I've just been reading a touching but rather confusing article by a lapsed vegan that frequently mentions animal rights. After a while I realised what it was that I didn't like about this term. Our relations with animals should be based on compassion, not rights. It's a fairly safe bet that higher animals, including some of those we eat, are sentient, and if a creature is sentient then we probably don't want to cause it unnecessary suffering. Whether that implies veganism, free-range eggs, humane slaughterhouses or whatever, I'll leave to others to debate.
Rights are different. Rights are for people we may feel little compassion for but nevertheless have to get along with. Consider health care, which in most countries is regarded as a right. My granting you this right does not depend on my wanting to ease your suffering or promote your health; I accept your right to health care because if I don't, nobody gets that right. I don't have the option to provide health services only to people whose health I care about; if that were the case, it would be a privilege, not a right. Similarly, I respect the right to free speech of groups that I would happily see wiped off the face of the earth. With people we like, we don't generally think about rights; in fact, they can sometimes get in the way. If I'm preparing a meal for my wife and myself, I don't consider how much of it I have a right to. If we start thinking about rights, then we have a problem, because rights are about dealing with conflicts of interest.
Because of this, I don't see how rights enter into our relations with animals. If I argue that chickens should be allowed to roam freely rather than being cooped up in factory farms, or even that we shouldn't keep chickens captive at all, I'm not arguing that we're in some kind of social contract with chickens; I'm saying that I don't want chickens to suffer (assuming here that they're on the right side of the sentient/non-sentient divide). I'm arguing on the basis of compassion, not rights.
I've just read Yasmin Alibhai Brown's article "I like Corbyn, but let's face it: we don't need another white man at the head of a political party" because it was generating so much controversy, with even Richard Dawkin wading in. Many of the comments accused Brown of racism, though I suspect many of these commentators hadn't read much further than the (admittedly very long) title. Personally, I found the article confusing. That could be because I teach academic English and I've come to expect a thesis statement that lays out the argument somewhere near the beginning, and I tend to get lost with this kind of op-ed journalism where you just ramble around a topic without coming to any definite conclusions. Not that there's anything wrong with that (in fact, it's pretty much what I'm doing here) but it's confusing to encounter someone taking what is obviously a controversial stance without being sure exactly what that stance is. Brown likes Corbyn's politics but would prefer the leader of the Labour Party to be female and non-white; that much is clear. The rest of the article is not.
Brown is obviouslyt saying that identity politics is important in Britain, but I'm not sure whether she regards this as good, bad or merely inevitable. Most confusingly, she praises the American political system for its acknowledgement of identity politics and its tacit admission "that America proclaims oneness but is, in truth, a land of many peoples, competing interests, and hostilities." Is she seriously suggesting that UK politics become more like US politics? Could it possibly be a good thing when a candidate's gender, skin colour or sexual orientation become as important as their policies? A lot of people voted for Obama because of his race, but then a lot of people voted for Margaret Thatcher because of her sex, and we don't want to go back down that road.
Brown does make some good points, though. Britain may well be less united than politicians would have us believe. She is also right that those in privileged groups (white, well-off males, for example) have a natural tendency to promote unity and underplay conflict because it is in their interests to do so. This does not mean, however, that unity is in itself a bad thing, or that conflict is inherently good.
Like Brown, I would also be happy to see more women, members of ethnic minorities and other marginalised people leading political parties and other organisations. However, my perspective is somewhat different. It would be great to see, for example, an Asian woman as prime minister of the UK. But this is not because Asian women would make better PMs, or that they would represent Asians or women better, or because I'm an Asian woman. (I'm not, by the way.) It would be good because it would be an indication that British political culture had progressed to the point where an Asian woman could become PM. This is where Goodhart's law comes in: "When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure." (Note: this quotation is often misattributed to Charles Goodhart; the actual wording, though, comes from Marilyn Strathern). Goodhart's Law is the fly in the ointment of diversity. If we were to decide that Corbyn had the best policies and personal qualities to lead the Labour Party but voted for another candidate because we don't want another white man running a political party, we screw up our measure. Once identity politics rears its ugly head, we don't know if a candidate is being elected for their ideas or their identity.
