“The Deuce” — Old Porn, New Language

October 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

If you’re old enough, it’s easy to spot language anachronisms in period TV dramas like “Mad Men” and “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” I’m old enough. I notice the terms that we now take for granted but were nowhere to be heard in the wordscape of a few decades ago. (Earlier posts on these shows are here and here.) It’s much harder to remember the opposite — words and phrases from the period that have since disappeared, words that place the scene firmly in its historical context.

I’ve been watching “The Deuce” on HBO. It’s set in the  world of West 42nd Street circa 1970, with its pimps and hookers, strippers and porn merchants, cops and gangsters, and assorted others who plied their trade in that neighborhood. Nothing in season one seemed out of place, maybe because the episodes were written or overseen by people old enough to have been bar-mitzvahed by 1970.

In Season Two, Candy (Maggie Gyllenhall), has gotten into porn as a way to escape the dangers of life as a street hooker. She has gone from being on camera to writing scripts. In Episode 4, we see her at a shoot where an actor complains about his lines, and others support him. It’s bad even for porn, they say. Candy agrees.

“I’m gonna try to tweak it,” she says.

No, no, no. In 1970, people didn’t tweak scripts. They didn’t tweak much of anything, but if they did, it was an actual thing you could pinch with your fingers. In porn, it might have been a nipple. Anywhere else, it was most likely a nose. Nothing had changed in the 370 year since Hamlet.* It was only towards the end of the 20th century that people began tweaking less tangible things like systems, colors, or designs.

(Click on the image for a larger view. 
The graphs show the last few years of each period and the 
most frequent completions of the phrase "tweak the” for the entire period.)

Candy has ambitions beyond grinding out low-budget, poorly written fuck films. She wants to produce a film with multi-layered story, with characters, and with a woman’s point of view. She has come up with the idea — a porno version of Little Red Riding Hood — but she realizes that she doesn’t have the talent to write the script. So she meets with a writer. When she reveals what the film will be, she fears that he’ll reject the project. But she’s wrong. “It’s genius,” the writer says.

The trouble is that in 1970 (the year the writer of this episode was born), genius was not an adjective. It was a noun and only a noun. Even today, Webster online does not recognize genius as an adjective.

I know what people did not say in 1970. But what did they say? What is the language equivalent of the disco suit? The only thing I can think of is groovy.  Yes, there was a brief period — a few weeks back in the late 1960s — when people actually spoke the word without a trace of irony. But what else?

* Who calls me “villain”? Breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? (II, ii)

Flashback Friday: Asians in the Library

October 12, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In 2011, I did a blogpost with the title “Ethnocentrism and Family Values.” I should have called it “Too Much of a Good Thing.”

It was inspired by a YouTube rant that went viral — a UCLA student complaining about Asian students talking too loudly in the library. Much derided, she soon removed the video, leaving my blogpost with a large open space.

Yesterday, an Inside Higher Ed article about anti-Asian messages posted at Washington University referred to the rant and informed me that once again copies of the video were available online. So I’m reposting it. I think it holds up. (Yes, it has a lot of text in the footnotes. A Sociological Images, where this was cross-posted, someone commented, “You, sir have unseated the late, great David Foster Wallace as the Prodigiously Lengthy Footnote King.”)

March 20, 2011

When Alexandra Wallace’s video – the epiphanus interruptus* complaint about Asians at UCLA using their cell phones in the library – went viral, most of the reactions were accusations of racism. I'm not sure where the line between racism and ethnocentrism lies, but I was struck more by the underlying ethnocentric assumptions about family, assumptions that are widely shared here and by people who would never be accused of racism.

We Americans all agree that we value family. When I begin the unit on culture, I ask students to jot down three American values. The one that appears most frequently is family. If I asked students what things they themselves value, I’m sure many of them would say family. So, I suspect, would Ms. Wallace.

But here’s how she begins her rant, after a brief disclaimer:
It used to really bug me but it doesn't bother me anymore the fact that all the Asian people that live in all the apartments around me – their moms and their brothers and their sisters and their grandmas and their grandpas and their cousins and everybody that they know that they've brought along from Asia with them – comes here on the weekends to do their laundry, buy their groceries, and cook their food for the week. It's seriously, without fail. You will always see old Asian people running around this apartment complex every weekend. That's what they do.
(The transcript does not quite do justice to Ms. Wallace’s presentation. The video was taken down, but in 2018 a copy became available.)

These Asian families, in Ms. Wallace’s view, include too many peripheral members (grandparents, cousins). And family members spend too much time together and do entirely too much for one another.

The trouble apparently is that Asians really do value family.

The too-much-family motif runs through her objections about cell phones as well She obviously doesn’t know what the callers are saying or who they’re talking to, but she suspects that it’s family back in Asia:
I swear they're going through their whole families, just checking on everybody from the tsunami thing.**
Many international students in the US have noted this same contradiction between Americans’ proclaimed value on family in the abstract and what to the international students seems like a fairly thin and compartmentalized connection to family in the real world. As Rebekah Nathan says in My Freshman Year,
Americans, they felt, sharply distinguished their family from their friends and schoolmates; more than one international student remarked about the dearth of family photos on student doors,*** as if family didn’t exist at school. . . .Peter [a student from Germany] told me . . . “No one here says, “come on and meet my family.”
Do Americans value family? Yes, but. . . . The ‘but’ is a competing value that pervades American culture, including the family – Independence.**** As Ms. Wallace says in the conclusion to her complaint about Asian families, “They don't teach their kids to fend for themselves.”



I'll be in like deep into my studying . . . getting it all down, like typing away furiously, blah blah, blah, and then all of a sudden when I’m about to like reach an epiphany... Over here from somewhere, “Ooooh Ching Chong Ling Long Ting Tong, Ooohhhhh.”
** Adding “thing” to “the tsunami” makes Wallace seem especially callous. Linguists must have looked into this, but for some reason, “thing” here implies, “I don’t know or care much about this because it’s not very important.”

