[guest post] Dictionary Arguments, and Why They Suck

CaitieCat, a frequent and awesome commenter around here, has a guest postI

It’s not news to any activist for any cause that people just love to whip out dictionary definitions as ostensibly authoritative guides to what words mean. Even so august a person as a fellow whose name may or may not rhyme with Shmichard Shmawkins has been known to whip out (pun intended) the old Oxford English when he doesn’t like someone else’s usage being different from the one he learned.

What’s disappointing about it is that it’s really just a common logical fallacy: the appeal to authority.

Now, I hear the defenders of that fellow who may or may not have that rhyming name leaping to their feet, cursing at me and their screens and the perfidy of anyone (especially a much-despiséd FEMINIST OMFFSM!) who’d dare to suggest the emperor would turn out to be naked commit a logical fallacy, but let me (the irony should delight you) tell you as a linguist why it’s exactly that.

First, it’s perhaps valuable to look at what a dictionary actually is. A dictionary is a compilation of language-objects (usually words, sometimes other related entities) – and this is the important bit – compiled by humans at a particular time.

Yes, they’re genuine experts in their field, and yes, they work by consensus, sort of. See, they only work by consensus within the field of dictionary writers who use the same language variety as they do. We tend to view a dictionary as a collection of objective facts: word X means meaning Y (and possibly Z, J, F, and Q). In fact, though, any dictionary is bounded by several biases which we tend not to think about when citing them as major authorities.

First, it is bounded in time. The date of publication provides an absolute limit for when the meanings are considered definitely valid; for proof, consider trying to use Mr. Johnson’s original dictionary for your English assignment today. That we can see this in Mr. Johnson’s 1709 effort, but not in the 2000 Oxford Online, has to do with our monkey-brained habit of filtering out the everyday, in order to make best use of the meat-computer we come pre-installed with.The instant it is sent to print, a dictionary is already badly out of date: words can change their meaning significantly in a very short time, as the quill flies/pixel pulses.

The filters have to do with more than time, though. There is also to be considered the makeup of the editorial board – does it accurately reflect the state of the whole of English, with different sociolects, dialects, jargons, cants, argots? There is a known demographic issue in academia generally, as well as most parts of academia, for the majority of tenured positions currently to be held by white able-bodied middle- or upper-class cis men. Are they always going to catch all possible meanings of a given word, all the nuances, when they aren’t users of a given word themselves? More diversity in such an endeavour would be evidently useful in making the dictionary more accurately reflect the true state of the language, if that were a goal of the project. It’s not: the OED is an attempt at defining what the prestige version of the language is.

Consider the privilege in dictionary-making accorded to written (i.e., “documentable”) usages, and in fact only certain types of documentable usages, which predominantly exclude those who stand outside the power-structure in today’s society. Emails between people, chat usage, comic books, zines, samizdat generally, erotic fiction/pornography, fan fiction, maledicta, rap lyrics, acronyms, and languages for the Deaf, among many other types of language usage, tend to be recorded only in the most conservative ways, and often ignored entirely, dismissed as vulgar ephemera, unworthy of inclusion in the Pantheon of English Wordhood.

Verbal usages are ignored almost entirely, as being “undocumentable”. Yet written language is only ever at its very best a vague approximation of the true richness and beauty of the spoken/signed language; great numbers of expressions and words will never make it into any dictionary, despite their usage in the millions of times daily all over the world, because they’re never written down in “acceptable” documentation. And yet we’re accumulating a humanity-wide store of thousands of hours of video of native and non-native speakers using their languages every day; there’s no particular reason to privilege written communication over spoken any more, now that the data are more readily available. Yes, it would cause a lot more work, but that’s only because we’ve only been doing half the job up til now, not a good argument for not doing it.

The primary problem, of course, is that these nominally objective (but in actuality, wildly subjective) works are cited as prescriptive authorities: they purport to describe the language as it ought to be spoken. I’m hoping that with the paragraphs above, I don’t need to describe the ways in which that view of language is of a tiny window on a huge, living phenomenon: it’s like carefully describing every pitch and swing of a baseball at-bat, and claiming that only that one at-bat, by one player, at one time, counts as a real at-bat, and that all at-bats are like that one, or aren’t real at-bats at all1.

There are real and invisible-to-us biases we all bear, having been raised in societies which are basically giant machines for inculcating invisible-to-us bias: the privilege of having a background such that one speaks the very high-prestige Received Pronunciation (the so-called “Queen’s English”) might lead one to assume that, since the OED agrees exactly with one’s internal definitions, then it must necessarily be a valid and unshakeable authority. Call it the oligoanthropic principle: “all the highly-educated Oxbridge graduates I know agree with the OED, and nobody I consider important disagrees, therefore it is an inerrant objective compilation of facts.”

But this requires not noticing that there are a lot of people in the world speaking English as their main language, and every single one of them has as much claim to say that their version is “the real one” as any Oxbridge-trained-mouthful-of-marbles has.

