tim: Solid black square (black)
"Tonight I am speechless
My head is filled with pouring rain
As the darkness falls on Montreal
When violence is shrieking
The city streets will run with pain
Until the moon can shed no light at all

And I believe that we have fallen
In the middle of an old highway
And the past is rolling over us
As men begin to understand
What women say
They see history reaching out to smother all of us

So ring the bells of morning
For sorrow and for shame
And let the deep well inside each of us
Swell with outrage
And those of us who know
What went before can come again
Must ring the bells
We must ring the bells of morning.

I met a man once
He held himself tighter than a fist
He was hard and fast in his inflexibility
He was threatened by the future
A product of the past
He was terrified by his own femininity

We must ring the bells of morning
We have everything to gain
And may those of us who comprehend
Commit our lives to change
And though you swear
You can’t let yourself be vulnerable again
Ring the bells
The bells of morning

For if we can’t face ourselves
We will never understand
We can learn to make a cradle
With these stubborn hands
And we will hear the echo
From this shattered land
When we ring the bells of morning

I met a woman once
She told me we might never see the day
When the violence was overcome
She said silence is the fuel
Fear and ignorance the roaring flames
That burn the freedom out of everyone

She said ring the bells of morning
And let none of us pretend
For if you walk the path of silence
You might never reach the end
And those of us who know what went before can come again
Must ring the bells, the bells of morning

Oh ring the bells of morning
Ring them loud and ring them long
Let the mother tongue of strength
Be the peaceful language of this song
And let those ancient voices lead us all into the dawn
Ring the bells, the bells of morning
Ring the bells, the bells of morning
Ring the bells, we must ring the bells of morning"

-- Stephen Fearing, 1989

tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
I read this article summarizing a study (paywalled, unfortunately) on trans men who become pregnant with interest, since (if all goes well) I'll be getting pregnant sometime in the next year. Interest and, also, nausea (and I'm not even pregnant yet).

Because any day is a good day for pointing out why cis people are wrong:

  • Automatically labeling men who have uteruses as "transgender" = ugh. For the record, if you want a ticket out of my life, one of the fastest ways is to call me "transgender". I still don't know what that word communicates other than "I am trying to perform my well-intentioned, liberal attitude." (I'm transsexual, but then, if you're about to describe me that way, consider whether it's any more relevant than the fact that I'm right-handed is. You didn't know whether I was right-handed or not? Exactly.)
  • "When Dad is the one who gets pregnant, the whole process of pregnancy and childbirth gets a lot more complicated." I guess so, but ONLY BECAUSE GOD DAMN CIS PEOPLE MAKE IT COMPLICATED WITH THEIR INABILITY TO UNDERSTAND ANYTHING MORE NUANCED THAN GO DOG GO.
  • "someone who has transitioned from a female identity to a male or masculine identity" - I can't even begin to explain all of the fail in this sentence other than by headdesking repeatedly. I'd like to propose a licensing system where cis people get to use the word "identity" only a limited number of times and only when referring to their own identities, as opposed to using it for invalidating trans people, which is what they always use it for.
  • "Pregnancy as a transgender man is unlike any other kind" - well, I haven't been pregnant (yet), so I don't know (and when I am pregnant, it won't be "as a transgender man", because again, wtf does "transgender" mean), but again, IF IT'S DIFFERENT, THAT'S BECAUSE CIS PEOPLE FORCE IT TO BE DIFFERENT.
  • "Some transgender men use testosterone to look and sound more masculine." This is like saying that some cancer patients use chemotherapy to look more bald.
  • "gender dysphoria, the feeling that one's psychological gender identity is different from one's biological sex" FUCCCCK it's almost 2015 and we're still repeating this nonsense about "gender identity" and "biological sex"? Reminder: humans do not have a "biological sex" that is different from their "gender identity". They have a collection of physical characteristics, some of which differ in ways that are sometimes categorized using a social model that some people ignorantly call "biological sex". But the only thing "biological sex" means is that a cis person is trying to misgender you because they feel that science is -- rather than a tool for understanding the world -- a good way for them to assert their power over you using the epistemic superiority that was granted to them the day they were born cis.
  • "The author of the new graphic memoir Pregnant Butch, a masculine-looking woman named by A.K. Summers, said one of the worst parts of her pregnancy was that it exaggerated the most female aspects of her body" -- I'll take their word for it (which maybe I shouldn't) that A.K. Summers' pronouns are "she/her", but why couldn't they find an actual man who'd been pregnant to quote in an article about, y'know, men being pregnant?
  • "In some of the transgender men in the study, gender dysphoria actually declined with pregnancy. These people said they were, for the first time in their lives, pleased with their bodies, which were finally helping them do something they valued that a typical male body could not do." WTF does "typical" mean? Why is a cis man's body any more "typically male" than mine?
  • "gender identity is a spectrum" - no. Fuck you. (That's my "gender identity.")
  • And finally, wtf is up with the headless-trans-man (though who knows what gender either the adult or the baby in the picture is... which is kind of the point, though it's probably lost on anyone working for NPR) photo illustrating the article? Given that the article strips away our autonomy and dignity, can we at least be afforded the luxury of having faces?

