Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cognitive dissonance can be your friend

This is my take on ideas that have been put forward by Brett McKay of the Art of Manliness. There is little, and possibly noting at all, original in what follows. 

Most of us start of thinking of who or what we would like to be. Which is to say, we don't start off thinking about what we would like to believe or about what we would like to do. We're usually neither stupid nor naive; we usually understand that being a certain kind of person requires certain kinds of behaviours and beliefs. But it is the being a certain kind of person that attracts us.

Typically, we do nothing at all about it. The chief reason for this is something we rarely consider and that is that we are already a certain type of person. We'd prefer not to think such a thing; we'd prefer to think of ourselves as individuals. But we're not. I'm a type and so are you. It couldn't be any other way.

If there is a thing that needs to be explained, it is the persistence of the belief that you are, or can be, or should be a unique individual. Part of the explanation is that this belief enables us to suppress cognitive dissonance.

Accept that you are a type and a question immediately arises: Are you any good at being that type? That's an unpleasant question. First and foremost, it's unpleasant because others are going to be better at it than you are. If you decide you want to be a manly man (and every man should) you will very quickly be forced to face the fact that other men are better at it than you are.

It's worth noting, that the same would be the case if you decided to become a dope-smoking dude. There will be others who do it better than you. "Better" is a funny word in this case because being a dope-smoking dude is a stupid thing to do and calling one better than another is like saying one disease is better than another. It matters what type of person you decide to be.

Until very recently, the observation that it matters what type of person we choose to be would have been regarded as so obvious as to not need to be said. It isn't anymore because we now pretend that it's better to be an individual. Attempts to be an individual always fail. We usually can see this more clearly in our friends than ourselves. We can see that their sense of style has certain sources. And we can also see that their beliefs tend to line up with the same sources. We know that we're no better. So why does the cult of individualism survive?

Because it allows to avoid facing the fact that we could be better. As long as I think I'm an individual, I have no objective standard against which to judge what sort of being I am.

Now, someone might object at this point that what I'm doing is encouraging people to compare themselves with others and that that is an unhealthy thing to do. It certainly can be an unhealthy thing to do. But it's also inevitable.

What we need to be able to compare ourselves with others in a healthy way is an objective standard and only by acknowledging that we are of a type will allow us to do that. And it is only by acknowledging that we are of a type that we will be able to face that here will always be some people who are better at being that type than we are.

What we need most of all, however, is the ability to recognize that we could be better at being the type of person we are. We all have strengths. Perhaps you are the sort of person weak people turn to. Great. But you could do it better and doing it better means recognizing that a certain type of man inspires that response and that you do better.

You can't know how much better. That is where comparing yourself with others gets unhealthy. Most likely, you will never be as good as some of the best examples of your type can be. And not just that, you probably can't ever be as good as some who are not the best. But you can be better and having to face that will create discomfort. That discomfort is called cognitive dissonance. It can be your friend.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Here's a couple of quotes on personal identity that get me pulling in opposite directions.
  1. How does a workout become a social identity? In some ways, it's choosing a gym. In some ways, it's choosing a life. 
  2. For me, the worst thing about being asexual is other people trying to fix me all the time. They develop this completely inappropriate obsession with my sexual and romantic life, which can manifest as anything from aggressively propositioning me for sex to searching for what’s “really” wrong with me through invasive questions. Some of them maintain that these attempted interventions are about my health and happiness, apparently unaware that they’re compromising both by refusing to respect my identity. 
The first is the teaser from an Atlantic video comparing Crossfit and yoga. I read it and my first thought is, "How could a workout not become a social identity?" The second is from an interview with "asexual" author Julie Sondra Decker at Salon. I read the article with a certain amount of sympathy because I can see how it must be very hard to live without feeling sexually attracted to others. That sympathy evaporated when I read the words "refusing to accept my identity". I immediately thought, "Don't tell me your lack of interest in sex is your identity." I also thought, "I think she's lying." A clarification: I suspect she is lying but she isn't necessarily lying to us.

To go back to the first quote. The thing that should shock us is that it even needed to be said. A workout is more than just something you do. It is something that shapes you. Your body has a huge effect on your brain and the amount and kind of training you do will inevitably shape the way you think.

I think most of us, especially those of us who consider ourselves to be intellectuals, will fudge that. We'll think, "Of course a physical regime will affect how we think," instead of saying "shape how we think" because we want to give primacy to the brain—while we might admit that activity might influence our thought we will still insist it is the life of thought that makes us who we are.. I've heard decidedly atheist intellectuals describe this as emphasizing the spiritual side of life.

