Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Mopping Up

Just a few thoughts that I couldn't find a place for in yesterday's post.

One of the other ironies about attempts to defend inarticulate feces-flinging as an expression of Deep Manhood is that critical reason, science, philosophy, and the entire enterprise of the critical intellect has traditionally been claimed as a male preserve.  Women who tried to intrude into this sanctum sanctorum were warned that they were unsexing themselves.  I didn't quote all of that "subculture" comment; here's more of the context (emphasis added):
I think you can describe it as that Sarkeesian launched a attack on a subculture using her style of rhetoric and that many people from that subculture responded with attacks using a style of rhetoric common to that subculture.
As far as I can tell, Sarkeesian's "style of rhetoric" could be called a male style of rhetoric, not her own.  I don't consider any style of rhetoric to have a sex, but intellectual women have often been accused of having or aspiring to have male minds.  Sometimes they are complimented for it, but in any case the assumption is that rationality is a male trait and practice.  I don't deny that vituperative abuse and threats are deployed by women as well as men; but that makes the defense of these tactics by men all the stranger.  Aren't these emotional outbursts kind of ... girly?  I don't think they are, remember; it's masculists who think so, except when it suits them to think otherwise.

Some feminists have bought into the masculist characterization of rationality as a guy thing, so let me stress again that I don't think critical reason has a sex.  But one of the hallmarks of the American mythopoetic men's movement of the 90s (which seems to have faded away, though maybe it only gets less press now) was a rejection of critical reason, on some rather dubious grounds.  Around the turn of the century, I had an online altercation with a self-styled mythopoetic, who accused feminists of rejecting reason.  I pointed out that so did the mythopoetics, and he indignantly denied it but didn't refute it.  His own style of argument was short on reason and evidence, long on homophobic and misogynist abuse.  But that's not because he is male; it's because he's human.  And that's only an explanation of his behavior, not a justification.

In connection with all this, I remembered a useful quotation from Mary Midgley's Evolution as a Religion (Methuen, 1985):
The effect [of specialization] is to leave many of today’s physical scientists rather unpracticed in general thinking, and therefore somewhat na├»ve and undefended against superstitions which dress themselves up as science.  Creationism, for instance, cuts no ice at all with humanists and social scientists.  Nobody trained to think historically is in any danger of taking it seriously, least of all theologians.  It makes its academic converts among chemists and physicists – sometimes, alarmingly enough, even among biologists [24].
Midgley's correct about the intellectual and professional base of Creationism and Intellectual Design, and I think she's correct about many of today's physical scientists' weakness in the area of  "general" or, as I'd call it, critical thinking.  There's a popular kneejerk reaction to any criticism of scientific claims among many science cultists, whether lay or priestly, that such criticism is the doing of religious nuts or ideologically-driven irrationalists in the humanities.

But there are plenty of religious nuts in the physical sciences today, as David F. Noble has shown (see his The Religion of Technology, Knopf, 1997), and scientific racism / sexism comes from the sciences.  It's true that the criticism of scientific racism comes largely (though not exclusively) from the humanities, from the anthropologist Franz Boas onwards, but that's an indictment of the physical sciences, especially when you consider that apologists for the latest brand of scientific racism admit that earlier brands were discredited but prefer not to admit by whom.  When physical scientists do criticize scientific racism, they frequently are accused of not being scientists, and the accusations are framed in almost paranoid terms.  A prime example of this was my liberal law-professor friend (her background includes doctorates in statistics and computer science) who, when I mentioned the historian of science Thomas Kuhn, snapped that Kuhn had no scientific training.  When I pointed out that Kuhn had a doctorate in physics, from Harvard, she boldly changed the subject.  It was like arguing with a Creationist, and now I understand why.  (I've seen denials of Kuhn's scientific training before, so I surmise it's an item of folklore among scientific fundamentalists.)  If someone is properly positive and uncritical about science, on the other hand, he or she needn't have any scientific training at all.  Again, this corresponds to religious piety.  As long as you respect duly constituted authority, you don't need to know anything, and no one will criticize you for your ignorance.

Another amusing example of this tendency was an academic geneticist who fumed that a paper claiming that human beings are progressively becoming less intelligent was "Arts Faculty science."  As it happened, the author of the offending paper was also a geneticist.  While some humanities faculty do indeed hold and express risible views of science, the true fount of this kind of wackery is the physical sciences themselves.  I imagine that the accusation was a kneejerk, less-than-fully-rational reflex against the supposedly woolly-minded arts and humanities.  Far from being Arts Faculty Science, Crabtree's paper is Science Faculty Science.  Recognizing that would be too painful to bear, I suppose.

I'm not saying that all scientists are irrational or that all humanities faculty are rational; of course they aren't.  But scientists who use the humanities and even religion as a straw man on which to blame attitudes they dislike are being irrational.  It's entirely possible for a person to be brilliantly rational in one domain, and bouncing-off-the ceiling irrational in others.  Think of Edward O. Wilson's pitiable cry, "multiculturalism equals relativism equals no supercollider equals communism."  Notice that Wilson here blamed declining funding for the supercollider on multiculturalism rather than on changing post Cold-War conditions, let alone on its cost overruns and the failure of the damn thing to work.  It would not be out of line to notice too that "communism," in the Soviet Union spent lots of money on scientific research and technology.  (In the good old days, cutting-edge technology pretty much got a blank check, especially if it might have military applications.  Today's scientific revivalists miss those great days.  There were giants in the earth then, or at least giant science budgets.  Now we can only show children Star Trek reruns and hope they'll catch the fire.)  Much of the wackiest (and sometimes harmful) ideas come from the science departments, though, and get published in peer-reviewed journals.