Like any compilation of subjective human knowledge, then, a dictionary definition is a poor premise to base an argument upon: it is too easily falsified by the simple act of noting that there are a noticeable number of people in the world using those words differently. As a linguist, I lean naturally toward a descriptive approach to language: to me, language is what the people who speak it want it to be. Language changes, as we adapt it – like any tool, as the good tool-using primates we are – to the needs we’re facing with it today. Insistence on some apocryphal golden-age idea that a given dictionary definition is a universally valid, and objectively and eternally true, premise reveals only a weak ability to recognize the numerous bounds and biases which make it at best subjective, and at worst revealing only a small part of the meaning a given language-object might carry to other people.

And that means, I’m afraid, that showing that your dictionary has a famous person’s or institution’s name on it doesn’t make it any more important or objective an arbiter of language than any random two speakers of that dictionary’s language: thus, the fallacy of appeal to authority.

Sorry, rhymes-with-Shmawkins fans: the emperor’s butt’s hanging out2.

For the turquoise ungulate crowd:

FALLIBLE PEOPLE WRITE DICTIONARIES THAT ARE SUBJECTIVE PRODUCTS OF THEIR PHYSICAL AND TEMPORAL CONTEXT.

FALLIBLE PEOPLE WRITE HOLY BOOKS THAT ARE SUBJECTIVE PRODUCTS OF THEIR PHYSICAL AND TEMPORAL CONTEXT.

WHY DO WE REVERE ONE AND DENIGRATE THE OTHER?

1 Wow, that’s a crap analogy. Anyone got a better one?

2 Big thanks to Miri the Amazing Professional Fun-Ruiner of Awesomeness for the opportunity to guest-post. :)

CaitieCat is a 47-year-old trans bi dyke, outrageously feminist, and is a translator/editor for academics by vocation. She also writes poetry, does standup comedy, acts and directs in community theatre, paints, games, plays and referees soccer, uses a cane daily, writes other stuff, was raised proudly atheist, is both English by birth and Canadian by naturalization, a former foxhole atheist, a mother of four, and a grandmother of four more (so far). Sort of a Renaissance woman (and shaped like a Reubens!).

[guest post] Hello from a Severely Disenchanted Former Democrat

While I’m in DC, here’s a guest post from my friend Andy, who wrote this after he received yet another letter from the Democratic Party asking for donations.

To whomever reads this letter:

Hello from a severely disenchanted former Democrat.

Firstly, I would like to politely ask you to remove me from your records from this date forward. I do not wish to receive any more solicitations through any medium from your organization or party or any of its accompanying PACs.

Secondly, I wish to express my sincere distaste with almost everything your party has done in the last 5-6 years. The President put it quite well when he pointed out to Noticias Univision 23 in Miami, Florida, stating “The truth of the matter is that my policies are so mainstream that if I had set the same policies that I had back in the 1980s, I would be considered a moderate Republican.”

Nothing could be closer to the truth. Your party has slipped its moorings and has floated so far to the right that I can no longer consider myself a Democrat by any stretch of the imagination.

My heart breaks to see a party that I had such hope in for so long disintegrate into this. When we called for a public option, an option our president told us would be kept on the table, we were stabbed in the back behind closed doors as the president promised pharmaceutical companies and medical lobbyists (many of whom poured millions of dollars into his campaign war chest) that the public option was a pipe dream. I am outraged at the complete silence this administration and party has had on the violence that met the peaceful protestors of the Occupy movement. Friends and people I cared about had their limbs broken, were arrested for no reason, and harassed, pepper sprayed, and beaten. And all of this without a word from our benevolent, supposedly progressive president. I’m sick of the hypocrisy on Guantanamo when the president’s plan was never to shut down the facility, but to only move it north onto the US mainland. Now hundreds of men sit in cages, tortured, abused, and being force-fed, many with no formal charges, many cleared for release, and all your party does is blame the Republicans for “stonewalling” which is complete crock.

I ache at the destruction we’ve once again caused around the world by becoming involved in meaningless conflicts throughout the world for no other reason than economic interest. We decimated Libya and put it into the hands of Islamic radicals (who now have vast arrays of weapons and are now turning them against their own people, who we were supposedly “saving”). We continue to terrorize and bomb, extrajudicially, people in the remotest regions of Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and many other countries with unmanned robotic drones, capable of vaporizing great swathes of people and never being seen. And we can never be held accountable for our actions, because Obama continues to insist on the secrecy of the program and refuses to submit to UN or ICJ investigation, all because we’re Americans and we know what’s best. This new prong of the War on (of?) Terror accompanies continued aggression in Iraq with special operations and Afghanistan with both convential and unconventional tactics. We have also considered arming Syrian rebels and have given equipment and arms to the Bahraini government, which is committing massacres with US equipment, while the media ignores it completely. This is to say nothing of Israel and its systematic degradation and war against Palestine, all of which is funded by the US, with this administration pledging more aid to Israel than ever before.

Our police continue to become more and more militarized, thanks in large part to help from the Federal government and loans. While our schools flounder and our infrastructure crumbles, I get to watch friends rounded up with Armored Personnel Carriers by police officers who, for all intents and purposes, may as well be soldiers in Afghanistan for all their equipment.

Obama is also the first president to assassinate a US citizen (and his 16-year-old son) without any due process or oversight. The labeling of this person as a supposed “enemy combatant” does not grant the right to the government to vaporize him without a trial. Yet, it still happened. And now, with the passing of the NDAA last year, the US government now has a legal basis to authorize force (in the absence of due process) on American citizens on domestic soil.

