, a replacement Avengers squad formed by Norman Osborn and staffed by rather … shady characters, to say the least. The point of the essay is that the Dark Avengers, in general gave and strove to give the impression of being moral and virtuous characters, but in actuality acted quite immorally, which can be compared to a number of times when the real Avengers did the right things despite them actually seeming like the wrong things, or when popular support turned against them. Spider-man is the ultimate example of someone who accepted the responsibility to do the right thing despite the fact that many, at least, thought he was a villain and a menace. The essay asks the question of whether it is better to be actually moral even if people don’t think that you are, or whether it is better to look moral even if you aren’t.

My focus here is going to be talking about a pretty popular new theory about morality, which is that morality is an evolved trait that is used to promote societal harmony. As we come together and work together in groups, to build a harmonious society we have to co-operate with each other. Co-operating with each other produces a more functional society, and so at the very least societal practices that promote co-operation promote more harmonious and better functioning societies, and morality is essentially just that.

The issue here is that this more supports looking moral than actually being moral. If others do not see me co-operating, I get no benefit from it. In addition, if I can cheat and yet still look moral, I get the benefits both of cheating and of looking like I’m co-operating. To return it to the framing context here, Osborn gets to both look like a hero and reap the benefits of that good P.R., while being able to take whatever measures he needs in order to get the job done and, ultimately, to get what he wants. Under such a model, even the moral need to make certain that they give the appearance of being moral, and sometimes have to put that over actually taking the moral path, because if they act morally in a way that looks immoral, they get punished for doing the morally right thing. This becomes even more of an issue when someone is trying to make it look like they are moral and you are not, because if they can convince everyone that you are in the wrong even when you’re in the right then they get the benefits and rewards and you get the punishments. Appearance matters more than actuality in such a system.

Now, a society that has all cheaters won’t prosper, so as a descriptive theory explaining our moral intuitions the idea might have some weight … and perhaps more weight given how things like politics generally works in at least democratic societies. But as a theory that gives us a justification for acting moral, it leads to the idea that it is more important to look moral than be moral … or, rather, that we should act just morally enough to get the benefits and avoid the punishments. If we think morality itself has intrinsic moral value, this story doesn’t seem to capture that at all. Which is, in fact, my major objection to that theory.

Objective Importance …

February 25, 2015

So, I read this Cracked list of eight presumably invalid things that people say in any discussion about feminism. For the most part, these things seem to mostly be things that sometimes can be reasonable arguments/replies that can also be used when they aren’t valid, so obviously the article pretty much tries to define them as being obviously wrong. I don’t want to get into that. What I do want to get into is the #1 argument, one that I’ve heard and probably talked about before:

“I’m not a feminist, I’m an equalist.” They’re not an equalist, they’re an asshole. This doesn’t bring enlightened impartiality to the problem, it smugly pretends to bring enlightened superiority to the problem while implying that silly women are being distracted from the wider picture by their own selfishness.

Even if they had a point, and they really don’t, their first priority is branding.

Feminism is gendered not because women want to be treated better in the future but because they’re being treated worse right now. Insisting on “equalism” means defining yourself by ignoring that fact. As if sexism, street harassment, pay differences, and rape threats affect genders equally.

So … what would gender equalism, as a movement, entail? Well, you’d think it would entail nothing more than striving to ensure that the genders are, in fact, treated equally, without giving any a priori privilege to any one perspective. Given this, if it really is the case that women’s concerns are objectively more important or ought to be more of a priority than men’s concerns, then an objective movement striving to eliminate all gender inequality and that doesn’t have the resources to fix all of the problems still ought to fix those first. After all, they are objectively more important, right? The only way having an equalist movement should legitimately act any differently given the argument here is if there are issues that affect men that are actually objectively of a higher priority than some of the one that affect women. But if that is the case, then that’s what we should be doing; just because women might overall have it worse wrt gender inequality does not mean that every instance where they are being treated unequally is automatically a higher priority than instances where men are being treated unequally.

Which is what strikes me as very, very odd about that argument. Given an umbrella movement/organization that is dedicated to a particular cause or issue, it’s not usually the dominant issues that splinter off into subgroups. It’s usually the ones that are objectively less important that splinter off, in order to draw in resources that only care about that particular issue and, in fact, to actually get some attention for their issues or goals. A general computing support group, for example, is likely to form a subgroup to focus on say, Linux issues if the membership is over 90% Windows users than that you’d get a Windows subgroup first. The main group would be so much a Windows group that Windows users would have no reason to form a subgroup. Given this, it would make more sense to form a masculinist group than a feminist group if the concerns of women just are so much more important when it comes to gender quality.

Now, feminists may object that this presumes a reasonable movement, but that what happens in these cases is that if they formed an equalist movement then the issues of men would dominate despite the fact that the women’s issues are more important. Well, I don’t think this is necessarily the case, and note that this has actually never really been tried, as far as I know; women have pretty much always had their own movement, and the only case where that wasn’t true was when they weren’t segmented into gender at all, and so they tended to get drowned under issues of racism and the like. So more evidence is required. At any rate, though, ultimately women should desperately want an equalist movement that works, and feel forced into having a feminist movement, as opposed to the impression that this argument gives that even a working equalist movement is somehow not the right thing, because their issues are just so important that they could never be solved by a movement dedicated to solving the most important gender inequalities. That argument just ain’t right …

Multiverses, God, Belief and Knowledge …

February 23, 2015

So, I’ve been involved in a long, long discussion over at Jason Rosenhouse’s blog, in the comments of this thread. There are two people that I’m debating with at the moment: eric — whom I’ve had a lot of similar discussions with in the past — and sean samis. Rosenhouse has a policy where comments on his posts get closed after a certain amount of time, and that thread has, in fact, hit that limit. But there are things in the last couple of comments that I want to address, so I’ve decided to try to address them here. I’ll try to leave a link there, but I know that eric knows that this blog exists.

Anyway, let me give the summary of the debate so far, which will by necessity be at least a little shaded towards my perspective of the debate. This all started from a comment by Rosenhouse that multiverses were as good an explanation for the purported fine tuning argument as God was (eric continually refers to this argument as “Goddidit”), to which I started by saying that it looked like those who supported it were doing what they accused religious people were doing: inventing or adding entities to get them out of an implication that they didn’t like. Eric then said that it wasn’t like that — or, at least, it wasn’t for him — and then we started debating whether multiverses in that sense were more reasonable. Eric insisted that multiverses followed from inflationary theory, and inflationary theory was supported scientifically, so multiverses were supported scientifically and so more rational. I pointed out that it wasn’t supported scientifically by inflationary theories because there were inflationary theories that explained the evidence equally well and didn’t imply multiverses, and that even Eternal Inflation didn’t actually entail multiverses. We chased this around a bit, and turned to a discussion of what it meant for a belief to be rational, or more rational than another, mostly I guess because I was saying that his belief in multiverses or that the belief that multiverses were the explanation for fine tuning was rational, but not the only rational option. At that point, we needed to figure out what a rational belief was. Sean samis weighed in on this issue as well.

