Microaggression

I have puzzled over this term for a while.  When I was growing up I lived in a relatively homogeneous and genteel middle class environment.  But even in this homogeneous environment there were gibes and barbs and insults and slights — one needed to have at least a bit of a thick skin to make it through.

So when this rainbow of self-defined sexual identities shows up and demands that all around them treat them as “normal” I wonder what is going on.

In this context, “normal” seems to mean not only to not object to behavior that has traditionally been thought of as odd (at least, objectionable and even illegal often) but to embrace it.  These folks are not demanding just civility from us, not just acceptance, but recognition and love.

I have a personal example of why this is not a simple ask.

I was out to dinner in a midwestern city on Halloween when the restaurant was suddenly filled with people in costumes collecting money for their cause.  I turned out the the cause was LBGT… “rights,” or at least help for members of that community (those communities?).  They were in costumes from which one could generally deduce their orientation but were not particularly offensive or outrageous.

I was actually to the point of reaching into my wallet (against the wishes of my wife) to find a small donation when one of the revelers decided to put his head right next to mine, away from the direction that I was looking.  When I turned to see what what going on on my right side I found a large face in what was definitely my personal space  with the largest tongue that I had ever seen hanging out over my shoulder.

I don’t give a shit how oppressed you think you are this is beyond a microaggression.  I still occasionally think of this incident and wonder (against my will but apparently consistent with that of the owner of the tongue) what it was about that tongue that he was so proud of.  I wish I could get rid of this Ddsgusting and offensive image.

This from the “gotta love me” crowd, complaining about how oppressed they are by every slight, real and imagined.

A New Year

It is difficult for me to separate the writing of a blog from writing a diary.  My diary entries are introspective — concerned mainly with what I am thinking, feeling, and how I am responding to events.  This is not really interesting material for most readers — and there seem to be too many bloggers already who somehow think that their day-to-day musings are of interest to the world.

A blog should be a bit in the direction of an editorial from a mere diary entry.  The author should take the time to make the material interesting to the reader and the time to craft the words so that it reads well.

So I am sitting here trying to get out of diary mode.

I had exchange of comments with someone on freakanomics.com about a podcast on income inequality.   My point was tautological — that the statistic offered (degree of movement from the bottom to the top quintile) was misleading because it ignores a constraint.

There are potentially many weaknesses in his statistic, but there was not enough detail in the podcast to determine if his analysis addresses them appropriately.  The one that stood out in the podcast is the fact that the movement from the bottom to the top had to be matched by an equivalent shift downward through the quintiles.  To focus on only the movement between two specific quintiles is to attach special importance to one set of people over the others.

One can do any number of thought experiments to demonstrate how misleading the statistic is.

  1.  Suppose that the fifth quintile this year is as rich as the first quintile last —  i.e. that everyone prospered.  Somehow the statistic loses much of the meaning that its proponents seem to attribute to it.
  2. Suppose that the fifth quintile replaces entirely the first quintile by simply transferring all of the wealth from the first to the fifth.  Does society benefit when those who have proven, to some extent, that they have competencies that they can get paid for are replaced by  those who have not generally demonstrated their economic value?

I have no doubt that there are historical injustices and inequalities.  I have no doubt that many of the current crop of privileged (myself included) have had advantages not availabl to others due to these historical facts.  I have no doubt that there are those who feel that their lives could have been better had history been different.

But haven’t these things always been true?  Something drove my ancestors to leave Holland to come to the United States.  Some of them drowned on the way.  They did manage to make a living farming in Nebraska, but they were definitely poor up to at least WWII.  They struggled, I am sure.  My grandfather was keenly aware of the fact that, unlike his three sons, he had no education.  The sons, by the way, got their college degrees via that GI bill as a result of their service in the military during WWII.  Certainly a government program but perhaps not a free lunch.

My mother’s family had a similar history in northern Indiana.  Times were tough in the depression.