Your party claims to be sensible about immigration, too, yet under Obama’s administration it is likely to reach 2 million deportations (a record never before met) by 2014. There have been no serious talks of how to reform this broken and often racist system, yet the administration seems quite content on continuing the legacy of America’s exceptionalism while pumping up the rhetoric and pretending to be compassionate towards immigrants.

And despite rhetoric to the contrary, Obama’s administration has stepped up the so-called War on Drugs, a $1 trillion dollar failure. He continues to harass and jail legal medical marijuana dispensaries and refuses to even talk about reforming these laws. Meanwhile, our jail system is overflowing with mostly petty non-violent criminals a great majority of who are poor, uneducated, and of minority racial status.

I could go on for pages about the failed policies, broken promises, and complete 180-turn-arounds that your party has done. To me, a lifelong Democrat, my heart is broken, my faith is shattered, and I am angrier than I have ever been before. While our country and our people reel in pain and sadness from tragedy, from no work, from low wages, from burdening debt that we cannot get out of, we watch as our supposed “People’s Party” hands more and more cash to corporate interests and grinds us under their heel.

The fact of the matter is that Obama (and the Democratic party) have continued almost all of the failed policies of the Bush administration. Whether it’s GITMO, warrantless wiretapping, extraordinary rendition, illegal wars, drone strikes, immigration, and much more, Obama has shown us very clearly exactly where he stands in terms of the American people and their wishes. Your party is now nothing more than Republican Party Lite.

Having said that let me reiterate once again:

DO NOT SEND ME ANY MORE SOLICITATIONS, EVER.

