Tuesday, 25 October 2016

Culture that Isn't Adequate in Respecting the Importance of Sexual Consent

I recently had the treat of listening to a CBC story and panel discussion on the recent scandalous University of Ottawa pub crawl. For those who aren't up on Canadian news, there was a recent pub crawl at the University of Ottawa that was "exposed" by student reporters. Students are in teams, and there is a list of dares to earn points.

These "dares" included things like having anal sex with one of the judges of the event. The University has promised to put a stop to the annual event, and some of the participants have come out to say that everything was consensual and that other people need to stay out of their business.

The crack team of cultural commentators that CBC put together tried to figure out if this was "Rape Culture". What followed was a couple of minutes of semantic nonsense before they gave up on that term and went on to very poorly understand consent and why it is important. One panelist - trying to be helpful, I guess? - said that anyone who wasn't comfortable with what was going on could have just left. Then they tried to get into a question of whether women were fragile and needed to be protected.

To understand this, the first thing you need to do is look past your arrogant, idiotic view of yourself as a self-turning wheel. Have you ever made a decision you regretted, not because you didn't have the information you needed to make the right choice, but because you were tired or angry or hungry? If you can honestly say no to that then you have a remarkable lack of self awareness.

Obviously a conservative news panelist would immediately interject here, "So if you have sex with someone who is hungry it's rape?" The reason they will interject this is because they aren't interested in discussing consent or trying to shift our common understanding of what is okay and what is not okay, but rather they are motivated by fear of being accused of doing something themselves. If a man reads my modest proposal to presume the guilt of those accused of sexual assault and viscerally reacts to the proposed injustice, they are reacting to how afraid they would personally feel. If you want to think objectively about whether or not it is a good idea for society, you'd be just as concerned about the present conditions for women as you were about hypothetical conditions for men.

So let's talk about how people actually make decisions. We still make decisions when we are tried, sad, angry, intoxicated, grieving, pumped up, ecstatic, and under any other thought-influencing condition. We can't separate our emotions from our thinking. Doing something because you are enraged is still doing it. Doing something because your favourite sports team just won is still doing it. Doing something because everyone around you is doing it and you don't want to bring them down is still doing it.

Still, we all have some sense that some of our decisions were out of character because of an extreme circumstance. Or that they were essentially in character but in a part of our character we would have known better than to express were it not for some circumstance. We somehow divide factors that feel integrated into ourselves from factors that don't feel integrated into ourselves. If you've never felt you had to do something you were deeply opposed to in order to save your life, and if you've never had an alien beam thoughts into your head, then you might not realize what it's like to act on, or to choose not to act on, compelling forces that don't seem like yourself.

If we take the decision whether or not to have anal sex with a particular person, we can imagine all kinds of factors that could go into that decision, from a wholehearted desire to have anal sex with that person to a threat of violence if you don't. Sexual attraction is probably deeply integrated into sense of self, so much so that other than "a wholehearted desire to have anal sex with that person" I was at a loss for words about how to describe actually wanting to do something. It's some combination of sexual attraction, interest in the particular sexual act, feeling safe, feeling you are in an appropriate environment, and many other things, but most of us know what "would like to have sex now" feels like, and a lot of that feeling is too subconscious to really try to disassemble.

The question is why the people who organized this event want other people to have their decision-making needles moved. Acting in a way that you think maximizes the chance that someone will decide they want to have sex with you could be seen as reasonable, but thinking of only yourself and not the consequences for the other person is exactly the kind of thing we need to stop doing. The people who set this event up made it in such a way that it is very likely to cause people to do things that they will later question or regret, or even to do things that they aren't comfortable with at the time. It's exclusive so balking at it means being cast out of a social group. There is a sense of letting your team down if you don't go along with it. Everyone is drinking. It's late at night. They are applying every pressure they can without criminal coercion.

I can just imagine the CBC panelists saying that's ridiculous. As if someone would have anal sex they didn't want to have just because they didn't want their team to lose an event with nothing but bragging rights on the line. Again, we're poisoned by the myth of individualism, as if everyone just makes the ideal decision for themselves at all times. Teamwork is a very, very powerful motivator. People are motivated to all kinds of ridiculous and inappropriate behaviour by a sense of team and it takes almost nothing to create it. Put half the people in a room in blue shirts and half in green and you'll immediately see half of them form a strong in-group, out-group division.

I'm not infantalizing women. I'm "infantilizing" all people, insofar as we feel it is infantilizing to face ourselves for what we really are. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging you don't make your best decisions when you are tired or that you'd do things you wouldn't normally do to avoid being excluded from a social group. Knowing that about yourself and about people in general increases your empathy.