Which bring us to where we are now. Let me start with eric’s latest comment. Before we start, let me reiterate a comment that was made earlier that sent us down a bit of a rabbit hole (comment #252). After we had been debating this for a while, in 243 I pointed out that essentially when I was defending theistic belief as rational, I was doing so as a response to a charge that people who believed in God were doing so based on a belief-forming process that they shouldn’t trust to form beliefs. This traces back through most of the discussion — and previous discussions — where eric and I disagree over whether it is rational and/or acceptable to maintain a belief that you learned from your parents/culture. I told him that if he meant “rationally” in a different way, then he needed to be clear about that. His reply in 252 was this:

VS @243 re: 1) I really don’t care for purposes of our discussion whether irrational beliefs are ‘a bad thing’ or not. I would be happy with the answer that you agree that, under standard definitions of ‘rational,’ belief in God is not rational (while under your different, broader definition, it is).

Which of course led me to believe that what he was after was STRICT rationality, that it was produced by or relies directly on reason. Which isn’t a discussion that I was interested in, as I stated, since he wouldn’t be saying that beliefs formed by that process directly were invalid or that we ought to believe one over the other, which was the heart of the debate: should we not believe that God is an explanation for fine tuning, or should we believe that multiverses are a better explanation, at least? And my frustration with most of the debate is that eric consistently seems to be conflating rational in the strict sense with rational as a way of saying that one ought not hold a belief if one wants to be considered rational, whether or not that process is strictly rational. As an example, it’s possible that beliefs formed by intuition are ones that we can and ought to hold, but that intuition is not a strictly rational process. This was the example that I did use and eric never really acknowledged, and seems to be denying that there are any, as all of this examples always take processes that are both not strictly rational and ones that we think are invalid.

I think the reason for this is that eric does think that a process not being strictly rational means that beliefs produced by it are ones that we ought not hold, or at the very least that we ought not hold beliefs produced by it if we had a strictly rational process — like science — to turn to. This is probably what we should be debating, but somehow we keep running down rabbit holes.

At any rate, I don’t really want to start with that point. I want to start with the discussion of my definition of “rational belief”, which says that it is rational to hold a belief if: 1) the belief doesn’t contradict any of your other beliefs and 2) you don’t have the evidence to know that the belief is false. Eric keeps claiming that this is overly broad and that it isn’t what people mean when they say “rational”, which the above comment outlines what is really meant by rational in multiple cases. Anyway, eric said that another commenter, Gordon, didn’t think that he knew that evolution was true — ie that he hadn’t been presented with sufficient evidence to force that conclusion — and so his belief that evolution was false was therefore rational by my definition. I said that it wasn’t because knowledge was objective and could be objectively and externally determined. Eric’s reply was:

I didn’t ask about knowledge, I asked whether Gordon’s belief is rational by your definition.

But you can’t judge the rationality of a belief by my definition without talking about knowledge. I repeatedly pointed this out to eric. The main thrust is this:

1) Knowledge trumps belief.
2) Knowledge is objective: given that we both have access to the same evidence, if you are justified in saying that you know that X then _I_ have to be equally justified. If not, then you don’t know that X.

So since eric and I both accept that we know that evolution is in general true — some details of it might not be — then we can say that Gordon ought to know that evolution is in general true as well. If Gordon wants to deny that, then he has to justify a claim that we don’t really know that evolution is true, which can be done either by pointing out that we haven’t and/or can’t present the justification to him, or pointing out that our purported justification is actually wrong or doesn’t get to the level of knowledge. Beyond that, he ought to know that it’s true.

So, no, under my view Gordon’s belief that evolution is false isn’t rational, unless he can show that we don’t, in fact, have knowledge. Thus, since eric thinks that we do, for the purposes of this discussion eric has to concede that at least in reference to that example my method and his come to the same conclusion.

Gordon thinks he has been presented with no contradictory evidence, and thus his belief passes your #2 criteria. You and I think otherwise. How do we decide whether his belief has passed your #2 criteria? Do we go by G’s assessment or our own? If his own, then doesn’t your criteria for rationality allow just about everything in the door? OTOH if we go by our assessment, can I not apply the same “not his but our” standard to Gordon’s belief in God? And your belief in God?

We apply an objective perspective, one that does not depend on what we believe or think is true but on what we know is true. So it’s not a choice between what we think versus what he thinks. If that’s all it is, then neither side has knowledge and so we do have to let everyone base it on what they think. But that’s not what we have for evolution. We have much more than that. At which point, eric cannot simply say that because we can externally judge the rationality of someone else’s belief when we have knowledge and can present the justification to them that we can do that even when we don’t have knowledge. And eric does not have knowledge for multiverses, as they are considered speculative at best … and eric does not know that God doesn’t exist.

Let me illustrate this with an example. Imagine that someone shows someone a recording of their spouse having an affair. This evidence is, in general, sufficient to justify knowledge, even though recordings can be faked. So if that person refuses to believe that their spouse is having an affair, then that belief — and even mere lack of believe — is irrational; they are refusing to accept a belief that rationally they ought to accept was produced by a belief-forming faculty that produces true beliefs. In short, they ought to know that it’s true, and so ought to believe it. Now, imagine that the person showing them the recording has always been interested in them, and has been trying to break them and their spouse up for a long time now. At this point, the idea that the recording was faked becomes much more credible, and if the recording was faked then it isn’t reliable anymore. At which point, it is possible that the person would no longer be justified in knowing that their spouse had had an affair. At which point, they’d have to believe something. But what? They could decide that despite them having an ulterior motive, that the person with the recording is still credible enough to believe. Or they could show faith in their spouse and insist that they wouldn’t commit adultery. But at this point, it’s going to come down to what the person themselves believes, about their spouse, about that person, and about a lot of things. At this point, it’s going to be very difficult to decide externally what believe they ought to hold. So as long as they aren’t holding an inconsistent set of beliefs — which includes their beliefs about how to form beliefs — they ought to be considered rational for believing either … even if the method they use is more gut feeling than a full-on reasoned out response, which would be inconclusive in this case anyway.