I should note that probably the study being discussed in the article is perfectly OK (though who knows? Since it's paywalled, I can't read it), with the exception of an author's use of "gender identity as a spectrum" (again, the term "spectrum" needs to be taken out and shot unless you're referring to a brand of organic all-vegetable shortening). I'm just objecting to NPR's coverage of it.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
It's hard for me to bring myself to post this, but I can't help wondering whether the news that Bradley Manning is now being forced to remain naked while imprisoned has anything to do with this story from last year that quotes an IRC log suggesting that Manning may have been on the way to coming out as a trans woman.

Some might say that the latter story ought not to be publicized -- that if Manning is trans, that's a private matter until Manning has the freedom to come out (or not). Well, since Manning is being threatened with the death penalty, that might never happen. Besides that, while the punishment Manning is being subjected to is unsuitable for a human being, it's especially heinous to force somebody to be naked in public all the time if they are indeed trans. It's hard to think of too many worse forms of psychological torture than that. And so, I think that needs to be out in the open. Finally, being trans (if the quotes involving "transitioning" are really what they seem to be) makes Manning's heroic actions even more astounding, given that it's surely obvious that a political prisoner known to be trans would be tortured in a way that exploits that fact.

You can donate to Courage to Resist or specifically to the Bradley Manning trust account -- I did, and will be doing so again soon.

“It would be inappropriate for me to explain it,” Lieutenant Villiard said. “I can confirm that it did happen, but I can’t explain it to you without violating the detainee’s privacy.” (from the NY Times article)

Yeah, apparently it's a worse crime to violate someone's privacy than to violate their human rights.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)

Yesterday, an apparent attempt to assassinate US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords left her gravely wounded and several other people dead. The accused, a young man named Jared Loughner, evokes the Time Cube guy for many of us who know our Internet crackpots. Of course, Loughner has not been convicted of any crime. But folks like him are quite convenient for the political cabal that marked a map of the US with gun-sights to denote the locations of Democrats who they wanted gone. If Loughner hadn't been born or hadn't grown up to be who he is, then the right wing (let's not waste adjectives like "radical" or "violent", as they're wholly redundant) would have to invent him. If you can blame an apparently unstable person and claim he acted unpredictably, you can escape responsibility for creating an environment of violent discourse that finds work for the idle hands of the unstable. The advantage of blaming acts of political violence on random, unstable people is that random, unstable people will always be with us. Hence, nothing need be done, and no guilt or blame assigned except to people who were marginal to begin with. The problem with that argument is that if it were sound, political violence would be just about equally common in every culture and at every historical moment, yet cross-cultural differences show that some cultures encourage erratic people to turn to violence, while others might steer them towards, say, collecting bus transfers. (It might make a difference whether it's easier to get a gun or a bus transfer, for one thing.)

I felt similarly after reading a Wall Street Journal article that a friend linked to, deliberately-provocatively titled "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior". It's written charmingly and with a certain amount of irony. I admire the author, Amy Chua, for being willing to state controversial opinions in plain language that makes her intent clear, free from weasel words. I also think her opinions are wrong and destructive; not so much for how she describes raising her own daughters, but for the kinds of behavior she's rhetorically endorsing in other people.

I'm not really qualified to address whether there's something intrinsic about Chinese culture that produces what I'll call, along with Chua, "Chinese mothers". She acknowledges that various people who are not Chinese exemplify the same paradigm. My mother, who grew up in Indonesia with a Northern/Western European background, was one of them. I am qualified to talk about my life, and the effect that being raised with some of Chua's "Chinese mother" behavior characteristics had on it. So that's what I'm going to talk about.

