See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

Category Archives: Gender

A Quick Note on that Ex-Googler Memo Thing

In a desperate bid to make my parents love me, Fortune.com published an essay of mine on James Damore’s famous, if incoherent, memo. My essay was focused on proper argumentation, how Damore’s memo lacked it, and how we all need to focus on the fights that actually matter (like how you define fairness) instead of arguing about unprovable facts that don’t (like exactly how much of gender discrimination is due to biological factors). Please go ahead and read it so my mother will finally put something I made on her fridge.

I want to take a moment to say: yes, he should have been fired. No, I haven’t changed my position that generally speaking you shouldn’t fire people for unpopular ideas. As I wrote when Brendan Eich was pressured to resign:

Brendan Eich may well have some sins to answer for, and for some of those perhaps he should pay his price publicly. It is quite another thing to say that the price for those sins is his job, and that Mozilla is responsible for making him pay it.

So what’s the difference, other than Eich was a C-Suite employee and high profile and Damore is not? Well, Damore’s sins weren’t just abstract politics or ideology. He insulted the women he was working with, not because he said they were inferior to he because of their gender, but because he wrote so sloppily that such an interpretation was reasonable under the circumstances. And more importantly, he did it as part of his company role, publishing his memo onto Google’s internal social network, for the explicit purpose of influencing Google culture and policy. And it was a profoundly lazy attempt at that, which damaged relationships between Damore and his coworkers and Google employees generally for no appreciable or foreseeable gain. It was, plainly speaking, useless and dumb. Damore’s primary contribution to our public dialogue was a useless freak out where conservatives pretended only the good parts of the memo were there and progressives pretended that the memo was coherently evil when it was just incoherently bad. Damore served his view point very poorly and lowered the level of debate. That isn’t a good reason to fire him either, I suppose, but the way he harmed his fellow employees trust certainly is.

So, next time you want to put together a long controversial memo? Do it better. And maybe post it anonymously on Reddit instead of to your company’s social network.

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Parallel Invaders

Mary Karr has published an extraordinary piece about the entirely too common experience of sexual assault.[1] Karr:

[H]e grabbed between my legs with a meaty claw, big as a waffle iron. He also called me the “C” word with breath that stank of beer. Then he passed on into a sandwich shop with his buddy. [H]e wasn’t dope sick or a flat-out loon.

In case you haven’t been on the receiving end of this sort of assault, you should know the primal physiological response it evokes—in this woman, anyway. The stomach drops, as if you’ve been shoved backward from a skyscraper and are flailing through space. Time dismantles. […] Inside, the Grabber, as I thought of him, was waiting in line to order a sandwich. He was fine; I was the one with the problem.

Please, read the whole thing.

I don’t understand the fear of women in their full #YesAllWomen totality feel. I can’t – I grew up in the parallel universe where the sexual assaults of the real world are invisible, more fantastical than ghosts or gremlins. A universe where all sexual overtures, even of the gross sort, seem welcome on some level. Karr corrects:

One pal joked, “Oh, yeah, try it,” suggesting that for men, any sexual overture is welcome. I asked how he’d feel if a fellow weighing three-forty cornered him somewhere isolated and manhandled him. Suddenly this struck him as way more sinister.

This reframing, alone, doesn’t let us understand the fear or see the real universe from our parallel existence. But I think we can begin to glimpse it by imagining these overtures not only as coming from a rough, gigantic man[2] but that he is one of countless rough, gigantic men. That there are nothing but rough gigantic men, the ninety-some percent of the human species sexually drawn to you. Some of who are quite decent! But they look the same as the other ones or maybe better. Karr:

a voice rose from the sidewalk. “What’d he do?” It was a man on a rectangle of cardboard you might normally step around.

“He grabbed […] my private zone!” [I said. He] jutted his jaw out, saying, “He cain’t do that” with such fire that I started dialing 911. […] My new friend on the cardboard said, “Go, go, go!” and I started to trot. They broke into a sprint, outpacing me right off.

There also needs to be action with our empathy. The heroes of this story are Karr and the man with nothing but a cardboard home and a sense of righteousness who helped her. The Grabber is the obvious antagonist, as is the system that will fail to end the Grabber’s threat. But I keep thinking of the Grabber’s friend. He, I think, is the true villain of the tale.