Now, eric goes on to reiterate his definition of “rational”:

A belief based on valid reasoning from a set of well-accepted premises or observations. Since @218.

This sounds a lot like he’s saying that the belief should be valid and sound, which is pretty close to most methods that produce knowledge. Mere belief comes into play when we have evidence for conclusion, but it is either not valid, not sound, or both. And we can see that eric’s belief in multiverses is neither valid nor sound. It does not follow validly from inflation theories because it is possible for inflationary theories to be true and for multiverses to not exist. It’s also the case that not all of the premises are well-accepted, even scientifically. So by his own definition, his belief in multiverses is not a rational belief.

And interestingly by his definition conclusions based on cultural beliefs are rational. Their premises are well-accepted in society, by definition. So if someone makes a valid argument using them, then that belief is rational. And yet, eric’s big complaint is that cultural beliefs are not rational.

Now I don’t want to rely on the “well-accepted” line. There has to be room for people to reasonably believe things even though most people don’t agree. That’s the only way we can progress from wrong, but accepted ideas to right ones, from the ideas that everyone knows are true but that aren’t to the ideas that are in fact true. But if this conversation is going to go anywhere, eric needs to be clear and detailed about what he means, and not just quote a context-less dictionary definition and assume that his beliefs meet it and others don’t.

Eric believes that multiverses exist. He does not know it, even by his own definition. It does not follow directly from inflationary theories and he doesn’t have well-accepted premises to justify it. The key point of the whole debate was why his mere belief is better than the theistic mere belief, and he hasn’t shown it except as an implied “It’s scientific, so better”. But that in and of itself needs to be justified, and there is no reason to accept any scientific explanation over non-scientific explanations just because the former are scientific, since scientific beliefs are wrong all the time. I allow him to be rational in his belief while not accepting that it is the only rational belief to hold. Eric either needs to do the same or demonstrate rationality to some degree, which is what we’ve been missing in this debate.

On to sean samis. The debate between us has been more directly over whether a belief is reasonable/acceptable or not. I just want to touch on a couple of issues. From 275:

IMHO, determining whether a belief is “rational” is all about the process and the premises leading to the conclusion upon which the belief is based. The sloppier the process or the less certain the premises, the less certain the conclusion.

To my mind, saying that “belief in X is not rational” MEANS “Your belief in X was not produced by a rational process.”

I think this highlights the conflation that’s going on here. He talks a lot about the process being sloppy and the conclusion being less certain because of it, but then simply subs in “rational process” without clarifying whether he means “sloppy” — read: unreliable — or strictly rational, which is made clearer with his next statement:

VS, maybe I’m missing something but the difference you are trying to explain seems too much like hair-splitting. What is the difference between “STRICT rationality” and … whatever the alternative is? It seems the difference between someone adding numbers up in their head and someone else showing their work.

Strict rationality means that you’re just talking about whether the process relies on reason or not, as outlined above, and not judging from that whether or not the belief is reasonable to believe or that you ought to believe it. In short, when talking about strict rationality, you accept that there may be valid belief-forming process that don’t rely on reason, like perhaps intuition or emotion, even if you don’t think it’s true. As I said, unless you do try to make the link from strictly rational to what people ought to believe, rational in that sense just isn’t interesting.

And we talked a bit about proving negatives, and he replies to me in 279:

So, what you ask eric to do; to prove a negative is impossible. Science NEVER disproves explanations except in very narrow situations. Virtually every time, all science can do is say “there’s no evidence that X is true” or “the evidence does not support X”. This is why the burden falls to the proponent of the theory to prove it, or explain how it could still be true in spite of the lack of supporting evidence.

Despite my being accused of demanding certainty by eric, sean samis seems to be doing that here: saying that he can’t prove a negative because he can’t do it with certainty. But that’s not what I mean, at least, by that. I mean if you can demonstrate it to the level of knowledge. Thus, if there are alternative explanations and you hold that one of them is false, if when asked to justify that you say that you can’t prove a negative it really does sound like you’re saying that you can’t prove that your preferred alternative is true to the level of knowledge, because if you can know that one of your alternatives is true then you can know that the other alternatives are false. If we know, to take one of his examples, that the Earth is spherical, then we know that it isn’t flat, or square, or whatever.

The same thing, then, applies to the fine tuning argument. If we discovered that there were multiverses, and that the cosmological constants of the existing multiverses seems distributed in accordance with the probabilities, then we’d know that the explanation for the cosmological constant doesn’t require intelligent agency and that, therefore, it was produced by a random and natural process. This would then mean that we’d know that it wasn’t set by an intelligent creator, and so know that it wasn’t set by God. This, then, is proving a negative … at least in that part. It doesn’t require certainty or anything beyond what science already does as it produces knowledge. To do otherwise would mean that science doesn’t produce knowledge … and no one wants that.

A Non-Religious Meaningful Lent …

February 18, 2015

So, today is the start of Lent in at least the Catholic calendar. I don’t particularly participate in Lent, for a couple of reasons. The first and most trivial one is that I’m in general non-ritualistic, which means that I don’t consider participating in the specific rituals to be the be-all-and-end-all of religious practice. It’s more about the principles and how you act in your every day life that matters to me. And, as a philosopher, I am always willing to debate and consider and argue over just what is required in your every day life, which makes me rather odd indeed when it comes to religion.

But the second one is that one of the biggest components of Lent — giving something up — doesn’t work for me, because there isn’t really anything for me to give up. I could give up playing video games, except that I’ve probably played games for something like 8 hours throughout the entire month of January. I could give up board games, but I’ve already set out games twice in two weeks and then never played them. I could give up reading fiction, but even that is something that I don’t do that often anymore, and is a far better way to spend my free time than the alternatives. I could give up TV, but on weekdays I’m only watching about an hour anyway and could easily give that up, and while weekends would be more difficult it wouldn’t be something that I’d miss that much. I could give up buying lunch, but I’m only buying lunch now because I have to due to my schedule; if I could avoid it, I would.

So, essentially, for me almost everything in my life is done because it is convenient at the time — making it easy to give up — or else because I need to do things that way at that time to make my life work at all. So there’s nothing trivial to give up as proof of my willingness to put aside my wants in service to a greater ideal, which is what I think the main point of that part of Lent is. So while I think that it is good for people to prove to themselves that they can indeed sacrifice their wants for the greater good, it’s not something I can do.