(By the way, there is a discussion to be had here about racism, or about cultural generalizations, or about attributing personal pathologies to larger cultures or vice versa, or all of the above. But I'm focusing on something else in order to emphasize what I have experience with rather than to ignore racism.)

Do you ever read something in a non-fiction piece that makes you think that the author wouldn't believe you existed even if they met you, as they are so invested in a certain point of view and your own subjective experience undermines their point of view so much? So I did when I read this paragraph in Chua's article:

What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you're good at it. To get good at anything you have to work, and children on their own never want to work, which is why it is crucial to override their preferences. This often requires fortitude on the part of the parents because the child will resist; things are always hardest at the beginning, which is where Western parents tend to give up. But if done properly, the Chinese strategy produces a virtuous circle. Tenacious practice, practice, practice is crucial for excellence; rote repetition is underrated in America. Once a child starts to excel at something---whether it's math, piano, pitching or ballet---he or she gets praise, admiration and satisfaction. This builds confidence and makes the once not-fun activity fun. This in turn makes it easier for the parent to get the child to work even more.

Chua's claims here are so stunningly counter to my own life experience---and she states them with such certainty---that I nearly started to wonder whether I am just a figment of my own imagination. My mother, similarly to the "Chinese parents" Chua describes (among whom Chua counts herself), started me on violin lessons when I was three. I was finally allowed to switch to the cello when I was a few years older. Playing the violin was physically painful for me; the first hundred times or so that I said so, my mother ignored me, but eventually I was allowed to play the cello if I would continue with both instruments, and even later I was allowed to stop playing violin. My mother, and most of the music teachers I had that I can remember (there was a succession of them, especially I got older and showed less and less willingness to be present in mind as opposed to body), emphasized the value of "discipline" and would ask me why I didn't have any, when I was eight and nine and ten. I learned that "discipline" is a word adults use when they don't know how else to get you to do what they want you to do that serves their needs rather than your own. I had a teacher when I was 12 who was more honest than most. I said it hurt me to sit up straight while I played. He said, basically, that life was pain and you had to suffer to be great. (Later it turned out I had scoliosis.) I don't remember the joy or fun of playing an instrument being talked about much. I hated lessons and I hated practicing. My mother thought intonation was all-important, so both to stress that, and to make sure I couldn't escape, she would accompany me on the piano while I practiced. I don't mean that she would play the accompaniment part that the composer wrote for piano---she played the solo line in unison with me. So she got to set the tempo and I'd think about the book I wished was reading as my hands moved mechanically. The main thing I learned from enforced music practice is to get really, really good at doing one thing with my body while my mind was somewhere completely different. I learned that skill so well that I use it all the time even now that I'm thirty, involuntarily, whether I'm having sex or trying to listen to a lecture.

I never started to enjoy playing music, the way Chua claims all children will if they're coerced initially. Maybe that's because she's right about how you can't enjoy it unless you're really good at it, and maybe you can be passable---like I was---but not good if you're not paying any attention to what you're doing. The question remains as to how being forced to play could possibly ever have caused me to enjoy it, given that all evidence suggests I was either born with the kind of mind that doesn't allow me to take pleasure in something I'm being forced to do, or developed that kind of mind at a very young age because of the environment I was in.

I quit taking lessons a little bit before I started college, and although I played some chamber music in college, it was out of a hope that maybe it would magically start being fun. It wasn't. I stopped. That was eleven years ago. In the past two years, I tried again. I played in a community orchestra for a couple of months. Playing cello had become physically painful the way that violin once was, and I just couldn't make myself sit down and practice enough to feel good about what I was contributing to the orchestra. I quit. I tried singing, because that was something I was never coerced into as a kid (my mother didn't think as highly of voice as of instruments when it came to ways to make me someone she could use to impress people, I get the impression). That was more fun, but I still couldn't practice. When I tried, I felt the way I'd imagine a claustrophobic person feels if locked in an Amtrak restroom.

