Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Bureaucracy Is Its Own Constituency

A friend recently pointed me at Conor Friedersdorf's late essay in The Atlantic entitled "How Americans Became So Sensitive To Harm". The world of microaggressions, we are to understand, is the consequence of "concept creep", according to University of Melbourne, Australia's Nick Haslam. "Writing in 1993, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, senior senator for New York, alliterated that his country was 'defining deviancy down.' Moynihan argued that in response to rising crime and social disorder in the 1970s and 1980s, the public increasingly normalized behavior that would once have been seen as pathological. ... To Moynihan (1993), the social and political implications of these developments were troubling. By coming to accept crime and family breakdown, he argued, people were “getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us” (p. 30)."
There is nothing inevitable about the progressive expansion of normality that Moynihan documented. Indeed, I argue that in recent decades the opposite process has unfolded: The definition of some forms of deviance has enlarged and normality has contracted. Psychology has played a significant role in this process, as many of the concepts it employs to make sense of undesirable forms of experience and behavior have extended their meanings, encroaching on phenomena that would once have been seen as unremarkable. Moreover, although Moynihan argued that liberals resist attempts to pathologize deviance, psychology's expansionary redefinition of negative phenomena arguably reflects a liberal social agenda. Instead of defining deviancy down, psychology has ubiquitized it up.
(Emboldening mine, as usual.) Clumsy neologisms notwithstanding, he has a point; everything's a problem nowadays. Unfortunately, Friedersdorf has seized on the wrong question and emitted one of his rare clanks. The nonsense writers behind the scientistic Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders have power to sway members of their own cult, but not the broad public so much. More general acceptance must come from other streams. Here, I confess to having no solid evidence, but it seems to me several factors act in concert: the rise of what Thomas Szasz called the "therapeutic state", the dramatic increase in single-child families (and much smaller families more generally), and maybe most importantly, the need for bureaucracies to find something to do.

Friedersdorf comes pretty close to acknowledging this latter with an extended quote of Jonathan Haidt:
“If an increasingly left-leaning academy is staffed by people who are increasingly hostile to conservatives, then we can expect that their concepts will shift, via motivated scholarship, in ways that will help them and their allies (e.g., university administrators) to prosecute and condemn conservatives,” he writes. “We can expect academic concepts to ‘creep’ in ways that increase the number of victims and the damages those victims suffer, and in ways that make it ever harder for anyone to defend themselves against ugly moral charges. Such politically motivated scholarship may sometimes originate in humanities departments rather than in psychology, but it draws heavily on psychological concepts and research, and it feeds back into the six streams of creeping psychological research that Haslam reviewed.”
All of which is to say, the bureaucracy is its own constituency. Arbitrating ever more picayune matters means there will be no shortage of jobs, of new powers, of money, and subordinates. The Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights inquisition into Laura Kipnis' essay about instructors dating students illustrates exactly how this works:
  1. Write a euphemism-laden memo to underlings about the New Hurt one wishes to prosecute as a crime.
  2. Since butthurt is in infinite supply, find a "victim", preferably one willing to make anonymous accusations. This should not be hard.
  3. Profit!
 People decry the profit motive in the marketplace, but have a remarkable blind spot to it in the bureaucracy. Title IX enforcement in this sense is just another form of policing for profit, albeit one with an indirect shakedown.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Don't Wrongthink Or We'll Dox You