My father’s side has done pretty well since the war — most are well-educated and seem to have spread out through the midwest.  My mother’s side not so well, although not terribly.

I am a Boomer and no doubt have benefited from this history.  This is what my ancestor’s wanted for me and what I want for my descendants — to prosper on the foundation which they have been provided.

I do not feel any particular shame for my privileges, although there seem to be many urging me to do so.  I do think that I understand the source of the feeling on the part of those whose ancestors were oppressed.  It is undoubtedly frustrating to think that your life could have been different if only someone or other had not wronged your ancestors.

But whose ancestors have not been wronged at some time or another?  What redress is logically or practically possible for historical wrongs?  How do we even know the counterfactual?  Do we really know that the great grandson of a slave is worse off because his great grandfather was a slave than he would have been had his ancestors not be forcibly relocated to North America?  I wonder how many Africans would be willing to change places with a distant relative who happens to be African-American?

The better attitude is to look at what one has and quit coming up with reasons why one deserves more than has been gained through the rules in play now.  We live in a pretty good place, even the poor among us.  We have schools and parks and libraries and opportunities for employment that are not too demanding.  We have scholarships and food banks and all kinds of social network that the typical third-worlder would find amazing and wondrous.

All this is just thinking aloud, trying to work my way through the issues and to understand where this apparent perpetual sense of grievance comes from.  I am being told that I am smug and self-satisfied because I am lucky (which is true — I have been lucky) and only because I am lucky (which is false — my success has built upon the work not only of my direct ancestors, but on many others — founding fathers, great thinkers, laborers and slaves going back most directly to ancient Greece and coming to me through the Magna Carta and the US Constitution, among many other threads.

I want people to recognize the great gift that this represents to them regardless of their current economic status.  I want people to get help when they need it but not to overstate their needs or their rights or their historical claims for restitution.

I worry that the recent political events have polarized our country and that, if the next four years do not yield more mutual understanding and accommodation that the next election will bring progressive fascism with French Revolution like treatment of the “rich” and the “elites.”

 

It’s been a while…

I have not been posting for a long time.  The reasons may have slowly come to me as a result of taking a short adult-ed course on “creative writing.”

As preparation for this course I looked around and found a book entitled Writing Alone and With Others by Pat Schneider.  I found the book helpful before I started the course.  It is in the mold of almost all of the self-improvement books that I have read, which is to say that it has a lot of personal stories and could be reduced to a fifteen-chart, fourteen-point font PowerPoint presentation.  I did not arrive at this opinion of the book until after I started the course and, specifically, until I read the book recommended by our instructor, Vivian Grey.

The book that she recommended is On Writing by Stephen King (yes, the Stephen King).  His book also contains lots of personal stories but they are of an entirely different nature than those of Pat Schneider.  His stories are more about his life and how they inspired his writing and less  about trying to build his credibility as an instructor of writing.  One offshoot of his approach is that he is a lot more entertaining than Schneider.  Of course he is also a far better writer than she is.

What I take away from my brush with these two very different authors writing about writing is that one of the main obstacles to writing is fear.  Partially this is fear that others will not like or appreciate what you have written but I think that it is mostly fear of what you will reveal, even to yourself, by writing.

The process, advocated first in my timeline by Schneider, of writing may start by searching your past.  You are looking for moments, scenes, ideas, feelings, odors, … that are for some reason that you may not consciously grasp come to mind.  These are the seeds of your writing.

The odd thing about these seeds, though, is that there is no way to predict what species will emerge from the seed.  In fact, sometimes the adult is not the same species as the child that emerges from the seed.  You take these seeds and just follow them.  Write it all down.  Just keep writing until you run out of steam.  And somehow the imagery fills itself in.  The plot unfolds of its own accord.  The characters speak with their own voices.