People constructed an event to try to pressure other people into sexual activity they weren't comfortable with. I don't know if there was any sexual assault at the event, but even if there wasn't, how can we not say this is part of a culture that is committed to making self-serving guesses about the sexual consent of others.

To me, though, the ultimate thing that ought to be putting us all off about this event is that participants earned points by having sex with the judges. You don't have sex with your students, you don't have sex with your employees, you don't ask your barista out, you don't ask for sex from a position where it can be taken as an implied threat - whether you mean it as a threat or not. Again, judge at an essentially meaningless competition might not sound like a position of power, but more than half the people who find this ridiculous would be just as susceptible to that influence. Most people's heuristics tell you deference to the judge is important, even if, taking a step back, you would not value their opinion very much at all.

In an ideal world perhaps we'd all have very enlightened attitudes towards sex and having sexual competitions would be fine, or saying to your friend, "I could really use an orifice to put my penis into, mind helping me out?" would be okay. We don't live in that world, and we don't get there by pretending we already do any more than we can end systematic racial or gender discrimination by pretending it isn't there.

There is some doubt about the intent of the event, but we know that 5-10% of men commit multiple sexual assaults because of their disdain for women. Now take a man who lives his life in whatever way you live your life to end up the judge of a contest where he can award points based on the willingness of women to allow him to put his penis in their anus. Would you tend to think that makes him more or less likely to be in that 5-10%? If anyone wants to bet me $20 a judge that they have never committed sexual assault I'll be happy to take your $40 or $80.

I could have gotten this all wrong. Maybe the entire event started with the organizers saying, "Listen up everybody, we're all here to have a fun night, and part of making sure everyone enjoys themselves is being conscious about respecting one another. Obviously the dares on this list are encouraging people to push their personal boundaries, but I don't want anyone to do anything they are uncomfortable with, or to try to pressure others into doing something they are uncomfortable with. If you start thinking you need to do something you don't want to do to make your team win, just remember that there is actually nothing on the line here - if you aren't enjoying yourself nobody is winning. And not to be a downer, but I'm serious about that no pressure thing, if I hear anyone pushing someone to do something they don't want to do I'm going to kick them out. So let's all enjoy ourselves the way we want to enjoy ourselves and respect everyone else doing the same."

I don't get that idea, though, since you'd think defenders of the crawl would have made a big deal of it.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Asking Trump Supporters What They Think

When discussing elites I said I considered the connection between racism and thinking with your gut to be accidental. I hardly even mentioned racism in my last post about an unjust society leading to a certain kind of person being ready to accept anything that is presented as a solution.

But obviously racism is a huge part of what is going on with Trumpism and with Kellie Leitch in Canada, as well as with far right governments all over Europe. Dylan Matthews at Vox has a piece about how if we are going to take Trump's followers seriously, we need to take their word for it that they are racist. Most media narratives are about economic problems, but extensive interviews with Trump supporters don't seem to bear narratives those out.

Matthews has the following to say about projecting economic motives onto Trump supporters:
Insisting, as many journalists have, that his supporters aren’t voting for the white nationalist candidate because they agree with him on race seems like a way to be charitable to those voters. But the idea that voters are motivated by economic struggles and so are voting for a candidate who would make their economic situation far worse is much more insulting than accepting they are uncomfortable with racial equality.
This has an air of truthiness to it. We should respect other people enough to listen to them when they tell us something really odious about themselves. But I'd like to stop and consider the following: How much do you trust yourself to know why you are doing what you are doing?

Strangely, many people will say they trust themselves a lot to know why they are doing what they are doing. I say, "strangely," because I would think we'd all have the opportunity to know better. I don't trust myself to understand my own motivations very well. And when you talk to people who aren't you you get to add in a hundred other factors that might confuse the idea they are expressing. Basically, taking other people's word for what they think and feel isn't respectful, it is dumb. Taking their word as a data point that can be used to make a best guess about what they think and feel is respectful.

And when it comes to Trump supporters the idea of listening to their words to find out what they think is transparently senseless. These are people who say that Trump is definitely going to win and that Clinton is definitely going to steal the election by cheating. If you think you simultaneously think that: 1) they are inconsistent and illogical; and 2) that you can put together a consistent view of their thoughts by taking their word for it; then you might be just as good at compartmentalizing as they are.

