Saturday, September 15, 2018

Manichaeism? Moral Bookkeeping? Failure to Appreciate Distinctions?

As I was reading Noah Berlatsky's review of The Coddling of the American Mind I found myself asking "What does that have to do with anything?" to many of his criticisms. It's not that his arguments against the book were bad, but rather that they appeared to be mostly non-responsive, in some cases obviously so. Which seems like an interesting enough phenomenon that it merits discussion.

Berlatsky discusses four people in particular: Charles Murray, Erika Christiakis, Laura Kipnis, and Robert Zimmer. However, even fully accepting his characterization of people and events, there's not a whole lot of there there:

Murry: Berlatsky is on firmest ground in this instance, saying that Haidt and Lukianoff are "soft-pedaling" Murry's history of racist writing. He writes
But is protest itself wrong in this case?
That's not what Haidt/Lukianoff are getting at at all; there's no reason to assume that they've any complaint with the students protesting Charles Murray. Rather, the Murray section of the book is primarily a discussion of the "heckler's veto" e.g. sustained disruption which prevents someone from speaking at all. They think that it's happening more often, and is increasingly tolerated by administrators. But Berlatsky doesn't address this; the closest he comes is saying
In the melee as student protesters demonstrated against Murray, one student pulled the hair of the professor who was supposed to interview Murray, giving the professor a concussion. Whether that incident is an example of student excessive fearfulness is perhaps an open question. But it's certainly ugly.
Ok, great, we're in agreement: it's ugly. But whence springs the ugliness, if not excessive fearfulness? And is that sort of disruption to be tolerated? Berlatsky doesn't say.
I said above that he's on "firmest ground" with this example. An argument has been made, by multiple parties at this late date, that some speakers are so damaging that they should not be allowed to speak at all. I'd expect Berlatsky to embrace this argument and then show that Murray falls within it's scope. But he doesn't do that, just leaves the reader with the following thought
How can the authors assess whether protest is justified if they don't accurately explain what's at stake?
Which, really, just misses the point entirely, doesn't it?

Christiakis: You think the discussion of Murry was bad? Here's the entirety of what Berlatsky has to say regarding Erika Christiakis:
Similarly, Lukianoff and Haidt applaud Christakis' argument that students shouldn't be asked to be racially sensitive when choosing Halloween costumes. They do not quote from a thoughtful and generous letter from 2015 by Yale student Ryan Wilson taking the contrary position.
Let's, for the sake of argument, grant that Erika Christiakis was totally off-base in sending that email. Taking that as given, how is it the least bit reasonable that students ended up screaming at her husband? That's the focus of that particular section of Coddling, responses by students (and administrators) which seem disproportionate to the inciting incident. Berlatsky doesn't just gloss over that issue; he doesn't mention it at all.

Kipnis: Berlatsky spends several paragraphs on Kipnis; go read them for full flavor. Here's what I took to be the crux of his criticism:
But in making her out to be the wronged party, they similarly dismiss concerns among students about professors' sometimes-predatory behavior.
It would help if he quoted them actually being dismissive, because that's not what I took away from the authors' discussion of Kipnis.
Rather, their focus was on the fact that a professor was subjected to two Title IX investigations for writing about why she disagreed with Title IX. The first stemmed from an article which met the publication standards of the frickin' Chronicle of Higher Education, while the second arose when she published a book that recounted her first investigation. One can simultaneously be concerned about predatory behavior by professors and the chilling effects of over-broad interpretations of Title IX; there's nothing logically inconsistent about that.
In this case you can (sort of) follow Berlatsky's reasoning by reading between the lines:
Kipnis was eventually cleared of wrongdoing, and her investigation has made her a free-speech cause for many on the right and center-right.
I think the subtext of the above is that, in labeling "free-speech" as a "right and center-right" concern, he's dismissing it as a legitimate grievance, which would explain why he doesn't engage with the authors' argument. Though this is significantly undermined by the fact that Berlatksy identifies Haidt and Lukianoff as being on the "center left" elsewhere in the article, and both authors are clearly quite concerned about free speech issues as they relate to Kipnis.

Zimmer: Lastly, there's the discussion about Zimmer, which is what prompted me to write this article. He gets way more column inches than seems merited, given that I think he's only quote in passing in Coddling. There's a long digression on students and staff trying to get a trauma center at the University of Chicago and Zimmer's response in one instance:
At one point, nine protesters, including one student, occupied the University of Chicago hospital demanding to speak with Zimmer. Instead of engaging in a free-spirited, open debate, Zimmer ducked the meeting, and the protesters were arrested.
Berlatsky takes this as evidence that Zimmer is not in favor of "open discourse and free debate". Declining to engage with protesters who are occupying a building is not at all equivalent to curtailing someone else's speech.