I vividly recall a scene in the 1993 film “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” where Joe Mantegna, as the competitive chess father, is at a parent-teacher conference. The teacher is concerned that Mantegna’s chess-prodigy son (age 8 or so) is falling behind academically and socially. She adds,

I'm sure he's very good at this chess thing,
but that isn't really the issue.
Mantegna loses it.
My son has a gift. He has a gift, and once you
acknowledge that, then maybe we'll have something
to talk about. Chess is what it’s called.
Not the “chess thing.”
*** If you watch the Wallace video, look at the board of photos behind her and try to find parents.

**** See my earlier post on the family-vs,-independence conflict as it appears on American television, especially in sitcoms that have pretensions of seriousness.

“A Different Person”

October 5, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Benjamin Wittes is baffled. Wittes is a Washington lawyer — he’s the blogger-in-chief at Lawfare — and he thought he knew Kavanaugh fairly well. But he was completely taken aback watching Kavanaugh at the Senate committee hearings earlier this week.

The Brett Kavanaugh who showed up to Thursday’s hearing is a man I have never met, whom I have never even caught a glimpse of in 20 years of knowing the person who showed up to the first hearing. I dealt with Kavanaugh during the Starr investigation, which I covered for the Washington Post editorial page and about which I wrote a book. I dealt with him when he was in the White House counsel’s office and working on judicial nominations and post–September 11 legal matters. Since his confirmation to the D.C. Circuit, he has been a significant voice on a raft of issues I work on. In all of our interactions, he has been a consummate professional. The allegations against him shocked me very deeply, but not quite so deeply as did his presentation. It was not just an angry and aggressive version of the person I have known. It seemed like a different person altogether. [source]*

For Wittes, what’s troubling is Kavanaugh’s seemingly unprecedented behavior. But unwittingly, Wittes opens up a broader problem — our idea about what a person is. Wittes, like most of us, thinks that each person has a “character,” a set of qualities or traits that determines how he will act and react in any situation.

In a post earlier this week (here) and in a much older post, I tried to explain the limitations of this idea. One obvious limitations is that we base our idea of a person’s character on a seeing them in only a narrow range of situations. Yet we think that we can then predict how they will respond in very different situations, situations that we have never seen them in and that may be completely new to the person himself. As Wittes tells us, he knows Kavanaugh mostly, perhaps entirely, as a lawyer at work.
He has never seen Kavanaugh reacting to accusations — damning accusations that may well be true and that may have momentous consequences for his career. And of course, he has never observed Kavanaugh the callous and sloppy-drunk teenager.

What if we abandoned this idea of the person as unified and consistent set of a few traits? Suppose we thought of a person as having a large repertoire of emotions and behaviors, some of them contradictory. After all, we generally allow for this kind of variability when we think about ourselves. We can be proper and we can let our hair down. We can be even-tempered and we can lose our temper.

Even this broadening of the range of traits for ourselves helps. It allows us to cling to this same theory of the person. But even with ourselves, anomalous events can threaten that theory. When we have a reaction that is truly new, we say things like, “I don’t know what got into me.” This explanation is the only way to maintain the idea of the person as an object with clear and permanent boundaries and within those boundaries a more or less permanent “character.”

As Clifford Geertz says, this is a unique and weird notion.

The Western conception of the person as a bounded, unique, more or less integrated motivational and cognitive universe; a dynamic center of awareness, emotion, judgment, and action organized into a distinctive whole and set contrastively both against other such wholes and against a social and natural background is, however incorrigible it may seem to us, a rather peculiar idea within the context of the world’s cultures.

Our idea of what a person works fairly well most of the time, but, as Wittes’s bafflement illustrates, not always. In any case, it’s the only one we’ve got. That’s our theory, and we’re sticking to it. And according to this theory, the Kavanaugh Wittes saw at the hearings was  “a different person.”

* Aside from the puzzlement over Kavanaugh as a person, Wittes’s article is excellent for its explanation of why the Senate should not confirm Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice.

Trust and Tribalism?

October 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Gallup could use a headline editor. Today (here), they went with this:

Better would have been

Tribalism Drives Republicans’ Trust in Politicians.

Gallup provides this graph:

 (Click to enlarge.)

When Obama took office in 2009, Republican trust or confidence in elected officials fell by thirty points. During the Obama years, Republicans remained 20-30 points less trustful of politicians than in the Bush era. In 2016, when it looked likely that Hillary Clinton would be the next president, that trust fell to its lowest point in the century; only 33% of Republicans had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in politicians. Since Trump took office, Republican trust has regained 20 points.

Democrats’ confidence in politicians shows nothing like this partisan volatility.

So here’s yet another accurate alternative headline
Republicans Don’t Trust Anybody But Republicans

My Introduction to Young Brett Kavanaugh’s World

October 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“I had one beer!” Trump said, imitating Ford’s statement that she was not intoxicated when the incident occurred.
“How did you get home? ‘I don’t remember,'” Trump said, mocking Ford’s voice.

“How did you get there? ‘I don’t remember,'” he continued.

Trump’s rendition was met with cheers in Southaven, Mississippi.

[Source: Time The link also has a video of our president performing this routine.]

With all the news about Brett Kavanaugh and his pals — their callousness and their drinking — I’ve been remembering my own first encounter with drunken, Ivy League assholes. It was about this time of year, autumn but still warm. I was a freshman at Brandeis. One evening, some classmates and I went in to Cambridge just to see what it was like, this famous school that we hadn’t gotten into. I had never been in Cambridge before.

We were walking on Mass Ave on the Harvard Yard side of the street. On our left was Wigglesworth Hall, a freshman dorm. The space between the dorm and the sidewalk outside the fence is only about ten feet, though the social distance is much greater.

From the open windows came the sounds of partying. Suddenly, an object came sailing down at us — a one-quart milk carton. It glanced off my arm and some its contents splashed onto my sweater. It had been thrown from a third-floor window, where boys were now laughing uproariously. My friends and I looked at the milk carton — looked and smelled. It was filled with vomit, and that was what I now had on my sweater.