Signed,

Your Friendly Neighborhood Anarchist

~~~

Andy Cheadle-Ford is a professional activist in the secular student movement and is passionately involved in many social justice campaigns. He often refers to himself as the “Friendly Neighborhood Anarchist” and strives to show that anarchists are normal, compassionate, and intelligent people. When he is not working or plotting, he is typically enjoying a good book, video games, or a tasty vegan dinner with his friends.

Note: The author’s views do not necessarily reflect those of the national Secular Student Alliance

[guest post] Also Known as the Argument from “Gotta Get Laid, Amirite?”

Mitchell of Research to be Done has a fantastic response to my recent post!

Let’s talk about street harassment. Actually, since Miri has covered the bases very well in her last post on street harassment, let’s talk about something that came up in the comments, and that tends to come up now and then in conversations about accosting or complementing women in public. I’m going to call it the Argument from Sociopathic Cost-Benefit Analysis.

It’s roughly this: “Well, some women do appreciate those compliments from strangers. Sometimes they lead to making a connection, or dating, or sex, etc., putting those of us who don’t accost women that way at a disadvantage with women!” Some people will take it further, and add that this means hitting on women in public is naturally selected for and therefore impossible to eliminate because evolution and such (the “EVOLUTION IS MAKING ME DO IT!!” argument).

Hoo, boy! So there are a few problems with this:

First of all, there’s the sociopathic part. Let’s grant for a moment that men who routinely hit on women in public have the world’s greatest sex lives as a result of it. That doesn’t change the fact that there are lots and lots of women who are incredibly uncomfortable being hit on in public. It doesn’t change the fact that if this is your reasoning for hitting on women in public, you are deciding that your ability to get laid matters more than the discomfort of all of the people that you make uncomfortable in the process. It doesn’t change the fact that your argument boils down to, “I don’t care about your feelings as long as I get laid.” If you don’t care that that’s what it boils down to, then by all means keep making the argument, I guess, but I sincerely hope you aren’t ever mixing it up with the, “But I’m really a Non-Creepy Nice Guy” argument, because newsflash: you definitely aren’t*.

Second of all, no, you are not allowed to say that hitting on women in public is selected for by natural selection. First, you don’t know if it’s heritable. Second, you don’t know how the selective pressures in our evolutionary history might have contrasted with those acting on random people on a city street today. Third, you do (I hope) know that our society in its present state hasn’t been around long enough for such a specific act to be selected for on a scale that even remotely resembles the scale that this phenomenon occurs. Fourth, you don’t have any actual evidence that it correlates with reproductive success in the first place. Fifth, even if you could show that evolution selected for this behavior, that isn’t an argument. It’s like saying that because gravity pulls us all toward the center of the earth, we all have to spend our lives burrowing toward the center of the earth (“GRAVITY IS MAKING ME DO IT!!”). The fact that external forces act on our society and ourselves doesn’t mean we are obligated to do exactly the same thing those forces do.

Third (jumping one level up in the nested iterations of points, here), why are you so concerned with missing out on the things that could happen between you and the particular subset of women who don’t mind being hit on in public? Undoubtedly, there are plenty of women you will miss out on interacting with as a result of being the type of person who regularly hits on women in public, also. Why are you not concerned about missing out on interacting with them? What is it about this one particular avenue of interaction that makes missing out on it so tragic?

There are, in fact, a large number of other ways to meet and interact with women. There are ways that don’t involve nearly so much risk of making people uncomfortable. Invariably, no matter what approach you take, and no matter what context you do it in, your approach will appeal to some people, and not appeal to others (the same way that some people may appreciate getting hit on in public, and other people probably won’t want anything to do with people who do hit on people in public). What is so amazing about hitting on people in public that the interactions you might start that way carry so much more importance, and the people you make uncomfortable carry so much less importance than in other situations where you could meet people?

In summary, the Argument from Sociopathic Cost-Benefit Analysis is sociopathic, not at all based in evolution or science of any kind, and, for a line of reasoning that is apparently about not missing out on interaction with women, ignores the fact that there are plenty of other ways to interact with them, and that no matter how you choose to do so, including hitting on women in public, you’re going to miss out on interactions with someone. In light of that, why not pick a context and style of approach that requires no sociopathy at all?

*You’re basically a less extreme version of the guy who thinks Louis CK should’ve just gone for it on the off chance she was into that shit.

Mitchell Greenbaum is a geeky, poly, kinky, skeptic blogger who writes about social justice, relationships, depression, and chronic pain at Research to be Done, and engages in a wholly excessive amount of… auto-metacognition? Or does it make more sense as meta-auto-cognition? He isn’t really sure, but playing with prefixes is fun and writing bios is hard. True story.

[guest post] Sorry, You Don’t Own Marriage

My friend Seth, who’s becoming somewhat of a regular around here, returns with some observations about the same-sex marriage “debate” (if you could call it that).

I don’t know how many of you reading this right now have read any other of my limited contributions to the blogosphere, but if you have, you’ll know that I’ve been hopelessly indoctrinated into the gay agenda. So, unrepentant heathen that I am, you can imagine my reaction when this little gem of a quote from the debate over the Illinois same-sex marriage bill floated across my news feed:

“It is not a civil right, and marriage was created by God and not be modified by anybody except God.” (Source: Equality Illinois, corrected for grammar and punctuation because GAH)

Naturally this kicked the snark center of my brain into full gear. Gay people can’t get married because the Christian God holds the patent on marriage? Who else does this affect? Are all those poor Hindu couples technically unmarried because they didn’t go through the proper (i.e. Christian) procedure? What about me? I’m a Buddhist and an agnostic, does that mean that the children I father are doomed to be bastards born out of wedlock? What about my cousin, who just went up to a county courthouse and signed a paper with her fiancee—does that have the Divine Stamp of Approval?

That’s when a legitimate thought broke through the sarcasm. What about my cousin? She’s married in the (for lack of a better phrase) bare-bones legal sense, with no religious ceremonies or oversight. But she’s still married. I dare anybody to try and challenge that. They’d get laughed out of court.

