Entries in culture (8)


Thoughts on "Victimhood Culture"

This article in the Atlantic has been making the rounds recently, commenting on a recent scholarly paper (sadly paywalled) on the theory of microagression. Some things that struck me about the piece:

1. It’s strange that most of the commentary on the article acts as if Campbell and Manning (the authors) are dispassionate sociologists, when they clearly have a dog in the fight. They’re charactering past cultures in terms of virtues those cultures nominally value, then don’t even try to identify what virtue the modern culture they disparage is reaching for. It might be accurate to speak of a “solidarity culture”, where the way to respond to a slight is to encourage mass opprobrium, and shibboleths and linguistic norms that demonstrate in-group identity are of paramount importance.

2. It’s really strange that the Atlantic article comments extensively on a blog post from nearly two years ago. Sure, the blog has “microaggressions” in the title, but the Oberlin Microaggresions Tumblr was active from February to September 2013. Despite the title, the stuff it started off cataloging doesn’t exactly fit the bill. (The point of microaggressions is that stuff that’s not overtly aggressive can still be grating, not that it may be ambiguous to what extent an overtly awful person is being a troll.)

3. That blog starts out as a discussion of really overt racism, continues with posts that are a mix of overt racism and the sort of thing actually meant by “microaggressions”, then ends with an angry rant by a Hispanic student who tells a white student to “leave the soccer team” for daring to speak a word of Spanish, mocks their attempt to apologize, and asserts that they “take up to [sic] much space”. The blog ends at that point, with no explanation why. Probably whoever was running the blog moved on to other things, but it would fit the narrative arc to say that last post was some sort of culmination of the state of racial discourse at Oberlin, at which point students decided to never write about that subject, or possibly any subject, ever again. (At the very least, such a narrative would make fine fodder for an Atlantic article.)

4. The article notes:

If “dignity culture” is characterized by a reticence to involve third parties in minor disputes, an argument could be made that many black and brown people are denied its benefits. In a city like New York during the stop-and-frisk era, minorities were stopped by police because other people in their community, aggrieved by minor quality-of-life issues like loitering or sitting on stoops or squeegee men, successfully appealed to third-parties to intervene by arguing that what may seem like small annoyances were actually burdensome and victimizing when aggregated.

To what extent are non-collegians engaged in policing microaggressions by another name?

If you already have political power, it is easy to be dignified. Simply appeal to the law only for serious matters, once your culture has successfully set the definition of what is “serious”. Anything not serious can be easily ignored.

5. Were the lunch counter sit-ins of the 1960s a product of “dignity culture” or “victimhood culture”? Those protests neither “exercised covert avoidance” nor “sought only to restore harmony without passing judgment”. They appealed for political support against something other than “the most serious of offenses”. Was that an example of “toleration and negotiation”, or a “complaint”, aimed at winning the political support of third parties?

6. A Megan McArdle piece on the same article notes (of duels):

The seconds, the formalities, the extended opportunities for apology, raise the cost of fighting, lower the cost of not doing so, and thereby mitigate the appalling violence to which honor cultures are prone. Unless victim culture can find similar stopping mechanisms, it will collapse into the bloodless version of the endless blood-feuds that made us seek alternatives to honor cultures in the first place.

“Bloodless” is still more than enough to ruin lives, of course. And even when overt violence has been relegated to the margins, any sufficiently big mob is enough to give a violent fringe plenty of motive force.

7. The Atlantic article links to a post by Jonathan Haidt. Haidt wrote a book called The Coddling of the American Mind. In the page on his site where he talks about critical response to the book, he writes:

The New Republic: The trigger warning myth, by Aaron Hanlon. This is a thoughtful essay about the sensitivities needed to lead a seminar class through difficult material. His main point is that TWs are not a form of censorship. I agree. He argues that sometimes guidance is needed beforehand. I agree with that too. I just think its very bad for students to call it a “trigger warning,” or to do anything to convey to students the expectation that they will be warned about… everything.

So you want to write a book about how annoying liberals are, but lack any substantial disagreement. Nothing to do but get into a knock-down drag-out fight about linguistic norms.

8. “Political correctness has gone too far” has gone too far. Well, that’s the joke. More accurate would be: “Political correctness has gone too far” has not gone anywhere.