We all expect our idols to have feet of clay (except for the really expensive idols, which have feet of solid gold, but it's hard to get hold of those these days.) I'm a big fan of Noam Chomsky, for example, despite the fact that I think he talks rubbish from time to time. Some things, though, are deal breakers. There should be a long German word for* that sinking feeling you get when someone you'd always admired, or perhaps had just started to like, says or does something that wipes out all the good stuff. Recent bits of news reminded me of three people I feel that way about.
1. Pope Francis Great stuff about the global warming, capitalism etc., shame about the sexual politics. On the other hand, I'm more forgiving of Francis than the others on the grounds that he is, after all, the pope. He's supposed to be like that.
2. Aung San Suu Kyi For years I had a kind of lefty crush on Aung San Suu Kyi. She was beautiful, brave, inspiring and a damned good writer. Now she's trying to paper over a pogrom.
3. Barack Obama I know most of my Amercian friends love him, but once you get outside the USA, he doesn't look so good. I'm very happy for all those people who now have health care, but that pales beside having a civil war on my doorstep.
* In fact, there should be a long German word for "there should be a long German word for."
I first came across the political use of the terms "exclusive" and "inclusive" in the context of nationalism, specifically when someone was explaining how Turkish nationalism was more inclusive than exclusive. Exclusive nationalism is when the nation is defined in terms of a Volk which must be kept pure; German and Japanese nationalism give us some obvious historical examples. Inclusive nationalism occurs when the nation is paramount but anyone can join if they identify with it and subscribe to the values of the culture; American and French nationalism are of this type. These days, though, the word "inclusive" has gone viral, getting applied to the inclusion of a wide variety of groups in a wide variety of activities: women in technology, black people in video games, trans people in sports or whatever. Personally I think this is wonderful, but of course I have to explore the problematic areas, because that's the way I am.
One controversial topic at the moment is the lack of inclusiveness in The Witcher 3. For those of you unfamiliar with this title, it's a fairly typical fantasy role-playing game. I haven't played it, but I messed around with The Witcher 2 a bit and found it enjoyable to play and visually impressive. (My only gripe with the game was that the so-called "native Linux" version was just the Windows version with a Linux wrapper, which meant it took ages to load.) The problem for some people is that all the characters are white (and, I assume, heterosexual and cisgender). As usual there are the two stereotypes at the extremes of the debate—"social justice warriors" and "gamergaters"—but there are more thoughtful approaches too. I was going to write a whole article about Witcher 3, but found I didn't need to because Erik Kaine has written an excellent piece for Forbes, "Should 'The Witcher 3' Feature More People Of Color?" To summarise, the argument against including "people of color" (I've already blogged about how I hate that term) in fantasies like The Witcher is that they are based on historical worlds which were not racially diverse, so including, say, Black people, would be unrealistic. The counter-argument is that it's silly to talk about realism when you have orcs and dragons. (Another counter-argument would be that medieval Europe wasn't as lily-white as we think, but let's leave that one to the historians.) The truth, Kaine says, is somewhere in the middle. Fantasies are based on realities: The Lord of the Rings was a deliberate attempt to create a new Anglo-Saxon mythology; Westeros is based heavily on medieval Europe; the Arabian Nights are kind of Arabian, and so on. You can stretch that reality quite a bit (otherwise it wouldn't be fantasy) but not infinitely. An interesting point that Kaine misses, and that would have served his argument well, is that the Witcher series is not just a generic North European fantasy; it is intended to be a specifically Polish fantasy. This has sparked much debate about whether Poles have enough pagan heritage to get a fantasy world out of, but the interesting point is that this fantasy seems to have been created by a particular cultural group for the purpose of preserving and enriching their culture. It's a bit like The Lord of the Rings, except that unlike the British, who at the time Tolkien was writing still ruled the world's biggest empire, the Poles managed a bit of an empire way back when, but since then have generally been shafted by all around them. One might mischievously ask what right the predominantly-American critics have to impose their standardised multiracial culture on Poles. What is inclusive for some may exclude others from finding their voice, perhaps.