This happened when I was seventeen, a long time ago.
Do I remember how I got to Cambridge? No.
Do I remember how I got home? No.
Do I remember the names of the guys I was with? No.
Do I remember what I did with the sweater? Did I find a place to rinse it? Did I take it off? I don’t remember.
Were those Harvard freshmen prep school grads? I don’t know, but it’s likely. In those days, Harvard welcomed even more of them than it does today.
Did they become judges, bank executives, Senators? I don’t know. Probably some of them did.

So my memory, like Christine Blasey Ford’s, is spotty. I remember that the sweater was a green, cotton cardigan. I remember the look and smell of the vomit-filled milk carton. And I remember the derisive laughter.

Did the experience give me a lifelong revulsion towards Harvard? No.
But I was always careful never to walk on that side of Mass Ave on weekend evenings.

Political Speech as Improv

October 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Donald Trump’s speaking style must infuriate the teachers of communications and public speaking, the professional speechwriters, the instructors in the required composition course, and anyone else who values logic and coherence, not to mention factual accuracy. Trump, unless he  sticks to a script someone has written for him, jumps from one topic to another, sometimes leaving sentences unfinished and interjecting irrelevancies that seem to be the product of the free association of a disordered mind.

But obviously, Trump is doing something right. It’s not exactly “method in his madness”  — “Trump is not crazy, nor is he methodical. But he is using a strategy, a technique for connecting with his audience.

Gabriel Rossman summarized it perfectly in a tweet yesterday responding to the question, “Who is our Alcibiades?”

“A lot of people tell me I could have seduced Socrates, who by the way was a very 
famous philosopher I studied with. [begins to lose the crowd] Hey, who here likes 
Aristophanes? There's gonna be so much winning in Sicily you’ll get tired of it.”

Aside from the resemblances between Trump and Alcibiades, aside from the rhetorical style (“people say,” “by the way”) and egotism, there’s the quick change of topic when the crowd fails to respond. Reporters who followed Trump during the campaign and now in his presidency note the same thing. Trump is like a stand-up comedian with a variety of bits. When one routine isn’t working, he shifts topics until he finds some material that the audience responds to.

Martin Luther King did something similar in the early years, as Taylor Branch writes in Parting the Waters. He describes King in 1955, twenty-six years old, not yet sure of what will ignite a crowd, speaking at a YMCA on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott.

“We are here this evening — for serious business,” he siad, in even pulses, rising and then falling in pitch. When he paused, only one or two “yes” responses came up from the crowd, and they were quiet ones. It was a throng of shouters he could see, but they were waiting to see where he would take them.

“And I think I speak with — with legal authority — not that I have any legal authority . . . that the law has never been totally clarified.” This sentence marked King as a speaker who took care with distinctions, but it took the crowd nowhere. “Nobody can doubt the height of her character, no one can doubt the depth of her Christian commitment.”

“That’s right,” a soft chorus answered.

“And just because she refused to get up, she was arrested,” King repeated. The crowd was stirring now, following King at the speed of a medium walk.
He paused slightly longer.

“And you know, my friends, there comes a time,” he cried, “when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression.”

A flock of “Yeses” was coming back at him when suddenly the individual responses dissolved into a rising cheer and applause exploded beneath that cheer — all withing the space of a second. The startling noise rolled on and on, like a wave that refused to break, and just when it seemed that thr oar must finally weaken, a wall of sound came in from the enormous crowd outdoors to push the volume still higher. Thunder seemed to added to the lower register — the sound of feet stomping on the wooden floor — until the loudness became something that was not so much hears as sensed by vibrations in the lungs. The giant cloud of noise shook the building and refused to go away. One sentence had set it loose somehow, pushing the call-and-response of the Negro church past the din of a political rally and on to something else that King had never known before.

King had tried giving the crowd the legal angle. He had tried giving them the nobility of Rosa Parks. The crowd merely waited. He had called, and there was no response. But “there comes a time when people get tired,” had opened the floodgates, and the crowd let him know. He used the phrase at least twice more.” “There comes a time when people get tired of being thrown across the abyss of humiliation,” and “There comes a time when people get tired of being people get tired of getting pushed out the glittering sunlight of life’s July and left standing amidst the piercing chill of an Alpine November.”

Maybe there’s a lesson here for teachers – sensing when you’re losing the class and figuring out a way to get them back.

Dark at the Top of the Stairs

October 2, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

It happens once every couple of years. In a period when I’m not teaching, I happen to walk past a classroom where the professor is someone I know. The door is open. I stop to listen. And the person teaching the class sounds nothing like the person I know. The political science guy that I’ve had many calm discussions with is now bombastic. A friendly colleague sounds almost hostile towards the class. An unassuming friend comes across as pretentious.

The point of yesterday’s post about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford was that we often make the mistake of thinking that people are consistent across a variety of settings. But they are not. We can easily picture how they will behave in settings like the ones where we know them. But it’s a mistake to extend that picture to parts of their life that we are not privy to. We are in the dark. And often, the area where we have the least knowledge of the other person is sex. It’s like that room at the top of the stairs, and everyone else at the party downstairs has no idea of what’s happening behind the locked door.

So while Kavanaugh may be the upstanding, friendly, helpful, honorable man of character that his supporters know, he could also have been capable of doing what Ford says he did at that party.

The latest episode of The Annex Sociology podcast has in interview with Nicole Bedera, who has done research about rape among students. Her personal story is especially relevant here.

In her senior year her college in Salt Lake City, she did a campus survey to estimate the prevalence of rape. Here’s an excerpt from the podcast.

Here’s an edited transcript

For my senior thesis I did a prevalence survey . . . on my campus . . . I presented [the results] anywhere I could . . . because I wanted people to know that sexual violence was a serious problem on my campus. And in giving all those presentations, a lot of survivors came up to me and told me their stories. And many of them named names. And in this process I identified three serial rapists on my campus. And two of them were close friends of mine.

I tell this story because it’s so uncomfortable.

Often the men that can get away with sexual violence are really charismatic, they’re often very powerful, they’re people who are likeable. . . That’s why when we hear whispers about what they’ve done, we say, “That can’t possibly be true. He’s such a nice guy.”