Praise for "Hanabi"

I’d like to take a moment to discuss a particularly brilliant card game that’s caught my attention recently.

To not get bogged down in the details of the full rules, I’ll describe only the crucial details of Hanabi:

  1. Hands are reversed; each player can see every other player’s cards but not their own.
  2. Players cooperate to complete a solitaire-type task, building piles of cards in a set order.
  3. The sharing of information is carefully regulated and limited by the rules.

The thing I think is most interesting about the game is how well it reflects a key concept in Japanese culture, the distinction between honne (heartfelt desires) and tatemae (proper public expression).

In Hanabi, it is sometimes possible to give another player enough information to be sure a given move is good or bad based entirely on logical inference.  But the rules are strict enough that successful communication must often rely heavily on subtext.  For example, “this is your only red card” might not be enough information to conclude that the card is a valid play.  But pointing out a single card often has the subtext of “play this next”.  “These two cards are your 4s” doesn’t say anything about the cards’ color, but if there are two or more piles on the board topped with 3s, you might infer that either is a valid play.  Then again, not everyone chooses to express subtext in the same way.

There’s an interesting tension between desire to achieve goals and desire to not annoy with impropriety.  It’s interesting to observe how often players come to the correct conclusion about subtext only to second-guess themselves when a bit of errant table-talk sows the seed of self-doubt.

Once, when discussing this, I suggested that the game becomes more beautiful and fascinating when the rules are strictly adhered to, the game passing rapidly with stony faces and relative silence.  Another player astutely argued, “I think the ideal game is one where a player might say, ‘Maybe I’ll do this,’ and the other players might respond ‘maybe’ or ‘well…’ but no more.” Which does indeed remind me of Japan!

When the game’s creator, Antoine Bauza, was asked:

What kind of “conventions” can players legally use in Hanabi? Or, more importantly than the rules, what do you envision an ideal round of Ghost Stories [another of Bauza’s games] look like? Hanabi?

He responded:

Hanabi is all about communication and non-communication. Some like to play it the hard way (just give the information, with a neutral tone), some like to play it the soft way (making small sign, changing tone, using eye contact). It’s an experimental design, so I ask the players to make a move and choose their conventions.

For me a perfect round in Hanabi or Ghost Stories is not one with a formal outcome (a nice move, leading to a brilliant victory, for example), it’s one players will be remember later because it was a great gaming moment. Maybe it was a very bad move, who cares, the point is to have a great experience at the table!

In conclusion, I suggest playing this one if you get the chance.  It’s a great cooperative game, with simple rules that produce challenging and interesting play.  It’s also a great example to look at if you’re interested in game design.



I’ve been away from here too long, hosed by work and politics.  The presidential debates sure are interesting.  Wait… what was that about Barack Obama?  No, no, I didn’t mean that debate.  I meant this debate:

Round two:

Who the heck is moderating these?!  I guess it makes sense when you see the guy’s campaign ad:

The political cartoon has a venerable history, but I’m beginning to think the political remix is really capturing the zeitgeist of modern political satire.  Here’s something a bit more musical:

More from MC R-Money:

But before you think Romney’s the only one who’s been taking on a turn for the musical, I had to find some quality musical remix satire for Obama.  And not just the different, though also funny, type of remix that’s not political satire per se.  (This sort of thing is somewhere in the middle.)

Here’s one that’s pretty good (though probably cheating a bit and NSFW for swears):

What makes for a great political remix?  What’s your favorite example?


Trayvon Martin and the State of Discourse

I’ve been following the case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting at the hands of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  On the left, there was a rush to accuse Zimmerman of cold-blooded murder.  On the right, there was a rush to paint Martin as a thug and double down on the racialized paranoia.  But the facts that really make or break the case (specifically, who started the fight) are currently unknown.  The unusual bits of Florida’s laws on self-defense don’t really apply to this case, they don’t excuse murder if you provoke someone into attacking you and then resort to lethal force, or if you attack first and later fear for your life when the fight doesn’t go your way.

