Friday, July 27, 2012

Male Violence

The other day I came across an article discussing the gendered nature of mass killings. I took a look because I was curious about what this person might have to say about gender and violence.

To start, the author presented some fairly obvious data illustrating the disproportionate prevalence in the United States of mass killings committed by men compared to those committed by women.

Now, the author took the data as an indication that males possess some sort of innate tendency toward violence. In fact, she chose for an analogy illnesses like lupus and anorexia, which disproportionately affect females, and to which an awareness of gender is employed in treatment and prevention.

And so I completely lost interest in this ground-breaking analysis. Any argument that rests on the concept of "human nature" - particularly a nature whose variations follow exactly along lines of gender and race - is automatically suspect to me. I have already discussed the rhetorical use of "human nature."  Yet I do not think I have touched on the social construction of gender in enough detail to warrant a link here.

I don't want to get too far off course, so I will limit myself, for now, to violence and aggression. It is commonly believed it is a biological fact that males are more aggressive than females. And testosterone is the culprit. In fact, no such evidence exists. Studies on testosterone are notoriously difficult to conduct, and the best ones have been conducted on birds, not people. Furthermore, they do not yield any conclusive findings.

You will argue, surely the prevalence of violence among males (compared to females) throughout history is proof enough. The problem is, it is difficult to make judgements about some sort of pure, unadulterated "human nature" when it has, for its entire existence, been so thoroughly polluted by society and culture.

To me, the fact that acts of mass violence are almost entirely committed by men suggests that this violence does not stem from any human nature at all. There is no evidence that anything biological is driving gender differences (gender as a set of behavioral traits, as opposed to sex, a set of anatomical features); and heaps of cross-cultural evidence prove just the opposite. However, there are countless numbers of societal features that do create and sustain gender differences. So it would be logical to suppose that these same societal characteristics are responsible for nurturing a male tendency toward violence.

To that end, I have subsequently come across the following articles that argue precisely that point.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Prevention Rhetoric

Every so often in the U.S. (this is true all over, but I stick with what I know), someone who never attracted too much attention before will buy a bunch of weapons and go on a killing spree. Everyone is shocked, of course. And ultimately, there is speculation and debate about how this might be prevented from happening in the future.

Prevention may be sought at the level of policy: say, gun control laws? It also may be attempted at the level of individual psychology: looking for the so-called “warning signs” that supposedly, if we are vigilant, can alert us to potential disaster.

Prevention discourse is a perfect example of the way in which the contradictory aims of neoliberalism and government function together in modern capitalist society. On the one hand, prevention rhetoric forms a key component of governmental power and the ideology of progress. That is, the impulse to try to rationally order human life to maximize happiness and minimize harm, along with the belief that this goal is attainable. Or, in raw terms: the urge to manage human beings with the tools of law and science (especially psychology) for the purpose of the common good.

On the other hand, prevention discourse simultaneously locates responsibility for phenomena NOT in the structure of society as a whole, not in the system itself, but in individuals. That, of course, is why psychology is key. (Once individuals are responsible for personal and collective goods, interventions can take place at the individual level.)

The problem is, responsibility does ultimately lie in the system itself, as much as people may want to attribute things like mass killings to some mystical psychosis or neurosis. We live in a society in which the production of arms in ridiculously large quantities is vital to the functioning of the economy. We operate within an economic system that alienates and dehumanizes masses of people. Our consciousness is permeated by a discourse that frames violence as a useful tool that can be justified by a variety of ends. To the latter point, I find it a bit ironic that the same people who are so horrified by an act of violence are, in the next moment, advocating (and almost relishing the thought of) violence against the perpetrator as a just and noble act.

It is impossible to prevent people from doing things that are unexpected. It is impossible to control people. Attempting some sort of technocratic solution to violence of this nature is futile. (A friend of mine tried to start a discussion about "If guns were regulated like cars..."; I was so tempted to respond:  yes, and those regulations adequately prevent drunk/angry/mentally impaired people from driving and killing people.)  Government policies and psychological research may be unable to restrain human actions, but the system itself, in terms of the availability of the means of violence that it proffers and the attitudes toward violence that it engenders, can make these mass killings more or less likely.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Divide and Conquer: Part 2

I have discussed the nefarious impacts of an ever-proliferating web of non-profits and government agencies, which diffuses the focus and energies of well-intentioned people in a multitude of different directions, preventing the emergence of a unified radical movement.

