Experiments and the Real World

May 26, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Two days ago, the NY Times published an op-ed by Tali Sharot and Cass Sunstein, “Would You Go to a Republican Doctor?” It is based on a single social psychology experiment. That experiment does not involve going to the doctor. It does not involve anything resembling choices that people make in their real lives. I was going to blog about it, but Anderw Gelman (here) beat me to it and has done a much better and more thorough job than I could have done. Here, for example, is a quote from the op-ed and Gelman’s follow-up.

“Knowing a person’s political leanings should not affect your assessment of how good a doctor she is — or whether she is likely to be a good accountant or a talented architect. But in practice, does it?”

I followed the link to the research article and did a quick search. The words “doctor,” “accountant,” and “architect” appear . . . exactly zero times.

Gelman takes the article apart piece by piece. But when you put the pieces together, what you get is a picture of the larger problem with experiments. They are metaphors or analogies. They are clever and contrived. They can sharpen our view of the world outside the lab, the “real” world  — but they are not that world.

 “My love is like a red, red rose.” Well, yes, Bobby, in some ways she is. But she is not in fact a red, red rose.

Here is the world of the Sharot-Sunstein experiment.

We assigned people the most boring imaginable task: to sort 204 colored geometric shapes into one of two categories, “blaps” and “not blaps,” based on the shape’s features. We invented the term “blap,” and the participants had to try to figure out by trial and error what made a shape a blap. Unknown to the participants, whether a shape was deemed a blap was in fact random.

The 97 Mechanical Turkers in the experiment had to work with a partner (that is, they thought they would work with a partner – there was no actual collaboration and no actual partner). Players thought they would be paid according to how well they sorted blaps. The result:

[The players] most often chose to hear about blaps from co-players who were politically like-minded, even when those with different political views were much better at the task.

To repeat, despite the title of the article (“Would You Go to a Republican Doctor?”), this experiment was not about choosing a doctor. To get to New York Times readers choosing doctors, you have to make a long inferential leap from Mechanical Turkers choosing blap-sorters. Sharot-Sunstein are saying, “My partner in sorting ‘blaps’ is like a red, red rose a doctor or an architect.” Well, yes, but . . . .

See the Gelman post for the full critique.

Full disclosure: my dentist has a MAGA hat in his office, and I’m still going back for a crown next month. A crown is like a hat in some ways, but not in others. 

Clinton-Patterson — The Copy Editor Is Missing

May 25, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Entertainment Weekly has posted an excerpt from the new novel co-written by Bill Clinton and James Patterson.

Here is the opening of that excerpt.

Everything I did was to protect my country. I’d do it again. The problem is, I can’t say any of that.

“All I can tell you is that I have always acted with the security of my country in mind. And I always will.”

I see Carolyn in the corner, reading something on her phone, responding. I keep eye contact in case I need to drop everything and act on it. Something from General Burke at CENTCOM? From the under secretary of defense? From the Imminent Threat Response Team? We have a lot of balls in the air right now, trying to monitor and defend against this threat. The other shoe could drop at any minute. We think—we hope—that we have another day, at least. But the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain. We have to be ready any minute, right now, in case—[emphasis added]

I confess I have never read any books by either of these authors. I voted for one of them, and the other has given a fair amount of money to the school where I work. But despite these considerations, I cannot shirk my duty to point out the mixed metaphors. Maybe they’re the result of mixed authorship. Did Clinton like the “balls” and Patterson* the “shoe”? And where was the copy editor who is supposed to spot these kinds of miscue?

* Multiple authorship is nothing new for Patterson. He does not actually “write” his own books, in the usual sense of write. “Patterson delivers exhaustive notes and outlines, sometimes running 80 pages, to co-authors, . .  a stable of writers that rivals this year’s field at the Kentucky Derby. ‘It may be a factory,’ Robinson says, ‘but it’s a hand-tooled factory.” (WaPo)

Philip Roth, Buses, and Me

May 23, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

I met Philip Roth once, in March 1988. It was in the Port Authority, in the waiting room for the bus to Newark Airport.  He was sitting in one of the seats against the far wall.  The other areas were about equally full, so I walked towards him.  He looked up and saw me looking at him.  I sat down one seat away.

“You’re Philip Roth, aren’t you?” I asked, by way of explaining why I had been looking at him. 

“Yes,” he said.  “Who are you?”

“Nobody,” I said.  “A reader.”

“A reader,” he repeated as though to himself, “well, that’s good.”

The rest of the time in the waiting room, he spoke to the woman on his left, who I assumed was Claire Bloom.  I could catch bits and pieces of her conversation, the British accent.