Strange but I have come to believe this.  Our first assignment was to write a short paragraph.  I started by jotting down a bunch of seeds as noted above.  Then I took these and asked myself what variants, including opposites, might be interesting.  Somehow I ended up sleeping under a newspaper under a bridge.  Somehow I ended up with a limp from a war injury which led to my name and then to my nickname and the origin of the nickname was the way to introduce the primary characteristic of the character (he reads).

Fine as far as it went  I missed a class but had a chance to read my work aloud at the third class — along with everyone else, although theirs was to have been in response to the second lesson.  I was out of my comfort zone but wanted to proceed.  It was seemingly well-received, although this may be a purely narcissistic observation.

The topic of the third class was dialogue.  We had some confusion, never resolved, about whether I had written in the first or third person — I have since decided that I wrote narrative.  In order to have dialog, you need two characters.  Given that I was happy with Iggy I decided to expand the story that I already had.

I don’t know where the ideas came from, but I put an observer high above my first character and made this character as outwardly different as I could — female, living in an apartment, a writer.  The problem was that I couldn’t just dump her into the story in order to satisfy the class assignment of writing narrative.  What was she to say?  There needed to be context: who is this woman and what do the two of them have to talk about.

In order to make this work I needed an end game.  Perhaps my characters will show me that this is not to be the end game but, given what little I knew about them at this point, it was a credible endgame.  She is having trouble as a commercial author, it turns out the he writes as well as reads, somehow she gets her hands on his manuscripts and publishes them.  This has to end badly for her (how else could it be a “morality play?”) so I am supposing that she is revealed, her royalties are taken and given to Iggy, and (all too trite) she ends up under the bridge.  OK — the last stretches credibility.

So I start writing and my character starts to reveal herself — procrastinator, daydreamer, conniver — and the mechanism of their meeting seems to flow — she will study him and then a minor mishap will get them talking.

This strategy got me to where I am in my little story.  The whole reason that I feel compelled to write this in a blog has to do with these last few paragraphs.

My first character, Iggy, has started to speak with his own voice!

 

“The black woman…”

Long ago, so long ago that I do not recall why, I consciously decided to avoid using any reference to a person’s race unless it was relevant to the point I was trying to make.  You learn from this discipline, for example, that you are often tempted to use color as a primary identifier of another person.  You also discover that you can actually pay attention to the other attributes which distinguish a person and use them both to identify them and to see them better as an individual.

Not to mention that it is much more respectful.

It is also interesting to watch the reaction of my listeners when they later discover the person’s race.  It is not necessarily that my listeners are bigoted, its just that they seem to think it odd that I talked about a black person without mentioning that they were black.

Having this habit deeply ingrained I was surprised when, on CNN during the third night of the Republican convention, a female commentator referred to one of the speakers — the president of a Trump foundation I believe — in a sentence that began (roughly) as follows: “The black woman said …”

As a person reporting on the convention you would think that she would have access to all of the information necessary to identify the speaker by name or title.  Even if she had neglected to research the identities of those she was being paid to critique, she still could have found a way to distinguish this speaker without using the word “black.”

I think, personally, that I would have been so embarrassed about knowing nothing about a person except their race and gender that I would have said nothing at all.

The lapse in (IMHO) good manners was all the more startling to me because it seemed to me at the time that the commentator herself was not white.

This all passed by before I got any notes as to the names of either the commentator or the speaker, so I cannot add any detail (yet?).

 

The Clash of Identities

An editorial in my college alumni magazine, which I hereby attempt to deconstruct.  My thoughts are in brown.

 

“As in semesters past, the northeast wing of South Hall’s second floor — a space the Office of Residential Education has designated “all female” — is reserved for female students in search of peace of mind and a safe haven from a patriarchal campus and society.”

The insertion of the value-laden adjective “patriarchal” makes it clear from the outset that the author has a distinct point of view which, from my point of view, signals a hypersensitivity to all real and imagined slights.  I suppose that she thought that this characterization of the campus at large would strengthen her argument but I consider it to be an indicator of maladjustment projected as the fault of the world around her.

