Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Pernicious Illusion Of User-Generated Neutrality

I feel like this there's this dream in late-capitalist societies that somehow you can write a neutral set of rules for human interaction -- that is, a way of setting up a set of rules or procedures that doesn't rely on contentious and messy stuff like what matters and why, or what is or isn't harmful, or what people do or don't have the right to do.

Of course that isn't true. There's no such thing as a neutral set of rules for human interaction. If you're going to talk about how people should treat one another, you're going to have to base that on all kinds of value-laden beliefs.

But there's this tenacious implicit idea or hope that somehow, if you just wrote the right rules, and got an effective enforcement mechanism, you'd be good to go. On the internet, this often takes the form of letting users determine everything. The dream is we can introduce a ratings system, step back, and let it all sort it self out.

I feel like it's getting more and more difficult to ignore the fact that this dream is an illusion. You can't make things work without some dialogue and agreement about what's important and what's sort of OK and what isn't OK.

It's long been known that the sharing economy has a race problem. But I was reminded of this issue when I read this recent article on "Broadly," about discrimination and the gig economy. It starts with the story of a trans woman, who wants to rent a room on AirBnB. When she informs her potential host she is trans, she is refused because the host doesn't want her son to feel uncomfortable.

The article also has this other story, where a young woman hires a cleaner through a gig economy site. When he shows up, he becomes aggressive and angry and tells her off for how messy her place is. She can't get him to leave, and eventually gives him an extra 40 dollars to go home.

Then there's also discussion of how, when women let out rooms to men, they end up feeling uncomfortable in their homes -- not threatened, just uneasy, because of the way the men take up a lot of space, put their stuff everywhere, and help themselves to the music collection.

The focus of the article is on women, people of color, and others being "safe" in the gig economy, but it also touches briefly on the deeper problem: that having an app "ratings" system -- effectively punishing bad guys -- really just doesn't cut it. Proper resolution of all of these cases requires not "ratings" from customers but rather informed judgment about what is and isn't appropriate in the way we treat one another.

It's complicated. People get to feel comfortable and not threatened. But sometimes -- as in the trans case -- if a person feels unsafe or uncomfortable it's their problem. Other times -- as in the cleaner case -- if a person feels unsafe or uncomfortable it's the other person's problem. Still others -- as in the case of guys "taking up space" -- I'm really not sure whose problem it is.

To say that everyone can rent to whoever they want and that people can go ahead and "rate" one another really doesn't address the relevant difficulties. You actually have to make judgments about what's fair, not fair, OK, not OK. And then you have to have some system for putting those judgments into practice.

It's the same thing for social media. You can't distinguish protected speech from abusive speech without making value judgments about what kinds of things are OK and not OK. For example, did you read about how Facebook banned a plus-sized model who was advertising a thing about positive and healthy body-image? 

Though the reversed the decision later, Facebook banned it for showing "body parts in an undesirable manner."

Explaining their decision, Facebook wrote: "Ads may not depict a state of health or body weight as being perfect or extremely undesirable. Ads like these are not allowed since they make viewers feel bad about themselves. Instead, we recommend using an image of a relevant activity, such as running or riding a bike."

Leaving aside all the other baffling questions this passage raises -- like, you're going to ban all ads that make people feel bad about themselves? WTF? -- obviously it's a value judgment to say that making people feel "bad" is worth banning and it's a value judgment to say when making people feel bad is OK and when it isn't. Anti-smoking campaigns make people feel bad too. So what?

In reversing the decision, Facebook said that the policy was meant to guard against the promotion of anorexia and eating disorders. A worthy goal, but again, not a factual one, not a value-neutral one, and not an obvious one to put into practice -- as the kerfuffle itself shows.

At the end of the Broadly article, an expert on the gig economy is quoted as saying,
"It's not really fashionable to be in favour of bureaucracy and rules, but equal pay for equal work, minimum wage laws, employment standards that limit employers' right to fire at will, and anti-discrimination laws were the results of years of struggle by feminists, unionists, and anti-racism groups," he says. "I don't think they should be thrown away just because a new app has a rating system."
I think this is spot-on. I've never understood the depth of antagonism to bureaucracy. If you're falsely accused, it's bureaucracy that's going to save you. If you want safe drinking water, it's bureaucracy that's there for you. And if you want fairness -- in education, in employment, or even just in your gig economy -- it's bureaucracy that's going to do that for you.

But it's not because they're value-neutral that bureaucracies do this. It's because, at least when they're working well, they encode values that we care about, and they put into place systems for making things happen. Systems that epitomize what tech companies seem to be trying to get away from.

An user-generated ratings system does neither of these things. It just allows everyone to put into concrete practice all the crappy, racist, sexist, transphobic, hate and phobia that they're carrying around. It's not "user-generated neutrality." It's like an amplifier for all of our worst qualities.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Are Internet Trolls Otherwise Ordinary People?

Trolls from a kinder, gentler era.
I used to think that people being horrible assholes on the internet were, generally speaking, people who were horrible assholes off the internet. I thought they were exceptional, unusual -- the kind of people that if you met them in real life you'd be like: "Oh my god, get me away from this person."

