Types of Freedom

Here’s a link about financial reform before the recent bill was passed, along with my commentary.

The first thing to notice is that the author is straightforward about literally wanting the banks to have less money. To be honest, I’m not sure how I feel about that. I mean, how do you democratically and morally take money away from banks in a way that evidence shows does the most good? It’s a hard question. I mean, certainly the idea that too much money = too much control over democracy certainly seems to make sense, both a priori and in looking at the state of this country. A recent conversation with a libertarian friend had him declaring that if government interfered less, businesses would have far less incentive to interfere at all. There are several problems with that, starting with the fact that special interest groups exist in order to ask for benefits even without precedent, and that businesses would always have incentives to buy out senators.

But, if we take that as a philosophical idea, here are my thoughts.

There are many types of freedoms. For example: economic, political and individual freedom. I thought, as a civil libertarian and socialist, I’d come to the conclusion that economic freedom is just different, it can be excluded in a way that the others can’t. Perhaps because money breeds money, because the gap between the rich and the poor is growing, not shrinking, because without money people live on the streets and starve and die or because money has an undue influence on democracy.

But thinking about it now, that’s not how it is. It’s exactly the same as the others. In some cases you need negative freedoms, that is, the freedom to not be taxed to death, to not have to purchase something in particular from some place in particular, just as you need to be able to not be stopped from going where you like and saying what you like. But you also need positive freedoms, like the right to go vote, the positive participation in democracy. In economic terms, that might mean freedom from want, freedom from the fear and undue stress that comes from abject and even not so abject poverty.

Some things I’ve been reading recently have made me rethink my stance on what can be learned from the ever-feared socialist and otherwise repressive governments of the 20th century and their (I argue tenuous) connections to FDR and New Deal-style democracy. What role does economic freedom play? Is it that individual freedoms are great but must be put in the context of society? Is economic freedom fundamentally different? Si Kahn, famous community organizer during the civil rights movement, whose book, Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders, I think, really said it when he noted that we may very well have learned the wrong lessons from the vast amount of totalitarian oppression and restriction of freedom in the 20th century. We learned that government was scary and bad. What we should have learned was that lots of things are scary and bad (Chomsky and Brandeis would say that big things are scary and bad) and that maybe we should look at what those are exactly and what institutions and resources we have in place at our disposal.

So we know that poverty and death and segregation and concentration camps and lack of security are bad. So we have corporations, who sometimes aid and fund all those things (if you think that I’m exaggerating, look at for-profit prisons), that we can ostensibly control using our money and our free choices. And we have governments, which often do all of those things, that we can supposedly control through the democratic process. We also know that when properly used, both can be forces for good. And what’s really cool about being progressive, and thus following a consequentialist ethic in how we get to a freer, more egalitarian society, is you can say, well great, let’s play these massive, ineradicable forces off against each other. So let’s put in some laws that protect people (like FDIC and the Fed’s emergency funds) but be sure that there are strict regulations (like Glass-Steagal/Volcker or all the regulation that Dick Cheney took away from oil drilling).

Then the corporations have less power and money to screw with democracy and hurt us. Because democracy is good, it’s a positive right we have. And we, the people, are good, and ought not to be hurt. And then when government fails us, as it often does, and we note that democracy is standing in the way of democracy, then we do something else, maybe in the private sector, maybe through community organizing maybe through moving our money from big banks to community ones. Remember that the progressive way is to use things as a means to an end. Everyone, especially libertarians and tea partiers, learned the wrong lessons. Government really can work for us, and the political process is really important. But also, we can force big forces to work for us.

States are not moral agents, people are, and can impose moral standards on powerful institutions.”
– Noam Chomsky

Or something like that.

