Friday, 23 January 2015

Hate and Punishment

     Three days ago, this video was uploaded by one Bradley Knudson, in which he shares his experience in dealing with some bullying of his adopted daughter by some of her classmates, a pair of twins. He attempted to talk about this with Deron Puro, the father of the twins, who apparently quite approved of their behaviour, and even left a voicemail calling Mr. Knudson a "nigger-lover". Unable to find any common ground upon which to reach an agreement, Mr. Knudson at one point threatened to take his case to social media, which Mr. Puro encouraged him to do. Within a couple of days, the firm for which Mr. Puro had been a contractor terminated their association: in essence, he lost his job, almost certainly as a consequence of his behaviour.
     Now, I'll confess that I felt a visceral bit of karmic satisfaction when I learned of the consequences for Mr. Puro. And yet, at the same time, a warning bell went off in my conscience. After all, this fellow had been punished for expressing an unpopular opinion, and in a month of Je suis Charlie, something seems a bit off about celebrating such an outcome, even if I might believe he fully deserved it (which I do). What someone deserves is not relevant to the principle I hold sacred: that people should be free to express their opinions (including and especially if those opinions are unpopular or even widely recognized as obviously false) without fear of retaliation. The way we defeat dangerous or stupid ideas in a free society is by countering them with good ideas and arguments, not by punishing the people who hold them. Punishment is not an argument, and indeed it's only likely to harden Mr. Puro's belief; no doubt he will blame Mr. Knudson for getting him fired, rather than questioning his own beliefs.

     We do not know, though, exactly why Mr. Puro was fired. It's important, after all, to bear in mind that not all unpleasant consequences are actually punishment. Getting hit by a car is not punishment for failing to look both ways before crossing the street, because no one would say that one who fails to look both ways has committed a grave moral evil that deserves such harsh suffering. It's only punishment if it happens because someone thinks you deserve it.
     It's conceivable (and maybe even likely) that Mr. Puro's employer intended to punish his hateful beliefs by firing him, and if that's the case then I although I'm sympathetic and would be tempted to do the same thing, I must reluctantly condemn it, because I don't believe in punishing people for their beliefs.
     But it is also entirely possible that this was just a prudent business decision. Nobody wants to do business with someone they think is a rude bigot, and they might well have decided that being associated with Mr. Puro was just bad for business. Sorry, pal. Nothing personal, but we can't have you around here anymore, or we'll lose all our customers. It's just business.

     That doesn't put my conscience at ease, though, because exactly that reasoning is what perpetuates racism. It wasn't that long ago that black people would not be served in certain restaurants. The owners of those restaurants might -- or might not -- have personally hated blacks, but if they perceived that a significant number of their regular customers did, then refusing to serve blacks might very well have been a prudent business decision. Sorry, pal. Personally, I love black people, but if I serve you, I'll lose my more lucrative customers. It's just business.
     The point is that the coercive power of the customers, the market, society at large, to compel a restaurant to discriminate against black customers is exactly the same power brought to bear on Mr. Puro's employer. The fact that the common wisdom now, in this enlightened era of racial harmony*, is that racism is bad is of little comfort; not so long ago, the "common wisdom" was that whites and blacks ought have nothing to do with one another.

     So I am not comfortable with the situation. I do not fault Mr. Knudson for his video, for making public Mr. Puro's bigotry -- on the contrary, I think he absolutely did the right thing and handled things in an exemplary manner. I don't even fault Mr. Puro's employer for terminating his contract. That probaby was the right business decision to make, though that has the unfortunate implication that yes, in fact, a restaurant owner who chose to discriminate was also doing the right thing, at least from a business perspective. I'd like to say they ought to have courageously defied the market and served everyone, but there's a reason we recognize courage as a rare and treasured virtue: not everyone has enough of it. As well, asking someone to sacrifice not just his own financial well being but also that of his children is no small thing.

     I regret that Mr. Puro's lost his livelihood, and I hope he finds new work, although I expect he's in for some challenges there; I probably wouldn't want to hire him, either. The fact is, from what little I know of him, he sounds like an awful person, disrespectful and rude, irresponsible and not very bright. As unpleasant as that makes him to others, let's not lose sight of what a huge handicap it is for him, and doubly so because of the Dunning-Kruger effect; he likely lacks the ability to recognize and thus correct his own errors. His hardship, though entirely self-inflicted (and probably deserved), is still a tragedy, and we should not revel in it.