But I keep reading stories -- true ones -- where people got to know their trolls, and these stories share feature that is, to me, really disturbing. Namely: that trolls are otherwise ordinary people -- ordinary people who somehow feel entitled to act out wild murderous rage when they feel like it.

The first one that sticks in my mind is from 2012. This guy -- a writer and blogger in Ireland -- started getting relentless messages on Twitter calling him a "dirty fucking Jewish scumbag" and sending images of concentration camps and dismembered bodies. The abuse went on and on, his Facebook account was hacked, violent racist messages, etc etc. Eventually it escalated, with parcels of ashes arriving at his home with notes like "Say hello to your relatives from Auschwitz."

The writer was understandably freaked out. He hired a friend to try to figure out the IP address of his troll, and -- long story short, it ended up being the 17 year old son of an old friend of his. He talks to the friend. They decide to all go out to lunch, and toward the end they show the kid printouts of all the abusive and threatening messages. Kid bursts into tears. Pressed, he says "I don't know. I don't know. I'm sorry. It was like a game thing."

Then in 2014, there was this great piece about the classicist Mary Beard in the New Yorker. The story covers many topics: Beard's scholarly approach, the general misogyny she encounters whenever she does anything, her boundless energy for engaging with, and showing up, people who say hateful and stupid things to and about her on the internet. And there are a lot of hateful and stupid things. This, for example, from a university student: "You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting."

Instead of ignoring the trolls, Beard engages with them. She retweets, calls out, talks to the press. When she retweeted the university student, someone who knew him offered to tell his mom; he later apologized. To the BBC, she said, "I’d take him out for a drink and smack his bottom."

When she was on Question Time, commenters vilified her online, and one posted an image where a woman’s genitals was superimposed over Beard’s face. Later, she posted the image to her blog at the Times Literary Supplement website. The site was overwhelmed with traffic, and the story made international news.

Then, what happened was this: the man who ran the site where the image originally appeared contacted Beard to apologize, via a long and personal letter. He said he never should have done it. He said he was in difficult circumstances: he was married with kids; he wanted to move to Spain; he couldn't understand the bureaucracy. Mary Beard looked up the documents he needed and sent them along. Now, whenever she gets in "internet trouble," he gets in touch with her -- to make sure she is OK.

Understandably, Beard resists the interpretation of these stories as "happy endings" where a wise and maternal woman takes men to task and teaches them a lesson. What the attacks show, she says, is the persistence of misogyny and the way gender hierarchies persist. Still, she finds the outcomes emotionally satisfying. That university student who called her a slut with a disgusting vagina? After he apologized he took her out to lunch, and she's going to write him a letter of reference. After all, when you google his name, calling Beard a "filthy slut" is what comes up, and he is going to need all the help he can get.

The final story is from 2015. Lindy West is a writer who often deals with feminism and body size issues -- and so receives a ton of vitriol, abuse, and threats online. In this essay, she describes how she usually deals -- by deleting, by useless blocking, by trying to ignore. But then eventually, a troll set up something that reached a new level of awfulness, by setting up a Twitter account in the name of West's recently deceased father -- with a photo of him, and a username like "[Lindy's father] Donezo."

West found she couldn't ignore it. She wrote an essay on Jezebel about the issue and mentioned the account. Astonishingly, she then received an email from the troll, apologizing. He said he was wrong and he shouldn't have done it, and that his trolling hadn't been caused by something particular she said. He wrote in part, "I think my anger towards you stems from your happiness with your own being. It offended me because it served to highlight my unhappiness with my own self."

Later, West invited him to participate in an episode of This American Life, talking about what happened. He said he'd felt fat, unloved, passionless and purposeless." Though he was unable to explain why this made generalized rage at women seem like a good idea, he did say that he had changed. He'd become a teacher, and he took better care of his health. He apologized, again, for the hurt he'd caused: as a teacher, he could now see how hurt and sad his students were when other kids were mean to them.

There's so much to say about these stories -- and I agree with West and Beard when they call attention to the special role that misogyny plays. But among the other things, I'm still just astonished at the way these trolls all seem like ordinary people who got caught up in something even they don't really understand.

It's destabilizing to me to think that otherwise ordinary people who are sad, or bored, or self-hating can get something out of abusing and threatening other people on the internet. At the deepest possible level, I just don't get it. Even a playground bully at least gets status, or attention, or something. But these internet trolls are mostly anonymous. What motivates them to act this way? What positive feeling for them makes them do this?

It's like finding out I live among people of a completely different species.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Medical Metaphors, Mistakes, and Metaphysics

Years ago a friend of mine got a dog -- a tiny puppy. I didn't see my friend for a while, and the next time we got together, the dog had grown enormously: he was now a largish-sized dog. When I commented on this, my friend put his hand down near the dog's neck, and said, "Yeah, isn't it weird to think that all this part" -- from the neck to the tail -- "is made of dog food?"