Anyone who is not religious who criticizes Lent, in my opinion, cannot do so on the basis that it is a bad thing to sacrifice your wants for the greater good, as that is a pretty basic principle that any morality ought to contain. All they can do, in my opinion, is criticize the purported end or greater good being espoused, that of, say, worshiping God. But if they could find a suitable cause, they really ought to feel that they would do that, and I would say that regular practice at doing just that is something that everyone ought to try. For me, it’s just nice that my job lets me get in regular practice at denying myself wants like “free time” in order to fulfill my commitments to my work [grin].

But I was musing about addiction today, and thought of another reason why even those who are secular might want to insert a little Lent into their lives. While some things can actually in and of themselves create a physical addiction — the body gets used to it and physically demands it if it isn’t there — pretty much anything can be what I’ll call mentally addictive, which means that you enjoy it so much that you do it a disproportionate amount of the time, and even choose it consistently when you know that you shouldn’t. The easiest way to know that you aren’t mentally addicted to something is to try to go without it for some time. If you can, then you’re fine, but if you can’t, then you have a problem. As a small example, if someone asks you what you’d do if you couldn’t play video games for a month, and you have no idea, it’s probably a good time to see what other things you might want to do in your spare time, because you clearly have put too much emphasis on that one thing.

So a Lent-style focus on giving something up for a number of weeks is a good way to help everyone assess their own lifestyle and see a) if they can go without some things in it and b) see what life is like without those things. This is good for your character and your self-awareness, religious or not. So should anyone laugh at you for giving things up, just remember that giving things up isn’t bad, and that someone who finds the idea of deliberately depriving themselves of pleasure laughable is missing a glorious opportunity to find out about themselves and the world.

Amnesia, Personal Identity, and the Many Lives of Wolverine

February 16, 2015

So, the next essay in “X-Men and Philosophy” is by Jason Southworth and actually has the same title as the title of this blog post, and is an examination of personal identity and more particularly how we know that we are the same person today that we were yesterday, or five years ago, or the day we were born. Southworth relies on two main theories to do his work, and relates them back to Wolverine specifically, since his healing factor and constant states of amnesia provide excellent foils for these two theories.

The first is that of John Locke, who takes a mental approach to identity. But the problem he runs into is that for every mental property that we have it looks like they are in flux, and constantly changing. The only thing that doesn’t really change is our memories. Except that, well, we forget things all the time, and might even develop false memories. So Locke has to quite quickly talk about some kind of core memories, and connection of memories, by which we can say that we have the same basic set of memories even though the full set of memories fluctuates a lot. Of course, we can immediately see that we could easily do something similar for our character and personality traits, and therefore avoid the problem that Wolverine becomes a completely different person every time his memory is erased, which happens fairly frequently, and more importantly the problem that if someone lose their memory and then regains it that they were a completely different person for a while but when they get them back are now the same person they were before they lost their memory, and only have a bunch of extra memories about the time when they had lost their memory attached to them again … when they were someone else, presumably. Or would it be the other way around, where they have become a new person and their “regained” memories are just new memories attached to the new person? Who can say?

The other alternative presented is that of Derek Parfit, who goes for a physical approach, insisting that it is sameness of brain that matters, and not sameness of anything specifically mental. However, since the brain is changing all the time, with old cells dying out and being replaced, this means that we actually change into a different person quite frequently, about seven years. The problem with this, though, is that it isn’t clear when we should start counting. Why is it that we should say that we have a completely different brain and so are a different person based on some fairly arbitrary starting point of when we think we had all the same brain cells, and when all of those special brain cells go away we’re suddenly a different person? Just like Locke, Parfit — at least as presented by Southworth — ignores continuity and looks for an absolute measure, but we can quite easily claim that the normal brain process of cells replacing themselves is a continuous process that happens in the same brain, and so as long as that process is proceeding we have the same brain no matter how much of that has been replaced, which would mean that brain damage in Wolverine wouldn’t in any way make him a new person any faster than the rest of us, because all it would mean is that his processes can repair his damaged brain faster than ours can. Getting the brain mostly wiped out — like what happened when he went after Nitro in Civil War — might still count.

Which leads to the two other big issues with Parfit’s physical approach. The first big issue is that his theory means that we change in a different person in a way that has no mental impact on us at all. We have all of the same mental properties, act the same way, think the same way, and don’t even notice that we’ve become a different person, and yet we have. This doesn’t seem to like to anything like what it means to be a person, which then even casts doubt on privileging the brain as opposed to the entire body. The second big issue is that when, say, Doctor Doom eliminates Captain America in Secret Wars and the Beyonder keeps using Klaw to recreate him, since that would probably be a different brain that means that we had a completely different person every time … despite the power and purpose being to recreate the precise same person that had been destroyed, which then leads to a logical contradiction (actually, Star Trek transporters would thus do the same thing, by definition). This seems odd.

Both Locke and Parfit ignore the fact that it seems like continuity of traits is what defines us as being the same person, not the precise states themselves. Locke does realize this, but tries to hack it into his memory model when it would work so much better to solve the problems with the character/personality model, especially for self-caused character changes. Parfit also ignores it in creating his brain-based model, leading to his claim that we become a different person about every seven years, whether we know it or not. Both would have much stronger theories utilizing continuity to its utmost, instead of using it as a quick patch or ignoring it entirely.

Science on Trial (and Error)

February 11, 2015

So, P.Z. Myers is having a go at Bill Maher over various comments he’s made about science and health, particularly around vaccinations. The key annoyance Myers has is this:

But that’s not the part that had me fuming. It’s the bit around 4 minutes in, in which he pretentiously announces to us that not all science is alike, and climatology is a good science, so he accepts global warming, and he also explains that there is also consensus among climate scientists (he also argues that the earth is just a rock, so it’s simple enough to understand — but then, as he demonstrated so well on this night, Bill Maher is a goddamn idiot). And then he tells us that medical science is nothing like that, “because they’ve had to retract a million things”. “People get cancer, and doctors just don’t know why,” he says, condescendingly. His father had ulcers, and they treated it wrong when he was a kid.

So, what is Myers’ defense of science:

Science is a trial and error process. It is not an infallible track that leads invariably to correct answers, instantly and every time. When he says that climate science is completely right, that’s because he has only the most superficial knowledge — he knows a little bit about the conclusions they’ve reached now, but nothing about how they came to those answers. I guarantee you, there was a long slow gradual effort to understand climate, with false starts and dead ends and pointless detours all along the way, because that’s how science works.

