Tuesday, December 26, 2017

My Brush With The Implict Threat Model Of Guy-Guy Interactions

One day I was walking along in Buffalo, New York and I had an interestingly gendered interaction with some strangers.

It was winter, and everyone was really bundled up: I was wearing jeans, and boots, an old coat an old boyfriend had kindly given me because I liked it so much, a hat, a scarf, and, I think, sunglasses. I was walking on a major street, but since the sidewalks were imperfectly shoveled, and it was icy and snowy, there was a bit of a narrowness to the path ahead.

I saw two guys coming toward me, walking along the sidewalk together. I didn't think anything of it. As we got close to each other, and I started to step slightly aside to let them pass, the guys crashed into me -- deliberately. Not quite hard enough to knock me over, but almost. I looked up at them, like WTF? And then I heard one of the guys say to the other, "Hey, it's a girl! Stop, stop, it's a girl!"

I understood immediately what had happened. Thinking I was a guy, they had a guy-guy interaction with me. I don't know if they were trying to start something, or if something about my clothing -- girlish, if you thought I was a guy -- struck them as a problem, or whether they were just crabby and wanted to take it out on someone. On realizing I was a woman, their whole way of relating to me changed. I was no longer a stranger with whom being physically combative would seem like the thing to do.

I am not sure whether the guys were white guys, or black guys, or guys of some other race. Maybe I didn't notice at the time or maybe I forgot. I am white; I wonder, if I actually were a guy, whether the racial aspect of the situation would have struck me as more salient, as an insight into the kind of aggression being put out there. I don't know.

Anyway, I was disturbed enough to want to put some distance between us, so I just turned away and went on my way. And they went on theirs, past me in the opposite direction.

It was just a few seconds, but I have thought about this interaction so many times since then. I have always known, intellectually, that the way guys relate to one another often has an implicit-threat aspect to it -- whether that's a physical threat or one involving subtler forms of social power. But experiencing it first-hand made me appreciate this fact in a deeper and more visceral way.

The fact that guy-guy interactions often have this implicit-threat aspect to them seems to me relevant not only to understanding masculinity and guy-guy relations, but also to understanding feminism and any-gender relations. One reason is that there's a certain kind of guy who always takes feminism to be asking for "special" or "favorable" treatment for women. To which feminists have -- correctly -- pointed out that feminism isn't about special or favorable treatment, but rather about equality, respect, and dismantling sexist gender norms. But there's no question that feminism does not seek to replace other-gender relations with the "implicit threat" model of guy-guy interactions. It's not: "please treat me the way you would treat some guy." So, in some sense, the matter is a bit complex.

I was talking this over with my friend, and he pointed out that while guy-guy interactions do often carry an aspect of aggression, he also thought that the kind of aggression guys often show toward women has a distinct aspect, so that misogyny involves a special kind of motivated anger and ill-will. I think that's true, and so it would be too simple to conclude that if men treated other men with more respect they might, in the name of equality, treat women with more respect.

But it does suggest that, in some sense, a call to "equality" is insufficient for bringing about the gender-happy utopia. Because nobody wants the implicit threat model of guy-guy interactions to become the more widespread model of person-person interactions.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Things I Am Disproportionately Angry About

There's so much in the world to be proportionally angry about because they are, in fact, awful. But what about the things we're disproportionately angry about? Here are a few of mine.

1. Anna Wintour's sunglasses.

Everyone knows how hard it is to be a woman of a certain age in the public eye. As women get older, women are considered less physically attractive, and since women's cash-value is so often correlated with their appearance, this isn't so much of dating/hotness problem as an everything problem. How can a woman in the public eye craft an image that will garner professional respect as she ages?

It's not crazy to think that Anna Wintour might have helped us with this question. The longtime editor of Vogue is known as a ruthless boss (did you see The Devil Wears Prada?), an astute editor and businessperson, and also a style icon. I don't follow style, but I occasionally found myself hopeful we'd get some insight. How will Anna Wintour look at, say 65?

It is personally infuriating to me that the answer to this question is: sorry, ordinary mortals can never see Anna Wintour's eyes again. Ms. Wintour wears her sunglasses everywhere, indoors and out. We're not talking about those lightly tinted glasses that actresses like Diane Keaton wears. We're talking full-on, impenetrable eyewear:

Becoming "Dame" Wintour

At the Tony Awards

Not only does this look ridiculous, the messages is obvious: the skin around the eyes of women over 65 are is so ugly and awful, it should never, ever be seen.

2. Pointless messages on buses.

If you don't ride transit, you might not appreciate why a person like me would get enraged by messages saying things like "Have a Nice Day" or "Happy Holidays." But the reason is simple. The messages space on the front of buses is there for a reason: to tell potential riders which route it is and where the line ends. We need this info, and we often need it in a timely way. When the buses -- as they often do -- choose to alternate the route into with the pointless message, we stand there on the side of the road like idiots, waiting for the "Have a Nice Day" to disappear so something informative like "Route 94: Ossington Station" can appear.