I think about that story often lately. Because I used to think of my body as a thing that was its own thing and not another thing -- so that what went into it would nourish it, but wouldn't literally constitute it. I had what felt like a commonsensical metaphorical idea that my body was a thing was existing through time in a relatively stable way. So, for example, whatever I might eat or do with my body might cause changes to it over time, but they wouldn't be my body in any literal way. I thought my friend's joke about the dog was just that -- a joke.

But it turns out that this is not really the right way to think about things. For example, think about the human microbiota -- all the bacteria that live in and on a person. Is that part of you or not part of you? If you have the metaphor of bodies as metaphysical discrete objects -- the kinds of things that exist through time with clearish boundaries -- it seems like not part of you. And yet it's as essential to your health as any of your main parts.

And what you eat isn't just incidental to the microbiota. It has an intimate connection, immediately affecting how the microbiota is constituted. The idea of microbiota for me has had immediate practical implications. It used to be that if I would eat junk food, I would have the idea that my body before I ate the junk food and my body after I ate the junk food was basically the same -- except for just having more calories in it. I knew, of course, that eating a lot of junk food was unhealthy, but I pictured that as a causal effect happening over a period of time -- something that came about as the result of habits. I thought that when you get immediately sick from food, it's because a foreign bacteria -- not part of you -- makes its way in.

But that's not really right. The bacteria that live in your digestive system are essential to health in an everyday way, and we now know that in a healthy system, there is a wide range of different bacteria. Eating a typical western diet of processed foods ruins that -- it kills off some beneficial bacteria and feeds some not-so-beneficial ones, and undercuts the variety.

This research is still developing, but it seems like part of it is that what you eat provides nourishment for some bacteria instead of others. So if you eat Doritos, the bacteria that thrive on Doritos will flourish, and if you eat turnips, the bacteria that thrive on turnips will flourish. So it's not really true that your body before you eat the junk food and after is the same. It actually changes as an immediate effect of what you eat. My friend was sort of right: all that part was made of dog food.

Anyone following the health-related news will see why I had the wrong implicit metaphor. The language of modern health advice is generally steeped in the traditional metaphysics of objects. "A calorie is a calorie." Weight loss is "thermodynamics." We think of illness as invading what would otherwise be a conceptually isolated and distinct healthy self.

I realize it is very speculative to suggest that some of the mistakes of modern medicine have to do with mental habits steeped in western logic and metaphysics. But I think there is something to it. We are taught to think in terms of objects that are self-identical -- they are themselves and not another thing. We are encouraged to see divergence from that norm in terms of pathologies like "vagueness" and "ambiguity" instead of that just being the nature of things.

Doesn't it seem like this kind of thinking would make it more challenging to recognize the role of bacteria as occupying this strange zone of not-a-body-part and yet also yes-a-body-part?

Let me emphasize: I understand the phenomenon in question is not inconsistent with object metaphysics. I mean, on some level you can conceptualize the whole shebang in terms of things that affect your body, rather than constituting it, and you can describe what's going on in terms of a list of discrete objects, all of which affect one another in a complex causal chain.

All I'm saying is that when you have the object-vs-not object metaphor deeply structuring how you approach the world, these things might be a bit harder to see. You might leap to thinking that if something isn't part of the body, it's not part of the body, and can't therefore play the same kind of role in the body that an actual body part -- like a stomach or a kidney -- can play. And just like "a calorie is a calorie," or "it's all just thermodynamics," you'd be mistaken.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Internet And The Problem Of Context-Free Communication

Have you noticed the way modern communication is becoming weirdly context-free? I mean, have you noticed how on the internet every thought can be regarded as simply expressing something in itself, regardless of how and where it appears? And how weird and bad that can be?

I guess one more obvious manifestation would be the cases involving internet shaming for people who were plausibly trying to share something with a few friends. You know that story about the women who had a running gag with each other doing the opposite of what signs say to do? They took a photo of themselves pretending to be loud and disrespectful in front of a sign saying to do the opposite at Arlington Cemetery (for veterans) and put it on Facebook. Then, basically, their lives were over.

There's a lot to say about that story obviously, but I think part of it has to do with context. If you imagine sharing that photo before the internet existed, it seems to me there are huge differences in various sharings. Imagine sharing it just with your friend then putting it away. Now imagine sharing it at a large party. Now imagine you use it as your yearbook photo because you think it says something important about who you are. Now imagine it on a flyer for a pacifist organization, critical of the military.

These sharings are completely different. But on the internet, there's no context. There's just the photo, sitting there, being interpreted by the viewer however they want.

It's not news that being offended on the internet has something to do with expressions taken out of context. But I think the context problem is very broad. Suppose you're trying to say something serious about an important and complicated topic. In the real world, the first think you'd do is think about your audience.

I know when I am teaching this is a huge part of what I do. In selecting readings, in framing a topic, in deciding what to emphasize, in figuring out what examples to use, and in thinking up questions for discussion -- in all of these things, I have to think first about what the context is -- about where the students are coming from, what they already know, what their experiences are likely to have been, and most importantly, what is on their minds.

