7/22/11

Remembering Anne Frank


I was so determined, when I started the Diary of Anne Frank, to enjoy this girl and find out what she wanted us to know, as she sat in the secret annex writing and writing for years.  I would not constantly think of her as doomed, not continually think of the Nazis who were coming to get her.  I would appreciate her as herself -- a delightful young person struggling with growing up, and a wonderful writer.  As I get to the end of the book, she is more and more articulate and exuberant--she loves life, loves the beauty of that small part of the world she can see from the annex attic.  And she's closer and closer to being found and deported to the concentration camps.  She's going to endure unimaginable suffering. I am thus now at the heartbreak, anger and disbelief stage.  We'll be visiting Anne Frank House soon. Remembering is all we can do now.  It's not doing a lot, but I do think that it's something very important.

7/20/11

A Hot Afternoon in Texas

Yesterday I listened to Peter Singer's encomium to Henry Sidgwick on Philosophy Bites, and so finally took The Methods of Ethics off the shelf, after meaning to do so for the longest time.  Singer says Sidgwick is extremely careful and interesting, but not as lively as Bentham and Mill. Indeed.  But here's a very interesting passage that relates to a current preoccupation of mine--how to "sum" pain and pleasure. (It's a preoccupation because I think it's relevant to various puzzles about procreation.)

We shall understand, then, that by Greatest Happiness is meant the greatest possible surplus of pleasure over pain, the pain being conceived as balanced against an equal amount of pleasure, so that the two contrasted amounts annihilate each other for purposes of ethical calculation.  And of course, there as before, the assumption is involved that all pleasures included in our calculation are capable of being compared quantitatively with one another and with all pains; that every such feeling has a certain intensive quantity, positive or negative (or, perhaps, zero), in respect of its desirableness, and that this quantity may be to some extent known: so that each may be at least roughly weighed in ideal scales against any other.  This assumption is involved in the very notion of Maximum Happiness; as the attempt to make 'as great as possible' a sum of elements not quantitatively commensurable would be a mathematical absurdity. [Hackett edition, pg. 413, my italics]
So...pain and pleasure are positives and negatives on the same scale.  You can therefore "sum" them:

-92 [pain] +  3 [pleasure] = -89 [balance]

That's me getting my teeth cleaned.  -92 is the misery, and 3 is the dental hygienist telling a joke.  The 3 annihilates just a little bit of the pain,  making the balance -89.

As often as I've read and taught this story, it's never really struck me full force that this cannot be.  Here goes--a quick argument why not.

Suppose it's a hot afternoon in Texas (not a difficult supposition, because we're in the middle of a heat wave).  It's 102 degrees. I am a good utilitarian mother with a 5 year old child (neither is the truth).  I'm trying to decide how to keep him happy for the next couple of hours.  The right course of action is the one with the best consequences.  I'm fully committed to that--I'm not going to change my mind about it. 

So I think about two options and I think about them as Sidgwick proposes--pain and pleasure annihilate each other.  Here's what I wind up with--


Option #1:  we sit at home and enjoy the dull pleasure of playing board games while listening to Burl Ives.  This will be pleasant for little Charlie, and not at all unpleasant.  The calculation is something like this:

0 [pain] + 15 [pleasure] = 15 [balance]

Option #2:  we walk 10 blocks to the local McDonald's in 102 deg. heat where Charlie will have riotous fun for  many hours on the play structure while I read Henry Sidgwick. I know that at the very least, the balance is going to be 15. 

-100 [pain] + 115 [pleasure] = 15 [balance]

(Effects on others?  The same in both cases.  Other things are equal.)

Given (1) my consequentialist assumption about rightness, and (2) my Sidgwickian assumption about how to calculate value, there is no moral difference between choosing option #1 and choosing option #2.  But (wait for it...) there is a difference. 

Obviously, obviously, a morally acute mother will see a difference between giving her child a bland afternoon of games and music, and imposing a miserable walk on him, so that he can have a wildly good time.  I'm not saying one is clearly the right option, but the choice is difficult, not easy.  This isn't a toss-up.

