The allure of Steven Pinker

Think Again is a podcast that is occasionally interesting and one I listen to once in a while. Recently, however, Steven Pinker was on. The host considered himself a “progressophobe,” and Pinker was able to show him the error of his ways:

I admit it. I confess. I’ve got a touch of what my guest today calls “progressophobia”. Ever since Charles Dickens got hold of me back in middle school, and William Blake after that, I’ve been a little suspicious of the Great Onward March of science and technology.

[…]

But you know what? After devouring all 453 pages and 75 graphs of psychologist Steven Pinker’s new book Enlightenment Now, I admit defeat. The defeat of defeatism.

I didn’t listen because I don’t like listening to people I think are bad talk to sycophants that won’t challenge them.

But it made me want to write about the insidious nature of Pinker and what he does with the heft of supposedly empirical and objective evidence for how wonderful things are – and how it’s all thanks to the Enlightenment and their Enlightened descendants who are slowly but surely bestowing the gifts of freedom, trinkets and technology to the unwashed masses.

I think the desire to justify his privilege sits at the root of what he does (I can be a shitty psychologist too). No one is truly objective, least of all someone who is in the business of justifying the system that has granted him a good life. He probably thinks himself a very fine person – that he has been so justly rewarded by society with money, fame, and prestige only confirms this. From his vantage point, safely insulated from the rabble who only exist as numbers to him, human life has never been better – why are all these Postmodernist/Cultural Marxists complaining?

With his credentials, he is the perfect shoeshine boy for benevolent neoliberal capitalism. His is a clarion call for complacency as the world burns. He proclaims to the affluent, affluent-adjacent, and affluence-aspiring that things are actually pretty great. Moreover, they are not part of the problem – “Rest easy! Your good life is deserved!” Others may struggle, but it’s not too big a deal because science is inexorably leading humanity toward truth, justice and freedom. Those lives, saddled with impediments from the cradle, can easily be reduced to numbers and transformed into statistics that show, I suppose, that their sheer quantity continues to incrementally get smaller and smaller (and some get to have smartphones!). The well-to-do can respond to their plight with a sad nod, but also keep in mind that better times surely await.

At this point in the post I have to admit that I had an epiphany and now, like the host of Think Again, I too am convinced by Pinker’s rosy outlook. I reread the previous paragraphs and am embarrassed of my groundless pessimism. As a recent acolyte I’d like to do my part. So I’m going to create a Kickstarter to purchase copies of Enlightenment Now to distribute to, let’s call them troubled areas. These people need to know that, while they are crushed under the weight of systemic socioeconomic oppressions, their children’s children’s children MIGHT have the opportunity to have lives that MIGHT enable flourishing. I hope Pinker’s book gives them solace while their social betters live generally safe lives in nice neighborhoods; get access to good education and lucrative occupations; eat readily available nutritious and unprocessed food; travel the world; and congratulate themselves on their beneficence.

But that’s not all! I’ll dump a truckload of books into the Salish Sea for the resident Orcas. Orcas are really fucking smart and, I dunno, maybe it will help them understand that we are doing our best – uh, despite the messy fact that we are the primary cause of their impending extirpation in the Pacific Northwest (this is due to subjecting them to noise pollution, poison, and literal bombings, as well as destroying their primary food source (salmon) via insatiable fisheries and natal stream-bank logging). They will likely be just a few of the casualties lost in the service of providing 10 billion people a middle-class lifestyle by 2050. But no worries – orcas and all other impacted non-human animals, after all, only exist for commodification or human edification. Should their viability become completely untenable in the wild, we can just stick them in zoos/aquaria as a haunting reminder that may cause some of us to feel a twinge of regret. Or, and this is exciting, if they go extinct we can develop the technology to clone them back to life in the distant future, when perhaps their habitat isn’t a denuded wasteland.

I have to say, I feel pretty good about the future!

 

Hell yeah Steve Bannon

Following his hilarious public emasculation, Steve Bannon scuttled back to his fetid lair to lick his wounds, largely out of the public eye. But he’s back:

The former White House chief strategist argued the movement against male-dominated politics was going to advance similarly to the Tea Party – a conservative movement loosely associated with the conservative branch of the Republican Party – but would surpass it in terms of impact.

He added: “I think it’s going to unfold like the Tea Party, only bigger. It’s not Me Too. It’s not just sexual harassment. It’s an anti-patriarchy movement. Time’s up on 10,000 years of recorded history. This is coming. This is real.”

