Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Consent Is A Really Low Bar For Most Human Interaction

I was talking with someone yesterday about consent. I often think about consent in connection with sexual consent, because I teach and research in that area, but then our conversation moved on to other kinds of consent -- consent to have certain kinds of verbal interactions or other exchanges or engaging in other activities together.

And one of the things I started thinking about was about how consent is a really low bar for most human interaction. What I mean by that is: when you're interacting with people, there's a wide range of things you might concern yourself with that go way beyond whether they're consenting to something. These include things like how your words and actions make them feel in the moment, or how your words and actions are going to make them feel later, or how your words and actions are going to seem in retrospect. You might consider whether the person is is in a moment of difficulty, or doubt, or peer pressure. You might consider whether the nature of the relationship between you, or the specific tone or context, makes it difficult to disagree with or go against you.

Often with sexual consent the same things apply. We talk a lot about consent (and properly so) in the sexual domain, partly engaging in sexual activity with someone without their consent is a particularly egregious harm, so this is a morally bright line. But here, too, consent is often a low bar. If you're in a relationship with someone, and you want to discuss your sex life, and they just keep coming back to how you "consented" to every activity, that person would be acting like an asshole: shutting down the conversation that ought to be happening, about pleasure, and desire, and the texture of life and so on.

And the same thing applies more broadly. If you're asking someone personal questions, or requesting help with your school assignment or something at work, or you're trying to figure out a good way to share share domestic tasks or childcare with you, a respectful and kind person pays attention not only to agreements but also to how the other person seems to feel and the background context and so on.

Sometimes I feel like the whole consent framework is becoming so deeply woven into our way of thinking that it's hard to even see it as a thing -- it just feels like the "way things are." In so many domains we refer back to the idea that if someone agreed to something, then they have to take their lumps: if you said OK, then don't come crying to me. But this is an awful way to interact with the people you care about, and by extension, it's often a crappy way to interact with people in general.

Years ago I wrote a post about how the idea of pursuing self-interest through contract and negotiation had somehow expanded beyond the domains of business or market exchanges and into the fabric of our personal lives. In addition to the points above, I tried to say how constant negotiation was exhausting us: there's no port in the storm, no part of our lives where we can stop trying to create the self-image and situation that will allow us to get the things, like love and caring, that we need to survive.

In that older post I mentioned an idea I'd remembered reading from Simone de Beauvoir: that one reason Western patriarchical gender norms constructed "woman" as naturally nurturing and passive was just in response to this kind of problem: if you take one whole gender as naturally providing the love and care and attention -- not because of negotiation and who is consenting to what, but because that's part of who they are -- well, then the necessity of negotiation and looking out for yourself in "public life" is ameliorated. Some woman -- maybe your mother, maybe your wife -- will be there to offer care and concern. Not necessarily in public life, but domestically, at home, in personal interaction,

Currently, our ideas of "public life" and whatever is the alternative to that are mixed up together, and we're often operating in some weird hybrid domain where we're forming a friendship but also forming a career contact, or we're flirting but we're also hoping for a useful introduction, or we're hanging out but we're also hoping to impress. It's complicated and exhausting. We now know that gender equality means we're all in the problem in the same way together.

The moral, I think, is that taking other people's point of view into account is something we should see as part of normal, respectful, human interaction. Sure, consent is important. But most of what we want to do with one another is not like getting a bank loan, where you sign on the dotted line and you're good to go.  Even if it is helpful as one morally bright line, consent is not the only thing, and in fact it's often pretty minimal for a way of thinking about how you treat the people around you.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Thing On The Other Side Of "Political Correctness" Is (Often) Not "Free Speech"

Often when people argue over political correctness, you hear the opposing point of view framed in terms of "free speech": proponents of political correctness, it is suggested, want to restrict speech, and opponents want not to restrict it.

But for a long time I've felt like something about this doesn't fit. The term "political correctness" is typically used to refer to a specific content -- speech that respects certain norms surrounding certain issues. Those norms are themselves contested, of course -- but still, if a neo-nazi party put a ban on anti-racist speech at their convention, no one would use the term "political correctness" to describe that. The term "political correctness" is about a certain set of ideas.

By contrast, "free speech" is a general principle -- a principle about speech that does not refer to specific content surrounding certain issues. In the classic formulation, speech should be in some sense protected as long as it's not harming other people. Again, these boundaries are themselves contested -- does "protection" mean just legal protection or does it mean you shouldn't lose your job? what is "harm"? But again, even those questions are general ones, potentially applicable in the same way to any content.

This suggests that there is something wrong with treating the two as if they're directly opposed. I think that this is true, and I think it's possible to see it by thinking about how often the concept of "political correctness" is used in contexts where it doesn't refer to formal policies or punishments but just with what ideas of appropriateness will inform which contexts. This contextuality means that the real question often isn't about "free speech" but rather about the specific content in specific contexts.