There are two ways to exit the parallel universe where men exist without fear of sexual assault. One is to be forcibly wrestled into the real world by the sudden visibility of assault. To have your loved ones become the victims and seeing the world their eyes, or worse, becoming a victim yourself.[3] The other is to catch glimpse of the assaulters as they pass from our world to the real one and back again. They alone among parallel men can transit between worlds – doing their damage and then hiding among the good parallel men still none the wiser. They alone know how to erase the borders between worlds, to seduce us into their conspiracy, that we do not know enough of the real world to see something when their mask slips. They alone among the parallel universe men know we live in is fiction because they help create it.

Of course, our world is better. So we need to bring the women here, where sexual assault is as fantastical as ghosts and gremlins. We need to make our world the real one, freed from the malignant influence of a horrific parallel universe where men destroy women with word every word and every touch.[4] It is our duty to stop the parallel invaders we have been fooled into thinking are friends.

Yesterday, I announced that “all that I am” was in preparation for fatherhood. I hope you begin to gauge the full meaning of “all”.

Footnotes

[1] If you think the numbers are inflated, I challenge you to find a number of sexual assaults you would accept as reasonable.

[2] Especially ones with the impudent swagger of the never-punished.

[3] The double invisibility of male sexual assault victims is beyond the scope of this essay.

[4] The full strategy for how good men can stop bad men is way beyond the scope of this essay. But spoiler: it involves norms and cultural thinking.

Inconvenient Victims

A week and change ago I wrote about Oisin Tymon and our tendency to devalue victims, especially male ones in favor of their high-profile abusers. And really, I’ll bet a bunch of you don’t remember who Oisin Tymon is. And that’s because we’ve disposed of him, a low status male, in favor of Jeremy Clarkson, a high status male even though Clarkson is clearly in the wrong.

One of the core insights of feminism is that we are all part of a mostly invisible destructive system of incentives and assumptions that support incumbent interests by awarding status.1 That is to say, feminism is saying that we’re all part of a destructive culture.

They’re not wrong. Not about that anyway. There is a problem though. That destructive system of status isn’t just destructive. Not every turn of vocabulary is the result of a conspiracy to harm women. Some, maybe most of the real problems they finger are emergent instead of curated. Maybe talking about male privilege at the same time men were kicked out of the economy in a culture that makes self worth exactly equal to employment is tone deaf to the point of offensiveness.2 And maybe calling the subtle systems of a mostly free and positive culture the Patriarchy at the same time very unsubtle patriarchal systems are subjugating, mutilating and murdering women is unacceptable hyperbole. I mention this mostly to point out my disagreements with feminism are occasional3 but not just with the “extremist” sorts.

This is also a good time to lay bare (another) one of my own biases. Well, more than a bias, a value. In Leah Libresco’s terms, one of the kittens I am trying to protect. I try to speak for those forgotten in debates. That is, the unintended casualties, the unexpected beneficiaries and the inconvenient victims that get in the way of the narrative. Sometimes it is the the low status victims. Sometimes it is organizations like the Straight Spouse Network.

The Straight Spouse Network is for the forgotten half of triumphant coming out stories, of men and women finally getting to marry those they really, fully love with all of their being. It’s for the man or woman who married a homosexual woman or man, unknowingly, unwittingly, and unsympathetically. And then was divorced, and left behind. Here is a 2014 article about them. There are some more articles about that organization, or just straight spouse stories in general, but nothing compared to the avalanche of sympathetic coming out stories. No media friendly campaign about it getting better. Here again, disposability rears it’s ugly head. Male straight spouses especially are failures in the traditional status markers of society. They’re the punchline to the whole of a Friends character. Here again, my complaint is not that we’re treating the plight of LGBT persons too seriously, my complaint is that we’re not treating the plight of the straight spouses seriously enough.

I don’t think it’s just about status either. It’s about narratives. Straight spouses don’t fit. They get in the way of the story where we get to choose to be on the side defending the bedrock of society from radicals or a powerless minority from reactionary prejudice. Nothing to encourage pride about. Because “both sides”4 don’t want these people to exist in the future so maybe it’s just easier if we pretend they don’t exist now.

I’m going to be doing my level best to grapple with some very difficult and divisive subjects, especially in the next few posts. I will end up with some frequency on the wrong side of an issue – defending people I ultimately disagree with. In doing so, I hope to do well by an honorable tradition and that you’ll stick with me to the end. This blog isn’t about changing people’s minds, but it is about opening them.

