Tuesday, June 19, 2018

What are they thinking?

What I’m thinking about is two separate issues that have at least one point of intersection.  One of these issues is the struggle of a scholar to get her Ph.D. accepted by her committee.  This scholar does work of exceptionally high quality. I know plenty of people who did worse work and got a Ph.D., including myself. The other issue is the more general political trope common on America’s political left of asking why so many people vote for GOP candidates who propose policies that are clearly to their detriment, at least in some ways.

In both cases, we could ask ourselves: “what are they thinking?”  In the case of my scholar and her committee, she can reasonably ask “what are they thinking?” with respect to her dissertation, when by many standards her work obviously qualifies, and the reception her work receives from many scholars not on her committee confirms this. In the case of the GOP voters, we might ask “what are they thinking?” with respect to those GOP voters who have no health care, who need health care, who can’t afford health care, and who also regularly vote for candidates who are hostile to government action to provide health care for everyone.

Now, “what are they thinking?” can be asked from a point of curiosity—of wanting to know what they are thinking?  But it can also be asked from a more settled position—a position of greater belief in one’s own rightness—as a paraphrase of “how silly they are to think that!”

This post is about the importance of asking that question from the first perspective, not the second.  I don’t mean to say that you should not believe your own opinions—if you think someone is doing something silly or wrong, you may very well be right.  People do all sorts of silly things.  And if you’re just sitting back watching, thinking what they do is silly works just fine.  But if you’re involved—if you have some need to interact with or convince these people—as the scholar needs to convince her committee, and the political left wants to convince people to vote for candidates who align with the left—then that second version of the question is not going to help you get what you need.

If you need to communicate with people, and you want to get them to cooperate with you, there is great value in sincerely and openly asking “what are you thinking?” And there is great danger in the second version: “how could anyone be so silly as to think that?”

In the case of the scholar, it’s a little hard to dismiss her committee as silly, but taking them seriously is not quite enough to convince them that they should be on board with a project. It’s necessary to find out and understand what they are thinking so that you can create the necessary communicative bridges that will help them understand what you’re thinking.  (As I write that, it occurs to me that if you’re thinking “what are they thinking?” about someone, they may well be thinking the same thing as you are—certainly the political right speaks of the political left as foolish/immoral/etc., which are flavors of “how could anyone be so silly to think that?”)

To communicate, and to persuade people to accept your way of thinking, you need to present to them ideas that make sense to them—and that means understanding what they think, so that you can suit your communication to their ideas.

If, for example, the scholar of my example wants her committee to accept her work she needs to convince them of its value (and the fact that other people find it valuable doesn’t help with that), and that means understanding what they value and framing your work with respect to ideas that they are already using.  And then figuring out how to make some conceptual bridge to the ideas that you are using.

This can be particularly difficult if the ideas that you are using are radically different from the ideas that they are using. For the scholar, part of her struggle is getting her committee to accept her research methodology.  In thinking about her situation, I was thinking about Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions and his idea that different scientific paradigms are “incommensurable”—that is to say that there is no absolute, objective standard by which all paradigms can be measured—what makes sense in one paradigm doesn’t make sense in others. In the scholar’s case, one of the crucial structures of her research doesn’t really play any role in the research paradigms used by her committee—the question, then, is how to bring this structure into her dissertation in a way that her committee accepts it. Ultimately, I think that the route is through understanding and focusing on what the committee wants. Yes, it may be true that what they want doesn’t make sense from the scholar’s paradigm, but focusing on that difference in view doesn’t suggest a good strategy for moving forward. What does, is to look at what the committee thinks is important, and then use that to create as much common ground as possible—then, once the common ground has been created, it becomes easier to start to make a bridge to her own work—how can she frame her choices in terms of questions that the committee thinks important? How can the ideas that are important to the committee be used to explain the choices she made that led her work to diverge from their expected paradigm?