As is often pointed out, in a lot of cases where people talk about "free speech," there is no policy or punishment in question, it's just a matter of getting criticized a lot -- and criticism is an exercise of free speech not a way of limiting it. But it's also important to notice that in a lot of cases, the question turns not on general considerations but rather on "appropriateness" in context.

There's a lot of agreement, I think, that for many contexts, there ought to be standards of appropriateness. And this means that when we argue about "free speech" versus "political correctness," the real disagreement often isn't over abstractions like "free speech," but rather over the specific content in the specific context.

For example, if there are guidelines about appropriate speech and conduct in a classroom, that is something context-specific, and there is wide agreement that some such standards make sense. I can't find it now, but in the aftermath of one of the big US campus controversies, someone wrote a humor piece in which a student claimed a "free speech" restriction because they weren't allowed to spend the entire class shouting over and over that fellow-student "Bob" was a moron. Of course, it's funny because that's not a restriction on free speech because the guideline in question -- you can't disrupt class to personally malign other students -- is a context-specific and reasonable one.

Other contexts allow people to create guidelines. If you have people over and one of them says something horrible and offensive, you can ask them to leave: it's your house; you can set the guidelines. If a visitor calls your spouse an ugly, lying, piece of shit, you're not violating their free speech when you ask them to leave.

The real question, I think, often isn't "free speech" but rather what's appropriate in what context and why. In a classroom, it's reasonable to have guidelines that foster a learning atmosphere. If some forms of speech destroy that atmosphere, it's reasonable to restrict them. In a home, the people who live there get to set the guidelines.

What critics of "political correctness" often have in mind, I think, really has to do with what they feel is regarded as appropriate in certain contexts: they think this "appropriateness" criterion is often set too broadly, or includes the wrong things.

I often disagree completely with these critics about specific items (like, of course I think names like "Redskins" are racist and offensive) but I think at the abstract level the question of what is and isn't appropriate in context can be fraught, unclear, contested, something without an obvious right answer. In these cases, though, we're not arguing about "free speech" at all -- we're arguing about the actual content of the actual example and the actual context in question.

For example, in the case of the Yale Halloween controversy, the initial email asked students to think carefully about their choices, and to consider the negative impact that culturally insensitive costumes could have. It's been framed as an issue about "free speech." But not only was there no policy or punishment suggested, the question of costumes in a community of students is one that is obviously bound by *some* standards and guidelines. If a student had a physical disability or an unusual appearance and a hundred other students got organized to mock them via costume on Halloween, this would be inappropriate and wrong. The question has to do not with freedom of expression but rather with how the standards and guidelines should be interpreted and set.

If this is right, then contested speech really turns on discussion of the ins and outs of the particular content in question. This, I believe, can be simple, or it can be very complicated. In the case of the costumes, I think the initial email proposed a guideline that was completely reasonable: your costume could hurt and alienate someone else, and on the other side ... what? Some important truth is going unseen?

But in other cases, it might be less clear. In what contexts is it appropriate or inappropriate to say that women belong at home taking care of domestic matters? I think if you're debating a policy or intellectual issue with someone who happens to be a woman, it's completely inappropriate. But what if you're debating the nature and limits of multiculturalism? Or what if you're trying to challenge the Western feminist orthodoxy that choice and autonomy always make for the good life? What if this is part of your brand of communitarian radical feminism?

When matters are contested, I think we're often really debating the particular speech in question, and how it fits into the particular context. If this is right, there can be reasonable disagreements, even among the most well-meaning people -- and even among people ultra committed to "free speech"! -- over what speech should be regarded in what way and when and so on. If this is right, it also means that speech that gets criticized for being politically incorrect needs more than "free speech' as a defense: it needs a specific reason why the speech is appropriate or potentially important to protect in the given context.

I think one reason these matters have come to seem so confusing and flattened out these days is that so much speech is happening on "the internet," which is something tech people want to pretend is like a street corner soap box -- no particular context, free speech! -- but which functions in people's lives as as series of very specific mini-contexts where many things are not OK. As I've said before, it drives me crazy to see the tech companies treat as simple and algorithmic problems that are ultra complicated and require thought and judgment.  

Again, I don't mean to imply here that all free speech debates are of the category I'm discussing in this post. If you're talking about a law restricting speech, that is a free speech issue, and there are a lot of grey areas, such as policies that create punishments for forms of speech.

It's just to say that in a lot of cases, the issue has more to do with the content of the speech than any principle of "free speech." As a corollary, it would follow that, contra what we keep reading on the internet, being in favor of "free speech" and also in favor of "political correctness" is a coherent and consistent position.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Thank You For Your Patience

Loyal readers, I was too busy and over-committed this week and I thought I'd have time to write something but then I didn't. Just wanted to post this note so no one would worry. Thank you for reading, as always, I appreciate it! See you back here next Tuesday.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Is Giving Away More Money Easy Or Hard?