If consequentialism is not to be questioned (and please, let's assume it's not), then there's got to be a problem with this way of calculating value. And the problem has got to be that pain and pleasure do not "annihilate" each other.   There is no balance in each case, there's just a lump of pain and a lump of pleasure.

"But .... but ... but there has to be some way to integrate the information about pain and pleasure, combining it into one value assessment."  One hopes so, but this way is the wrong way--pain and pleasure just don't annihilate each other.

7/19/11

Point of Inquiry

I was expecting something very different, so I have to say that Chris Mooney does a nice job of interviewing Rebecca Watson on this week's Point of Inquiry.  She comes across as nothing but articulate, concerned with important issues, and amusing. The interview wasn't actually about last week's brouhaha (the hook did make it seem like it would be), which was probably for the best. 

7/18/11

When a picture is worth much less than a thousand words

A couple of days ago, there was a lot of talk at atheist blogs about the picture above. These are Muslim students in the Toronto school district taking a break from the school day in order to pray. The issue, though, is the girls in back--they're not allowed to pray because they're menstruating.  Non-believers who are sometimes at loggerheads for once agree: this is just terrible (see Ophelia Benson, Michael RuseJason Rosenhouse, and Jerry Coyne).

As it happens, I read all this just as I came upon this passage in The Diary of Anne Frank (I'm very excited that I'll be visiting Anne Frank's house in Amsterdam later in the summer)--
I think that what's happening to me is so wonderful, and I don't just mean the changes taking place on the outside of my body, but also those on the inside. I never discuss myself or any of these things with others, which is why I have to talk about them to myself.  Whenever I get my period (and that's only been three times), I have the feeling that in spite of all the pain, discomfort and mess, I'm carrying around a sweet secret. So even though it's a nuisance, in a certain way I'm always looking forward to the time when I'll feel that secret inside me once again.
Isn't that lovely?  Those poor Muslim girls--they're not allowed to enjoy menstruation in the same healthy way!  That's how everyone reads the picture.  For example, here's Heather Malick, whose editorial in the Toronto Star is the source of the picture--
Stigmatized, bleeding mysteriously and bewildered by maternal instructions, these girls are not allowed to pray (I am told other religions require this as well). You can see them in the Star’s photograph, the boys at the front, the girls hidden behind, flattened in prayer, and the girls with periods sitting cross-legged or kneeling.

These girls are in grades 7 and 8. OMG I am like totally remembering myself at that age and I would like have died of embarrassment except that I noticed even then that no one ever actually does. That’s unfortunate.

Now it’s different, of course. Menstruation should be a happy sexy thing, proof of femininity and non-pregnancy, and a harbinger of pleasure.

But here's the thing. You can't read a picture. You can only project--and here it's particularly difficult.  We can't even see the girls' faces!

Now, don't get me wrong.  If these girls consider prayer a privilege, then it's not fair that they are denied that privilege without cause.  If Islam considers menstruation unclean, this is one place where religion has to let itself be revised in light of evidence. And yes, it may very well be embarrassing for these girls to tell everyone they are menstruating.

But the picture does not tell us. We know what Anne Frank felt because she told us in her own words.  Malick (and all the atheist bloggers) are merely projecting when they suppose that the girls are dying of embarrassment.  There is not a single word in Malick's editorial based on what these girls have written or said about the matter themselves. 

"Oh, but it's obvious! They've been told they can't pray because they're unclean--so they've got to feel unclean!" No, that just will not do as a basis for presuming what these girls feel.

Think again about Anne Frank.  She had been living in the cramped annex with seven other people for over a year by the time she started her period, with no privacy and few modern conveniences. And this was a Jewish girl, too, a girl who often spoke about God in her diary, and must have know that in Judaism menstruation is considered unclean.  We would have no idea what she felt about menstruating if it weren't for the words she put on paper.  She did not feel what you might imagine she'd feel.

