Friday, July 31, 2020

How critical theory dismisses the best ways to achieve social justice

Andrew Sullivan reviews an upcoming book which I’ve already pre-ordered: Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay. Sullivan writes:

liberalism can include critical theory as one view of the world worth interrogating. But critical theory cannot include liberalism, because it views liberalism itself as a mode of white supremacy that acts against the imperative of social and racial justice. That’s why liberalism is supple enough to sustain countless theories and ideas and arguments, and is always widening the field of debate; and why institutions under the sway of Social Justice necessarily must constrain avenues of thought and ideas. That’s why liberalism is dedicated to allowing Ibram X. Kendi to speak and write, but Ibram X. Kendi would create an unelected tribunal to police anyone and any institution from perpetuating what he regards as white supremacy—which is any racial balance not exactly representative of the population as a whole.…
Here's an excerpt from a 2019 New Yorker piece in which Kelefa Sanneh takes down Kendi's book How to Be an Antiracist, along with Robin DiAngelo's book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.

Andrew Sullivan goes on:
these theorists … claim that their worldview is the only way to advance social progress, especially the rights of minorities, and that liberalism fails to do so. This, it seems to me, is profoundly untrue. A moral giant like John Lewis advanced this country not by intimidation, or re-ordering the language, or seeing the advancement of black people as some kind of reversal for white people. He engaged the liberal system with non-violence and persuasion, he emphasized the unifying force of love and forgiveness, he saw black people as having agency utterly independent of white people, and changed America with that fundamentally liberal perspective.

The gay rights movement, the most successful of the 21st century, succeeded in the past through showing what straights and gays have in common, rather than seeing the two as in a zero-sum conflict....

The women’s rights movement has transformed the role of women in society in the past without demonizing all men, or seeing misogyny as somehow embedded in “white supremacy”.

As we have just seen, civil rights protections for transgender people—just decided by a conservative Supreme Court—have been achieved not by seeing people as groups in constant warfare, but by seeing the dignity of the unique individual in pursuing their own happiness without the obstacle of prejudice.

In fact, I suspect it is the success of liberalism in bringing this kind of non-zero-sum pluralism into being that rattles the critical theorists the most. Because it suggests that reform is always better than revolution, that empirical truth is on the side of the genuinely oppressed and we should never fear understanding things better, that progress is both possible in a liberal democracy, and more securely rooted than in other systems, because it springs from a lively, informed debate, and isn’t foisted on society by ideologues.

The rhetorical trap of critical theory is that it has coopted the cause of inclusion and forced liberals onto the defensive. But liberals have nothing to be defensive about. What’s so encouraging about this book [Cynical Theories] is that it has confidence in its own arguments, and is as dedicated to actual social justice, achieved through liberal means, as it is scornful of the postmodern ideologues who have coopted and corrupted otherwise noble causes.

This is very good news—even better to see it as the Number 1 Amazon best-seller in philosophy long before its publication date later in August. The intellectual fight back against wokeness has now begun in earnest. Let’s do this.
The authors of Cynical Theories are 2 of the 3 people behind the academic hoax I posted about in 2018.

Here’s one of the authors, Helen Pluckrose, reading a summary of the book:
Cynical Theories explains how theory has developed into the driving force of the culture war of the late 2010s, and proposes a philosophically liberal way to counteract its manifestations in scholarship, activism, and everyday life. The book charts the development of the evolving branches of cynical postmodern theory over the last 50 years, and shows that it has influenced current societies in ways the reader will recognize.… This book is a story about how despair found confidence, which then grew into the sort of firm conviction associated with religious adherence.…

The book's other author, James Lindsay, has a new piece called "No, the Woke Won't Debate You. Here's Why." Excerpt:
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked why it is that the Woke won’t seem to have a debate....

It is not, as many think, a fear of being exposed as fraudulent or illegitimate—or otherwise of losing the debate or looking bad in the challenging conversation—that prevents those who have internalized a significant amount of the Critical Social Justice Theory mindset that prevents these sorts of things from happening. There’s a mountain of Theoretical reasons that they would avoid all such activities, and even if those are mere rationalizations of a more straightforward fear of being exposed as fraudulent or losing, they are shockingly well-developed and consistent rationalizations that deserve proper consideration and full explanation....