So a lot of us are very close to people who have done unspeakable, horrific things to women in their past.

The entire interview is well worth listening to. You can find it here (don’t let the title and picture fool you). As Joe Cohen, one of the Annex hosts, says of each episode, you won’t want to miss it.

Memory and Character, What Are They Good For?

October 1, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Christine Balsey Ford is 100% sure that a drunken Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her thirty-six years ago at a party. Kavanaugh “unequivocally” denies it, says that he was not at any such party.

Often, those involved in the debate seem to be arguing on the basis of unquestioned assumptions that are incorrect. With two areas in particular — memory and character — widely held commonsense ideas just do not square with the findings of social science.

1. Memory.  It’s likely that neither Ford nor Kavanaugh is lying – deliberately saying something they know to be untrue. But memory is faulty. Our memories of events are incomplete --- details we can’t remember — as most of us would admit. What people refuse to believe is that what they do remember may also be wrong.

We like to think that a memory is a photo or video. Over time, details may become faded or blurry or disappear entirely, but what remains was there when the event happened. But that’s not how it works. Instead, memory is more like a document that we edit each time we open it. We add details, delete, change. Then we resave. And each time we call up the memory, we think that what we are seeing is the unedited original. We do this even with harrowing events. We can wind up entirely appropriating other people’s experiences, as Brian Williams did when he “remembered” being in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG. (See my 2015 post, or listen to Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast from last June. .)

Often, we edit memories in a way that makes them consistent with our idea of who we are now.  The man who in his fifties is sober as a judge will have a hard time remembering things he did as a hard-drinking and drunken teenager. He may not remember them at all.

2. Character. Kavanaugh and his defenders make much of his character. Because he is a man of excellent character, they argue, he could not have done what Ford says he did. The character argument rests on two dubious assumptions
  • that character is an unchanging, and ever-present quality
  • that behavior, especially behavior that can be judged as moral or immoral, flows from character.
We think that if we know someone’s character, we can know how he acted. Bad acts are committed by people of bad character. A person of good character could not have committed a bad act.

These assumptions about character are wrong, or at least incomplete. As Philip Zimbardo has said, reflecting on his own famous study and those of others, “behavior is largely under the control of social forces and environmental contingencies rather than personality traits, character, [or] will power.” He could have added that predictions as to how someone will behave become still murkier in settings that include sex and alcohol.

Behavior is inconsistent. The person who acts heroically in one situation may act cowardly in another. But we know that person in only a limited range of situations, and usually, that range does not include sex. Nevertheless, we form judgments about their character. We think we  know how they would act in most other situations, including those that do involve sex. Then we are shocked to discover that the kindly priest who was always so thoughtful and considerate acted very differently when alone with the altar servers. Or that the fatherly fellow, “America’s dad,” so wise and thoughtful, is the same man who drugged women in order to have sex with them.*

Many women have come forward to support Kavanaugh. (You can see a short version of their video here.) They are identified as having been friends, classmates, co-workers, and law clerks. Their message is that they are a diverse group  of women who have known Kavanaugh in a variety of situations.

Well maybe not so much diversity. It looks like it might be a reunion of Fox News on-screen women except that there’s a handful of brunettes. More important, the settings where they have known Kavanaugh are very unlike the one that Ford describes.  Were any of these women at parties where Kavanaugh had been drinking heavily in company with other heavy-drinking bros like Mark Judge? Did any of them ever try to resist Kavanaugh’s advances at a party or on a date? Has any of them resisted or challenged Kavanaugh in any way?

I was waiting for a woman to come forward and say, “I dated Brett for a couple of months in college, and even when he’d had a couple of drinks, he was a lamb. Sometimes when we were making out, he’d try to push me to go a little further. I’d tell him I didn’t really didn’t feel comfortable with it, and he’d say, ‘Ooops, sorry’ or something like that.”

I haven’t followed this story all that closely. Maybe some woman has said something like this, and I missed it. But it’s the kind of testimonial I would have found persuasive, far more so than several admiring law clerks talking about his professionalism and character.

* I made this point in more detail in this 2011 post, which ended with a quote from Jay Smooth: “We need to move away from the premise that being a good person is a fixed, immutable characteristic, and shift toward seeing being good as a practice.”

The Past Is Never Uncertain

September 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

As Yogi Berra famously said, It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future. He should have added the corollary (the obverse? or is it the converse?) – it’s easy to make predictions about the past.  I was going to say “the obvious corollary,” but I keep coming across statements by people who don’t seem to realize that they are making predictions about the past or that it’s easy.

A couple of weeks ago, the Times ran an article by psychiatrist  Richard A. Friedman, who was skeptical about claims that technology was rewiring the brains of America’s youth, and not for the better. “Despite news reports to the contrary, there is little evidence of an epidemic of anxiety disorders in teenagers.”

Times readers, some of them at least, could not let this calm, evidence-based assessment go unchallenged. The letters in response (here) included this, from a clinical psychologist.
[Dr Friedman’s] failure to take seriously the increased anxiety experienced by young people is problematic. The everyday lives of young people confront them with much more uncertainty about their futures than everyday life did for those of us who came of age in the 1960s and 1970s.

Young people today experience increased financial uncertainty relative to previous generations, with housing, education and health care costs having escalated astronomically relative to income. In addition, young people today have to contemplate the consequences of climate change over the next five or six decades, which will in all likelihood transform the quality of everyday life in many ways, almost none of which are desirable.

Oh for the 1960s and 70s, the era of certainty. But they were certain in the same way that it was certain Justify would win the Triple Crown, that the housing bubble would burst and with disastrous consequences, or that “Cheerleader” (God help us) would be a huge hit. They are certain only because we now know that they happened. Before that, they were uncertain.

Is the future more uncertain for young people today than for their counterparts fifty years ago? The sixties was a decade of cultural and political change:  a country divided over a seemingly endless war; political assassinations; urban riots, crime and White flight transforming the cities; drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll; student protests shutting down universities; the new feminism challenging rules and ideas about gender; and the ever present possibility of all-out nuclear war. Was anyone certain that it would all turn out OK?