Wish me luck.

Footnotes

Jeremy Clarkson, Oisin Tymon, and the Disposability of Men

Several of my Facebook friends, along with the rest of the Internet, have been lamenting the death of Top Gear. Top Gear is not actually dead, but it is losing its biggest star in host Jeremy Clarkson. Why? Well, the BBC internal investigator summed it up roughly like this:

Oisin Tymon was the victim of an unprovoked physical and verbal attack [by Clarkson]. It is also clear to me that Oisin Tymon is an important creative member of the Top Gear team who is well-valued and respected. He has suffered significant personal distress as a result of this incident, through no fault of his own.

I find it a little distressing that the investigator had to go out of the way to underline Tymon’s value on top of his innocence. As if he was predicting that people would savage Tymon otherwise. Well, they did anyway. Let’s lay this out using the commonly accepted facts:

1. Clarkson and the rest of the Top gear team were out and about. A hotel was waiting for them. The kitchen staff was kept late to have hot food ready.

2. Clarkson decides to dawdle and drink at a pub for two extra hours.

3. The kitchen staff goes home.

4. Clarkson arrives at the hotel and is told there will not be any hot food and he’ll have to have a cold plate.

5. At this point he physically battered1  and verbally abused a junior producer, Oisin Tymon.

6. The physical attack lasted about 30 seconds with Tymon offering no resistance, but the verbal abused continued afterward. This included offensive language and threats to fire Tymon.

7. Tymon, ” shocked and distressed by the incident” drove himself to get medical care all the while under the impression he had just been fired.

8. Clarkson apologized.

9. Clarkson was told his contract would not be renewed. He is broadly expected to be able to find continued employment as a television presenter for a rival channel.

Aside from the death threat nuts, there are people who are focused on lamenting that Top Gear will be dead to them, or perhaps unbothered by his assault, or urging that his apology should be taken seriously. All in all, a waffling, nuanced take.

Would it have been the same if Tymon had been a woman? (Bracket the very real problem of whether or not women are believed) Look through the facts again: a popular television host batters one of his staffers for failing to procure a hot meal for him. She is verbally assaulted, and fired. The host apologizes profusely but is still fired anyway. He’s still going to have a job.

I think that provokes a different reaction in a lot of people. It provokes a different reaction in me. It shouldn’t.

As I’ve alluded before, I have a complicated and troubled relationship with feminism. I count self identified feminists among my closest friends, but I’ve never called myself a feminist and I shall not call myself a feminist. I have, however, learned a lot from them, and I owe them an intellectual debt for two concepts found in feminist theory: the Patriarchy and the disposbility of men.2 Let me explain the concepts at the rudimentary level I understand them. At the top of a society are a group of powerful, old men. The patriarchs. The fathers of fathers. And they support and are supported by a series of normative assumptions. They control women by placing them in a lower status and primarily restricting their sexual contact and fertility. They control men by controlling access to women, and thereby access to sex, and thereby access to heirs, all while making production of male heirs the path to status and power. And here is the crucial bit for our purposes they make men who have not achieved status risk their lives for it. The archtypical example is sending young men off to die for King and Country with the promise that if they kill enough of the Others, they come back to riches and a sweetheart. Until that happens, until they have the status of the Patriarchs sending people off to die in wars, they are disposable.

Now, I make fun of the capital P-Patriarchy concept a lot, because like all theoretical superstructures, it takes a core insight and quickly falls off the rails. Also, when your in-laws are part of an honest to good lower case ‘p’ patriarchy, the Patriarchy seems like a stretch. But it, along with the disposability of men, are good-enough models3 of examining how the powerful in a society are going to be invested, overtly, covertly, and unconsciously in certain normative assumptions. That, in turn should remind us that we are often invested, overtly, covertly and unconciously in normative assumptions and some of those are going to bite us in the ass. The fact is we’re not bothered by violence being done to men nearly as much as we are bothered by violence done to women, regardless of perpetrator, the disparity happens to be worse when it is cross-gender violence. 

The problem is not that we make too big a deal out of violence done to women. The problem is that we do not make big enough of a deal out of violence done to men. We, and here men are the primary actors in their own maltreatment, have bought in on some level to the disposability of men. Not to the point where we fling them away to die in foregn wars for glory, thank God, but to the point where we cast aside their feelings, their dignity, and their right to hold a job without being battered. We toss their names out of the stories we write about the perpetrators, men with status.

