Changing Fast (Signs) and Slow (Norms)

August 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“All Gender Restroom” said the green triangular signs — one right, one left — placed over the more permanent male and female icons. The Marriott Downtown in Philadelphia was accommodating the American Sociological Association meetings. None of this “men’s room” and “women’s room” for us. No forcing people to declare themselves on one side or the other of the gender binary every time they need to pee.  We finessed that problem with a simple change of signage. As an added benefit, all-gender would minimize the unfairness of long lines for women, short lines for men.*

That was the theory. In practice, it wasn’t quite working out that way. Turns out, it’s easier to change signs than to change norms. As William Graham Sumner said the paraphrase of Sumner says, stateways cannot change folkways** – and least not right away.

During the fifteen-minute break between sessions Sunday morning, I could see the lines extending out into the hall by about three people at both the right and left restroom. I chose left and took my place behind the three women. But I wanted to see how many people were ahead of us in line inside, so I edged past to the entrance.

This must have been the men’s room (and probably would be again once the ASA had left). On the left wall were six or more urinals. On the right side of the room were six stalls, doors closed and presumably in use. But at the urinals, not a soul. The restroom was standing room only, and nobody was standing. If any men were using this restroom, they were all peeing behind closed doors. You can lead a feminist man to an all-gender restroom, but you can’t make him pee in the urinal, not when there are women standing in line at the entrance.

What the hell, I thought. Time is short, and bladders are full. I jumped the line and walked to one of the urinals, hoping that the women waiting just a few yards away were observing a norm of not observing. When I had finished and was exiting, they were still standing there. I did not make eye contact. I didn’t speak.

In the moment, I wasn’t thinking of the sociological implications of this incident. (If I had, you’d be seeing photos here.)  But it illustrates how norms change, or don’t change. Someone I mentioned it to later said something about “reproducing structures” even when the organization’s stated goal was to change the structure —  in this case, the structure of restrooms. Philip Cohen tweeted, “It made me uncomfortable but I would get used to it.” True.
But it’s not just a matter of individual adaptation. Norms are social — shared ideas about how things should be done — and changing them happens when several people start acting on the basis of the new normative. If every time you went to the restroom there were two or three men at those urinals along with women waiting in line, eventually the all-gender restroom would be no big deal, and you’d wonder what all the fuss had been about. Of course, “eventually” can take a while.

* The title of this post is a knock-off of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow. But considering the usual waiting time and men’s rooms and women’s rooms, my alternate title was “Peeing Fast and Slow.” Less sociological but more relatable.

** What Sumner actually wrote was, “legislation cannot make mores.” It’s probably from his 1906 book Folkways, but given that I was wrong about the quote, I’m not going to make any simple, definitive attributions.

Bill Evans, b. August 16, 1929

August 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I wore out my LP of “Explorations” mostly listening to this track and “Nardis.”

I have this picture propped up on my piano. Someone told me they saw Evans at the Vanguard. At one point they looked around the room, and half the people were sitting like this — head bent low, hands extended on their cocktail tables. Maybe the story was true. I saw him there once with Eddie Gomez  on bass (I don’t remember the drummer), but I didn’t see anything like this. But it’s a good story.

Doctors, Definitions, and Decency

August 9, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston
So there I am, sitting on the table, wearing nothing but one of those smocks. And the doctor comes in. My new dermatologist. I’d been to him once before. Young. Looks like maybe he’ll be eligible for a bar mitzvah in a couple of years. And with him are these three girls – women, females, whatever. Also young. “This is my team,” he says.
My friend Martin [not his real name] is about my age. He has some skin condition that requires periodic check-ups.
He says they’re interns or residents or med students, maybe it was one of each, and do I mind if they observe. What can I say? So he does the whole examination. I close my eyes, partly ’cause of the bright examination light, but really, I don’t want to be making eye contact with anyone.

It’s a thorough exam – head to toe. Literally. I mean he’s looking at my scalp, my toes, front and back. You never know where another one of these damn things might turn up. So basically I’m naked.