There’s another dynamic that can play a role, too: if you think “how can they be so silly to think that?" about someone with whom you interact, you’re likely to antagonize them.  Recently, while reading articles that brought up the “voting against their own interest” idea, I have been flashing back to a popular song from my youth: The Suicidal Tendencies’ Institutionalized.  The song relates interactions between child and parents, and near the end, the parents say “We’ve decided it’s in your best interest that…” And the song narrator cries “My best interest? How do you know what my best interest is?” Knowing what is in someone’s best interests is complicated—in the song, maybe the parents really do know their child’s interests, or maybe the parents are wrong. Regardless of what the song narrator’s best interests really are—whether the parents are right or the child—we can certainly say that most people, like the child in the song, will resent having someone else tell them what their best interests are. And that is especially true if they think that the other person/people doesn’t/don’t understand them.  Politicians are not going to win voters by saying “I know what you want better than you do.” Politicians are more likely to win voters by saying “your interests are valuable; here’s my plan to address them.” Or, if possible, to shift people fro one set of ideas to another: “your interests are valuable, but here’s something else that might be valuable to you, too.”  This second is what the scholar needs to do with her committee, certainly: she needs her dissertation to be able to say “here’s something you care about; I want to work on that problem because it’s something we both care about; But I am going to take a very different approach, so please give me a moment to explain why I’m taking this approach, even though it may not make sense to you at first glance.” If she can convince her committee that the problem she is working on is a problem that they care about, and get them to focus on that problem, then that focus on the problem can serve as the conceptual landmark that helps the committee orient themselves with respect to the unfamiliar ideas that the scholar needs them to accept in order to accept her thesis.

This is not the most focused post ever—there is more to be said than I want to write now—but I’ve already gone well over one thousand words, which is generally my target for blog posts, so I’m going to call it a wrap.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

My problem with non-objectivist philosophies

Frequently, I quote from the opening verse of the Tao Te Ching: “the Tao that can be named is not the absolute Tao.” It’s an epistemological statement of limitation—a statement about our ability to know and communicate ideas—and one that reflects my understanding of our ability to know things. Knowledge, I believe, is not absolute. I do not, in short, accept the existence of “objective knowledge”—but that has implications for a scholar, philosopher, or researcher, and it becomes a problem.

Objective knowledge (if there is such a thing) is, by definition, true for everyone. That’s a great standard on which to drive a research agenda: “I’m going to discover something that everyone can agree upon!”
But if there is no objective knowledge—as generally asserted by post-modern and other philosophies (e.g., American Pragmatism, Hume's Skepticism, the Tao Te Ching)—what then prevents the slip of research into knowledge that is only meaningful for the individual?  If there is no objective knowledge, what makes my work valuable to anyone else?
This is one of the struggles for non-objectivist scholars: on the one hand, the limitations of knowledge are made central to any argument, and on the other, there is a desire to do work that is meaningful and even useful to others.

A lot of research strives to serve important social goals, but if the work is only “true” for a select group of people and not for others, can that serve the larger social goal?  This idea of being able to generalize is central to research methods, even those that accept limits to objective knowledge: the point of those methods are to give research work a foundation that others will accept, too.

For me, personally, I want to espouse ideas that will be “true” for everyone—ideas that any person would accept, given the evidence.  When I write about issues in writing and research, I want to write things that help others, and that requires other people to be able to apply my ideas to their view of the world.  But at the same time, one of the ideas that I write about is how ideas are limited, and how they are imperfect and uncertain, and that makes it difficult to make any claims.

So how to do I convince other people that my work has meaning and value to them?  This is especially difficult when dealing with people who generally accept the idea of objective truth.  After all, objective truth is a very comforting notion—even if the objective truth is unpleasant, it is, at least, certain and undeniable. A truth that is contingent on my limited knowledge and perspectives, on the other hand, is much more easily dismissed.