Cool! If ever there were a social institution that should’ve been snuffed out in the cradle, it’s the fucking patriarchy. This will likely be the only time I hope he’s right. I like this idea much better than his silly apocalyptic war fantasies.

Here’s some more:

“You watch. The time has come. Women are gonna take charge of society,” Bannon said, according to Green. “And they couldn’t juxtapose a better villain than Trump. He is the patriarch.”

In this context, Trump is like the final boss of an early 90’s video game. He is everything rotten about this country fused together in the form of one repellent man-child, whose final defeat will usher in an era that will see his most odious beliefs destroyed. Bannon sees the would-be patriarchy smashers as the plucky heroes to get it done. I know life doesn’t work like this, but it’s a nice thought.

Solutions to the sexual violence epidemic

Before I begin, this post is about sexual violence, as the title implies.

Even if the current paradigm is shifting towards believing victims of sexual violence, which may or may not be true, it doesn’t alter the fact that justice for victims is rare. When I learned that Harvey Weinstein (whom I’d never even heard of prior to a few weeks ago) was being investigated by the NYPD I was stunned. I didn’t even consider that there would be legal ramifications, and obviously there still may not be. Though disgusted, I was satisfied that he is probably miserable due to losing his career and prestige. It’s not nearly enough but at least it’s something.

Some time back, Aeon had two thought-provoking articles on actually solving this persistent, endemic problem: one describes boosting conviction rates via better funding and systemic tinkering, the other pushes for radical legal changes.

Sandra Newman suggests that men may chose not to rape if they have reason to expect consequences. Currently, to say nothing of the last few millennia, there aren’t sufficient reasons to expect meaningful consequences. Sure accusations may accrue and cause discomfort or annoyance, maybe even prompting acquaintances to look askance at alleged perpetrators, but the minuscule chance of legal punishment is a huge reason victims don’t come forward:

[T]he overwhelming majority of the men assumed that they would never be punished. As one rapist said: ‘I knew I was doing wrong. But I also knew most women don’t report rape, and I didn’t think she would either.’ As Scully put it, her subjects saw rape as ‘a rewarding, low-risk act’.

It’s worth pausing here to underscore just what this implies. For a man to commit sexual assault, he must be a relatively, but not strikingly, antisocial person – enough that he isn’t too constrained by empathy for his victims. These seem like preconditions for any crime that has a victim; and indeed, the measured character traits of convicted rapists are identical to those of muggers and burglars. But a man who is capable of rape generally commits the crime only if he believes it will be excused by his peers, and that punishment can be evaded. There seem to be a remarkable number of men who meet these criteria; most of the college-age rapists studied were not only unafraid of punishment, but blissfully unaware that what they did was criminal. Looking at this general picture, Scully concluded that most rapes are the result of a ‘rape culture’ that tells men that, in many situations, raping women is not only normal behaviour, but completely safe.

This is an excellent explanation of what I think most would regard as intuitive (and, to me, is the most important part of the article). Thus, while victims may not explicate it in this manner, they are abundantly aware that consequences are rare. The posited solution is, as mentioned above, increasing conviction rates:

We can give police and prosecutors more funding for sexual-assault investigations, which are still woefully likely to be dropped in the early stages. We can monitor their efforts to ensure they follow best practices. We can fund the testing of forensic evidence, which is currently subject to long backlogs, and often simply lost or abandoned. Most of all, we can make it easier for victims to approach police; of all violent crimes, rape is the least likely to be reported. What we must not do is pretend it’s a different, easier problem, or act as if the solution for rape is a profound and unfathomable mystery.

Perhaps this is nothing earth-shattering to FtB readers, but the lack of meaningful consequences is crucial to understanding the magnitude of what we face as a society. The conclusion is okay, but I don’t think it goes far enough. This leads to the second article, by Christopher Wareham and James Vos. They argue persuasively that sexual violence accusations should not be subject to reasonable doubt as the standard of evidence.

While certain segments of the population (i.e. shitty men) are likely to empathize more with the accused, they tend to neglect the manifold ramifications of false acquittal. The authors make an elegant argument comparing the relative harm suffered by the different parties and why reasonable doubt is worthy of being reexamined within the context of sexual violence:

In considering whether or not a standard of proof is justified, we should consider not just the harm done to the one man wrongly convicted, but also the harm done by the 10 men wrongly released. This means that the justification for a standard of proof should also consider the accrued harms of false acquittal to the initial victim, to future victims of those criminals and to society.