"But the girls have to sit there, advertising the fact that they are menstruating!  How awful, how embarrassing!"  But that's just how Malick would feel, within her own cultural setting.  In a cultural setting where girls regularly reveal that they are menstruating, it could be different.  It's not impossible, is it, that girls secretly enjoy broadcasting their sexual maturity to the group--they might even (if truth be told) like giving the boys something interesting to think about!  

As a parent, I have discovered over and over again that what you think young people must feel is not always what they do feel--especially on issues having to do with their bodies.  For example, sex education in Texas involves an absolutely batty curriculum, where each kid has to buy a 10 pound bag of flour, decorate it like a baby, and carry it everywhere for a week.  This is supposed to teach them not to have premarital sex.  I assumed kids would dread and resent this, and find the whole thing a burden.

The truth is that kids take this required class as soon as they can, because the flour baby week is so much fun. They decorate the bags of flour in hilarious ways, and have great fun throwing them around for a week. 

So--take the picture with a grain of salt.  It does tell you about an injustice.  The girls are behind the boys, and the menstruating girls don't have the privilege of praying.  It does not tell you what it's like to suffer that injustice. An injustice is an injustice, however it feels, but we do respond differently, depending on the victims' experience.

For example, it's an injustice that girls don't get to put away the cafeteria tables at the elementary school my kids attended. The idea is that they're too weak.  Not fair, not true, not a good message, and I think cafeteria duty is considered a privilege.  But how strong a response is warranted?  You can't know the answer, unless you let the girls speak for themselves.  You cannot just look at photographs and pretend you understand.

Parfit's Mountain


At Brian Leiter's blog, the discussion of Simon Blackburn's scathing review of On What Matters (Derek Parfit's opus magnum) continues.  Here's a review by Jussi Suikkanen in the current issue of The Philosopher's Magazine.  He makes an interesting and very fundamental criticism of the book--
What strikes me most now is the philosophical method which Parfit employs again and again throughout the book. It is the oldest tool in the philosophers’ kit. Parfit proceeds by attacking familiar versions of general ethical principles with innovative counterexamples. He then makes these principles more and more sophisticated until they survive the thought-experiments.
....  Unfortunately, Parfit applies his method also when he takes part in the debates about the nature of reasons, rationality, and free will, and especially in the metaethical debates about the nature of normative thought, language, properties, and knowledge. Perhaps because of this, Parfit’s work is less successful in these areas outside normative ethics. This shows that, as an area of intellectual investigation, metaethics differs from normative ethics in significant respects.
Metaethicists attempt to construct broad illuminative accounts about our practical engagement with the world by trying to combine elements of philosophy of mind and language, epistemology, metaphysics, ethics, and even psychology into all-encompassing, coherent, theoretical wholes. Even if there are always of course details to be given and technical problems to be solved, metaethicists try to build big pictures with explanatory power. Such theorising does not proceed by formulating succinct principles and testing them with counterexamples.
That seems right -- if so, it's a devastating objection.

I'd like some honest soul to give me a frank appraisal of the book's readability.  A chore or a delight?  The reviews I've read so far--Singer, Blackburn, Suikkanen--don't say.

7/17/11

Statistics

Click to enlarge

The most philosophical post I wrote in the last month was "The balance of pleasure minus pain" but clearly not the most popular.  Ah well--the elevator business was pretty interesting in some sense or other, but now it's back to regular programming. In fact, I will probably attempt to atone and prove my mettle by writing something long and obscure in the next couple of days.  I'll only be satisfied if the number of pageviews is below 50.

7/16/11

What to Read Where

Last summer I asked readers of this blog what to read on a trip to France and Italy and got some great suggestions. Evidently I'm not the only one who wants my reading matched to the destination. (I'm shocked, SHOCKED, that my husband doesn't mind reading a novel set in England when in Alaska, and vice versa.) Here are the Guardian's suggestions for travel reading. Only--what's this I see? People actually read memoirs, history books, and essays while traveling? Amazing. Right now I'm looking for riveting fiction set in Amsterdam, preferably historical.

