Quantum Ex Machina

UntoldStory_viaAftabUzzamanWe all tell ourselves stories about the world—stories to help us reduce the component parts into things we can understand. Sometimes those stories describe the world, and sometimes they describe what we wish the world could be. Usually, I think, they are a little of both.

The edges are always fuzzy, and the connections can be tenuous, and sometimes there are gaps in the stories we want to tell ourselves. Sometimes we just leave those gaps there, unanswered and honest. But sometimes we flail in the fuzzy gaps, and sometimes we try to fill them in.

It’s almost a meme, outside of scientific circles, to use quantum physics for this; after all, quantum physics is pretty cool, pretty attention-grabbing, and pretty unintuitive. Can’t quantum effects be that little bit of magic we secretly hope for?

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Antidisestablishmentarianism

Establishment_viaFabioVenniI’ve been having a problem lately with the word “establishment.” It’s a two-part problem, and one part of that problem is that I cannot seem to read anything about our current election cycle without getting run over by “the establishment.” The other part of the problem is the difference between what it means and how we actually use it.

To take the first part of the problem, I keep hearing about how Trump supporters are against the establishment, and how Bernie supporters are against the establishment, and about how no, actually Hillary is also against the establishment, and Cruz is most definitely against the establishment, and to be safe, lets just say all political candidates are anti-establishment.

We’ll gloss right over the problem of who the establishment actually is for now and accept that it’s fashionable to be against it.

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A Few Bad Apples

Apples_viaThomasTeichert
Reliably, whenever issues of sexism, racism, and prejudice appear, so too does the phrase “a few bad apples.” University professors are harassing their students, but universities and media hasten to remind us that they are just a few bad apples. Police officers are abusing the people they are supposed to protect and serve, but mostly when those people are black—still, it’s a few bad apples.

“A few bad apples” is in-group language. It’s what you say when you identify with the group in question, and you just can’t believe anything bad about that group because it would also mean something bad about yourself. It is, in essence, group-level denial: that person did something I can’t be associated with, so that must mean they don’t really represent my group.

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Confusing Categories: GMOs

FDA_Nutrition_Facts_Label_2006My home state of Vermont voted to label GMOs not so long ago. Unsurprisingly, Bernie Sanders also supports labeling GMOs. Perhaps more surprisingly, some large food manufacturers are starting to move in that direction as well, notably and recently Campbell Soup. For many progressives and liberals, GMO labeling represents a win in food advocacy.

But I try not to have sacred cows, and I try to question everything, and thus I find myself forced into a different, and locally controversial, position. It’s not that I’m against labeling GMOs exactly, because I really am not sure what I think about that aspect of the debate. But I get stuck on one sort of important observation: “GMO” doesn’t mean any one thing. Or at least, I don’t think it means something in the way we keep talking about it.

Let me explain: so far as I can tell, there are three major categories of thing on food labels.

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The Democracy of Language

PronounsAs someone who works with words for a living, I always feel a little bit traitorous when I talk about the fluidity of language. My undergraduate studies in linguistics left me with a dialectic view of how language works. The conventional view of language, though, has the same deep currents of judgment and correctness and power that lie simmering in the rest of any culture.

Should I accept those? Should I treat language as brittle and defend narrow meanings and usages from shattering change? Or should I treat language as malleable clay that can and must be sculpted to best convey any idea? My inclinations lie obviously with the latter, but I retain a fondness for the certain bedrock of the former, and an empathy for those drawn to that view. Thus I am always aware that when I advocate use of the singular “they,” for example, I am casting a vote that goes against the grain for some.

The democracy of language is my bridge. By treating language as a democratic exercise, I acknowledge both the importance of the consensus view and the option of disregarding it. If a majority of English speakers believe prepositions should never be used at the end of a sentence, I can acknowledge and respect their view as a convention. At the same time, I can look at the native grammar of English and realize that prepositions are perfectly fine things to end sentences with.

Likewise I can treat pedantry with some respect, and embrace it in the spirit of inquiry rather than the spirit of restriction it so often carries. To be corrected, to hear that consensus view, is no shame—it is just a broadening of knowledge. But by receiving it as one option among many, I can just as easily and comfortably set it aside.

Still, there are some moments when pedantry slips out of the realm of mere language and becomes a channel for cultural currents. In the hands of the righteous, pedantry can acquire the sort of disdainful viciousness only well-chosen words can really achieve.