*May not be available in your area.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Memetic Organisms

     Some years ago I read Susan Blackmore's fine book, The Meme Machine, which was a breath of fresh air in an atmosphere where memes generally were being faddishly described as mind parasites that somehow corrupted their hosts and led us away from our true nature, whatever that might be. Blackmore, instead, provided a very thorough and thoughtful analysis of how the human brain might have evolved as an optimized host for memes, which gave us a significant reproductive advantage over our less quickly adaptable competitors. On this view, memes are as much symbiotes as they are parasites, because humans prosper most by absorbing and implementing useful memes like, for example, how to make and use tools or what kinds of berries not to eat.
    A while ago, Dr. Blackmore wrote in The Guardian that she no longer believes religion is a virus of the mind, and I cringed, because I have spent a lot of time thinking about memetic taxonomy and to me, a virus is a very specific kind of parasite. As I've mentioned before, I consider chain letters to be the memetic equivalent of viruses. But it occurs to me that I've never explained here what other sorts of memetic organisms there are, so here goes.

     Recall that a meme is to cultural evolution what a gene is to biology: the basic replicating unit. Genes influence the likelihood of their own replication in many ways, but generally speaking, a gene that produces traits that make its host likelier to survive and breed will tend to become more common over time than one that doesn't. Frequently clusters of genes travel together, because genes for sharp canine teeth tend to do better when accompanied by genes for the ability to digest meat, and so on, to use an example cited by Richard Dawkins (who invented the word "meme" in his 1974 book, The Selfish Gene.)
     Now, biological organisms consist of physical bodies of amazingly complexity, and use an astonishingly diverse range of strategies to get the energy and raw materials they need to grow and reproduce. These strategies are shaped by genes, but not in isolation; there are countless other factors involved. Genes themselves only provide instructions on how to assemble specific proteins, and that only when plugged into the complex protein-assembling machinery of a functioning cell, which consists of much more than DNA and the protein molecules it generates. There are sugars and lipids and various ions and a whole lot of water involved, all of which must be in place for the machinery to function. Cells contain a host organelles that perform a variety of essential functions to keep the whole system running smoothly, and that's just at the cellular level; at the level of complex multicellular organisms like us, individual cells specialize in particular functions and organize themselves into tissues and organs and systems until you end up with a fish or a spruce tree or a cockroach, which you can spend your entire life studying without ever becoming aware of even the existence of genes. (There were, after all, biologists making important discoveries about living things long before Gregor Mendel worked out the theory of heritability, including Charles Freaking Darwin.)
     You can see, then, why I characterize chain letters specifically as memetic viruses. There is some argument as to whether or not viruses should be considered alive, because they are not complete cells. They consist of a strand of DNA (or RNA) that encodes for some proteins, packaged up in an envelope made of some of those proteins, and that's about it. For a virus to replicate, it has to get inside a living cell where the DNA program can get plugged into the protein-assembling machinery. The life cycle is almost exactly analogous to that of a chain letter: a virus gets itself into the cell and instructs the cell to make more copies to send out to infect other cells, while a chain letter gets its instructions into your brain and tells you to make copies to send out to all your friends.
     It's important to note, though, that a virus is not a gene and a gene is not a virus. Viruses are made of genes, but there's more to them than that. A viable virus must also include the protein coat that allows it to penetrate a cell, and the genes themselves can't just be any old genes; they need to provide for the replication of the virus itself. Otherwise all you have is a weird and short-lived way of mucking up a cell. (Actually, this can be turned to good therapeutic use; artificial retroviruses can insert new and helpful genes into your cells to cure genetic diseases, but never mind that.)
     In the same way, a chain letter is not a meme, although it is primarily composed of memes. In the old days, snail mail chain letters also were made of paper and ink, an envelope with an address that delivered it to its target, and so on. Now they are generally just sequences of ones and zeroes that get converted into human-readable images, but the basic principle is the same: they are sets of instructions that explicitly instruct a host to copy them. And as not just any instruction counts as a chain letter, neither should every meme be considered a virus.

