A Boy Named Sue Ashley

August 12, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Has anyone here ever seen the movie ‘Gone With the Wind’?” I ask my class during a discussion of names. “Do you remember that there was a character named Ashley Wilkes?” I say. “That role was played by Leslie Howard.”

Most students have not seen GWTW, and they are surprised to learn that Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes is the one on the left. They know that Leslie can be a boy’s name, though it’s mostly for girls. But Ashley? Yes, Ashley. Until about 1939 (the year “Gone With the Wind” was released), Ashley was unknown as a name for girls. As a name for boys it was not common – most years, fewer than 10 per 100,000 – but it was not weird, certainly not among Southern gentry.

(Click on an image for a slightly larger view.)

Then starting around 1950 and accelerating in the 1960s, Ashley took off among girls, followed by a smaller boom among boys. (The y-axes on the graphs are not the same scale. Male Ashleys at their peak in 1980 numbered only about 40 per 100,000. In the peak year for girls, the rate was nearly 700 per 100,000.)

Boys names becoming girls names is not unusual. Nameberry has a list of more than sixty names that have “morphed from blue to pink.”  The reverse almost never happens. Leslie is a good example. Until 1940, it was rare among girls, fairly common for boys. Up until about 1910, it ranked in the top 100 names for boys.

In the mid-1940s, Leslie became increasingly popular for girls, increasingly unpopular for boys. These contrasting trajectories suggest a sort of “there goes the neighborhood” effect. As girls move in, boys move out. Eventually the name becomes thought of as feminine, and parents no longer consider it fit for boys.

Kelly follows a similar pattern. For boys, the name is unusual; for girls it’s unheard of.

Then, around 1950, the number of boy Kellys triples in a decade, though those numbers are still relatively small – only in its peak year, 1968, does it break into the top 100 and then just barely at #97.  But following the boys by ten years or so, girl Kellys come on strong.  From ranking 904th in 1950 Kelly rose in popularity so that by 1966 she was in the top 20, where she remained for another fifteen years. The gender tipping point came in the late 1960s. Kelly became a girl’s name, and parents of boys stop choosing it.

The unusual thing about Ashley is that it reverses this pattern. The increased popularity for boys follows the girl Ashley boom by about ten years. That is, a small but increasing number of parents continued to name boys Ashley even after the name had become established as a name for girls.

Despite this exception, the unwritten rule of naming seems to be that you can give a girl a predominantly male name; she and her name will still be accepted. You might even be in the vanguard of a trend, like the parents in the late 1940s who named their daughters Ashley. But you can’t send a boy out into the world with the name Sue.                                        

Males are more constricted by norms of masculinity than are females by the norms of femininity. And not just in naming. Girls will do boy things, but the reverse is less common. It’s more acceptable for a girl to be a “tomboy” than for a boy to be a “sissy.”  Girls will watch movies targeted at boys, but boys shy away from girl-centered films. Among adults as well, women give favorable evaluations to TV shows targeted at men,  but men are less able to appreciate shows outside their narrow band of interest. (Walt Hickey at FiveThirtyEight thinks men are “sabotaging” women’s shows by giving them low ratings.) 

The same is true in fashion, where women can choose from a wider variety of colors and styles, including those usually for men. Men’s choices  are more constrained. Men will not wear skirts, but women will wear pants and even pants suits, an item of clothing I mention only as a cheap way of getting to one final name.

It follows the usual pattern – a male name, albeit an uncommon one, declining in popularity, crosses over and becomes a name for girls. Its popularity increases rapidly. Up to a point. That point was 1993. Hillary was doing fine before that, but then for some reason, parents of daughters were no longer with her.

Who’s Shameless?

August 11, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

How can Donald Trump, with his 39 Pinocchios from Fact Checker, continue to make false and outrageous claims? How could he denigrate the gold star parents of a Musliim US soldier killed in Afghanistan? Why has he no sense of shame?

Trevor Noah, interviewed on Ezra Klein’s podcast, suggested that it started with bankruptcy. For most people, declaring bankruptcy is a matter of shame. It is a public admission of failure. But for a business, it’s not really so bad. American bankruptcy laws allow business persons to pick themselves, dust themselves off, pay their creditors and suppliers a fraction of what they are owed, and start all over again. Which is what Trump has done at least four times. Even if he might have felt a slight touch of shame the first time, it quickly wore off in subsequent bankruptcies. Trump the businessman might have taken a financial hit, but Trump the public person suffered no loss of social standing.

Before looking for other explanations – surely they must be out there – I wanted to  see the extent of the image of Trump as shameless, I went to Google.

Nearly 700,000 hits. The difference between him and other polticians must be huge. For comparison, I tried the Democratic nominee.

Hillary, by this measure, is not quite so shameless as the Donald, but 500,000 seemed like a lot. Then again, her opponents could reel off a list of scandals dating back to her days in Arkansas. I tried a few successful presidential candidates.