Even for the fraction of the population (maybe 20%) who experienced the sixties, when we think about it now, all the  uncertainty is gone. We know what happened, and it’s hard to imagine that it could have happened any other way.  The outcome has become certain, so it’s hard to imagine anyone having been anxious about its uncertainty.

Twelve Years a Blog

September 19, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Now we are beginning a new school year.” That was the line I had to write every September in elementary school, back when penmanship was still part of the curriculum. If I recall correctly, the follow-up line was, “Writing helps me in my lessons.” I should pay more attention to those words of wisdom. Writing this blog can have its rewards both for learning and for teaching.

The start of a new year (academic year, blog year, Hebrew year) is also the end of the old year. Time to look back and pick out the posts that I liked — an exercise in what Chris Uggen,* in the banner of his blog, called “self-indulgery.”

1. Two posts about Debbie, the sociology grad student the TV show “Mindhunter.” Her misreadings of Durkheim and Goffman are noteworthy.

Debbie Does Durkheim  if only for the title. (Among people in France who read this post, there was some discussion on Twitter about how to translate the title.
“Mindhunter” Needs a Sociology Checker 

2.  Two posts on current hand-wringing over kids and technology.
America’s Not-So-Lost Youth

Smartphones and Teen Existential Angst 

3. Two posts about Tom Wolfe. Nobody had a sharper eye than Wolfe when it came to status and style — what we now call “signalling.” The trouble is that even when the issue was injustice or inequality, Wolfe saw only status and style.
Tom Wolfe (1931 - 2018) — Class, Status, and Parties 

Tom Wolfe and the Novelistic Techniques of the New Journalism – Reading Minds and Making Stuff Up

4. Rutgers v. Irony. I lapsed into very non-academic prose in this one.
Gentrification and Its Discontents
The guy it’s about e-mailed me that it was “brilliant,” but that’s only because I understood what he was trying to do while everyone else (Breitbart, Rutgers) was deliberately misundersanding it. Eventually FIRE got involved.

* If anyone can get Chris to put on his spikes again and come out of blogger retirement, the Internet will be a better place.

Politics and Child’s Play II — Different Games, Different Thoughts

September 14, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

When kids play on their own — with no adults to direct, organize, or supervise —  they find ways to resolve differences and disputes that arise. Over the past few decades, kids’ opportunities for this kind of free play have dwindled. More and more play has come under the domination of adults and their institutions — schools, leagues, clubs, and the like.

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt fears that this trend is aggravating the polarization that increasingly afflicts our society and politics. If kids never learn how to deal with one another in play, they’ll grow up to be adults who can’t work with other adults they disagree with.

There’s not a lot of data to support Haidt’s idea (see this previous post). More important, Haidt sees the problem as a matter of individual attitudes. That seems logical, but it makes two questionable assumptions: that it is largely these attitudes and abilities that determine what people do;  and that each person has a limited repertoire of emotions and social skills. It makes more sense to realize first, that people generally have a wider range of thinking, feeling, and acting than psychological theories give them credit for. And second, that emotions and ideas are not just individual; they are part of a situation.

It might seem strange see thoughts and feelings as residing in the external situation and not inside individuals, so let me give an example. In that earlier post, I briefly compared two ways that kids play baseball — pick-up games and Little League. In pick-up games, kids come up with all sorts of ways to resolve disputes and to deal with problems. Is the score lopsided after two innings? Have some players switch sides. Are there only thirteen kids, not enough for a full team on either side? Have same-side pitcher and catcher, no right-field hitting, or other work-arounds.

In contrast, in Little League, these solutions are literally unthinkable. If only six players from one team show up, it’s a forfeit. No game. Go home. How is it that the adults running the game cannot think of solutions that are obvious to 12-year olds playing a pick-up game? These grown-ups are not stupid. But ideas reside not just in the heads of individuals. What is thinkable and what is unthinkable is part of the situation.*

Emotions too come with the setting. Nobody likes to strike out or muff an easy grounder or fly ball. Still, these things happen. But only in Little League did I ever see this kind of mistake bring a kid to the edge or tears, or over the edge. Were these Little League kids more emotionally frail while the pick-up game kids were psychologically resilient? No. These were the same kids. The only difference was the setting for the game.

What prevents kids from engaging with one another to resolve differences is not their personalities or social skills. It’s the structure of organized sports —adult umpires, coaches, and managers to make decisions; the teams dressed in uniforms, sitting on separate benches; the emphasis on winning. Put the kids in a different setting, and they are skilled negotiators and problem-solvers.

Politics may have this same dual character,  with different kinds of politics shaping the available thoughts and feelings. Where people cannot talk to one another as people, they think of politics as a competition. Their goal is to win, to beat the other side. In politics at a smaller, more human level, people may see politics as governing — finding solutions to immediate problems in a way that accommodates others rather than alienating them.

The political polarization of recent years is real. At least there’s evidence of it in the answers people give in surveys. (See the charts in that previous post.). But surveys are general and abstract, and they ask mostly about national politics and national offices. What do you think of Trump, Democrats, Mueller, the tax bill? Whis Senate or House candidate will you vote for? In other words, in this distant game you watch on TV, which team are you rooting for? But when the issues are local — when a person can have a real effect on the outcome, and when the outcome is plainly visible — people are more flexible and co-operative. That’s one of the lessons James and Deborah Fallows draw from their five-year sojourn to cities in the heartland.

What we learned from traveling was not that the hardest American challenges of this era are illusory. They’re very real, and divisions about national politics are intense. So we made a point of never asking, early on, “How’s Obama doing?,” or later, “Do you trust Hillary?” and “What about Trump?” The answers to questions like those won’t take you beyond what you’ve already heard ad nauseam on TV.

Instead we asked people about their own lives and their own communities. [In The Atlantic]

Ask Conservatives and Republicans about taxes, and you’ll get the standard answer that lower is better. But Fallows visited towns in western Kansas, central Ohio, West Virginia, and South Carolina that voted for taxes in order to provide parks and libraries and to keep the employees who worked their from being thrown out of work.