And that’s what this is all about, because whoever supplied the above quote was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Certainly, marriage can be closely associated with religion: see every fictional depiction of it ever, which almost always involves it taking place in a church unless there’s a particular reason for it not to. But in this day and age, marriage is not controlled by religion. If it were, the entire institution would be an unmanageable clusterfuck—look at the sheer amount of religions we have in this country, and how many different interpretations of marriage they present. Rather, marriage is a way of legally acknowledging that two people have decided to live cooperatively, and to make that arrangement more convenient for them. Like my cousin, all you really have to do to be married is to sign a paper saying that you are; everything else is window dressing to make you feel like you’re square with your god and your family.

So marriage actually has nothing to do with religion as far as the law is concerned, and this is the law we’re talking about here, being, you know, legislation. And for a polyreligious country like ours, the law has an obligation to apply in equal measures to all citizens regardless of the proscriptions of any one particular religion. In other words: yes, the bible does say that homosexuality is a sin. No, that doesn’t give you the legal right to keep them from marrying, any more than you have the legal right to burn a priest’s daughter for being unchaste (Leviticus 21:9) or execute an adulterer or a child who curses their parents (Leviticus 20:9-10).

Your religion says gay marriage isn’t okay? Fine. Don’t let them get married in your church. That’s your religion’s domain and therefore your prerogative. But when it comes to the legal right to sign that piece of paper? Nobody gets to touch that, not you, not the Jews, not the Hindus, not the Pagans, and not us Buddhists. If you still want to claim that your God has exclusive rights to marriage, then you’d better get cracking on a bill that keeps us nonbelievers off of his turf. Go ahead. See how it goes.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

[guest post] We Need To Talk About Incest Survival

[Content note: incest, sexual assault, self-harm, eating disorders]

Someone I know and respect asked me to publish this anonymous guest post. -M

Mia Fontaine wrote an article in The Atlantic recently about the incest problem in America. Although we talk about sex scandals, stranger danger, and the abuses of the Catholic Church, as a society, we don’t really address the adult on child abuse that takes place primarily inside children’s homes.

Given the prevalence of incest, and that the family is the basic unit upon which society rests, imagine what would happen if every kid currently being abused—and every adult who was abused but stayed silent—came out of the woodwork, insisted on justice, and saw that justice meted out.

I have felt compelled to write about what happened to me, but I am too terrified of the consequences to post under my own name. Still, perhaps my story might give someone else the courage to do more than post anonymously to the internet. Perhaps someone will read it and realize how important this issue is. Or perhaps I’ll just feel better having written it. All worthy goals.

I was 18 the last time it happened, it was Christmas break my Freshman year in college. I ran and hid in my room and wondered how I’d let it happen again, it hadn’t happened in so long, I was in college now, surely I should have been safe. I didn’t cry, I just shook. In the decade since that night, I’m not sure I’ve ever managed to unpack everything going on inside me at that moment. Fear, anger, confusion, hurt, desperation for love and approval.

I’m not sure when it started. Maybe I was 11 or 12? It started gradually. Inappropriate hugs, hands lingering where they weren’t supposed to be, hands being held where they didn’t want to be. It escalated over the years to being given alcohol, oral sex, and being told that “if your mother ever found out, she would kill me.”

It was never vaginal intercourse and so, until the recent change in definition, it didn’t seem like I could call it rape. And, even though he lived with me, he was a step-relation, so I wasn’t sure whether it could be properly defined as incest. And I loved him, he was family, so I didn’t want anything bad to happen to him. And it didn’t always feel bad, some of the things felt good. And when so much of life was filled with hate, criticism, and being ignored, it was really something for someone to show affection at all. At the time, I felt it was my fault and, without any labels that seemed right, couldn’t think of what it was that was being done wrong exactly, just that it made me nauseous to think about. With the massive age difference, I knew it was statutory something. I don’t know, I tried very hard not to think about it.

But then a strange thing happened. My body forced me to think about it. I stopped having my period. I knew, physiologically, that it was impossible for me to be pregnant, but I was terrified just the same. A home pregnancy test confirmed my understanding of anatomy.

After three months with no period, I made an appointment with a psychiatrist at school, but, when I refused to take antidepressants because I was terrified my parents would find out, they refused to see me. Then I decided I had to make an appointment with a gynecologist. My mother was annoyed by my urgency at needing to go. It took two months to get into see someone — a very religious, old Southern man with a private practice.

He didn’t believe me when I said I’d never had sex and forced me to take a pregnancy test–I explained that after six months amenorrheic I’d be showing if I was lying, but that didn’t help. They never asked me if I’d been sexually abused, but who knows what I would have said. They never asked what I thought had precipitated the loss of periods. I guess I wasn’t thin enough to be anorexic, so it didn’t matter, even though it was a clear sign of depression. The fifth or sixth time he asked me if I was really a virgin, I started to cry, I never felt so judged. Not that being a virgin was important to me, but being honest absolutely was.

He wrote me a prescription for some hormone that induced a period and for a year’s supply of birth control. Somehow, the massive cramping didn’t make me feel any better.

I had to go to a family event that fall where He was present. And He had started dating someone I knew, someone I respected and liked a lot. I didn’t know what to do. At the same time, my family was harshly criticizing me for being fat (size 12) and not caring about my appearances. Presumably they thought my unhappiness was from being “too fat to be loved” rather than some negative experience of mine.

I began self-harming–cutting and starving myself. I visited pro-ana websites “out of curiosity”. I would eat a Milky Way bar and nothing else. I would eat with other people so they wouldn’t know anything was out of place and go home and throw it up. I made a friend take all my knives and scissors. I fantasized about driving through stop signs and red lights through traffic and getting into horrible accidents. I drove through the city late at night trying to get lost.

I’m not sure what broke, but finally I went to see another school therapist and agreed to take antidepressants.