“At the beginning of this module, without prior warning or a clear reason, ResEd decided to place four cis male students into a vacant quad on the same hall.”

Having attended college before coed dorms I find it ironic that this is a problem.  It just seems obvious to me that there should be a single-gender space around one’s living quarters to which one can escape from the additional responsibilities of a mixed-gender environment.  That this hard-fought reform is now resisted with such new-found pejoratives as “cis” is almost funny.  I also can’t help but suspect that the author would have some difficulty reconciling these sentences with her stance on the current discussion about transsexuals and public restrooms.

“While the men have been respectful of the shared space, they should have been placed in rooms elsewhere. College sophomore Alana Sheppard, along with her roommate and floormates who deliberately sought asylum on the floor for personal reasons, are now left feeling unsafe in their own living space. To add insult to injury, they have received few answers from ResEd representatives. ResEd also did not respond to the Review’s request for comment.

So the offending men have behaved without offense and those offended are offended for “personal reasons.”  As an old fart I am having difficulty with a world in which every personal sensitivity is supposed to be sensed, respected, and adapted to by everyone else.  If I read earlier editorials correctly, I am expected as an undergraduate at Oberlin these days to intuit where on the sexual spectrum (or plane, or whatever geometry the classes of sexuality fall) and use the preferred pronoun for that type of sexual orientation.

In my world, each person is unique and respected as such, which obviates the need to carefully and respectfully place them in a labelled category for one or more of their personal characteristics.

“Sheppard sent an extensive and personal email to ResEd regarding the situation and its effect on her well-being. “We were confused as to why there were men living on this hall … I sent [ResEd] an email basically just saying, ‘I’m really confused as to why they are men on this hall.’ I even told them personal, vulnerable information about why I was moving there. It’s not about their behavior, it’s that I moved here to not live with men,” Sheppard said. A representative responded curtly to her and to each of her friends who had also contacted them.”

 

So you complained and did not immediately get your way, as if your sensitivities were the only priority in the responsibilities of ResEd.   I hate to break it to you: in life you do not always get it your way in a world of many competing interests.  Get over it.

“After receiving a less-than-courteous response to her inquiry, Sheppard then contacted Assistant Dean of Students and Director of Housing Rebecca Mosely, who Sheppard was told had experience in handling similar issues in theme halls and the three first-year dorms. Mosely apologized to Sheppard for the inconvenience, explaining that ResEd had mistakenly placed the men in the women’s hall, but added that moving the students once again would constitute an injustice to the four men. In prioritizing the comfort of the four male students, ResEd not only invalidated its own designation of the floor as women-only but also disregarded the right to security of every student who chose to live on the hall.”

The men (per the first paragraph) so not constitute a threat to the security of the the students living on the hall.  What, then is the threat?  The previous paragraphs provide evidence for an imagined threat but no more.

“There is no excuse for ResEd’s failure to alert the residents of a safe space hall when a new neighbor’s identity may violate the intended safety of the hall. Theme housing is awarded via application — anything from Movie Hall in Langston Hall to Baldwin Cottage, the women and trans safe space, requires review by the faculty and staff in charge of that living space.”

What to do with this one????  The identity of one perfectly courteous and civil person is a threat to another?  Did you fall off the PC wagon here?  Per decades of diversity training let me remind you that, if their identity threatens you then you had best look inside your self for bias and bigotry.

“By failing to provide appropriate housing for students with specific needs, ResEd continues to prioritize logistical efficiency over the mental health and well-being of all students living on campus.”

You have provided no evidence for this except for a single instance in which a claimed mental health problem lost to logistical efficiency.  The existence of your hall (until the men moved in) suggests that the mental health issues of the residents do trump logistics sometimes as well.

“This mishap points to a bigger accountability problem within ResEd. Sheppard notes that while Mosely claimed that there weren’t any other rooms available to the male students, a friend of Sheppard’s received an email containing a list of rooms available in South Hall upon applying to move.