An additional irony is that Andrzej Sapkowski's Witcher novels actually tackle racism head on; it's just that they use actual races to do it. You know, like elves and dwarves. Non-human races are regarded as second class citizens and herded into ghettoes, an obvious reference to Polish history: Poles have been both racists and victims of racism. [Aside: just in case anyone is about to say "White people can't suffer from racism," please remember that whatever the merits and demerits of this argument in a US context, Americans did not invent racism and do not have copyright on the term. There's a place called Europe where a man called Hitler had some very interesting racial theories, which counted some white people—including Slavs—as different, and inferior, races.]
Anyway, I said I wouldn't write a whole article on the Witcher controversy, so let's get on to the second issue, which is hijabi sportswear. An article in Mashable bears the title "This workout hijab just made athletic wear more inclusive," which is the kind of title you expect from Mashable. I must confess to being even more perplexed by this than the Witcher case. The article tells the story of a successful Kickstarter project named Veil Garments, which makes hi-tech hijab-compliant sportswear so that Muslim women can work out without dissolving in a puddle of sweat. This is obviously a clever idea, but is it really inclusive?
At a superficial level, yes it is. Sportswear is normally produced with "Western" fashions, and hence values, in mind; in particular, it tends to be tight and revealing. Producing sportswear that conforms to the values of other cultures ought, then, to be inclusive.
One argument against this is a bit like the "medieval realism" argument about fantasy. Sportswear, according to this argument, is not tight and revealing because of Western values, or feminism, or sexism or anything like that; it's tight and revealing because that's the most practical way to design it. This argument has a certain appeal; after all, people at Nike and Adidas weren't thinking "Oh we don't want any Muslims, Amish or Orthodox Jews at the gym, so let's design something they can't wear." But this is rather naive. Companies like Nike and Adidas don't just design sportswear to be practical; they design it to be sexy, because that's what sells, and sexiness is a culturally-charged idea. Muslim women might well say "We don't want your Western sexiness."
But it gets more complicated than that. The whole concept of "hijab" is open to abuse from all sides. The mere mention of it in the article predictably unleashed a storm of Islamophobic comments, so as usual the real issues went unnoticed. The real problem with this version of inclusiveness is the idea of "Islamic culture" with a homogeneous group of "Muslims" who can be included in our wonderful multicultural gyms. The reality is that there is no such thing as Islamic culture; there are only Islamic cultures (and subcultures, and microcultures). These cultures include people who dress in an astonishing variety of ways, from bikinis to burkas. There is no consensus in the Muslim world about what clothing is appropriate; what counts as modest dress in Iran would be shameless in Saudi Arabia, while a Turkish or Bosnian woman might not look any different from a non-Muslim. To label a certain dress style "hijab" and assume that this is what Muslim women wear (or want to wear, or are forced to wear) is a cultural blindness which ironically excludes many of the people you are trying to include. Equally important is the fact that clothes have a different significance according to where you are; what might be inclusive in America might be exclusive in the UAE. Given men's tendency to try to control what women wear (and women's tendency to try to control what other women wear), it's always a short step from "women can wear X" to "women must wear X."
Fortunately when we get down to practicalities, there is a lot of room for compromise. Game designers can usually manage to include a few non-white (or gay or trans) characters without irreparably damaging their worlds. A few hijabis in the gym won't bring shariah to the West. Let's just be careful not to make our inclusiveness exclusive.
As a linguist (of sorts) and a leftist (of sorts) I am continually intrigued and exasperated by the way people on the left use and abuse language. Understanding that language moulds experience and culture, and often misunderstanding the way it does so, well-meaning activists have not only attempted to ban certain words but sometimes create new ones, or warp words out of their original sense. Sometimes it's a conscious and even legislated process, as in speech policies; sometimes it's more memetic, as words go in and out of favour or change their meanings in certain groups whose linguistic influence is magnified by the shifting winds of politics. Sometimes it works well; sometimes it doesn't.
