Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Stupid Sports Slogans Are Relevant To Your Interests

I'm at one of those points in the semester where I've been putting so many words together that the idea of putting more words together makes me feel the lethargic despair people have in mind when they use words like "Sisyphean."

Normally in this situation I would look at my "blog ideas" note, where I put down all potential blog ideas -- even ones that seem dumb, weird, and unpromising. In case you're interested, rejected topics today include "hair" -- in which i was going to say something how the energy of hair-styling in post-Maria Puerto Rico is both life affirming and makes me appreciate how hair-lazy I am, "The sad side of fine-tuned consumer preferences" -- which was going to explore the very distinctive kind of grimness I associate with hearing someone express detailed knowledge about what seem to me manufactured differences in things I'd never be interested in buying anyway, and "stupid capitalist dilemmas," which would have focused on annoying questions like "Is it ethically wrong to opt out of targeted advertising on a site whose existence and profitability you want to continue?"

But today, I'm not up to it. Instead I'll share with you this photograph that I took at the gym. As a philosopher, I'm used to having my mind philosophizing in non-philosophizing contexts. I remember some motivational poster at the gym years ago that said that if you set aside worry about the future and regret about the past, you would be happy in the present. I was like .. that is clearly not true. I can be unhappy about the present just as well as I can about the future or the past. Just watch me.

Here it is:

As you can see, here we have another philosophically rich idea: "Choose progress over perfection."

Because I'm naturally grouchy and argumentative, when I saw this my first thought was to try to think how wrong it was. But then I started thinking about it, and actually "choosing progress over perfection" is something I do all the time. Perfection is paralyzing. Even having high standards can get in your way. I was a little shocked to realize how often I deflate my own anxieties by saying to myself, "Well, whatever. Just keep this moving forward into the next step, and then you can see how it's going."

I would even go so far as to say that it may be the areas where perfection rings your bell can be the areas where it's the most difficult to move forward, because choosing progress over perfection becomes so difficult. When I was a kid I was into music, and I took lessons, first on the flute and later on the piano. I loved the piano, but I loved it in this weird way where my own deficiencies as a learner drove me crazy with frustration. I knew, intellectually, that I would have to practice and improve slowly. But hearing myself produce music that sounded bad? I couldn't handle it emotionally.

Though I'm invested in my intellectual work and writing, I'm not invested in them in that way. I have the same problem of being endlessly unhappy with what I produce, but for some reason it doesn't give me that intense feeling of rage and irritation. So in that domain, I really can choose progress over perfection.

I would go so far as to say that "choose progress over perfection" is useful advice for a lot of intellectual and creative work. These kinds of projects are psychologically demanding along multiple dimensions. The blank page, the critic in your head, yada yada yada.

We need all the tools we can get. If some of them come from stupid sports slogans, so what? Maybe they're actually on to something.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Flattened Context Of The Internet, Implicature, And Political Discourse

Imagine you're having a political conversation with someone and they say these things:

"You know, Obama deported/targeted/droned a lot of people too."


"Racism in America? It's not really any worse now than it was before."

Question: What do you think the speaker means in expressing these sentences?

Here's what I think. I think there is no answer about what the speaker means, because to know the answer you'd have to know the context. This is something we've all known forever, and yet something we seem to be constantly forgetting.

For example, first imagine that the conversation is about the nature of racism in the US. Many people, especially people of color, have recently been pointing out that what might look like an explosion of racism in the US in the past year or so is better understood as bringing to the surface, and thus to more people's attention, deep pernicious attitudes and widespread injustices that have always been there.

Expressing a related idea, in this interview in the Guardian, the actor Aldis Hodge talks about his experience of racism in the US and the art he is now creating to expose racism and make people confront it. Toward the end, he talks about how he thinks the past year has exposed problems that have been there all along: 

"When people ask if it’s gotten worse, they ask from the perspective of not having understood the reality," he says. "Harmonia (his co-creator) is an African woman; I’m a black man. This is not different for us ... I was raised with being taught how to speak to cops so I don’t lose my life at a young age. We’ve always dealt with police brutality. I don’t walk around without being aware of my surroundings. It is the people who have not been affected or targeted who are starting to say: ‘Wow, is this what really goes on in this country?’"

In the context of this conversation, one could easily use the second sentence to express what Hodge and others have said, and one could then easily use the sentence about Obama to make the broader claim that US racism is not only domestic but also international.

Now imagine that it's a different conversation, this time about whether the current US administration is any worse than the former. Many people feel that even if racism has always been there, and even if US foreign policy has always been involved in unjust killing, there are still important senses in which current policies and the current president are worse -- perhaps outrageously so -- than what came before. 