Critical Social Justice activists ... tell us constantly about the high emotional labor costs of doing the “work” they do (and never being taken seriously for it). To invite them to a public conversation or debate is to ask them to get exploited in this way for other people’s benefit by getting up on stage in a dominance-approved paradigm with a bad-faith moral monster who just wants his opportunity to reinforce the very dominance that exhausts them....
That whole piece is worth reading, and I have a feeling that his and Pluckrose's upcoming book, Cynical Theories, is going to be worth reading too.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Herman Cain dies at 74

The New York Times reports:

Herman Cain, the former Republican presidential candidate and business executive who was hospitalized this month with the coronavirus, has died. He was 74.…

Mr. Cain, the former chief executive of Godfather’s Pizza, ran for the Republican nomination for president in 2012, and his irreverent style and rags-to-riches story made him an unlikely hero of Tea Party conservatives. He dropped out of the race after he was accused of sexual misconduct, which he denied.…

His platform was likely best known for his 9-9-9 tax plan: a flat 9 percent individual income tax rate, a 9 percent corporate tax rate and a 9 percent national sales tax.
Normally I'd link to the Wikipedia page for someone who's just died, but when I checked it today it had been vandalized with disgusting photos. I'm sure that problem will be fixed, but please use caution when visiting Herman Cain's Wikipedia page.

Axios notes:
Cain, the co-chair of Black Voices for Trump, was in a high-risk group due to his history with cancer. Cain's positive coronavirus test came less than two weeks after he attended President Trump's controversial June 20 campaign rally in Tulsa, where he tweeted a picture of himself without a mask.… It's unclear whether Cain contracted the virus at the Trump rally.
From 2011: Herman Cain on America's racial progress.

(Photo by Eric Thayer/Getty.)

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Olivia de Havilland (1916 - 2020)

Dame Olivia de Havilland has died in her sleep at age 104.

Her first of 5 Oscar nominations was for Best Supporting Actress for Gone with the Wind (1939).

She won Best Actress twice, for To Each His Own (1946) and The Heiress (1949).

The New York Times obituary says:

Those roles came to her in no small part because of the resolve she showed when she stood up to the studios and won a battle that helped push Hollywood into the modern era, surprising the movie moguls, who may not have expected such steel in an actress so softly attractive and, at 5-foot-3, so unintimidatingly petite.…

After her success in “Gone With the Wind,” Ms. de Havilland returned to [Warner Bros.] with the expectation of more challenging roles. For the most part, they did not materialize.… When Ms. de Havilland complained, she was told that she had been hired because she photographed well and that she wasn’t required to act.

The studio had misread her determination. She began to refuse roles she considered inferior. Warner retaliated by suspending her several times, for a total of six months, and, after her contract expired, insisting that because of the suspensions she was still the studio’s property for six more months.

Ms. de Havilland sued. The case dragged on for a year and a half but David finally beat Goliath when the California Supreme Court upheld a lower-court ruling in her favor in 1945. What became known as the de Havilland decision established that a studio could not arbitrarily extend the duration of an actor’s contract.
She and her younger sister, Joan Fontaine (born Joan de Havilland), who died at 96 in 2013, are the only pair of siblings who've both won Oscars for Best Actress or Actor.

Both sisters will be strongly represented when I post "my favorite movies from each year of the past 100 years" (probably next year).

Here's a long video interview with Olivia de Havilland (2 and a half hours).

In that interview, she talks about the first time she met Errol Flynn, on the set of the first of 12 movies they were in together:
He said to me: "What do you want out of life?" And I thought: What an extraordinary question to be asked! Nobody's asked me that ever! …

And I said: "I would like respect for difficult work, well done."

And I said: "Well, what would you want out of life?" And he said: "I want success." And what he meant by that was fame and riches, both of which he certainly did achieve. But when he said it, I thought: Well, that's not enough. And indeed, it proved in Errol's life not to be enough. [He had substance abuse problems and died at age 50.]

She talks about why she soon tired of the roles she was initially given by Warner Brothers:
The life of the love interest is really pretty boring. The objective is the marriage bit — that's what the heroine is there for.… It was all about: will they get together in the end, that way? But the route to the marriage bit — and that was promised at the end, of course — was a pretty boring route. The heroine really — heroine?! She really had nothing much to do, except encourage the hero.… So I longed to play a character who initiated things, who experienced important things, … who interpreted the great agonies and joys of human experience.

(Publicity photos from Wikimedia Commons.)

Friday, July 24, 2020

Are cancel culture perpetrators hypocritical?

Ayishat Akanbi suggests many of them are:

I know online it seems that people don't change their ideas … but our ideas can change quite quickly. And so to cancel people for tweets that they made years ago, potentially even things that they said last week, I think is just to lie to yourself. It lacks a certain self-examination that I think is crucial.

If everybody was to act as though they've never said something homophobic, especially if you've ever grown up in a strongly religious family, I think you could be telling porkies [lies].

