Dealing with Stupid People

It’s easy and fun to call people names. Slotting them into categories lets us guess what they think without them telling us. We can shut down intolerant babble before it begins. In promoting tolerance, why should we listen to perspectives that do the opposite?

I'm with Stupid
By Kevin Marks [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Okay. Imagine refusing to hear people out because their opinions promote intolerance and even oppression. In so doing, we are gleefully engaging in the very behaviours we claim to condemn: silencing, excluding, and imposing our own subjective position as a morally objective standpoint.

Name-calling happens across any divide. At its core, the very notion of the divide lays the foundation for separation, even segregation. Can we build a world with no divide?

I think that world already exists, if we would just help it emerge. We construct and reproduce the divide ourselves. We talk and behave as if seven billion individual views can effectively be split into two or three camps: you’re either this or that or the other thing. Anyone who resents being pigeonholed knows that such a division hardly represents reality.

Collectively, we like to reinforce the notion of the divide. New Atheists talk about the “regressive left” as harmful because they promote cultural tolerance. Those who advocate cultural relativism point fingers at “evangelical” atheists who steamroll diversity in their push for rational solutions to social problems.

In the US, Republicans say Democrats are living in “la la land,” while Democrats call Republicans “racist” and “uninformed.” The same dynamic happens elsewhere, and not just in politics. We seem to think people who don’t agree with us are stupid or unaware. If only they knew what we know, they would inevitably come to the same conclusions we do.

In 2005, writer David Foster Wallace gave a commencement speech to Kenyon College’s liberal arts graduates. He argued that the benefit of a liberal arts education lies in its ability to teach us to choose how we think and what we pay attention to. It pushes us beyond our default stance, the self-centered positionality we all grapple with.

Of course it’s hard to get out of our own heads when that’s where we live. Doing so requires coaching and effort. Sometimes, we’ll fail and that’s okay too.

The goal is to try and try again. Recognize our fallibility. Embrace uncertainty.

Hannah Arendt famously said, “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” Once we establish a new way of doing things, we can get stuck in our ability to receive new ideas.

In sticking to our guns, we might even restrict the liberties of others. Yes, we have good intentions. We believe we are fighting to create or conserve a “better” society. But better for who?

The only good society is one that allows all members to speak and be heard, regardless of how much power they have or how little they toe the line. This applies to small groups as much as entire nations.

So whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative, progressive or radical, anarchist or socialist, religious or humanist, or none of the above – whatever we call ourselves, we need to strive not to reduce others to something less than human. As if we’ve read their hearts and minds and distilled the contents down to tidy, facile labels.

Anyone can have a good idea. Find the common ground. Listen and learn. If we engage life assuming we don’t have all the answers, we’ll end up wiser in the long run. And nobody has to get hurt along the way.

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Lived Realities and the Concept of Race

Etno_icon
From Wikimedia Commons, User: Xil

Some people perceive women to be inferior to men and sexually available to whoever wants to have a go at them. They then behave as if this were true. Women’s inferiority is a “lived reality” to those people. Yet nobody says, “We need to acknowledge women’s inferiority and sexual availability because we need to talk about rape.” To get at the root of the problem, we need to understand that some people believe that women are inferior and/or sexually available, not that this is factually true. It might even be useful to question the meaning of a category like “women” (which many people have done more or less successfully).

On a related note, the divine right of kings used to be a “lived reality,” meaning that people (including the kings) experienced it as real and lived their lives accordingly. Yet nobody today would argue that we have to acknowledge the divine right of kings in order to understand historical political systems or even how people experienced them. No, we would simply agree that people believed in the divine right of kings and behaved as if it were real, thereby contributing to their own oppression and that of others.

Thus far, we can agree.

Many people perceive arbitrarily divided groups of people to be different based on physical characteristics. Somehow, our logic changes in this case and we come to the conclusion that, “We have to acknowledge race.” We don’t. We have to acknowledge racism.