It's an emotional and deeply felt topic, for real reasons related to party politics, lesser-of-two-evils thinking, and actual impacts on vulnerable people's lives. If someone makes the argument that things are now bad in some special way, and their interlocutor uses the two sentences above, that interlocutor could plausibly be taken to be denying what the first person said.

Thus, in the context of this conversation, one could easily use the first sentence to mean something like "Meh, don't get all upset about the Dreamers or the people losing health insurance or whatever. It doesn't matter whose in charge. The two parties are basically the same." And one could easily use the second to try to support that claim, by denying that new pernicious racist effects have been created by this administration in particular.

I hope it's obvious that the two meanings, in the two different contexts, are radically different. I bet a lot of people who agree with one of them would not agree with the other.

The fancy name for this is "implicature," but it's also part of everyone's common sense about how people communicate. We all know that if we're reading a letter of recommendation for a job as a prof or lawyer or doctor and the recommender says, "During the year I knew X, they always showed up on time," that would be very peculiar and would suggest that the reviewer didn't have enough good things to say. It would not be a positive. But if we were reading a teacher's report about a teen who was struggling with lateness and had recently gotten things on track, it could be a completely appropriate piece of praise. Context not only affects interpretation, it affects what is said, meant, and heard.

The problem is -- as we all know -- the internet. As we've discussed, the internet flattens all context. Everything is treated like it's your final, context-free opinion on everything. You might think you're having the first conversation, and then someone comes along and doesn't see the context, or ignores it, and treats your comment as if it is part of the second conversation.

In the absence of context, I think we try to fill things in by taking statements to be relevant to whatever we think is the most salient and important overall context. Among other things, one result is that anything you say is taken to indicate that you think the things you're talking about is the most important thing to be talking about. But why? Can't you have an opinion about X without meaning to suggest X is the most important thing going? Then, too, you feel you have to be at-the-ready to respond and clarify what you did and didn't mean. I admire the people on Twitter who express complicated opinions and then go on and do just that, sometimes for hours on end.

Anyway, personally, I think it is important to talk about how racism has always been a problem in the US, and about how bad policies go way back, and sometimes in that connection I sometimes want to say things like "You know, Obama deported/targeted/droned a lot of people too." But because of our political situation, I hesitate -- because I fear I'll be interpreted as having expressed the meaning of the second argument.

Sometimes, a long blog post or actual article can, in fact, help with context and interpretation, so it is disturbing to feel our collective patience for that sort of thing dwindling and narrowing. Of course, from the point of view of the attention merchants, all this chaos is plausibly a feature, and not a bug, so I'm not expecting things to get better any time soon.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Decision-Making, Love, And The Limits Of Autonomy

This week in my Moral Issues class we're talking about assisted suicide and euthanasia. I think the issues related to these topics are complex and multifaceted. On the one hand, I want to be able to choose to die, and I support other people's right to make that decision for themselves. On the other hand, 1) I think the way we respond to such requests can't help but reflect what lives we think are worth living and 2) once new options are on the table, we ask ourselves different questions.

If you wade a bit into thinking about these issues, you come quickly into the nature of autonomy -- or self-directedness. With big decisions like this, we tend to think autonomy is really important. If you choose it for yourself, that's one thing, but if you're pressured or coerced into it, that's something else.  

In a way, this is completely intuitive. If a person said they were choosing medical aid in dying, and it was because their children had threatened them with harm for not choosing it, obviously that is not OK, and it seems right to say that the reason it's not OK is that the choice is coerced. It's not free, informed consent.

But as we've written about before, the further you go in thinking about the difference between free and coerced choices, the more confusing things can get. On the one hand, social context can influence choices in problematic ways. If girls don't study math, even though they like it, because of social pressure, or if boys act all tough and mean because they feel like masculine gender norms require it, those choices may not seem autonomous, because they are being influenced.

On the other hand, every choice takes place in social context. How would you begin to disentangle the ones that make you "not yourself"? What would that mean, to be yourself in the absence of a social context?

Even relational theories of autonomy -- theories designed to fit the idea that a person's self can be a socially connected self -- have this problem. Imagine a society in which women are socialized to be deferential, or prioritize the concerns of others. Do deferential preferences and judgments reflect full autonomy on their part? Some theorists -- proceduralists -- say that as long as the process of decision-making is properly reflective, then sure. That's who they are. Other theorists -- substantivists -- say no: if you're socialized to be deferential because of sexist social norms, that is a way of not being fully yourself.

All of this was on my mind recently when one of my graduate students shared with me this very interesting news story about a couple deciding to request medical aid in dying. They were married for 55 years, and wanted to die together, but their request was denied, on grounds that acting together created the possibility that one person was influencing the other. And these decisions must be fully autonomous.