Comprehending Cat-Calling

So, I just wrote partly about objectification in my last post, but a fairly interesting idea came to me a few days ago and I kind of wanted to discuss it. As a premise, I feel that fashion, like so many other things, is a language. It speaks both to the public at large and to the wearer, sometimes in the same way, and sometimes in entirely different ways. For example, I was once at a frat party in order to keep a friend, who was collecting money, company. I had no intention of going inside, I wasn’t in a frat party mood, and I had come from elsewhere, so I was wearing a skirt to my knees and a long sleeved T-shirt. That said to the world something along the lines of, “I don’t really belong here.” Or, “I’m not like you.” Which I suppose is a step up from what my fashion choices usually say, which is “I don’t really care about fashion, I just wear clothes because they serve certain practical purposes.” Anyway, that’s fine that that’s what they said, but to me, they had an entirely different message. They communicated, “Chana, you are a beautiful girl who could easily, with the right motivation or desire, feel sexy dressing the way these girls do, and that would be fine. But you feel sexy now, wearing this, and that is very cool.”
Anyway, back to the story.
So, I was in a not entirely good mood, and I wanted to dress in a way that said, “I am beautiful and wonderful and here I am.” So I put on a skirt and T-shirt or whatever and walked to class. On the way, I had a few interactions that I really enjoyed, talking and saying hi to strangers. And then, at some point, a car full of guys drove by and whistled or made some comment. I don’t exactly remember. But I didn’t mind, much, which is unusual for me. Interestingly, a twitterer I follow, named feministhulk (who is great, by the way), said something recently about this exact phenomenon. The twitter account releases impassioned statements in all caps, and this one said, “HULK TRY TO OPEN MIND, SMASH EPISTEMOLOGICAL FRAMEWORKS WHICH LIMIT HULK’S THOUGHT, BUT HULK WILL NEVER GET CAT-CALLING.”
So my original thoughts on cat-calling were not particularly well-defined. I thought that, in general, it created a hostile environment and was fairly skeevy and an all-around bad way of telling someone you find them attractive. It makes women feel like they’re always, constantly being judged, and even if that’s true, there’s no reason why it has to be obnoxiously nailed into their heads in such an obvious and crude manner. I had little respect for men who took part in such activities, especially because it seemed more like frat-boy male bonding than anything else, and at the expense of someone’s ease and comfort in their environment. At the same time, I was aware that as I physically matured, there was an element of excitement and appreciation for a no-commitment positive commentary on my appearance. A cheap and superficial route to validation, to be sure, but not necessarily inherently evil. The general principle I derived was that to seek to be sexually appealing in order to draw compliments in order to boost self-esteem or something similar is fairly disgusting. However, the general act of wanting to be seen as sexually attractive is not. That’s a perfectly legitimate message to send, though one should certainly be aware of it. So I sort of understand cat-calling.
Anyway, much more interestingly, this new idea I had struck me as I thought about whether or not, in this instance, I’d been objectified. My answer was, well, I don’t feel particularly objectified, and those guys drove off so quickly that they weren’t able to make me feel trapped in a hostile environment, so maybe not. I mean, I’m clearly inhabiting my body, I am a subject, and so, in this case, I’ll say no. But as I went through this line of reasoning, I realized I wasn’t thinking of the guys as people; in fact, they had become part of my environment. I had sent a message to the environment, and it had responded in a way I was not only not uncomfortable with, in this case I had liked. Which is fine, I suppose, but note that those men had, unwittingly, objectified themselves.
So why is objectification bad? Not just for the obvious reasons. But because it objectifies you. In calling out anonymously, cravenly, you become part of the environment rather than a person in your own right.
Confession: Once I was walking around the streets of northern Chicago with some girlfriends, and we’d been hollered at incessantly for the better part of an hour. So when I saw a van full of teenage boys drive by, I yelled, “Looking good, boys!” which at the time, I thought was hilarious. I realized some inconsistency, but they’d seemed to appreciate it. But now I realize, that not only does that sort of behavior continue the cycle of objectification, it doesn’t do me any favors. Two arguments better than one?

Objectification and Sexism on the Interwebs

So, the atheo-scientific-feminist-liberal blogosphere sort of exploded over the last few weeks about a post I can’t link to because it’s been taken down over at Common Sense Atheism. The blogger decided to create a list of 15 Sexy Scientists, which was composed of both professional looking pictures and photos clearly intended to have some kind of sexual value (such as a woman in a bikini or some such). This has been discussed to an extent I couldn’t hope to match in all of the places mentioned here . As a result, I won’t be commenting a great deal on whether what he did was ethical or not, but rather some general lessons to be learned from the experience.

