Thursday, 30 July 2015

A plague o’ both your houses

Years and years ago, I earned a bachelor’s degree in cultural anthropology. I thought at the time I might end up in academia, but graduate study didn’t work out. This past couple of weeks, I’ve taken a couple of sociology lectures for another note-taker who was away. Most of my classes in the last three years have been in dentistry or other clinical sciences, so I found the sudden familiarity a little jarring, like Temuera Morrison’s New Zealand accent in that Star Wars prequel. And kind of embarrassing, actually. Blimey (I thought), we humanities students really think we’re all that, don’t we?

Lest you think I’m solely ragging on sociology: last semester, I took one of the two weekly lectures in an economics paper, to which I had much the same reaction, although there it was more comfortable because, as a former humanities student active in politics, I have a long-established habit of looking down my nose at the Commerce Division. And Health Sci too, now I come to think about it – “medicalization” is a favourite tut-tut word in certain academic circles. Well, Commerce deserved it, Health Sci didn’t, and we in Humanities really weren’t holding the high ground we thought we were.

Let me try and explain what it’s like. When I was a kid, one of the many books knocking around our house was a shabby little paperback from about the 1960s entitled “100 puzzles for kids” or something, and I remember it because it actually had 101 puzzles but the last one was a trick one that didn’t have a proper answer. A hotel has fifty rooms, and one day fifty-one people turn up wanting accommodation. The hotelier thinks for a bit. He puts the first guest in the first room, then takes the second guest aside and says “If you could just wait here while we get this sorted out.” Then he puts guest number three in room number two, guest number four in room number three, and so on until guest number fifty-one is placed in room number fifty and the hotel is full.

Now this was one of the first hints I had that my brain doesn’t work quite like other people’s. According to the book, most people are bamboozled – they know there’s a flaw somewhere, but they can turn it over and over in their heads for hours before they suddenly go “Of course! The second person hasn’t got a room!” But to me, reading the puzzle, it was so obvious that the second person hadn’t got a room that I turned it over and over in my head for hours wondering what the mystery was supposed to be.

In economics and sociology, it’s not a guest who hasn’t got a room; it’s a foundational concept that hasn’t got a basis. You introduce that concept, and proceed to derive the rest of the course from it. It becomes a sort of base-camp assumption for the students’ thoughts, like mass-energy conservation for physics students or Darwinian natural selection for biology students. By the end of the first semester, it’s become so familiar that they assume anyone who questions it is simply ignorant.

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

The Kiwi bloke is an environmental hazard

It’s winter where I live, and it’s a doozy. We’ve had snow to sea level and frosts like I remember from the 1990s, and this year New Zealand’s annual 100-year flood happened to hit my town – I have the good fortune of living on a slight rise, but less than a block away people were wading. Naturally people are arguing this shows global warming isn’t happening. Of course that gets it all backwards. If you’re standing outside a tramping hut in the mountains on a sunny morning, and a shovelful of snow falls off the roof and goes down your neck, you end up colder, but it’s because the roof is warming up (and melting the snow). The roof in this analogy stands for the South Polar Vortex, where the air around Antarctica gets so cold in the winter that it slams down, walling off the polar weather from the rest of us. Usually. Up until now.

Recently, we found out that New Zealand is a world front-runner in climate change denial. The good news is it only takes 13% to be a world front-runner. But I guess this is where we finally kiss our vaunted “clean, green image” goodbye. Though admitting how we’re actually doing on the environmental front would instantly lose us our world market for dairy products, tourism, and filming locations, which put together are nearly our entire national income, so maybe not. Actually shaping up is, of course, out of the question. That would cost rich people money.

I’m not going to rehearse all the evidence that human industry is driving climate change; that would take far more time and energy than I have, it would be too wordy to hold any denier’s attention long enough to convince them, and there are plenty of other sites that do it better than I could – here are three. I will spare a brief word for the idea that humans are too puny and insignificant to affect the cycles of Nature. That’s an intuitive percept rather than an evidential argument, so it needs an intuitive answer.

I’ll confidently bet that practically all my readers are reading this in a built-up environment of some kind, or at least a farm, not out in the wilderness. Well, Earth was all wilderness until humans came along. The last thing that changed the surface of the planet as much as humans have was the emergence of the first land plants and animals back in the Carboniferous Period. For hundreds of millions of years the world was forests, deserts, plains, savannah. Then suddenly, in less than a ten-thousandth of that time – farms, buildings, quarries, mines, roads, towns, reservoirs, aqueducts, cities, railways, landfills, sewage outfalls. Is it really so hard to believe our activities might have had unintended environmental effects as profound as the intended ones? No, we aren’t big enough to chop down the entire tree of life on Earth, but we could easily break off the branches holding up our own treehouse.