I do advocate the use of the singular “they.” I think it is a natural, elegant, and gracious choice to give respect both to those who identify outside a gender binary, and, equally importantly, to acknowledge that gender can be incidental. I should not need to know your gender to hear your ideas, to hire you for a job, to convey a delightful anecdote about you to a friend.

And so, when I read from a colleague in higher education sweeping dismissal of the use or relevance of new pronouns, the singular “they” along with, I am annoyed. I would like to receive this pedantry as a suggestion, but I find that difficult in the face of arguments that “they are entitled to their own identity, but not to their own grammar,” (and why not, exactly?) and that faculty don’t know “how to deal with this violation of basic subject-verb agreement” (no doubt the top of the educational priority list). This is followed by some hand-waving arguments about not kowtowing to “safety” and “comfort” as if those ideas have any relationship to the inclusion of a singular and a plural in the same word.

Happily, this author didn’t provide their gender, nor do I need it to discuss their work. Gender does not matter to my opinion, which is that they are engaging in the worst sort of pedantry—that sort of pedantry that is stolid and unyielding and defensive, the sort of pedantry that is the usual province of grumpy old white men and stereotypical English teachers. So I will address such pedants directly, and this author in particular, and I will do it using what, if they had any historical view of language whatsoever, would be the bane of their existence: the pronoun “you.”

For you, Melvin the pedant, who does not know this: a piece of linguistic history. The pronoun “you,” like “they,” was once solely plural. The singular second-person pronouns were “thee” and “thou.” As levels of formality began to drop out of English, so, too, did the distinction between the singular and plural in the second person. You probably don’t realize that you are using a plural pronoun in the singular every time you address one of your students. And thus does the rest of your argument, which rests on the implicit idea that language is fixed, collapse under its own decaying weight.

Please, if you must be a pedant, be an educated pedant. Make arguments out of elegance, out of convention, out of inquiry and desire for precision. Do not make arguments out of the specious idea that your own set of language is the only set, or that it should be.

Because, for the rest of us, I maintain that language is a democratic exercise. And you are being out-voted.

Sleight of Words

There is an entirely worthwhile debate to be had about how we name people in challenging situations. The more controversial the situation, the important this debate becomes. Finding the right words, the words that describe groups and events accurately, dispassionately, and without bias, is rarely accomplished without such debate.

Yet most every time these debates occur, there are those who leap ahead with labels instead of arguments. These people appropriate words and use them to push their perspectives as fait accompli, sidestepping the reasoned debate that might lead to a more balanced conclusion. When we are wise, we do not allow this manipulation. When we are unwise, we fail to notice.

People are fleeing Syria at the moment, trying to the best of their ability to escape a dangerous and hostile environment that threatens their lives and the lives of their families. They are risking their lives to escape, which should tell us something about their desperation and need. And, as it often does in such times, xenophobia has reached a fevered pitch in response.

migrantCNNThe clumsy have attempted to equate these refugees with ISIS, or with terrorism (a word itself co-opted long ago). The subtle, the propagandists, did not waste time making their arguments—instead, they went forth boldly to discuss a “migrant crisis,” advancing with their label an argument untenable in logic: that all these people seeking refuge are merely vagrants.

That we were slow to critique this word, that some continue to repeat it, and that only belatedly have we arrived at debate, suggests to me that we are not sufficiently cautious about such naming. This is not the only example, and sometimes we have gone much longer ignoring the question.

More than a decade ago, the United States invaded Iraq, toppled its government, and sought, without any clear understanding of the political or religious issues involved, to create a new government out of whole cloth. We drafted some leaders, left an occupying force, and scratched our heads as peace did not descend, as many Iraqis did not feel especially liberated, and as many people continued to die.

We did these things on false pretenses, and so I was not surprised when we explained them under false pretenses as well. We labeled the Iraqis who fought us and our created government as “insurgents.” We talked about quelling an “insurgency” as though these people were attacking an established body, rather than a piece of stage dressing that had yet to win the confidence or engagement of its constituency. The truth was so much more complex, and so much more difficult, than the label. Yet there was little public criticism, and the media embraced the “insurgency” as quickly as they have embraced the “migrant crisis.”

We have used labels, too, to justify ourselves when we have no justification. Just recently the Associated Press updated their style guide to stop calling deniers of climate science “skeptics,” a change those same deniers deeply resent and which has been all too long in coming. Because, of course, the label of “skeptic” implies a person who is justifiably hesitant, who is considering critically, and who is careful about beliefs and evidence.