Then there is the more obvious divide and conquer strategy, of which there tends to be greater awareness. Historians and anthropologists have noted that the origin of the concept of “race” coincided with an attempt (successful) to create a wall of separation between poor whites and black slaves, and thus prevent them from uniting to overthrow the system that oppressed them both. Throughout American history, working-class whites have been told that they are competing with blacks (and immigrants) for jobs, all the while opportunist politicians cultivate an insidious racism which may be used to garner their support for the ruling elite. In the words of Bob Dylan (excerpts from Only A Pawn in Their Game):

A South politician preaches to the poor white man
"You got more than blacks, don't complain
You're better than them, you been born with white skin" they explain

The deputy sheriffs, the soldiers, the governors get paid
And the marshals and cops get the same
But the poor white man's used in the hands of them all like a tool
He's taught in his school
From the start by the rule
That the laws are with him
To protect his white skin
To keep up his hate
So he never thinks straight

The strategic cultivation of poor, white racism is more well-known. But I often wonder if the same tactic is used to create divisions along lines of gender, sexual orientation, and class (the latter within the same race).

For example, there has been some attention given to the fact that macho-ism/sexism is more exaggerated within white, blue-collar and African American communities (this works internationally as well, but I will stick to the American context for now). There are many scholarly and popular examples. Just recently, for example, the CNN news anchor Don Lemon, upon publicizing his sexual orientation, discussed the extreme difficulties (greater than in American society at large) of being gay in the African American community. And there has been no end to the public discussion about sexism in hop-hop music and culture. Likewise, the image of white, blue-collar life is a paragon of gender stereotypes: blue-collar men fix cars, go hunting, ride trucks and motor cycles, get wasted at the bar and get in fights. Music associated with working-class culture (most notably country and hard rock) is rife with sexism. Lyrics this time from Brad Paisley (country singer):

When you see a deer, you see Bambi
And I see antlers up on the wall
When you see a lake you think picnics
And I see a large mouth up under that log

When you see a priceless friend's painting
I see a drunk naked girl
When you think that riding a wild bull sounds crazy
And I'd like to give it a whirl

These days there's dudes gettin' facials
Manicured, waxed and botoxed
With deep spray-on tans and creamy lotiony hands
You can't grip a tackle box

Yeah, with all of these men linin' up to get neutered
It's hip now to be feminized
But I don't highlight my hair, I've still got a pair
Yeah honey, I'm still a guy

Oh, my eyebrows ain't plucked, there's a gun in my truck
Oh thank God, I'm still a guy

Effeminate men (in the above song, the "dudes getting facials"), in contrast, are associated with elitism and upper-class lifestyles.

Moreover, many people have noted, with great concern, that successful blacks tend to disassociate themselves from poor black communities. They move out into the suburbs and adopt “white” cultural preferences. Black students who do “too well” in school may be criticized for “acting white.”

All of these public images, stories, and stereotypes serve to reinforce boundaries among various groups of people who would be better served by creating a unified front to combat an unjust system. I cannot help but wonder, based on the divide and conquer strategies that have been used to put a wedge been poor white and black, if the public images of these divisions (sexist/homophobic lower-class white and blacks, middle-class versus poor blacks, etc.) spring purely from the social realities.... or if the social realties themselves were partially constructed (and are partially reconstructed) by means of the proliferation of these images and stories in the public sphere.

Is there some iniquitous force lurking in the background, purposefully trying to create and exacerbate all numbers of divisions among the large population of oppressed human beings?