Cathy Young directed my attention to a Kickstarter of rather dubious merit, and perhaps quite dangerous:, which purports to "wave goodbye to cyberbullies and trolls". Their explanation of what they propose to do is euphemistically vague; "We promise to keep this short and fun" they chirp by way of introduction, in the same tone Gawker pitches a celebrity sex tape.
Somewhere between cells phones and technology (and the extinction of the VHS tape maybe) we've managed to create a culture of online-bullying, which was totally cool never, so it's time we put an end to it once and for all.
And what is "online-bullying"? They don't say, but they — and their highly-paid, super-skilled summer interns — apparently know it when they see it:
Let's launch a database where we capture [bullies] exercising those [free speech] rights and create digital records for them that anyone can access.
Thus far we have worked to collect data and create about 22,000 profiles from individuals that are surprising all over the employment spectrum (doctors, teachers, lawyers, you name it).
And, hey, how do you know their background and occupations? Most people don't go around advertising their day jobs. What else do you know and seek to publish?
With your backing, we can expand our team of web analysts in order to create profiles at a faster rate, as our goal is to launch the database at 150,000 profiles. We will immediately apply your funding to hiring a team of paid interns for the summer, and our continuing web development. We will devote all remaining funds toward our legal team, which we are going to need intact when we bring this site live.
(Emboldening mine.) Well, they've got that part right. The quality of their list seems, shall we say, highly subjective, subject to vast editorial discretion, open to charges of malice, a kind of doxing-on-demand service. More, the kinds of information they hope to publish appear potentially rather broadly damaging, to the point that I might suggest it sounds like a more focused and paid version of the horrifying (and apparently stillborn) Peeple app.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Amy Schumer Wants You To Know She's Not Fat

I saw yesterday how Amy Schumer apparently got upset, at least on the surface, when Glamour magazine published a special advertorial issue focusing on plus-sized women that happened to include her in a section labeled "Women Who Inspire Us". (Lane Bryant unmistakably sponsored it.) Schumer quickly went out of her way to say in a tweet that she thinks there's nothing wrong with being plus-sized:
 Yet, "it doesn't feel right to me" that she's in a magazine special issue aimed at plus-sized women — i.e., overweight ones. As The Onion's AV Club notes, the magazine never specifically labeled Schumer as "plus-sized":
For its part, Glamour denies that it meant to lump Schumer in under the “plus-size” distinction, telling People:
The cover line on this special edition—which is aimed at women size 12 and up—simply says “Women Who Inspire Us,” since we believe her passionate and vocal message of body positivity IS inspiring, as is the message of the many other women, of all sizes, featured. The edition did not describe her as plus-size. We are sorry if we offended her in any way.
Indeed, inside the magazine are pieces about a number of curvy but not technically plus-sized women, including Christina Hendricks, Meghan Trainor, Kelly Osbourne, and Lena Dunham. (It is worth noting that every single piece of advertising in the special edition is paid for by plus-size retailer Lane Bryant, who must have forked over a ton of money to Conde Nast in order for this thing to even exist.)
So really, her objection appears to have been even seen near fat girls. For all the "you go, girl!" chanting on Twitter and elsewhere, Schumer's strange, mean-girls response gets almost no airplay.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

"Diversity", The New Century's "Buy American"

Matt Schlicht, whom I had never previously encountered, has produced an essay so tendentious, dumb, and shot through with clickbait-y culture war victimhood, I just about couldn't help myself. Apparently some girls got together to girl power their way into the virtual reality world with an apparently retronymed organization called SH//FT (Shaping Holistic Inclusion in Future Technology).

Anyone following along with the noisome row that is Gamergate should anticipate what's coming, and that is an immediate hoisting of the victim flag. Schlicht does not surprise in that regard, starting with his title, "She Posted Online And Immediately Men Everywhere Told Her To Shut Up". Cherry-picking a few quotes from obvious jackasses, the author spends a great deal of time bypassing other Facebook comments such as...
 ... and ...
... and ...

And this is among just the top handful on the Facebook thread. This leaves the impression that the author's subtext is to silence any criticism of this fairly naked attempt to shame virtual reality companies into creating diversity bureaucracies that have nothing to do with the creation of good games, i.e. it is yet another spear tip for "commercial feminism".

Along the way we learn that a go-go dancer at a Microsoft company party must go (only one!), and that even mentioning sexual uses for VR is the same thing as saying women are only good for one thing:
Schlicht's Victorian reaction to Virtanen's comment is actually pretty sad, because porn has had a great deal to say about the rise of the commercial Internet (sorry, AP, I'm not giving up my capital-I). By rejecting such applications, they're putting themselves at a significant disadvantage.