The problem, then, with non-objectivist philosophies, is how to convince others that they are meaningful and useful without resting on the idea that the claims are universally true.
My answer is generally driven by pragmatic concerns: because logical, certain proof is out of reach, and because I need to commit to something in writing (otherwise, I don’t write), I do my best. I accept what I accept for the best reasons that I can find and go from there.

On a certain level, that’s fine: personally, I’m ok making decisions in the face of uncertainty, and even though I’m sometimes wrong, I don’t belabor the decisions that were the best decisions I could make. But on another level, it’s a big problem if the audience doesn’t like what you have to say, or doesn’t accept what you have to say, especially if they want something certain—something solid that, if not objective, at least makes a claim to objectivity.

I don’t really have the answer to convincing a hostile audience. But I suppose on place to look is at your own concerns: what benefits might accrue from your research? If you suggest looking at some field of endeavor from a new perspective, what benefits could accrue? What can motivate interest in that view beyond just saying “here’s a different way of looking at things?” Focusing on benefits can reveal problems: if using a new perspective leads to doing things “better” in some way, that area of improvement could be viewed as a problem that you are addressing.

On advantage of focusing on benefits of a new idea is purely emotional for a writer—focusing on benefits keeps attention on the strong points of work, and helps sustain confidence.

I don’t have an answer for this. Without the anchor of objective certainty, how does one prevent the slippage towards ideas that are meaningful to the individual alone? If I am certain of anything, it is that there is no certain knowledge, but where does that lead me?

Somehow the scholar/philosopher/researcher who rejects objectivist philosophies needs to be able to make some claim that will convince their audience that their work is worth the time. But I’m not sure of the means of accomplishing this.

Monday, June 4, 2018

At what point do you stop trying to improve your work?

I have a friend who is a songwriter and musician. He writes a lot of songs, and some of them are absolutely beautiful.  We’ve been friends for nearly a decade, and in that time, he has not released a single album-length recording, and has released perhaps a handful of single tracks.  I have a number of recordings that he has made, and when I hear them (I listen to my music library on “shuffle”), I never think “Boy, this needed more time in the studio.” What I think is “he worked on this years ago, and it was good enough to be released, but now he’s on to new projects, and this will never get released.” But, to my friend, there’s always a reason that it’s not ready.

Lately he’s been saying that he’s got things set up so that he will start finishing albums. But, to me, the recordings that he thinks are unfinished are already good as they are and all they need are packaging and promotion. In any event, I am very much hoping that he will actually finish and release some projects—it would certainly help his business to have recordings that he could sell.
Making the decision to stop working on a project is emotionally difficult but necessary.

Last night, I was at the creative writers’ group that I sometimes attend—I dabble with sci-fi/fantasy, but with my serious efforts directed towards two books on research writing to follow up my first dissertation book (Getting the Best of Your Dissertation)—and I got into a similar dynamic with one of the writers: pushing him to finish, while he said he was trying to make changes to improve it. At one of the first meetings I attended, he shared a draft of the last chapter of the first volume of the epic he’s writing. That was several months ago, and he’s still “knocking off rough edges,” while I’m pushing him to try to finish it, and make some moves to get it published (he’s planning on self-publishing on the Internet).

It’s not that I can’t see possibility to improve the work. It’s that I see greater desirability in finishing a work and moving on to the next.  It’s always tempting to try to improve on the weaknesses that you can see in your own work, but is that always a good choice?

One way I view his work is through the lens of what I could imagine doing better.  I understand that he is viewing his work through that lens—it makes sense; it’s what leads to writing well and improving.

But another way I view his work is through the lens of what will help him become a better and more successful writer. And through that lens, I think he’ll learn more, produce better work, and possibly even earn a few bucks, if he stops trying to improve his work, and starts going through the steps to actually get his work self-published. Maybe it’s worth proofreading, but trying to make changes to make the work better? I think that’s not the most productive use of his time and effort.