Bits and Pieces

I just read and enjoyed The Ego Trick, by Julian Baggini.  Best line in the book: he counters "there are no atheists in foxholes" with "there are no theists at funerals"!
*
Interesting discussion at Brian Leiter's blog about Simon Blackburn's review of On What Matters, by Derek Parfit.  Did The Financial Times not like it because it was too technical or because it was too sarcastic and savage?  I can't help but think the review is hilarious, but have no idea if it's fair. 

Here's praise for the book that no philosopher would find odd (from Mike Otsuka)--
I’m not in a position to judge the soundness of Parfit’s critique of Humeanism, but I’m willing to venture a judgment on the significance of his contribution to first-order ethics: his argument that Kantians, contractualists, and consequentialists are “climbing the same mountain on different sides” is a tour de force. Even though I think this argument is ultimately unsound, I’m nevertheless struck by its synthetic power, creativity, boldness, ambition, scope, and ingenuity. This is a major contribution to moral philosophy, to which I wish Blackburn had given more careful consideration in his review.
So--unsound but brilliant, interesting but wrong.   Philosophers seem to be quite different, as a group, from most scientists.  They are idea-lovers, perhaps even more than truth-lovers.
*
Speaking of tolerating falsehood, I'm always collecting examples of beliefs that are valuable and not to be discarded lightly, even if false. I have a new one, which I discovered while reading some books and essays about adoption (background for something I'm writing about the "metaphysics" of procreation).  What I learned from Scott Simon, author of Baby We Were Meant for Each Other, is that adoptive parents very often have a deep sense that the adoption was meant to be.  It sounds to me like this is a very helpful belief, one that helps the new parent feel like a parent of a biologically unrelated child.  It would be superficial and unduly dismissive to call this belief "a crutch"--it may play a serious role in solving a serious problem.  How do you get the "mine" feeling, without genetic relatedness and nine months of pregnancy?

7/15/11

Midnight Madness


I saw hundreds of happy faces when I picked my kids up at 3 am last night--all 10 (or so) theaters at the local mall were sold out.  Their summer:  Harry Pottter, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Futurama, Wilfred, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Facebook, Facebook, Lord of the Rings.

7/14/11

More Elevator Guy

My muse this morning says "more elevator guy," which is quite a bit like Christopher Walken saying "more cowbell" in that great Saturday Night Live skit.  So ... just a few little things.

I was truly amused when someone accused me of being an accommodationist yesterday, for being sympathetic toward Richard Dawkins in this Watson vs. Dawkins kerfuffle.  To which I say--

HA!

If I'm sure of anything, I'm sure that it's OK to try to understand people who have done something anomalous (what he said isn't so odd, but his tone was surprisingly sharp).  I'm especially sure that if an author has long struck you as intellectually and morally perceptive, then it's particularly reasonable to try to figure out "what gives?"  The wonder is that so many Dawkins fans are so much less charitable.  (My attempt to understand Dawkins is here.)

And another thing--setting aside Dawkins, whose reaction has a particular history, the male backlash against Watson certainly has been misogynistic and creepy, but what's with Greta Christina's pitch to them?  We want you to understand what not to do because "we're trying to help you get laid"?  I actually think men should treat women with respect whether or not it helps them get laid. Imagine that! Why must this sort of pandering be part of the official feminist line?

And another thing ...

Agh!  Life is short, and that's enough.

7/12/11

Ways of Time Wasting

Summer time, and the time wasting is easy!  I'm discovering that I don't actually hate Twitter and Facebook after all, after a couple of years of being one of those people who frequently talk about hating Twitter and Facebook.  The new attitude has recently been brought out by contrast with something I now realize I really do hate--endless arguing in the comment sections of blogs.  I always hated it, but now I realize I'm right to hate it! 