By acknowledging race as a useful ontological category, we are telling the racists they are right, that there are concrete, observable differences that indelibly separate groups of humans from one another in insurmountable ways. We are saying that lines can be drawn to distinguish these groups in clear-cut ways. We are saying there is an objective reality to the perception of race. We are saying “Race is real, but we shouldn’t treat people differently because of it.” With good intentions, we are trying to make racist views less damaging, instead of rejecting them altogether. In short, we are accepting racism as a valid worldview, just one that needs to be tweaked.

If we acknowledge that some people believe in race and that it creates problems without accepting the premise of race, then we are refusing to give any credence to the underlying assumption of racists. We already have useful concepts that work much better than “race.” As a starting point, I suggest “genetic ancestry,” “historical community,” or “shared cultural experience.”

Can we really assert that a right-leaning politician in India has much in common with a retired performance artist in the United States just because they have the same skin tone? Does a social worker in Ireland readily relate to a Zimbabwean farmer who fled to Zambia during the civil war? My guess is no. “Race” has become shorthand for too many conflicting ideas. If we want to talk about oppression and lived realities, we need a better, more precise vocabulary to say what we really mean.

Outrage and Compassion

Gerhard_Merz_in_FernwaldThe world is full of outrage.

It’s normal to get upset when we see someone being treated unfairly, even more so when an entire group of people is oppressed by a system founded on prejudice. The right thing is to speak up and try to make the world a better place.

Social media can be an echo chamber, but it can also be a space for encountering alternative views. Unless we unfriend or unfollow everyone who disagrees with us, we can open ourselves up to a greater awareness of how others think.

I know as well as anyone that some people’s views are unpalatable and hard to deal with day after day. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ageism, classism, fundamentalism,  and a million other things can catch us off guard. Sometimes we’re tired and really just want to look at some cute animals or read the news about our favorite show. Some days, we just want it to go away. We can choose to ignore it or hide it. That’s okay. Contrary to popular belief, silence doesn’t always mean acceptance.

On other occasions, we may be fired up enough to challenge the view with reasoned arguments and solid evidence. We won’t stop until the person admits their view is wrong.

Unfortunately, in the midst of our activist zeal, we sometimes forget about compassion.

Despite what absolute relativists say (if such people really exist, which is doubtful), some views are more valid than others, because they are based on evidence and analysis and experience. I’m not saying that we should respect all views equally, regardless of who they might harm. But I do think that we should respect all people – if not equally, at least to a minimum degree.

There’s a difference between saying “Your view is wrong” and “You’re a dumb person.” It’s also unfair to assume we know how a person feels on an issue (“You shouldn’t be so angry about this”) if they haven’t told you (maybe they’re not angry at all). Also, telling people that how they feel is wrong and that they should feel some other way is about as unhelpful and unproductive as we can get.

Additionally, we should avoid slotting people into categories because of a single aspect of their opinion. The thought process goes something like this: “This person doesn’t like homosexuality, and in my experience homophobic people are generally on the right. Therefore this person is on the right and must also be a creationist Christian, fiscally conservative and more concerned with security than equality.” Wrong. In the Netherlands, for example, the right is not necessarily religious and they openly support homosexuality.

Our biases are just as biased as anyone else’s biases.

Any view must undergo a lot of scrutiny for it to prove its worth and staying power. Our own views are vulnerable to logical fallacies and misinformation, just like other people’s. We need to recognize this before jumping on our high horse. Questioning our own position will help reign in any tendency to arrogance we might have.

At the same time, we need to remember that not everyone has had access to intellectual training or positive mentors or accurate information. Many of our opinions come from emotional experiences, not facts, and those experiences and emotions need to be acknowledged, even if the conclusions are problematic.

Finally, though, the most important thing is that we remember that very few people are bad. At some point, Hitler was an aspiring artist who was kind to dogs. Instead of always focusing on what divides us, we might get further by trying to figure out what connects us. By finding common ground, we will be able to see our shared humanity and trigger empathy.

