The Apotheosis of Form

I like to think about words. I believe that thinking about the words we choose is a wonderful way of pushing the bounds of our thinking. I believe that choosing our words carefully and drilling down in the nuances of their meaning helps us understand both what we personally believe and how others’ thinking is subtly different. I believe that strongly enough that I’ve written a number of posts now about the importance of choosing your words carefully.

Anna_Chromy_Cloak_Of_ConscienceIn the discussions I’ve had on this topic, though, another theme has emerged: that of treating our words as if they are the only things that matter. I was discussing this with a close friend recently and she brought up the idea of “liberal shibboleths,” which I think is a brilliantly simple way to explain this problem. A shibboleth, after all, is “the watchword of a party,” and often “some peculiarity in things of little importance.” And before I single out liberals for illiberal use of shibboleths, there are plenty of conservative shibboleths, libertarian shibboleths, progressive shibboleths, and so on.

I and my friend both have seen moments when a well-meaning person is rebuked by members of the in-group for use of the wrong words. Sometimes that rebuke is called for—there are, indeed, people who are offensive with intent, and those people should be called on their behavior. But what of the rest? If someone reaches out honestly to understand a thing they are not, it’s natural that they not know how to speak about it. Why do we treat them as if they should? These are people who have taken a step outside their comfort zone—they do not need us to critique their form, they need us to show them new ideas.

There is value in treating people with respect. There is respect in describing people with the words they choose and not the words we choose. There is respect in recognizing what is offensive, and why, and avoiding it. But there is also value, and respect, in presuming the best of intentions. Certainly when a prominent white man publicly speaks of women as girls, the inherent sexism of his statement is worth critique. But if that man had gone to some of his colleagues with an honest desire to learn and asked how he should handle situations with “girls” in his lab?

Someone who wants to learn is a rare and precious commodity. What would you teach in such a moment? Would you teach this man that he is making unwarranted assumptions about half the human race? Would you teach him that basic human decency should not be dependent on gender? Would you teach him about women’s experiences when men view them as erratic, emotional, unintelligible aliens, instead of as human beings?

Or would you take this moment, this rare open moment, to teach him only that he is using the wrong word?

The thing I did not mention before is that a shibboleth is not merely a password or a badge of membership—it is a tool of exclusion. We know, by the words they use, who agrees with us and who does not. If we are complacent and unwilling to engage our own ideas, if we prefer superficial discussion with no dissent, the shibboleths tell us who to echo and who to exile.

In my opinion, the way we engage with outsiders is the true test—of whether our groups are bent on real, deep discussion and self-improvement, or whether they are rigid places where ritual is king and doubt is forbidden. We, who profess to be open to multiple ideas; we, who profess to believe in human rights and human decency; we, who claim to value discourse and discussion: it is incumbent on us to pay more than lip service to these ideals.

We can choose our words carefully, and we should. But we can make those choices out of understanding rather than prescription, and when we speak to those who disagree we should not conflate the two. The form is what we see, but it cannot be what we teach—because form, without the ideals to inspire it, is dead.

May Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you. This time I’m adding a “pick of the month” category for the best and most interesting story I saw this month.

Pick of the Month: 

The Wreck of the Kulluk – McKenzie Funk

This is truly excellent reporting, and incredibly informative. It’s a gripping story of Shell Oil cutting corners, hunting for arctic oil, and being hoist with their own petard. There is no one quote that will do this justice, but it is equal parts corporate desperation, intrigue and suspense, and action and heroism on the high seas.

On Baltimore and Racism: 

Black America’s Baltimore schism: Why the Freddie Gray tragedy demands serious soul-searching – Brittney Cooper

“The right of the people to revolt in response to unjust conditions is a founding principle of this Republic. But another founding principle of this republic is that Black people are not fully human. Therefore they are not legitimately “the people,” not a part of the “demos” in democracy. Thus revolution and rebellion remain the province and property of America’s white citizens. All other comers are illegitimate.”

De Blasio: Civil Disobedience Means Do What The Cops Tell You – Christopher Robbins

“In short: if you want to disobey the police, you have to make an appointment. It also helps if you’re a prominent, white, male, elected official running for higher office. Challenging the status quo sometimes means being a part of it. To the protesters who turned out on Wednesday to protest police brutality, whose friends and relatives were killed by the police, or whose skin color alone equates them with criminality in the eyes of the law, the mayor gave very clear advice: ‘Pay attention to the instructions of the police, and I think everything will go fine.’ ”

Media coverage of gang violence sure looks different when the perpetrators are white – Jenée Desmond-Harris

“Those who are using what happened in Waco to start conversations about stereotypes and media biases against black people aren’t complaining about the tenor of this weekend’s media coverage. They’re saying something a little different: that by being pretty reasonable and sticking to the facts, this coverage highlights the absurdity of the language and analysis that have been deployed in other instances, when the accused criminals are black.”