On the bus, he wound up sitting across the aisle from me.  I searched my mind for the right opening.  Finally, when he was not speaking with Ms. Bloom, I said, “Is it often that you get recognized in bus stations?”

“It depends,” he said.  “If the bus is going to Newark, there’s usually somebody.”

Roth readers less forgetful than I am will recall the opening line from Zuckerman Unbound (1981). “What the hell are you doing on a bus with your dough?” a fellow passenger asks the very Roth-like Zuckerman.

The other Roth bus quote has stayed in my mind. It’s the opening of a chapter in Portnoy’s Complaint: “Did I mention, Doctor, that when I was fifteen I took it out of my pants and whacked off on the 107 bus from New York?”

But I didn’t think of either of those at the time. For much of the remaining twenty minutes of the trip, I actually carried on a conversation with him.  We talked about the decline of journals like Partisan Review.  I asked if he were still active in getting Eastern European writers published in the US.  He said (I think) that there was not a lot of material there.  I asked if he had helped to get Kundera first published here.  He said that he had helped get some of his stories published.

He asked me if I’d read The Unbearable Lightness of Being and said that he hadn’t thought much of the movie.  Here is approximately what I said:  I was disappointed.  It didn’t seem as good as The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, especially “Lost Letters.”  The author seemed more distant from the characters, less involved with them, as though he didn’t care so much about them.

“I think you’re right,” Philip Roth said.
Did he really think I was right?  Maybe he was just being polite.  Maybe, even if he thought I was right, he also thought that the point was irrelevant.  I should have asked him what he thought, but then I didn’t think it was fair to ask a writer to comment on the work of another. It was probably the kind of question he got asked all the time. 
When he got off the bus, he shook my hand and said it was nice meeting me.  I, of course, said the same.

Anachronistic Language and Television — On Second Thought

May 22, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A comment on my post about language anachronisms in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (here) has me rethinking my position. Maybe it’s not just a matter of right and wrong, of historical accuracy or inaccuracy. It’s also about cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. Much as I dislike the anachronisms, maybe I wouldn’t like the show so much if it were linguistically faithful to the period.

With the props, there’s no problem. We’re all cultural relativists. We think about those objects in the context of the times. We don’t mind a Studebaker parked in the street. And we’d howl if it were a Camry. But when it comes to language, we’re ethnocentrists, judging yesterday’s language by today’s norms. 

To get a sense of this, I tried a thought experiment: What if the characters in the show spoke the way people in 1958 really spoke? Most of the dialogue would be the same, of course, especially for her parents and the other more conventional people in the show.  But the people in a hip Greenwich Village club would be using words and phrases that were cool then but have long since disappeared.

Imagine Midge and Susie in conversation.

SUSIE: Nice necklace
MIDGE: Yeah, some cat that was here last week laid it on me for twenty bucks.
SUSIE: Solid! You could hock it for more bread than that.
MIDGE: But I think it’s hot, you dig?
SUSIE: Nah, he’s probably just like that with chicks.
I exaggerate.  My point is that we can accept the period decor – the clothes and cars and furniture. Those are externals. If I were to walk around on the sound stage of Mrs. Maisel, I’d still be me. But language is internal. We think it tells us about the person, not the historical period. The outdated language makes the character a different person, and we don’t feel as close to her as we would if she spoke like us. Dig and cat and bread make her less (to use the current and very recent term) “relatable.” (Of course, given the show’s penchant for anachronism, I wouldn’t be surprised if in Season Two Susie tells Midge, “If you’re gonna do stand up, you gotta be relatable.” )

It’s easy to be a cultural relativist when it comes to the physical world. OK, we think, this is what a living room was like in 1958. We don’t think, “What kind of person would watch an old TV like that?” But with language, we’re more ethnocentric. Using those obsolete words today would seem forced and phony, so we make the same inferences about the characters that use themeven in a show set in 1958. “What kind of person would speak like that?” we ask. And the answer is, “Someone trying too hard to get us to think they’re hip.”

By contrast, unless our anachronism sensors are tuned in, when we hear them talk about “kicking ass” or being “out of the loop,” we think that they’re speaking “naturally” —  using standard language to convey information, not to create an impression. They’re not phony, they’re relatable.

School Shooting + Guns + Flag — How Embarrassing

May 18, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Embarrassment happens when someone sees something you don’t want them to see, and you think that they will draw an impression that is not the one you want them to have. It’s embarrassing to be discovered cheating (on a test, on your spouse) because then people will get the impression* that you cheat – an accurate impression, but one you don’t want them to have. It’s like Michael Kinsley’s observation about politics: a gaffe is when a politician tells the truth.