As with religion, I often must ask whom I am to believe among those who claim to speak with authority.  What if the teacher points to his miracles, his mighty acts of power, as proof of his authority?  As a layman, I'm not supposed to evaluate religious or scientific claims; I must simply believe.  Those who Fucking Love Science point to their authorities, but jeer at those who point to theirs.  And vice versa, of course.  Even worse, yesterday the curators of a liberal Facebook page linked to a Slate article which marshalled statistics to show that states with stricter gun laws have few gun deaths, and added their own judgment: "This is not a conversation. You are not entitled to a different opinion. These are FACTS."  It is a conversation. People are entitled to a different opinion, always. Only an authoritarian dirtbag says otherwise. Statistics, especially about social phenomena and policy, are always open to question and disagreement.  For example, on the most elementary level, are we talking about correlation or cause here?  This is not the way to settle a question, or even to discuss it.

I'm presently reading Feyerabend and Scientific Values: Tightrope-Walking Rationality by Robert P. Farrell (Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003), which is quite interesting.  Farrell shows that many (most?) critics of the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend misunderstand and misrepresent him.  (Like Kuhn, Feyerabend had training in physics, though unlike Kuhn he didn't complete a degree in it.)  This can't be entirely excused by the fact that Feyerabend wasn't always consistent, though like any philosopher, let alone human being, he wasn't always consistent.  Farrell shows that at one point in his career, in Science in a Free Society (Verso, 1978) Feyerabend did adopt something like that radically relativist position he was often accused of.  But the accusations also refer to (and misrepresent or misunderstand) the work he did before that book.  Granted, philosophy isn't easy at best, and I wouldn't necessarily blame a lab physicist for misunderstanding Feyerabend.  But I do blame other philosophers and historians of science, who should have been able to follow what he was doing: that is their job.

One conundrum I wasn't able to disentangle in F. G. Bailey's discussion of the moral mind in The Tactical Uses of Passion  (Cornell, 1983) was how much the public outbursts of emotion he describes are involuntary and how much they are conscious, willed performances.  For example:
Projecting from the way he has behaved in similar situations in the past, he is “beside himself” or “not himself” or “unlike his normal self” if he conducts himself as others would not have predicted: the calm man who flies into a rage, the irascible woman who remains passive when provoked, the bold person who shows fear, or the coward who confronts danger.  (Of course, if such displays happen often enough, then the definition of that particular “true self” is likely to be modified.)  Second, we may look not at the person and his unique and individual history, but at the status he occupies.  Profanity from the headmistress and sentimental tears from the sergeant major are evidence that these people are “beside themselves” or “not themselves” [51].
Supposedly people who are "not themselves" or "beside themselves" are "out of control."  The politician, the preacher, the salesman, may walk a fine line between being "carried" away by emotion and managing very carefully his or her effects.  Sometimes, however, those outbursts are surely deliberate, theatrically so:
It is a tradition, at least in the British army and I presume in others, that the drill sergeant should taunt the recruits, heap abuse upon them, and so conduct himself that, off the drill square, any normal person would reward him with a black eye.  Recruits are compared to pregnant ducks. They are told that if the Queen saw them, she would certainly abdicate. The trooper whose hair is the length of toothbrush bristles is asked if his head hurts, and, compelled to reply loudly and clearly that it does not, is told that it should, because the sergeant is standing on his hair.  All these things are formalized provocations, and the individual must learn not to fight back, not to get angry, not to show himself as an individual.  The training is generally effective. Very few people do fight back (at least openly – there are all kinds of interesting ways of doing so covertly), and those who fight back openly are heavily punished and generally judged by their peers to be stupid rather than brave ... In this performance not one iota of emotion is encouraged, unless it is collective and stage-managed.  For example, a drill was used at the funerals of important persons.  At the command “Rest on your arms reversed!” one placed the muzzle of the rifle on one’s toe, bowing one’s head.  We were told, “Look sad, you buggers!”  We were like hired mourners at a funeral, and no one expected us to feel sad.  There was also a drill for giving three cheers, laying down where the cap should be grasped (easier with the old peaked cap than the floppy forage hat), where it should be held during the “Hip! Hip!,” and the appropriate duration of the “Hurrah!”  The only occasions on which “genuine” emotion was enjoined were simulated encounters with an enemy: when thrusting a bayonet into a sandbag, one was required to shout with anger and exultation [52-3]
I think Gamergaters also walked this line: Oh, I was so angry to have my subculture vilified by that man-hating bitch that I saw red, I totally lost it, I was out of control.  And perhaps paradoxically, the person who claims to be basically rational expects to be congratulated for becoming irrational in the face of such provocation.  What else could I do, Your Honor?  The bitch was asking for it!  This is the rhetoric of the lynch mob.  The best thing about it is that if you weren't yourself, you don't have to make reparations to your victims afterward.  (The destruction was mutual: they failed to obey our orders, which was emotional violence on a vast scale, so we bombed them into the Stone Age.  It balances out!)

There's no shame in misunderstanding a complex discussion, and none in getting angry at someone for holding opinions you dislike.  But it's one thing to yell "You suck!" at the book you're reading or the post on your computer screen, and another to go public with the same words, to post them to the author's Twitter account; let alone to send the person threats of death and dismemberment.  Or, if I may speak allegorically, there's no shame in losing control of your bowels -- it happens to all of us sooner or later if we live long enough, and of course we all began our lives as incontinent, wailing babies.  There is shame in taking up those feces and hurling them at someone, and even more in defending such behavior as essential to your "subculture" or an inevitable result of your genetic makeup.  Feelings are, we were taught at the telephone crisis line where I volunteered for several years in the late 1970s; they aren't necessarily reasonable, and there's no reason why they should be.  What we do with them, how we act on them, does need to be reasonable.