Ordeal or No Deal

August 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Students in my criminal justice class were often incredulous when I described the trial by ordeal.  The worth of a person’s testimony is determined by his or her ability to successfully undergo some ordeal.

The Ordeal of Cold Water

An ancient method of testing the guilt or innocence of the common sort of people. The accused, being tied under the arms, was thrown into a river. If he sank to the bottom, he was held to be guiltless, and drawn up by the cord; but if he floated, the water rejected him, because of his guilt. [source]


“But what does floating or sinking have to do with whether the person committed a crime or whether what they say is worth believing?” students would ask. Exactly. Some students even suggest that there’s more than a touch of sadism in this irrational inflicting of suffering. For it is irrational, as my students quickly see. The underlying assumption  –  the equation of worthiness and ordeal – is ridiculous. We enlightened folks in 21st century America would never use such logic, right?

You can see where this is going.


(Jimmy Fallon and Lindsay Lohan)

The logic of the ice-bucket challenge is nothing new.  Walkathons and bikeathons rest on the same idea:  the worthiness of a charity – how much money I will donate – must be based on someone else undergoing an ordeal. Walking or biking some distance are the popular default ordeals. The person entering the event makes a deal with me, a potential contributor. The longer the ordeal, the more I must contribute.  Presumably, if the person winds up not walking, then our deal is off, and I need not contribute a penny. The charity is not worthy of my money. 

These and other “thons” are now  so common that they no longer get much attention.  The ice bucket challenge is different mostly in its degree of success, which is considerable. That success owes much to the involvement of actors, sports stars, and the like. Celebrities still endorse products, but somewhat less directly – all those jocks sporting the Nike logo or Britney dancing in a video with lots of Pepsi –  not quite the same as Ronald Reagan telling us straight out to smoke Chesterfields or O.J. Simpson talking up Hertz car rentals. So when celebrities speak in favor of something, especially something that they have no financial stake in, we pay attention.

The underlying logic of endorsements is also not quite in keeping with enlightened rationality.  Are the opinions of high-status people and their willingness to undergo an ordeal valid indicators of a charity’s virtue? Yet we seem to think that if Lindsay Lohan is willing to have Jimmy Fallon dump a bucket of ice water on her, ALS must be a more worthy cause than others I could write a check to.

The other interesting thing about the ice bucket challenge is that it seems not to have been planned. It was not an ad campaign cooked up and widely promoted by some PR firm hired by the ALS foundation.  Instead, it seems to have been a lucky accident, unplanned and unpredicted.  It started small and grew gradually until it eventually went viral.* 

Through it all, a few observers have pointed out the logical fallacy in the ice bucket assumption. I refer of course to the Enlightenment rationalist Charlie Sheen, who dumped a bucket of room-temperature greenbacks on himself, challenging us to admit what the game was really about – money for a charity – and that the ice water was irrelevant.  And then there was Sheen’s fellow philosophe Patrick Stewart who made the same point, though with more style.



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* In an earlier post (here), I used Gabriel Rossman’s ideas about exogenous and endogenous influences in the spread of ideas. If we could see a graph of contributions to ALS or even of videos and tweets, we would have a better idea of whether the popularity of the ice bucket was centrally planned or whether it followed the endogenous person-to-person model.

Cops vs. Man With Knife

August 21, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Despite the cellphone video of two police officers killing Kajieme Powell, there is some dispute as to what happened.  (See this account in The Atlantic.) Was Powell threatening them; did he hold the knife high; was he only three or four feet away?

The video is all over the Internet, including the Atlantic link above. I’m not going to include it here.  The officers get out of the car, immediately draw their guns, and walk towards Powell. Is this the best way to deal with a disturbed or possibly deranged individual – to confront him and then shoot him several times if he does something that might be threatening?

Watch the video (you can find it in the Atlantic link above and elsewhere).Then watch London police confronting a truly deranged and dangerous man. (The video is from 2011. I’m surprised it hasn’t been recycled this week.) Powell had a steak knife, and it’s not clear whether he raised it or swung it at all.  The man in London has a machete and is swinging it about.