And yet another way that I view his work is through the lens of how his work compares to other stuff—especially to the worst stuff I’ve read.  His work does not compare favorably to my absolute favorites, but that’s a pretty stringent standard.  If I think about all the things I’ve read, though, his work appears in a different light.  I’ve read some really lousy writing. I’ve read some lousy writing from authors who have had many books published and who have followings. Compared to these writers, suddenly his works shows as a totally viable project comparable or superior in quality to many.

During the writers’ group meeting, this author and another member were talking about a movie they had both seen and that they both thought was poorly written.  If you see enough movies or read enough books, you’re going to be in a position to say “this one is better and that one is worse.”  It’s easy to do. And in criticizing those relatively weak works, it’s worth remembering that they were published (which is how you saw them).

When writing (or working on another creative process), it’s easy to get focused on the work and on what you’d like to do better. Trying to improve your work is good. But there is no clear-cut criteria by which you can be certain that you have done enough.  So, at what point do you stop trying to improve the work?

People can get stuck trying to improve their work. To break out of that trap, finding some outside criteria for comparison is useful. When are you going to stop working, and take steps to have the work become more public?  If you have been working on a project for a long time, and you don’t have someone to give you feedback, ask yourself how your work compares to some of the worst examples of what you’re doing—such a comparison might give you confidence to move forward and share your work with more people.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Beware false equivalency: The difference between recent statements by Samantha Bee and Roseanne Barr

To think clearly, to understand the world, to make good decisions, it is important to be careful not to conflate things that are unlike.  If two things are really equal, then we want to respond to them equally. And if two things are distinct, we want to respond to those differences. Assuming that two things are similar because they have one point of similarity is poor reasoning and can lead to problems and injustices.

I am motivated to this discussion because of the false equivalence that is being drawn between Roseanne Barr’s tweet about Valerie Jarrett and Samantha Bee’s comments about Ivanka Trump.  The two comedians should be treated differently because their actions were radically different.  Both Bee and Barr insulted someone, but not all insults are equal.  In the Bee vs. Barr comparison, there are at least five important points of difference:

1. Context
Bee was delivering a comic monologue—a format known for pushing against the boundaries of acceptable discourse.
Barr was making a tweet in response to someone else’s complaint about Jarret—a format in which the terms of service explicitly forbid insulting and harassing speech.

2. Truth/Accuracy
Bee called Ivanka a “feckless cunt.” While it may be debatable whether these terms apply to Ivanka, they are not categorically false.
Barr associated Jarrett with the Muslim Brotherhood, a connection that has no basis in reality, but is part of the on-going right-wing attempt to portray the Obama administration as Muslim infiltration of America. Associating Jarrett with the Muslim Brotherhood is categorically false.

3. Misogyny, racism and speaker
Bee, a woman, used a term that can be viewed as misogynistic. It may be wrong for women to use misogynistic terms, but, in the same way that members of a racial group can use derogatory terms for their own group, women can use misogynistic terms. African Americans who use the n-word cannot be censured for racism in the same way the white people using the n-word can. Bee used a term that could be considered misogynistic, but being a woman, Bee is not clearly being misogynistic. (And Bee’s history does not suggest she is a misogynist.)
Barr, a white woman, used a common racist trope to demean Blacks—that of comparing a Black person to an ape, suggesting that the Black is less human, less evolved. Barr is not a member of the group she was insulting. Had a Black person made Barr’s tweet, it would have been received differently (although for the other reasons mentioned in this post, it would still have been less acceptable). Barr made a comment that could be considered racist, and as Barr is not Black, she cannot be given the benefit of a doubt about her racism. (And her history certainly suggests a fair share of racism.)

4. Crudity vs. Bigoted Stereotypes
Bee was crude. She was not misogynistic. It would be quite surprising for a media company to fire someone for crudity, especially a comedian, given that crudity is a standard part of comedy.
Barr was racist (but not crude). It is not at all surprising that a media company would want to fire someone for racism, because media companies don’t want to alienate massive segments of the population.