Lesson 1: Women are different from men

Don’t misinterpret: I think that gender ought to be completely abstracted out from sex, that the dichotomy of gender identity is harmful and obsolete, that gender is clearly a spectrum rather than a duality, and that placing people into two categories that they have little control over and making judgments and decisions based on those classifications is a major problem and leads to a great deal of misunderstandings at best and highly unethical actions at worst. Regardless of these opinions, which I might discuss another time, the fact remains that we do not live in a genderless society. We may never live in such a utopia, but that’s irrelevant. The point is that, at this moment, despite the fact that based on the criteria you choose, I might be much better categorized with female-bodied people who identify male, or male-bodied people who identify as male or any possible combination you can think of, there are things I have in common with female-identified people that I do not have with male identified people. And I mean this in the societally-identified way, not the self-identified way. We are a political minority. In many ways, we are marginalized, harassed, mistreated, oppressed and discriminated against. It is hard to be a woman.

It should be eminently clear from this lesson that therefore, arguments like, “well, it was ok when we did it to men. You feminists are all about equality, right? So this must be ok. Shut up” simply do not hold water. Making a list of sexy men is different from making a list of sexy women. They are seen differently, treated differently, and the ramifications are vastly different for the people involved. More later.

Lesson 2: The actions of individuals have implications for the culture as a whole, whether they are intended to or not

This list perpetuates the notion that women are always first female, then scientists, first to be judged based on attractiveness, then on quality of work. For the women in the photos, they have been sexualized, perhaps without their desire, in a way that is simply impossible for men. For those not in the photos, they simply didn’t make it. Their unattractiveness makes them invisible to the world of the internet, and there’s really nothing they can do about it. For all women, especially women in science, it sends the message that their work, their vocation, is secondary to the ratios of their nose to the length of their face and other such meaningless qualities.

The post also just made science feel that much less appealing for women. Whatever the intent of the blogger, it felt skeevy and creepy. I heard the argument, online and from a male friend, that because the photos were on the internet, it was no longer up to the women to decide what was done with them. To some extent, that’s true, but we can still criticize the way in which they were used. For the professional looking pictures, it’s like women who go out in public and are ogled by strangers. Of course they’re in a public place, of course it’s legal, but it can still create a culture of discomfort no matter what a woman is doing or wearing. For the sexier pictures, it implies that women aren’t allowed to organize their lives the way they see fit. If they were ever a model, or have ever publicly demonstrated that they like to be found attractive, from then on, the professional work they do will be colored by that fact. For example, see Olivia Munn from the Daily Show.

I realize that emotion-based morality is not particularly tenable, but in this case, it’s relevant. If women feel that in the male-dominated world of science (or atheism or whatever), all of the same rules apply about proper conduct that make it very difficult to be a woman, to be female, to be visible, it will almost certainly make science a less appealing prospect. And that’s really a shame. The ratios in math, physics and other disciplines are skewed enough as it is. Let’s not waste more talent through poorly thought out jokes.

Lesson 3: What does objectification mean?

Ok, there are a lot of spectrums in many dimensions to get a hold of here. What should women look like? According to whom? What should they wear? In what contexts? Should they do what works for them or pay attention to the messages they’re sending? Can we compartmentalize? Essentially, what does it mean to be a woman?

My basic analysis looks something like this. Women should feel comfortable going about their daily lives. In one sense, that means they should wear what makes them feel comfortable, whether that means sweatpants because they don’t give a damn what people think, pencil skirt and heels because they feel like powerful professional women who matter, jeans and a T-shirt because who gives a damn what you wear to the lab, or a hot dress because dammit, they’re a sexual being comfortable with their attractiveness and sexuality, and that’s what’s up. All of that is important. What makes it ok for them to do such things and not as ok for men to comment or ogle or catcall or make judgments is that when the women take actions they are comfortable with, they are subjects, active conscious participants in their own lives. When men comment in disparaging or sexist ways, they are objects, sexual or otherwise. And therein lies the difference. There are some other subtleties that go along with this, too. For example, I would find it inappropriate for a girl to wear very sexual or revealing clothing to class, because she would be perpetuating the culture of women being perceived first as sex objects, then as, in this example, intellectuals, which would reflect negatively and make things harder for me. But in general, the lesson is that it’s very important to understand objectification and how it works in society.