Don't get me wrong.  I like comments here, and I'm willing to leave comments elsewhere.  But arguing with other commenters--no, just no, never again!  (Bad recent experience not to be revealed with a link--sorry.) This is just a disastrous time-waster because it's a come one, come all situation, and the world is full of bad faith debaters. That is, people (often anonymous) who do not listen, cannot rationally respond to arguments and counterarguments, but are fantastically good at being sarcastic, snarky, and pointlessly quarrelsome. 

Twitter, on the other hand, limits the nonsense.  It is a quick quip-and-link business, and feels as if it's among friends. Of course, it helps if you have almost no followers--that cuts down on the potential rubbish and hostility.  But I've come to appreciate the 140 character limit.  Facebook is also wonderfully light and limited.

I hope someone appreciates my title. I'll let you follow me on Twitter if you can guess what philosophical classic I'm alluding to.  What an offer!  Actually, you can also follow me on Twitter if you can't.  See how I'm using the lingo?  Follow me on Twitter? I actually find it just a touch revolting, but I'm persevering anyway. I can do this thing!  In another week, I might even be able to talk about my "tweeps" without vomiting.  Voila: 

Follow JeanKazez on Twitter

7/11/11

GENDER STUDIES 9461 - Advanced Elevator Guy

While you wait for this course to be offered at a university near you, have fun playing "pretty goddamn dense anti-feminist bingo."  Courtesy of PZ Myers, who says courtesy of Katie Hartman, here.   Now who's going to create "pretty goddamn dense anti-Dawkins bingo"?  Fair is fair. (board below the fold)

7/9/11

Body Commerce

I can't say enough good things about The Red Market, by Scott Carney.  This is a short, readable, gripping book about the trade in human parts and wholes--bones, kidneys, blood, eggs, surrogate mothers, babies, hair, and human guinea pigs.  Carney exposes types of commerce you wouldn't have dreamed possible.  For example, a post-Tsunami refugee camp in India where almost all of the women have sold a kidney to support themselves.  Another place in India where poor women make money as surrogate gestators for infertile western couples, spending nine months in almost total confinement.  Another place--once again, in India--where an enterprising dairy farmer ran a live blood bank using kidnapped men who were locked up and drained nearly to death.  Then there's Cyprus, where desperate, light-skinned women are flown in from Russia to sell their eggs to infertile couples from other countries.  And even in the US, did you know there are people who make a living by traveling around from place to place, making a living by participating in clinical drug trials?

The book continually probes the question what's wrong with all of this--at least if you subtract the criminal elements. One problem, stressed throughout, is the direction of commerce--
Inevitably red markets have the nasty social side effect of moving flesh upward--never downward--through social classes. Even without a criminal element, unrestricted free markets act like vampires, sapping the health and strength from ghettos of poor donors and funneling their parts to the wealthy.
That's the image, over and over again--people who are absolutely desperate, so give up a body part, or their whole bodies over some time period, to an affluent person with a health or fertility problem.   In many cases there are prohibitions on selling babies and body parts, but middlemen who facilitate the transaction are allowed to profit.  They then have a huge incentive to find more "donors" and pay them, but under the table, and not a fair price.  So lots of money is made--by fertility doctors in Cyprus, and by companies that procure and extract eggs, for example.  The infertile couple winds up with a child. But the desperate woman who gives up an egg is left with a token payment.

Carney's proposal is total transparency.  Every body part or baby should come labeled, so all can see how the donor was treated, what she was given or not given, whether she was kidnapped or confined, whether the transaction was wholly voluntary, etc.  This reminds me of what Michael Pollan says about how slaughterhouses ought to have glass walls.  We should know what we're doing when we engage in body commerce, or not do it.

You get the sense, though, that Carney would really like to see no commerce in body parts.  He doesn't explicitly say so, but he paints a picture of the Indian kidney donors and surrogate mothers, the Russian women flown in to give up their eggs, the itinerant human guinea pigs, that's repulsive.  The whole thing is in some fundamental way illicit--and that's the ethical puzzle that runs through the whole book. Is there something just basically bad about body commerce?