It was too late, I felt, to try to tell my parents, and my therapist agreed, but only because she thought my parents were horrible. She felt like I should just try to get them to treat me like an adult and stop complaining about my weight all the time. The incest and rape thing just wasn’t that important because it wasn’t going to happen again, but unless I stopped them, my parents would continue to be awful.

It got better. I stopped seeing the therapist six weeks later, and was much better than I had been. I still occasionally had nightmares, but managed OK. A year after this, I tried to talk to my mother about what had happened. I woke up in the night after a nightmare and was shaking, and my mother heard me walking around. She took me to an all night diner and we talked. I told her what had happened and she told me I had misinterpreted events. I insisted I had not. She didn’t remember the conversation the next day. Her therapist later told me that she wouldn’t survive being told, the guilt would kill her, so she must have blocked it. He told me I couldn’t ever tell her.

I am happy now, I love myself, I love others and others love me. I am doing what I want to do, I am an activist in causes I care about, and I am fighting fights I want to fight. And I can’t find it in myself to fight this fight out loud.

I feel like an enabler, writing this anonymously. Never having confronted him. Never having told the family. What good would it do now, to open all of that up? It wouldn’t help anyone, just open wounds. Just make people hate me or hate him…but probably me. Who wants to do that? To destroy a family? I like a lot of the people who would get hurt.

And so I stay silent. Along with thousands and thousands like me. Justice is not being stopped by a powerful organization like Penn State or the Catholic Church, but by the reality that the victims would be hated just as much as, if not more than, the perpetrators. We’ve broken down some of the barriers to reporting stranger assaults on children, but we haven’t solved the larger problem of helping those living with their abusers. Society isn’t built to fix this problem or help people like me, but it doesn’t always have to be like this. Go read that article in The Atlantic, share it, write about this issue, support RAINN, and be willing to hear the truth, even when it is unpleasant.

[guest post] Hurricane Sandy, Climate Reality, Political Absenteeism

In purely economic terms, Hurricane Sandy will cost the United States $20 billion. And although a little less than half of that cash is insured, it cannot come close to accounting for the millions who have been devastated by the storm, the flooded streets, the damage to some of our most treasured landmarks, and the 16 human beings who lost their lives to the “one-in-ageneration” storm.

The science is clear. Climate change produces wetter, more intense, and more frequent tropical storms. Drawing a conclusive causal link between climate change and Hurricane Sandy is nearly impossible, but if there exists a wake up call, this surely is it.

We watched from afar this summer while our drought-stricken farmers struggled to produce crops in the erratically dry midwest. We sleepily, passively enjoyed last winter’s unusually comfortable weather. All of these patterns are symptoms of climate change. And not once has Mitt Romney or Barack Obama returned to the issue of climate in this election cycle.

At the RNC, Romney had not the poise to merely disagree with Obama’s policy on climate. Instead, he had the arrogance to proclaim, “President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans…” (cue eruption of laughter)… “And to heal the planet…” (cue a little less laughter).

Climate change has been discussed in every presidential election since 1988. But at this critical time in international negotiations, at the time when our nation’s fields and cities are experiencing the beginning of these monumental changes in our climate system, we have retreated to vacuous economic rhetoric and irresponsible jokes.

Romney promised to help us and our families, as though somehow we were not dependent on a habitable planet and a stable climate. If our leaders take seriously the safety of our families, now and in the future, we must all be prepared to act now. “We owe it to our children and grandchildren.”

Rising water rushes into an underground parking garage (Getty Images)

Water floods Ground Zero (John Minchillo / AP)

Corn damaged by drought last summer (Jim Lo Scalzo, European Pressphoto Agency)

Mark Silberg is a third year undergrad at Northwestern studying philosophy, among other things. He strongly believes that corporations are people, and that, like all people, they have moral responsibility.

[guest post] The Tradeoff Between Ambition and Happiness

A fellow blogger has provided me with this guest post about the psychology of ambition and happiness. Enjoy!

Imagine there’s a big project at work and you decide to come in on the weekend. The
length of you stay is entirely up to you, but you’ll get paid overtime for each hour.
After six hours you’re starting to feel like you’ve had enough. It’s time to decide
whether to stay another hour.

Both options have their benefits. Leave and you get to go hang out with friends. Stay
and you make more money. You go over the pros and cons in your head, but because
you have complete freedom over how to spend the next hour the choice comes
down to one thing: are you unhappier about leaving or unhappier about staying?
The decision will be made based on whether you feel, or convince yourself to feel,
unhappy and unsatisfied about only working six hours.

The point of this little scenario is that while many of us don’t consciously make
these specific decisions every day, the course of our lives and our happiness is
altered by how we incrementally reach these decisions over many months or years.
Are you going rip yourself apart over still not getting that promotion, or will you be
satisfied that you’ve reached the professional level you dreamed about when you
were a college student? Will you be happy if everything in life is great except for the
fact that you’re single, or will you be so unsatisfied that you have no choice but to
dedicate yourself to finding a significant other?

Happiness is influenced by a number of things that are out of our control – random
events, brain chemistry, immutable mental schemata developed as a young child – but
we can control some piece of our happiness through the stories we tell ourselves.
We can tell ourselves we’re successful and be happy, or we can tell ourselves we’re
not successful enough, and in doing so motivate greater achievement that ultimately
leads to a higher and more-stable level of happiness.

All of this is to say that it seems as though life involves a significant tradeoff between
ambition and happiness. Ambition requires focusing on what you don’t have.
Happiness requires focusing on what you do have. Yet the best way to truly strive
for more is to make yourself unsatisfied and unhappy with your current state. Thus,
in order to achieve more and push yourself to greater long-term happiness, it is
helpful to destroy short- or medium-term happiness.

The big question is what’s the optimal equilibrium between current life satisfaction
(i.e. happiness) and current life dissatisfaction (i.e. ambition)? The answer to this
question is important for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it’s the driver of
many of the big dilemmas people face in their lives. Should you accept what you’ve
accomplished on the grounds that it will keep you happy forever, or should you
convince yourself to feel unsatisfied on the grounds that one day you will wish you
achieved more? Clearly the answer is different for each person at each point in their