Classism: 

Wisconsin GOP Advances Bills Controlling How People On Welfare Eat And Pee – Arthur Delaney

“Legislation approved by the Wisconsin State Assembly on Wednesday would require drug screening for poor people in the state who want [need] public benefits and force food stamp recipients to spend most of their benefits on state-approved groceries.”

Feminism: 

Female McMaster professors getting a pay boost to same level as men – CBC News

“Female professors at McMaster University will get a pay raise under a new plan to make sure women faculty are paid fairly.The university will boost the base salaries of female faculty by $3,515 per year starting on July 1. The increase comes after a joint study between the university and the faculty association determined that female faculty make that much less than their male counterparts.”

“The Good Ones Say No”: Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin – Miri

“On one side of the coin is the idea that only ‘good’ women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be ‘good.’ Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only ‘good’ as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in ‘good’ women, what happens when a woman stops refusing? So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.”

Entering the Mind of My Rapist: An Exercise in Extreme Empathy – Deborah Copaken

“I didn’t even want him not to graduate. I wanted to confront him in a safe place in front of others. I wanted him to understand that what he did to me—penetration against my will—was wrong, really wrong! I wanted him to express remorse for having crossed a moral and legal line, so that if and when he ever raised a son, he could teach him not to cross it. I wanted, in short, an apology.

Am I delusional? Is this line of thinking the product of too much empathy and not enough rage? Maybe. But I don’t think so. No matter how my rapist (and I will always call him that, “my rapist”) told the story of what happened that night before graduation, the fact that one of us experienced it as a rape should have been enough to force an immediate discussion in which proving guilt, beyond a shadow of a doubt and at the expense of my reputation—a second rape, if you will—was not the goal.”

Incapacitated and Forcible Rape of College Women: Prevalence Across the First Year – Kate Carey, Sarah Durney, Robyn Shepardson, and Michael Carey

“Before entering college, 28% of women had experienced attempted or completed rape. During their first year, one of six female students had experienced [attempted or completed incapacitated rape] or [attempted or completed forcible rape]. The lifetime prevalence of attempted or completed rape increased to 37% by the start of sophomore year.”

In summary, 1 of every 4 women is assaulted in her first year of college, and 1 in every 3 women has been assaulted sometime in her life before her sophomore year.

LGBTQ Rights:

Alabama minister tried to marry a lesbian couple — now she’s on probation – Jin Zhao

“A minister arrested on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for trying to perform a gay wedding in an Alabama courthouse pleaded guilty on Monday but will avoid serving time in jail, Montgomery Advertiser reports. Anne Susan DiPrizio, 44, entered the plea in Autauga County Circuit Court. A judge ordered her to pay a $250 fine and gave her a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended later in place of a six months unsupervised probation.”

Government and Privacy:

Court rules NSA program illegal – Jim Acosta, Ted Barrett and Jeremy Diamond

“ ‘This decision is a resounding victory for the rule of law,’ said ACLU Staff Attorney Alex Abdo, who brought the challenge. ‘For years, the government secretly spied on millions of innocent Americans based on a shockingly broad interpretation of its authority. The court rightly rejected the government’s theory that it may stockpile information on all of us in case that information proves useful in the future. Mass surveillance does not make us any safer, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the privacy necessary in a free society,’ he said.”

Climate Change:

400 Again – Phil Plait

“There are people out there who still will pooh-pooh this, saying carbon dioxide is good for us, and plants love it. Let me be clear: This is the single dumbest thing climate change deniers have ever said, and that’s a deep, deep well of dumbosity. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the science on this is very basic, as basic as knowing a rock will fall when you drop it from your hand. At first blush 400 ppm may not sound like much, but it means we’re significantly accelerating planetary heating. And warming the Earth doesn’t just mean we’ll be able to grow pineapples in Canada. It means huge changes to global weather patterns, changes we’re already seeing.”

What if climate change is real? – Katharine Hayhoe

This one is a video—a TED talk by a conservative climate scientist from Texas.

Ideas and Beliefs: 

How Facebook’s Algorithm Suppresses Content Diversity (Modestly) and How the Newsfeed Rules Your Clicks – Zeynep Tufekci

“Here’s the key finding: Facebook researchers conclusively show that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm decreases ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content people see from their social networks on Facebook by a measurable amount. The researchers report that exposure to diverse content is suppressed by Facebook’s algorithm by 8% for self-identified liberals and by 5% for self-identified conservatives.”

