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 "n*gger-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 being on the receiving end of racial stereotyping 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.