“Why some students seem to be favored over others is unclear, but the pattern persists year after year. As part of a residential campus that prides itself on its student community and cooperative living, ResEd should be held accountable for making sure every student’s requests for a safe and comfortable living environment are met.”

Just guessing, but if all Oberlin students have sensibilities as finely tuned as this crowd I doubt that the objective is obtainable.

There is no basis for the blanket statement that “some students are favored” persistently — except perhaps a perpetual sense of one’s own unsatisfied entitlement.

“In addition, ResEd must respond to these requests even if residential problems arise that are outside its control. In recent years, several lounges have been converted to temporary open triples or open quads to accommodate an influx of students. Significantly, Old Barrows, the women and trans safe space housing co-op, is in danger of being shut down in the next several years. This change will mean that there will be fewer safe spaces for women and trans students on campus. ResEd needs to enforce safe spaces more effectively to ensure that all students feel safe living in their assigned rooms.”

I am really having a hard time with your understanding of the need for a safe space for trans without understanding that normal women (i.e. the 95%+ who are not bi- or trans- or …) do not feel safe when a trans equipped as a male is permitted to use their bathroom.

Freedom of Speech

There is a tempest in a teapot swirling over some controversial posts made by a associate professor at Oberlin.  There are a number of facets of this exchange that are interesting.

I learned about it through an email from the alumni association that urged calm and professed trust in the administration to handle the situation.  Not having a clue what was going on (my first complaint — urging me to be calm without informing me what it is that I am thought to have become perturbed about) I had to research it.

I discovered that an associate professor had posted remarks on Facebook that were claimed to be anti-Semitic but could not find the post in question.  Apparently the blog repeated the tired old stuff that the US was in the pocket of the Israelis and together they had performed the 9/11 and Paris attacks.  As near as I can tell there was no evidence provided.

The quotations from the professor in question do seem to bring into doubt her qualifications to be an professor at Oberlin — imperfect language, diatribe rather than reason.  Her areas of study are alien to me and do not seem to have standard definitions when searched for on the internet (“black protest literacy,” for example).

However, her course blog seems to be well enough done — if a bit derivative (whole phrase of homework assignments can be found elsewhere, such as the rhetorical use of logos, pathos, etc.).  They are controversial, having to do with such topics as “Is ebonics a distinct language or a variant of English?”

Her critiques are not much better, tossing silly claims around, long on polemic and short on evidence.

All in all I am of the opinion that she is a weak addition to the faculty that I hope does not represent the current state of Oberlin academics (leaving aside what I consider to be the questionable elevation of some of her areas of interests to the status of “academic.”).  She is probably not as evil as portrayed (although it is hard to determine this since so few facts are available), but is also a lousy candidate to be embroiled in this sort of brouhaha.  She just plain cannot hold her own in this arena.  She will lose, Oberlin will lose, and no light will be shone on anything.

 

Cultural Appropriation?

I have recently been introduced to an idea that, I must admit, sounds completely absurd on its face, namely “cultural appropriation.”  I have started a search to explore my initial reaction and to understand the depth, breadth, and validity of the alleged offenses that earn this title.

So far, I have not much changed my mind.

There is a wonderfully written letter to the editor of the Oberlin Review which captures some of the angst that leads people to feel that their culture is being misunderstood or subverted.  It is clear that many people have difficulties — some concrete and external, some abstract and internal — when they cross cultural lines.  These are real difficulties and should be met with some level of understanding and sympathy.

On the other hand, to claim that a modified dish served in a student mess hall under the name “tandoori” is an offense to a religious tradition that uses the same name half a world away is to expect far too much.  See this letter in the Oberlin Review for this example.

The offended party is free to educate — perhaps they would like to demonstrate the proper preparation of the meal for the dining hall in question or for a few friends.  They are free to point out that the stuff called “tandoori” in the dining hall would not be acceptable in India.