I can speculate, though I have yet to come across any real research. (If anyone knows of any, please comment!) It is a bit curious that, since the time of slavery, white men publicly called into question the masculinity of black males (for instance, calling them “boy”), seemingly trying to provoke them in some way, while scientists simultaneously disseminated their conclusions that black men are inherently hyper-masculine and aggressive. Then, there is the widely-circulated idea that one must be a bread-winner in order to be a “real man,” thus inciting men who are not able to adequately provide for their families to assert their manhood in other ways. Moreover, one must consider who really gets to decide what types of hip hop/hard rock/country music is available in music stores (real or electronic), heard on the radio, featured in movies, and thus ultimately, what artists and songs become representative of these genres? Finally, one must also observe that African Americans for the most part are not allowed to be successful unless they disassociate themselves to a certain degree from black culture and the life of the ghetto. Many students find that they have to “act white” in order to avoid being stigmatized by their teachers, if they want to do well in school. Thus, I can see some evidence that these divisions may be fostered by dominant groups.

 If this is the case, then it follows logically that it would be a divide and conquer strategy.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Limits of Comedy

Every so often a comedian will say something really racist or sexist or homophobic or in some other way controversial (for some reason this usually tends to occur at the Laugh Factory) and it creates a huge media buzz. The resulting discussion is the same every time and reveals that there is a gaping chasm regarding what people consider to be acceptable territory for comedians. For those who are wondering, yes, this post was prompted by Tosh’s rape joke.

So, it always turns out that some people are totally offended, while others insist that nothing should be off limits. Personally (and from a partially amateurish social scientific point of view), I do think that the exploration of societal boundaries is a useful function that comedy can perform. Comedy provides a useful means of juxtaposing the expected/stereotypical/acceptable with the unexpected/transgressive/taboo, as well as demonstrating the fuzziness, instability, and arbitrariness of the boundaries and categories we construct. In short, comedy reveals all the intricacies of social life that normally exist below the level of conscious awareness.

But there are other types of comedy that do not perform this function. For example, certain forms of humor serve the purpose of making people feel better about themselves at the expense of others (it may be worthwhile to note, in that regard, that the middle school boys who taunted their bus monitor were inspired by their experiences watching Tosh.0 and their desire to get on the show).  This type of comedy includes the brand of “stupid humor” that portrays fictional characters acting unrealistically idiotic, to satisfy people’s pleasure in feeling superior to someone less intelligent.

[I should add that not every portrayal of stupidity falls into this category. For example, the Dylan character on Modern Family is used partially to mock the stereotypical suburban teenage boy and to highlight the disparity between the parents’ expectations for their daughter and the reality of her choices; furthermore, an exchange such as –

Father: I mean, it's the tux I got married in so it's double breasted.
Dylan: Perfect. So am I.

– also serves as a clever linguistic quip.]

Then there is the brand of humor that is based on a desire to liberate oneself from any social norms and say everything that normally goes unspoken (the Saying Poop for the Sake of Saying Poop brand of humor). Some (but not all) of the practitioners of this form of humor argue that boundaries should not exist, and comedians must have free rein. Every time a controversy occurs, these people insist that anyone who is “too sensitive” should not go to comedy clubs, and that comedians can say whatever they want – because, after all, “it’s just comedy.”

Despite all my radical anarchist/antiestablishment tendencies, even I see the necessity of some social norms. Certain boundaries exist because they protect oppressed populations. In particular, certain limits on discourse are necessary to erode assumptions that specific types of people are inferior to others. For example, if it were not taboo to say (overtly) that black people are less intelligent, then there would certainly be more people who believe such nonsense actually expressing it openly, and these open affirmations of belief would reinforce one another, further entrenching racism in the collective conscious of society. To those who doubt the power of the Word, I would point out that the prevalence and circulation patterns of discourse always affect social reality, and that is why efforts at social control always begin with discourse (propaganda). I should also point out that I am NOT arguing that: 1) Social norms require legal enforcement; or 2) We can make problems go away simply by not talking about them. My claim is simply that discourse – any kind of discourse – has social consequences, and therefore, limitations on discourse may be useful in mitigating (though not necessarily eradicating) certain negative consequences for oppressed groups.