That might suggest a Christian influence but I think it's ultimately Stoic. The Stoic will typically argue that humans may be limited or even utterly deprived of the ability to control physical circumstances but we are always free to choose the attitude we take to those circumstances." If you ever find yourself in prison and being tortured that's a useful bet to take.

Pushed hard enough, however, you will certainly lose that bet.

But there is no need to consider only the extreme cases. Your everyday physical regime will form you and that remains true if you actively choose Crossfit or Yoga or if you just let yourself drift into a set series of habits. Over the years, I have seen people who have drifted into habits that ended with circumstances ranging from the failure of their marriages to their being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes.

In our contemporary culture, however, we tend to see the game running the other way. We tend to think that the important thing is to decide what we want to be. Then, assuming "we want it enough", we can become that. I've even caught myself saying that the real reason that I didn't succeed at something was, "Because I didn't really want it".

Which is why I think Julie Sondra Decker is lying to herself about her "identity". In a sense, it is her identity because if you fail to develop some aspect of your personality for long enough (Decker is 36) you can reach a point of no return. I've know celibates who have told me that eventually their interest in sex just vanished. I've also known women who told me that it took them until their late twenties to make sex work.

I can understand, by the way, the person who has no interest in sex and simply doesn't care enough to bother "fixing" what they don't see as a problem. (Or, it may simply be that they are dysfunctional and no fixing is possible.) But the person who honestly finds themselves in such a situation will not insist that others "respect their identity". (An ugly element of pride creeps in whenever we start taking aspects of ourselves as our identity, which is why it's probably better not to use the word in that way.)

The take away for those of us trying to develop virtues has often been made before and that is that it is more important to start acting the way the sort of person you want to be acts than it is to think in a new way. Change the behaviour and the mind will follow.

Eventually. There will be a significant amount of cognitive dissonance to wade through first.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Should feminism require us to reprogram women?

I was walking by the local sports field the other day and one of the area schools was using it to have a girls' gym class play touch football. The girls were probably about 14 years old and they were, as will come as no surprise to anyone who is familiar with the skill sets of most teenage girls, just awful at football. There are, of course, some girls who are very good at football. But if you pull a typical girls gym class and make them do a unit of football, they aren't going to do well.

And then something really touching happened. There were about ten incomplete passes in a row until one girl actually caught a ball. As it happened, she was one of the defenders so her catch was an interception. When she caught the ball, all the other girls from both teams stopped and cheered her and then they celebrated as a team. Both teams celebrated as a single team. In the girls' eyes, it was a more important achievement that one of them had actually caught  the ball than that one team should score points at the expense of another.

This was, as I say, wonderful to see.

It wasn't, however, football. The woman teaching the class had to yell at the girls to get them to start playing. The one who caught the ball just stood there instead of running for the goal line and none of the girls on the opposing team attempted to touch her to bring the play to a close.

I read elsewhere about a year ago that some researchers were claiming that they had proved that girls have all the necessary cognitive abilities to do as well, and perhaps better, than boys do at math and science if, wait for it, the girls are forced to do math and science. The problem is that girls tend to drop math and science courses as soon as they have the option.

I'll flash back here to a post I put up almost five years ago now. In it I talked about an article that Emily Bazelon had written about her attempts to show her sons that girls too could be interested in science. The problem was that while Bazelon approves of women who are interested in the science in the abstract, she herself is not terribly interested. Her sons easily surpass her in science because they care much more, which isn't surprising given that they're boys.

Bazelon is interested in fiction "about" science though.
Simon [one of her sons] and I recently read aloud The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, in which a girl in Texas at the turn of the 20th century drinks in Darwin and helps her grandfather look for undiscovered species.
I haven't read the book so I couldn't say where there is much science in it or if the science is accurately represented. What I want you to notice, though, is what Bazelon says the book is about. For her, it is a book about a girl who helps her grandfather. That makes me think of girls on a football team stopping to cheer the player from an opposing team who actually caught a ball even though that works against their team's interest.

The point here is not that girls are benevolent and cooperative while boys are confrontational and competitive. Anyone who has even vague memories of high school and university will remember that girls use the group dynamic to crush other girls who threaten them just as easily as they use it to support others. The girls I saw cheered the girl who actually caught the ball because the game had been an exercise in frustration for all of them. It isn't hard to imagine a situation where the same sort of dynamic would be used to punish the girl who was either much better or much worse than the others.