This would make a great book for an ethics class, because it would be awfully interesting to look at that question from a many different moral perspectives.  You'd understand the perspectives better and make headway with the question.

Half-way through the book, Carney says he emailed Peter Singer to find out what he thinks about selling eggs, and Singer responds--
I don't think that trading replaceable body parts is in principle worse than trading human labor, which we do all the time, of course.  There are similar problems of exploitation when companies go offshore, but the trade-off is that this helps the poor earn a living.  This is not to say there are no problems at all--obviously there can be--and that is why doing it openly in a regulated and supervised manner would be better than a black market.
I'm inclined to disagree that trading body parts is no worse than trading labor.   First, precious as it may sound, there's a certain amount of dignity in labor, even of the lowliest kind.  By which I mean: you can do a job well or badly, even if it's the worst possible shit work.  There's pride in doing well, even if you're doing well at something you'd rather not be doing.  There isn't this sort of dignity in letting a surgeon extract some part from your body.

Second, if you sell your labor, you really don't sell your self, unless you're a virtual slave, laboring endlessly or in captivity.  But your parts are you in some basic way.  I think that's what's so creepy about the image of (for example) the Indian village where all the women have given away a kidney.  They have nothing else, so they've (sort of) started selling their own selves off, bit by bit.

But OK--Singer was talking about eggs, not kidneys, and though they're not actually replaceable, they're both surplus and tiny.  Do you really sell yourself by selling an egg?  Not in quite the way selling a kidney or another major organ is selling yourself.  But eggs turn into children, if they're sold, fertilized, and gestated.  My child, myself?  There's something to that.

So it seems to me selling body parts really is more troubling than selling one's labor.  It is experienced as degrading, and for good reason. (Giving away a part to a friend or family member, for completely altruistic reasons, is another matter.)  But what should be done about it, considering that a black market develops, and middlemen exploit donors, if selling body parts if legally prohibited?

Hard question.  Good book.

7/8/11

Steven Pinker on Coffee vs. Sex

Footnote to a scandal.  Why does it make a difference whether you ask for coffee (with sex in mind) or ask for sex?   Steven Pinker discusses the matter in this truly fantastic video. Don't miss it!



The rest of Pinker's talk is here.

Thanks, [squiggly unpronounceable name].

7/6/11

Elevator Guy Hits the Wires (updated)

Here's an Atlantic post about the infamous elevator incident. One problem: the author says Elevator Guy "propositioned" Rebecca Watson, but that would mean he asked for sex explicitly. He didn't, he asked her to his room for coffee! There's some difference, even if one can assume he probably wasn't just in the mood for a beverage.  Why is it different, if presumably he was thinking of sex?  To explain would take a long story about meaning, communication and psychology--it's actually kind of interesting.  But it is different, and everyone knows it.

UPDATE 7/7: On my morning walk, I got to thinking about this.  Why is it different to ask for coffee, and only insinuate an interest in sex?  There are three advantages:  deniability, refusability, and ambiguity. 

Deniability. The speaker can protest (inwardly or verbally) that he was only asking for coffee--that's face-saving if the hearer says no. So it's an advantage for the speaker.

Refusability.  The hearer can refuse a request for coffee without addressing the more intimate topic of sex. She can say--"sorry, it's too late for coffee," or some such.  So indirect communication is better for the hearer.

Ambiguity.  Asking for coffee leaves it open where this will lead, the open-endedness being advantageous to both speaker and hearer.

Asking for coffee in an elevator is thus clearly better than asking for sex, but the apocryphal story has taken hold that Elevator Guy asked directly for sex -- see the Atlantic story and before that, at many blogs.  (For example, Amanda Marcotte reported that Elevator Guy had "cold propositioned her for sex" here.)  Result:  Elevator Guy's malfeasance and Rebecca Watson's victimhood have been exaggerated. 