But I don’t think that’s the main reason why New Zealanders don’t believe in climate change. I think the main reason looks like this:

Blogger Cameron Slater sneering at the camera

No, I’m not accusing Cameron Slater of running New Zealand’s denialist platform singlehandedly, though he does have disproportionate influence for a blogger (which is why I’m not linking to his blog; Google “whale oil” if you want to find him). It’s the expression I’m talking about, and the attitude underneath it. I am quite familiar with it; this is the look on a playground bully’s face right before he hits you. This face is what comes to my mind when people wax poetic about the good old sports-loving, beer-drinking, do-it-yourselfing, supposedly-maligned Kiwi Bloke. Because this is also the face of a New Zealand male when someone tries to alert him to a problem that doesn’t, as far as he can see, affect him personally.

It’s not just climate change. The Bloke Sneer is the standard response to a precaution recommended against any harm that hasn’t so far materialized in the Bloke’s own life. Boating safety measures, for instance. Hence (I surmise) why New Zealand men drown at such high rates. That might be considered grist for the Darwin Awards, but often it’s other people’s safety that gets sneered away – we have a higher rate of workplace injury than most OECD countries, as employers Bloke-Sneer at the health and safety regulations. And it’s not just a matter of harming people negligently; New Zealand schools have a chronic bullying problem. I think that’s a root of the Bloke Sneer problem as well as a fruit of it, insofar as surviving in that environment forces you to develop a highly-tuned scorn reflex. Anything you are seen to genuinely care about can be used to hurt you.

I suspect the Bloke Sneer is also the main reason why New Zealand isn’t as religious as the United States. I must admit, it does bear a certain superficial resemblance to scientific scepticism. However, the Bloke Sneer yawns at evidence and snickers at reason. Being primarily an emotional reflex, it’s not going to form a completely consistent philosophy; but if you were to write down its underlying logic, the epistemic component would read “Anyone coming at you with an agenda – of any kind – can be dismissed without a hearing”.

It’s perfectly sensible to be wary of people with axes to grind, of course. We humans instinctively set the evidentiary bar lower for propositions that suit us than for propositions that don’t, and a prudent sceptic will adjust for their informants’ biases. But the sceptic should know to take especial care to adjust for their own biases, and the Bloke Sneer does the opposite. An “agenda” just means something you want or hope for, and are prepared to work for. And if you see a real problem looming in the future, you’re going to want to change it, aren’t you?

Logically, therefore, “All agendas should be dismissed” is functionally equivalent to “There is no such thing as a problem”. The Bloke Sneer is a sign not of tough-mindedness or scepticism, but of the woolliest kind of wishful thinking.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Why we don’t celebrate “straight pride”

A few days ago, around when the US Supreme Court made marriage equality constitutional, an old friend posted this on Facebook:

Straight Pride — Funny thing... I’ve seen others post this and they are attacked viciously.  Apparently it is now intolerant and bigoted to be straight and proud in this upside down, politically correct society we live in.  I invite everyone who is straight and unashamed to post this on your wall.

The quickest way to see the problem with this is to take the word “straight” each time it occurs in the image and replace it with “white”. There’s nothing wrong with being white any more than there is with being straight, but the phrase “white pride” is disturbing nonetheless, and for good reason. See, “black pride” and “queer pride” both have a history behind them: a history of disempowerment, marginalization, humiliation; a history of being “lesser” in the eyes of society. The “pride” movements are about defying that humiliation and that disempowerment, about refusing to be “lesser”. They’re about raising oneself up to the level of the white or straight majority and demanding to be treated like a fellow human being. Now, the white people and the straight people are already on the higher level, being treated as human beings; if they raise themselves higher than they already are, the result is that we once again have a two-tier society, with white / straight people on top and everyone else a step down. That’s why “straight pride” is a bad thing, even though being straight isn’t.

It’s entirely possible that this simply didn’t occur to my friend. It happens. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve hurt people or crossed boundaries without meaning to, I would be cringing in retrospective shame in a much fancier house. But intention, as I’ve been told a couple of those times, isn’t magic. Harm done by mistake is still harm. If someone stands on your toe completely by accident, it hurts just as much as if it was on purpose. You’ll still probably yell out in pain and ask them to move their foot. It’s not that whether they intended to hurt you doesn’t matter, but that it matters because of how it drives their response to your pain. Let’s suppose someone’s trodden on you; you’ve yelled “Ow! You’re on my toe!”; and they make one of the following possible responses. I think you’ll agree with me that only one of these is acceptable.

  1. [hastily removes foot] “Oh! I’m so sorry! Are you badly hurt? I hope I haven’t broken anything. Can you walk? If it’s serious I’ll take you to the emergency doctor. I’m so sorry.”
  2. [still standing on you] “Well, I didn’t do it with the intention of hurting you. It’s not my fault your foot got in my way. How dare you accuse me of being the kind of person who stomps on people’s toes on purpose! Maybe you need stronger shoes.”
  3. [silence, aims another stomp at your toes]

Now let’s switch roles: you’ve stood on someone else’s foot by mistake. It’s natural to want them to be very clear that you are not in category C, so even people who are genuinely in category A usually mix in a lot of “I didn’t mean to!”s with their apologies. But if that’s your primary concern, and especially if you think that your innocent intentions excuse you from the effort of repairing the harm you’ve done, then – sorry – you are in category B.