Lesson 4: Sexism is not only perpetuated by sexists

The blogger at common sense atheism is not sexist. He seems to be an intelligent, deep thinking intellectual who values ethical conduct. He had a mature and appropriate response, and sought to learn from the process and in general reach a better understanding of the topics at hand. Even so, he screwed up. We need to learn then, to give people the benefit of the doubt, and make sure that while they realize their error, they are not thrown to the gutter in an instant. Feminist men are great; let’s not alienate them. At the same time, just because a man feels he is not sexist does not mean he can use that as a defense. In fact, he should work to maintain that classification by remaining sensitive and keeping his judgments mutable.

I think these are sort of the broad ideas that should be explored in further depth if we are to reach a consensus on appropriate, respectful, community-oriented behavior online, IRL, and in general.

The Importance of Stories, Part II: Groups and Communities

Now I want to connect the idea of stories back to my post on the Texas schoolbook issue. My last post ended up focusing on individual stories, which are very important, but neglected group stories. Political campaigns, concepts of nationhood, genealogies: these are all about stories, lived, and narratives, constructed and imposed. Leftist radical groups, royal monarchies, families, religions, any sort of community. They have stories and narratives. Sometimes those stories are fraught with atrocities, sometimes with good intentions, sometimes with both. They can be long or short, monotonous or conflicted. They give people focus and community, happiness and hope. They deeply affect the way that people think about themselves and they way they act in relation to each other. So when we talk about understanding humanity, we need to understand stories.

Just to preface, I don’t have nearly the reverence for group stories that I do for individual stories. I think they are just as important in many respects, which I will discuss later, but groups are just less inherently valuable than individuals, and in fact their main source of significance is the way in which they affect individuals, rather than the way in which they interact in the group space.

Right, ok, so, the importance of group narratives:

I mean, where to start?

Anyone who’s at all interested in what it means to be human should care. Philosophically, our connection to the people around us, and the communities we belong to, and how those interact with our ‘selves’, should those exist, is a vitally important question. It’s essentially what defines a Rawlsian liberal versus a communitarian. What defines you? Environment, genes, soul, beliefs, values, self?

That tends to matter politically, too, when we investigate things like social engineering and policies that affect groups rather than individuals. Staunch individualists have one view of human nature, other people have many others. If we ever want to come to any sort of agreement or consensus or merely a better understanding, looking at groups and communities is probably a good place to start. The narratives imposed on groups also matters a lot in foreign policy. What does nationhood mean? What does it mean to be part of a people? Nationalism, terrorism, radicalism, it’s all in there, it’s all composed of stories. Maybe it would be a good idea to understand that others feel as strongly a part of their peoples’ stories as we feel of ours.
Of course, this all matters very much to academia. Sociologically, anthropologically, biologically, psychologically, groups matter. How do individual stories coalesce to make group stories? How much does it matter to people to feel part of a group? How have we evolved as social animals? What does that mean evolutionarily or morally? Studying how the stories that groups tell themselves and each other is vitally important in understanding these things, those elements they have in common and those in which they differ.

Both anthropologically and political, the notion of the family is very important. Families are repositories of stories and arbiters of group involvement in a way that few others are. Their genealogies, pedigrees, albums and trees are testament to the importance of stories.

And now we come to history, the academic discipline completely consumed with the telling and retelling of stories:

As I said up above, I have a far more skeptical attitude toward group stories than I do towards individual stories. After all, individuals matter more. But I mean something very subtle by this, which is that while every individual story demands respect (though perhaps some are more inspiring or interesting than others), not every group story does. They are all important in order to learn more about ourselves as humans, individually and otherwise, philosophically, personally and academically, but they are not all as important to learn. By this I do not mean that we should only focus on those groups that made the ‘largest impact’ on current events. That same filter could be applied to individual stories and it would be just as nonsensical, given that importance is largely decided solely by those individuals or groups with the ‘largest impact’ or at least the most highly ingrained power structure within a given society.