Exaggerating victimhood has a funny way of triggering exaggerated dismissal, and I think that may be what's going on with Richard Dawkins.  He smells exaggerated victimhood and he says--"Bah, it was nothing!" (even though--come on!--it wasn't exactly nothing).

So I got to wondering--why does he smell exaggerated victimhood? There's nothing terribly exaggerated about Rebecca Watson's complaint in the video that started this whole controversy.  She laughs and smiles as she tells the story and she quotes Elevator Guy in a way that's restrained and presumably accurate.  She doesn't call the invitation a "cold proposition for sex."

Perhaps Dawkins was responding to exaggerations in the blogosphere, but I also suspect another factor.  If you watch the panel on which both appeared the day before the elevator incident, you can actually see foreshadowing of Dawkins' later outburst on the web.  




Watch Dawkins as Watson speaks about Paula Kirby (from about 3:00 to 5:00).  Here's what Watson says about Kirby's presentation on an earlier panel about women and atheism--
She made a comment that she felt that there was no problem with sexism in the atheist community because she's never experienced any sexism in the atheist community. In the atheist community we refer to that as an argument from ignorance, and in the feminist community we refer to it as an argument from privilege. I'm genuinely happy that she hasn't experienced any sexism, but I don't think that's a proper basis to make a judgment about whether there is any sexism in atheism.
I suspect this is a strawman, and Kirby didn't make the idiotic argument from "I have had no problem" to "there's no problem."  She just took her experience as some evidence like Watson wants to present her experiences as some evidence.  

Think about what it would be like if scientists disregarded negative data.  If the question is about whether autism and vaccination are linked, studies that find no link are just as relevant as studies that find a link.  Kirby should not have been dismissed as "ignorant" and "privileged."

To the extent that Watson wants to dismiss women with no negative experiences, she has exaggerated the victimhood of women.   My hunch (based on his body language in the video) is that Dawkins saw her as an exaggerator of victimhood before the later video about Elevator Guy ever appeared, and that's what put him on the road to dismissal.

Moral of the story:  neither an exaggerator nor a dismisser be.  One tends to lead to the other. The more one side dismisses, the more the other exaggerates; the more exaggeration, the more dismissal. And also--don't claim to be the paradigm case.  Women who don't get treated in a sexist manner are also entitled to tell their stories and to have them taken seriously.

Update:  The Kirby panel is here, and no, she doesn't make the idiotic argument Watson attributes to her.  More about her argument here.

7/5/11

Goodbye Housewives, Hello Super-Moms

This essay in the new issue of Atlantic is good reading for parents.  Lori Gottlieb, a therapist and mother, says parents today work too hard to give their kids self-esteem, make them happy, and solve their problems. They treat children as masterpieces in progress, and take too much narcissistic pride in how they turn out.  Gottlieb says she sees the downside of all this in 20-something patients who can't function independently, and wonder why they aren't turning out to be quite as amazing as their parents said they would.  Take home lesson:  Have you ignored your kids today?  Do it, it might be good for them!

This is excellent news for someone who's trying to make progress on an incipient-trying-to-be-born book this summer (on parenthood and philosophy) and who sometimes feels neglectful of the teenagers in the house (though I have to say, they practically beg to be neglected even more).  But I got to thinking--if Gottlieb is right about Parentitis and its negative effects on kids, why are parents like this now, when our parents weren't?  My theory (half-baked, no doubt) could be summed up this way:  goodbye housewives, hello super-moms and dads.

Exhibit A is the mom who lived across the street when I was growing up.  She had five kids, but she spent her summer afternoons in a way I found remarkable, even then.  She was constantly lying in a chaisse lounge working on her suntan.  She had an astonishingly dark tan, Betty Rubble hair, and wore bright red lipstick.  I think I remember sunglasses and gum-chewing too.  Other times, as I recall, she was in the house watching soap operas, or maybe I'm now making that up.  In any case, the five kids were running wild all over the neighborhood, but that wasn't a problem--"Betty" was doing her job.