We can’t expect other people to behave more empathetically toward people they don’t agree with if we can’t do it ourselves. Let’s practice compassion whenever we can. After all, at its root, social justice is about people being nicer to each other. Maybe we can start by being nicer ourselves.

Something about Science, Gender, and Jobs

WomaRecently, the Globe and Mail sought readers’ opinions on getting more women into male-dominated professions, the sciences in particular. According to the article, more Canadian men than women pursue a career in the sciences. While the numbers are closer for those who study science in university (“less than 40 percent” are women), after graduation the discrepancy widens when it comes to employment (“less than 22 percent”).

The writers don’t offer any explanation for this gap. However, the piece’s title, “How can we encourage more girls into science careers?” suggests a tacit assumption. “We” (whoever that is) are not doing enough to promote science careers to young women.

Education, parents, media, marketing, and whatever else constitutes “we” might very well be guilty of persuading women that science is for men. It’s hard to say; the article provides no evidence, which is to be expected considering it never states the claim explicitly anyway.

Since we’re in speculating mode, I can come up with a few other reasons for the gender difference in employment. Please bear in mind that we’d need actual research to substantiate any of these.

  • Older people have more of a gender gap than younger people
    • It wouldn’t surprise me if accounting for age or length of time in the field changes the way we understand the data. If recent numbers show less of a gap among science graduates, it’s likely that we’ll see less of a gap in employment once the older generation retires.
  • Women have babies
    • Yes, I know. More men are staying home with their kids these days, and that’s great if that’s what both partners want. However, I’d guess it’s still more common for women to stay home out of choice and/or tradition. More importantly, many women get pregnant, which requires at least some time off. Creating a human being is hard work, but not the kind you can put on your CV (unless you’re creating a homunculus in a lab). Even with the most supportive family, childbearing can put women behind in their careers when compared to their childless counterparts, including men. The more children you have, the further behind you will fall. A male commenter on the Globe article made this point quite well.
  • Employers are sexist
    • Not all employers are sexist. Obviously. But unless things have changed drastically since 2012, many employers have an implicit bias that they might not even be aware of. One study gave potential science mentors the exact same student application, but changed the name from male to female on half of them. They discovered that a gender bias really does exist: “Results found that the ‘female’ applicants were rated significantly lower than the ‘males’ in competence, hireability, and whether the scientist would be willing to mentor the student.”

These are just a few possible roots of the gender gap. Luckily, it does appear to be shifting. So yay.

Now here’s an issue nobody talks about in these discussions: why is no one encouraging boys to enter female-dominated professions? Where are the articles decrying the lack of men in nursing, social work, counseling, event planning, or teaching?

To be fair, earlier this year, Business Insider did note which jobs tend to employ more women than men. However, the brief article was bereft of the sense of alarm so often used to highlight the relative lack of women in traditionally masculine fields.

So why the paucity of interest in getting men into traditionally feminine careers? Let’s speculate some more.

  • Work traditionally viewed as masculine is more highly valued than work viewed as feminine

That’s the only reason I can think of. The work that women have done traditionally just doesn’t garner the same level of respect, as evidenced by the higher salaries often received for many masculine jobs.

The respective valuation of traditionally masculine and feminine work may be the real crux of ongoing gender inequality in the labour force. Today’s movement encourages women to be like men. On a large scale, “we” still tend to value masculine things over feminine things. The goal is to raise women up to the level of men, because women’s work does not have the same social standing, no matter how much it contributes to our health and economic function (e.g. social work or primary education).

In other words, it’s great to encourage women to do the same work as men. But we won’t have true equality until men can do the same work as women, without losing their social standing.