Being forced to practice for what in retrospect seems like hours a day (although it was probably more like half an hour or an hour) not only didn't give me the ability to do that freely as an adult, the way Chua claims it does. It destroyed my ability to do that, to enjoy playing music, and to some extent to enjoy listening to classical music. It makes me angry that although I still retain some technical skills that might make me a serviceable amateur player, the chance to use those skills for my own pleasure was taken away from me. I had to turn off the Spike Lee movie "Mo' Better Blues" after about five minutes because it shows the protagonist, a jazz musician, being bullied as a child by his mother into practicing the trumpet, then cuts directly into him giving a great performance as an adult, implying a causal relationship between coercion and excellence. That isn't my life: if coercion worked, I'd be the next Pablo Casals by now. (If you asked my mom why I'm not a successful musician now or even an adult who enjoys playing for fun, she'd probably tell you it's because I never had enough discipline.) And I suspect it isn't the life of any of my friends who are professional or serious amateur musicians, either. I suspect nobody could have stopped many of them from making music, on the contrary.

As an aside, it's interesting that Chua picks music as an example, because human beings have made music for about as long as we've been human beings, so far as I can tell, and contrary to the tale she spins in which no one ever enjoys music unless they're perfect at it and no one ever gets perfect at it without a bullying parent behind the chair, it seems to be something that you need violence to stop people from doing. Why have a number of repressive religious movements seen fit to proscribe music and dancing? You'd think it would be easy to keep people from doing something that requires that much preparation and discipline. You might as well say that kids will never enjoy peeing unless they're good at it, and that someone has to force them to be good at it. I wonder about the connection between a social climate in which her example looks reasonable, and the one in which we've been taught that nothing is valuable except that which we buy and pay for, so that we have to listen to recorded music produced by expert musicians rather than making music for ourselves. If that's the premise, it might look reasonable to conclude that becoming one of those experts is the only way to glean any happiness. What are people trying to sell you when they tell you that you can't satisfy your own needs, that (whether you're 5 or 85) pleasure isn't something you can create for yourself, but something that you have to depend on someone else to give you (whether they're a parent or an advertising agent)? But I digress.

The only things in life that I've ever truly enjoyed are things that nobody wanted me to do, nobody initially asked me to do, that in some cases my mother actively tried to stop me from doing: reading, writing, and computer science. She hated that I read all the time and would unscrew the light bulb from a walk-in closet in our apartment so I wouldn't hide in there reading late at night (I had bad insomnia as a kid, and she thought I should lie in bed awake rather than read). When I got interested in computer science, she kept telling me I should study neuroscience instead, because that's what she wanted to do. I got interested in computer science in the first place because I read about the Internet in books or magazines that I got from the library, so I got Internet access through classes I was taking, so I took an intro computer science class so I could understand hacker culture. While I had supportive teachers later on in college and grad school who encouraged me, nobody had to coerce or push me to get interested in it in the first place, and I have never been as enthusiastic and motivated about computer science (or anything, really) as I was in the first two years, before I matriculated, before I'd even been seriously evaluated on that work or paid to do it. I've never worked as hard on programming as a grad student or as a professional programmer as I did when I was 14-16 years old and doing it almost entirely for pleasure.

My point here is not to complain about what a rough life I had, because that would be the whining of a privileged youth. My point is that I'm dismayed that people like Chua are advocating harmful and borderline abusive parenting practices in a forum---the Wall Street Journal---such that some people will take her seriously. Moreover, my experience shows that her claims about what's good for all children cannot be substantiated.

Okay, well, you say, what is good for all children? All children are different, so there's no advice that will be helpful for raising all of them. So what's wrong with Chua giving her particular perspective? Let a thousand flowers bloom, right? What I think is harmful about Chua's perspective---and about the legitimacy that her position as a university professor writing in a highly respected publication, rather than just another mom on the playground, lends her---doesn't have to do much with music in particular, or any other of the pastimes people foist on their children. What I think is harmful is the hidden curriculum of the "Chinese mother", or of my own: the lesson that adults know what's best for you because you're a child, so you must let them do to you whatever they want. That's what kids really learn when they get told that adults get to decide how they spend their time and their life. An adult who uses their child to live out vicariously all the things they wanted to do when they were a kid themselves, or who uses their child as a status symbol to brag about to other adults (my kid won the concerto competition at age ten! Well, mine won the science fair when she was seven! Well, mine joined the NBA when he was four!) is using their child to satisfy their own needs, just as an adult who sexually abuses their child to satisfy their own needs is doing the same. The main difference is that the latter is illegal. And if you're a kid who's been taught to allow yourself to be used for one purpose, you'll also allow yourself to be used for the other, should anybody ever take advantage of the opportunity.