These adults can come up with a variety of solutions to a problem. They can work out their differences. They can compromise. But they can also be the very same people who tell pollsters that they want government officials to stand on principle no matter what.


* I made this same argument in the early days of this blog (here) after I happened on a girl’s soccer game .

Chasing Rosebud

September 10, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Stories about what very rich men do with their money bring out my inner Freud. This week, it was Paul Allen

Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, is, of course, a billionaire. And with his billions, he does many of the things that very rich people do. He owns a 414-foot yacht plus a smaller yacht that’s only 100 yards long. He bought some sports teams (Seahawks, Trail Blazers). He has also supported medicine, science, and the arts. But his true love is aerospace..

His latest project is “Stratolaunch”– a dual-fuselage plane with a wingspan longer than a football field. It will carry a half-million pound rocket ship to its cruising altitude a mile or more above the earth, then drop the rocket, which will then blast off for space.  An article about it in Wired  had the title “385 Feet of Crazy.”

Mark Palko at West Coast Stat Views, (here), my source for this story, pulls the quote that would have caught my attention too.

As a teenager, Paul Allen was a sci-fi and rocketry nerd. . . .His childhood bedroom was filled with science fiction and space books. . . . . As Allen tells it in his memoir, he was crushed when he visited his parents as an adult and went to his old room to reference a book. He discovered that his mother had sold his collection. (The sale price: $75.) Using a blowup of an old photo of the room, Allen dispatched scouts to painstakingly re-create his boyhood library.

Allen never stopped thinking about space.

As Mark says, “You have here a fantastically wealthy man going to great lengths to recapture childhood dreams.”

Mark posts period images of Willy Ley Space Models and Galaxy magazine that might well have been part of Allen’s childhood. The current project, says Mark, is part of the culture of “Silicon Valley futurism . . . heavily (and I would argue not at all healthily) influenced and bounded by the tropes, rhetoric, and imagery of postwar science-fiction.”

My ideas run less to sci-fi and more to Freud and “Citizen Kane.” I’m not so much concerned with the specific type of fantasy. It could be sci-fi or winning the Superbowl; it could anything. What’s important is  that the object of the chase is just that, a fantasy — an ideal that can never be realized. It’s a dream object that, if only it could be grasped, would bring total fulfillment. The trouble is that it can’t, and it wouldn’t.

But (and here comes the Freud*) the fantasy does have a basis in reality — the reality of the warmth, security, and fulfillment of early childhood.  That reality can never be fully recaptured — we’re adults after all, living in the adult world. Yet it remains in the unconscious as a motivating assumption — the idea that somewhere out there, something can bring that same level of gratification.

A man (it’s usually a man) driven by this kind of motivation converts that unconscious ideal into something more tangible, often wealth and power. These goals have the added benefit of being infinite and therefore unattainable. No matter how much you have, you can always have more.**

“Citizen Kane” illustrates this idea in near-perfect form. From the very outset, the film makes it clear that Charles Foster Kane has spent his life trying to recapture the childhood he had with his mother.  In the opening scene, the dying Kane lets fall from his hand a snow globe, a perfectly contained snowy world of happiness and peace. Soon after, a flashback shows us Kane as a boy, playing in the snow, gliding downhill on his sled. But this is the day that Mr. Thatcher arrives to take him east. It’s his last day with his mother. Minutes earlier the sled had been a source of delight. Now he uses it, as a shield-like weapon against the man who is taking him away from this childhood..

(Click on the image for a larger view.)

“Maybe Rosebud was something he couldn't get or lost,” says Thompson, one of the investigative reporters who, according to the screenplay is “the personification of the search for the truth about Charles Foster Kane.” Thompson, in the next sentences,  hedges his hunch. “No, I don't think it explains anything. I don't think any word explains a man's life.”

But of course it does. Rosebud symbolizes something Kane lost and then couldn’t get. And he couldn’t get it because he didn’t realize what it was that he really wanted – the human warmth and happiness of childhood. He displaced that goal onto the narcissistic goals of wealth and power.  Each victory in pursuit of those goals brings him no real or lasting pleasure because they are not really what he is seeking.
Is Paul Allen a version of Kane with sci-fi memorabilia instead of snow? I have no idea. Wikipedia tells me only that “Allen has never married and has no children. He has been, at times, reclusive.” More important, in real life, motivation is not purely a matter of individual psychology. Movies are very good at showing us individual reactions, emotions, and ideas. But as I argued a while ago (here), motives, even motives like greed,  also reside in institutions and situations.

* The ideas that follow also owe much to Philip Slater.

**  “A million dollars isn’t cool,” Sean Parker tells Mark Zuckerberg (or at least he does in Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay).  “You know what’s cool? A billion dollars.” But people with a billion dollars several times over are rarely cool enough with that amount that they stop trying to make more.

Politics and Child’s Play

September 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the unit on bureaucracy and rationalization, I ask students to think about the differences between Little League baseball and pick-up games. It’s the same activity — kids playing baseball. But Little League runs on principles of bureaucracy as outlined by Weber. It has clear rules and authorities to enforce them. In pick-up games kids are free to adjust the rules according to the situation. With no umpires around, it’s the kids themselves who make the decisions. So the outcome on a close call, like whether a runner is safe or out, might depend on the current score (“OK, we’ll give it to you”), the decision on the previous close call, the individual involved (“Hey, it’s little Mason — give him a break”); or it might be decided by rock-paper-scissors. These are all reasonable ways of reaching an agreed-on resolution. And in Little League, they are all off limits. Kids are barred from participating in the decisions that affect their own game.

In Sunday’s Times (here), Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff make the same point about adult-organized activity compared with “free play,” but they go much farther. It’s not just that different structures (bureaucratic or informal) demand different ways of acting and thinking. They have long-term consequences. “Free play . . . matters not only for the health of our children but also for the health of our democracy.”  Clearly, Haidt-Lukianoff they are swinging for the fences.