It isn’t that it is wrong to be sad that a thing you enjoyed will no longer be the same. But you should take a moment to remember that there is a real human being, one in a vulnerable position, that was harmed. That has to matter, at least for a moment’s reflection more than your TV show. And if it doesn’t, maybe you should think about why.

Footnotes

An Ambivilence for Father’s Day

I have trouble with Father’s Day. I mean, I shouldn’t. I’m part of three traditions that all honor parents in their own peculiar ways. I don’t really buy it anyway. Why are we honoring people for doing what they’re supposed to do? No one’s ever offered me an award for not beating my wife, nor for not stealing from the office, nor for not irresponsibly fathering and abandoning children. No one should. It is a basic obligation.

Parenthood is an obligation first and finally. No child is brought into the world due to their consent. Not one of us is alive because asked to be born, none of us consented to enter the lottery that determines our circumstances. Our lives begin in pain and terror. The cry of a helpless baby is not merely a request, it is a demand. Feed me! This is your fault! That fault is born by mother and father, and gender roles are accidents of history and efficiency in meeting that obligation.

That is a moral obligation, not a biological one. To end a pregnancy may require special intervention for a mother, but upon birth the instinctive bonds and hormonal imperatives are just one of many: food, safety, shelter, companionship. The demands of a child have only the power of shrill voices: blackmail of the heart, not of genetics. There will always be the chance to have another. Fathers can walk away long before the cries, before the belly’s swell, long before his biology begins to ask him to stay.

Sometimes, often even, morality isn’t enough to make fathers stay. The gratitude that we feel – that I feel – towards our own fathers and fathers worldwide does not come from them exceeding their basic moral responsibilities. It comes from a recognition that in the world-that-is fathers fail their moral responsibilities all the time. So we honor the better fathers in the world-that-is because the world-that-is is so far from the world-that-ought. If giving out cookies is the price we pay for less of that, then, well, that’s what we’re going to have to do.

My father never needed that cookie and never asked for it. No one takes his obligations with the same seriousness that my father does. I don’t know that he has done them well, but by God, he has done them. In a world of muddling through, my father never threw up his hands and asked for sympathy, no excuses for his fallibility. When he did wrong, it was because he thought he was right and when he learned otherwise, he tried to make amends. I learn more every day how extraordinary that really is, even if I now think (in imitation of him) that it is the very least that people should do.

Fathers and sons have complex relationships. It is truth not because it is written in the bedrock of humanity (genetic, spiritual or memetic) but because it has emerged again and again across time and space. We’re no exception. As a child I gave up on asking for affection and set my eyes on a higher prize, that of his respect. That’s driven me since in more ways that I’d care to admit, but I think ultimately for the better. We agree on nothing. Verily, we are disagreeable and that could not annoy the other more. He looks at me and he sees all his fears. I once looked at him and I saw mine. Now, I hope I finally see him clearly, a man who never shirks and never expects forbearance or praise or gratitude for simply doing his job. In the world-that-ought, it’d be the least. That makes it worth all the more in the world-that-is.

In this world of failures and excuses, he’s a specially great father indeed.

Emergent Evil, Perspective, and Responsibility

In these last couple weeks, I’ve been circling around a recurring theme of the complexities of responsibility for evil. When we talk about particular evils that are in the world, the stakes and baggage tends to cloud up our discussions, so I’d like turn to the weightless world of video games as a venue to examine evil and who is responsible for it.

In video game design, there is a lot of talk about designing games with emergent gameplay instead of curated gameplay. Curated gameplay is what most people think of when they think of a video games: game designers provide a top to bottom engineered experience, scripted to suit the beginning, middle, and end of the game’s story. When you play, say, Mario Bros., you run through the same levels, interacting with the same enemies, entering the same castles where your princess is still not available for rescue. Emergent gameplay, on the other hand, occurs when designers create a set of game mechanics and rules, and player interaction with those rules and each other causes complex game systems to emerge.

A particularly interesting example of emergent gameplay occurs within EVE Online, a MMPORG best described as a nightmarish combination of multiplayer Sid Meier’s Pirates! in space! and Microsoft Excel. Within the EVE Online game space there have emerged complex societal and financial transactions, specialized roles, and factions made entirely of players creating their own norms and behaviors, without the benefit of the computerized game to enforce them.1 That’s pretty amazing, but it comes with an enormous amount of bad, anti-social behavior, even virtual crimes. Players will often find their in-game avatars killed for the amusement of other players, have their assets stolen by supposed friends, and a whole host of advanced predation. It isn’t just virtual reputation and blood, sweat, and tears at stake either, virtual in-game cash is sufficiently fungible to turn into out-of-game currency.