When my four-year-old has a meltdown near bedtime, it is usually about being tired or hungry rather than what she says it is about. I don't say this to infantilize Trump supporters, but rather to infantilize all humans including myself. We are not so much smarter or more in tune with ourselves than we were when we were four.

Some of the factors used to discredit the economic argument are very poorly thought out. Trump supporters are wealthier, less likely to be unemployed than the average of the people who live around them. They themselves are doing okay. But the places where they are living are not doing all that okay.

Back in March, during the primaries, The Washington Post printed a piece on the relationship between white death rates and support for Trump. It also cited a few other things that were correlated with Trump support in a county: fewer people working, fewer bachelor's degrees, and a decline in manufacturing jobs. I did the numbers myself to check is state support for Trump is correlated to suicide rate, the correlation was only about 0.25 so I'm not going to make a big deal of it, but the graph has this distinct upward-slope look to it, with Vermont's unusually high suicide rate sticking out in the lower right:

The two data sets - one showing that Trump supporters are largely doing fine and one showing that Trump supporters live in areas that are not doing fine - are only at odds because we have a strong cultural bias to think about everything in terms of what is in it for the individual. But we know that Trump supporters lean heavily authoritarian, and looking for selfish decision making in authoritarian followers makes little to no sense. Lack of work leads to support for Trump even though Trump supporters are more likely to have work in the same way that white death rates lead to Trump support even though Trump supporters are highly likely to be alive.

In order to support Trump you have to be basically okay with his racism or compartmentalize that from your other positions. The fact that we know people are great at the latter makes it strange to conclude the former.

The problem with authoritarian followers isn't that they are bad on the inside, it is that they will do bad things at the drop of the right person's hat. It isn't that the majority of people who support Trump want to live in a world where white people are given advantages over black people or Americans given advantages over Mexicans. Many actively deplore the idea that they would get ahead in a way that is fundamentally unfair. But in the name of a leader who says Mexicans are the problem, they will be violent towards Mexicans. In the name of a leader who says we need more police killing instead of less, they will cheer on police murder. If a leader came along who said we needed to round up all the authoritarians, they would join the posse to round themselves up.

To be clear, I am not saying that Trump supporters are not racist or that they are not more racist than those who don't support Trump. They are probably a lot more prone than average to in-group, out-group distinctions and to looking after people who are "like them" while leaving others to look after themselves. But if their communities seem healthy, that in-group, out-group distinction takes on a much more live-and-let-live character. Dissipating this isn't about getting jobs for Trump supporters, it is about caring for the people who live in their neighborhoods, or the next neighborhoods over. If characterizing a group as both altruistic and racist sounds contradictory, then you need to go meet more people.

So I think the idea that somehow we have to "honestly acknowledge" that the concerns of Trump's supporters are heavily about race as a starting place for a discussion is silly. Trying to address the raced based rationalizations for anxiety will have predictable and depressing effects, much like acquiescing to that tired four-year-old. Give Trump supporters everything they are asking for and they will end up confused and upset, asking for something else entirely and angrier than ever.

When it come to Trump and racism, what we do need to acknowledge is that the effect of Trump's campaign will be more hateful words, more open discrimination in workplaces and housing options, and racist violence. It's those effects we have to worry about.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Sympathy for Barometers

In my last post I built on Neil MacDonald's observation that political "elitism" isn't about education or wealth, and suggesting that "elitism" about a culture where an important sign of status is making rational decisions without letting emotion get in the way. That doesn't mean that people with power really do this - the people who are best at this usually won't advance to very powerful positions - but it means that people with power make a show of doing this, and that making fun of people for not doing this is publicly acceptable.

I've also recently talked about how rationality is mostly just a fraud and a cover for emotional and egotistical decision making, and that you aren't really being rational unless you are ready to be wrong, maybe even disinterested in whether you are right.

I've even said that logic is basically a failed model for discussing reality.

So now let's talk about how rational, unemotional decision making is so much better than going with your gut.

It's a ton better. Almost all cognition is subconscious. When you go with your gut you get whatever power your brain was ready to invest in that decision brought to bear on the subject. You get some tangle of neurons that may or may not be well suited to the task brought to bear. The reason rationality is better is because it is a language that allows decision making processes to communicate with one another. But using rational decision making we get to bring together various resources in our brains, use parts of our brains that might not be natively inclined to weigh in on the decision. Then what's even better if we get to communicate with other brains.