There’s good data to show that they are right about free play getting squeezed out — by school and homework, by adult-run activities (lessons, organized sports), and by solitary vices involving screens. But Haidt-Lukianoff claim that the change has led to anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thoughts, and suicide. They also argue that it makes for a more polarized society where those who disagree cannot work towards compromise solutions. Do we have any real evidence for these consequences?

The trouble is that Haidt-Lukianoff are talking about how free play affects individuals, but for evidence they rely on data about aggregates — rates of behavior now compared with the same rates in the past. The logic is tempting. Teens today, on average, spend less time in free play. Teens today, on average, report more symptoms of anxiety and depression.  But are those anxious and depressed kids the ones who have been spending less time in free play? We don’t know. It’s also possible that these psychological problems are increasing not just for teens but among the population generally. For example, it’s true that rates of teen suicide have increased in the last decade, but so have rates of suicide among all age groups, including those who grew up in the years when kids had more free-play time.

Then there’s Haidt-Lukianoff’s claim about “the health of our democracy.”
The second predictable consequence of play deprivation is a reduction in conflict management and negotiation skills.
It’s predictable, but has it actually occurred? Haidt-Lukianoff point to the increasing political polarization in the US. “Americans report feeling fear and loathing toward people on the other side and have become increasingly less willing to date or marry someone of a different party. Some restaurants won’t serve customers who work for — or even just support — the other team or its policies.”

But young people are not responsible for this polarization, as even Haidt-Lukianoff recognize. “Play is clearly not sufficient for political cooperation — today’s political elites had plenty of free play as children.” Those “conflict-management and negotiation skills” are part of a willingness to compromise rather than adhere rigidly to ideology in all situations.  So it might be helpful to see who prefers compromise and who prefers ideology. We might expect to find a greater preference for flexibility in what Sarah Palin called “the real America” —  small-town and rural, conservative in religion and politics, more in the South and Midwest than on the coasts.

In 2014, a Pew survey asked people whether elected officials should “make compromises with people they disagree with” or on the other hand whether they should “stick to their positions.” In most comparisons, “real Americans” were less likely to want compromise.

(Click on an image for a larger view.)

If the decline of free play is related to the inability or unwillingness to engage with others, that suggests one other variable, one that Haidt-Lukianoff ignore — social class. I’m a little surprised that they don’t mention it since one of the most important and widely read books in sociology in the past 20 years, Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods, focuses specifically on the question of who organizes children’s play — adults or the kids themselves. Lareau compares the “natural growth” parenting of the working-class parents with the “concerted cultivation” of middle-class parents. The natural-growth approach lets children develop more on their own, with less parental direction and intervention. Middle-class parents, by contrast, cultivate. They organize and supervise. They pay great attention to what their kids are doing and worry about how that fits with long-term goals. They’re less willing to leave things to chance. . .  or to their children. Needless to say, middle-class kids have far less free-play time than their working-class counterparts, who are left to organize their own play. 

If Haidt-Lukianoff are right, the better-educated, more middle-class people should be less likely to want compromise. But it’s just the reverse. It’s the less educated who want their elected officials to be uncompromising when dealing with people who have conflicting ideas.

This  lack of convincing evidence is disappointing, for I don’t think that Haidt-Lukianoff are completely wrong. They’re making an important point about play and about politics. But they see the problem as psychological; they focus on individual psychological traits and social skills. They miss the important point that when we are looking at political processes, and even when we are looking at personal reactions and problems, it makes more sense to think about structures and situations, as I will hope to explain in a subsequent post.

Monkey Business

August 30, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Is a “monkey” idiom used, however tangentially, in connection with a Black person always racism?

After he won the Republican primary for governor in Florida, Ron De Santis made a statement about the coming general election. His opponent, Democrat Andrew Gillum, is Black. Here’s what De Santis said.

Florida elections are always competitive, and this is a guy who, although he’s much too liberal for Florida, I think he’s got huge problems with how he’s governed Tallahassee, he is an articulate spokesman for those far-left views, and he’s a charismatic candidate. I watched those Democrat debates, and none of that is my cup of tea, but he performed better than those other people there. So we’ve got to work hard to make sure that we continue Florida going in a good direction, let’s build off the success we’ve had on Governor Scott, the last thing we need to do is to monkey this up by trying to embrace a socialist agenda with huge tax increases and bankrupting the state. That’s not going to work. [emphasis added]

People on the left accused De Santis of using a racial dog whistle to get Florida racists to the polls. Those on the right disagreed.

It’s understandable that Black people would be offended. But the issue here is De Santis’s intent. If “monkey this up” is a common idiom – like “going ape shit,” or “monkeying around” with something – then maybe there was no racist intent. For example, in his response to De Santis’s comment, Gillum said, “What we’re trying to offer in this race is a north star for where we want to go as a state. [emphasis added]” Was this a dog whistle to Northerners who had moved to Florida or to other Floridians who want the state to be less Southern?

Unlikely. I’ve heard people use “north star” in this way, though I think its synonym “pole star” is more frequent (but then, Gillum is running in Florida, not Buffalo). But I don’t recall ever hearing “monkey this up.” Why would De Santis come up with it, especially when so many other words come readily to mind – mess this up, screw this up, undermine this, spoil this, and so on?

Mark Kleiman, a liberal, had a similar reaction. Responding to conservatives David French and Ben Shapiro. Shapiro (here ) had called the dog whistle accusations “wildly dishonest stuff.”

Was it just liberals like Kleimand and me who’d never heard “monkey this up”? I checked Google nGrams to see how often the phrase appeared in books. Instead of the usual graph, Google returned this.

Apparently “monkey this up” was as unfamiliar to Google as it was to me. (NB: our president has assured us that Google is biased against conservatives, and perhaps Google’s book-search function is similarly slanted. Fake nGrams.)

But that is not the whole story. I tried again, leaving out the pronoun.

Turns out “monkey up” really is a phrase. Its use has been falling since 1920, but only since about 1960 has it been outpaced by “muck up.” Maybe De Santis is old fashioned. Or is there regional variation? Maybe “monkey up” is more common in the South, like “coke” as a general term for soft drinks.