Obama and Bush were not so far behind. The toll was high even for Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, who served before shouts of “shameless” could be echoed around the Internet. Besides, Reagan and Carter, whatever you thought of their policies, seemed like decent human beings. Yet their quotient of “shameless” pages runs to hundreds of thousands. I confess I am ignorant of the ways of the Google algorithm and what those numbers actually reflect. Still, nearly half a million seems like a lot.

Maybe this is not about the politicians themselves. It’s about reactions to those politicians, especially in a polarized polity. Partisans strongly committed to their own point of view often believe that those who disagree with them are acting in bad faith. (See this earlier post about politics and perception.) They think that their own views are so obviously valid and true that a person who sees things otherwise must be denying reality and deliberately lying. These denials and lies are so blatant, so transparent, that most people would be ashamed to utter them. Who could say things that they know are factually and morally wrong?  The politician who is shameless. But the shamelessness may be mostly in the eye of the beholder

Weber at the DNC

August 3, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Like those Japanese soldiers in Southeast Asia who held out long after Worrld War II was over, a few Bernie supporters are vowing to stay in the jungles fighting the good fight. Some are going with the Green party. The Guardian quotes one of them: “I just really strongly believe that you should always vote your conscience.” 

She is voicing what Max Weber called an “ethic of conviction.” In “Politics as a Vocation” (1919), Weber distinguished between that ethic and an “ethic of responsibility.” Conviction, as the name implies (at least in this English translation*), carries a religious certainty about ultimate values. Those who operate solely on an ethic of conviction refuse to compromise those values. How could conscience let them do otherwise? They remain faithful to their values regardless of the actual consequences in the shorter term.  Weber quotes the maxim, “The Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord.”

By contrast, those guided by an ethic of responsibility pay attention to the immediate effects of an action or policy. “One has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one's action.”

These two ethics seem contradictory. Yet, Weber says, those who engage seriously in politics must blend these two seemingly incompatible orientations.

The ethic of conviction and the ethic of responsibility are not absolute opposites. They are complementary to one another, and only in combination do they produce the true human being who is capable of having a “vocation for politics.”

Max Weber, meet Sarah Silverman (2016): “Can I just say to the ‘Bernie or Bust’ people: you’re being ridiculous.”

* The German term, Gesinnungsrthik, has been translated as “Ethic of ultimate ends,” “Ethic of single-minded conviction,” “Ethic of absolute conviction or pure intention,” “Ethic of principled conviction,” and “Ethic of intention.”

The Social Fox Construction of Reality

August 2, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

Why do they love Trump? I often lean to the psychological explanation that many of the Trumpistas are voting with their emotions. It’s not about policy. It’s not about what might be best for their own lives or the country. They like Trump because he gives voice to their thoughts and feelings, especially thoughts and feelings that are unacceptable in the current cultural orthodoxy. Trump expresses their many resentments – against cultural elites, against economic elites, against immigrants, against the poor – especially the Black and Hispanic poor – against government.

I’m not quite ready to abandon that view, but Mark* at the blog West Coast Stat View (here) has a simpler explanation. Voting for Trump is rational. It is realistic – that is, it is consistent with reality. Mark doesn’t explicitly use the term “bounded rationality,” but he’s getting at something similar.  A decision may seem irrational to others (“What was he thinking?”); we ourselves may find it irrational looking back on it (“What was I thinking?”). But at the time, it  made sense given the available information and our ability to process that information. The problem was not with our rationality but with the boundaries that limited what we could see. It was consistent with our reality.

The important question in voting then is “Which reality?” And the answer Mark gives for Trump voters is: “the reality of Fox News.”

The tile of Mark’s post is “Explaining Trump in Four Words,” and the four words are, “Republicans believe Fox News.”

Here is Mark’s summary of that reality:

  • Global warming is a hoax
  • The government and the media are hostile to Christians
  • Food-stamp recipients live on steak and lobster
  • While America is the most taxed nation in the world
  • The financial crisis was caused by government policies that required loans to be made to poor minority members
  • The 2008 election was probably stolen
  • President  Obama's birth records are possibly fraudulent, the product of a massive cover-up
  • President Obama is certainly anti-American
  • As are most Democrats
  • Voter fraud is rampant
  • Islamic terrorist are on the verge of major attacks on Americans
  • America is in decline

A few hours after the The West Coast Stat View post appeared, Trump told an interviewer, “You have radical Islamic terrorists probably all over the place, we’re allowing them to come in by the thousands and thousands.” A dozen Pinocchios or Pants-on-Fire ratings from fact-checkers won’t matter. Those thousands of terrorists streaming in to the US are a reality for Trump and for his followers.

* I’m not on a first name basis with Mark. I don’t know him at all. But I’ve searched WestCoastStatView and cannot find his full name or that of his co-blogger Joseph. Which is too bad because they run an excellent blog.