5. Behavior vs. Personal characteristics
Bee insulted Ivanka for her behavior—for speaking about how important families are, for example, while completely supporting her father’s administration which is, among other unpleasant behavior, separating children from their parents to punish the parents for trying to enter the U.S. Ivanka has a choice in how she acts, what she posts to social media, and what she says and does about her father. Ivanka, like any adult, should be open to criticism for her behavior: if Ivanka wants to talk about how important families are while also supporting policies that rip families apart, she (and any administration official) can be criticized for that inconsistency of her behavior. *(Just as we can criticize both Barr and Bee for their behavior.)
Barr, by contrast, insulted Jarrett’s personal characteristics (or at least tried to do so). Saying someone is an ape (or like an ape, or descended from Planet of the Apes) is not referring to anything the person did, but rather is merely drawing on well-worn racist tropes, and, as Barr herself noted, insults a person’s appearance (Barr said she was making a joke about Jarrett’s looks).

To summarize these five important differences:

1. Bee was in a context where crude language is appropriate; Barr was in a context where her comments were inappropriate.
2. Bee made an arguably true claim—an opinion; Barr made a demonstrably false claim.
3. Bee used a term that could be considered insulting to a group to which she belongs; Barr used an idea that could be considered insulting to a group to which she does not belong.
4. Bee was crude but not bigoted; Barr was bigoted.
5. Bee criticized Ivanka for things Ivanka does; Barr insulted Jarret for her appearance and race (and, falsely, her religion).

A final point that should not be relevant to whether Bee or Barr keep their jobs: It should also be noted that Ivanka Trump is a member of her father’s administration—she is a government official. The Constitution's First Amendment is specifically designed to protect those who make critical statements about the government and the actions of government officials. Bee’s comments are exactly the kind of statement the First Amendment is supposed to protect. Barr’s statement is not concerned with the behavior of the government or a government official—it’s just racist insult, not criticism of action. Barr’s statement does not warrant the same legal protection that Bee’s does. But if the Constitution of the U.S. is important to you, then you might view the two insults in this light: one is what the First Amendment is meant to protect, the other is not. Political discourse and personal insults are different things--Bee was engaged in the first, Barr in the second.

Monday, May 28, 2018

Emotion, reason, and LeBron James

This is a follow up on last week’s post about unresolvable questions in which I discussed evaluating basketball players and LeBron James, in particular.

After the Cavaliers’s win last night, James has once again led a team to the NBA Finals—this for the 8th straight year. This adds to his impressive resume and his claim to be greatest of all time (GOAT).  In my previous post, I argued that questions like “who is greater: James or Jordan?” were unresolvable.

At the same time, winning the conference finals 8 times in a row is—well, if Jordan had chosen to continue playing basketball instead of trying baseball, maybe he could have matched that feat. Perhaps Jordan was the more talented, but maybe those 8 straight trips to the Finals is the more impressive career? This also reveals two dimensions of evaluation I didn’t discuss in my previous post: the difference between potential and achievement.

But this is not about multidimensionality, but about the way that emotion can influence reasoning. To what extent is evaluation affected by emotions?  There is a plenty of actual empirical data on how emotions do influence reasoning (see, for example, the idea of “reactive devaluation”), but I’m just going to focus on one particular influence on evaluation.

This morning, I stopped at a cafe, and the music playing was music that was new and that I had loved when I was in high school and college. A lot of that music still seems particularly excellent to me.  Rationally, it makes no sense to me to suggest that the best musicians ever were all performing their best music in the first twenty years or so of my musical memory. But it often seems that way. Those songs were emotively impactful to me when the whole world was new. Music that is new to me today is often simply unable to catch my attention because I have so many other things in mind.

To what extent is this true for evaluating basketball players? Jordan was one of the great stars of that same period—high school/college—Jordan trying to take the mantle of greatness from Bird and Magic. I don’t really remember the greatness of Kareem, though I remember his long and productive post-peak career. Do I have a propensity to overrate Jordan in the same way that I have a propensity to overrate the music of my youth?  The baseball writer Bill James included a repeated item in his Historical Baseball Abstract in which, for each decade, he quoted old  ballplayers saying some variation of “they ain’t as great as when I was young.”