     So what are the more complex memetic organisms out there? It gets a little complicated, because the analogies between memes and genes start to diverge when we move to the cell, tissue, organ and organism levels. Probaby a single human mind is the closest analog to a cell, but that gets confusing because you can have several distinct "organisms" sharing a single mind, whereas typically a single biological cell is thought of as being no more than one organism (not counting organelles with their own DNA like mitochondria and chloroplasts). I find it helpful to think of memetic organisms as "isms", more or less self-contained patterns of behaviour that develop out of a kernel of imitation.
     For example, consider the ability to ride a bicycle, which I'll call here "bicyclism". If you can ride a bike, odds are you learned first by watching someone else ride a bike, and trying to imitate them. But you almost certainly didn't just hop on and start riding; it took time for you to develop the reflexes and attune your sense of balance to the new experience of operating a bicycle. Likely you fell down a lot during this process. So the bicyclism that currenty resides in your brain is not just stuff you learned by imitation; it's also stuff you had to practice and develop through trial and error on your own. And let's not forget that an actual, functioning bicyclism cannot exist without an actual physical bike to ride on!
     Notice that there is a natural life cycle in the growth and replication of a bicyclism. First the memetic seed is planted: you observe and wish to imitate the practice of bike riding. Then there is the acquisition of the physical materials for the behaviour: you need to get a bike. Then there is growth and development: you practice and fall down and eventually figure it out. Finally, there is reproduction: someone else sees you ride by, and the process begins anew.
     (Also notice that in the above example, there is no mention of language; you can learn to ride a bike just by watching and experimenting. But language can vastly speed up the process. Language is itself an exceptionally powerful memetic organism that facilitates the spread of memes by digitizing them for rapid transmission from brain to brain.)
     Another thing to notice about this life cycle is the role of heritability. If you learned to ride a bike from someone who had a habit of always checking the cuffs of his trousers before starting out, you might inherit that habit. Across large populations of bicyclisms, one might be able to discern trends, family trees of who learned to ride from whom, by noting all the little stylistic quirks about just how one rides. (In fact, this is enormously complicated by the fact that unlike most biological cells, minds are exceptionally receptive to new memes, so we can keep on picking up new tricks or styles, confusing attempts at establishing a simple linear lineage.)

     A bicyclism is, to my mind, an excellent example of a memetic organism. There is a bicyclism in my head, which is similar in many regards but still distinct from the bicyclism in your head; there is a population of bicyclisms consisting of all bicyclists. But bicyclisms are essentially single-celled creatures. Are there memetic analogs to multi-cellular entities?
     Of course there are. Individual humans organize themselves into groups to perform various functions, and each of these multi-human groups can probably be characterized as some kind of memetic organism insofar as they replicate by a memetic process in which each member of the group holds a copy of the "memome". A church, a company, a family, a club, a military unit; all of these involve varying degrees of specialization by the members, all of whom at least initially learn part of their roles in the organization through imitation and then develop their skills further through practice. Some organisms involve very little differentiation among the members, while others can become highly hierarchical and specialized.
     Consider a religion like Catholicism, for example. It replicates a doctrine (a behaviour of thought) from mind to mind initially by a kind of imitation, a transmission of ideas through language, ritual and artifacts. This isn't merely memetic, though; it is not just a matter of passively receiving what one is told, because most people tend to think about it a little at least, to try to understand what is meant, whether or not they entertain any actual doubts. The process of interpretation is not itself memetic; one has to practice thinking about something in a certain way before one becomes adept at it, that is, before one becomes a strong believer in it.
     Yet the Catholic Church itself is not simply the set of people who have a particular set of beliefs called Catholic. It is an actual organization, with a hierarchy headed by the Pope, and into which individual Catholics are integrated as clergy and lay members of this or that diocese. And the Catholic Church can be said to have offspring of its own, so to speak, in the Anglican and Protestant and various other denominational churches that have split off from it over the years. And it has siblings (Eastern Orthodox? The Coptic Church?) and cousins (Islam) and at least one parent (Judaism, and maybe Mithriasm?) and connections to Zoroastrianism and so on.