But to insist either that the dining service not use the label or that they may only use it if the food is prepared in a way acceptable to the offended student is nonsense.

First there is the question of authority.  How is the student a more authoritative arbiter of the correctness of tandoori than anyone else?  (Would their mother give the same recipe a pass?  How about their grandmother?)

The offended party needs to demonstrate their authority to judge the object of their offense else their status is akin to that of a child who won’t eat dinner because she “doesn’t like it.”

Second there is the question of practicality.   How much are you willing to spend on the food service?  If you insist that every dish served be certified culturally appropriate then, like the famous overpriced hammer, you will be paying many times the cost of the nourishment to insure its cultural purity.  How many cultures and subcultures is such a process to support?  How many conflicts between different grandmothers’ variant recipes will have to be settled by some authority?  How will the authority itself be established?

Third, there is the question of intent.  People in costumes that I am not familiar with celebrating a holiday whose significance (to someone — again the problem of authority) I am not aware of I am open to many interpretations: it is an accurate reenactment of a traditional ceremony, it is an variant of an traditional ceremony adapted to tourists, it is a traditional ceremony that has been transplanted and modified as people have moved away from its geographical source, it is being use by people who are not members of the culture in an attempt to honor or at least recognize that culture, or it is being used to mock something.  Who knows?  Everything is in motion, and cultures these days are spreading fractally around the world.

Only in the case in which the intent is to offend do I feel that anyone should take offense.  In all other cases, the response should be either to accept the changes as intended, to educate, or to walk away.  If the offense was intentional then a peaceful counteroffensive (not censorship) is the appropriate response.

So, net net, I accept the discomfort of the cross-culture student but I think that it is completely inappropriate to ask everyone around in a place that has no familiarity with a given culture to adopt selected parts of that culture based upon the questionable authority of a few people claiming to have evaluated its authenticity.

 

Back from Europe (and a long hiatus)

We went to Europe and returned.  It is now fall and I am trying to get myself organized for the fall and winter.  Primary objective, after getting along with family and friends, is to continue(?) to find topics that interest me intellectually.

I probably would have gone back to Score if the email invitation had been personal instead of broadcast.  I know that I expect too much — my contributions were minuscule — but it means that I have failed to connect personally with anyone there.  This, of course, does not surprise me.

Approval Voting?

I just observed that the MAA has (long ago, actually (1986)) adopted approval voting.

I do not think I approve.   I think that voting is about making a decision that you have to live with and the this feels like a typical 21-century feel-good way of avoiding making a decision.  I read the Wikipedia article on the topic and found nothing there to change my mind.

I do concede that there are situations in which it might be acceptable, but certainly not in government elections.

Notes on Resource Convertibility

  • See Resource Convertibility by Tobias Fritz
  • Tiny point but isn’t the whole point of the inequality
  • $latex \text{timber} + \text{nails} \geq  \text{table}
  • missed by “given timber and nails, we can make a table?”  You need “given enough timber and nails, we can make a table.”  Otherwise our words do not stress the constraints on resource allocation.
    • An thus, for example: a cup of sand > Intel i7 CPU
  • Wow. I was reading this backwards “I like to write it as an inequality like this, which I think of as stating that having timber and nails is at least as good as having a table, because the timber and nails can always be turned into a table whenever one needs a table.” 
    • Pending further reading: I do not like this.  Timber and nails is not better than a table without additional information: skill, hammer, time, workshop, plans, purpose for the end product, …
  • This thought is sort of addressed later, but I am still not comfortable with applying this abstraction to real world problems without clarifying the meaning of the ordering: does x \gt y mean
    • “x is sufficient for y”
    • “x is necessary for y”
    • something else
  • In his example, neither is true: you need more than just wood and nails to build a table and you could build a table with a sheet of steel and a welder.
  • Fascinating:
    1. John Baez is active in yet another application of category theory
    2. Azimuth