In the case of sexual assault, these harms are extraordinarily severe. The victim suffers horrendously through the trial and is often badgered into reliving disturbing details of the incident. When the false acquittal is reached, all this is for nothing. Worse than this, she is falsely branded a liar, with all the psychological trauma this entails.

The harms of false acquittal to future victims and their loved ones amplify and extend this harm. Indeed it has been suggested that the trauma of sexual assault is greater than that experienced by war veterans.

Moreover, sexual offenders are likely to offend multiple times. In one study, rapists self-reported an average of 10 violent crimes, even before their ‘careers’ had ended. Consequently, to paraphrase Blackstone’s ratio with reference to sexual violence would mean saying it’s better to have the harm of 100 sexual assaults than the harm of one false conviction – a conclusion that is untenable.

The solution, they conclude, is the following:

As it stands, the legal system is weighted unfairly in favour of perpetrators of sexual assault. In addition to sending out a powerful expression of intolerance for gender violence, a lower standard of proof can decrease these harms by reducing the likelihood of false acquittal. Reasonable doubt is inappropriate, but what standard would do better?

Of the standards commonly employed in law, only the ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard has been used on a consistent basis to decide cases of sexual violence, albeit in civil trials. Indeed, given the high probability of false acquittal, civil trials have increasingly become a first port of call for female victims of sexual violence in the US. Rather than calling for the absence of doubt, this standard judges a case on what the evidence leads one to believe most strongly. If a woman’s testimony provides a stronger reason to believe that she did not give consent, this should be enough.

In addition to increasing the likelihood of conviction, this could halt the accusation of greed levied against victims of sexual violence opting for civil court. Such apparent greed for monetary compensation is supposed evidence that the victim isn’t behaving in an appropriate manner. The stigma associated is a powerful one and ammunition for those already predisposed to not believing accusers. The idea is prevalent enough that one or more of these assholes who think this way are likely to end up on a jury. Any deviation from the Platonic ideal of a rape victim [1] and they morph into vindictive liars. Most defense attorneys are more than adept at discrediting plaintiffs along these lines. As a recent Cracked post states “justice is vague, while the promise of more pain is concrete.”

So are we (by we I mean America) close to implementing something similar to what the authors suggest? The articles are almost a year old and surely the ideas aren’t new. I’d also add that the solutions aren’t mutually exclusive.

It’s hard to what extent police departments are attempting to maximize the likelihood that an accuser will receive justice. Progress is both hard to determine and hard to quantify. If the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network’s (RAINN) findings are any indication, we have a long, long way to go. Research may be able to discern which institutional changes correlate to more convictions and how replicable it is spatially, but obtaining actual justice will continue to be an uphill battle in the short term.

As for overhauling the legal system to make sexual violence allegations subject to “preponderance of the evidence” standards, googling doesn’t really yield any evidence that this kind of transformation is on the horizon. And, unfortunately, the authors do not discuss mechanisms that could produce such a radical shift in our code of law.

The articles discuss the aftermath of sexual violence, both in terms of what does and doesn’t happen to the perpetrator, and how those consequences will effect potential perpetrators in the future. Of course, none of this precludes the idea that men shouldn’t rape, regardless of whether or not there are consequences. From a young age, they need to be taught about consent and how they can play a role in ending rape culture. It’s deeply shitty, though, that large amounts of people, many of them in positions of power, do not even think it’s a problem that needs solving.


[1] “It is well established in feminist legal critique that female complainants are discredited if they fail to conform to an archaic stereotype of the genuine or ‘real’ rape victim. This victim is not only morally and sexually virtuous she is also cautious, unprovocative, and consistent. Defence tactics for discrediting rape testimony involve exposing the complainant’s alleged failure to comply with the sexual and behavioural standards of the normative victim.”

The complicity of establishment Republicans in the rescinding of DACA

Trump is ending DACA, as you likely already know.

It is only the latest in a sequence of taking conservative talking points to their logical endgame. Years and years of Mitt Romney and Marco Rubio-types pandering to callous bigots have led to this. And yet, these same assholes are not happy with this. House speaker and weasel-faced fuck Paul Ryan had this to say:

I actually don’t think he should do that [ending DACA]. I believe that this is something that Congress has to fix.

These are kids who know no other country, who were brought here by their parents and don’t know another home. And so I really do believe there that there needs to be a legislative solution.