Gillum took “monkey up” as racist, but he also said that the problem goes far beyond ambiguous metaphors. “In the handbook of Donald Trump they no longer do whistle calls – they’re now using full bullhorns.”

Trump has taken us beyond the subtleties of language.  And yet, it’s probably unwise for Democrats to make accusations of racism. Trump supporters, understandably, don’t like being called racists, and if you point out the racism in their policy preferences, they probably won’t vote for you. So race becomes the issue that is hugely important but that can’t be talked about – the 800-pound gorilla.

I’m Just a Girl Who Cain’t Say, “I’ll Have to Get Back to You on That.”

August 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sociolinguist Deborah Tannen was in a colleague’s office when the phone rang. It was a man in the department asking the colleague to serve on a committee. She ran through the list of things she was already burdened with — thesis supervision, an overloaded teaching schedule, other committees. “There’s no way I could responsibly join another committee. Of course, if you can’t find anyone else, I’ll do it, but honestly, I don’t see how I could add it to what’s already on my plate.”

When the conversation had ended and she had hung up the phone, she turned to Tannen. “I can’t believe it. I told him I couldn’t do it, but he put me on the committee anyway.”*

The problem, as Tannen sees it, is not that the man was inconsiderate but that the two people were speaking in different “conversational styles.” He was listening in a “direct” style; she was speaking in a more “indirect” style. The only “No” he would hear was a direct one – simple and without qualification or exception.

It’s as though they were speaking different languages. Language is a part of culture, and cultures have different ideas about directness. When I was in Japan long ago, people would sometimes comment on how “frank” Americans were. At the time I took it as a compliment. Only much later did I realize that what they meant was that Americans, including me, will just barge in and tell you what they think or what they want with not a thought to anyone else’s feelings or preferences. They are too obtuse to consider the harmony within the group.

Japanese culture and language are indirect. There are countless stories of Americans doing business in Japan thinking that they had been told “yes” when the Japanese had thought they had clearly told the Americans “no.” The Japanese, with their comment about frankness, were telling me to be more sensitive and circumspect. But they were saying it indirectly, and I just didn’t hear.

Even within our own frank culture, getting to No is hard. We all are reluctant to give an unequivocal No. “Not really,” is often as close as we get. But there’s a gender difference. Men are more comfortable with the direct style than are women, especially when it comes to accentuating the negative. Women are more indirect. Tannen’s overburdened colleague thought she was being direct, and maybe she was — for a woman. A better example comes from a McSweeney’s list last week.

Nelles-Sager’s list includes, in part:
1. “Hmm… maybe.”
2. “We should look that up.”
3. “Totally.”
7. “Yeah, for sure, I mean, actually, it’s [right answer], but you’re right that it could be [wrong answer] if it wasn’t [right answer].”
8. “It’s possible.”
In many situations, gender overlaps with another variable that affects directness — power. In saying  “no” to someone higher in power, it’s probably better to be less direct.  Alternatively, those in power may take care not to be too harshly direct to those below them. Nelles-Sager doesn’t mention it, but three years earlier, McSweeney’s had another list : “Ways Teachers Avoid Saying ‘No.’” At least one entry — “I suppose it’s possible” — is identical to one of Nelles-Sager’s. Others include “I see where you’re coming from” and “I guess that’s an interpretation.”

The general point may be that when we are thinking about the feelings of others, we use the indirect style. The reason may be based in culture, gender, or power. It may even be a matter of personality, as illustrated by the passage that I cribbed the title of this post from.

The truth was that Pinchuck had not felt comfortable in the shoes but he could never bring himself to say no to a salesman. “I want to be liked,” he admitted to Blanche. “Once I bought a live wildebeest because I couldn't say no.” (Note: O.F. Krumgold has written a brilliant paper about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for “no” in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, “I'll get back to you.” This corroborates his earlier theories that the urge to be liked at any cost is not socially adaptive but genetic, much the same as the ability to sit through operetta.)

 — Woody Allen, “By Destiny Denied”


* This anecdote appears in Tannen’s recent book You’re the Only One I Can Tell: Inside the Language of Women’s Friendships.

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.

            *                    *                    *                    *
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 definition. 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 definition 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.

            *                    *                    *                    *
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.

Tribal Politics, Tribal Morality

August 3, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Paul Krugman today points out something I’d missed. Trumps famous line —“I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters” — is a slur on the morality of his followers. Krugman sees the quote as another instance of Trump’s more general “contempt for his working-class base.” In essence, Trump is saying that the level of morality among his followers is primitive, entirely tribal. The Trumpsters’ only criterion in making moral judgments, no matter how heinous or harmful the action being judged, is whether the person who committed it is one of their own.

After all, if Evangelicals and their leaders have nothing to say about Trump’s lust, greed, anger, sloth, gluttony, envy, and pride; if they are fine with his multiple breaking of the Sixth Commandment, then why would they mind his breaking the Fifth Commandment in the middle of Fifth Avenue?

Tribal morality flourishes when a group feels that it is under attack. The group sharpens the lines between “us” and “them,” as George Bush did after 9/11. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Under these conditions, the group has to direct its attention outward towards the enemy. The only crime by a group member is disloyalty.
Much of Trump’s rhetoric plays to this feeling that “we” are under attack. The threat comes from many sources — Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, the media, Hillary, China, and others (though not, of course, Russia) —  and Trump supporters chant enthusiastically about what we must do to these enemies —  wall them out or lock them up or whatever. It is the genius of Trump, his supporters, and Republicans generally that they can maintain this perception of themselves as embattled defenders trying to “take back” their country* even when they control all three branches of the federal government and most state governments.

As long as Trump’s supporters continue to perceive themselves and the world as “us” against “them,” his low estimate of their morality may well remain accurate.

* “Taking back” the country that rightly belongs to them and not to all these other people who cast more votes has been a constant theme among Republicans at least since Obama’s election and perhaps before. See this 2011 post, “Repo Men.”