We talk so much about mental health and how important it is, and how we have to remember that mental health is just as important as physical health. And then to discard people at the first sign of something we dislike — the two don't marry very well to me.

We undermine how easy it is for us to become the people that we dislike. With a different circumstance, a different upbringing, a different culture, how I could easily become a lot of the things that I dislike or find harmful.… I'm much more interested in the root causes as opposed to the symptoms.…

We should always remember that just because something is popular doesn't make it good.… Sometimes popularity is just a measure of how much people aren't thinking. If your advocacy or activism is motivated by the fear of being canceled, then you will adopt the popular belief. Mob culture is very terrifying. But … if you are committed to trying to make the world a better place, or your community a better place … you have to be prepared to think for yourself.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Why I don't click on Kanye articles

I’m not clicking on articles about Kanye. If you click on those articles, you’re encouraging more of them. If the articles get a lot of clicks, the websites will post more of them to get more advertising revenue. If the articles don’t get clicks, the websites will stop posting them for the same reason they didn’t post articles about certain Democratic primary candidates last year. If Kanye gets a lot of free advertising from the media, he’ll tend to get more votes if he turns out to be on some states’ ballots in November. If Kanye does get votes, he’ll split the anti-Trump vote with Biden, making Trump more likely to get reelected. I care more about preventing that from happening than I care about any curiosity I might have about Kanye.

When I said that on Facebook, someone asked if we should say the same thing about Trump and any number of other topics. My response:

If most Americans had started following this approach in 2015, Trump would have been deprived of attention and might not have been the nominee or the 45th president. The media gave Trump outsized attention because we loved to read about him and watch him. We gave Trump what he wanted, and he won as a result of people like us clicking on articles and videos. So Trump is a perfect example of my point.

Now that Trump is the incumbent president, there's no issue of how well-known he is — everyone's totally aware of his candidacy. So the idea that we have the power to deprive a candidate of recognition no longer applies to him.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

If "power" isn't only about government, neither is "freedom of speech"

Why is it that those who like to use the word "power" in the broadest possible way, seemingly as far as possible from any technical, legal, or governmental sense of the word, are the most adamant in insisting that the words "freedom of speech" should be limited to a strictly legal, governmental sense of the phrase? If they can do the latter with "freedom of speech," do I get to insist that they use the word "power" only to mean "government exercising legal authority"?

Of course they wouldn't accept that, and that's fine — it can be useful to speak of "power" outside the context of government, even if different standards apply. Similarly, it can make sense to talk about "freedom of speech" outside the government context, even if we should apply a stricter standard to governmental interference with speech, and be generally more accepting of other kinds of interference with speech.

Insisting on a clear divide between how we talk about government and how we talk about other stuff can lead to odd results. For instance, you'll hear broad claims that "cancel culture" has nothing to do with the First Amendment, which is binding only on government — but that ignores all the cancellations that are done to government employees, and faculty and students at public universities.

But is cancel culture really that bad? Charles Blow of the New York Times says that cancel culture is really just "free speech." (Walter Olson parodies that idea.)

I agree with the broad argument against cancel culture in the Harper's open letter. And on top of those principled objections, Megan McArdle suggests that cancel culture will have unintended consequences which its perpetrators might not like:

I’ve been hearing from people, center-left as well as center-right, who have moved from astonishment to concern to terror as senior editors were fired for running op-eds written by conservative senators or approving inept headlines; as professors were investigated for offenses such as “reading aloud the words of Martin Luther King”.…

The cancelers aren’t merely trying to expand the range of acceptable ideas so that it includes more marginalized voices. They are pressuring mainstream institutions, which serve as society’s idea curators, to adopt a much narrower definition of “reasonable” opinion. The new rules would exclude the viewpoints of many Americans.

Intellectual monocultures are inherently unhealthy, and the tactics by which the new orthodoxy is being imposed are destructive. But I’m enough of an old-school liberal to think that I have to persuade my opponents, and I doubt they’ll be moved by one more anthem to the glories of open inquiry.

They might, however, consider a few pragmatic problems with imposing their code by Twitter force.

Twitter, with its 280-character limit, is not a medium for making lengthy, nuanced arguments. It’s most effective at signaling the things you can’t say. Consider the ultimate Twitter put-down: Delete your account. That’s especially a problem for institutions that are in the business of making arguments.…

More broadly, this approach is at odds with what makes any institution function as more than a collection of self-supervising individuals. When much of your workforce is worried about summary firing, they put more and more effort into protecting themselves, and less and less effort into advancing the work of the institution. Doubly so when it is fellow employees who are pressing public attacks.…

If you hold those sorts of fights on a public and inherently limited platform, then some part of your audience will inevitably wonder whether the ensuing consensus, such as it is, reflects what people actually think, rather than who they are afraid of.