What other kinds of needs might an adult use their child to satisfy? Chua writes:

The fact is that Chinese parents can do things that would seem unimaginable---even legally actionable---to Westerners. Chinese mothers can say to their daughters, "Hey fatty---lose some weight."
Chua goes on to write that being called a "fatty" is acceptable---nay, helpful---to Chinese daughters because it means that their parents see them as strong, rather than as weak: "They assume strength, not fragility, and as a result they behave very differently." Frankly, I find this statement mind-blowing. And this is the sentence that seems to inspire quite a bit of sympathy from young, American-born readers. You hear quite a bit about the alleged "self-esteem" movement, like you heard more recently about the movement to institute "death panels", in which children (which ones? We were never sure) were allegedly taught to believe in their innate self-worth---obviously, a terribly subversive thing. I hear quite a few of my peers blaming whatever's wrong with "the kids these days" on the idea that these kids allegedly believe that there is something inside them of worth that's not contingent on their achievements or on the approval of others. Apparently, name-calling is the healthy alternative to nurturing self-esteem. And what's the excuse for calling your kids names that you yourself were called when you were a child and too frightened to fight back (Chua herself talks proudly about calling her daughter "garbage" because she was called that by her parents when she was young)? The excuse is that you believe your kids are strong, strong enough to endure your abuse. It's a little like the argument I've heard some Christians use that God only inflicts pain and suffering on you because you're strong enough to endure it. Well, if there is a God, then that's a God with a limitless capacity to behave self-servingly. And when parents set themselves up like gods, they rely on nobody pointing out the conflict of interest inherent in telling you "I'm only hurting you because I believe you're so strong that I can't break you."

The ways in which this makes no sense are manifold. Among the same people who don't believe that people other than themselves should have self-esteem, the canard that children ought to "respect their parents' authority" is popular. Okay, so---you're teaching your child to respect your authority, which presumably entails taking what you say seriously. Yet at the same time, you call your child "garbage" or a "fatty" and... expect it'll just bounce right off them? Because they don't take you seriously, and thus don't respect your authority? What's with that?

The other problem with the concept of "treating your kids as if they are strong" is that its acceptance necessitates willful ignorance of the power disparity between parents and children. Again, there's some rather blatant doublethink involved, since the same people are saying in the next breath that parents get to use their power to determine that the kids should spend 3 hours a day practicing piano rather than having friends. But if you do acknowledge that the relationship between a child and their parent(s)---parents being the only people legally empowered to assault the child physically for any reason they choose, and being the only people legally required to see to the child's needs for food and shelter---is wildly unequal, then how in the hell can the stronger person in the relationship countenance treating the weaker person "as if they're strong"? I'm going to punch a kitten in the face because I like to treat kittens as if they're strong, not fragile; it doesn't matter that I weigh about 90 times more.

The conspiracy of silence in which Chua participates, and which psychologist Alice Miller (for example, in her book For Your Own Good) has written about, involves perpetuating this myth: What adults do to you is for your own good. Be grateful for it, and suck it up, cupcake. It's a politically useful myth. Kids who internalize it turn into obedient workers (bosses naturally replace parents) and into supporters of authoritarian politicians. They also tend to turn into bullying parents themselves. And the cycle goes on. But people like Chua aren't helping break it. Read Chua's essay while asking: "What is it doing for her to treat her children in all of the ways she describes?" This is a question she never seems to ask herself. But it's a question that would decenter her perspective and show that claiming that coercion is "for your own good" is the act of psychological coercion that enables all others.

There is a lot of noise about how one oughtn't to criticize how other people raise their kids. I, by the way, don't speak from experience raising a kid, but I do speak from experience having been raised, which gives me exactly as much credibility as anyone else. Anyway, the argument goes, "everybody has their own way of being a parent, and kids usually turn out fine, so it's all good." Well, many kids aren't fine. Some of us spend most of our lives dealing with depression, and some find that becoming an adult isn't enough to escape their childhoods and have to escape using the only method that's left to them. Even so, it's probably a good rule of thumb to avoid critiquing your friends' friends' parenting habits during dinner parties. But I believe that a person with a lot of middle-class credibility, like Chua, can actually influence what kinds of behaviors are considered acceptable. And I think that when she uses a bully pulpit (no pun intended) to advocate coercion, that contributes to an environment in which coercion is a socially acceptable tactic to deploy upon your children.