Less than an hour after the gun slaughter in Santa Fe, Texas, a man showed up at the school carrying a large flag and a large pistol. Someone tweeted a video of him, adding that another man said that what the gunslinger did was “an embarrassment.”

It was embarrassing because someone might see this flag-waving gunslinger and get the impression not just that flag-waving and gunslinging are part of the American way of life, our American exceptionalism, but that these go along with our exceptionally high number of school massacres. Someone might get the impression that the guns and the massacres are just as American as the Stars and Stripes.

The man in the video had committed a gaffe.

Anyone who has taken intro sociology will recognize that I’m using Erving Goffman’s ideas about impression management and the presentation of self.

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

May 17, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

According to the obit in New York Magazine, Tom Wolfe’s “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s,” published in New York Magazine in June 1970, “will be taught as long as there are journalism schools.” The obit also refers to the ”novelistic techniques of New Journalism.”

I’ve never taken a course in journalism or in writing novels.  But I would think that there is an important difference. A novelist can tell you what someone in the story is thinking and feeling and never be wrong.  After all, it’s the novelist who is creating everything.  If Robert Ludlum tells you that Jason Bourne is thinking something, that’s what Bourne is thinking. By contrast, the journalist can’t just guess or invent what’s going on in a person’s mind. Someone, preferably that person, has to tell them.

Unless the journalist is Tom Wolfe. Apparently one of those “novelistic techniques” is knowing, without anyone reporting it, what people are thinking. Usually, it’s what Mr. Wolfe wants them to be thinking. And what he wants them to be thinking about is themselves – their status and style. A central element of “Radical Chic” is, (again in the words of the NY Mag obit) “rich people acting a little absurd.”

The piece opens with Leonard Bernstein in 1966 (four years before the famous party) awake in the pre-dawn hours sketching out the idea for a concert piece. Wolfe’s source for this is one page in The Private World of Leonard Bernstein (1968), by John Gruen. Gruen’s account is based the notes Bernstein himself jotted down that morning. The piece would involve Bernstein with a guitar, a “Negro” (1966 remember) who speaks to the audience, and finally Bernstein making a very brief anti-war statement. “‘It’s no good,’ says Lenny,” Gruen writes. Lots of artists get ideas that they consider for a while – in this case apparently for a few hours one morning – and then reject. Bernstein never composed the piece.

In Bernstein’s notes the guitar is just a guitar. In “Radical Chic” it becomes “A guitar! One of those half-witted instruments, like the accordion, that are made for the Learn-To-Play-in-Eight-Days E-Z-Diagram 110-IQ 14-year-olds of Levittown!” I guess that those details are “novelistic,” and the exclamation marks make it more convincing. But basically, Wolfe just made it up.

Wolfe continues with his version of Gruen’s account.

For a moment, sitting there alone in his home in the small hours of the morning, Lenny thought it might just work and he jotted the idea down. Think of the headlines: BERNSTEIN ELECTRIFIES CONCERT AUDIENCE WITH ANTIWAR APPEAL. But then his enthusiasm collapsed. He lost heart.

Wolfe is telling us Lenny’s thoughts – Lenny’s all-caps egotistical fantasies. But neither Gruen nor Lenny mentioned anything like that. Wolfe just novelistically made it up.

Wolfe does his mind-reading act again and again..

The very idea of them, these real revolutionaries, who actually put their lives on the line, runs through Lenny’s duplex like a rogue hormone.

Shootouts, revolutions, pictures in Life magazine of policemen grabbing Black Panthers like they were Viet Cong — somehow it all runs together in the head with the whole thing of how beautiful they are. Sharp as a blade.

God, what a flood of taboo thoughts runs through one’s head at these Radical Chic events . . . But it’s delicious. It is as if one’s nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status. Deny it if you want to! Nevertheless, it runs through every soul here. [boldface added; italics in the original]

Wolfe uses that phrase, “Deny it if you want to,” four times. The implication is that if you want to know what people were thinking, if you want to fact-check and confirm that their “nerve-endings were on red alert to the most intimate nuances of status,” you can’t ask them. They’ll deny it. You just have to take Tom Wolfe’s word for it. Trust me.

A Black Panther official explains the situation of the Panthers who were arrested.

“They’ve had 27 bail hearings since last April . . . see . . .” —But everyone in here loves the sees and the you knows. They are so, somehow . . . black . . . so funky . . . so metrical . . .