Maybe if you drive everywhere you don't appreciate the problem. The messages alternate every few seconds. Maybe you're thinking: What's the big deal? You seriously can't wait a few seconds? To which my response is: you go stand on the corner of some street in a blizzard, trying to decide whether to run and catch bus X or walk three blocks over to catch bus Y, and look up to see "Have a Nice Day." I guarantee you will find yourself thinking some version of "What kind of pointless insanity is this?"

Plus, you have to ask yourself: Why? Why are these messages even happening? The only answer I've ever been able to come up with is someone thought "Oh, the messages can alternate. Let's put "Have a Nice Day." What kind of deranged mind thinks this is a good idea?

3. Why can't I get my coffee for here?

As regular readers know, I often carry my own coffee mug or espresso cup to avoid using disposable paper coffee cups so I can feel .00000001 percent less responsible for ruining the planet than I already do. Generally, I regard lugging this mug around as a tax on my time and energy: why can't we be like normal countries, where any place you get coffee is a place you can get it in a normal coffee cup that gets washed on site and reused for other customers? But since we're not, and since I hang out a places like libraries where paper is the only option -- OK, I carry my own mug.

Some days, though, I am not going to the library. Some days, I am out and about and I go to a normal coffee shop. Somehow "normal coffee shop" these days has come to mean paper-by-default and ceramic if you ask really nicely. So I ask really nicely.

Unless I make a federal case out of it, though, I often get served in paper instead. I find I have to order "for here," and then say something like "Could I get it in a ceramic cup"? and then sometimes I have to watch the person and gently say again, "Oh, sorry, could I get it in a ceramic cup"?

WTF? Why? Why is this so hard?

A nearby question is: why don't other people want their coffee in ceramic cups? Everyone I see, even if they're having coffee "for here," even if they have a "Save the planet" tote bag, even if they look indignant when they can't recycle their plastic beverage container, has their coffee in paper. I know this is a topic for another day, but what is up with that? Do people like the paper experience? Do they not trust the cafe dishwasher? Inquiring minds want to know.

Anyway, I know these are not real problems. Whatever. Have a Nice Day!

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The Alternative, Lazier Person's Guide To Longer Lasting Clothes

When I clicked on this article "Beyond Black Friday: 12 ways to care for your clothes," I actually thought I might learn something interesting. I really do "care for my clothes" in the sense of "not putting nice things in the dryer" and sewing on an occasional button. I thought I might find something useful.

Alas, like so many things these days, it's less about practical easy steps and more about "what would your life be like if, instead of having that extra glass of wine, you were learning to iron, darn, and sew?" For example, the article has sentences like "Tom of Holland runs the Visible Mending Programme to highlight the disappearing art of clothing repair."

So here are my alternative tips, for lazier people.

1. Wear lingerie

Or more specifically: wear slips. By "slip," I mean a soft garment meant to be worn under a dress. A slip has nothing to do with shapeware or spandex or anything like that. It is meant to hang sort of loosely around your body. A slip is a genius bit of clothing technology: it protects your dress from getting dirty from your body; unlike a dress, it is easy to wash; it is super comfortable. On top of everything else, when you take off your dress, you look awesome and cute in your slip.

If you wear a slip, you wash your dress like one-sixth as often -- so it will last six times as long.

The fact that the relevant part of most departments stores is 95 percent shapewear and 5 percent slips always astonishes and depresses me. Most modern shapewear is uncomfortable and ugly. People! Why not wear a slip?

2. Visit a tailor

All this blather about learning to sew is missing the point. Whatever is missing/broken/torn on your clothing, you can bring it somewhere to get fixed. In my neighborhood, the people at the drycleaner also know how to fix things. They even fixed my backpack.

Yes, bringing your clothes to get fixed costs money, and is more expensive than fixing them yourself. But this is where straightforward accounting gets you into trouble. Because the comparison you should be making is between paying to get your clothing fixed and paying to get a new piece of clothing. And the answer is obvious: pay to get your clothing fixed.

This same accounting problem comes up a lot in my life because I don't have a car and sometimes I take a taxi. And people are like, "A taxi! So expensive!" But no: compared to cost of a car, it's almost nothing, even when you add it to the cost of a bus pass. The fallacy is thinking of the thing in terms of what it seems like it should cost relative to cheaper ways of getting the same thing. Stop. That is not the comparison class. The comparison class is the other options you'll actually use.

3. Don't be afraid to look a little weird.

There is no doubt that if you want to buy less and throw away less, there's a huge margin in not minding looking weird. Keeping up with "trends" makes you fashionable, but means you're buying new clothes constantly.  