Chua herself talks about attending a party where some of her friends were horrified to learn she'd called her daughter "garbage". Like many such arguments, that one appears to have changed no one's mind, but aided by sources of cognitive authority like Chua's article, the next round of dinner-party arguments about parenting might do more than just keep yuppies off the streets. I do think that whether people in the mainstream media talk about---say---hitting your kids in a way that's approving, or disapproving, influences whether people hit their kids. It's not that parents read the manual first before making any decision about raising their kids---it's that as social animals, the approval or disapproval of our peers matters to us, whether it comes to how we treat our kids or whether we drink artisanal water. So I do not think that critiquing this article puts me in the same bucket as those ladies who talk about how if your baby isn't getting breastfed and wearing cloth diapers until it's five, you're a terrible parent. Ok?

Finally: I can imagine someone responding to this with, "well, Chua wasn't saying that the 'Chinese style' of parenting is better, she's just describing two different parenting cultures and the different sets of assumptions and actions involved in each." Perhaps so, although personally it's quite clear to me that she's advocating her way (just read the bit about the American daughter who felt horrible that her father called her beautiful and talented---it's interesting that Chua didn't look for any Chinese daughters to quote who are in therapy dealing with their mothers calling them "fatty"). But given the number of people who apparently read this article and came away nodding with approval for the "Chinese style"---even, in some cases, wishing they'd had parents like that!---I think that's a moot point. By expressing pride over having called her daughter "garbage" (and not spending a word interrogating herself about whether by using a word that her parents used against her when she was a child, she was using her daughter to satisfy her own psychological needs), Chua locates herself squarely in the Dan "Kids are sociopaths until you beat it out of them... metaphorically" Savage camp. It's the camp that gives aid and comfort to abusers in their quest to make more abusers. It's the camp of being worse than an abuser, because many abusers act in the thrall of their emotions and lack the ability to reflect on their own motivations intellectually. People like Savage and Chua do reflect on their own actions in the cool light of day, and decide to justify the path of violence, of emotional manipulation, of taking out your anger over how you were treated when you were small and powerless on a new set of small, powerless people, by rhetorically recasting selfishness as selflessness.

Won't somebody please, please think of the children? It's remarkable how often the question is asked and how rarely anyone actually does.

ETA: According to an SF Chronicle story, Chua feels the WSJ misrepresented her book by giving excerpts without context.


Apr. 3rd, 2010 04:33 pm
tim: "Bees may escape" (bees)
Things we learned from a seven-member grand jury yesterday:

- Vegan, bike-riding cops can do no wrong.
- Expect to see more instances of the "Two shots to make a guy drop a knife, two more to make sure there's no trial" strategy in 2010.
- When approached by a guy who's been attempting to kill himself with an X-acto knife, it's perfectly appropriate to reach for your gun first despite being equipped with a baton, a taser, and pepper spray.

But most of all:
- If you're mentally ill, you're disposable. If you're homeless, you're disposable. If you're both, a jury of Portlanders will work as hard as they can to let you know that your life doesn't matter.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
This is a parody of an article by Clay Shirky.
A Rant About Men

By Claudia Worky

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. "Sure", I say, "Tell me what you think I should say." I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness in terms so self-effacing it would make a Jewish comedian suggest you take up affirmations.

So I write my letter, looking over the student's self-assessment and dialing it up so that it sounds like it's coming from an enthusiastic mentor and not a depressed 14-year-old, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by understating their abilities, the student has probably gotten a letter out of me that's appropriate to their level of talent without sounding unrealistic.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Of course you can. My home, the Solitary Silence Department at Buffalo Lake State, is fairly gender-balanced, and I've taught about as many men as women over the last decade. In theory, the gender of my former student should be a coin-toss. In practice, I might as well have given her the pseudonym Titsy McBoobity for all the mystery there was. And I've grown increasingly worried that most of the men in the department, past or present, simply couldn't write a letter like that.

This worry isn't about psychology; I'm not concerned that men don't engage in enough abnegation of themselves or don't build enough self-doubt. I'm worried about something much simpler: not enough men have what it takes to behave like humble self-mortifying pushovers.

Remember Nora Helmer, the housewife immortalized in "A Doll's House" who sacrifices to save her husband's life? She hides the truth to protect his pride and acts like a ditzy child to keep him from realizing that she earned money to save his life. She didn't miss the fact that she was getting the short end of the deal and suffering just to protect some man. She just didn't care. (Until the end, anyway; everyone has their limits.)