The point is that girls are much more interested in the social dimension of activities than boys are and they damn well will go on being girls whether others want them to or not. 
Ann Althouse recently challenged Rush Limbaugh's claim that ESPNW columnist Kate Fagan said we need to reprogram men:
But Fagan didn't say "reprogramming men." She said "reprogramming how we raise men." Who's getting reprogrammed? Which human beings are analogized to computers and capable of programming? It's got to be those who are raising men, which is mostly women — mothers (more than fathers) and early childhood educators (mostly women). So in fact, in Fagan's statement itself, Rush was encountering what he says he never runs across: a suggestion that women need to be reprogrammed. He doesn't notice it when he sees it, perhaps because reprogramming women is so deeply embedded in the culture that it just looks natural. Feminists continually pressure for the reprogramming of women. That's what the "lean in" campaign is all about.
First a qualification: I think Althouse is pushing the careful parsing a bit here. I suspect that Limbaugh got it right and the Fagan did indeed mean that boy's education needs to be reshaped so that men are programmed to think differently. Fagan sees domestic violence as being a problem with men generally and not with some men and women. That said, I think Althouse's deeper point is correct: ultimately, this project means reprogramming women.

First, Althouse is quite right in noting that education, bot at home and in school, is dominated by women. And it has been for a long, long time. My father, who is in his 80s, had mostly male teachers. I'm in my mid 50s and the majority of my teachers were women. I asked one of my nephews a while ago and he said he had only two male teachers in high school—one who taught gym and the other taught math. Second, she is right in noting that a lot of feminist arguments really are about reprogramming women, and "lean in" is a only the latest example.

Now, some feminists would argue that the real problem is that social pressures already are programming girls and women in ways that restrict their choices to take up math, science and touch football. You will only argue for "reprogramming" if you believe that there is already some programming taking place.  The unspoken part of the argument is a claim that after the revolution is over all "programming" could be removed because everyone would finally be free to do what they want. (It's not an accident that this part is left unspoken; just to say it inspires distrust.)

The problem is that, left to their own devices, most women embrace sexually defined roles. And they have done so more and more aggressively these last few decades. After the revolution—and feminism really changed things in our culture—women have returned to sexually defined roles as quickly as they could. (Boys, not so much, but that's a subject for another day.) As restrictions on women's dress have become freer and freer, thanks to feminism, more and more girls and young women embraced the opportunity to dress in a more sexual fashion. Given the freedom to do what they want, girls seek to define themselves in terms of their sexuality.

Back when I was in university in the 1980s, I had a male professor who gave a lecture claiming that gender differences were disappearing and his primary example was clothing. He flashed up image after image of gender neutral fashion. The problem was he had a theory he was so enamoured with that he couldn't see that young women in the classroom completely contradicted it. They were all dressed in a very feminine fashion and not in the "unisex" (what a dated sound that once new word now has) clothing he wanted them to be wearing.

Of course, it remains possible to continue to argue that this is all do to social norms that force women into behaviours they don't really want while barring most women from math, sciences and senior management but that gets harder to maintain every year. There are enough women who have succeeded in these fields that they could be presented as role models for girls and young women if only we could get more women to pay attention. 

Meanwhile, I am pretty certain the girls in the gym class were happier once they were allowed to stop playing football so they could dow hat they really wanted.

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Beyonce versus Taylor Swift debate

There is one.

On strictly artistic grounds, there isn't much to debate. Beyonce has a better voice and is a more disciplined performer. She is however, more disciplined about her performance than her art. Her performances are unfailingly magnificent things to see but the actual songs are forgettable. Swift is equally disciplined but she is more a disciplined businesswoman than a  disciplined performer; she is, in fact, a driven performer in the Madonna or Mick Jagger mold, which is to say that her art is as good as her business sense requires it to be. That, unfortunately, is not very good. If Swift had worked harder at developing the narrative style songwriting that launched her career (or if she'd had a Keith Richard like partner), she probably would have produced some memorable songs eventually. As it turned out, she didn't have to to become incredibly successful so she never bothered. Her songs are marginally better than Beyonce's but that isn't much to brag about.

What both singers have in common is more significant than any differences. Both are daughters of white-collar business men who trained them in hard-core capitalist values and both were more influenced by their fathers than their mothers. They have become role models for girls and take their responsibility as role models seriously. On the other hand, they are both celebrities and are probably headed for train wrecks as that seems to be the fate of most celebrities. Furthermore, the entertainment industry just doesn't produce the sort of character development that makes for great human beings.