For example, in my Intro to Ethics and Values class last year, we spent a week discussing sexism. I selected two contemporary readings that focused mostly on two things: 1) whether you can define sexism in terms of individual irrelevant appeals to sex distinctions, or whether a definition has to appeal to the idea of a gendered hierarchical system, and 2) the gender wage gap, rational decision-making, and preference formation. We talked about examples having to do with sexy dress requirements for female restaurant employees and about gendered child care expectations.

Everything about this is contextual -- relevant to life in a 21st-century liberal capitalist democracy. Imagine that instead, with no explanation, I had spent the whole time talking about whether it is OK that women work, earn money, and play on sports teams. Wouldn't that have been weird?  But obviously there are contexts in which that wouldn't be weird: contexts where those things are thought to be inappropriate -- not that far in the past in some parts of Western history, BTW.

Conversely, if you were going to give a talk on feminism and equal rights to a group of domestic abuse survivors, and you spent the whole time talking about that time Larry Summers implied that women aren't as good at math as men, and then got deeply into the evidence, wouldn't that be peculiar and even offensive? But for a talk on feminism and equal rights to a group of science students, it might be just the thing.

On the internet, you never know who your audience is, or what they think is important, or what they're experiences are, or what they are trying to learn. And maybe it's just the sites I tend to look at, but I feel like there's this ongoing thing of criticizing ideas because why are we talking about this thing instead of this other thing, or framing things in this particular way? Often it's legit, but other times I think it's just context: not everything has to be the Encyclopedia Britannica, trying for that impossible universal context, inevitably failing.

You can try to create context. You can make a site or a blog with a specific purpose, and put up a ton of stuff to show who you are and what audience you are trying to reach and how the background is meant to help people interpret what you are saying. But you can't really control it, because on the internet anyone can come along at any time, and just look at the thing you wrote, and be like, "WTF is that person talking about and why are they talking about it that way?"

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Life-Affirming Moment By The Side Of The Chicago River

A sailboat waits patiently.

Last week I was visiting Chicago, and I was walking around with my friend, and just as we got to crossing the Chicago River over a bridge, alarms started going off. Lights were flashing, cars had to stop, and guys in reflective outerwear started shouting and telling everyone to get off the bridge.

We soon understood that the bridge was going to open. That is, the two sides of the bridge were going to go up, so that something could pass underneath. After the obligatory selfie-takers were finally shooed away, we all stood waiting in anticipation. And waiting. And waiting. And then: nothing. The alarms stopped; the cars were allowed back on the road.

As we crossed -- a bit nervously -- we chatted with our fellow citizens, and learned the basic fact that that the bridge goes up and down to allow for sailboats to cross from one side to the other. In fact, as we learned on the internet, this bridge opens twice a week during the fall and spring, so sailboats can move between their winter resting places and their summer sailing places.

But why didn't it go up? A reflective outerwear person told us that something had malfunctioned and that they were going to try again. We decided to wait and watch. A few minutes later, the alarms started going off, lights were flashing, cars had to stop, and so on. A larger crowd buzzed around, all of us waiting in anticipation. And waiting. And waiting. And then: nothing.

My friend was tired and decided to go in, but something about the scene transfixed me. I talked to the guys, and they said they were going to try one more time. So I decided to wait.

It was a pretty awesome spot, actually. It was May, and cool and windy, but the sun was shining down. On the corner, some street musicians including a saxophonist were playing incredible music, including classics from The Jackson Five. I looked down, and saw the people in their sailboats, waiting for the bridge, and hoping it would work. Soon they tried again, the whole rigamarole with stopped traffic and get the selfie-takers off, and -- nothing.

It was so nice, standing there, I decided to stick around to see what would happen. Would they give up? Eventually I saw a repair truck down in the lower level of the bridge, and I figured they must be trying to fix something. Down below, about half a dozen sailboats were meandering around, just drifting, waiting for the bridge.

I figured I'd hang out and wait. Something about the whole scene was so pleasant and satisfying. Part of it had to do with the bridge and the problem themselves. I don't know how to else to phrase this, but it was so refreshing to be encountering such a straightforward situation. Boats are too tall to pass under bridge. Bridge usually goes up, but isn't working. Let's try to fix the bridge. It all seemed so ... real, so non-virtual, so embedded in the world of things.

I got to thinking about how many of the things I deal with -- in life, and in academia, and in philosophy -- have none of these qualities. My things are complicated, and nuanced, and mixed. When there are problems, it's often not obvious what a "solution" would be, or even if there is one. Things that are better from one point of view seem worse from another. There are a lot of perspectives to take into account.

This bridge situation had none of that. Boats are too tall to pass under bridge. Bridge usually goes up, but isn't working. Let's try to fix the bridge.

As I waited, I thought about how amazing the engineering of a bridge like that is. This bridge -- the "DuSable Bridge," as I learned -- opened in 1920, and back in the day it would open around 3,000 times a year. I thought about how amazing cities are, and how so many people had to cooperate on a massive scale to get the bridge made but also to organize the opening and closing and making sure the sailboat people were ready when the bridge was going to open.