It's not that men will be better off being doormats; a lot of doormats aren't better off being doormats either. It's just that until men have role models who are willing to contemplate suicide just to protect someone else's ego, they'll miss out on channeling smaller amounts of self-sacrificing charity to help who they want to help, and if they can't do that, they'll help people less than they want to help them.

There is no upper limit to the amount of suffering women are willing to undergo in order to protect someone they care about, and if there is an upper limit for men, they will do less good. They will also hurt themselves less, but I don't think we get the rewards without the risks.
When I was 19 and three days into my first year in college, I went to see Billie Lefraw, the head of music theory (my chosen profession, in those days) to ask if I could enroll in a composition class. She asked me two questions. The first was "How's your intonation?" Not so good, I replied. (I couldn't carry a tune in a bucket.) "OK, how's your sight-reading?" I realized this was it. My sight-reading was just okay; I could have said it was good, but I just couldn't countenance getting into a class on false pretenses. Besides, out in the hall I had happened to see three students waiting to talk to Billie about getting off the waiting list who I knew were much better than me.

"My sight-reading's crappy," I said.

That's the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I told her something that made me look terrible. We talked some more and then she said, "You'd better take a different class." And I ran to the local textbook store and bought some math books, since I had to find a new major.

That got me out of the fire. I got the satisfaction of knowing that I made way for students with more competence and passion than I had, I never considered music as a career again, and four years later, I got a job after I graduated. I can't say that my escape from a life of poverty working in a profession I was always mediocre at was due to my behavior in Billie's office, but I can say it was because I was willing to do that kind of thing. The difference between me and Nora Helmer isn't that she's a martyr and I'm not; the difference is that I only assessed myself with brutal honesty when there was no real risk to my health or welfare, and I knew when to stop. That's not a different type of behavior, it's just a different amount.

And it looks to me like men in general, and the men whose educations I am responsible for in particular, are often lousy at those kinds of behaviors, even when the situation calls for it. They aren't just bad at behaving like humble self-effacing pushovers. They are bad at behaving like selfless altruists, meek softies, or modest mice, even a little bit, even temporarily, even when it would be in the world's best interests to do so. Whatever bad things you can say about those behaviors, you can't say they are underrepresented among people who have changed the world.

Now this is asking men to behave more like women, but so what? We ask people to cross gender lines all the time. We're in the middle of a generations-long project to encourage women to be louder talkers and more sexually aggressive partners, to spend less time obsessing over their own feelings and worrying about others' feelings. Similarly, I see colleges spending time and effort teaching men strategies for being less of a violent asshole, including directly not raping women. I sometimes wonder what would happen, though, if my college spent as much effort teaching men self-effacement as self-control.
Some of the reason these strategies are useful is because we live in a world where men don't do their fair share of emotional labor. However, even in an ideal future, self-effacement will be a skill that produces disproportionate social rewards, and if skill at self-effacement remains disproportionally female, the rewards of a place in the world appropriate to one's talents and inclinations will also remain disproportionally female. This isn't because of oppression, it's because of freedom.

But rather than writing some douchebaggy drivel that tortures free-market economics into supporting my questionable argument (see what I did there?), I'll get straight to the point. Institutions that offer opportunities operate in an environment where accurate information is hard to come by. One of their main sources of judgment is asking the candidate directly: Tell us why we should admit you. Tell us why we should hire you. Tell us why we should give you a grant. Tell us why we should promote you.

In these circumstances, people who wave their hands in the air get called on, and people who wave their hands in the air while yelling loudly get called on more. Some of this is because quiet people are easier to ignore, but some of it is because keeping your mouth shut is a signal that underneath your veneer of modesty, you have self-respect and aren't willing to give it up just to work at some dumb-ass job.

That in turn correlates with many of the skills that douchebags need to work at organizations run by douchebags: recruiting other douchebags and raising money, conning naïve people and fooling skeptics, pretending your company has a business plan when all that's actually written down is "Step 3: Profit". Institutions assessing the fitness of candidates, in other words, often pass over self-effacers because self-effacement is linked with being too smart to play such childish games.