There’s some interesting discussion to be had on the role of guns in self-defense and aggressive violence, guns win fights but also escalate the stakes awfully quick:

Statistically, incidents of guns being used successfully in self-defense are extremely rare. The following events are a lot more likely:

• Criminal gets hold of your gun and uses it against you.
• The gun gives you a psychological feeling of self-confidence that will cause you to get into bad situations you otherwise would have avoided if you did not have the gun.
• Use of a gun in an ambiguous situation will get you in prison for murder, which is worse than getting beaten up.
• Being prosecuted for murder will ruin your life even if the jury finds you not guilty.

The Zimmerman incident is a good example of the truth of the above. The video showed that Zimmerman wasn’t beaten up that bad. Without the gun, Trayvon probably would have run away after giving him a good but not life-threatening beating. And according to Zimmerman’s father, Trayvon saw the gun, which caused an escalation in the altercation.

There’s something to be said about race relations in this country, something to be said about violence, about respect and community, about culture, about the standards of criminal evidence.  But most of what I hear about this case depresses me because it seems to be overwhelmingly characterized by those that no longer hope for productive dialog on this sort of issue, from one side:

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Mikhail Muhammad said at a Saturday press conference in Sanford, Fla., in which he also called on 10,000 black men to “capture” Zimmerman. “He should be fearful for his life”…

Or the other:

In the last few days I’ve repeatedly discussed blacks’ common attitude that their response to any white authority figure who asks them anything is to resist, fight, ignore, or run away. But the commenter at Half-Sigma puts it better: Non-blacks may not talk to blacks, period. To say anything to a black is to step into his territory, it is to dis him, and thus to provoke his righteous vengeance…

Seems like on some issues the state of discourse in this country is only slightly better off than Trayvon Martin.


Second City Epidemiologist

I watched The Interrupters this weekend, and I second this review, it’s well worth seeing.  The documentary chronicles the front-line agents of the organization CeaseFire, the Violence Interrupters.  CeaseFire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist who formerly worked for the World Health Organization, and he takes very seriously the analogy of the “violence epidemic”.  The approach is similar:

  1. Identify outbreaks (violent incidents)
  2. Respond at the center with a focus on limiting transmission (discouraging new retaliation by those not already involved)
  3. Build long-term resilience with vaccinations, sanitation, and so on (change norms)

A more comprehensive approach also fits into this analogy:  Infected are quarantined (criminals captured) and treated (rehabilitated) or institutionalized.  CeaseFire’s efforts, though, are mostly focused on the above, particularly step two.

On the non-metaphorical health front, similar efforts have been similarly sucessful.  An example from The Checklist Manifesto was particularly vivid in my mind while watching the movie, a study in which soap was distributed, along with simple instruction on handwashing methods and habits, to impoverished communities.  The results were dramatic.  But those results relied on the cooperation of those participating in the program, and it would be a mistake to assume that their behavior was influenced primarily by the mere availability of soap.  The instruction was also a factor.  But one factor found in follow-up study as to why that program had been more successful than some similar efforts was that the soap used was particularly high quality.  Smelled good, felt good on the hands.  Washing with it was pleasant.

One question for CeaseFire is not just how best to educate about nonviolence, or how to bring social pressure to bear in favor of nonviolence, but how to make nonviolent conflict resolution “smell good”.  (The movie contains some interesting ideas in relation to this question, I think, though it doesn’t address that directly.)

For further reading, see this post on CeaseFire as applied anthropology.  Also related to the topic of violence in Chicago and the source of the title of this post, this blog.


Oh When the Sluts / Come Marching In

In Boston last weekend, this happened.  And I was there.

The Boston SlutWalk was a response to the Toronto SlutWalk, which in turn was a response to a member of the Toronto police, who at a workshop on security York University college said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

People found that annoying for several obvious reasons:

  1. “Like sluts” is a surprisingly fickle term, and that bit of advice reduces rather easily to a claim that women should be inconspicuous or else.
  2. It’s stated in a way that’s overly simplistic: In fact, that advice would only apply to a small minority of rape or sexual assault cases (and even in the cases where it does apply, one wonders if there’s something self-fulfilling about law enforcement officers making statements like that, in terms of undermining legal deterrents).
  3. That sort of advice pushes focus away from solutions that discourage perpetrators in absolute terms (non-zero-sum solutions that make life harder for perpetrators if followed by anyone, instead of just making one person a less-obvious target as compared to someone else).
  4. Such advice is particularly troubling in the context of a crime where perpetrators do escape justice based on victim-blaming judges and juries, and particularly troubling coming-from law enforcement.