How does Wolfe know that “everyone in here” loves these verbal mannerisms and for those reasons? He doesn’t tell us. We just have to take his word for it, as though he were a novelist telling us what his characters are thinking. In fact, in later years, Wolfe did write novels. But in “Radical Chic” he claims to be not a novelist creating fictions but a journalist reporting events.

If only sociologists and ethnographers could get away with this kind of non-fiction. . . and get rich to boot.

(See yesterday’s post for more on Wolfe.)

Tom Wolfe (1931 - 2018) — Class, Status, and Parties

May 16, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

A “traitor to his class” – that’s what wealthier Republicans and conservatives called FDR. Here was a man who came from wealth yet whose policies were more directed at helping the poor and unemployed, even at the expense of the rich.

Tom Wolfe’s most famous work is probably “Radical Chic,” the 25,000-word piece that ran in New York Magazine in June, 1970. It was about “a party for the Black Panthers.” Wolfe too casts a cold eye on wealthy people coming to the aid of people who were on the wrong side of the social system, in this case, twenty-one Black Panthers accused of a variety of offenses including conspiracy to blow up New York department stores, police stations, the New Haven Railroad, and the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

Thirteen of the accused had been arrested and bail was set at $100,000, in effect denying them bail. They had been in jail for over a year. Leonard Bernstein had been persuaded to hold a fund-raiser for them in his apartment. Wealthy people, some of them famous, were invited. So were the lawyers and some members of the Black Panther Party.

You’d think that a journalist covering the event would pay extensive attention to the legal side of things – the charges, the evidence, and so on. You’d also think that in reflecting on the article years later in an interview with the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, the journalist would mention, at least in passing, that the eventual trial had lasted eight months (New York’s longest and most expensive ever at the time) and that the jury took only a couple of hours to return not-guilty verdicts on all 156 charges (twelve crimes x thirteen defendants).

You might think that, but if the journalist is Tom Wolfe, you’d think wrong. Wolfe didn’t really care about the legal charges. He didn’t care about the issues of justice or race or politics that the people at Bernstein’s apartment were talking about. What he cared about was Style.  His goal in the article was to mock these rich White people, many of them Jewish, for trying to incorporate elements of Black style. For Wolfe, the gathering – the discussion and donations – was not primarily about justice. It was merely one more attempt by rich people to appear hip. As Wolfe told the Nieman interviewer

This is not a story about politics; it’s a story about status. Particularly the status of very wealthy people who would find it socially correct to have a really notorious group — [. . .] They’ll never be a starker contrast between, to use a fancy word, two sensibilities.

The cover for this issue of New York Magazine captures Wolfe’s message –three wealthy-looking White women (I have no idea who designed their dresses; Wolfe, no doubt, would know) raising their fists in the Black Power salute.

Wolfe is very good at style and status. Nobody does it better. The article is awash in observations of clothes, colors, fabrics, objects.

The Field Marshal of the Black Panther Party has been sitting in a chair between the piano and the wall. He rises up; he has the hardrock look, all right; he is a big tall man with brown skin and an Afro and a goatee and a black turtleneck much like Lenny’s, and he stands up beside the piano, next to Lenny’s million-dollar chatchka flotilla of family photographs. In fact, there is a certain perfection as the first Black Panther rises within a Park Avenue living room to lay the Panthers’ 10-point program on New York Society in the age of Radical Chic. Cox is silhouetted—well, about 19 feet behind him is a white silk shade with an Empire scallop over one of the windows overlooking Park Avenue. Or maybe it isn’t silk, but a Jack Lenor Larsen mercerized cotton, something like that, lustrous but more subtle than silk. The whole image, the white shade and the Negro by the piano silhouetted against it, is framed by a pair of bottle-green velvet curtains, pulled back.

No detail is too trivial.

Lefcourt and Quat [lawyers for the Panthers] start talking, but then, suddenly, before Don Cox can open his mouth, Lenny reaches up from out of the depths of the easy chair and hands him a mint. There it is, rising up on the tips of his fingers, a mint. It is what is known as a puffed mint, an after-dinner mint, of the sort that suddenly appears on the table in little silver Marthinsen bowls, as if deposited by the mint fairy, along with the coffee, but before the ladies leave the room, a mint so small, fragile, angel-white and melt-crazed that you have to pick it up with the papillae of your forefinger and thumb lest it get its thing on a straightaway, namely, one tiny sweet salivary peppermint melt . . . in mid-air, so to speak . . . just so . . . Cox takes the mint and stares at Bernstein with a strange Plexiglas gaze . . . This little man sitting down around his kneecaps with his Groovy gear and love beads on . . . 