No, what I mean is that some stories, while intellectually engaging, are dangerous. The story that nations sometimes tell, or races tell, that they are Divinely chosen, better, smarter, stronger, more valuable. Individuals tell those, too, but it wreaks nowhere near the immense damage. It might damage by tolerant cred, but I declare here and now that those stories are, if not worthless, meaningless. Because if there’s anything we’ve learned from stories, it’s how many of them are valuable, and any story predicated on the extirpation of others can be philosophically, if not historically, ignored.

Unfortunately, those stories are repeated across the world regardless. And this is where the proper teaching of history becomes very important. The way we teach history is, essentially, the narrative our society is creating, and we want it to be a good and accurate one. That means including the stories of those groups that aren’t us, that will never be us, that failed, in some way, to be us. It means avoiding Euro- and ethno-centrism. It means working hard to locate the stories which are the most telling and instructional, as well as inherently meaningful or inspiring, wherever they come from. It means deciding, as a society, how we are going to best learn from the stories that have been told in order to create better stories going forward.

And that’s why the Texas textbook issue needs, desperately, to be paid attention to and rectified.

The Importance of Stories, Part I: The Individual

Disclaimer: This is somewhat incoherent. There is so much to say about this approach to humanity and knowledge, and this alternate approach to truth. The implications are wide-ranging and somewhat radical. It would take me years to fully flesh this out. But here’s the germ of an idea.

There’s something I’ve been thinking about lately. It’s stories and how they relate to truth and understanding. Stories are everywhere. Everyone has one; they spend their entire lives living out stories, as a matter of fact. I would never claim that objective truth could be arrived at based on some kind of abstract averaging of all the different stories. But there’s a different kind of truth that is based on stories, that it based on looking at humans as inherently valuable and thus placing value in their stories. Those stories are vast – repositories of knowledge, memories, hopes, dreams, fantasies, delusions. About themselves, about other people, their families, their communities, their histories. They’re beautiful, too, and their individual beauty along with the diversity they exhibit, is reason enough to maintain them, pass them on. Which is why we protect ancient cultures and traditions, even as we march onward to a brighter future. Which is why we bother to listen to people without power, without elite intellectual or financial status. Because they have stories to tell. We are a community of learners, knowers and we communicate this by being also a community of story tellers. It would be a grave misfortune, a travesty, if that aspect of our humanity were to be lost.

The implications of this value are immense. It means that despite our own biases, prejudices, opinions, preferences and aesthetic desires, we simply cannot write off other people as useless or worthless. We don’t have to respect their ideas, or spend our time getting to know them, but we have to acknowledge their power as storytellers.

This has clear consequences for our systems of morality. For example, personhood might be defined as having a story. That’s not an entirely well-formed idea, but I kind of like it. Humanistic morality might benefit from approaching self-actualization in this new light. We help people live out the stories they would want to later tell, stories that are fulfilling, that can help and inform and inspire future generations of storytellers. We have no right to write the stories of others, or to tell them how to make their stories more like ours. Also, everyone should have the chance to tell their stories, both for their sake and the value that can be transferred to the community at large that can benefit from it. That allows us to pursue the value of tolerance without relinquishing our ability to note where harm is being done, stories and being censored and humanity is being lost.

If one prefers, they might reconceptualize this idea as placing the value of knowledge above all else. I’ve already discussed here and elsewhere that the stories people tell are extremely valuable sources of knowledge. This could inform our views on language extinction (see here and here) and biological diversity (over here and yonder). There’s no need to posit objective values when we understand that valuing knowledge and understanding is a human value we can all support, and we can achieve those through a variety of methods. Some are biological, scientific, what have you. But some are stories, those sets of experiences that seem so meaningless on an individual scale. Why bother listening to what people have already done when there is so much more to do? I counter that not only do those stories provide a treasure trove of knowledge relating to history, politics, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and more, but they also help us see what the future holds. Most importantly, they help connect us to our fellow humans, in a way that can only be mutually and communally beneficial.