     I don't want to delve too deeply into the history of the Abrahamic religions here. Rather, I just wanted to illustrate some of the ways in which the analogy of memes to genes can more fruitfully be expanded beyond the dead end of memes=viruses. Memes aren't viruses or parasites; they are the genes of cultural evolution, components of everything from chain letters to technology to philosophy to religion.

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Taking Privilege Personally

     We hear a lot these days about "white privilege" and "male privilege", and of course the concepts are frequently attacked by those who feel accused of enjoying them. This gets messy, because while their rejection of the ideas of privilege is itself an instance of privilege, pointing that out is an extremely unhelpful way of elucidating the concept, particularly when the concept itself is actually kind of obscure.
     The probem, I think, is that the common, everyday use of the word "privilege" is misleading when we try to apply it here. In everyday usage, we think of privileges as special abilities or permissions which some people get to enjoy and others are denied. Think of how we contrast privileges with rights; we might say that driving is a privilege because you need a license, while everyone has the right to use the sidewalk.
     It's easy to see how people think this is what we're talking about when we talk about white privilege, because there are all sorts of advantages that white people enjoy in this society by virtue of being seen as white. Likewise, there may be other (usually lesser) advantages enjoyed by people by virtue of not being white or male or heterosexual. But while all of these may be considered privilegeS in the ordinary concrete sense, they have very little to do with the concept of privilege in the abstract sense of white privilege.
     The difference lies in what is privileged. In the above, ordinary concrete sense, individual human beings are privileged, in that they enjoy advantages denied to others, and while yes, that is a pretty fair description of what racism is and why it's unjust, the privileges enjoyed by white people are not what we're talking about when we talk about white privilege. In white privilege, it is not people but experiences that are privileged.

     If you've ever watched a courtroom drama, you've probably encountered the phrase "attorney-client privilege". Usually this is invoked when someone asks a lawyer what her client told her: "I'm sorry, that's privileged communication." What this means is that communications between a lawyer and her client in the context of seeking legal advice are supposed to be completely private; a lawyer cannot be compelled by subpoena to disclose them. The communications are privileged in that they are exempted from the rules that other communications may be subject to.
     Privilege, in this sense, means just that something is exempted from otherwise applicable rules, scrutiny, criticism, doubt. White privilege, then, is when we exempt our experiences as white people from the kind of healthy skepticism we bring to bear on other people's accounts of their experiences. And part of what makes it so hard to get our heads around this is that, to some extent, privilege is born from a perfectly sensible cognitive habit: we trust our own direct experiences more than we trust the reports of other people's experiences, which come to us filtered through layers of language and interpretation. We ought to trust our own senses more than those of other people, for the most part.
     The problem, however, is when we assume that our experiences and our interpretations of them are objectively reliable, and treat everyone else's experience as influenced by their subjectivity.  That is, we privilege our view as the standard against which to measure everyone else's. (I tried to talk about this phenomenon in a previous post.)

     Here's how that plays out in conversations about race or gender. Me, I know the content of my own head, in that I know with something close to absolute certainty that I believe black people and white people and yellow and brown and red and blue people are all people deserving of fully individual rights and human dignity. In my heart, I'm thoroughly convinced that I'm not a racist, so anyone who suggests that I am is almost certainly mistaken. And so I will seek to explain how someone could misconstrue my actions as racist, and find all kinds of ways to show that what looks like racism isn't actually racism. For my part, that might even be true; all of the things I've done in the past that seemed racist might just have been misunderstood. But it turns out that it's actually really easy to explain away even genuinely racist acts and attitudes; you can pretty much aways come up with some non-racist justification for a traffic stop or a reluctance to hire someone. The net result is that, golly, from my perspective as a devoutly non-racist white person, it looks like there's reasonable doubt as to the existence of racism at all!
     The point about privilege is that I take my experiences to be, not specifically a white person's experience, but a "normal" person's experience. When I get stopped by the police, it's always because of a legitimate issue like a burned out headlight, so it's hard for me to imagine or identify with driving while black. But of course I can't know what that's like, when my only experiences with actual racism amount to the staff of a Chinese restaurant preemptively replacing my chopsticks with a fork.
     The same sort of dynamic applies to male privilege, which comes across most dramatically in the hashtag #notallmen. I know perfectly well I'm not a rapist, and it hurts to be tarred with that brush. I feel a strong desire to distinguish myself from the kind of men who treat women that way, but here's the thing: it's not about me. However much I might feel insulted by the mean things people are saying about men as rapists, my view of myself as not-a-rapist is not entitled to special exemption from women who say they have no way of knowing: they really and legitimately have no way of knowing that I am not a rapist, no matter how earnestly and sincerely I might know they can trust me. No one else has access to my internal certainty, and it's silly for me to expect them to. Privilege, in this case, means that I expect what is obvious to me to be obvious to everyone else: I'm a good guy, I'm not a rapist.