Then it’s all finished. I sit up, wrap the gown around me. He says it’s all good. He found nothing. And then it’s time for him and the team to leave, and he says,, “We’ll just let you get decent . . . “

So I say, “You didn’t seem to mind when I was indecent two minutes ago.” He gives a little embarrassed laugh. So do the women.
So here’s the thing. Two minutes before, they were all looking at me naked, and that was OK, decent. But now that I’m in my gown, for me to change back into my clothes while they’re in the room would be indecent. In fact, maybe he was saying that me wearing just the gown was not decent.

It’s Joan Emerson, I tell him.

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In 1970, Joan Emerson published what became a classic article on how doctors and nurses in gynecological exams make sure nothing seems sexual. The full title of the article is “Behavior in Private Places: Sustaining Definitions of Reality in Gynecological Examinations.” As the title suggests, the definitions and reality — what something is —  are sometimes up for grabs. In a gynecological exam, doctors do things that in other circumstances would be seen as sexual. For the exam to run smoothly, the medical staff have to make sure that patient too defines all the looking and touching and questioning as medical and not sexual.

The major definition to be sustained for this purpose is this is a medical situation” (not a party, sexual assault, psychological experiment, or anything else). If it is a medical situation, then it follows that no one is embarrassed” and no one is thinking in sexual terms.”

The medical demeanor extends to even to the choice of  the rather than your —  “the vagina,” not “your vagina” — and “the vulgar connotation of ‘spread your legs’ is generally metamorphosed into the innocuous ‘let your knees fall apart.’”

My friend’s dermatologist and his students sustained the medical definition of nakedness. They didn’t really have to do anything. Everyone just accepted that defintion. But once the examination was over, that definition no longer applied. His nakedness or near-nakedness was closer to what it would be outside the examination room – not decent.

In the situations Emerson observed too, the fabric of the medical defintion could become threadbare.

Some patients fail to know when to display their private parts unashamedly to others and when to conceal them like anyone else. . . . .  The medical definition is supposed to be in force only as necessary to facilitate specific medical tasks. If a patient becomes nonchalant enough to allow herself to remain uncovered for much longer than is technically necessary she becomes a threat.

My friend’s comment about indecency posed a similar threat. After the medical definition was no longer necessary, he was reminding the women that they had in fact been looking at his genitals — the genitals of a man who was no longer covered by the medical definition of the situation.

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In the movie, “Love and Other Drugs,” Anne Hathaway goes to see her doctor. In the examination, she has to remove her blouse and bra. Also in the room is Jake Gyllenhall. She assumes that he is another doctor, so it’s OK. But a minute or two later, when she realizes that he is a drug salesman, not a doctor, she is less accepting.

Note  Gyllenhall’s line about “all the arrogant, faceless, cut-off, asshole doctors out there who’ve treated you like a non-person while peeking at your breasts.” Doctors too, not just drug salesmen, may be hiding voyeuristic motives under their white-coat medical definitions of the situation.

Pointers on the Zero Point (à la Jonah Goldberg)

August 5, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

As cheap tricks in data visualization go, leaving out the zero point is one of the easiest and most common ways to make a molehill of difference appear to be a mountain. Here’s an example I’ve used before — the Fox News graph showing that a tax rate 39.6% is five times the size of a tax rate of 35%

(Click on an image to enlarge it.)

I’ve blogged on this before (here and here), and as some of the comments on those posts argue, cutting the y-axis down to size is not always deceptive. But in most cases, it’s good to include the zero-point.

Jonah Goldberg, the conservative political writer, has learned that lesson. Sort of. Philip Cohen, in his review (here) of Goldberg’s latest book Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, has provided examples of Goldberg’s data-viz facility. The problem: how to exaggerate effects while yet including the zero point. Goldberg’s solution: simple – just truncate the y-axis as usual, but then stick a label of zero on the lowest point.

From these graphs we learn
  • In 1960, life expectancy worldwide was nearly 0.
  • By 2015, infant mortality worldwide had decreased to nearly 0
In a mere 55 years, we went from a world where nearly all infants died to a world in which almost no infants died.

As Philip Cohen notes, the book’s blurbs from conservative pals and colleagues (e.g., John Podhoretz, Arthur Brooks) mention Golberg’s “erudition.” Apparently, this erudition stops short of knowing that the distance between 54 and 56 is not the same as the distance between 0 and 54.