Established and Outsiders

ImageI was thinking today about acceptance. The process by which an outsider with overtones of belonging is able to become a part of the group. The process through which that outsider is able to make inroads, to help that group accept something a little different, without needing to erode that individuality. I was thinking about process.

What is the thing about an outsider that the group most fears and despises? Especially when that group believes that difference is a threat.

What is the shorthand that makes that manifestation of threat become innocuous?

What about that individual allows them to have the strength to maintain that otherness while opening to the group?

Why is this seemingly all so difficult?

Where have all the flowers gone?

Library - 0953I have been reading several of the gender-related themes going on in the news, usually from a feminist bent (qu’ell surprise I hear you say). Cases about how rape isn’t’ really rape, how women still face disparity in many workplaces, and, lesser emphasized, the ways in which women are subtly hampered in their pursuit of positions in the public sphere (in all sectors) and power (direct and indirect).

The most interesting to me however is the debate about women in the workplace, and the choices they make. I think there is another debate here, that is actually being obscured by discussions of child-care, partners taking on ‘home’ burdens, and issues of compensation.

Sheryl Sandburg referenced it indirectly in Lean In, but I think there is an interesting debate to be had around the way we interact in the workplace and how it is in direct contradiction to gender narratives in society and the way that children are socialized, largely from birth.

Judith Butler points out that it is impossible to leave a hospital in this country as ungendered. This initial expectation creates a pattern that is repeated throughout our lives. Even when parents attempt to raise their children against normative gender expectations, supporting those children to choose their own path, the social pressure to conform is so strong, that individuality is suppressed in many school aged children and becomes a hard-won prize for teenagers, many of whom do not make it out of high school unscathed.

For most boys in this country this involves initiation into the dominance/ submission game. Competition, clothed in a variety of constructs, serves to constantly delineate within ‘masculine’ groups who is the dominant, and who must submit and admit mastery by others. I say masculine specifically, because this is not only the case in groups of boys. I think anyone subjected to groups of mean girls can identify with this dynamic as well. I term it masculine instead because that kind of competition and required dichotomous split has traditionally been associated with the masculine ideal and relates pretty clearly to Constructivist dialogues too.

I was watching The League a few weeks ago (for the record a highly entertaining time that I recommend). I was struck while watching by the sheer volume of what my mum used to call ‘guy stuff’. The prevalence of activities that centered around one individual or group attempting to dominate, or being dominated by others was kind of striking. Funny how it probably echoes in small amount what goes on within actual football teams themselves.

It made me realize the tension that my brothers have probably felt for a long time that I am kind of unaware of. It is not that hard for me to find a group of friends who are happy to be supportive of each other, and who can relax and enjoy life as a group without the need to compete/ dominate/ be dominated. I asked a friend and he said that he has friends who are more like that, and some who are less.

It also made me think about how many activities in that gendered life are centered around that dominate/ submit paradigm. Lean In, while good advice in some ways, really means stop voluntarily submitting. It tacitly acknowledges that in the workplace that paradigm is getting played out over and over and over. So many of our white collar professions are thinly veneered arenas to get others to submit.

I’ve been wondering about the number of ‘hard charging’ women I have been known that have voluntarily given up professions that were very important to them to raise children full time. I can’t help but think that part of the motivation for this decision is a weariness of fighting. Given that expectation one can either get in the ring of the dominate/ submit expectations or attempt to succeed/ survive/ thrive without- either way you are fighting; fighting someone else or fighting that set of behaviors. It is tedious if you don’t have the ego drive to get off on it, and it is tiresome if you want to inhabit a different way of being.

Honestly, it feels at a higher volume and intensity here in the States (not that it doesn’t exist in other places), and I wonder how much of the national identity was formed on the premise of valuing that ‘fighting’ spirit.

I also wonder about the place of boys and young men in all of this. How much of the narratives they are fed from early in school are about joining and succeeding in this game, despite any instincts or desires to the contrary they might have? How much are they taught to buy into and compete against others when it ends up working against them?