As always with such decentralized activism, the message of the march was a little incoherent.  However, the speech given by Jaclyn Friedman at the end of the march was an amazing and coherent piece of rhetoric, and you should read it here.  The key bit:

[…] make no mistake about it: we can be called sluts for nearly any reason at all. If we’re dancing. If we’re drinking. If we have ever in our lives enjoyed sex. If our clothes aren’t made of burlap. If we’re women of color, we’re assumed to be sluts before we do a single thing because we’re “exotic.” If we’re fat or disabled or otherwise considered undesirable, we’re assumed to be sluts who’ll fuck anyone who’ll deign to want us. If we’re queer boys or trans women, we’re called sluts in order to punish us for not fearing the feminine. If we’re queer women, especially femme ones, we’re called sluts because we’re obviously “up for anything,” as opposed to actually attracted to actual women. If we’re poor, we’re gold diggers who’ll use sex to get ahead. And god forbid we accuse someone of raping us – that’s the fast track to sluthood for sure, because it’s much easier to tell us what we did wrong to make someone to commit a felony violent crime against us than it is to deal with the actual felon.

There’s a word for all of this. And that word is bullshit. But there’s also a phrase for it: social license to operate. What that means is this: we know that a huge majority of rapes are perpetrated by a small minority of guys who do it again and again. You know why they’re able to rape an average of 6 times each? Because they have social license to operate. In other words: because we let them. Because as a society, we say “oh well, what did she expect would happen if she went back to his room? What did she expect would happen walking around by herself in that neighborhood? What did she expect would happen dressed like a slut?” [emphasis mine]

In other words, the question is what happens in the minds of bystanders, when they’re looking for a rationalization for not intervening in an ambiguous or sketchy situation?  What happens in the minds of jurors, when they’re looking for a reason not to convict?  Those may well be the same essentially-random people who see or hear about such “awareness-raising” activism.

Feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer discusses the SlutWalk here and argues with some detractors who frame it as an effort to reclaim the word ‘slut’, and he makes an interesting point:

In their op-ed SlutWalk is Not Sexual Liberation, Dines and Murphy assert that

… the focus on “reclaiming” the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.


What Dines and Murphy share with the Toronto cop is a sense that women are fools for demanding a level sexual playing field with men. Like so many of my colleagues on the “anti-porn” wing of feminism, Dines and Murphy tend to mistrust (or ignore) young women’s efforts to pursue pleasure. Their concerns about premature sexualization are legitimate, and I share them. But I think they seriously underestimate young women’s potential to negotiate their way from unwanted sexualization to healthy, empowered sexual agency. That kind of journey can’t take place alone, of course. And that’s part of what the SlutWalk movement is about: creating a safe space for women to come together in public defiance of those who would define their sexuality for them. [his emphasis removed, mine added]

I agree with Schwyzer.  Though I’d say that last bit doesn’t just apply to women.


More Than Meats the Eye

There’s more going on here than you might think:


That video is from a YouTube show called EpicMealTime, there’s an entire line of such videos.  See also thisiswhyyourefat, the Heart Attack Grill, the ffffffuuuuuuuuuuuud subreddit, etc., etc.

A few thoughts:

1. Competitive feasting has deep historical roots.  It’s hypothesized to be one of the reasons for the transition between hunting-gathering and agriculture.  Starving hunter-gathers presumably would not turn to agriculture, since that means burying grain instead of eating it and staying in a food-poor area instead of moving.  However, moving from gathering to horticulture to agriculture could be a way of turning a current surplus into a future even-bigger surplus at the expense of being tied down and vulnerable to future famine.

2. Robin Hanson is a fan of explaining modern trends in terms of the tendency of high-status industrialists/agriculturalists to live according to forager norms instead of farmer norms.  But he points out a hole in his hypothesis:

I hypothesize that the cultural pressures which long ago pushed folks from more natural forager ways into then-more-functional farming ways work better on poor people, so that rich folk less feel their pressure. If so, as folks get rich they would tend to revert back to the natural-feeling forager ways.