A spokesperson for the Canadian Medical Protective Association said "The legislation is quite clear that the request has to be voluntary and they are not under any influence. … It may well be that one member of the couple is being influenced by the other member of the couple and the reason why they’re agreeing to the pact is not entirely without influence. .. Out of an abundance of caution, it is our advice that you can’t be sure that one member of the couple isn’t under influence, even if both members qualify."

Whatever you think about this decision, the case shows how murky things get when you talk about being autonomous and acting in the absence of "influence" when you're talking about relationships. In one way, of course the two people are influencing one another's decisions. As they should. Imagine two people. The first one says, "I want medical aid in dying. I talked it over with my spouse, and they think it's the right decision too." The second one says, "I want medical aid in dying. Even though we are very close, I haven't talked it over with my spouse, so I don't know what they think -- whether they think it's the right decision." Wouldn't you think it's the second person who has a problem with decision-making?

And yet, clearly the people closest to use can influence us in problematic ways. If a person said, "I want medical aid in dying. I talked it over with my spouse, and they think it's the right decision too. After all, they're going to have their hands full taking care of our children and finding a new spouse and all. So we agreed that the sooner we get my death over with, the better it is for them. And making them happy is my main goal in life." Well -- wouldn't you want to at least talk this over further? It does sound like problematic influence.

Love should make autonomy complicated. Love often means interdependence, and it should. It's hardly surprising that interdependence on others and "being yourself" are hard to tease apart.

I think there are no easy answers. But I also think part of the problem is trying to shoehorn every complex ethical decision into the framework of personal freedom. Yes, freedom is important. But trying to treat each process as ethically neutral, grounded in some unattainable ideal of "personal autonomy," isn't really workable or desirable.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Duo Lingo And The Sneakier Downsides Of Gamification

 A few days ago I started using Duo Lingo -- the website and app for language learning. For now, I'm trying to improve my French.

As maybe you know, Duo Lingo uses gamification, which, as I understand it, means harnessing the power of visuals and rewards associated with games to make whatever you are doing really fun and engaging and maybe even addictive.

Before I used Duo Lingo, I had a sort of low-level general suspicion of gamification. But I thought language-learning was one area where it made total sense.

My general suspicions were grounded in several kinds of considerations.

First, it seems to me like there's a fine line between gamification and the saddest aspects of the "attention economy" described by Tim Wu and others. Capitalism means someone is paying to get your attention in one place rather than another. Using finely-honed techniques that make people really really good at that has got to end in depressing conclusions. Wu says the forces controlling our attention have us narcotized with listicles and that "fame, or the hunger for it, would become something of a pandemic, swallowing up more and more people and leaving them with scars of chronic attention-whoredom."

All this to say: the more sophisticated the techniques for harvesting your attention, the more someone is getting you to pay attention to what they want you to pay attention to. You could call this mind-control and not even really be exaggerating.

Furthermore, it seems to me that even learning through gamification could be a problem. A lot of what I teach -- and a lot of what I think matters most -- is inherently complex, open-ended, and subject to interpretation. It has been depressing the last year or so to see people saying things like "I guess statistics don't tell us everything we need to know" or "people believe what they believe for all kinds of complex reasons." FFS. Yes, in the humanities, we've known that forever, and if I sound bitter it's only because not only is teaching humanities hard, we've had to scramble to even keep our existence lately. Despite the fact that so many problems are actually people problems and not technology problems.

It's bad enough when people want to be able to learn via bullet points and slides, so that even a short essay seems to them a hopelessly dull and involved kind of thing. With gamification that's going to get even worse. "What do you mean I can't learn about the Middle East Crisis or income inequality or decoloniation in a few minutes with fun graphics? OK .. just forget the whole thing."

Before I used Duo Lingo, I thought that language-learning -- especially at the early stages -- was perhaps one context well-suited to gamification. A lot of the questions have straightforward right-or-wrong answers. There are some straightforward things to learn. And you need a lot of repetition. The ideal conditions for gamification!

To a certain extent, my experience so far has proven that to be true. Duo Lingo is fun to use, I feel an incentive to use it regularly, and I appreciate the way the algorithm keeps track of what I'm up on and what I need to work on and adjusts my practice. It is non-stressful and also not boring, which are qualities that almost never go together in the modern world.

And yet. I was disturbed to find myself thinking at several points over the last day or two, "Oh, this writing/teaching prep/answering email/ is difficult. Maybe I should take a break and do some Duo Lingo?"

I actually found myself having to fight off the urge. The power of the desire comes partly from the sense that using Duo Lingo is doing something productive. So -- sure, why not take a break from a difficult and frustrating productive thing to do an easy and fun productive thing?