I’ve been thinking about the dearth of a new masculine narrative to rival the feminist strains. Women have been fighting for a long time now to find new identities that allow for freedom and self-definition, but this has so far (mostly) failed to be matched by new masculinity ideals. Men are expected to do new things, but in the same old ways. When they have a hard time adjusting to the expectations we excoriate them for being ‘cave-men’ or ‘unenlightened’. We expect them to smoothly transition between being that way to succeed in the workplace and be supportive partners and parents in the home, not acknowledging the cognitive dissonance it creates when switching. We are (fairly) frustrated by our perception that men are unwilling to make adjustment, or give up privilege but I think Louis C.K. is right– if we had that advantage, wouldn’t we re-up? It feels slightly mean at times that we don’t have empathy for people who have to struggle harder than they are used to for the same privileges they used to enjoy. I mean, don’t get me wrong- guys, you gotta get over that- you had it great for a long time, welcome to what the rest of the world has been dealing with- but I want to try to have patience so they can decide what their new definitions of masculinity are going to be, not premised in oppression, exclusion, and full throttle competition.

Are we there yet?

101_0049So yes, back in Qatar, teaching more kids to debate. Teaching here is brilliant. The kids are usually really excited to learn and because of that it’s easy to have fun with them. This week we were working out how much the students understand about how debate works and although there is quite a variety of levels, they all have a basic grounding. More than that though, I can see them really pushing themselves to speak better, or know more, or challenge their received wisdom. I was also struck when teaching how rarely we all seem to do that about certain ideas.

I was trying to explain how each ideology, be it religious or political or patriotic, within its own community, has a set of beliefs that go largely unquestioned or unchallenged. When speaking to an audience it is helpful to know what those beliefs are because it will help you to know what they might or might not find convincing. It is also helpful to know that what is ‘unquestioned/ ‘right’ varies within and between audiences.
To be honest, its part of my difficulty with academia. The paradox that to try to say anything one has to recognize that anywhere you start from is both arbitrary and challengeable. To defend whatever my belief might be I have to start from a premise, which, often, can itself be challenged. I know I’m a debater, and that makes almost everyone groan, the idea that everything is debatable. But the thing is, I keep coming back to this wall. I decided to call it faith, and I’m not sure if I mean in a religious way, or if its even possible to sort in that manner. What I mean when I say ‘faith’ is that starting point, the one where you don’t question beyond it. You are comfortable saying ‘I’m going to start here’ and maybe you can justify why that spot and not this, and maybe you can’t, but it seems most logical to you, or you just feel that is the spot. For some people it might be the right to property, for some it might be the right to free speech, to some it might a right to social equality, for some it might be divine right. My point is that if we really examine ourselves, we all have core fundamental beliefs and they all come from somewhere. In academia you have to choose and then justify why that spot (which makes sense I just find very difficult because there is never an end).

In debate you kind of have to agree either to a premise upon which to debate, or a debate about which premise to take (its pretty hard to do both at once). Debate communities kind of develop their own accepted premises (a process I think is so subtle it’s really interesting). The thing I am most impressed with about these kids, and a lot of the other debaters I’ve seen is their ability to balance their personal beliefs, and faith and the premises required by the activity we do. I’m terrible at it, and seem to regularly forget what exactly it is that I believe and only know what I’m currently arguing. These kids however are able to speak my language, and yet be true to their own. Its really challenging trying to honor that and teach then what I know, but its also inspiring because I wish I was half as smart at their age.

Second big epiphany of teaching: Today I was talking to a student about the ice cream cart. Some of you will know that this is my favorite analogy ever in regard to voter preferences and voter preference shaping. (I can point you to the book if you are interested) The basic idea is that if you think of a political spectrum as a long beach then it makes sense that the most people would be congregated at the middle (all parking being equal of course). An ice cream vendor, in order to be nearest the most numbers of customers will place their cart closer to the middle. The idea is that those at the far end of the beach, without other carts nearby will make the trek closer to the middle of the beach as there is no other option for a tasty cold treat. Parties and candidates therefore make a determination about how close to the middle of the beach, relative to their political beliefs they can afford to be before apathy sets in and the people at the end of the beach choose to just eat the half melted smoothie they have in the cooler (i.e. not vote at all). Those who are politically engaged, having no other option will move towards the centre rather than be shut out of the political process completely. If, however, a party can drag a whole spectrum closer to their ideology the middle of beach moves closer to their own outliers. (See Thatcher in 1983/1984)

The 2008 election was interesting in the Democratic Primary because to a certain extent it was exactly this dilemma. Obama placed his ice cream stand closer to the Left end of the beach than the current DNC membership, betting (rightly) that the numbers of disaffected voters he could get to come back and buy ice cream would be more than Clinton could get from the middle. In doing so, he opened up the beach again and effectively made the potential selling area longer. The difficulty is that there was a group of Republicans who no way, no how, were going to get closer to the middle and refused the spectrum as a whole moving. The Republican party we see now is the ice cream stand torn between those in the middle who have a better chance of getting extra votes lost in the Democrat’s move left, and the very vocal group who keep promising that if they move their ice cream stand farther Right there will be more people lining up to buy. The real issue is that what’s happening is the two parties are getting pulled farther apart to appeal to their bases which then makes any hope for governance moot. Its actually a fairly clear representation of the current political sociology of the US.