Around me, the city was bouncing with life. A street performer dressed all in silver with a bright silver hat wandered over to where one the sailboats was lolling on the side of the river, so he could talk to the sailboat people. A woman with a baby in a stroller stood beside me and listened to the musicians and watched the water. Eventually, a gang of high school students came by, and two of them started dancing together -- like, real partner dancing, with dips and swinging around and the whole nine yards. The reflective outerwear people and everyone else whooped their appreciation.

Finally, the alarms went off. I was surprised how invested I'd become in this bridge going up. I wanted the sailboat people to be happy, but more than that I wanted to experience this miracle of this huge and heavy bridge from 1920 just lifting up into the air, like it was nothing, like we do this all the time.

Cars off, selfie-takers whisked away, a pause... and up it went! Only on the right hand side. I don't know if that was intentional or what, but it didn't matter, it was plenty of space. Sailboats used their motors to zoom on through. Boats I hadn't seen that were lingering behind a curve came into view, and they too zoomed on under the bridge.

Merriment and happiness. People clapping and hollering. Total life-affirmingness. As I sauntered away, the musicians shifted gears into Guns 'n' Roses, and much as I love GnR in their own weird way, this wasn't the moment. I picked up the pace and scampered off into the city.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Two Faces Of Branding

A couple of months ago I read Eddie Huang's book Fresh Off The Boat: A Memoir. If you haven't read it, it's about his life growing up as an Asian-American in the US and doing all kinds of different high-intensity activities like getting into fights, going to law school, and opening a restaurant. The book was the origin of the TV sitcom with the same name, though as I understand it the book and the show are quite different.

Of the many interesting and funny things in the book, one topic that really got me thinking had to do with brands. Brands are a big deal in this book. As a kid, Huang discovers that hip-hop culture, and the clothing associated with it, give him a way to challenge Asian-American stereotyping and racism.

Huang grows up in Florida, where his social experiences are constantly reminding him of the fact that he is seen as Asian and thus seen as being a certain kind of person with certain kinds of qualities -- many of them qualities he does not have or want. He talks about how in American movies Asian men never get the girl, and how Asians are stereotyped as deferential and non-assertive.

The racial stereotyping take many different forms, many of them social and peer-oriented, some of them professional. When he expresses his dream to become a sportscaster on ESPN, his father says, "They'll never let someone with a face like you on television." Huang thinks his father doesn't know what he's talking about. But later he has an interview with a newspaper, to do sports journalism, and the "big white guy" doing the hiring takes one look at him and says, "Oh, wow, that face ..." which turns out to mean that no athletes are going to talk to him with "that face" because he looks "... so young." He doesn't get the job.

Huang is a wound-up aggressive guy who likes to scrap with other guys, get into people's faces, and get into all kinds of trouble, and at one point he realizes that his being that way is a big problem for people. He says, "I was a loud-mouthed, brash, broken Asian how had no respect for authority in any form, whether it was parent, teacher, or country. Not only was I not white, to many people I wasn't Asian either." 

Early on, Huang gravitates toward hip-hop music, style and culture, and as he grows up and learns things, he comes to realize that connecting with black American culture allows him a way into a mode that is both embracing genuine identity -- not trying to be white -- and also outspoken and non-apologetic.

And wearing clothing brands associated with hip hop culture is a big part of that: it allows him to connect with people he wants to connect with and also show people he's not the stereotype they are putting on him.

That, of course, is part of what branding is all about. I mean, if you ever read the business section of the paper and you get a glimpse in to what companies are doing when they talk about "creating and and maintaining brands," that is exactly the kind of concepts they use. The  idea is to create a set of feelings and ideas around your brand so that consumers will connect with it and see the brand as representing who they are.

Somehow, when I read about branding strategy from the corporate perspective, it usually seems so dumb. I mean, the idea that some company is going to use fashion models and ad guys to link up their brand of car or vodka or shirt or whatever with some set of impressions and feelings, and the idea that you would then use those brands to express yourself -- it all seems so cynical and ridiculous, like one of those debased aspects of consumer culture that is too stupid to enter into and yet in some ways unavoidable.

But then when I read Huang's book, using brands to express yourself didn't seem stupid -- it seemed clever and interesting. Of course, part of that is because what he's using brands to do is clever and interesting, and isn't your run-of-the-mill I-have-more-money-than-you. Still, the basic concept is the same.

I guess in a way it's not surprising that you can use the tools of capitalism to sometimes do cool things. After all, sometimes the tools of capitalism are the only tools we have.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

French Islamophobia, Fashion, And Freedom

From Tommy Hilfiger's Ramadan Collection
Here at TKIN we usually avoid the low-hanging fruit. I figure, if something is just really obviously stupid and wrong, you don't really need a whole blog post about it. But we're making an exception today -- because I can't help myself from saying something about this article that appeared in the New York Times in April, describing French reactions to the introduction of modest clothing from various clothing lines.