Public Reason and the Treatment of Knowledge

Sounds like a book title, doesn’t it?

Anyway, the previous post is important by itself, but it brings us to a larger issue of public reason and the way decisions that affect government policy are made.

Certainly, as a first principle, decisions about textbooks and anything like them should, by any means necessary not be left in the hands of politicians who have a vested interest in getting their point of view across, evidence be damned. This is dangerous if we care at all about our children, their education, and in general the route that knowledge takes to get through this country. Knowledge is valuable, it is a gift, and it should be treated with reverence. We need to be sure that we are teaching the best we have available, along with the appropriate critical thinking skills that will allow the next generation to improve on what we have.

One way to do both of these things is to teach several sides, which will not only expand on the knowledge we are imparting to students, but also allow them to see how many sides there really are, and how they are all important and inform what might be mistaken for a coherent body of knowledge without dispute or dissent.

If you want to teach the controversy, teach something that’s actually instructively controversial, like the validity of evolutionary psychology as a field, or FDR’s reactionary attitudes towards immigration, or the value in having both militant and diplomatic groups within any political movement in order to shift debate. These things are interesting, instructive and important, and set the stage for vastly more inclusive studies and approaches to learning. Also, keeping the decision making within the field allows experts to take over. Because at the end of the day, there are people who have dedicated their lives to the advancement of knowledge, and their expertise, in a given field as well as in the instruction of knowledge generally should be brought to bear.

Basically, my rationalism leads me to the obvious conclusion that once goal-related decisions are made, the path should be charted essentially by the experts. The goals are difficult to ascertain, true, but that’s not the issue at hand. Depending on the topic, they might be decided by the people, derived from first principles or empirically obtained. At that point, however, consequentialist ethics demand that the best way to attain the decided-upon goals must be put into place, and in cases like this, experts are definitely called for. What do I mean by ‘cases like this’? Well, it regards facts (in this case historical) that are studied and ascertained by experts. The disputes within the field must be analyzed and a conclusion arrived at by experts who well understand the arguments for and against any particular analysis of history. The right mix of experts, too, can ensure a diversity of approach and opinion. Political stances certainly come into play even in expert analysis, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but that for another post. Nonetheless, any difference of opinion can be treated as an academic exercise and thus analyzed properly, within its directed field. Any assertions must be backed up with sufficient evidence and be subject to criticism from the academic community.
The same applies, not only to the subject at hand, but to the subject of education generally. People who work in education and who understand cognitive development and neurobiology probably ought to be in on this. They have the best, most up-to-date knowledge on how children learn, what methods might be the most effective in getting across the information, and where the line might be drawn between instruction and indoctrination. We may worry that children will be taught only one side, or that no matter how many sides we try to teach we will still not be teaching what it means to go after the truth, wholeheartedly, with an open mind and the tools of rationality required. These are valid concerns. However, while it might be an enjoyable intellectual exercise to discuss these topics in a casual setting, when the time comes for real decisions to be made, the only people who ought to be at the table are people who actually know what they’re talking about. They might be able to add to the debate instructively, informing the masses, for example, at what age children can begin to be taught abstraction rather than fact, or which should come first at all.

This is important in history, where children must be taught to understand that objective truth may be difficult or impossible to ascertain, in science, where they must be taught to understand that the scientific process is an arduous one characteristically marked by a great deal of failure, in math, where abstractions are as important as formulas and any other subject that might come up in a textbook.

These are actually really important discussions, of the type that most people, even those who enjoy entering philosophical or intellectual debates, might never realize are the most crucial. And at this level, once the goals are enumerated, it really needs to be left to the experts in the relevant fields. Obviously, it’s not that simple. Which fields are included, who is asked to join, how those individuals happen to interact – these are all variables that range from needing to be tested by the most rudimentary method of try-and-see to the generally unforeseeable. It also might be the case that eventually you just have too many people at the table, and that creates problems in and of itself.
Nonetheless, we have to try. Firstly, because that will give us knowledge of its own kind, and secondly, because it’s a damn sight better than the alternative.

And we fight, because knowledge, the way we treat it and the way we pass it on – these things are that important.