Will those who are in high school and college today—people too young to have watched Jordan’s great games live—will they be predisposed to consider James the greatest ever because he was the player who amazed them when the world was still new? And will there be a debate 20 years from now about whether some new player is greater than James (with Jordan having receded into the past)?
The decision-making process includes emotional elements that shape our reasoning. If we’re called upon to make a quick choice, the emotional factors are likely to be the deciding factors when complex decisions must be made because the complexity of carefully reasoned evaluation tends to defy answers.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Unresolvable questions and the search for understanding

Researchers want answers, and ideally, they want good, solid answers that will stand up to examination and challenge. Unfortunately, some questions do not have any fixed answer. The absence of clear answers, however, does not preclude important learning, and researchers can benefit from being able to delve into such uncertainties in search of many interesting ideas, even if no specific answer can be found. 

In the late 1950s, a philosopher named W.B. Gallie demonstrated that there were some things could never be fully defined—he called them “essentially contested concepts.” In the late 1960s, design theorist Horst Rittel argued for a class of “wicked” problems (which included but was not limited to design problems) whose members had no definitive formulation, among other characteristics.  For both Gallie and Rittel, a crucial factor was the social element: different people view things differently. Gallie relied on a sporting example derived from cricket (I believe—I’m working from memory) to demonstrate how different views about the sport made it impossible to define the “best.”.  Gallie’s example is particularly salient for me because I enjoy the sporting fan’s common questions regarding which players are best and what teams should do—one of my favorite authors is Bill James, the baseball analytics guru—and yet, as a philosopher and researcher, the more I look at such questions, the more complexity there is to see. And ultimately, given that I accept the ideas of Gallie and Rittel, I see these questions as unanswerable.  Despite believing these questions are unanswerable, I still see the debates that they produce as interesting and often informative.

Not to mention that I am somewhat interested in basketball and the NBA playoffs, and a lot of current discussion revolves around an unanswerable question that is, nonetheless interesting, and perhaps even informative, to explore. That question is the question of LeBron James. How great is he? Is he the greatest ever, the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time)? Or is he “just” top five? You don’t have to read much to find people discussing LeBron’s “legacy.”

Before LeBron, Michael Jordan was generally regarded as the greatest of all time (GOAT). Some argued for Bill Russell with his 11 championship rings and multiple MVP awards, or, perhaps, for a few others, but Jordan was the most common choice as GOAT. LeBron, however, has been doing amazing stuff that no one else in basketball can do, and his accomplishments are piling up. He is currently having another spectacular postseason, at least in terms of individual performances, although his team is facing a 1-2 deficit to Boston in the conference finals.  It is these performances that spark the debate: “look at that performance,” says one side, “he’s the best ever.” The other side says “well, it doesn’t mean much if he loses. Jordan won all six times he went to the finals!” 

This is the simplistic version of the argument, of course, because on closer examination this simple argument will reveal complexity that cannot be eliminated—complexity of the sort that contributed to the claims of Gallie and Rittel that some things cannot be completely defined. The simplicity of saying “Jordan won all six times in the finals; LeBron only won three and lost five,” might be fine for chatting at the bar during a game, but it certainly isn’t enough for serious research.

Firstly, we note that we can’t just reduce the argument to who has more rings, because by the “rings” standard, neither Jordan nor LeBron is all that close to the top of the list. By the rings standard, Bill Russell is the greatest, followed by a bunch of his teammates and Robert Horry. And, with all due respect to Robert Horry and Russell’s Celtics teammates, they are not all-time greats—no one is suggesting that Sam Jones, with 10 rings, is the second-greatest player ever. Trying to reduce the debate to a single dimension distorts the question: a player’s performance is much more complex than that single dimension.  This problem of multidimensionality makes it difficult to evaluate many things—what is intelligence? what is creativity? what is a “good employee”? how do we evaluate students’ learning?