If we had many worlds to work with and we could agree on an objective, we could ask various people to determine public policy with their gut instinct and then figure out who was the best at it. Someone out there is going to have instincts about how to set, say, criminal laws, that are simply amazing at creating desired policy results. But you take the person who is simply the best at it and compare them to 100 people who are able to effectively pool their thinking and it will look a lot like taking the strongest person in the world and comparing what they can lift to 100 people who are able to effectively pool their strength.

Effectively is an important word. People can't effectively pool their strength to lift a tennis-ball sized object. People aren't effectively pooling their thoughts when they know are more interesting in keeping their social status or in pleasing the highest paid person in the room than they are in being right. People can't effectively pool their thinking through a representative democracy if votes are mostly cast along tribal lines.

So the point of talking about "elites" and the negative culture of "elitism" that has gotten so many people angry enough to vote Sexual Predator for president isn't to say those people are right. It is to say that we can use their anger as a barometer for the health of society.

The old slogan, "No justice, no peace," is sometimes taken as a kind of threat, but it's more of a statement of causation. Peace is a consequence of justice. There is very little justice in America today.

Once upon a time we had the divine right of kings and the law of nature to justify inequality, but we've had a long time to absorb the fact that property is a set of human laws about who gets to own what. Inequality is a democratic decision, but the kind of inequality we keep in America is harmful to the majority for the benefit of the extreme minority.

Police officers are above the law and able to kill young black men with impunity. They are able to set up databases to track the movement of large amounts of cash so they can steal it to buy themselves toys for their offices. They operate much in the way organized criminals would - keeping things from devolving into unproductive chaos, but only for their own interests.

Sexual assault victims are left on their own to prove their own cases against their attackers; from courts that shift the burden of proof from the prosecutor to the victim, to places that actually expect victims to pay for the police investigation into the crime in the form of charges for rape kits. Even when someone is convicted, white skin and a good background mean they aren't taken seriously as offenders.

The federal government has an official murder-by-executive-whim program.

Most of this is true to a lesser extent in Canada as well. There is a lot less justice here than there ought to be in a society that has so much.

Of course Trump supporters would scoff at most of my examples of injustice. In fact, they'd have their own counters. In their minds they live in a world where black people and women who report sexual assaults are a protected class of people who can ruin someone's lives with a word. They cheer on police killings of black men. They support measures to bring in even greater inequality even though they will be on the losing end of it.

Trump's movement doesn't have the answers, it embodies the problem. People who make decisions with their guts are antennas that reflect the values of society. That a few people ought to rule the masses because the masses are stupid is a value of our society. In keeping with that, protecting police - representatives of those rulers - who murder is a value of our society. The the important people are white men - and therefore that those who are not white and those who are not men do not deserve consideration - is a value of our society.

But people making decisions with their guts are also our bulwark against being fooled by a corrupt elite who don't provide justice. We think of Trump supporters as being very easily taken in, but they are actually just taken in by a different kind of thing than the "elite" are. After all, the alt-right movement is an "elite" movement in the sense I'm using the term here. You can use rational arguments to justify anything, and you can get lots of people to believe you. The point of rational arguments is supposed to be that they can be fact checked and reviewed, but the quality of that review is dependent on the reviewers. While the angry Trump supporters may be easy to fool into accepting a non-solution that will actually harm them from a charismatic leader, they are much harder than the "elite" to fool about whether or not there is a problem that needs a solution in the first place.

Using actual objective decision making and setting aside emotional encroachment onto that is the best way to come up with solutions to these problems. But if the "elites" who ostensibly do that aren't creating justice, then they aren't the ones who are ultimately going to decide what the solutions are, instead it will be Donald Trump. This is a situation where if rational people want something done right, they are going to have to do it themselves. But, as I said, the people making the actual decisions aren't people who value rationality, they are people who value the appearance of rationality to maintain social status.

Friday, 7 October 2016


Neil MacDonald has an article about Canadian Conservative leadership hopeful Kellie Leitch and her tactic of complaining about the "elites." He gets it mostly right - this is an import of a Republican strategy demonizes education and expertise to the detriment of everyone.

I think that maybe we are missing the point when we are befuddled by people seem to be elite but talk bad about elites. New York Billionaires from wealthy beginnings and university-professor-au-surgeons could be argued to be objectively elite, so it seems rich for them to bash their opponents as elitists. But as MacDonald rightly says, "elitism" is more about some ineffable notion of having lost touch with everyday people.

Just because a notion is ineffable doesn't mean it isn't a thing. Objectively measurable things like heat and gravity were once ineffable, but they are very real. It seems that plenty of people manage to eff elitism just fine.

I recall once reading a recipe for a revolution. It had two steps: first give a underclass basic education so that they are literate; second give a handful of members of that class a top notch education. The rest pretty much sorts itself out.