When medical scientists retract something, it’s because they’re doing normal science. Of course there are errors along the way! The whole point of science is that you generate hypotheses, you make tentative conclusions, and you test them, and sometimes you’ll confirm your hypothesis (which means you’ve learned something), and sometimes you’ll falsify it (in which case you’ve learned something else). Do you know why Maher’s father got the wrong treatment? Because the cause of ulcers, the bacterium Helicobacter pyloris, was not discovered to be the causal agent until 19-****ing-84. Maher is complaining about an important medical discovery, one that won the Nobel Prize, because scientists didn’t discover it soon enough for him.

This … is not a good defense of science. It’s not a good defense of science when people point out that it’s gotten things wrong in the past — which should rationally weaken your confidence that the answer it is giving you now is correct — to say that of course it gets things wrong! That’s just part of the scientific process! Sure, science testing things, getting hypotheses wrong, and then correcting them is indeed an important part of what makes the scientific process good and something that produces knowledge, but the charge here really that we want and need to be able to tell when what science is telling us is right. And this is hard for science to do, at least credibly, because it has indeed gotten, well, pretty much every theory wrong at some point. At what point can we say that the answer that science is giving us is the right one, and the one that we should unreservedly adopt?

Scott Adams recently talked about dieting and nutrition:

What’s is science’s biggest fail of all time?

I nominate everything about diet and fitness.

Maybe science has the diet and fitness stuff mostly right by now. I hope so. But I thought the same thing twenty years ago and I was wrong.

He then goes on to list a vast number of things that people thought were accepted science about diet and nutrition that we all now don’t think is accepted, and in fact that people now think are settled in the precise opposite direction. When it comes to dieting and nutrition, beyond “Don’t eat too much of, well, anything” and “Eating clean fruits and vegetables is a good thing”, we don’t really know what sort of diet we should be eating. For now, we have issues with processed food, but given the history that might change in the future.

Adams turns this into a long discussion about why people don’t trust science, based on its history of having to adjust based on new information. The key is that we need to be able to tell when the science is settled so that we can trust and act on it, and in general science can’t tell us that the science is settled because the very nature of its process is that it pretty much never is. We can get a strong confidence in what it’s saying, but any new result might change that and, unlike other views, actually necessitate adopting a completely different theory to cover all the new cases, because science strives to generalize as far as possible. So even though we can say that Newtonian Physics works locally and you need Relativistic Physics beyond that, what that really means is that Relativistic Physics is the right theory and that you don’t need to consider the relativistic aspects at local levels, which is why we thought for so long that Newtonian Physics was right.

So if science sets out solutions as the settled and true answers and they then have to backtrack later and say that they were wrong, then science loses credibility. But if science does talk about answers as being provisional and subject to change then it doesn’t have the credibility to get off the ground in the first place; people wants answers, not answers that might be true because of a bunch of evidence that they can’t understand and evaluate and that might change later. Science needs to talk only about the science that is pretty much settled, and clearly distinguish between the parts of their theories that are settled and true and the ones that are more speculative. But often that distinction is not made, either by people who support science or by the media reporting on it. Any time that science says that something is true and not provisionally true and then has to retract that, it really looks like science just can’t figure out what’s really true and what isn’t … and defenses like “Well, science is critically trial and error” only make it look like that’s a key part of the scientific method.

Science produces knowledge, and is definitely the best method we have for figuring out truths about the natural world. What science is missing — and what philosophy of science needs to provide — is a set and solid epistemology that can set out when something is a scientifically confirmed theory that we can be confident in claiming to know, when something is “just a theory”, and when something is just a speculative hypothesis, and then needs to treat all of them in the appropriate way, from scientists themselves to those who philosophically want to use science to justify all truth claims to the media that reports on science. Without that, people will point to its failures as an indication that it is generally unreliable … and it definitely isn’t.

(P.C.) Power On

February 8, 2015

The last article to talk about comes from Stephanie Zvan. Her main focus is about power, and as pretty much everyone did she ends up pretty much agreeing with Chait while claiming to disagree with him:

So, up front, do the traditionally disenfranchised always use the power they gain wisely and well? Do they use their newfound platforms for nothing but good? Do they always correctly apply the tools of analysis they’re taught? Do they never overreach? Do they never abuse anyone?

You’re laughing with me right now, right?

These questions are absurd. No group, as a group, can say that they always handle power well. The temptations and pitfalls of power are infamous.

So, the idea is that the sort of “political correctness” that Chait talks about — or perhaps social media, it isn’t that clear — gives disenfranchised groups power. They don’t always use that power wisely. They sometimes incorrectly apply the tools they are given to exercise power. So, sometimes, they get it wrong.

How is this not agreeing with Chait that sometimes using discussions of things like “‘splaining”, “privilege” and the like are overdone and invalid, and are taken too serious, and are used to stifle debate? The most you can complain about Chait is that he might be dismissing the tools themselves instead of just the invalid uses, but then the proper response is to agree that sometimes they can be abused but that there are times when it’s valid, here are examples where it is, and that we need to be able to keep the good uses while filtering out the bad.

Did Chait reflect on his own power before associating people engaged in hashtag campaigns and writing petitions—people “meeting speech with more speech”—with “a system of left-wing ideological repression”? Did he consider the fact that these are some of the most-harassed people on Twitter, recipients of threats and racist and sexist degradation? Did he stop to ask whether painting these people as threats to a free society would increase that harassment?

The thing is that he didn’t really associate the people with that in that way. Instead, he called out the instances of the behaviour, generally specifically. He didn’t really paint the people in general as being that, only the people who use political correctness and therefore their power invalidly. If pointing out that their behaviour is bad will increase their harassment, then that’s bad, but I fail to see how that is an example of Chait using power irresponsibly … especially considering that one of the ways to teach people how to use power responsibly, as Zvan wants them to, is to call them out on it when they get it wrong. Again, she doesn’t in any way argue that the people in the examples Chait cites are doing it right and that he’s wrong about them doing it invalidly, but instead simply says that somehow Chait has power and privilege and they don’t and so criticizing their behaviour is somehow bad. How does she expect people to get better at using power when all attempts to point out that they are abusing their power is deflected away by focusing on the person who said it, or what some people will do when they find out that those people were abusing power? Surely, we can do so tactfully in a way to minimize that, but Chait didn’t do it that way. Ironically, Jia Tolentino did, arguing closer to Zvan’s side than Chait’s.