Once an issue is understood to be multidimensional, it becomes increasingly difficult to make any certain decision. Beyond championship rings, there are many statistics that allow a comparison between two basketball players—points scored, rebounds, assists, etc., etc.  But the more dimensions added to the evaluation, the greater the likelihood that there will be contradictory indications. If one player had better stats in every possible category than any other player, there wouldn’t be difficulties. But that’s not the case, and that leads to complexity and uncertainty: how do you choose to weight different dimensional in an overall evaluation? If Jordan has more points but LeBron has more rebounds, who is greater? What’s more important for evaluating greatness?

Focusing on won-loss records can give an example of this problem of evaluation. MJ won more rings than LeBron, and that matters. But LeBron advanced to the finals more times, and that’s worth something, too: after all, if LeBron is criticized for losing in the Finals, shouldn’t MJ be criticized for losing in the Conference Finals? How do we compare those different achievements? Or, at the other end of the playoffs, we can see that MJ lost in the first round three times, while LeBron has never lost in the first round. If MJ were clearly greater, shouldn’t he have a better record in the first round? There are lots of stats and sometimes Jordan’s are more impressive (30.1 pts/gm vs. “only” 27.2 for LeBron), sometimes LeBron’s are (7.4 rebounds/game, 7.2 assists/game vs. 6.9 and 5.3 for Jordan).

The search for detail in comparing the two may not lead to any conclusive answer about which is better, but it can help us see the question more richly, and this can inform us about basketball and about processes of evaluation.  And, in a way, what we get out of the examination is potentially more valuable than an answer: it doesn’t really matter who is “the greatest”—whether we say that Jordan is the greatest or LeBron is the greatest or Russell, Kareem, Bird, Magic, Wilt or whoever. It doesn’t really matter who gets called the greatest, or who really is the greatest (if it makes sense to reduce such complexity to such a simple question). But, although the question itself cannot be answered, what is learned in the process of trying to answer that unanswerable question can give us insight into the more general process of player evaluation, and that has practical value to basketball organizations or to fantasy players.

Some questions that have no answer are still worth asking and examining.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Cultural appropriation and appropriate responses

The APA Manual discusses bias in writing and suggests, basically, that if anyone is offended, the writing should be considered offensive, and change is worth considering. I’d like to take this premise as the basic starting point for this discussion: if someone is offended, it is worth considering doing something different.  If someone feels hurt, that feeling should be taken very seriously.

At the same time, however, not all hurts are the same.  And losing sight of that, means sucking important nuance out of any possible dialogue that might move toward redress of hurts.

It is the loss of nuance in the debate that worries me. If serious ills are conflated with minor ills, it makes it harder to generate community action to address (and redress) the serious ills.

The recent case of Keziah Daum’s prom dress brought this question to mind, but I had already been thinking about those issues due to several previous situations that sparked cultural appropriation debates.

Cultural appropriation can be a serious problem. Many people have really suffered from it. For example, historically, the US music industry was a cultural appropriation machine that stole millions from African American musicians. White people got rich on music drawn from African Americans, while the African Americans who first made the music got little or nothing. It was a large-scale issue. 

At the same time, again, not all hurts are equal. The class of “micro-aggressions” explicitly marks the limited nature of those hurts.  This is not to say that micro-aggressions ought to be ignored, but again, this invites the question of degree of hurt and appropriate responses to that hurt. If micro-aggressions were equivalent to outright aggression, then no one would create the term “micro-aggression” to describe them.

Are all cases of cultural appropriation equal? Clearly not. Some cases of cultural appropriation affect the flow of millions of dollars, and directly impact the lives of many. Other cases? Well, what about the case of Keziah Daum and the response thereto?

Let us give full respect to the feelings and lives of those who were hurt by her decision to wear that dress, pose in the way she did, and post that image. Let us also retain nuance in the conversation by understanding the degree of injury and other potential ill effects of Daum’s choice to wear the dress and to post the now-infamous images, and the question of what is an appropriate response.