One word which has recently become infectious is “sexualize”. As in so many cases, the intention behind the choice of words is good; the actual choice isn't. Recently a large number of girls have been protesting against high school dress codes in a variety of ways, including the now famous “crop-top day”. The dress codes are indeed sexist, following the age-old rule that if men find certain parts of women's bodies “distracting”, it is incumbent on women to cover them up. (The same principle is rarely applied to the male body, an exception being bans on saggy pants, though I suspect that is more on aesthetic than sexual grounds.) If you go down that road, you end up with slut-shaming and worse. If a school principal can complain that teenage boys are distracted by the sight of a girl's midriff and demand that such distractions be covered, why can't an imam say the same thing about a woman's hair?
The protesting students are, of course, in the right, but the frequent use of the word “sexualise” in their press statements and social media snippets is completely wrong. Here's an example from the aforelinked article: “Halket issued a call to arms—er, stomachs—and invited over 7,000 girls to wear a crop top on Tuesday in protest of the school's ‘sexualization’ of female students.” The Fashion Spot asks “Are School Dress Codes Sexualizing the Teenage Girls They Aim to Protect?” A friend of mine tweets “I'm a 15-year-old girl—don't sexualize me!” This is replacing one harmful myth with another.
To sexualize is to attach a sexual significance to something which is not inherently sexual. You can sexualize a toaster, for example, if you have a fetish for domestic appliances. You can sexualize a pre-pubescent child because if children have any kind of sexuality at all (as Freudians claim) it is sufficiently different from adult sexuality as to render it irrelevant. Neither a toaster nor a child's body gives out sexual signals, or signals that would be interpreted sexually by a typical adult human. In contrast, adolescent bodies give out sexual signals like nothing on earth. To talk of sexualizing them is absurd because they are already sexual. Coming to terms with the fact that your body is full of sexual chemistry while you may still find the whole thing icky is part of growing up, as is the converse that you may be consumed with sexual desires while your body is still as attractive as a rake (the garden variety, not the 18th-century one). The Fashion Spot article mocks “the phantom boners Wasatch High School administrators think these 15-year-old boys are getting when they see a girl in a spaghetti-strap top,” yet many of those boners are not at all phantom, as any male who can remember what it was like to be 15 will tell you.
All of this misses the point, which is that people are responsible for their own sexuality, and only their own sexuality. If you're a boy who finds crop-tops or yoga pants distracting, then you have my sympathy, but it's up to you to deal with it. Think about washing up cold porridge saucepans or something. As for teachers and school administrators, nobody will think you're some kind of creepy Humbert Humbert type because you get the odd flash of sexual desire for your students. Well actually, some people will, but only if you bring the subject to their attention, and banging on about immodest dress is the best way to bring it to their attention. Nobody's fooled by that “it might distract the male students” thing.
Another case of “sexualization” is doing the social media rounds as I write, this time concerning breast feeding. A man got so upset at the sight of a woman breast feeding in a restaurant that he took her photograph and out it on Tumblr, presumably so that other men could be upset by this traumatic visage. The woman in question saw this and posted a wonderfully caustic reply, which is now all over Facebook; in fact, I shared it myself. Nearly all the points she makes are spot on. After all, guys who get upset when they see breasts should go and live in a monastery. Unfortunately, though, she makes the same sexualization mistake, saying “Breasts are meant to be used to feed our young. It is society that has sexualizes them.” Saying any part of the body is “meant” for something is naive teleology. Body parts evolve because of certain evolutionary constraints and opportunities; often something that evolved because it was suited to some purpose later evolved further because it happened to be useful for something else, dinosaur feathers being a classic case. While it is clear that breasts evolved for feeding young, that does not mean that they could not also have evolved as sexual signalling devices. (Desmond Morris provides an account of how this could have coincided with our adopting an upright stance in The Naked Ape, though I'm not qualified to judge it.) If it were only society that turned these utilitarian milk-machines into objects of desire, then we could indeed talk about “sexualization”, but in that case we would also expect to find much more cultural variation in male reactions to the female breast. Of course there is some variation: societies where uncovered breasts are the norm can be pretty blasé about them, Europeans tend to react to breasts with joyous appreciation while American's seem to be thrown into a panic by them, but I do not know of any society where heterosexual men find breasts completely unattractive, nor do I know of any societies where a wrinkled, droopy breast is thought as attractive as the kind described with “words like ‘full’, ‘round’ and even ‘pert’” (as Terry Pratchett put it). Coming back to our high school theme, pubescent girls grow breasts not only because they might need to make some milk in the near future but as a signal that they are capable of doing so. And as Robert Anton Wilson says, however many laws you pass, you will never raise the age of puberty to twenty.