Only I’m not sure that’s what’s actually going on here. Look again at the wording on the Straight Pride image: the writer thinks the widespread rejection of “straight pride” shows our society to be “upside-down” and “politically correct”. In discussions of sexual diversity, these are red flags that someone is in category C: that is, they act harmfully towards non-conforming genders and sexualities, if only in terms of public expression. Well, there are highly specific situations in which an otherwise harmful act is an appropriate response, and it’s my bet that the writer thought the Supreme Court decision was one of them. Some examples might be

  • smacking a toddler away from a hot stove
  • performing the Heimlich manoeuvre on someone who’s choking
  • amputating a gangrenous foot

These acts all have something fairly obvious in common: a context of imminent, severe danger, which justifies drastic steps to counteract it. Imagine smacking a toddler away from a harmless cupboard, or doing the Heimlich on someone who’s not choking, or amputating a healthy foot. It wouldn’t be enough to plead that you sincerely believed there was danger; you have to have a compelling reason to believe there was danger. Precisely because you’re trying to do the right thing and help somebody, it’s crucial to get the facts right. Granted, a “straight pride” meme doesn’t do very serious harm compared to some other things people do to those who don’t conform to gender norms; but those other things are motivated by the same attitude, which therefore needs to be confronted wherever it appears.

Only, when I say “attitude”, you’re picturing someone nasty, right? My mental image is of the boys at my schools who called me “poofter” and “fag” and various other synonyms (pretty sure they weren’t detecting my actual bisexuality, which I was in ironclad denial about; I just fit their stereotype of what a gay person was like). But there’s a reason why no-one admits to being one of the Nasty People, and it’s the paragraph above this one. Occasionally, harmful acts are genuinely justified by the context – and the sincere belief that one of those occasions has arrived is the state of mind in which approximately 90% of violence is committed. Mostly, when people hurt other people, it’s through trying to do the right thing. Hatred, from the inside, feels like “I am a good person and this has to stop.”

Which is why I am not remotely impressed by this webcomic, which also crossed my Facebook feed in the day or two after the Supreme Court decision. A guy called Adam Ford is opposed to gay marriage, and what’s more he thinks gay sex is evil, but he wants gay people to be very clear that he doesn’t hate them, he loves them. What really gets me is when he insists that he is not trying to do this:

“My way is better than your way!”

but rather this:

“God’s way is better than our way!”

See what’s wrong here? Ford, here represented by the guy on the left, believes certain things about God – at minimum, that (s)he exists, that (s)he disapproves of gay sex and gay marriage, that her/his approval is a sound basis for moral judgement. The generic gay person represented by the guy on the right presumably disbelieves at least one of these things. Ford presents no argument whatever in favour of any of them. So the second cartoon still amounts to no more than “My way (of thinking about God) is better than your way.” As the comic proceeds Ford starts citing the Bible, but again with no explanation of why the Bible would be a better moral guide than, say, the works of Shakespeare. His claims still don’t exceed “My way (of assessing the value of the Bible) is better than your way.”

For all his self-professed love of gay people, Ford offers no assurance that they will not be stigmatized, dehumanized, or made “lesser” if they stop having sex with the people they’re attracted to, like he wants. All he has to offer is a feeling. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t think love is the ultimate social value. I think trust is. I only need a dozen or so people in my life to love me; I need to be able to trust everyone I meet. I need to be sure they won’t harm me. If their interests clash with mine, which is what happens when you put independent individuals in a space with finite resources, I need to be able to enter a rational conversation with them to resolve the clash. There might be a good reason why they should get their way and I shouldn’t, but if so then both of us will be able to see that reason, because the truth is the truth for everybody. Whether it’s a selfish reason or a selfless one isn’t the point.

We humans have evolved part of the way to understanding the importance of trust. That’s where our moral instincts come from in the first place. Unfortunately, we’re adapted for survival in the world of the first 90% of human existence, which was like The Walking Dead with animal predators instead of zombies. You live in a small group of close friends and family, and if you meet strangers you can never be certain they aren’t planning to kill you and take your stuff – or on a hair-trigger in case you were planning to kill them and take their stuff.

We therefore have a flaw woven into our moral sense, which says that only people who do things our way deserve full respect as human beings. Except we don’t think of it as “our way”, or we’d see what an unjust attitude this is. We think of it as the “proper” way, like the three-year-old who, told to say “Spasibo” to a Russian visitor who was giving her an apple, haughtily replied “No. I will say ‘Thank you’ properly.” And sometimes, we can become morally outraged when people do things “improperly”, and harm them – all the while thinking we’re being especially upright. This is not conducive to mutual trust. Morality must be rational, or it is prejudice.