In fact, if Chait is truly interested in the creation of space for dialogue, rather than just telling society’s effective critics to shut up, he could do worse than to look to the left he’s so concerned about. If we ever manage to build a strong consensus about how to successfully navigate competing power and interests, the solution we adopt will have been developed by the left.

I think that Chait characterizes himself as someone on the left, actually. In fact, most of his examples are of people being attacked for expressing views from the left, and his main thesis is that this attitudes is destroying the left. So why is this relevant, so much so that later she can simply dismiss that the right sort of solutions will come from Chait?

I don’t think we’ll see Jonathan Chait doing this anytime soon. I don’t think we’ll see most of the people who write pieces for large audiences about being afraid to speak doing this work. I do think, however, that the people we see putting these strategies into action will come from the left, not the center.

And this just seems patently false. Why? Because it’s the people in the centre who won’t have any particular attachment to the left or right view being given. They’ll be the ones who can see that the abuses of power come from both sides, just in service of different principles. Without having the political attachments, they can evaluate it as if it really might be an issue, without generally getting caught up in defending the side they identify with in defending the abuses, which is what Zvan does in spades throughout the entire article.

If you’re concerned that you’re promoting undesirable behavior by promoting these voices, find the people or pieces you do want to promote. The tricky part of this is that you still have to represent interests that aren’t yours. If you don’t, the people you’re passing over will continue to do what they need to do to be heard. The point, aside from the basic work of making sure everyone’s interests get a hearing, is to make sure people understand that they can be heard without the vitriol that worries you.

Where is her evidence that Chait is not doing this? Part of not promoting undesirable behaviour is, as Zvan will surely accept, pointing out that you aren’t promoting it and that the behaviour is undesirable. While chiding Chait for opening people up to harassment by criticizing them, Zvan here explicitly promotes avoiding and excluding people by choosing those whose behaviour you consider undesirable, which is farther than Chait wants to go. And in context, if people are haranguing people over perceived exclusions and you don’t share their judgement, by Zvan they are justified in doing whatever they need to do … even to the extent of the vitriol. And consider that they will decide that based on whether they think they can be heard without it, with no real need for reality to chime in on the matter. So, how do they determine that?

It’s hard to trust someone talking about using power responsibly when they essentially say that they will use their power harshly and feel justified about that if you don’t do things the way they want and agree with them and their voices. It’s hard to trust them when they give no opening for debate and, in fact, seem to agree that the examples were at least not entirely reasonable and yet spend all of their time ranting about how people pointing that out are abusing their power when they do nothing more than, well, point that out. If Zvan would at least explicitly concede that the examples are bad and leave off the deflection that pointing that out might have increased harassment of some people who might, well, actually do those bad things and so deserve to be called out, then there might be a starting point. But as it is, it sounds like she’s saying that you can’t call out the bad behaviour of these people who are abusing power because it might be bad for them, and that if you don’t provide the means for them to feel that they can be heard on their terms they will continue to abuse their power … even against those who aren’t actually abusing their power against them. Yeah, not an example of responsibly using power, methinks.

Zvan’s article dives off into discussions of power, but she fails to link it to the actual points. As we’ve seen in all three of these articles, they essentially agree with Chait but try desperately to find reasons to dismiss him and what he says anyway. Thus, they all seem to pretty much prove his point about judging ideas based on the identity of who expresses them, and they all agree that these sorts of things can be cases where the traditional ideals and concepts are abused to stifle speech. But they don’t seem to care about that at all, and so find themselves having to oppose something that they agree with. Hence the deflections.

Does political correctness exist?

February 7, 2015

So, the first week into my new schedule … I’m breaking it. Only because there are three posts about the Chait article that I want to talk about, but if I kept to my new schedule that would mean that that would take up an entire week … and the points aren’t interesting or diverse enough to take up an entire week. Especially since most of the posts are as close as I can get to simply pointing and laughing. So today I’ll do an article that I think actually makes a point, kinda, and then tomorrow talk about an article that, well, doesn’t really seem to.

Today’s article is by Amanda Taub and argues that political correctness doesn’t exist. So how does she justify that claim?

But political correctness isn’t a “creed” at all. Rather it’s a sort of catch-all term we apply to people who ask for more sensitivity to a particular cause than we’re willing to give — a way to dismiss issues as frivolous in order to justify ignoring them. Worse, the charge of “political correctness” is often used by those in a position of privilege to silence debates raised by marginalized people — to say that their concerns don’t deserve to be voiced, much less addressed.

So, effectively, her argument is that what’s called political correctness is really a term applied to a case where someone asks for sensitivity on a topic and we don’t think we ought to. So effectively, to translate this into something that isn’t just assuming its conclusion, it’s a case where someone demands that we do something out of sensitivity and we think they’re overreacting and stretching the bounds of what sensitivity can demand.

That … sounds pretty much like what Chait would be complaining about, cases where someone is getting either offended when they ought not be or offended beyond all reasonable measure and pushing for sanctions that are out of proportion to the purported offense, except that it leaves out that the cases would be ones based not on personal sensitivity, but instead based on an overall political view or statement, or association with a group that is formed or argues on the basis of political issues. So, it seems to me like she really is claiming that political correctness does exist, but is instead insisting that it doesn’t only because she thinks the term has a negative connotation and the examples are, well, good and so not deserving of that sort of negative response.

Her argument would have more weight if she’d address Chait’s specific examples. Instead, she deliberately grabs examples that he doesn’t reference without giving any indication of his views on them:

An example from outside of Chait’s article makes it easy to see how that technique works in practice. I, personally, think that the name of the Washington Redskins is racist and hurtful to Native Americans, and should be changed. So if someone asks me what I think of the debate about the team, that’s what I say. By contrast, Virginia legislator Del Jackson Miller likes the name and wants the team to keep it. But rather than making an argument on the merits of the name, he referred to the entire debate as “political correctness on overdrive.” In other words, he’s saying, this is a false debate — just another example of “political correctness” — so I don’t have to even acknowledge concerns about racism. (Miller, in fact, claimed that it was literally fake, an issue trumped up by a “rich member of the Oneida tribe.”)

So, sure, people do use it to dismiss a claim, usually because they really think it frivolous. She implies this about Chait’s examples, and then bring up one that she hopes people will agree is not frivolous, or, at the very least, will agree is being used to avoid actually having to discuss the issue. Now, putting aside the fact that Miller might actually believe this, even if sometimes charges of political correctness are used to stifle debate does not mean that the charges are, in fact, never valid or reasonable. I could indeed be totally on board with her wrt the Redskins issue and still think that Chait’s examples really are cases of political correctness run amok. The solution here, then, is not to say that there is no such thing as political correctness but instead to say that that label is only to be used for cases where it really is frivolous and where the debate is a fake one and then demand that anyone who uses that label as a criticism justify that it is a fake debate or frivolous concern. That way, we don’t exclude valid concerns but also don’t make it so that any claim of a valid concern is automatically assumed to be correct. This would seem to address both Chait’s and Taub’s concerns.