You might think that devoting this much attention to a mint – a mint for godssakes – serves mostly as a vehicle for Wolfe to show off his knowledge of merch (Marthinsen bowls) and his prose. But the Nieman interviewer, tells Wolfe. “This is a beautiful thing, the way you puncture the tension with a mint.” Shows you how little I know about journalism.
There’s another problem with Wolfe’s New Journalism – the almost imperceptible shift from the reporter’s observation to the novelist’s omniscience. I hope to say more about that in a later post.

Names 2017: Boys and Girls Together

May 15, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Boys names can become girls names, rarely the reverse. But that is true only of individual names. With the overall distribution of names, in at least one way, boys are becoming more like girls.

When a name crosses over from one gender to the other, girls follow the boys. A name that had been exclusively male starts to gain popularity for girls, with a consequent loss in popularity for boys.  It’s the “there goes the neighborhood” effect that Stanley Lieberson first pointed out. When girls start moving in, boys move out. (See this post).

For example, around 1960, Brook started to rise in popularity as a name for boys. Barley ten years later, the name was adopted by parents of girls. In a decade this girls  name quintupled in popularity. The number were still small, but where before it was not even in the top thousand, it rose to nearly #500 in popularity. Parents felt they could no longer give a boy that name, and Brook soon became an all-girl neighborhood. With an “e” added, Brooke eventually broke into the top 50, while baby boy Brooks all but disappeared.

(The graphic is from Baby Name Voyager. Click to enlarge.)

But if we look at changing patterns in names —  the variety and variability—  the genders switch places.  The curve of boys names is becoming more girl-like.

Fashions in names have resembled fashions in clothes. Women can wear a variety of colors and styles; men’s choices are more limited. Look at prom pictures. The guys are all wearing pretty much the same black tux. Everyday business wear for men widens the spectrum only slightly. Remember how Obama was pilloried by the right-wing for wearing a tan suit rather than the usual gray or black that all other men wear. But for a woman, it can be an embarrassment to be seen in a dress worn by even one other woman.

Similarly in names, parents of boys were happy to give their sons the same old names —  William, Christopher, John, etc. Boys could be given the same name as the father. But for girls, parents were more likely to want a name that was different (but not too different). One of the trends of the last several decades is that parents of both sexes have tried to come up with less common (but not weird) names.  Consequently the sheer number of different names has burgeoned. Compared with names in 1997, the number of girls names had increase by 60%. But for boys the number had more than doubled. Boys are still trailing girls, but they’re trying to catch up.

The increase in names is not simply a matter of an increase in babies. In fact, more babies were born in 1997 than in 2017.

The trend towards a more female-like variety also appears in the proportion of babies accounted for by the most popular names. Forty years ago, nearly 38% of all boys had a name that was among the 20 most popular. For girls, the corresponding rate was 26%. Parents of girls were more likely to look for less common names.

That trend – the search for more unusual names – increased for both sexes, but more so for boys.  By last year, the boy-girl gap of forty years ago had narrowed to one percentage point.

The desire for something new also means that fashions change more rapidly. Traditionally, women’s clothing styles came and went in a year or two or even in a season while men could keep wearing the first suit they’d ever bought (if it still fit). But fashions in male names (and probably in clothing too) have become more fleeting. Look at the top 20 names for each gender at 20-year intervals.

Of the top 20 boys names in 1997, more than half had been there 20 years earlier. For girls, only five of the top names of 1977 remained in the top 20. Jump ahead twenty years to 2017. Now, among the boys, only 5 names from 20 years earlier are still popular. And for girls, only two — Emily and the surprisingly durable Madison.

The convergence might be part of a general trend towards less rigid gender roles. If so, then the trend towards a greater variation in boys names should be slower in regions that are less evolved when it comes to gender roles. Or perhaps it’s part of the change towards viewing the child as a unique and very special individual, one who deserves a unique and very special name. That change in turn may have a lot to do with the decrease in the number of children. But these are just highly speculative guesses.

UPDATE: Tristan Bridges has much better graphs showing these same trends. He uses the top 10 rather than the top 20 and finds that in 2017, for the first time since 1880 when the census started keeping the count of names, the top 10 girls names accounted for a higher (though only very slightly higher) proportion of all girls names than the corresponding proportion for boys.  His post is here.

Others — Specific and General

May 13, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

When it comes to the standard sociological view about the self and socialization, as I said in a post nearly ten years ago (here) ,  I’ve lost my faith.