Just as conservatives suffer from climate denial and New Agers suffer from physics denial, leftists often suffer from biology denial. Mother Nature couldn't possibly be such a bitch as to make men attracted to things they're not supposed to be attracted to, could she? Yes, she could. But as I said, men's sexuality shouldn't be women's problem. That's a matter of ethics, not biology—or terminology.
I love teaching this ENG 102 course. Where else could my gamer and linguist personae combine to produce lesson materials with sentences like:
Speaking of Super Mario Brothers, should it be singular or plural? If you're talking about the game, then it's singular; otherwise (and with different formatting) you are referring to Mario and Luigi, who form a plural noun phrase.
The other night while watching Project Runway, I had to explain the term "fringe" to my wife, which inevitably led to the question of how this related to the eponymous TV series. This in turn got me thinking about Fringe, why we loved it so much, why we found the last season rather disappointing, and what this means in a broader context.
There is one obvious reason why the last season of Fringe couldn't possibly be as good as the others: Fringe was all about mysterious possibilities, and once they'd decided to wrap everything up, they couldn't play that game any more; instead, the last season warped into an entertaining but much less intriguing "resist the alien invaders" adventure.
However, there was something that went further and actually irritated me about the last season that I couldn't put my finger on until now: it uses the Faustian deal-wtih-the-devil trope clumsily. The Faustian bargain is a staple of science fiction, and it can be done well. Frankenstein is a secularised version where there is no devil to make a deal with, but just a line in Nature which shouldn't be crossed (Shelley subtitled her novel "the Modern Prometheus" but Frankenstein is more like the hubristic doctor than the altruistic Titan). In fact, earlier on in Fringe we see two good examples of this trope: first where Walter experiments on children to enhance their psychic abilities, and later where he crosses into a parallel universe to save the son of his parallel self (by kidnapping him), thus creating a rupture in the time-space-quantum-thingummy, not to mention some unusual family drama.
Season 5 is an example of how not to do the Funky Faust. Our world has been invaded by our descendants, who have come back in time because they've messed up the environment so much. They also have amazing psychic powers, something you associate less with the kind of people who create ecological mayhem and more with cute natives who live in harmony with Nature (so I suppose we should award the writers points for avoiding one common cliche). The road to environmentally unfriendly transhumanism starts when some Dr. Faustustein finds he can short-circuit the part of the brain used for jealousy, freeing up neurons which then go on and develop psychic powers because quantum. This is the kind of neurological wackiness that is fine in a show like Fringe; the problem is in what happens next. Having got rid of a thoroughly unpleasant and fairly useless emotion and got some cool new abilities in return, our future selves get addicted to their new powers and use more and more of their brains to get them, resulting in all normal emotions getting thrown out. Yet the future folk we see are prone to primitive emotions like anger, and even lust after 21st century women, as we see when our heroes sneak into a private club where the Übermenschen unwind after a hard day of world domination.
Now the whole point of the Faust story is that Faust is a pretty smart fellow; in fact his problem is that he's too clever for his own good. The Faustian bargain has to look like a smart idea at the time, but this looks downright silly. I get rid of a negative emotion in return for some psychic powers, so I then go on and eliminate all of my positive emotions while keeping as many negative emotions as possible? Hmmm, we can't do without lust, anger and greed, so let's get rid of love, compassion and humour. If you want to raise some questions about planned human evolution, this is not the way to go about it.