The inconsistency of argument continues in Taub’s article as well, where on the one hand she agrees that things are out of hand but on the other insists that somehow Chait is still wrong:

Likewise, Chait clearly believes that “microaggressions” aren’t important enough to merit his concern, and that “trigger warnings” are a foolish request made by over-sensitive people. But he doesn’t spend much time considering why the people who demand them might think they do matter. The open communication offered by platforms like Twitter has brought Chait into contact with ideas that he clearly finds weird and silly. But rather than considering their merits, or why they matter to the people who put them forward, he dismisses them as political correctness, and concludes that their very existence constitutes “ideological repression.”

And while I personally don’t think that trigger warnings are a workable solution to the problem of trauma, and have not used them in my own writing or teaching, I think that our society does generally struggle to take women’s safety into account, and I do not feel that shutting down that conversation is the appropriate solution to the problem of harassment of women.

So, he says that trigger warnings aren’t a workable solution, provides discussions of why, and is accused of not having considered why people want them … and she says she doesn’t think they work either and doesn’t use them, but implies that it’s about safety and harassment — which, um, isn’t what trigger warnings are actually for, as that’s what harassment policies are for — and never even bothers to ask what Chait’s view on that is or what solutions he might support, or even why he opposes them beyond, possibly, that he opposes them for the same reason she does.

She also says this:

Look at Chait’s own examples. Transwomen who protest definitions of “women” as “people with vaginas” aren’t merely bellyaching about terminology — they’re people on the margins of a group making legitimate demands for inclusion. Women of color who point out the many ways in which white feminists overlook issues that affect minority women aren’t engaging in race-based arguments just for the fun of it, they’re pointing out that the feminist movement had promised to protect their interests, but was in fact ignoring them.

Except that the example I found was about not putting on “The Vagina Monologues” because it seemed to exclude women without vaginas … despite all of the purportedly good things about it and how it does represent another marginalized group. This is where we get into questions about them being frivolous or pointless … or, more disturbingly, used as a way to dodge points, or debate, or to bury important ideas under the weight of the concerns of a group even when this part isn’t all about them. Are there cases where certain groups are unfairly excluded? Yes … and that includes purportedly “privileged” groups. But that doesn’t mean that any kind of protest of that sort of exclusion must be addressed, let alone addressed as the most important consideration in determining what action to take. It’s an easy case to make to argue that for what “The Vagina Monologues” is trying to do that exclusion or inclusion is rather not the point and that it’s valuable even with that purported flaw. If his example is right, political correctness precluded that answer … and maybe even that question.

But their arguments are fundamentally the same: that marginalized people’s demands for inclusion are just a bunch of annoying whining, and that efforts to address their concerns are unnecessary. They also betray the deeper concern: that listening to the demands of marginalized groups is dangerous, because doing so could potentially burden the lives, or at least change the speech, of more privileged people.

And sometimes those demands for inclusion really are just that. The whole arguments about political correctness here are about the case where they are annoying whining, where efforts to address the concerns are unnecessary, and where attempts to point that out are dismissed by the simple expedient of declaring that it is a concern of marginalized people and that as long as they feel that it’s a problem it is, without further evidence or argument. And if protest continues, then it’s just that you don’t want to listen to the legitimate grievances of marginalized groups.

That sometimes there can be statements, views, speech or whatever that can exclude marginalized groups is not a bad argument. But Taub doesn’t address the specific examples Chait raises to see if they are or aren’t valid. She simply insists that somehow his charge is wrong because there are valid concerns from marginalized people. The ideal here is what I said above: make people justify their claims that the concerns are or aren’t valid. Being considerate doesn’t mean that we have to accept anything someone else says or any claim of valid offense without evaluating whether or not it really is valid. Political correctness as criticized by Chait is that sort of consideration, which is why calling something out as it is seen as being overwhelmingly negative. So, there may definitely be cases where a charge of political correctness is false, but that doesn’t mean that that sort of political correctness doesn’t exist. If Taub thinks it doesn’t, then she needs to address the specific examples and show they aren’t that sort of political correctness, instead of trying to define them out of existence.

What does the PC say?

February 6, 2015

So, Jonathan Chait recently wrote an article decrying what he considers a resurgence of “political correctness”. This has caused a bit of a stir on the Internet, and there are actually quite a few things that I can talk about in those articles, so I’m going to.

First, what does Chait really say? Well, he gives a number of examples where the idea that a particular phrasing or particular point being made has garnered severe reactions by minority groups who claim that it offends them or that it produces a hostile environment and so push for sanctions, up to and including the loss of a job (although in the big case that Chait talks about that happens after the person was pushed to apologize for what they said and refused). The cases are diverse, and include a case of a Muslim student — who is presumably not white from the context of the satirical article — and a number of feminists, who are mostly women. He also gives some examples of activists who feel that they, many of whom are women. He also at some point decries the notion that ideas can be interpreted or dismissed in certain ways depending on whether the presenter is a white man or not. Guess what part most commenters focus on? That’s right, the idea that it’s a threat to white men and their ability to communicate rather than the impact it is having on people who are not, in fact, white or men.

This is most hilariously represented in an article by Jia Tolentino in Jezebel, because the article pretty much agrees with Chait about how at least sometimes political correctness can run amok, dismisses those concerns as being unimportant and coming from stupid people, and then goes on to essentially argue about his motives and ability to make that argument on the basis of his being a white male.

But don’t just take it from me. Here are some relevant quotes where she pretty much espouses what it seems to me that he’s arguing:

I have to say, I disagree. Pedants aren’t cool. Literally nothing less cool than popping up into someone’s Twitter mentions and being like, “Uh, I believe that your casual use of ‘balkanized’ was a microaggression towards people whose families may be actually dying from sectarian violence in 2015, and not to be grammatically ableist, I think you put a colon where a comma needs to be.”

But the point that Chait is deliberately missing for the sake of his argument is that there’s a significant difference between people who combine progressive priorities with a great love of being offended as well as absolutely no sense of what matters in terms of the real world of action and structural discrimination (the Twitter pedants, as well as the relatively inconsequential, embarrassingly name-checked female writers who would rather debate each other on a Facebook thread than write an article that better utilizes their skills) and the far larger and more consequential group of people with progressive priorities who are, at base, willing to hear why other people feel hurt.