I have jeans I bought ... oh, probably over twenty years ago. They sit low on the hips, and they flare at the bottom. It's the opposite of the "skinny jean" look so trendy today. Though my jeans are out of fashion, as long as I pair them with my shiny ankle boots and/or some cool sunglasses and/or an innovative hair style, the overall look can be good. It's true that the line between "individual sense of style" and "looks weird" can be thin. But who cares?

Fast fashion is destroying the planet with the production of cheap clothes you can wear a few times then throw away. The answer doesn't have to involve reevaluating all your life choices. Just hang your stuff up, fix it when it's broken -- and wear it a lot. Voilà!

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Why Hoax Theorists And Online Harassment Are A Difficult And Not Easy Problem

I don't know if you saw this recent Guardian article about how conspiracy theorists are hounding the victims of shootings and making their lives unlivable. People who survived the Vegas shooting, parents whose kids were shot in the Sandy Hook shooting, a guy whose daughter was shot live on TV -- for some reason a sizable number of people take it on themselves to harass, threaten, demean and degrade these victims. They create video commentary with inane remarks about whether the person had a weird expression on their face; they make post endless speculation about alternative theories; and they target victims on social media with comments like "you fake asshole, I hope you die soon, you deserve to get shot for real."

This turns out to be a difficult problem to solve. Social media companies like Google, who owns YouTube, are trying to maximize engagement with the site, while the law regards content providers as not legally responsible for the content shared on their websites. Tech companies are trying to craft ethical guidelines, but the work is massive and difficult to scale.

For example, a person can flag a video and recommend it be taken down, but this is described as being "like trying to kill roaches with a fly swatter." The guy whose daughter was shot on live TV decided to try to flag the annotated videos of his daughter being shot -- but he just couldn't do it. Even looking at thumbnail after thumbnail of the video was too much for him.

Not unreasonably, he and other victims would like Google to do something about it. Instead of waiting for victims to flag the videos, couldn't they be proactive? Couldn't they, perhaps, hire people to search for a delete these harassing videos?

The answer is no. As an MIT computer scientist put it: "would they need to hire someone else to handle all the white supremacist harassment, and someone else to handle all the gender harassment? It’s an issue of scale."

To me, it's not surprising that this is a difficult problem. Distinguishing harassing content from non-harassing content is not easy, and there are reasons it's difficult to automate. One reason is that it's a matter of judgment, and judgment reflects a point of view. For instance, posting a video calling the Vegas shooting a hoax and the heroic survivors who saved lives "lying cunts" (as people did) is harassment. But posting a video about whether the government lied about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is not -- it's political speech. And it's political speech whether or not you use words like "cunt."

These judgments reflect points of view on the world and involve actual normative and ethical judgements. They reflect judgments about what is true, but also about what matters and how much and why, and about when being called a liar is a harm and how harmful it is. For complicated reasons in our society we tend toward the desire for meta-normative principles instead of normative judgments. Like, we seem happy debating the norms of engagement and debate -- "free exchanges of ideas" versus "words can harm people" -- but seem reluctant to acknowledge that the hard cases often come down to actual judgments about actual particulars.

For example, the Guardian article mentions how "YouTube .... has no policy against conspiracy or hoax theory videos in general." As if the judgment call -- this hoax theory/conspiracy theory versus that one -- is irrelevant and the issue can be decided by metanorms -- hoax theory/conspiracy theory versus not that.

But that doesn't seem right to me. Actually, for YouTube to have a policy against hoax theories and conspiracy theories in general would be outrageous. Governments, corporations, and individuals lie all the time. Of course we should be allowed to call them liars. It's not an issue you can decide with metanorms like hoax theories versus no hoax theories.

Among all the heartbreaking things in this article, like Vegas guy who saved someone's life whose name now autocompletes with "crisis actor" in the search bar, one of the most discouraging is the woman who, when contacted by the Guardian, expresses her regret. On a GoFundMe page for the Vegas victim, she called him "beyond fake," saying the he was was guilty of the "worst acting" she had ever seen. When contacted by the Guardian a few weeks later, she said she "had never attacked the family and said she was just searching for answers." Reminded that she had posted a meme on the Facebook page of the victim's brother that called the victim a "lying cunt," she said she didn’t remember and must have been caught up in the moment.

“I do feel bad," she said. "They are people, just like everybody else. Who am I to be calling anybody any kind of names?” she said. Asked if she regrets the attacks, she said: “I 100% do, and if I could apologize to them, I would."

Often when I disagree with people, I feel I can sort of see inside their worldview, or understand where they are coming from. But this left me utterly perplexed, sad, and bereft. How can a person be so hurtful and awful, just for no reason?