I realize how wrong I’ve been about some basic ideas. Taking the role of other, seeing ourselves as other see us, the looking-glass self – what a crock. In fact, people don’t see themselves as others see them, and I’m not just talking about people who are clearly delusional.

But an interview I heard recently now has me both reaffirming my skepticism and also thinking that Mead and Cooley – the guys from a century ago that intro textbooks haul out in the section on social psych – had a point. It may come down to the difference between the “generalized other” and a “specific other.” The interview, oddly enough, was about loss of faith.

Linda Curtis was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Even as child, she went door to door, handing out the literature, trying to convert people. I would imagine that her mother and others taught her what to say and how to respond to the curiosity, indifference, hostility, etc of others. After all, the reactions that people have to Jehovah’s Witness door-knockers fall into a few limited categories, and proselytizers learn the scenarios for each of these. Her elders would probably also have taught her a set of ways for thinking about these people and their responses, ways of thinking that provide a defense for the tenets of the religion. They would also have taught her ways of thinking that defend the self, that allow her, regardless of the reactions of others, to think about herself in a positive way. A sort of Witness protection program.

In the language of social psychology, the Witnesses were her reference group. It was with their lens, not that of the non-Witness world, that she saw herself.

But Curtis lost her faith. Her memoir is called Shunned: How I lost My Religion and Found Myself.  The turning point comes when for a moment she glimpses herself from another perspective — like what happens when you turn your head as you are walking past a mirror, maybe a three-way mirror, that you hadn’t known was there, and you see, for an instant, a person that you don’t completely recognize but who is inescapably you. At the time, Curtis was an adult, living in Portland, Oregon, married to another Jehovah’s Witness, and well along on a corporate career. She and another Witness had been assigned a territory in an affluent suburb. The man who answered the door turned out to be someone in her company, a man she knew and admired.

Here is a transcript:

Here comes a guy who I’ve known for years and that I know to be a very kind, capable, high-integrity person who I really, really like, and here I jump into this spiel that I’ve said a million times before because I’ve been knocking on doors since I was nine, and this was like, I’m thirty.

So I start speaking and I have this experience of hearing myself for the first time — like I’m an observer, over here, listening to my words. And I heard them as if for the first time. And it was self-righteous, and there was a kind of reproach and a judgment. You don’t actually say this in literal terms, but what I was saying to this guy was, “You’re not on the right team, and if you don’t get on the right team – Jehovah’s team – you could potentially be destroyed in this coming Armageddon.

When I said that, it really freaked me out. And I got out of there as fast as I could. (He was very gracious.) And that just opened a slight window for me. That discomfort didn’t go away. And I allowed myself over the next year to revisit that discomfort — like, whoa, maybe there’s another way to look at this. Could it really be that Jehovah God is that exacting — that he would wipe out this person who I know to be a really great person?

That’s where it started, and I allowed myself to build on that.

The vague, generalized other had been replaced by a very specific other, one whose views she cared deeply about.* The Linda Curtis she saw now from this new perspective was different from the Linda Curtis she had, with the help of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, constructed in her own mind. It was this new uncertainty about the self that ultimately led to her uncertainty about her religion.

* Mead distinguished between the “generalized other” and “significant others.” Poor George. He had no idea how people a half-century later would start redefining the term he coined. I imagine him pacing about in the social psych afterworld, listening in on people today talking about “significant others.”  “No, no, no,” he shouts, That’s not what it means.”

Such Bloody Good Cameras

May 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ronan Farrow was on the political podcast “Left, Right, and Center” recently, talking mostly about the decimation of the State Department under Rex Tillerson. But Farrow had just been awarded the Pulitzer for his reporting on Harvey Weinstein, and the host asked him, “What have you made of stories we’ve seen — not just Harvey Weinstein — [about men]  trying to find ways to restart their careers, figuring out how they can re-enter the industry?”

“I get asked that question a lot.” Farrow said.

My first reaction was that most of the people who ask that question are probably men, and it seems like misplaced sympathy. Oh, how can these poor fellows regain their former stature in show biz? My second thought was that whatever the concerns of the askers, the question is sociologically interesting.

My next thought had far less to do with the predators and their careers and much more to do with us, the audience. What are we to do about all those movies and TV shows? Does the moral taint spill from the person onto the work itself? Ironically, Weinstein is the worst offender, but since is role is that of producer, he’s also the one most easily bracketed off from the work. Do we even know who the executive producers of our favorite films were?

It’s more of a problem when predators are on screen and playing characters that seem very much like themselves. We’ll never again view Cosby as America’s dad. That one’s easy and besides his career was over anyway. But what will we do if Louis CK develops new material and puts it up on YouTube. . . and it’s good material?