     So it's important to understand that when someone tells you to check your privilege, they're not asking you to surrender your advantages as a white person or a male or whatever. You can't give up most of those advantages, even if you wanted to, and it would be foolish to do so in any event. What' they're asking you to do is to try to see things from another point of view. Try to understand how your own view is not The One Correct view of how things really are, but just one of many subjective realities, shaped by a great many unconscious assumptions which, once recognized, lose their power over you. Privilege is actually a horrible cognitive handicap, because it blinds us to greater understanding of ourselves and the world, including a full appreciation of our advantages. That those advantages are not earned is irrelevant; we cannot make full use of them, for our benefit or for others, for good or for evil, if we refuse to see that we have them.

Saturday, 27 December 2014

Damn Statistics

     Mark Twain (crediting, perhaps mistakenly, Benjamin Disraeli) famously said there are "lies, damn lies, and statistics". Fox News appears to have warranted the addition of a new category: damn statistics. The following image has come across my Facebook feed several times in the last little while:



     I think this is one of the more egregiously irresponsible things I've seen this year. The numbers themselves are accurately reported from the FBI statistics, which you can confirm for yourself. But it's appallingly unhelpful to pick a statistic like that without giving appropriate background into how to interpret it. Reading it only as it appears above, you could be forgiven for concluding that white people are peaceful law-abiding decent folks, and black people are dangerous violent beasts, which is almost certainly what the people circulating this screen capture want you to believe. (Is that what Bill O'Reilly and Fox News want you to believe? I'll stop short of claiming that; all we have here is a screen capture taken out of context, and I'm sure a fair and balanced reporter would have taken great pains to explain the limitations and significance of the data.)

     So the first thing I'd like to point out about the actual data is this: it's compiled by the FBI from the reports of the nearly 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies operating the United States. Each of those 18,000 agencies has its own staff, and its own standards and procedures for investigating, reporting and categorizing crimes. Not all of them report on the race of the suspect, and if you look at the FBI table, you'll see that 4112 murders are attributed to an offender of "unknown" race (and 249 "other", which I'll ignore for the purposes of this essay). That's almost as many murders as the total attributed to whites, a huge hole in the data if you're trying to establish a correlation between violence and race.
     How many of those 4112 murders were committed by whites and how many by blacks? There's no way to know from what's reported here. We probably shouldn't assume that it matches the proportions of the murders where race is reported, though, because the very decision to treat race as a relevant factor in reporting crime statistics may reveal institutional biases, either in the police agency or in its community or both. A police agency that tracks crime by race may be more prone to racial profiling, and thus more likely to catch black offenders than white ones. So, a fair number of those 4112 "unknown" murders may in fact be committed by whites who got away with it, and some of the 5375 murders attributed to blacks may well represent the wrongly accused.