Climate deniers were none of these things. Perhaps, twenty years ago, the term “climate skeptic” might have been justified. Even then the science was fairly clear, but there was justifiable debate about the extent of the problem. Now, when the only controversy remaining is political, the term “climate skeptic” is a laughable pretense. I continue to refer to these people as “deniers,” because I do not see how any other word is justified. The AP has chosen to call them “doubters,” but there is no doubt about the evidence—thus, their doubt is perverse and irrational, and to oppose the conclusions of climate science appears to me, inevitably, to be denial.

There is no way around the power of these names. Those doing the naming define the baselines, the scope, and the tenor of a conversation. When we say there is a “migrant crisis,” suddenly we have introduced doubt about whether we are obliged to help these people; instead, the debate is about whether the people fleeing and dying are truly in need. Likewise when we say there is an insurgency, there is no debate about whether we, in creating a particular set of rulers, were mistaken; instead, the debate is how to preserve that government. And when we let deniers pretend to be skeptics, we allow a debate long settled to continue as though it were not intellectually dishonest.

I cannot help but wonder how often these words are chosen intentionally, and how often they are simply summoned from the zeitgeist to serve as avatars. The former is duplicitous, and thus likely, and yet I think we are duplicitous with ourselves nearly as often as we are with others. And because we fool ourselves, we must be cautious to remember that a label is not an argument, and that it is incumbent on us to question its provenance and honesty. And I think also, we must question a bit more loudly.

Safe Spaces

Rock in the shallowsSafety is one of those rather slippery fractal concepts that seems to retain fuzzy edges no matter how closely one examines it. I’ve been considering it lately, partly because I’ve read a lot of discussion of trigger warnings, their uses and misuses, and what it means to create a safe space. I’ve seen arguments in multiple communities both for and against trigger warnings in the context of safety, and, personally, I find myself somewhat conflicted.

On the side of support, an argument I quite agree with is that people who have been and are being traumatized need, in a very real mental health sense, safe places to recover. When the harm being done is tied to systemic injustices the absolute need to respect these individuals becomes greater because it will not happen by default. In this context trigger warnings allow people to take charge of their own recovery and to choose what they will encounter, and when, and why.

Another argument I find compelling is that trigger warnings can be overused in a way that infantalizes those suffering from trauma and disrespects everyone concerned. If trigger warnings are applied to classroom material (mythology, for example) they can conflict with the need to create an open space for learning and discussion. In a worst-case scenario, someone might advocate for material to be censored or removed from a class to avoid triggering anyone.

Of course, trigger warnings are not intended as censorship, and labeling content is something we do widely without much controversy. No one any longer argues that giving films or video games or entertainment a rating of some kind is a bad things—those who want that information have it, and those who don’t care can ignore it. Nor does anyone complain about, for example, warnings of explicit language or topics on radio or television. These are things that accommodate some people’s needs while inconveniencing almost no one—a perfect bargain for a free society.

This leaves me with an apparent contradiction: trigger warnings are applied to maintain the safety of traumatized and marginalized groups, which is good, but can also be applied as a form of censorship, which is bad. The key to resolving this, for me, comes back to that concept of safety. A safe space is one where people can encounter challenging material as much or as little as they are able, not a space where challenging material is expunged.

Not that I think having a safe space without certain material is a bad thing—survivor communities may limit discussion of rape and abuse, and this is perfectly reasonable and necessary. That isn’t censorship; that is one community making a choice that works for that community and protects everyone in it. Censorship is when a choice to restrict material is made for everyone by default.

So, then, the solution must lie with choice. If a trigger warning is used to allow traumatized people the choice to engage or withdraw, this is worthwhile and important. If, though, “being triggered” is used improperly to emotionally hijack a discussion and eliminate topics people do not like, then it is neither helpful nor useful. Unfortunately, I think the idea of “being triggered,” for some people, has become a fashionable way to shut down discussion of uncomfortable material. That this can coexist with a very real population of traumatized individuals in need of real support and respect is all the more frustrating to me; the very idea of it seems disrespectful.

I return at the end to the goal of safe spaces. Trigger warnings can and do create those spaces when they are used to give people the choice to engage or withdraw, but safe spaces are not, and must not be conflated with, comfortable spaces. Safe spaces are places where you are free to be as uncomfortable as you choose, without judgment, without fear of ridicule, and without trauma. Safe spaces are places where, if we so choose, we engage our discomfort and grow.