I too dislike the internet’s tendencies towards identity politicking, and since starting at Jezebel—a site still widely viewed as a “problematic” den of white feminists—it has been a trip in itself to see how rabidly commenters and critics on other websites will speculate about our racial identities, and their implications, as if me writing a post as a white girl (which I’m not) would immediately make it easier to either trust (rare) or hate (much more often) my work.

But people who think like this, again, are dumb. They’re not to be focused on. And most often what they’re doing is not emblematizing a major modern political movement but simply conflating the ineffectual spheres of the internet with action that matters in real life.

I don’t use the word mansplaining, I don’t like trigger warnings, I don’t care about microaggressions, I am extremely un-P.C. in person and I agree that verbal policing on social media has gotten excessively out of hand. Political correctness can indeed mandate that everyone use the same vocabulary and peer through the most ideologically paranoid lens; it can suffocate the real world of complicated opinions into a pale, asterisked, overwrought mirage of protected online consent. But does that indicate that being considerate is a concept that’s now out-of-hand nonviable, or rather, that many people have their priorities way out of whack?

For the most part, in that last list she’s essentially agreeing with most of the things that Chait said were problematic and causing issues. That, it seems to me, is why she put those things in that list in the first place, to essentially accept the things that she thinks are just plain dumb. And she herself has faced the precise sort of behaviour that Chait complains about. She just ignores it. So the only possible actual disagreement here is that his argument includes some cases of political correctness as being trivial or pointless when they really do matter. But if she wanted to make that argument, all she needed to do was go through his many examples and explain that this really does matter, that it really is important, and so it really is just consideration that was lacking in the people who were called out on that. Guess what she didn’t do?

Also, talking about mistaking Internet concerns for things that have an impact on real life is a bit odd when the main example is of someone who lost a job over those complaints. Internet and Twitter and Facebook rants can mobilize people to take action, and it seems to me that Chait isn’t as concerned about people ranting about this stuff on social media and more about the campaigns that these spawn and the effects that those can have on the lives of real people.

But instead of doing that, Tolentino focuses her actual disagreement on discussions of how Chait is a white male:

“Can a white man express some original thought here,” asks that dek, doubling down on the identity politics it wishes to combat with objective, liberal good reason; the self-perceived disadvantages of the white male who wishes to enter this argument are outweighed by the tendency and natural gift of the white male to speak at length—”without being snowblown by a bunch of maniacally offended leftists and ‘miserable full-time victims’ who are trying to tone-police my intelligence in a way that will ultimately only hurt them, you, in the end?”

Now, this response comes earlier, but it seems to be more of a response than what she did respond with after that, so forgive me for quoting a wee bit out of order:

The answer to this exquisitely slippery question is, of course: yes! A white male liberal named Jonathan Chait can and may and apparently will absolutely critique political correctness, at great length, with great prominence, on a platform whose steadiness and reach depend not insignificantly on his white male liberal bona fides, via 4700 half-erect words explicitly aimed at trolling people into proving its thesis, which is that the noble American liberal tradition is dying at the hands of “the p.c. police.”

Or, rather, no, since he is getting snowblown by people who are not even trying to tone-police, but are instead simply looking at him as “white male” and insisting that it’s all about him not being comfortable having to listen to people who are not white male like himself and thinking that he shouldn’t have to show them consideration:

Chait, of course, neglects to take into account that he himself is not entirely separate from receiving ideas differently based on the race and sex of the individuals talking, and what this whole article is railing against as the American Tone Gestapo Prepared to Destroy the Free Market of Ideas may in actuality just be the new, social-media-enlarged voices of minorities, women, and the people who value them finally daring to disagree.)

This comes after she at least seemingly agrees that it is a bad thing to judge an idea based on the identity of the person who made it:

How is a reasonable person to get around the fact that arguments are generally related to the identity positioning that facilitates them? How might a reasonable person attempt to understand an argument’s relationship to its attendant identity position without only reading the identity position, as if race and gender were an argument unto itself?

They’re not, and Chait writes accurately that they’re often read to be

Except that she herself is making a lot of arguments based on his race and gender identity alone, with no other evidence of any kind of argument. For example, in talking about his article:

This is quite true—if immediately and groaningly utilized by Chait to show his real hand by highlighting the truly appalling, out-of-control usage of “mansplaining,” “straightsplaining,” and “whitesplaining”: three words which, as we all know, have done a tremendous amount to hurt the endangered economic position and cultural capital of straight white men.

Consider this in the context of what she says later:

LOL. Here is the thing: it’s impossible to read this piece and imagine (perhaps as Chait would wish us to) that, for example, a black woman wrote it. One might notice in the current media scene that the minority liberal writers who have made it to institutional prominence (and I’m talking The Atlantic and The New Yorker, not the truly ineffectual supplicant-gathering of Twitter fame) are gentle and kind and reasonable and empathetic to a point of miraculousness.

But consider that many of his examples are from people who are black and/or women. So why is it so hard for her to imagine that they might write this sort of article? She asserts that the minorities who make it that far are just too, for lack of a better word, nice to write such a presumably aggressive and strident article, but just reading that semi-sarcastic summary pretty much ought to seal the deal against her. And other than making some kind of comment that those minorities just don’t get those sorts of writing gigs, there is nothing here that looks like an argument, let alone one that deals with his examples. It’s arguing on the basis of his race and gender, the idea that somehow his points aren’t valid or aren’t worth considering or are just attempts to preserve his privilege just because he’s a white man and so has privilege that is purportedly under challenge … despite the fact that none of that addresses his examples. If the various “‘splainings” that he talks about are having the effect of actually stifling debate, they are doing that whether or not the person complaining about it is a white man … and, given human nature, it is indeed the case that the people most targeted by it would be the ones who would see its effect the most. And if he’s wrong, then she ought to be able to argue that he’s wrong, or at least point out where that has been disproved elsewhere.

But I suspect that she doesn’t do that because she agrees with him that sometimes they are more used by over-sensitive people or to stifle a debate that people don’t want to have. Since she doesn’t disagree on the principle, the only valid disagreement is that sometimes the claims are accurate and reasonable. But there is no reason to think that Chait will disagree with valid and reasonable uses of those concepts, and the only reason she has for even thinking that is that he’s a white man complaining about the invalid uses. And that’s precisely the sort of identity politics that she claims to hate.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 37 other followers