     But, you might observe, even if all of the 4112 "unknown" murders were committed by whites, that still means that there were 8508 murders by whites and 5375 by blacks, which is still grossly disproportionate to their respective shares of the population at large. A race that makes up 13% of the population should not account for 39% of the murders!
     True enough, but there's some other important information missing from the FBI data: economics. We know (and have known for thousands of years) that there's a pretty strong correlation between poverty and violent crime; wealthier communities tend to be less violent than poorer ones. (I would say less criminal, but it's complicated; white collar crime is still crime, but it's not generally violent, and the worst white collar crime isn't even treated as crime at all.) We also know that in the United States, wealth disparities are huge, correlated with race. In 2009, the median income for white families was $62,525, and for black families it was $38,409. (The same table shows "Asian and Pacific Islander" median income at $75,027, which might explain the almost negligibly small 249 "other" murders I said I'd ignore.)
     So it would be interesting to see how the FBI stats would look if broken down by family income. I'd expect that once you correct for income, the murder rates of whites and blacks are much closer to the same. They're probably not quite equal, mind you, because many law enforcement agencies in the U.S. tend (intentionally or not) to be more zealous in pursuing black offenders than white. But they're equal enough that we should not be reinforcing these stupid and destructive prejudices.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

An Open Letter to John Maguire, ISIS, and Issuers-of-Threats Generally

     If I understand your recent video correctly, you're saying that as a Canadian I should expect terrorist attacks on Canadian soil, and that if I want to be safe, I should lobby my government to pull out of the military mission against ISIS. Presumably, you want me to fear that I or someone I care about (which, by the way, includes everyone) will be hurt or killed, so I will do as you say in order to avoid that. 
     I could just say you don't scare me, but I don't think that would be very helpful, since that's what a lot of people say when they're afraid. Instead, I want to explain to you exactly what's wrong with your threat from a logical and strategic perspective, because you're making some very serious errors in reasoning, and putting lives (including yours) in needless danger.

     First of all, you have a credibility problem, and it's not what you think. Your organization has taken great pains to make its threats credible by releasing videos to prove that it is willing and able to murder people. To be sure, you really do have a long way to go to make me actually fear you, because realistically, you don't really have the resources to make yourself a statistically significant danger. There are 30 million Canadians, after all, spread out over a vast territory; most of us are going to be pretty safe from you no matter what. Also, there are lots of other dangers that you can't control, and which are much more likely to kill me. A couple of years ago I had part of my bowel removed for Stage III colon cancer, and the chemo seems to have been successful, so I probably won't die from that, but maybe there's some lingering metastasis hiding in my organs somewhere, or maybe a completely new cancer will form, or maybe I'll have a heart attack or a stroke or get hit by a truck or freeze to death or get eaten by a polar bear (this is Canada, after all). Why should I fear you more than these things?
     But as I said, that is not the real credibility problem, and in fact solving that one will only make the real one worse. You see, I already believe that you're willing and eager to kill me if I don't comply with your demands. You don't really need to prove that. What you do need to convince me of is that you will not kill me if I do comply. In other words, you need me to trust you, and that's really hard when you spend so much effort trying to make me fear you. And this is especially a problem in the case of random terrorism, where people get killed for just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. You don't know -- or care -- who you're killing, and so you don't know that maybe the person you just killed had written letters to her MP demanding a change in policy, and had done everything you asked. So if you're just going to kill me anyway, regardless of what I do, why should I comply with your demands?
     It gets worse. Even if I do believe that you'll keep your promise and not kill me if I give you what you want, how do I know you won't demand something else later on and threaten me until you get that? You want me to trust you way more than I trust most people, and yet by murdering people and threatening to murder me, you're seriously undermining the basis for that trust.

     So, that's why I'm unmoved by your threat, and why it's not going to influence my behaviour in any way. I simply don't trust you to keep your part of the bargain if I comply. But there's another mistake I think you're making, too, and that's your failure to consider the broader context. You're talking as if you're in a position of power over me, but the kinds of things I need to fear from you are basically terrorist-type attacks. And the thing about most terrorist attacks is that they're cheap; powerful nation-states have conventional armies with military systems that are much, much more effective than car bombs and other improvised terrorist weapons. So yeah, it sure is scary to contemplate that some crazy might randomly kill me with a toaster, but here's the thing: I have a toaster, too.
     You think your group is special? You think you're badasses, and the rest of us should cower in fear of your might? Look, any idiot can improvise a way to hurt lots of people. You're not even the only ones claiming to be fighting for God. So if I should be afraid of making you mad by disobeying you, shouldn't I also be afraid of making some other crazy mad for obeying you? Heck, shouldn't you be afraid of making me mad? I have the same access to ordinary household items as any other Canadian; I can carry out terrorist-style attacks against you just as easily as you can against me. 
     