Back in November, Claire Dederer writing in The Paris Review put it this way.

“Here’s how to have some complicated emotions: watch Manhattan.” It’s a very good movie, but the Woody Allen character’s affair with a high school girl now seems even creepier.

It’s the same dilemma in “Dr. Strnagelove.” Col. Jack Ripper asks Captain Mandrake (Peter Sellers) if the Japanese had tortured him when he was a P.O.W.


Here’s the transcript, but you should really listen to Sellers deliver the line.

No, I mean, when they tortured you, did you talk?
No, I ...
Well, I don't think they wanted me to talk, really, or say anything.
It was their way of having a bit of fun, the swines.
The strange thing is they make such bloody good cameras.

Ambivalent About Technology

May 4, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

In “The Magnificent Ambersons” the film by Orson Welles set in the early 20th century, the college-aged George is skeptical about these new “horseless carriages.” George is not a character that you take to. He’s something of a young fogey, and the film seems to be setting us up to reject his curmudgeonly attitude towards progress.

Yet Jack — Joseph Cotten as the voice of wisdom —  has this to say:

I’m not sure George is wrong about automobiles. With all their speed forward they may be a step backward in civilization. May be that they won’t add to the beauty of the world or the life of the men’s souls, I’m not sure. But automobiles have come and almost all outwards things will be different because of what they bring. They’re going to alter war and they’re going to alter peace.

Of course, this kind of prediction is much easier when you’re doing it in a 1942 film, but the line is taken directly from Booth Tarkington’s novel written in 1918. Then Jack adds

May be that in ten to twenty years from now that if we can see the inward change in men by that time, I shouldn’t be able to defend the gasoline engine but agree with George — that automobiles had no business to be invented.

Here’s a clip of more of the conversation.

I saw this film at the Harvard Square Theater many decades ago, and when the audience heard this “no business to be invented” line, they burst into applause. The same thing probably happens when the film is shown today.

Which is all to say that our ambivalence about technology goes back at least a century. We’ve made our peace with the automobile. We know where we stand. For the Georges and Jacks of today, the focus of uncertainty and anxiety is the computer-Internet complex and all its offspring – Facebook and Twitter, Tinder and OK Cupid, League of Legends and Grand Theft Auto, etc.  On podcasts and TV, in op-eds and books, critics are wringing their hands about the epidemic of, variously, depression, loneliness, sexism, racism, terrorism, and other ills that this technology has brought.

Yet I keep imagining that these same people also have deep discussions about which apps to download or which new smartphone to buy, comparing the iPhone and Pixel in the same way that some people in that movie audience might later have been scoffing that the Ford Mustang was really just a dumpy old Falcon with a smarter-looking body (I told you this was a long time ago), and you’d be better off with a Camaro. Nor does anyone, then or now, notice the seeming contradiction. In part, it’s the “elsewhere effect.” Those evils that technology has caused are happening somewhere else — to other people, to “society,” not to me and my friends. In part, that’s because we think of “society” as other people, as though we ourselves are not a part of it. We like to maintain the illusion of our own autonomy, an autonomy we are less willing to grant others. And in part, it’s because we just don’t know why we do what we do. Or to put it more charitably, we are unaware of many of the causes that affect our behavior, thoughts, and feelings.

For the individual, technology is seductive – it’s so convenient, and being among the first in your circle to master the latest gizmo is so cool. So even people who are uneasy about technology and social change at the general level may still, as individuals, want to be in the tech vanguard.

This is basically the point that Philip Slater, in The Pursuit of Loneliness, was offering at around the same time that the audience in Cambridge was applauding Joseph Cotten’s reservations about the automobile in “The Magnificent Ambersons.”

While we think of ourselves as people of change and progress, masters of our environment and our fate, we are no more so than the most superstitious savage, for our relation to change is entirely passive. We poke our noses out the door each day and wonder breathlessly what new disruptions technology has in store for us. We talk of technology as the servant of humanity, but it is a servant that now dominates the household, too powerful to fire, and upon whom everyone is helplessly dependent. We tiptoe about and speculate on his mood. What will be the effects of such-and-such an invention. How will it change our daily lives? We never ask, “Do we want this, is it worth it?” 
We laugh at the old lady who holds off the highway bulldozers with a shotgun, but we laugh because we’re Uncle Toms. We try to outdo each other in singing the praises of the oppressor, although the value of technology in increasing human satisfaction remains at best undemonstrated.