lives.

The happiness-ambition tradeoff is also one that society as a whole must grapple
with. It’s probably efficient to stigmatize things like delinquency, ignorance,
and lawlessness, but what if there happens to be a smart upper-middle class kid
whose childhood dream is to become a lowly janitor? If somebody has such great
perspective on life that they are truly happy with becoming an uneducated janitor,
is that something social norms should discourage? Is it wrong for society to try and
rob them of their happiness in order to push them to do something that might have
more social value?

The point of all of this is…well, I’m not quite sure. Hopefully it helped generate some
unique thoughts about what happiness really means and what we can do about it.
And hopefully the next time you’re unhappy about where you are in life, you’ll think
more clearly about the emotions driving your thoughts. Is your level of ambition
really worthwhile given what it’s doing to your happiness? Or alternatively, is
your happiness “legitimate” enough that it’s worth taking your ambition down a
notch?

Perhaps with improved metacognition you’ll even find a way to mitigate the
ambition-happiness tradeoff – to somehow increase motivation by making yourself
unsatisfied with what you have, but do it without robbing yourself of present
happiness.

Eric hails from the D.C. suburbs, though he now spends his days in New York City working to improve/ruin the lives of children by conducting research on the benefits of extending the school day. His blog — Peer-reviewed by My Neurons — is a wondrous hodgepodge of posts that all somehow relate to social science and social policy.

[guest post] You Are Not Alone: A Shared Story of Depression

Seth returns again to talk about the response he received to his speech about depression and spirituality. (This is his third guest post. Hmm, maybe he should get a blog already!)

A few days back, I wrote a piece titled “The Dharma of Depression,” wherein I talked about the experience of depression and the way my spirituality has interacted with that. I must confess myself quite overwhelmed and flattered with the response that it’s gotten.

But I’m not here today to toot my own horn. There’s plenty of other times to talk about how awesome I am. No, the thing that’s stuck out to me about the response I’ve been getting is how many people have said that I spoke to a personal experience in their lives. By contrast, I’ve only had one person tell me that they’ve never experienced what I was talking about.

This is important.

It’s important because depression is an incredibly lonely disorder. One of the many thoughts that depressed people tend to get stuck in is the idea that they’re completely alone—maybe there are people who care, but there’s nobody out there who understands what they’re going through well enough to be able to help them. This has been my experience, and it’s also something I hear a lot from other people who talk about the experience of depression. What seemed to be happening in response to my piece, based on the comments I’ve been getting, is that having somebody describe an experience similar to the one they went through suddenly challenged this sense of isolation and opened up the possibility of somebody else being able to relate to how they felt.

What’s ironic is that even in the middle of this isolated feeling, there are many more people
than you’d expect going through a more or less similar experience. Certainly, for me, there were more people than I could’ve imagined even just among my immediate friends group who could relate to my pain. I expected two or three people in my audience to be familiar with the feelings I described; based on the number of people who have talked to me, I’d rate the actual number to be closer to fifteen or twenty, out of no more than fifty.

So. To those of you who are all too familiar with the feelings I described, I have something to say to you. And despite my usual tendency towards wordiness, I’m going to be as concise and blunt as I can, because it’s incredibly important for you to understand.

You are NOT alone.

You are NOT some kind of emotional freak.

Most importantly, you are NOT a hopeless case.

You have a problem, yes. But this problem is not unique to you. It’s not a problem that
everybody will understand, but neither is it a problem that nobody will understand. It is a problem that has been lived through. It is a problem that has been studied. It is a problem that, at this very moment, thousands of individuals are working to find a way to treat.

You can find support, and you can find help. I know there are bad breaks and well-meaning idiots out there, but if you just hold on and keep looking, you will eventually find somebody who understands what you’re going through. There are more of them out there than you think.

You can survive this.

Seth Wenger is a senior neuroscience major at Earlham College and a practicing Buddhist. He can usually be found on Facebook, snarking about life, current events, and politics.

[guest post] The Dharma of Depression

My friend Seth, who has guest-posted here before (read it, it’s awesome), returns to talk about depression and Buddhism.

Note: The following is a transcript of a speech given at the weekly College Meeting for Worship at Earlham College.

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me that people have come to hear me talk about this.

For my entire adult life, and most of my adolescence, I have struggled with depression.

Sorry to drop the heavy stuff on you right away, but this must be understood if anything is to come of the rest of my talk.

In many ways, I have been very lucky. I have never had to take medication; I know people who have. I know people who would not be with us today if they hadn’t had medication. I know people who are no longer with us. I have attended memorials for those people in this very meeting house.

Depression is a terrible, terrible disease.

Other diseases ravage your body; depression ravages your mind. It tears away at you will, your hope, at everything that makes you, you.

Let me be clear about this: depression is not sadness. 24/7 sadness would be incredibly obvious to everybody around you. But depression is much more insidious than that, and in my experience, it often takes your friends and loved ones by surprise when it crops up.

So what is depression, then?

Well, I obviously can’t speak for everybody, but here’s my experience:

Depression is being trapped in a slow, steady downward spiral of negative thoughts. Depression is thinking that the biggest mistake you made all day was getting out of bed. Depression is the feeling that you’re slowly falling to pieces, and the inability to pick yourself back up and put yourself back together. Depression is the irrational yet inescapable idea that your life means nothing to anybody, and that nothing would change if you just suddenly vanished from off the face of the earth.

The worst thing about depression, though, is that it devours the very resource that is necessary to fight it: your willpower. Sure, maybe you know that you should try talking about it to a friend you trust, or make an appointment to see a councilor, and that might help. But how in the world are you going to do that when you’re lucky just to have the ability to pry yourself out of bed in the morning?

All this is very important to understand. Partly for my story, because this is what I mean when I say that I was depressed. But also because you may well meet somebody suffering from depression in the future, or maybe you already know somebody who is. It will help both of you if you have at least some idea of what they’re going through.