The other Faustian bargain is the familiar one where humans seek power over Nature and end up destroying it. Arguably, this is the one we are living at the moment. Yet Fringe presents this in a very short-sighted way by simply projecting current environmental degradation into the future. We're creating a lot of environmental damage now, so as we get more technologically advanced, we'll create even more, right? In fact we'll have screwed up the Earth so thoroughly, the only way out will be to transport the whole population back in time.
Whoa. This is a society so advanced they can send millions of people back in time, but they can't work out how to clean up industrial pollution? Not even with those hyper-intelligent psionic megabrains they've developed? A similar silliness lurks in the ending of Avatar, where the humans are sent back to live in the ashes of the Earth they had plundered. Now I'm not saying that humans can't make the Earth uninhabitable; what I'm saying is that they would not develop the technology to go all over the galaxy looking for rare minerals yet be unable to clean up their home planet. Stupid species don't make it into space.
Of course it's good to post warnings about our potential to destroy our planet, but we need to be careful about the way we frame them. This century looks like being make-or-break for our species, as we are at the most dangerous stage of technological development, half way between technology that is too feeble to have much of an impact on the environment and technology that is sophisticated enough to protect it. In contrast, the Observers were created in 2167 and didn't make the planet uninhabitable until 2609! That's nearly half a millennium of technological progress powered by superbrains. When we compare this to the actual timeline, we don't seem to be doing so badly: a few maverick scientists started warning about climate change in the 1970s; less than half a century later we have developed solar power that's as cheap as fossil fuels and are looking to have workable fusion energy in a few decades. It may not turn out to be enough, but it's actually quite impressive considering we haven't even swapped out parts of our brains to do it.
Recently on Quora, there was one of the usual threads about grammar Nazis, with the usual three response types. 1. Grammar Nazis are just mean people who use grammar as an excuse to be mean. 2. So-called grammar Nazis are just people who care about accurate communication. 3. So-called grammar Nazis aren't Nazis because they don't send people off to concentration camps. 1. and 2. have points for and against, but 3. is just silly. If I describe Uncle Joe as a piss-artist, would someone object because Uncle Joe has never exhibited a painting? If I describe Uncle Albert as a drag queen, would anyone object because he is neither female nor a hereditary ruler? The use of "Nazi" in this and other phrases takes one characteristic of Nazism - excessive authoritarianism - to create a metaphor. That's how metaphors work. You could argue that using "Nazi" like this is tasteless, but since Seinfeld's soup Nazi, there's no going back.
Speaking of metaphors, one comment listed as a symptom of grammar Nazism objection to the metaphorical use of "literally". Personally, though, I don't think this is the kind of carping pedantry that earns grammar Nazis their names. The word "literal" means "not metaphorical", so using "literally" metaphorically robs your utterance of meaning.
I would never describe myself as a "traveller", partly because I haven't travelled enough, and partly because when a lot of people call themselves travellers, it means "stingy but pretentious tourist". But I do like travelling sometimes. I've had enjoyable holidays in Rome, Vienna, Zurich and various Greek islands; I've been Interrailing; and once I travelled to Turkey and wound up spending 23 years there. Nevertheless, I sometimes open travel websites, and think "Why do people bother?" OK, adventure, but as a wise hobbit once said, adventures make you late for lunch. Sometimes I think Lao Tsu had a point when he said "One may know the world without going out of doors. One may see the Way of Heaven without looking through the windows. The further one goes, the less one knows." And he wrote that before there was the Discovery Channel!
Oh well, it's probably because I'm ill and feeling unenthusiastic about going to Paris this month.
Looks like I won't be having my nose/sinus operation until Spring. I was hoping to get it done in the winter break, but now I need to plan my course around my non-appearance for a couple of weeks. Surprisingly, I don't relish this prospect - I'd like a medical procedure that allows me to teach but doesn't allow any kind of grading or admin work rather than the reverse, but such a thing has yet to be discovered. On the bright side, I may finally get round to reading all those articles I've saved to Pocket.