I believe that only the first form of humor that I described above is socially productive. I think the second lacks insight and can be personally damaging in many cases. And the third tends to be employed (by coincidence and not necessity) by comedians who are ultimately unable to think beyond commonplace assumptions. These comedians, in their quest to eradicate boundaries, are not attempting to challenge the social order or dominant ideologies, but merely fighting for their ability to express already hegemonic ideas (about race, gender, sexuality) in the crudest possible terms.

I also want to respond to the common argument that these controversies are the fault of people who are too easily offended. For example, in Louis C.K.’s odd and inconsistent reaction to the Tosh/rape controversy on the Daily Show, he made the “joke” that “feminists don’t have a sense of humor.” There are a couple of reasons why I don’t find this funny. Number one is that, from a purely comedic standpoint, lines get progressively less funny the more they are repeated and I have heard this one far too many times. But more importantly, this “joke” about feminists is generally used to undermine the legitimacy of their claims. It is a license to not take feminists seriously. It is also a power-trip. What angered me most was when Louis C.K. said, “Okay, we’ve listened to you. Now shut the f*** up.” It reminds me of being at work, when I compile reams of data and logical arguments to try to influence courses of action within my department.... and I’m told, in effect: “Okay, we’ve listened to you. Now shut the f*** up.” The fact is this: Louis C.K. is not only absolutely wrong, but is also perpetuating gender stereotypes, when he says that all women want is for someone to listen to them. No. What feminists (assuming, for the moment, that they are all the same) want is to be taken seriously, to have a seat at the table, to participate in social decision-making, to enact change. Who gives a crap about listening; what about an end to discrimination, stereotyping, and violence?

I think what I hate most about the “feminists don’t have a sense of humor” bit is the assumption that it is not possible to simultaneously care about things and have a sense of humor. Although I am quite a politically correct person, I have a sense of humor that constantly throws people for a loop. The faulty assumption is a case of boundary-phobes seeing things in black/white, and not recognizing the existence of people who both appreciate boundaries and like to explore them as well (in fact, it is impossible to explore something that is being destroyed). For example, to those who say my disapproval of Tosh’s joke indicates my lack of a sense of humor... would I automatically get upset about any joke that mentions rape in any context whatsoever? No! (For example.) But do I believe that there are inappropriate contexts and executions of rape jokes? Sure.

The fact of the matter is, I don’t see any reason why comedians should be granted complete immunity. Every social actor bears responsibility for the social implications of their work. The idea that the world of comedy operates by different rules is, to me, a cop out answer.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Freedom and the Necessity of Coercion

I had a conversation with someone a few days ago which relates to my argument (from my previous post) that "freedom" is a problematic term that, in its use, glosses over a complex social reality.

We were discussing associations - groups that supposedly exist for no other purpose than a specific need common to its members.  In particular, we were talking about how associations will raise the price of their products (publications, certifications, dues, etc.) while members complain about the burden of the costs.  Our debate hinged on the question of whether members should have any say in the matter (or whether the solvency of the association is more important).

I provocatively asked, "Well, don't the members have a right to run their association into the ground, if they want to?  It is THEIR association, after all.  It exists for them."

The response:  But these associations MUST exist.  Otherwise there would be no professional ethics, regulations, standards.... no way to ensure that people keep their knowledge up to date.  It's like the federal government. Most people wouldn't pay taxes if they were given a choice.  Plus, people don't agree on what they want.  I would pay more in taxes for defense spending; you told me you wouldn't pay anything.  So you can't let people decide what they want for themselves because society wouldn't be able to function that way.

Now, obviously complete anarchy in a society like ours would be a disaster.  And in general some degree of social coercion is necessary.  That's why the term "freedom" is not very helpful for a nuanced understanding of social life.

The issue is, then, the means and ends of social coercion.  It is also the type of society that necessitates certain (undesirable) forms of coercion.  It is important to remember that most of us live in societies that are large and lack clear boundaries (globalization).  We operate in a system that is structured by forces that redistribute the majority of wealth toward a handful of people.  So, if I don't have any say in how my tax dollars are being used, that is not an evil because I have to bow to communal interests; rather it is an evil because the allocation of my tax dollars is being dictated by the agenda of an insanely wealthy ruling class, whose decisions do NOT benefit either me or society as a whole.