The argument about these two artists is really a political one. It's an argument about what women should be like. It troubles the people who push Beyonce over Taylor Swift that so many young women identify so strongly with Taylor Swift.

Race, and racism, has a lot do with it. Taylor Swift is seen as white, where white stands for a set of cultural values and not skin colour. Ironically, Beyonce shares the same values. The contrast, the supposed non-whiteness that people seek in Beyonce is entirely in their perceptions. She may flash the word "feminism" up on a screen during her performances but Beyonce's understanding of the good life for women culminates in marriage and motherhood. If you look at what the two women have actually done with their lives, as opposed to what they say and sing about their lives, Beyonce has been more successful at living traditional "white" values than Swift. Now, you might be tempted to say "so far" and also to remind me that Beyonce is older than Swift. To which I would say, yes, but there is something about Swift's pursuit of "love' that remains adolescent and unserious.

All of which is to say that the victim of racism in this equation is Beyonce. Although they would get angry at the suggestion, people who hate Swift and push Beyonce as an alternative see not the actual woman but a noble savage stereotype. The sheer physicality of Beyonce, the emphasis on performance and appearance above any actual content, is what allows this illusion to be projected onto her. Black women performers aren't much better off than Josephine Baker because white critics still see them as a way to project their own fantasies about breaking out of the aspects of "white" culture that displease them rather than as human beings.

Monday, September 8, 2014

A rant about prudence and nude selfies

If someone breaks into my home and robs it, it is their fault and not mine. That remains true even if I didn't bother to lock my door. It also remains true if I had foolishly hidden all my life savings in gold coins in the bottom of my underwear drawer. That said, there are thieves in the world and it is stupid and irresponsible of me not to take reasonable precautions such as putting adequate locks on the door and putting things I cannot afford to lose in the bank instead of my underwear drawer.

A similar principle applies when it comes to having nude selfies on your cell phone. Once a celebrity knows that dozens of other celebrities before her have had nude selfies stolen off of their phones she should be able to conclude that storing nude selfies on her phone is a really bad idea.

That is assuming it's a reasonable thing to be taking and keeping nude selfies on your phone in the first place.

I can reasonably understand why someone might do it. Everyone knows that photographs and mirrors are different. We all tend to look better in the mirror than we do in photographs and it is reasonable to worry about what we look like naked.  I can see how, in a moment of weakness, I might break down and take a a nude selfie in the hopes that it might give me some positive assurances about what I look like naked.

I can even imagine that I might carelessly forget to erase the photograph. Perhaps some malicious person might hack their way into my phone and make me the object of ridicule by posting it on the Internet. That would be mean and mostly not my fault but a tiny bit of it would be my fault for failing to exercise proper prudence. (I suspect, however, that I would get less sympathy because I am a man.)

But let's consider this: dozens of celebrities have had nude selfies stolen off their phones! As I say, I can imagine how a person might have a nude selfie on their phone but how does it get to be that dozens of female celebrities have nude selfies on their phones? And they have to have had them there for a long time. If you took a selfie and deleted it minutes, hours or days later, the odds against a hacker getting into your phone at just the right time to find the photos there would be very long. Instead, we see that virtually every time a hacker breaks into a female celebrity's phone, they find nude selfies.

There are only two possible explanations here. One is that most female celebrities take and keep nude selfies. (There don't seem to be an awful lot of male nude selfies out there.) The second is that female celebrities take nude selfies so often that a hacker can be reasonably sure that there will always be one on their phones. I'm sorry to be so rude about it, but that is beyond narcissism.

It's also irresponsible. One of the reasons society will, quite correctly, hold me partially responsible if I don't have adequate locks on my house or if I store significant wealth there is that, by doing these things, I encourage crime. This makes life a little less secure for everyone else. Criminals will keep trying if success appears likely to them.

That is also true of having nude selfies on your phone. If a female celebrity takes and keep nude selfies on her phone she is not only taking an unreasonable risk, she is making everyone else less secure by giving hackers incentive to keep breaking into phones.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

A more basic question

Here is a line from a CBC news story:
It doesn’t matter that it’s silly to store nude photos of yourself anywhere in the digital realm...
Notice the more basic question that isn't being asked? That would be, Why are you taking and then storing nude photos of yourself in the first place? That's a pretty crazy thing to do. And yet nearly every female celebrity appears to have done it.

Celebrities are nutbars. Stop paying attention to them.