What started it all is that big name fashion brands, like Dolce and Gabana, H&M, and DKNY put out modest clothing lines -- long skirts, long sleeved tops, a swimming outfit that covers up -- with the implicit suggestion that they were hoping to attract Muslim consumers. Tommy Hilfiger had a "Ramadan collection," and Dolce and Gabana offered abayas and hijabs. Marks and Spencer offered a "burkini."

Some people in France are very upset. The minister for women's rights said the clothing represented "social control over women's bodies" and should not exist. The co-founder of Yves Saint-Laurent said the designers were exploiting a misogynist system and should "have some principles." Philosopher and influential feminist scholar Elisabeth Badinter called for a boycott of the brands that sell "Islamic fashion."

I'm sorry but -- has everyone gone completely insane?  I mean, we are talking about modest clothing. Has it really come to this? That the mere existence of modest clothing for women is some kind of radical problem?

Just a few decades ago, women were shamed and assaulted for not wearing modest clothing that was not modest enough. And today, even though the lines are drawn differently, women are still shamed and assaulted for wearing clothing that is not modest enough. You're telling me a world in which people say "she asked for it" because a woman wore a miniskirt to a party is also a world in which long skirts and covering clothing are banned? FFS.

In the most "reader recommended" comments at the Times, there are two ideas floating around, both of which seem to me ridiculous. One is that the clothing in question is misogynistic because it reflects a cultural double-standard -- in which women have to cover and men do not. The other is that the clothing in question is misogynistic on grounds that women wear it because they're "forced" to.

The commenters at the Times like to think they're very clever, but both of these are a logic fail. The clothing itself isn't anything. Selling modest clothing just gives people the option of modest clothing -- an option anyone I would think anyone has a right to.

To deny this entails saying that the world would be a better place if women didn't have the option of long skirts and covering clothing. So, what -- now we all have to show some tits and ass to save the United Federation of Planets?

From a philosophical point of view, the whole thing recapitulates the essential problem that Francophone culture has with the idea of banning clothing as religious symbols. Because things -- and especially clothing things -- are symbols only in virtue of how they are interpreted. As articles of clothing, they are also just articles of clothing.

As a million people have said before me, how can you say something is wrong when some people do it but "fashion" when Jackie O. does it?

More abstractly, I think there's a tendency to think about cases like this in terms that pit one absolute against another. Like: either you're for radical freedom of the individual in all cases because that's Truth, Justice, and the American Way, OR, you think society and social reality impact on people in complicated ways so that "individual freedom" is just a code for "we'll leave you alone to sort out your own damn problems."

But these things are highly contextual. At this point in my life, I believe that clothing, like food, has entered the category of appropriate radical individualism. That is: let people wear what they want, for the reasons they have, and don't have a lot of opinions and judgments about other people. Let people eat what they want, for the reasons they have, and don't have a lot of opinions or judgments about other people.

For me, it's not that these things follow from some abstract universal truth about things always go best when you leave people alone to do what they want and never judge. I don't think that's true. Instead, it has to do with the contextual space that food and clothing now occupy. They're both intensely personal, uncomfortably politicized, domains where someone always thinks they know better than someone else. As, indeed, all of these French fashion people seem to think they know what's best for a whole bunch of other people.

But above all, modest and covering clothing for women should always be an option. How is that not obvious? And I say all of this as someone who loves to wear sexy, revealing, and flashy outfits. Because in addition to all the reasons already mentioned, there's this: how can I freely choose to wear the clothing I love, when there's no option to choose otherwise? Without any other options, I'd be essentially forced into it! Talk about "social control over women's bodies."

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Portrait Of An Artist As A Woman: Saint Phalle, Subversiveness, and Sex

Lifesaver fountain by Niki de Saint Phalle in Duisburg, Germany. Photo by JuergeunG, reproduced here under Creative Commons License.

I don't know if you happened to read Ariel Levy's recent New Yorker profile of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, who built gigantic sculptures in the hills of Tuscany in the 1970s.

Personally, I read the piece with mixed feelings. On the one hand, the gigantic sculptures really speak to me. They look so cool, looming out of the countryside. Plus, during the twenty years she worked on them, she lived in the sphinx sculpture, with her bedroom inside one breast and her kitchen inside the other. How cool is that?

On the other hand, as I read more about the artist herself, I felt ... annoyed. Saint Phalle lived a life full of self-created drama. She had a lot of "personal charisma," which helped to get people to pay attention to her art. She did a lot of pieces involving shooting a gun at stuff. About those pieces, she said, "I mean, it isn’t as beautiful as war, it isn’t as beautiful as seeing someone killed or the atom bomb, but it’s the most that I can do!" She had children, whom she then completely ignored.

But even these things, which are annoying to me, are complex and multifaceted. The shooting paintings, which she started in the early 60s, began as an attack on domesticity and the suffocating lives women were expected to live. Properly irritated that the way male artists could go around doing whatever they want while women were expected to cook dinner, she decided she would, herself, just start doing whatever she wanted. Part of that, obviously, was prioritizing her art over her children -- as so many men have done before her.