If that's people who are oppressed based on their race this makes sense because we know those highly educated members of a racial minority will never really be accepted in the society they were allowed to participate in. Martin Luther King Jr. was a minister with a bachelor's degree in sociology, but he was still black.

It gets hard to pull the same trick if education and career are the dividing lines themselves. Leitch wasn't exactly born poor, and Trump certainly wasn't, but even if they were, at some point we say that a person's success or wealth has transformed them into one of the "elite." Obviously the wealth and education, however, doesn't take a person out of the underclass that a person like Trump represents.

So I think maybe the word "elite" is getting in the way of understanding the concept that is being reached for. The "elite" that the Tea Party complains about isn't a level of education or an income, it is a culture. What if what defines that culture is the degradation of emotions?

Many of us collectively watch in horror as Newt Gengrich explicitly makes the case that peoples feelings are just as good as facts - that even if Trump is wrong that rate of violent crime is going up, the fact that people feel it is makes him right when he says it. And yes, that's a horrifying notion - feelings can't be substituted for facts. But the idea that people's feelings are just as important as facts isn't a horrifying notion, and in politics is arguably a fact itself.

Our decision-making class has been saying, "We know what's right, regardless of how you feel" for decades and I think people are right to think, especially in the United States, that they have done a pretty lousy job of actually being right.

America basically stopped becoming a better place to live for the majority of citizens around the turn of the millennium, maybe a little before. The economic indicators being used to demonstrate success stopped being correlated with the welfare of the average person, let alone the poorest people. Unemployment stays low but too many people are working not enough hours to get by because companies don't want to shoulder the added costs of "full time" employees. Average income is up but only because it is up enough among the richest that is overshadows the dip for the median. Inflation adjusted median income has finally returned to pre-2008 levels, but the thing no one seems to talk about is that it hasn't yet returned to 2000 levels. That boom before the 2008 bust? It wasn't a boom, it was a bust for the majority. And while the Trump supporters are racist against Syrians who want to come to America, many of them appear to be less racist against Syrians who want to stay alive in Syria. When Trump says the United States has got to stop getting into stupid foreign wars he's right.

People who have said, "We know what's right, regardless of how you feel" have been dead wrong. Rather than engineering a successful society they have been self-serving, engineering social dominance for their own class. They protect that with a veneer of reason, but that's all it is. "Reason" is mostly a code word for rationalizing.

So maybe Trump actually is one of the "little people" despite his wealthy upbringing and sheltered adulthood. People know that reason cannot dissuade him from following his gut and doing "what is right." It is his lack of impulse control and wild emotional swings that make him non-elite, and Clinton's mastery of her emotions that make her the epitome of elite.

When you choose a leader based on their tendency to follow their emotions, you end up getting whatever their emotions give you. That sounds very unstable and unsafe to us elites. But when you choose a leader based on their ability to rise through the ranks of a system designed to choose leaders you don't get some kind of Darwinian-determined best choice, you get a person devoted to keeping power where it is since the current placement of power rewards them.

I'm not defending Trump. He's a disgusting racist, sexist asshole. I'm not defending Leitch - who wants to check immigrants for "Canadian Values" before letting them enter the country - because she looks a little bit like racism lite. Still, I'd like to say that from an objective stance, I can't see any reason to think the emotion-racism connection and the "reasonable"-non-racism connection are anything more than accidental. Compassion is an emotion, and corporatism and the social dominance of money are racism-agnostic. But whether accidental or not, we live in the world we live in, and if you support a racist candidate you can't just wash the racism off in the bath.

I'm also not ruling out the possibility of faking it. Trump may qualify as not elite because of his complete lack of impulse control but so far Leitch is a tougher sell who could easily be playing a cynical game.

It's no wonder that progressives have been moving towards a synthesis of objectivity and emotions - that is the recognition that a person's experiences and emotions are part of objective reality that should be taken into account. That's still a leading edge thing, though, and people who have been told their feelings don't matter for decades aren't going to suddenly start trusting a system where "experts" are put into one group - as if you should do the same thing with the expert opinion of a physicist, a sociologist, and an economist.

But the progressives who are moving this way have very little power anyway. Like I've said before, if you are trying to figure out what is right - and you are open to the possibility that what you want most is wrong - then reasoning is the way to go, but anyone using reason to try to prove that they are right is making a power play that has nothing to do with objectivity. The elite are not about objectivity, we are about putting down others for their human traits in order to justify consolidating power.