It's tempting to imagine that men could be sensible and reserved without being weak or easily manipulated, but that's a false hope, because it's other people who get to decide when they think you're a pushover, and trying to stay under that threshold means giving those people veto power over your actions. To hold yourself back as someone who's not willing to accept a position that goes beyond your innate abilities is, by definition, to expose yourself to all kinds of negative judgments, and as far as I can tell, the fact that other people get to decide what they think of your behavior leaves only two strategies for not suffering from those judgments: not doing anything, or doing what you know is right despite feeling hurt by the reaction.
Doing what you think is right works surprisingly well. Another of my great former students, now a peer and a friend, saw a request from a magazine reporter doing a science story and looking for examples. My friend, who'd previously been too loud about his work, realized that his work had nothing to do with the reporter's request and decided not to make himself look silly by writing to her about it. Instead, he wrote to the reporter to call her attention to the work of our mutual friend Jane, saying, "Jane's work is awesome. You should write about it."

The reporter looked at Jane's work and wrote back saying "Jane's work is indeed awesome, and I will contact her about it. I also have to tell you that you are the only man who suggested a female colleague's work. Women do that all the time, but men only recommend their own work." My friend started helping other colleagues as well, and now he enjoys the satisfaction of knowing he played a part in others' success.

If you walked into my department at Buffalo Lake State, you wouldn't say "Oh my, look how much talented the women are than the men." The level and variety of creative energy in the place is still breathtaking to me, and it's not divided by gender. However, you would be justified in saying "I bet that the students who are happiest with what they've done for their family, friends and colleagues and for social justice in five years will include more women than men", because that's what happens, year after year. My friend talking to the reporter remains the sad exception.

Part of this sorting out of fates is misandry, but part of it is that women are just better at being altruistic, and less concerned about trying to get people to give them credit for things they haven't done.

Now I don't know what to do about this problem. (The essence of a rant, in fact, is that the ranter has no idea how to fix the thing being ranted about.) What I do know is this: it would be good if more men see opportunities to do something for somebody else, opportunities to sacrifice rewards they might otherwise have enjoyed for the sake of the greater good, and then try to take them on. It would be good if more men got in the habit of shutting the hell up when someone asks for an opinion they're not qualified to give, no matter how uncomfortable that makes them.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
People whose names on Facebook end in "PhD".
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Top scholar Gates arrested in Mass., claims racism

By MELISSA TRUJILLO (AP) – 22 minutes ago

BOSTON — Henry Louis Gates Jr., the nation's pre-eminent black scholar, is accusing Cambridge police of racism after he was arrested while trying to force open the locked front door of his home near Harvard University.

Cambridge police were called to the home Thursday afternoon after a woman reported seeing a man "wedging his shoulder into the front door as to pry the door open," according to a police report.

An officer ordered the man to identify himself, and Gates refused, according to the report. Gates began calling the officer a racist and said repeatedly, "This is what happens to black men in America."

Officers said they tried to calm down the 58-year-old academic, who responded, "You don't know who you're messing with," according to the police report.

Gates was arrested on a disorderly conduct charge after police said he "exhibited loud and tumultuous behavior." He was released later that day on his own recognizance and arraignment was scheduled for Aug. 26.

Gates referred comment to his lawyer, fellow Harvard scholar Charles Ogletree, who was not immediately available. Cambridge police declined to comment, and the Middlesex district attorney's office said it could not do so until after Gates' arraignment. The woman who reported Gates did not return a message Monday.

Many of Gates' African-American colleagues believe his arrest is part of a pattern of racial profiling in Cambridge, said Allen Counter, who has taught neuroscience at Harvard for 25 years.

Counter has said he was stopped on campus by two Harvard police officers in 2004 after being mistaken for a robbery suspect. They threatened to arrest him when he could not produce identification.

"We do not believe that this arrest would have happened if professor Gates was white," Counter said. "It really has been very unsettling for African-Americans throughout Harvard and throughout Cambridge that this happened."

Counter said he spoke to Gates, who told him police continued to question him after he showed them his license and Harvard identification.

"They did not believe him when he said that he was in his own home," Counter said. "He was totally mistreated in this incident."

Gates is the director of Harvard University's W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research and served for 15 years as chairman of what is now the Department of African and African American Research. He joined the Harvard faculty in 1991 and holds one of 20 prestigious "university professors" positions at the school.

He also was host of "African American Lives," a PBS show about the family histories of prominent U.S. blacks. Time magazine named him one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1997.

Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


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Tim Chevalier

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