This makes perfect sense if you understand what her job was--being a housewife.  Not a mom, but a housewife. Note the word "wife" in housewife.  Being her husband's well-tanned wife was part of Betty's occupation.  The house had to be clean too, though I don't remember if she excelled at that.  But a housewife didn't have to be a super-mom.  That wasn't the idea.

Today's mothers are not housewives even if they are "stay-at-home" mothers.  That would be too subservient to hubby, and the house is (by anyone's estimation) just a question of chores, not identity.  Being at home parenting the kids--full-time, part-time, or just after work--has been reframed as something that's every bit as worthwhile and dignified as a job. In fact, what a million and one mothers on playgrounds today will tell you is that motherhood is a job, though unpaid, and not just any job.  It's "the hardest job in the world."  If that's what you think, then of course you have to work very, very hard at motherhood.  See above--over-involved parents, no room for kids to breathe.

How do dads develop parentitis?  Presumably part of it is trickle-to-the side.  Feminism has succeeded in making people think we at least ought to aim for shared responsibility.  If motherhood is the hardest job in the world, and dad does some of that job, his job has to be hard too.  Which means: kids aren't running around on their own, figuring out life for themselves.

But wait--surely it's essentially a good thing to enoble parenthood, and to have an egalitarian household.  Yes, yes, yes, but like many essentially good things, perhaps noble-and-equal parenthood has hidden costs.  Hell no, I'm not about to be a Betty Rubble mom, but (surprise, surprise--this is paradoxical, don't get me wrong) there might be some benefits to being Betty Rubble's kid.

7/4/11

Elevator Guy

"In your dreams, Elevator Guy!"
Here's a video that's launched a thousand ships--Rebecca Watson, secular activist, talks about getting on an elevator at 4 in the morning at an atheist conference in Ireland.  Elevator Guy, who was in her group at the bar, and heard her say she was going to sleep, gets on and asks if she'd like to come to his room for a cup of coffee.  In the video Watson says (rough transcription)--
Just a word from the wise, guys. Don't do that!  I don't know how else to explain that this makes me incredibly uncomfortable but I'll just lay it out that I was a single woman in a foreign country at 4 am in a hotel elevator with you, just you.  Don't invite me back to your hotel bedroom right after I've finished talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner.
The video got a response from some deranged misogynists in the comments here, which then lead to this post at Pharyngula, with billions of comments, and then this one and this one, with billions more comments. 

Obviously, the issue is not just whether Watson is entitled to be annoyed by Elevator Guy, and can express her annoyance wherever she likes. The issue is whether Elevator Guy was guilty of sexism, so counts as data for Watson's larger case that there is sexism and misogyny in "the skeptical community." She clearly thinks so, or wouldn't be lecturing "guys" as a group.  "Don't do that!" is a message to all men about how to interact with women.

I think that's what some people find annoying.  "That" is not always a bad thing to do, if it's coming on to women, or even coming on to women in elevators, or even coming on to them in elevators at 4 am in Dublin.  So--too broad!  But I do see what's objectionable to Watson about what happened to her personally.   She'd evidently made it clear how she was going to react both in the bar and in a panel discussion that very night. So Elevator Guy was asking even though he already had his answer.  He wasn't taking her attitudes seriously.  That pattern is objectionable and has the aroma of sexism--even if the guy was actually just a klutz.

Here's Richard Dawkins' take on Elevator Guy-- Dear Muslima and then Clarification.  And here's an outraged reaction to Dawkins. I sympathize with what Dawkins says, actually.  I just think he's missed the elements in the story that make Elevator Guy's come on a bit worse than chewing gum.

7/1/11

DSK Case Collapsing?

This is a shock!  OK, the accuser has huge credibility problems, apparently, but forensic evidence says there was a quick sex act.  Are we really to believe she voluntarily serviced the old geezer just for fun?  There are lots of smart comments here.