So achieving victory this way risks damaging the ultimate prize, which is the power those institutions have as institutions, not just algorithmic amplifiers.… It’s that power, not the names on the doors, that lets those institutions establish the boundaries the cancelers are really hoping to control: not just of what people are willing to say in public, but what they are willing to believe.


(Photo by Bronson Abbott, under a Creative Commons license.)

Saturday, July 11, 2020

Steven Pinker on cancel culture

Reason looks at the failed attempt to cancel Steven Pinker. The article concludes:

So what motivated the letter-writers to launch their righteous attack on Pinker? "It is part of a larger movement to try to accuse as many people as possible of various forms of prejudice and bigotry in the belief that is the way to make the world a better place," argues Pinker. His critics are embracing a mindset that "does not see the world as having complex problems that we ought to understand better, the better to diagnose and treat, but rather as a kind of warfare between powerful elites and oppressed masses."

"In this mindset," he notes, "analysis, debate and evidence are just tools of propaganda exercised by those in power and that what has to happen is not a deeper understanding of social problems but a wresting of power from elites and redistributing it to disenfranchised." ...

He adds, "It's also part of these new exegetical tools that woke culture has deployed where disagreement is now labeled 'silencing' and 'drowning out' and 'harm.' Now the false ascription of belief is ... the detection of 'dogwhistles'—an intriguing tool of hermeneutics in which you can accuse anyone of saying anything even if they didn't say it because you can always hear the dogwhistle if you yourself are a canine with hypersonic hearing."

On July 8, the LSA's executive committee issued a letter to Pinker affirming that the group "is committed to intellectual freedom and professional responsibility. It is not the mission of the Society to control the opinions of its members, nor their expression. Inclusion and civility are crucial to productive scholarly work. And inclusion means hearing (not necessarily accepting) all points of view, even those that may be objectionable to some."

Round one to Pinker, but the woke culture war against liberalism is far from over.

This practice of reading someone's words in an attempt to look for "dogwhistles" is the opposite of "charitable interpretation," which means "interpreting a speaker's statements in the most rational way possible and, in the case of any argument, considering its best, strongest possible interpretation." In contrast, dogwhistle hunting is the practice of interpreting someone's words in the most unreasonable or offensive way imaginable.

(Photo from Rose Lincoln of Harvard University, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Happy 80th birthday to Ringo Starr! 🥁

Ringo is the first Beatle to turn 80. Since he was the oldest Beatle, that would still be true if all of the Beatles were alive.

In this video, drummers play Ringo's set and talk about what was so great about his drumming.

Dave Grohl: Define "the best drummer in the world." Is it someone that's technically proficient? Or is it someone that sits in the song with their own feel? Ringo was the king of feel.… You hear his drumming and you know exactly who it is.

Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers): He really had a knack for coming up with really interesting musical parts that became rhythmic hooks.

Here's another video with a more in-depth analysis by Sina. I especially like a minute and a half in, when she plays an example of "what Ringo is not like." She plays a series of flashy beats that she says sound familiar because they've been used in many songs, but you'd be hard-pressed to place them as being from any one song. Then she plays a beat that's clearly distinctive to one Beatles song and would be hard to mistake for anything else.

As an example of Ringo's inventive drumming, here's "She Said She Said." From the beginning, Ringo frequently breaks up the 4/4 beat with drum fills as John Lennon sings about having a conversation. The instruments become more flowing and dreamlike when the time signature switches to 3/4 as John thinks back to his childhood. Ringo blends into the background and plays no fills during that flashback, as a contrast with the disruptive present day in 4/4.

(Photo of Ringo Starr in 2019 from Wikimedia Commons.)

Why cancel culture should be canceled

This open letter on open debate is signed by a wide range of notable people including Steven Pinker, Gloria Steinem, Fareed Zakaria, John McWhorter, Jonathan Haidt, Olivia Nuzzi, Noam Chomsky, Matthew Yglesias, Michelle Goldberg, David Brooks, Caitlin Flanagan, Emily Yoffe, Dahlia Lithwick, Michael Walzer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Katha Pollitt, David Frum, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Deirdre McCloskey, Coleman Hughes, Jonathan Rauch, Wynton Marsalis, J.K. Rowling, Francis Fukuyama, and Salman Rushdie:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.…

[I]t is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.

Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.

We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.

As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Ray Charles plays "America the Beautiful"

… better than the way you've heard it.