But back to my question, because for far too many people, it isn’t rhetorical. How do you fight something that destroys your ability to fight?

Like the experience of depression, the key to overcoming it is different for each individual person. For me, the key was faith, which is why I’m here talking to you all today.

It may surprise some of those here that know me when I say that I consider myself a deeply religious person. Part of that is probably because I’m not extremely outspoken about my religious beliefs, and when I do talk about them I tend to frame them as a general philosophy about the world rather than a spiritual belief. Part of that is probably a cultural tendency to assume that “religious” means Christian, or at least Abrahamic, which I am neither. Nor is the religion I wound up devoting myself to the same one I was brought up with. Nevertheless, I consider myself religious because my personal philosophy and sense of morality are, if not directly taken from my religion’s teachings, very much in sync with them.

Allow me to explain.

[Read more…]

[Guest Post] The Chicago Teachers Union: A New Hope for Public Education

CTU Labor Day Rally. Credit: CTU Facebook Page

After months of deadlocked negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools Board of Education, the 26,000 members of the Chicago Teachers Union began their first strike in 25 years today, shutting down over 600 schools that serve over 400,000 students.  The 600 delegates of the CTU voted unanimously in favor of the measure at a meeting August 31, two months after 98 percent of members who cast a ballot authorized the union to call a strike.

Education activists across this country have greeted the CTU’s fight with much enthusiasm, for they see it as a fight for everything they believe in. Many think this strike has the potential to turn the tide against those who wish to privatize our schools and slash budgets across the country. Moreover, as perhaps the largest, best-organized strike since the 1997 UPS strike, it could re-ignite the American labor movement after decades of decline.

In this post I’ll attempt to put the struggle within the context of the nation-wide neoliberal attack on public education, go over the details specific to the fight in Chicago, and explain why you should be siding with the teachers and with universal, high-quality, fully-funded public education.

The Charter Menace

A charter school is a publicly-funded school that is not subject to the same rules and regulations as a regular public school, often run by non-governmental groups. As of December 2011, 2 million students attended the 5,600 charter schools in the US. This number has been increasing by 7 percent annually since 2006 [PDF]. Charter schools have been touted as the saviors of American education, perhaps most famously in the documentary Waiting for “Superman” by Davis Guggenheim. They have become something of a cause célèbre among America’s billionaires, like Bill Gates and various Wall Street philanthropists. They enjoy bipartisan support, taking an important role in Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and an even more important one in Obama’s Race To The Top.

But as I’ve learned these past few years, when the two parties in Washington agree on some issue, we have very good reason to be worried. Charter schools are no exception. A widely-cited study from Stanford University shows that though 17 percent of charter schools deliver the promised improvements, 37 percent actually perform worse than traditional public schools [PDF]. The ‘flexibility’ and ‘autonomy’ of charters may sound like good things in the abstract, but they’re of no use if they can’t produce better results. So why on Earth would so many influential people throw their weight behind a project that for the most part either changes nothing or actually makes education worse for American children?

Defenders of charter schools, like a certain ruling class rag, often point to the charters that do deliver spectacular results, and say that we just need to replicate that in all the other charters. But a closer look makes that picture seem implausible. One of the charters that’s often (rightfully) praised for its results is SEED, a boarding school in DC. What they don’t usually mention is that SEED spends $35,000 per student, while traditional public schools spend about a third of that on average. Another advantage of charters that’s often left unspoken is that, unlike neighborhood schools, charter schools are allowed to get rid of under-performing students as they please. Geoffrey Canada’s charter schools in Harlem, another oft-praised project, made extreme use of this privilege when they kicked out an entire class of middle school students for not being up to par. So it’s no surprise that they are able to perform better than traditional public schools: they can just get rid of anyone who could drag their scores down.

Finally, teachers from charter schools are generally not unionized. This may sound like a good thing to many in the current political climate, in which politicians on both sides of the aisle enjoy blaming teachers and their unions for the problems of public education. But the data do not lie: according to a well-regarded study from Arizona State University [PDF summary], schools with unionized teachers tend to produce better results. This should be common sense. Unions can bargain for better pay, better working conditions, and increased job security, all of which can attract better teachers, who can in turn provide a better education to students.

Of course, there are many other sources of threats to American public education, but I would clog the intertubes if I tried to write about all of them. A notable example is “Parent Trigger” laws, which would allow parents to take over an under-performing school and do with it as they please, including turning it into a charter schools. Such laws sound nice, even democratic in the abstract. But if we remove the sheep’s clothing that disguises them, we are left with just another plan to privatize public education. Like charter schools, parent trigger laws also have the support of the nation’s billionaires, as well as their own awful piece of Hollywood propaganda (which was apparently showed at the start of the DNC).

Not to mention more long-standing issues that have always plagued education in the United States. For example, since education is mostly funded by property taxes, poorer neighborhoods have always had lower-quality education, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

Given the ample evidence for the failure of charter schools, I find no satisfactory answer for why anyone who genuinely wants to improve American education would support them. We must accept that American elites have no intention of improving public schools—after all, they can afford to send their kids to fancy private schools. The insistence on charters is not born out of compassion, but out of the realization that politicians cannot admit they want to gut public education and still tell their constituents they believe in the ideals of a liberal democracy. As Prof. Sanford Schram of Bryn Mawr has said, charter schools and other neoliberal reforms of the welfare state are merely Plan B for the world’s capitalists: a pragmatic response to the political impossibility of getting rid of welfare completely.

Let us now turn to how all of this is playing out in the city that gave birth to neoliberal ideology.

[Read more…]