Let us suppose that you are browsing, you come across Daum’s post, and you are hurt. What hurts have you suffered from that image? Emotional hurts are significant and real, so we’ll count them. Are there other injuries from that image? Specific injuries from those posts or from Daum’s actions that led to the posts?

Let’s put aside a more general critique of Daum and society: perhaps she is more generally culpable, and unquestionably larger society has committed bad acts of cultural appropriation, but nonetheless, this image is a single act. Do we want to condemn this one act as if it embodied a who person’s life? What specific injury does the image do?  Asking whether Daum is guilty of other things is not entirely at issue. Now one might think, on seeing the image, that Daum needs to be educated—an idea with merit (of course, I’m generally biased toward education)—but that is a separate question from the question of what the image does.

So what is an appropriate response to the image? If that image is hurtful, should it be spread as far and wide as possible? That seems like it would only hurt more people.  And if the image is spread with the idea of censuring Daum (assuming that she needs censure) will that censure help promote the idea of cultural sensitivity and help prevent cultural appropriation?

Until this event Daum was hardly well known, now she has become a flashpoint of cultural conflict.  If no one had decided to spread the image as a display of cultural appropriation, Daum would have remained in shadows. Does making an example of her help the fight against cultural appropriation?

I don’t want to make light of the hurt that anyone might have suffered through Daum’s choice of dress, use at prom, and images posted on public forums.  But personally, I don’t think turning Daum’s dress into an issue of import helps eliminate cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation should be eliminated, but I don’t think the way to go about it is to lose sight of the nuance in the discourse.  Some hurts are too small to warrant a reaction. The potential hurts of Daum’s act seem small, and that makes the complaint a weaker issue to use in any public discourse that attempts to educate people about the ills of cultural appropriation.

About a year ago, a burrito shop in Portland, Oregon similarly became a “cultural appropriation” flashpoint, and that case was one in which the response seemed grossly out of proportion.  This little burrito shop run by two women was open on weekends. Let’s say they were basically stealing—how much were they stealing? The cost of dozens of burritos? That’s a bad thing. But what about Taco Bell? Is it owned and managed by Mexicans or is it cultural appropriation on a massive scale? The wave of public sentiment against that little burrito shop didn’t transform into a wave of public censure of Taco Bell. Is that an appropriate set of responses?  

If we want to convince people that cultural appropriation is a real problem that we should work to fix, it would be effective, I think, to try to focus on more serious instances—and that means instances where a lot of money is changing hands, or where people are suffering serious immediate injuries. By focusing on cases with smaller impact—a weekend burrito shop or a high school student wearing a prom dress—it makes it easier for complaints about the real problem to be brushed off as just another example of a non-problem imagined by some fevered liberal.  

This is about rhetoric and debate and how to shift public opinion on the large scale. Many people—the same people would would think in terms of “fevered liberals”—view the idea of cultural appropriation as ridiculous. These are the people whose opinions it would be most valuable to change—what discourse is going to reach them and educate them and get them to be more sensitive to the real problem of cultural appropriation?  Complaining about Daum might be very effective in reaching people who already believe that cultural appropriation is a problem, but is it effective in reaching people who don’t take cultural appropriation seriously?

In rhetoric and debate, it is, of course, very effective to fix upon an example that sparks a strong emotion.  But when the emotions generated are anger and resentment, it makes it harder for people to work together. And when emotions run high, it’s easy to lose the important nuance.

We don’t want to lose nuance in this debate (or in any debate, if we can help it), because that loss of nuance makes it harder to address and ameliorate the difficult and significant problems that face us—“us” the community of scholars, “us” the people of the US, and “us” the people of the world.

Cooperation won’t grow out of disrespecting the opposite side of the argument. Cooperation grows out of seeing the opposite side of the argument as real humans despite their faults.