And this, honestly, is just what I was worried about in the first place. Somehow, through a combination of luck and effort, I have that rarest of things: an ability to do and even enjoy quiet and complicated things. I use this ability in my work, but I also use it to enjoy literature, music, and other things. I am very protective of it.

If using Duo Lingo everyday means I'm going to stop getting lost in long novels and opera performances and start looking up every five minutes to be like "Oh, should I stop this quiet activity and go use Duo Lingo"? Well -- then forget it.

For now, we're good. I'll keep you posted. A bientôt!

Monday, January 1, 2018

Partner Dancing Needs A Queer Revolution

I used to dance when I was young, and then I didn't dance for a long, long time, and then I started to want to dance again. So I started thinking about "what kinds of dancing," and one aspect of the contemporary dance scene that one immediately confronts is that a lot of dancing is geared either toward performance or toward what I learned is called "social dancing." And a lot of social dancing is partner dancing, where two people dance together.

In North America, partner dancing seems to include ballroom dancing, waltz, tango, salsa, and related styles. I want to dance to have a good time, not to perform, so on the face of it, social dancing is just what I'm looking for, and I like the idea of partner dancing -- dancing with someone. As I've known for decades, though, social partner dancing presents a person with an immediate problem: one person has to follow the other.

I've tried partner dancing a few times in my life, and leading and following is one of the first lessons. A shocking amount of partner dancing seems to still involve a man and a woman paired up together, and when it does, it's the man who leads and the woman who follows. OK, it's 2017, so that's a little nuts right off the bat. But when you start being instructed on how to follow, you realize it's even crazier than its sounds.

I remember in one class being told that to be a good follower, you had to be ultra attentive to the tiniest gestures and glances of your partner, so you could sense, as immediately as possible, what direction they were going to go in, and what move they were going to do. It's not like a "Simon Says" situation. It's more like immersing yourself in a study of the physicality of the other person, to sense them, understand them, and respond to them.

I remember when I heard that I was kind of horrified. I mean, one of the things that makes it difficult to be a woman in the modern world is that women are socialized to study men, sense them, understand them, and respond to them. And while it would be nice in romance if everyone would study, sense, understanding, and respond to others, in public life and work the gendered difference in this activity becomes a huge problem. know a lot of women share my sense that in those contexts, studying, sensing, understanding and responding to men's every motion and glance is what we're trying to unlearn. And now doing it is going to be part of my dancing? My dancing I am doing for fun?

If you think I'm exaggerating the creepiness of following, notice that the "following" advice on this page includes the sentence: "I tell women 'you are a food cart, with steel arms and really good wheels.'"

This is no good. Something should change so social partner dancing can get away from all these heteronormative styles and norms. Maybe there are already queer social dances and places that I just don't know about. But even if there are, they haven't made their way to my local dancing class studios, which are in a big city and probably have a lot of queer clientele already. So, what to do?

What does it mean to dance "with someone" if neither person is following? One idea would be for there to be more set and choreographed dances that people would learn. What's wrong with dances that follow a specific script of where you go and what steps you do and when? Then if both people know the dance, they can do it together, without anyone following.

In fact, if the steps are choreographed and always the same, the sensing and responding that is an annoying part of gendered following could become a lighter and more mutual thing. Making sure the dance moves smoothly is something both people could do together. Weren't there European dances that like this back in the day?

If you look at this description of The Quadrille, you'll see a highly structured dance with multiple couples. Interestingly, the Quadrille is related to modern square dancing -- a form in which dance figures are "called." Why can't that structure be danced to cool new music with cool new moves? That seems like it would be really fun.

I thought about this idea before, when I was in BodyAttack. As regular readers know, I'm obsessed with this class, which is officially a "sports inspired" workout class -- but if you've been, you know it has a lot of goofy moves and a hilarious anthemic track 8 with a chorus-line feeling. Anyway, a few years ago a release came out where the "agility track" involved getting into groups on either side of the room, and moving toward one another and then away, facing front and then facing one another, all set to this incredibly infectious electronic dance song "Hardcore Salsa 2K14 (Hardstyle Edit)."

It was really fun. When I did it in Paris at the gym near Place de la République, it was in the dark with disco lights on, and it was awesome. I remember thinking: this is like a dance. If I'd known what a quadrille was, I might have thought, "This is like a quadrille." Why not more things like that? Not only could the people identify in any way gender-wise, the partners could shift around during the dance, which would actually be cool and awesome.

In some ways partner dancing is such an antidote to the ills of modern life. It is an essentially in-person activity, it is artistic, it encourages everyone making themselves a little bit vulnerable, and it doesn't require expensive equipment. Plus -- it is dancing! If only we could solve the leader-follower thing, we'd really be getting somewhere.