Too Much Sleep and Not Enough Research: The Blunders of Popular Science

Whether shift work, high-performance careers, or the incessant appeals of infants, many of us just can’t get the sleep we want. So when a miraculous day off appears, the freedom to sleep in feels like the best thing that has ever happened.

Yet somehow, after ten, twelve, or even fifteen hours of sleep, we wake up groggy and still sleepy. The refreshment we craved has eluded us even after a bout of solid sleep. How can that be?

That’s the question posed by Wired science reporter Nick Stockton in his article “What’s Up With That: Why Does Sleeping In Just Make Me More Tired?”

Stockton explains that sleeping in upsets your body’s sense of time in the same way that quickly crossing time zones leads to jet lag. Your “biological clock” gets confused and your cells don’t know how much energy you need at what time. This part of the article makes sense.

He should’ve left it at that.

He then goes on to explain how sleep scientists have linked regular oversleep with health issues, specifically “diabetes, obesity, and even early death.” He lists a number of factors that could induce oversleeping, from alcohol and drugs to a lumpy bed that inhibits deep sleep, thereby causing you to feel tired for longer.

The article starts to leap from subject to subject with no transition or explanation. We start off with oversleeping being like jet lag, and then suddenly we are talking about regularly getting nine to eleven hours of sleep in a twenty-four-hour period (which is not like jet lag at all, since it’s regular). All at once, he turns to the subject of irregular sleep hours and how those who sleep in the day can trick their brains into thinking it’s nighttime. We are just getting our bearings when Stockton switches over to what happens during a sleep cycle and how to improve the overall quality of your sleep by changing your sleep situation. At this point, we try to catch our breath when he sprints over to discussing recognized disorders like sleep apnea and narcolepsy, one of which causes you to stop breathing in your sleep and the other which makes you fall asleep at inopportune times. He tenuously links these conditions to his topic with the line, “In addition to all the other terrifying aspects of this disease, it’s not doing your quality of sleep any favors.” We are far from the realm of oversleep at this point.

In the end, Stockton recalls his original point, advising readers to  establish “some equilibrium between your weekend and weekday sleep.” Huh? Most of the article has nothing to do with this kind of imbalance and a lot of the health issues he presents don’t actually have anything to do with oversleeping.

Although a punchy, enjoyable writer in terms of style, Stockton doesn’t seem to know what his article is about. He never defines oversleep (is it sleeping more than you usually do or sleeping more than the social or scientific norm?). He answers the question in his title in the first four paragraphs and then takes a nosedive into a bunch of tangentially related material.

He also sets up an artificial causality not present in the scientific studies he cites. Although cliche, we have to remember the famous statistics phrase: Correlation does not imply causation.

Just because memory loss or diabetes is more common in people who sleep more than is scientifically accepted as normal in this part of the world, we can’t assume that the relationship between a health condition and sleep is unidirectional. In fact, one study he cites from Harvard makes it explicitly clear that the jury is still out on how any of this works:

“Another possibility is a two-way street between sleep and memory: sleep quality may affect memory and thinking, and the brain changes that cause memory and thinking problems may disturb sleep.”

I’m not arguing that sleep has no impact on health. However, popular science writers like Stockton tend to ignore other possibilities. Their presentation style, if not their actual arguments, suggest that what they say is an absolute fact. But maybe people who work a lot have diabetes because they don’t eat well, not because of their sleep. Perhaps someone who chronically “oversleeps” (whatever that means – we still don’t know) has some other condition that leads to both longer sleep duration and earlier death.

Nobody knows. Scientists don’t know, and they will be the first to tell you that sleep studies are still in their infancy. The world has only had the technology and social conditions to study sleep objectively since around the mid-twentieth century (see, for example, Kenton Kroker, The Sleep of Others and the Transformations of Sleep Research, 2007).

It’s no wonder we’re still confused.

So instead of pretending we have all the answers, let’s allow ourselves to live with our lack of knowledge. And let’s cut the muddled pop science articles trying to create coherence out of limited scientific evidence.