Democratic compromise comes from coming to the middle, but in order to get enough votes it is necessary to move farther and farther to the edge. FPP (first past the post) makes it almost impossible for a third, middle party to emerge (as with the Lib Dems) and even if they do our governance structure is such that they end up pretty much having to choose which way they will throw their lot so even the middle voters get pulled to one end or the other.

As long as we treat politics as a football match, with whoever gets the most points wins and decides on dinner, and as long as our social complexities continue to increase we will have these problems and the juxtaposition between the two guarantees things will get worse. The other alternative is to change the system somehow completely, either socially or politically, but how is that even possible from within this dynamic, especially given how dysfunctional it is? (see last post, and I’m coming back to it again)

Perhaps this is all obvious to everyone already, and I’m just repeating what we all already know, but I did do a handy-dandy little chart below (a little proud) that might make what I’m trying to say more clear and you could show your friends at dinner parties.


House Sitting But Dancing

Authors Notes:

Screen shot 2010-10-20 at 21.04.21

I am sorry for the delay, but it seems that moving and then Portland took much more time than I thought. Tobe honest, it wasn’t really the moving so much as that thedetails involved made it much more difficult to be

analytical. I’ve had lots of thoughts in the meantime, but not enough clarity for it to make it possible/ fruitful to write it down. I know that it’s a pretty serious lapse, but back now and hopefully less crap in future.

Also, and I know this is a really sucky excuse I’ve been having difficulty accessing iWeb from my laptop…


I was reading an article today in the Oregonian (actually it was an op-ed) piece about the suicide of a supporting character on a reality TV program. The gist of the article was that we, as watchers, should be ashamed of ourselves for trafficking in and being entertained by this man’s (and other’s) difficulties in life. I was interesting because there was a report on the BBC news last week that researchers have found a difference in the choices children profess about intended employment/ dream careers. Previously children often chose to go into caring professions (doctor, nurse, policeman) while today they mostly want to be famous with careers that match (football/ movie/ popstar. The researcher blames the media endorsement of the glamorous lifestyle and exciting events in these peoples lives for the shift.

The two are, of course, related. At least I think so. But there are more pervasive and problematic correlations as well.

The op-ed blames us for watching, while the media industry blames them for signing up while simultaneously telling them they should. But the real issue comes from the individual shift in perception and the accompanying societal impacts. It seems we are failing to connect the dots between these things and that’s the mentality of blaming someone else. True, we could choose not to watch, true also those stars could attempt to anticipate and choose not to participate. At this point I don’t think its possible for them to say they had no idea what it might be like (although I think no one can ever really know what it would be like). But I think that’s somewhat the point. Although they couldn’t know exactly what it would be like, its possible to attempt to understand based on historical evidence of what its been like before.

This also seems linked to the riots. People’s inability to future the consequences of their actions. There has been a lot of talk, almost since the beginning of the riots of the culture and context that created the conditions conducive to their happening (sorry for the excessive alliteration). But based on the evidence in court many of the individuals were already members who had chosen to take criminal action before. This is not to say that there is not widening disparity in society (there is) or that it need not be addressed (it does), but to say that individual’s themselves still must bear responsibility for their actions.  I know that this is easier for me to say sitting in the privileged position that I do, but it is the same sentiment expressed by many people in the same communities from which the rioters hale.

Upholding the rule of law is about more than simple protection of property (although many think that’s its basis). From my perspective law is about organization of large groups in densely populated areas to allow people structure to understand how they can expect their neighbours to behave and give them codes of behaviour as well. The real crime is not the taking of things, but the unconscious thought that an individual’s desire for something is more important than the codes themselves. My father asked about the difference between the Arab Spring and the London riots and my answer is simple- in the former the long-term consequences and the collective were the point and in the latter they were not. The professed goals of all demonstrators in the Middle East is the introduction of democracy, a system that allows for the establishment and orderly maintenance of codes of conduct, allowing individuals within that society to make choices as to the balance between their freedoms and responsibilities. To be fair, once established those codes will favour those in power at the time of establishment and this undermines the premise of total equality. Democracy is not totally fair and not totally equal but it is an attempt at fairness and equality while maintaining the malleability for society to adapt to changing social conditions. At the point when individuals decide that system isn’t working for them to the extent they must ignore it it does raise questions. The question is, as many people have said ‘why did they do it?’. Many already have various politically charged answers, largely based on their ideological positions.