Unfortunately, the London video does not show us how the incident got started.* By the time the person started recording, at least ten officers were already on the scene. They do not have guns. They have shields and truncheons. The London police tactic used more officers, and the incident took more time. But nobody died.


The police in and around Ferguson have shot and killed twice as many people in the past two weeks (Mr Brown plus one other) as the police in Japan, a nation of 127m, have shot and killed in the past six years. Nationwide, America’s police kill roughly one person a day.

The quote above is from this an article in this week’s Economist (here), which includes this graphic:


I’m sure that the Powell killing will elicit not just sympathy for the St. Louis police but in some quarters high praise – something to the effect that what they did was a good deed and that the victims got what they deserved. But righteous slaughter is slaughter nevertheless. A life has been taken.

You would think that other recent videos of righteous slaughter elsewhere in the world would get us to reconsider this response to killing. But instead, these seem only to strengthen tribal Us/Them ways of thinking. If one of Us who kills one of Them, then the killing must have been necessary and even virtuous.

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* I don’t know how the St. Louis incident got started. Who called the police, and what did they say? In the video, Powell is not menacing anyone, and the bystanders seem bemused rather than fearful.

Frederick Douglass’s Agitation

August 14, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

I hate to see a good word fade and get folded into another word that doesn’t mean quite the same thing.

A Twitter link yesterday took me to a sociology blog whose post consisted entirely of a quotation from Frederick Douglass.  It contained this sentence:

Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning.

Depreciate agitation? Surely Douglass must have said “deprecate.” That little “i,” a slender stroke and dot barely noticeable, makes a difference.  Or at least it used to.  In Douglass’s time, to deprecate meant to disapprove strongly, and depreciate meant to reduce in value. We depreciate assets. We deprecate sin. 

“Deprecate” as a percentage of both words took a dive starting around 1970, falling from 40% to 20%. 

Today, the distinction between the two is fading to the point that many readers and writers either do not know the difference or are simply unaware of the word deprecate.  Authors have rewrite Douglass’s words; their books now become sources for other books and blogs.  The sound of deprecate grows fainter and fainter. If you search Google for the Douglass quote, the first screen gives you a chance of finding the right word.

(Depreciate is circled in red, deprecate in blue. Click on the graphic for a larger view. )

Still, when I searched for both kinds of agitation, Goggle returned more than three times as many “depreciates” as “deprecates.” 

Google too seems to think that the revised version of the Douglass quote is the correct one. When I asked for “deprecate,” Google suggested that maybe I (and Douglass) had made a spelling error. 


Language evolves.  But it’s one thing for that evolution to make for changes as we move forward in history; it’s quite another for us to make those changes retroactive.  I fear that in the next edition of Frederick Douglass’s writings, some alert copy editor will see “deprecate agitation,” assume that it’s a typo, and insert the “i.”  And Douglass will turn over in his grave knowing that his powerful language has been depreciated.

The Last Time I Saw Betty Joan Perske

August 13, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

One late autumn day about five years ago, I had come out of Central Park and was walking east on W. 72nd St.  Dusk on a weekday. The entrance to the Dakota was free of tourists. Nobody leaning forward to peer in through the vertical bars to see the spot where John Lennon died – just the silent doorman in his gray coat.


I walked on.  An old lady,  bent over and walking slowly, almost painfully, with her tiny dog, was coming towards me. Her face  looked so familiar, but I couldn’t place her.  Who was she? Where had I seen her?  After she had gone past, I turned and watched her move slowly on. A few moments later, she turned and went into the Dakota.

She looked something like this:


I waited till she had gone inside, then walked back and approached the doorman.  “Excuse me,” I said as politely as I could, “but who was that woman who just came in here?” 

He paused for a minute as if trying to decide whether this was a violation of a tenant’s privacy. “That,” he said, “was Miss Lauren Bacall.”

Lauren Bacall 1924 - 2014

[I used this story in an earlier post about names. Until the late 20th century, performers with ethnic or difficult  names changed them (or had them changed by Hollywood studios) to something more “American.” Now, they are more likely to stick with what they’ve got. I’m all for being multicultural, but I still think that Lauren Bacall is a perfect name for her. I have a hard time imagining what Betty Joan Perske would look like.]