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05 August 2018

The Board Race: Gender and Cooperation

My wife shared this video with me from Facebook:

Her analysis was spot-on sociologically so I wanted to share that as well. The women are much more successful at this game than the men are, but it might not be immediately obvious why. My wife pointed out that, while the men and women seem to be equally coordinated in their steps, the women start with their hands on each other's shoulders, giving them superior stability. The men refuse to touch each other at all. My first guess was that it was about homophobia, in that men are more reluctant to make physical contact with other men for fear that they will be judged as gay (and, per heteronormative/hegemonic/toxic masculinity, weak). My wife suggested that it might be broader. Women are allowed and even taught to make physical contact with each other. Part of this probably relates to the emotion work we demand of women (but not men). Traditional definitions of femininity allow for behavior that is otherwise socially sanctioned by traditional definitions of masculinity.

It's important to remember that even as we recognize (correctly) that men are generally given a structural advantage over women (see the pay gap), men are in some ways hamstrung by the very culture that otherwise privileges them. Just imagine all of the other, more consequential ways that gender stifles cooperation.

27 July 2018

A Problem of Scale: Why Civility, Kindness, and Politeness Can Never Save the World

There is a lot of talk these days about the state of civil and political discourse in the United States. The basic claim of many in varying ways is that we must return to civility, that kindness will save us all. It's generally a centerist claim. These are people who claim to be moderates or independents. I think they are fundamentally wrong. Let me elaborate.

Let's start with Emergence Theory. Basically, Emergence Theory says that phenomena emerge from complexity. I think the best example is our own intelligence. We used to think that intelligence was a brute force kind of thing, that having lots and lots of neurons in our brains made us smart in the same way that a computer chip with lots and lots of transistors was more powerful. Cognitive science and computer science are both coming to the same conclusion, though, that it's not the number of neurons but the overwhelming number of connections between those neurons out of which intelligence (and maybe even consciousness, whatever that is) emerges unpredictably out of the complexity of those interconnections. Physics has its own version of this in which the characteristics of the material world at our macro material world emerge out of the complexity of things at the micro or quantum level. Though sociologists and other social scientists rarely use the term, we do have our own version of Emergence Theory. It's what many of us spend the first week of intro-level courses trying to convince undergraduates of, namely that we cannot understand social structure simply by understanding individuals. In other words, society is more than the sum total of the agency of countless individuals.

What does any of this have to do with being civil or kind? Well, if I understand the centerists' argument, it essentially claims that good behavior at the individual level will trickle up to good institutions and structures. For example, if I, a white man, am courteous, polite, and even kind to a black man, this will somehow solve racism. The political version goes something along the lines of, if the Democrat and the Republican family members are able to have a civil conversation at the Thanksgiving table, this will somehow lead to Congress being functional and productive. All of this is, of course, bullshit. It is oversimplification--at best. We would all be better to embrace complexity. It may not be as reassuring as the simplistic centerist understanding, but it's the path to improvement.

09 July 2018

More "Dirty" Words That Soil Identities

I posted previously about how we often stigmatize labels like "Jew" and "Puerto Rican" when we confuse the structural racism and implicit bias (as well as lingering bigotry) that befalls these groups for the supposed derogatory nature of the terms associated with the groups. In other words, we mistake words to be dirty if they belong to identities we've been taught are themselves dirtied.

I caught a new example recently as I was revisiting The Office on Netflix. It falls at about the 14:46 mark of episode 2 in season 1, titled "Diversity Day." Here is my transcription of the exchange:

MICHAEL: Um, let me ask you, is there a term besides "Mexican" that you prefer? something less offensive? 
OSCAR: "Mexican" isn't offensive.
MICHAEL: Well, it has certain connotations. 
OSCAR: Like what?
MICHAEL: Like--well, I don't--well, I don't know.
OSCAR: Well, what connotations, Michael? There must have been something? I'm just curious.

19 June 2018

Religion as Institutionalized Boredom

I just caught a recent episode of Fresh Air with Paul Schrader and Ethan Hawke discussing their forthcoming film First Reformed. It's a good interview. This part of the exchange really caught my attention:
SCHRADER: …I like to go to church on Sunday mornings to organize my thoughts, organize my week and be quiet, and you don't walk out of church 'cause you're bored. You go to church to be bored, to have that time, and you could have it in your room in the lotus position or you can have it in a pew. It's essentially the same sort of thing for me, and that's what I enjoy about it. 
…Church services have now sort of split into two camps. One is the old, traditional, devotional service, which is based on silence and Bible study, and the other is the arena, which is an entertainment-based performance with a lot of communal interaction, and you know, I won't say one is better than the other 'cause there's good Christians in both, but for me, I prefer the devotional. 
HAWKE: …I don't go [to church] consistently anymore, and…as my kids grow up, I realize I didn't give them that, and I have some sadness about [it], particularly listening to Paul speak about organizing the week, and having institutionalized boredom is a great value. [empahsis added]
I really like Hawke's coinage there, "institutionalized boredom." It gets at Richard Niebuhr's ritualistic/pietistic dichotomy. A lot has been written about how the Mainline Protestant religions are faltering because they have accommodated to mainstream culture (or, conversely, that they have been overwhelmingly successful in transforming mainstream culture into their own image), but ironically, the "arena camp" has arguably been much more accommodating. Inasmuch as (and increasingly so) the "devotional camp" offers an alternative to mainstream culture, we would expect a resurgence in popularity, or at least a slowing of the decline.

11 June 2018

New Original Music! (Window Pain)

Lyrics co-written with one of my all-time best friends, Jeremy “Fresh” Shermak.

Original artwork by Nat Freeman (https://www.instagram.com/badgerandwren/)


Also available wherever you find music (e.g. Spotify, iTunes, Google Play, Amazon, etc.).


If you are struggling, know that my world is better with you alive in it. Call (1-800-273-8255) or chat online (http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/GetHelp/LifelineChat.aspx) with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You are loved.