Rights/ Privileges/ Responsibilities


There is something wrong with the statement ‘they work for us’ when applied to government. The reality is that they work on behalf of us, as a public good, codifying, overseeing and enforcing the codes we all choose to support. Even if we don’t agree with each thing, we agree with the system that has currently approved whatever it is they are codifying/overseeing/ enforcing and thus, in maintaining that system they are still working on our behalf. I say that because we are not their boss, just like they are not ours. They are from among us, self-chosen to be sure, and with myriad personal motives to make that choice, but still. The point of democracy is that expectation that everyone has a chance (although some have a greater chance) to make the choice and work on behalf of society and because it is a choice, and they are a member, we believe their work will be more reflective of our experience. But part of that work is to be informed about the consequences of their choices for all the people. Much of the disquiet with Washington is the perception (real or not) that those we have chosen to govern for us are making their choices either uninformed or unwilling to see the consequences of their actions.

Neo-Liberalism? Or a return to anarcho- possibilities?

SI Exif

I was talking to some people the other day about the rise of neo-liberalism and the attendant consequences. Neo-liberalism gets a bad rap (although not totally undeserved), but what I was thinking was ‘what if neo-liberalism gets a bad rap for something it represents and not something its doing?’

So this is my thought: There is a connection between neo-liberalism and the loss of state sovereignty, right? But what if that loss of power has less to do with the system of capitalism, and more that the state, as a unit of administrative organization, has been outgrown? What if the ability to coercively control territory, and more importantly, that population density has rendered useless those governance mechanisms that held sway during the period of early modernity?

Both neo-liberalism and the state are about governance and monopolies of power, but the shift to ‘smart power’ and the increasing irrelevance of constructed boundaries in flows of information, social connection and ‘goods’ mean that the institutions developed as mechanisms of control don’t hold the same potential that they used to. This is important, especially because of the values we developed based on the ability of the state to mediate between different groups, and balance the rights of the individual against the rights of society.

More important is the ability the state has to attempt to regulate inequality through some accepted legitimate redistribution of resources, not totally socialist or communist, but important nonetheless. The state redistributes wealth from those very well off to those less well off, but also gathers resources to address problems that could not be attempted without some community organization. The problem now is that many of those problems are too big for a state (or several states) to address and the goals themselves are also contested. Because of this, the legitimacy of the state to collect taxes for purely redistributionary policies, or for contested goals is being questioned. Neo-liberalism is blamed for both the failure of the state and the inequality that results, but it may be a case of our economic sphere evolving before our social sphere catches up. This is not to say it won’t. I’m pretty clear that we already are. But I think that to just blame neo-liberalism, and capitalism in general ignores the realities that are facing us, and in blaming the state for failure to combat this new reality is a way to hide our heads in the sand. (I think I’ll come back to this later too)

The real issue is that the power/ responsibility balance is being questioned in myriad ways and the construction of who and for what is exponentially complex. Population density and its associated issues (*I’ll come back to this at some later point) make messy the issue of power to versus power over. This relates directly back to the issue of the state as for several hundred years the state was assumed to have both power to and power over and currently its ability to control either is kind of up in the air.

Another, also interesting, somewhat related point. I was also thinking about the power/ responsibility balance in relation to failure to take responsibility. I realised that although there is often good reasons to say ‘I don’t have any power to take responsibility’, there are also many reasons to say ‘taking responsibility creates its own power’. I think that at times it is true that individuals or groups feel powerless to change their situations, but I also think that there are points when some people make that as an excuse. Those who don’t want to take responsibility blame their lack of power for their failure to act instead of admitting it is a choice they have made. I believe the last great freedom that can be taken is the ability to act, and in acting we should be striving to take responsibility- for ourselves, for our situation, for our community. This is not to say that anyone can and always should act- that would be arrogant and naive, but that I think very often more people could take more responsibility than they do because it is easier to let someone else do it. I find this disappointing, although not terribly surprising. Thoughts on a postcard?