Levy puts it this way: "If American radical feminism of the time was about rewriting the rules of society, Saint Phalle had a different notion: she felt that the rules simply did not apply to her." I can really resonate with this. Because while it's important to change the rules, it's also important to have people just going off and doing something completely different. That's what art -- and artists -- are all about.

So the fact that she made a point of living, and doing art, in ways that challenge gender norms -- well, that's cool and kind of heroic.

And yet. The art historian Catherine Dossi is quoted here as saying that the more successful Saint Phalle got, the more her "challenge" to the establishment shifted away from "blowing up" domesticity, and more toward being a "femme fatale. "Always an extraordinary beauty, she starting doing more than making paintings -- she started putting on tight white jumpsuits and inviting people to watch her look amazing making them.

Frankly, on one level this is just depressing. Because making yourself hot and then inviting people to watch you do what you're doing? Not so much in the "challenging gender norms" category. Watching a sexy and beautiful woman do something is stereotypical.

And to me, even the mere fact of her beauty itself is frustrating. Do you realize how often when you read a story like this about a woman that it turns out her beauty and sex appeal is an important part of the story? Um -- always? Do you know how reading these stories over and over makes young girls classify themselves from the get-go -- the beauties, who can do the things they want, and the non-beauties, who have to play nice, find their way through, make people like them in other ways?

So I admit that when I learned about the white jumpsuits, my first reaction was disappointment and frustration. Really?

And yet -- however. The truth is that the link between beauty and subversiveness for women is real -- and even if it's a link they don't want it, it is put on them by the rest of the world. Saint Phalle says it herself:

"Here I was, an attractive girl (if I had been ugly, they would have said I had a complex and not paid any attention), screaming against men in my interviews and shooting."

She's right. And it's the same thing Courtney Love said -- correctly -- about getting cosmetic surgery (including a nose job) in her youth:

"I have to be pretty if I’m going to get over. And I have to get over if I’m gonna fuck [the system] up. And I’m gonna fuck it up."

And really, on top of everything, there's just the girls who want to have fun aspect. As women who have sex with men and men who have sex with men and everyone who has sex with men knows: if you want to have sex with men, and you want them to find you attractive, it's usually going to matter whether you look the part.

In this interview, Courtney Love lays it out with characteristic bluntness:

"When you’re fat like I was ... you do not get to fuck the boys you want to fuck. Right? Right? ... I swear to God, Lisa. I was a fat girl my whole life. No one would fuck, and when they did they’d do things like fart in front of me ... The minute I got skinny and got a nose job and became photogenic, and all of a sudden I had a bidding war, and every boy I ever wanted, wanted me."

Thinking about the matter this way, if you think it's important for women to get to enjoy life's pleasures, and if it's true that in our world a lot of those pleasures are more easily accessed the cuter you get -- well, I can't blame anyone for wanting to be as cute as possible.

So I guess all in all, if Saint Phalle wanted to wear white jumpsuits, and sleep around, and pal around with Jean Tinguely, and make giant Nanas -- big, bright female dancers with small heads and huge hips and breasts -- well, more power to her.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Extreme Commodification

When philosophers talk about the extensions of markets into new domains like surrogacy and sex work, one of the concepts they use is "commodification." The idea is that by subjecting things like reproduction and sexuality to market norms, we are "commodifying" them: valuing them in the wrong sort of way.

I don't know if that's the right way to think about these issues, but this post isn't about that. This post is about commodities themselves, and about whether it's possible to commodify them. More broadly: can you apply market norms inappropriately even to things to that are normally subject to market forces?

I think the answer is yes. In fact, the last time I was reading about commodification as a concept, I got to thinking that in some ways it's because of the way we've gotten so extreme about commodification itself that to "commodify" something feels like such an utter disaster. 

When we talk about "market norms" in the context of commodification, it's something like the following: you think about how to get the best thing for yourself at the least cost to yourself; you think about what exact qualities you want instead of taking an open-ended and unconditional approach; you think "instrumentally" in terms of using the commodity just for purposes of your own.

But with respect to these norms, there's commodifying and there's commodifying. Because it depends on how far you take it -- that is, it depends on whether you also value in other ways or whether you see commodities purely in the conditional and instrumental way. Increasingly, with commodities, I think we're taking it all the way -- and everything else goes out the window.

Take labor as an example. Sure, from one point of view, any capitalist system will inappropriately "commodify" labor -- but setting that to one side, you can see the different ways that the labor-wage situations appeal to market norms.

Paying someone to do something doesn't require you to take up a purely commodified view of them. You could pay them to do something, but also regard them as a fellow citizen with needs and interests of their own. You could think about an appropriate wage in terms of fairness and not just cost-benefit-analysis. You could think of making exchanges of mutual benefit.

But it feels like our rhetoric and practice around labor has gotten so far away from this, to a place where labor isn't just commodified, it's completely and utterly commodified. For example, the increasingly common "just-in-time" scheduling in service jobs means you never know from week to week when you're working, or how many hours. You can't arrange child care, you can't go to school, and you can't keep a second job. It destroys your life.