While this hypothesis may seem natural, I must point out that it has a gaping hole: it is far from obvious why the cultural pressures that made foragers act like farmers should weaken when folks get rich.  Yes poor farmers may have few other options, while rich folks have the luxury of acting more like foragers. But rich farmers could have instead used their wealth to act like hyper-farmers, moving even further from forager styles. Why exactly did rich farmers act more like foragers?

I wonder if competitive eaters lean more politically conservative or liberal than seemingly-similar individuals?

3. Is the kind of competitive feasting I highlight hyper-farmer or hyper-forager?  Well, forager modes of competitive feasting tend to allow high-status individuals to accumulate further status without them accumulating further material control or wealth.

Of course, not all the examples above are the same.  In the case of EMT, I suppose it depends on how the social pressures on Harley Morenstein and the other hosts work as they gain more wealth.  If it results in a dramatic increase in their personal income, agriculturalist.  If it results in the show containing ever larger / more expensive / more dramatically produced meals in such a way that it precludes extraordinary accumulation of wealth by the hosts, forager.

On the other hand, the structure of the feast is more agriculturalist (the “big man” is paying to obtain raw materials up front and people are (essentially) paying him for the result). And pretty much all the distribution of funds is going directly to industrial agriculture.  Distribution of actual food isn’t involved.

And no way a forager is going to get their hands on that much bacon per person.

4. Given the low price of many high-calorie food items, excessive food is in many cases very clearly framed as a celebration of “low culture”.  It hardly fits in with the “eats a healthier and well-varied” diet that’s the first item in Hanson’s description of foragers.  On the other hand, the exaggerated or ironic celebration of low culture is very SWPL.

No idea how to fit that into the farmer norms vs. forager norms framing.

5. Getting back to point 3, countering the accumulation of all wealth in the hands of a few high-status individuals is kind of key if you want to have a stable society.  Modern civilization has dealt with this almost entirely by expanding frontiers (or in globalization terms, “developing new markets”).  But we’re running kind of short on frontiers at the moment, and the need for labor is lower than ever due to technology.

Arguably, foreign aid programs are a sort of competitive feasting.  They redistribute wealth to accumulate status, both of which promote stability.  Given the role of food prices in recent revolutions (past and ongoing), that’s not been terribly effective.


America Needs Better Places

This TED Talk given by James Howard Kunstler is fascinating because it goes a long way to explain the problems with suburbia outside of the direct issue of energy efficiency:

The problem of impoverished public spaces has several sources, many self-reinforcing.  If people drive everywhere, they don’t spend a lot of time in between-building public spaces, so there’s no incentive to improve those spaces, and thus no incentive not to drive everywhere.  If culture values private space over public space, the resulting public spaces reinforce those values.  If people have hard jobs and long commutes, they might not want to linger anywhere on their journey back to their family, so even the indoor public spaces put convenience and speed over the friendliness of the space itself.  And after a long drive home to the kids (who have no access to any sort of public space on their own), one might prefer playing in the back yard to driving out to the park (if there is one).  On the architectural side, building one nice building won’t rehabilitate an otherwise unpleasant space, so why bother.  And based on the idea that the right thing to do in public places certainly isn’t “hang out”, architectural fashions have risen disproportionately promoting elements that are intimidating, disorienting, or disconcerting.

A digression on that last point:  It seems almost like America’s wholesale rejection of urban design fundamentals gave American architects a form of Stockholm Syndrome.  These are the people tasked with building good spaces, which is often impossible and requires knowledge that has been largely discarded.  That leads them to make horrible design decisions even in places where good public spaces could be created and the resources are available.  Kunstler uses Boston’s City Hall plaza as an example, and I can see why:

Boston City Hall

Wikipedia’s discussion of the critical response highlights that architects rated the building far more highly than the general public.  Seriously, did the architects actually think, “It would be great if Boston’s City Hall looked like an imposing concrete inverted UFO filled with bureaucrats, surrounded by a vast brick buffer zone where people have no reason to habitually linger, that’s what the face of local democracy and civic engagement in Boston should look like”?  Presumably not.  It’s just that it seems like a cool idea, any sort of cube-dwellers can be installed in any sort of building, the wide-open space makes for some dramatic light and shadow and consequently some pretty interesting photos if you crop them right.