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 Kleiman 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, rather than reproduce, the structure —  in this case, the structure of restrooms. Later, 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 the 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.”