     Ultimately, that's why your threats do not move me. I, and people like me, have just as much ability to hurt others as you do. The only difference is that you are willing to do so, and I am not. That is not because you are stronger than I am; it is because you are more foolish, and have not yet recognized just how futile and evil violence is. 

Friday, 21 November 2014

Sympathy for the Nice Guy


     I have been thinking about the whole Nice Guy pathology. That's where some guy figures that the way to get women to fall in love with and have sex with him is to be the devoted, generous, kind friend she can rely on, the shoulder she can cry on about all the cruel jerks she's dated until finally she realizes that here, right in front of her, is the perfect guy she's always wanted.
     It's a lovely narrative, of course, and if it plays out that way then all's well. Maybe. I mean, a relationship founded on that kind of formula might turn out to be a little inauthentic, but most relationships encounter difficulties anyway and all's seldom completely well even in the healthiest relationships. So it's not necessarily a disaster if the Nice Guy formula actually works out, which I suppose it does sometimes.
     The real problem is when it doesn't. When the Nice Guy invests loads of effort into being so nice she couldn't possibly fail to recognize how wonderfully perfect he is, and still somehow she doesn't fall for him. Then, it's so easy for him to become angry and resentful. He's done sooo much for her, and she doesn't even appreciate it, the ingrateful bitch! And then we see that the "Nice" guy isn't really genuinely nice, but he sees niceness for sex as a quid pro quo, and she's not keeping her part of the .... bargain? There was no bargain. That's not what "nice" means.

     All of this has been talked about a great deal lately, and rightly so, but I don't know if that argument by itself is going to sink in to the Nice Guy. It just rings a little hollow to someone in his shoes. And that's because Nice Guy is really hurting, is really lonely, is really feeling that he's the victim of an injustice, and telling him he's being a jerk (even if he is) is unlikely to be effective.
     I've been there. Well, maybe not quite the same place, but close to it. Before the phrase "nice guy" took on its current meaning, I always tried to be one, as distinct from the kind of aggressive jerk who takes advantage of women for sex. I was very sensitive to the stereotype that men are always after sex, so I was always careful to keep any attraction I might have felt a closely guarded secret, so as not to make anyone feel awkward or uncomfortable. Only if I got some sign or clue that a girl might be receptive to an advance did I consider I'd have permission to make my feelings known, and of course I was wary of letting my wishful thinking mislead me about ambiguous signals, so my default assumption was that girls generally were not interested in me. (I had not yet recognized that expecting the female to make the first move was no more sensible an arbitrary convention than having the male do it, and even less satisfactory if I was the only one following it.)
     I really did (and still do) value my friendships with females as rewarding friendships with equals, and I'm glad that many of them felt comfortable enough to talk to me about personal problems. It isn't that I wasn't romantically interested in any of them, because if I'd had a hint that was an option, I certainly would have been willing and indeed eager to explore the possibility (and in fact did on a couple of occasions). It's that romance was genuinely not the objective or motivation for these friendships; I was not just being nice to them in the hopes they might eventually give me sex. 
     And yet, at the same time, I really did long for a romantic relationship. I experienced all that painful loneliness and unfulfilled desire, just as much as anyone does in their teens and twenties, and it felt terrible. It felt even worse when my female friends would talk in front of me about how all men were jerks and then add "Oh, not you, Tom, you don't count!" I didn't? That was supposed to be comforting how, exactly? I wasn't a jerk, or I wasn't a man? Or is it only jerks you're attracted to? Or... what? Seriously, what was I supposed to take away from this?

     I know how I was wrong then, of course. I should have been a little bit more open. I should have been more willing to acknowledge that yes, I found girls attractive for their bodies as well as their minds. Since then, I've had my heart broken enough to know it won't kill me, and I've inadvertently broken enough hearts to know it's not anyone's fault, so if a woman tells me she's not interested, that's sad for me but I'll get over it and we can still be friends because I know she isn't to blame for me being hurt (assuming she knows me well enough to trust I won't resent her for it).
     But the fact that I was inexperienced in how to think about and deal with that pain doesn't mean the pain wasn't real. And it really was unfair and frustrating that these lovely young women always seemed to be attracted to guys who treated them with less respect than I did, and never seemed to even consider me as an option ("You don't count"), and so yeah, I really, really do understand why so many Nice Guys feel hurt. It really does hurt, and it isn't fair.
     That's the problem, the kernel of truth behind their complaint that is so very real and so painful and so genuinely unfair that any amount of lecturing Nice Guys to wise up and recognize that women don't owe them anything is going to run into the barrier of "But you don't know how I feel!"