Sometimes in discussions about poverty, taxation, charity and inequality, I encounter a very specific debate over whether choosing to give money away is more difficult in some way than paying a required tax. If yes, the suggestion goes, that'd be an argument for a system involving taxes to move money around. If not, things are less clear. 

Some people seem to suggest that it's no more difficult to give your money away than to have it taxed. I remember that this thought comes up in Cohen's book If You're an Egalitarian Why Are You So Rich?  It's not really harder to give money away voluntarily, the thinking goes. If you're the kind of person who has trouble being motivated or who tends to get distracted and spend your money on other things, you can just automate the process. You know, monthly auto-pay or something. By pre-committing to donation, you can lock yourself in.

Let me say first that while I appreciate the debate over voluntary action and alternatives, it seems to me first that this is the wrong framework to apply to questions of poverty, charity, and taxation. As I've said before, the real problem is the theory of ownership that implies -- falsely IMO -- that what we end up with after some exchange is uncomplicatedly "ours" -- as if our interaction were happening outside of history and outside of a social structure with vast historical and contemporary injustices already built in. From my point of view, moving money around isn't a matter of charity but rather a matter of justice. So it's a different kind of thing altogether.

The other reason this framework seems to me wrong for this problem is that there are vastly different effects from individual voluntary giving than from general taxation. If everyone at my income level is taxed in the same way, all those people have less money, and this will affect prices and which goods are available and whether or not I can afford various things. With individual giving, you're just individually making yourself financially worse off than other people with none of the ameliorating effects.

But let's leave all those problems aside for the moment and just consider this question about difficulty. Is it difficult to give away more? For me, I would say that the answer is yes. The pleasures that money can buy speak to me just as they speak to anyone else, and it's not news that in our version of capitalism the forces encouraging you to buy things are relentless. When I have discretionary income, I want to spend it. More treats for me! More gifts for my people!

It's interesting to me that the question of automation comes up in this domain. I see the point: if you automate the process of giving, then the giving happens automatically and there's a sense in which you don't have to "make a decision" about it over and over. It just happens. You're locked in.

But you know what? For me, there's locked-in, and then there's locked-in. Voluntary automated systems that take money away from me are just not the same as involuntary systems like taxation. They're not the same because I can simply change my mind any time. And knowing I can change my mind any time, continuing to give requires the same mental energy and the same motivation and the same -- let's be honest, struggle -- that non-automated giving entails.

I don't know what it's like for everyone else, but I'd say there are some reasons to think my feelings are not uncommon. We're constantly reading that people are not saving enough for retirement, or saving enough for emergencies, or allowing their credit card debt to pile up. If automating a payment system solved the problems of motivation and commitment, then dealing with these problems would be a no-brainer for most people. But obviously that is not the case.

So, while I don't buy the framework of comparing voluntary giving to taxation in addressing poverty and inequality, I will say this: within that framework, my answer to the question of whether giving away more money is easy or hard is clear: it's hard, not easy.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Accidental Philosopher Photographs Some Things Part 3

It's the first day of school -- which if you work anywhere near the education field you know induces in most of us the same kind of anxiety and freakout that we all felt when we were back in kindergarden. What if I miss the bus? What if the other kids make fun of my lunchbox? Then when you're the teacher you have to add on top of that mundane things like getting your syllabus finished and your course list downloaded and yada yada yada.

With all that going on I didn't have time for a full essay. But here are some recent images that interested me:


I never understood --and I still don't understand -- how people are excited about 3D printing. What things exactly are there that you feel you want or need that have no special parts, that you feel could make more easily at home? I can't even think of things in that category. The only exciting thing I know about 3D printing is how kids are using it to create their own superhero cyborg prosthetics. Now that is cool. Anyway, here's the answer, in a San Francisco shop window. 3D printed replicas of .. yourself! Um .. thanks but ... I think I'm good.


I saw this lage ... mirrored lion? .. for sale in at at Home Goods (like Marshalls or Winners but home stuff) in the goodhearted but downmarket town of Vernon CT. WTF? I like to imagine it in someone's home. With the right context it'd be awesome.


It probably just goes to show I don't get out enough, but this sign at Indigo Books made me laugh. They're selling.. large letters you can put on things. The whole idea of the letters being "exclusive" and "available in black and white" with the warning of "select letters only" -- I just thought that was amusing. What if you're looking for one of the other letters? You're SOL? How hard would it have been to include all 26 letters?


OK this isn't a photograph but it's an image capture of something I find so astonishing I had to capture and save it. What this shows is that if you want to get from Hamilton, ON, to Buffalo, NY -- which is about an hour's drive -- on transit, that trip will take you almost five hours. Four hours and fifty-five minutes, to be precise. It didn't used to be this way. I take the bus, so I know. You used to be able to catch a very reasonable CoachCanada bus. But that's not there any more. What happened? Why isn't the end of a bus route major news in all the papers? What's wrong with the world, anyway?