I understand that in a large society like that of the U.S. it would be impossible to have a true democracy (assuming, that is, that we have any democracy at all, which I would dispute).  Rather than resigning ourselves to current conditions based on that fact, though, shouldn't we think about whether or not large societies are really beneficial to most people?

And going back to associations.  Yes, I understand that when groups of people work together that some sacrifice and compromise is necessary.  But associations exist within a context of a stratified, exploitative capitalist system.  When prices of membership and membership benefits become too high, then it becomes a barrier to participation, further exacerbating the stratification of society.  We have developed a society in which the costs of basic social necessities (medical care, education, etc.) rise at astronomical rates, and become prohibitively expensive for a critical number of people.

You can throw your hands up and say "it's the market," or "it's the industry," or "that's what it takes to live in society."  But really, that is what it takes to live in this society.  And there is no reason why we should not be able to critically evaluate the particularities of our current system, and weigh the harms against the supposed gains of social progress.  As always, I just wish this was something that could be discussed or thought about.  It seems that the really interesting questions can never rise to the level of conscious consideration and debate.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Independence Day

Today I have been and will continue to be bombarded by emotional displays of patriotism.  I will hear "God bless America" more times than I can count.  The people around me will discuss their appreciation for democratic values and the freedom that we enjoy.

Freedom is a loaded word - that is, a word that is employed more for the purpose of stirring up emotional reactions than to denote any meaningful reality.  What does "freedom" actually mean?  In the case of the U.S., freedom is generally synonymous with representative democracy and capitalism.  However, representative democracy is a form of oligarchy, and capitalism runs on slavery and exploitation.  If one looks at material reality, the conditions to which the term "freedom" are generally applied render the word absolutely meaningless.  We're dealing with Orwellian linguistics here.

But, we have freedom of the press!  Yes, anyone has the ability to publish official narratives and mainstream viewpoints, without impediment.  Of course, there are many issues (particularly related to global affairs) where you will only find one perspective in any American media source.  Alternate points of view are nowhere to be found... except in foreign newspapers.  And try to publish anything that the Powers That Be find truly threatening - say, start a site called WikiLeaks - and you will be hunted down like Osama Bin Laden.

But, we do not jail and torture dissidents!  Or.... do we?  Arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens is permissible by law, and torture does not seem to be beneath us either. Heck, we can just send a drone over to annihilate someone who is saying things that bother us.

But we have freedom of religion!  No one is forcing me to pray, or go to church, or wear a veil.  Now, if you happen to be Muslim, you just have to put up with a little surveillance here and there, and probably should plan to always be detained at the airport.  And you may be ridiculed and called a terrorist by everyone around you.  No big deal.

Well, at least the state isn't telling us what to buy and where to work.  Good point.  The small number of mega-conglomerates who control the production and distribution of most consumer goods tell us what to buy and where to work.  That is so much better than the state.

Well goshdarnit, at least I don't have any King George telling me what to do and making me pay taxes on my tea.  If only power were vested in a single individual.  Revolution would be SO MUCH easier!  Get rid of the King, and restore power to the people!  But that is not how it worked in 1776, and that is not how it works now.  The King is a symbol, and democracy is a symbol, both used to legitimate what is actually an oligarchic social reality.

The American Revolution was NOT a case of people rebelling against a tyrant and fighting for their freedom.  It is a case of structural transformations and adjustments, spearheaded by capitalist interests, for the benefit of capitalist interests, and to the detriment of every common person.  You don't even need to look at Canada to realize that the Revolution was of little consequence.  It followed from the internal logic of the capitalist system - the birthing pains of the emerging world order.

Now, I will not be waving any American flags today.  Not because I hate America.  (I generally do not direct my emotions toward symbolic, intangible objects.)  But because patriotism is simply a euphemism for nationalism, and nationalism is a form of state manipulation of emotions, which is often paired with racism/xenophobia.  

I would prefer to celebrate universal, trans-national values.  Peace, tolerance, equity.