A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

You Keep Using That Word...

So Lou Dobbs, Juan Williams, Doug Schoen, and Erick Erickson all recently freaked out on Dobbs’s Fox News program over the trend of more women becoming the primary breadwinner in their homes. I sense that so much has already been said about this clip, I don’t have a lot to add, so I’ll keep this one brief.

I want specifically to address Erickson’s quote:

I am so used to liberals telling conservatives that they are anti-science. But I mean this is -- liberals who defend this and say it's not a bad thing are very anti-science. When you look at biology, look at the natural world, the roles of a male and female in society; in other animals the male typically is the dominant role.

He doubled down on this assertion on his blog:

Pro-science liberals seem to think basic nature and biology do not apply to Homo sapiens.

This is a favorite rhetorical trope among conservatives—taking the accusations that liberals often lodge at them and turning them around. No, you’re the sexists! No, you’re the racists! No you’re anti-science! It might be sophomoric, but it makes sense that conservatives would look for opportunities to put liberals on the defensive in this way. And many liberals do have a bad habit of throwing around rather inflammatory allegations of racism and sexism in often glib and unsophisticated ways.

But often, these attempts to turn the tables belie a fundamental misunderstanding of the terms. Now, I’m not going to address what science actually has to teach us about gender roles (boy, I do NOT have that kind of time) or specific scientific findings about males and females (except to say, “in other animals the male typically is the dominant role” -- whoa nelly does that seem like an oversimplification). Instead I want to address a more basic assumption that Erickson is making about what science is and what role it plays in public policy.

Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. It tells us how things are, not how they ought to be. Certainly, many scientists will comment on how things ought to be, and as citizens, it’s their right to do so, but in those contexts, they’re speaking as citizens; they’re not speaking for science. “Should” isn’t really a part of science’s vocabulary. Science tells us that climate change will cause sea levels to rise and myriad other ecological changes. Science doesn’t tell us that we should do anything about this—our values tell us that. When we pro-science folks accuse a segment of political discourse of being anti-science, what we mean is that we want policy discussions to begin with a common base of knowledge that is built on sound scientific research. We’re not saying we should do what science tells us to do, because science isn’t telling us to do anything.

Using science in the way that Erickson uses it—trying to derive an “ought” from an “is”—is one version of a logical fallacy called an appeal to nature. You can make an appeal to nature without citing “science” explicitly, though science tends to float in the background whenever anyone talks about nature, and appeals to nature are all over our political discourse, not just on the right. Mainstream public discourse on gay rights is particularly interesting in this regard, because both sides of the debate have largely accepted the premise that an appeal to nature is appropriate, with homophobes decrying homosexuality as “unnatural” while gay rights activists assert that they were “born this way,” as if being born that way were relevant (I often wish that Lady Gaga had written a song titled “My Sexual Freedom is Not Contingent on How I Was Born,” but I guess it’d be harder to put that to a dance beat).

Appeals to nature in political discourse go all the way back to the beginnings of modern democracy and Enlightenment philosophers’ construction of “natural rights.” But just because something is natural doesn’t mean that it’s better. There is nothing natural about indoor plumbing, but I imagine that Erick Erickson still uses a toilet. Even if science taught us that every other animal species on earth had dominant males and subservient females, that would say nothing about what gender roles should be for humans.

So, Erick Erickson, if you’ve been accused of being anti-science, it’s not just because you don’t make informed decisions about matters where scientific findings are relevant. It’s because it seems like you don’t understand what science is.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

"Fitch the Homeless"

Does pointing out problematic aspects of "feel-good" texts have to make you a kill-joy? Does liking these problematic texts make you a bad person?


When I saw the “Fitch the Homeless” video, I laughed. When I read criticisms of the video, I (mostly) agreed with those criticisms. I do not think that these two things are mutually exclusive.

Texts are ambiguous. Novels, essays, speeches, movies, jokes, YouTube videos—any kind of text will inherently convey multiple messages, sometimes self-contradictory messages. There might be a wrong way to interpret a text, but there is rarely (if ever) only one right way to interpret a text. If this ambiguity weren’t an inherent facet of communication, there would be no need for English professors.

Stacy Bias mentions the “displaced rage I get flung at me when I point out the damaging parts of ‘feel-good’ social phenomenon.” This sounds very familiar. It calls to mind some of the discussions I saw around the Dove Real Beauty Sketches ad that came out a few months ago. It also calls to mind conversations I’ve had about the Human Rights Campaign and its problematic place in the gay rights movement. And the memeification of Charles Ramsey. And Kony 2012. And the place of “green” consumerism within the environmentalist movement. And so on and so on.

It’s a common reaction to feel defensive when confronted with the problematic aspects of a text that you enjoyed or found value in. The critique of the text can easily feel like a critique of you for liking that text. Am I guilty of cultural appropriation because I reposted a Harlem Shake video? Am I anti-feminist because I saw some satirical value in Seth MacFarlane’s Oscar jokes? Am I an imperialist because I thought Zero Dark Thirty was an anti-torture movie? As a way of avoiding self-recrimination, we often feel the need to defend the original text in ways that can escalate quickly. That’s how someone with good intentions can paint themselves into a corner and end up sounding like a jerk. While I don’t think I’ve ever felt “rage” when confronted with the damaging parts of these feel-good texts, I have been on both sides of these defensive feelings more than once.

I think guilt of this sort is counter-productive. Bias titles her post “Feminist Killjoy,” but pointing these things out only kills joy if you allow yourself to focus on self-recrimination rather than on the opportunity to create a (humanities instructor cliché alert) teachable moment. I recoil at absolutist language—words like “nothing” or “completely”—because they tend to shut down those teachable moments. Using those sorts of absolutist terms might be appropriate when talking about material matters, but they are rarely helpful when analyzing texts. This is one of the first lessons that I teach my writing students.

That use of absolutist language is the only criticism I have of Stacy Bias’s post, which is representative of a tendency that I see in a lot of similarly “killjoy” criticism (again, I have done this as well). For example, Bias writes, “the very crux of this joke on Abercrombie & Fitch is that their clothing will now be associated with the stigma of homelessness. This project does nothing to eradicate that stigma.” That wasn’t how I initially viewed the video. I saw it in contrast to these guys. The purpose behind “HoboJacket” is to create an association between the rival school and people who you consider "lesser." The message behind the donation inherently reinforces the stigma. With "Fitch the Homeless," the purpose behind the donation is to assert that it's wrong to cultivate a brand identity that's based on excluding people who you consider "lesser." It's certainly possible that that message reinforces the stigma in the same way, but that's not the only way to interpret it in this case.

Again, texts are ambiguous, and if you draw out a message that is of genuine positive value from a text, that can be just as legitimate as an interpretation that draws out a negative message. That, to me, is the definition of “problematic.” By starting with an acknowledgement of the ambiguity, nobody has to sacrifice the positive aspects when they acknowledge the negative. In that way, a conversation about what a text is transforms into a more nuanced conversation about language, structure, speakers, audiences, and contexts. Determining the point of emphasis--positive or negative--can be tough: there are few bad texts out there without some redeeming qualities, and few good texts without some problems. The ultimate test is what people do with the insights that the texts provide--what material impact they have on the world. Those impacts are uncertain, difficult to measure, and often indirect, but determining whether those material actions are damaging or helpful strikes me as far less ambiguous.