And it's not just poor people. This article reports on doctors who were trying to negotiate for quality of  life issues, to avoid burn-out, and couldn't even communicate with their managers, who thought that the only question on the table was "How much are you asking for?" The doctors could not even communicate that there was something else at stake other than dollar amounts.

Similarly, employers don't want to hire normal people with general good attributes then train them -- they want workers who already have the exact specific skills they are looking for. As this Washington Post piece says, this means no one can get the relevant experience: it's not a "skills gap" as much as a refusal to do any of the giving in the give-and take.

Maybe it's not all that surprising that labor is increasingly commodified, but I think there's actually something weirdly similar happening at the level of literal commodities -- the objects we buy as part of the consumer culture saturation society we're all part of.

Because of the way everything has become temporary and disposable, it's no longer necessary to relate to an object by getting attached to it, caring for it, or taking the bad with the good. The commodification of commodities means that any object is just seen for its potential to suit just the specific ends we have -- until it doesn't. I remember last time I went to get eyeglasses, and there was something about the frames that didn't seem perfect, and my friend said, "Don't worry about it. Just get these, and then next year you can get some new ones." And that's what I did.

It's really very speculative, but I got to wondering: is it possible that the fear of "commodification" in debates over surrogacy and sex work has something to do with the specific way that commodification has become such a crazy all or nothing thing in our society?

Because if a "commodity" is a thing or person you'll squeeze everything out of and then throw away at the first sign of dissatisfaction --- well, yeah, for heaven's sake, don't commodify.

But doesn't it seem possible that it doesn't have to be that way? That you could have a market that co-exists with normal human emotions like care and respect? That you could pay someone to do something and also, at the same time, care about them as a person? 

I don't know when it happened -- and I don't think blaming individuals makes any sense -- but somehow we seem to have systematically made this less extreme state of affairs an impossibility for ourselves.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Do I Like Trouble?

Charlottesville, downtown.
I was recently visiting a Nice Place in America -- in this case Charlottesville, VA. Charlottesville is nice. It's pretty, and quiet, and prosperous, and the day I visited the sun was shining brightly.

To be honest the niceness of Charlottesville gave me kind of a funny feeling, a feeling I've had in other nice places. Kind of a disturbed feeling, a feeling that the niceness of the place was somehow a problem. What is that?

For me, part of that feeling might have to do with the quietness. I know myself well enough to know that the activity and life of a big city are life-giving to me: riding crowded subway trains, stumbling on surprise protests, checking out the fashion trends of other humans, seeing groups of people celebrating holidays I didn't even know existed -- these all give me The Life Force. By comparison, a place like Charlottesville seems a little like quiet prosperous streets with a few quiet prosperous cars and a few quiet prosperous people in them.

But I think the feeling goes beyond busy versus quiet, and this is where things get confusing. There's something about the niceness itself -- about the lack of trouble -- that gives me pause. What's the deal with all these shiny happy people? What's with everything being clean and tidy? What's with all this gentle sunshine?

What does it mean about me that I'm even asking these questions? Do I like trouble? If I do, is that some kind of problem? I mean, what kind of person likes unhappiness, ramshackleness, dirt, and inclement weather?

There is, I think, one sense in which it's not really "liking trouble" but rather knowing trouble is out there and thinking it's being sneakily hidden. If you spend time thinking about the awful situation of most people in the world and most people the US, the niceness of a place can feel like a lie: like you're just seeing some veneer of niceness over some reality of decay. Of course anyone is going to feel creepy and weird about that.

But honestly compels me to say that I think for me there is somewhat more to it, to say that that yes, there is a sense in which I just like trouble. Because when I picture an entire world of clean and peaceful streets, and freshly washed storefronts, and prosperous people with on their way to yoga class followed by organic salad -- well, the picture makes me a little tense. Maybe it's just the non-urban quality of that mental picture that gets me. But maybe it's not: when I picture a gleaming city with teleporters and no smoking and 70-degree weather and endless pleasant recreation -- that also makes me feel weird.

I think that for me, part of the weirdness of those mental pictures has to do with the frictionlessness quality they evoke -- because I think there is some sense in which the struggles and frictions of life are good for me. The struggles and frictions of life -- you have to gear up for them, confront them, make your way through them. They press up against you. And while I'm doing those things, I have a moment of respite from the existential drama -- or existential annoyingness -- of being human, living in my own skin, and thinking "hm, what is the point of all this anyway?"

If, like me, you have the problem of tending toward too much inner reflection, and if that inner reflection can be dangerous to your well-being -- then yes, maybe you're going to like a little trouble.

I have occasionally wondered if a liking for trouble is a moral problem. If you're saying the world would be better with trouble in it than without -- wouldn't that be a bad and wrong thing to say?

But I'm not too concerned about it. For one thing, a liking of of a bit of trouble probably helps me do some good things, like take the bus. But more importantly, it's not like we're in danger of creating a world with too little trouble. Actually it's the opposite: the real problem is that we're making a world in which rich people can push trouble away and out of sight, where they don't have to deal with it. In that context? A liking for trouble is probably an OK thing.