This is only one of many mealy-mouthed condemnations by cowards, but no need to belabor the point.

I’m reminded of Trump’s early campaign-era stance on abortion. He went from pro-life to advocating “some form of punishment” for women who have abortions. It was walked backed after he was almost universally condemned. He sounded like someone who was grasping for what pro-life rhetoric actually entails: if abortion really does equal murder, then the murderers deserve punishment. I’m surprised establishment Republicans aren’t willing to go that far. Oh to be a fly on the wall of the meeting the day after the comments. I can hear his execrable voice in my head: “I thought this is what you people fucking wanted?!?!?

And here we are with the rollback of DACA. After years and years of his party inflaming xenophobic sentiment, the new administration is enacting some of its more cruel directives. It makes sense: if children are in America illegally, they should be made to leave. Fuck compassion. Compassion is for the downtrodden, white, working class.

As noted above, establishment Republicans are perplexingly aghast and I don’t really understand why – except from the standpoint that they hope to project a timid empathy to their slightly less shitty constituents that have the merest semblance of a heart.

Again, this is only the latest realization of one part of the right’s garbage ideology. Can’t wait to see what’s next.

At any rate, fuck them forever.

[ETA, right before posting I noticed Ryan has already changed his mind and congratulated Trump for courageously beginning the process of kicking vulnerable children out of the country:

Congress writes laws, not the president, and ending this program fulfills a promise that President Trump made to restore the proper role of the executive and legislative branches.

The fact we’re from the same state makes me sick]

The Associated Press and Donald Trump

The Associated Press is generally impartial. Or, granting that true impartiality is impossible, they can at least be seen as more objective in their reportage than the dumpster fire of media conglomerates from which the majority of Americans get their news.

One of the small joys Trump’s presidency is reading the AP’s coverage of him. I picture the authors questioning their lives, staring internally into the abyss, as they’re forced to write with gravitas about a fucking dipshit with almost unfathomable power and responsibility.

Here’s their story about his profound thoughts on the American Civil War:

“People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why?” Trump said in an interview with The Washington Examiner that also aired on Sirius XM radio. “People don’t ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?”

In fact, the causes of the Civil War are frequently discussed, from middle school classrooms to university lecture halls and in countless books. Immigrants seeking to become naturalized are sometimes asked to name a cause of the war in their citizenship tests.

And:

“He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this,'” Trump continued.

Jackson died in 1845. The Civil War began in 1861.

And:

Trump, during an African-American history month event, seemed to imply that the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass was still alive. Trump said in February that Douglass “is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”

While justifying his argument for a border wall with Mexico, Trump said last week that human trafficking is “a problem that’s probably worse than any time in the history of this world,” a claim that seemed to omit the African slave trade.

In just about every mundane Trump-related article one can picture the author dying a little more each time they quote him and, immediately after, clarify and correct his barely coherent ramblings. Reading these stories can be simultaneously amusing, brain-melting and infuriating. Fun times!

 

 

 

 

 

Fucking gross

It never fails. After every episode of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, I get an increase in traffic towards a post I wrote 4 months ago. Briefly, Samantha Bee and her husband Jason Jones were resisting desegregation efforts in their district, something I feel is extremely shitty and hypocritical.

Sometimes I can see where it’s been linked.

One website, apparently some kind of message board for Nike shoes, quoted a quote I used, and nothing else:

Samantha Bee is a liberal, right up until she thinks about her children having to go to school with black kids. Then, she turns into Strom Thurmond.” [from the comment section of a Slate article]

That was it, no context given. The take-home message the person received was that Samantha Bee=Strom Thurmond, which was used in a bewildering discussion sequence that hurt my brain.

Yesterday, to my horror, it turned up on a Reddit board for Opie and Anthony. If you don’t know them, you’re not missing anything. Unless you like terrible things. The person that linked to my post used a racial slur, and the rest of the thread consists of assorted, bigoted trash. So my blog was used as evidence for liberal hypocrisy by a trash person in his (it has to be a him) discussion with other trash people.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t all. Later on, it was linked on a thread on the fucking Trump Reddit. Fucking gross.

Regardless, I still stand behind everything I wrote and have no issue pointing out hypocrisy by beloved liberal superstars. If my interpretation is incorrect I’d certainly issue a mea culpa, but I’ve seen no evidence to the contrary. Anyways, this sucks and it feels weird.

So if you happen to see this, and found my blog via bigot Reddit threads, go fuck yourself.