In the end, the customers — some of whom, presumably, include the commenters above — are concerned about one question and one question only: is this an interesting, fun game? But Schlicht, Helen Situ, Jenn Duong, Julie Young, and all their other numerous minions and henchwomen are more concerned with who makes games, rather than the games themselves. This represents the reverse of everything the civil rights revolution of the 1960's fought for, demanding equal outcomes rather than equal opportunity. It also hearkens back to a 1970's slogan from the bad, old era when "planned obsolescence" hit its peak: "buy American". That is, we were supposed to care as much about who built cars (Americans) as how well they fit our needs. In the end, people will buy things they like, identity of the team be damned. A market with real choices will ultimately crush a credentialist Silicon Valley 2.0.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Futility — And Danger — Of Yellow Ribbons On Dog Leashes

It's been a while since I read anything about the Yellow Dog Project, an effort in public education to make people understand the meaning of a yellow ribbon tied to a dog's leash:
The Yellow Dog Project is a global movement for owners of dogs that need space. It hopes to educate the public and dog owners to identify dogs needing space, promote appropriate contact of dogs and assist dog parents to identify their dog as needing space.

Yellow Dogs are dogs who need space - they are not necessarily aggressive dogs but more often are dogs who have issues of fear; pain from recent surgery; are a rescue or shelter dog who has not yet had sufficient training or mastered obedience; are in training for work or service; are in service; or other reasons specific to the dog. 
While I don't know for certain, it seems likely this arose from the practice of tying a red ribbon to the tail of a horse that doesn't like to be crowded from behind. As that article observes,
What horseback rider doesn't know the telltale sign of a red ribbon tied in a horse's tail? I learned at a VERY young age – most likely as soon as I climbed on my pony and went for a trail ride at the age of 7 – that a red ribbon tied into a horse tail signifies a horse that kicks.
Which is to say, this is a deeply embedded part of horse culture. It has a built-in way to transmit it: horse people tend to know other horse people, and hang out at stables. There is no such mechanism for the yellow ribbon, save large-scale public advertising campaigns, which cost money. Which is to say,
The message the yellow ribbon seeks to transmit is unlikely to be understood by the intended audience.
 It fails at a very basic level. There I left it until I found myself reminded of it once again by a Facebook friend, who posted a link to a Care2 article about the project. That got me Googling around the Interwebs,  whereupon I found this excellent essay by Deb McAlister about why you shouldn't use the yellow ribbon:
American juries (urged on by plaintiff’s attorneys) are using the yellow ribbon the same way they’ve been using the “Beware of Dog” signs for years: as an admission that the dog owner knows he has a dangerous dog. And your dog could pay with its life if it’s labelled as a “known dangerous dog”. The dog doesn’t even have to bite anyone. In Texas and a number of other states, it’s legal to shoot a dog if someone is “reasonably” afraid of it.
George Bernard Shaw said, "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place." This is a first-rate illustration of that problem. Despite the Yellow Dog Project's efforts to uncouple the yellow ribbon from problematic dogs, the world outside will come to its own conclusions, something DogKnobit wrote about:
... I think we presume too much “dog savviness” on the part of the general public. I’ve been a dog fancier for thirty years, but if I’d never seen this poster on Facebook today, I wouldn’t have known the significance of a yellow ribbon on a dog leash. Because I am a dog fancier, however, I also know there are better ways to deal with the situations listed on this poster than using a ribbon to ask for “space.” Responsible dog owners have control over the environment  to which their dogs are exposed, as well as the degree of “saturation” in that setting. If a dog has health issues that require minimal contact with other dogs,  should the dog even be in such an environment?  And is it me, but if a dog doesn’t do well with other dogs, should he even be around them until he’s become trustworthy in a controlled setting? And finally, isn’t it just plain common sense and courtesy to keep one’s dog from getting in another dog’s face?  Rather than rely on a yellow ribbon to signal any number of issues a dog has, I’d rather see this fabulous article by Susan Clothier make the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, and be included in material handed out to new dog owners.

My final thought on using a yellow ribbon to indicate a dog’s need for space goes back to the Cane Corso story at the beginning of my blog. We live not only in a litigious society, but at a time when animal rights zealots are gunning for us. Is it really smart to telegraph with a yellow ribbon (or “do not touch” signs) that our dog may have “issues?”
The yellow ribbon campaign fails as a communication mechanism, and potentially transmits damaging and false messages even among people who should know what it says. No, just, no. Don't do that.