Canvassers study in Episode #555 has been retracted – Ira Glass

“Last month [This American Life] did a story about canvassers who’d invented a way to go door to door and, in a 22-minute conversation, change people’s minds on issues like same sex marriage and abortion rights. We did the story because there was solid scientific data published in the journal Science – proving that the canvassers were really having an effect. Yesterday one of the authors of that study, Donald Green, asked Science to retract the study. Some of the data gathered by his co-author seems to have been faked.”

I Don’t Want to Be Right – Maria Konnikova

“The longer the narrative remains co-opted by prominent figures with little to no actual medical expertise—the Jenny McCarthys of the world—the more difficult it becomes to find a unified, non-ideological theme. The message can’t change unless the perceived consensus among figures we see as opinion and thought leaders changes first.

And that, ultimately, is the final, big piece of the puzzle: the cross-party, cross-platform unification of the country’s élites, those we perceive as opinion leaders, can make it possible for messages to spread broadly. The campaign against smoking is one of the most successful public-interest fact-checking operations in history. But, if smoking were just for Republicans or Democrats, change would have been far more unlikely. It’s only after ideology is put to the side that a message itself can change, so that it becomes decoupled from notions of self-perception.”

This Is How Fast America Changes Its Mind – Alex Tribou and Keith Collins

“Eleven years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, the Supreme Court on April 28 will hear arguments about whether to extend that right nationwide. The case comes amid a wave of gay marriage legalization: 28 states since 2013, and 36 overall. Such widespread acceptance in a short amount of time isn’t a phenomenon unique to gay marriage. Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

With cool graphs!

The Hyperbolic Chamber

Did you know that glyphosate is the absolute worst thing in the world? It’s like a spray of tiny Hitlers jackbooting the crap out of those weeds—and then jackbooting the crap out of your DNA somehow because chemicals. Also it kills kittens and cute endangered something or other. Anyhow, it sucks, and you should be afraid, and you should hate anyone who thinks otherwise, they are totally a shill. I swear it’s true, I read it on a picture with words on it on Facebook.

Probably.Image Source: Nate McBean, https://www.flickr.com/photos/nmcbean/

Okay, maybe not.

One of the things I find really interesting about the internet is that is gives us the opportunity to encounter a wide variety of people and ideas—and yet, instead of availing ourselves of this cornucopia, we often seem to surround ourselves with people we already agree with who are saying things we already believe in the angriest way possible. It makes us feel good.

Probably.

There is a quickly-developing body of literature cataloguing and investigating the development of internet echo-chambers, which can be fueled by personalized Google results and Facebook algorithms and Twitter followers. We like and share snarky, self-congratulatory wanna-memes that give us a little hit of in-group support and then we move on without really thinking them through.

Probably.

Okay, sometimes.

The thing that really fascinates me is not just that echo-chambers sometimes form, but that, once divorced from outside input, the pressure increases and the interior discourse begins to rise in pitch. The baseline shifts slowly, imperceptibly to those inside.

I think something happens to ideas once they are established inside an echo-chamber. We get ahold of an idea—maybe a totally reasonable idea to begin with—and start actively debating and contributing within the bounds of that idea. Maybe we ignore ideas that don’t agree. Maybe we forget that another idea exists. Maybe we start to ignore people who disagree. Maybe we actively shun those people. As time goes by, the baseline idea loses its tether to the real, nuanced world, and starts to drift. Everyone in the echo-chamber agrees with the idea, so there is nothing left to negotiate about the truth of it. All that remains is to negotiate the intensity of the idea.

Now the pressure is on. Now we have a hyperbolic chamber.

Let’s look at an example. Let’s say, the idea that herbicides should be effectively tested for safety before being approved for general use. Who would disagree with that? Except now that we know that, the real problem is the people doing the testing. Are you sure that effective testing for herbicides even exists? You think the testing out there is sufficient? Actually, it’s all industry shills! You think that herbicide was shown to be safe? Liars on the corporate payroll; we know it’s dangerous! Once we raise the concept of hidden corruption of the process, we abdicate any responsibility for testing our own ideas—we stop comparing what we think we know against any objective truth. You know what? We should really just ban them. All of them. No herbicides allowed. And anyone who suggests adding nuance to that position is a shill.

Probably.

Okay, maybe not.

Because there is one lever that can pry open the walls of the echo-chamber and the hyperbolic chamber both. That lever is doubt. Try it yourself! When you see your friends sharing slightly hyperbolic framings of things you would otherwise agree with, don’t just like it and move on with a vague sense of unease. Instead, ask “are you sure?” Ask them. Ask yourself. Go do some research. Find someone who doesn’t agree and read what they have to say.

You may quickly find yourself on the outside of the hyperbolic chambers if you do this. You may find yourself regarded as a social traitor. You may find yourself a little more frustrated when dealing with some of your friends, who may seem immune to evidence—but throw them a life preserver and introduce a little doubt. All they have to do is grab it. All you have to do is grab it.

Probably.