The game designers respond to all of this predation by smiling and disclaiming responsibility.2 Perhaps this is disingenuous. After all, the designers of EVE Online chose to create a mostly lawless environment, and then they encouraged players to take advantage of it. Surely then, they have some sort of responsibility for the predators they enable. But, wouldn’t there also be a special sort of responsibility, perhaps even an intervening one, for the predators who take advantage of that lawless environment? Aren’t the designers of EVE Online less responsible for the emergent predation that they could not have foreseen compared to the ones they foresaw or even encouraged?

When I criticized Ta-Neisi Coates’ Case for Reparations, I focused on his vague, even incoherent, description of the reparations themselves. This incoherence stemmed from his treatment of the different sorts of predation he cataloged. From slavery, to redlining by Federal Housing Administration (FHA), to contract sellers, to rogue grand juries to lynchings, Coates never paused to dwell on the diversity of bad actors, treating sovereigns and mob members alike. When the contract sellers preyed on Black families in North Lawndale, was the city of Chicago (or the FHA, or the realtors or…) curating that evil, or did it emerge?3 The Case for Reparations clearly demonstrated that the FHA directly and maliciously harmed Blacks with redlining, and redlining gave rise to an environment where predators thrived. It is not clear however, that contract sellers were cultivated or merely emerged as an unhappy accident.

Emergent evils were at work in a different way during Elliot Rodger’s lethal rampage on a UC Santa Barbara sorority. Rodger was apparently spurred on by his misogyny and frustration with his “involuntary celibacy”. Rodger’s evil was emergent, doubly so. There is little doubt in my mind that Rodger was mad, but his madness filtered through a cultural substrate, colored, glossed, and tweaked by the particular sorts of horrors our society produces at its fringes.4 Just as the paranoid take unconscious inspiration from the news and TV shows to imagine themselves the unwitting stars of reality television, Rodger’s rage was stewed in misogyny and a toxic sort of masculinity. In response to Rodger’s attack on women, many women went online to share their perspectives and experience using the hashtag #YesAllWomen 5 The common thread that emerged throughout the tweets was an overwhelming sense of fear of predation by men. Not all men, but not any particular man or group of men either.

The Rogers of the world are not the fault of Patriarchal video-game-of-life designers using the Rogers of the world as their victim-assailants on women.6 The appearance of such a design is illusory, the result of invisible strands of culture taking hold as they tug, shift, and channel ideas, even with the supposed puppet masters of our society. The commonality of experiences do not indicate a commonality of cause, a conspiracy of predation. To what degree are the Rodgers of the world and other threats to women emergent and what to degree are they curated? That is the sort of question that doesn’t get answered much by those advocating social justice, and while I have plenty of uncharitable guesses as to why, the fairest explanation seems to be that from the victim’s perspective, whether predators emerged or were curated is pretty unimportant. The victimization happens either way, and whether implicitly or explicitly, social justice advocates are advocating on behalf of victims.

It does matter whether the threats from men described in the #YesAllWomen tweets were emergent or curated, and it matters whether the contract sellers emerged or were curated. Not just because that will shed light on who the villain, if any, of the tale is. If social justice advocates speak for the victims, and lawyers speak on behalf of the accused, it leaves the rest of us as third parties. Paying attention to whether evils are emergent gives an accurate and precise description of the how and why of the problem at hand. If you’re in the business of making the world a better place, an accurate and precise description of a problem puts you a well designed and implemented machine away from solving that problem.

That problem has to be solved. Both #YesAllWomen and the Case for Reparations drove home experiences held in common that have infected the very warp and woof of the daily life of too many people. Emergent evil is not satisfying theory of those crimes, and it is not meant to be. To recognize emergence is to recognize that very few are actually guilty. In fact, emergence can produce good as well as evil, so it also denies us many heroes. But if a theory of emergent evil denies an illusory justice for victims, it does not deny that there are victims. Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that “[f]ew are guilty, but all are responsible.” Emergence denies guilt, but it does not absolve us of our responsibility.

Footnotes