     Dude, I do. I really, really do. You want her. You want her real bad, and not having her feels like the worst thing imaginable. But try this experiment: make yourself not want her anymore. Just decide that you can live without her, that someone else out there might make you happier. In fact, pick that someone else, maybe someone you find less attractive now, and see if maybe you can discover her inner beauty, and make yourself be attracted to her instead.
     Not that easy, is it? Turns out, we don't have a lot of control over whom we find attractive. It's not your fault. And here's the thing: it's no easier for women. Doesn't matter how nice someone is to you; if you're not attracted you're not attracted. End of story. So it's not their fault they're not attracted to you, and it's not your fault you are.
     You may be a very nice guy, and very handsome, and do everything right, and still end up lonely. Or, fate may have made you unattractive and unpleasant, and yet someone still falls for you for some inexplicable reason. It happens. There are lots of things that fate inflicts upon the undeserving. Get past it, and be nice and respectful to people without expecting anything in return. It's not a reliable way to get others to sleep with you, but it does make it easier to sleep with yourself.

Friday, 31 October 2014

Trickle-Up Economics

     That the trickle-down theory of economics has enjoyed such marketshare in the public mind for the last thirty odd years is testimony to the power of branding. Similar names for the same product, "supply-side economics" and "voodoo economics" have been less successful. "Supply-side" still used because although only a few economists actually know why it's called that, you can sound like you know what you're talking about. "Voodoo economics" doesn't afford that cover; if enough people claim to understand something, then calling it inexplicable nonsense will backfire by making them look smarter for understanding it, whether they do or not.
     The real strength of the trickle-down metaphor is in its simple and obvious intuitive imagery. Of course water trickles down from wherever you pour it, eventually finding its way to the bottom. It's a law of nature, this gravity thing, and pretty widely accepted even among Young Earth Creationists (mostly).

     The trouble with the metaphor, and with the theory generally, is that it actually mixes two incompatible metaphors, effectively flipping the force of gravity upside down. We call it "trickle-down" because we have a strong tendency to speak of wealth and social class in vertical terms: we have upper and lower classes, prosperous people are upwardly mobile, it's lonely at the top. We accept this social heirarchy metaphor unquestioningly, and in the context of describing social heirarchy, it's just fine. But metaphors are dangerous if we take them too literally, and it's a mistake to assume that the force of gravity in our social metaphor which will bring the high and mighty crashing down into poverty if they're not careful also applies to their money flowing downhill, because that's not what the original metaphor was crafted to explore.

     It is useful to think of money as a kind of fluid. We talk of cash flow, liquid assets, currency and charges. But which way does it flow? That's much more complex, because money flows in so many different directions; I might pay you today to do something for me, and you might turn around and use that money to buy something from me. In general, though, it's a safe bet that if money is accumulating in any particular place, there's a reason for it: money tends to flow towards rather than away from such places. The mere fact that it's accumulating there is at least prima facie evidence of that.
     We generally call people who accumulate money "rich". There are all sorts of reasons why rich people become rich, some of them good, some of them bad. Some people become rich by being really good at providing something that everyone needs. Others are good at gaming the system. Others inherit wealth, others steal it. If you've heard anything about Thomas Piketty's tome, Capital in the 21st Century, you might be aware of his analysis that income from capital tends to be more than growth, which means that wealth will naturally tend over time to accumulate in the hands of those who own capital. But whatever the reason, we can think of these places where money accumulates, regardless of the reason, as "down" with respect to the natural flow of money. Money flows downhill, into the pockets of those who are good at making it, and away from those who are bad at keeping it.

     In other words, money does trickle down, but down is where the wealthy are, while the poor live in the arid highlands, praying for rain.