This is brilliant, but Slater omits something. He writes here about technology as though it were a few stand-alone gadgets —  a car, an iPhone, a drone — or else some incomprehensible monolithic force.  But along with the gadgets come powerful economic institutions, the bulldozers in Slater’s analogy, and the people who have become dependent on their success —  the bulldozer driver and manufacturer, the road construction crews and companies, and of course Ford and GM.

Flashback Wednesday — Little Miley, All Grown Up

May 2, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Miley Cyrus was on Jimmy Kimmel last night defending her tweet of two days earlier. The tweet retracted an apology of ten years earlier. I mean, I guess saying “fuck you” constitutes a retraction.

I had blogged about the controversy at the time (here), noting that the photo did not deliver on what the tabloid headlines promised – “Racy,” “Topless,” “Half-naked,” etc., and that the salaciousness seemed to be in the mind of the beholders.*

It wasn’t what Miley Cyrus was showing – a beach photo of her in a scoop-back, one-piece bathing suit would have shown more skin – it was what she wasn’t showing but that the viewers knew was there. “Seemingly bare breasted,” was how the Daily Record put it (just under the headline “It’s not Art – It’s Porn.”). What made the photo “racy,” at least to these observers, was not the sight of her bare breasts but the thought that she either had just bared them or might be about to.

Honi soit qui mal y pense. Which is basically what Miley told Jimmy last night.

“It was everyone else’s poisonous thoughts and minds that ended up turning this into something it wasn’t meant to be so I actually shouldn’t be ashamed, they should be.”

The title of my post was “Good Girl, Naughty Picture” and if there was any sociological content, it was the cultural context that went beyond mere Miley and her employer at the time.

The problem for Disney seems to be how to have their teen-age girl stars be attractive without being sexual. That was hard enough in the 1950s, when Annette was prima inter pares among the Mouseketeers, and as Dave Barry put it, some of the letters on her jersey were closer to the screen than others. Still, like a good Disney kid, she acted happily unaware of the changes puberty had brought. Not till she left Mouseworld did she go on to make all those beach films. (“Hi, I’m Annette, and these are my breasts,” cooed Gilda Radner in the SNL parody.)

As if to prove me and Miley right, for years after that, my post would still get visits from people who had Googled strings like “naughty pictures of 15-year olds.” I hadn’t intended the title as clickbait (did that term even exist in 2008?), but in checking back now, I see that the post has gotten three times more action than others from around then. Oh well, come for the porn, stay for the sociology.**


* The headline writers room at most tabloids seems to be staffed exclusively by middle-school boys giggling over their double-entendres.

** Google, in a sop to the privacy concerns of its users, has mostly stopped providing bloggers with information about which search-strings brought people to their blog . . .  or at least, I can’t find it any more.

Will No One Rid Me of This Sociological Priest?

May 2, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Poor Rev. Conroy. It was the sociology that got him fired.

Since 2011 and up until two weeks ago, he had been the chaplain for the House of Representatives. Then House speaker Paul Ryan fired him.

By most accounts, what triggered Ryan was the prayer Rev. Conroy offered during deliberations on the tax bill.

As legislation on taxes continues to be debated this week and next, may all Members be mindful that the institutions and structures of our great Nation guarantee the opportunities that have allowed some to achieve great success, while others continue to struggle. May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.

Ryan believes in God. He does not believe in social structure, though in some ways they are similar. They are both very hard to see, visible mostly in their effects, so that non-believers can remain unaware of how they alter and influence the paths we take.

Institutions and structures are at the core of sociological thinking and research. If the gap between rich and poor is much greater in the US than in other wealthy countries, there must be something going on beyond mere individual choices. But Conservatives like Ryan don’t buy that idea. For them, whether a person succeeds or struggles is purely a matter of individual virtue. As Margaret Thatcher famously put it, “There's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”

The tax bill that Ryan was trying to pass would increase the wealth of the wealthy. Or as Donald Trump told his rich friends at Mar-a-Lago when the bill passed, “You all just got a lot richer.” Ryan also planned to use the inevitable deficits from the tax cuts to justify reductions in government aid to the poor and elderly.

It’s pretty obvious that the tax code and food stamps change the structure of economic distribution. But when Rev. Conroy spoke of structures and then went on to suggest that maybe the government should not further comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted, well, it got Ryan’s Irish up, and he gave the Jesuit the boot. Those fifty words of Rev. Conroy – the micro-est of microaggressions against conservatives – were apparently too much for Snowflake Ryan to bear.

I wonder if leftists have gotten anyone fired – from a university or anywhere else – for a ten-second sermon preaching the Thatcher gospel of purely individual causation.