Anyway, all of the above is preamble to the actual question: What's going on here? While you might quibble with Berlatsky's representation of any single figure, taken as a whole it seems obvious, to me at least, that the article is a collection of missed points and non-sequiters. Condensing Berlatsky's main points significantly (again, go read the whole article):
  • Charles Murray is an unredeemed racist. The authors need to make this clear so that readers will understand that protesting him was totally appropriate.
  • Erika Christiakis was wrong; here's a student's counter-argument.
  • Kipnis' behavior undermined Title IX protections. Students who bring Title IX prosecutions are "brave".
  • Zimmer isn't a free-speech supporter. Instead, "he was a reactionary foot-dragger, refusing to hold discussions or acknowledge community needs until direct action and a rolling public relations disaster forced his hand".
I think maybe the answer can be found in the conclusion to Berlatsky's article:
Haidt and Lukianoff, though, consistently see the less powerful as a real danger, while framing protest against powerful institutions as childish caterwauling. The result is that they end up telling students that the only way they can truly be brave and adventurous is by obeying authority and doing what they're told.
Which, ironically, is a highly dualistic view of a book that spends a lot of time trying to break down various dualisms.
A dualistic world view, as a theory for this behavior, has a lot of explanatory power. Spitballing here:
  • The people that the authors discuss (Murry, Christiakis, and Kipnis, at least) are morally flawed figures, therefore bad things that happened to them are either merited or can be disregarded.
  • Either the students are righteous or they're "childish".
  • The alternative to unfettered protest is to obey authority and do what you're told.
I mean, really, that's about how Berlatsky sums it up; this is all about the powerless protesting the powerful. Reading his conclusion you'd think that Haidt and Lukianoff told the students to sit down and shut up. Hell, the authors aren't really even interested in protest, per se, but rather in understanding the factors that lead to things like and maybe suggesting that it would be better if people don't do that. Which is a pretty far cry from the  picture which Berlatsky paints.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

A Proof For Humanism(?)

This randomly occurred to me the other day, not sure of its import. Starting with an easy one:
  1. Anyone who identifies as a woman is a woman.
  2. Not everyone who identifies as a woman feels safe doing so publicly.
  3. From 1 and 2: Someone who publicly identifies as a woman could truly identify as a man.
I also think the following is uncontentious:
  1. Anyone who identifies as a man is a man.
  2. Not everyone who identifies as a man feels safe doing so publicly.
  3. From 1 and 2: Someone who publicly identifies as a man could truly identify as a woman.
This generalization might be a little shaky, but let's run with it anyway:
  1. Anyone who identifies as <Gender X> is <Gender X>.
  2. Not everyone who identifies as <Gender X> feels safe doing so publicly.
  3. From 1 and 2: Someone who publicly identifies as <Gender X> could truly identify as any gender.
From P1 and P2: 
  • Someone who self-identifies as a woman could be a man or a woman.
    • AND
  • Someone who self-identifies as a man could be a man or a woman.
  • You can't tell whether someone is a man or a woman, regardless of how they self-identify.
If you accept P3 as a valid generalization, this becomes
  • You can't tell what gender someone is, regardless of how they self-identify.

Assuming you buy the line of reasoning above, you're left with something of a dilemma: How do you treat people if you can never truly know their gender? The solution which occurs to me is that you treat each person in a gender-blind fashion, as a person with their own intrinsic dignity. Which sounds a lot like the "humanism" side of the old "feminism vs. humanism" debate.

On The Fracturing of Language And The Disutility Of Labels

One of the unavoidable by-products of the democratization of language is that many frequently-used terms have picked up multiple meanings which aren't identifiable by context. Apropos the previous post, "racism" can be:
  • "a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others." (1).
  • "Racial prejudice + Enhanced power of one race relative to another."
  • "[a] system of oppression based on race" (2).
That's a non-exhaustive list, BTW.
I'm not going to argue for one or the other, but rather point out a couple of things:
  • There are important, fundamental differences between each of these definitions. The same is true for other terms ("sexist" or "transphobic" or ...).
  • When someone says "X is Y", it's frequently difficult, or simple impossible, to understand which definition they are using.
  • Without the ability to ask clarifying questions you really can't tell what they're asserting. Contra Marcus, asking "What do you mean by 'X'?" is, in many cases, a necessary precursor to engaging an argument in good faith.
This is why I try to avoid (imperfectly, I'll be the first to admit) arguing about the meaning of labels, or using contested labels. All that gets you is interminable arguments about who's really a feminist/racist/man/woman/etc. I find it much more fruitful to ask what ideas people are trying to convey by the use of the label.

"Oppression = Prejudice + Power": Random Thoughts Inspired by Crip Dyke

See Taking, for example
Racism = Racial Prejudice + Enhanced Power of one race relative to another
  • What's the context for calculations of "Enhanced power"? Locally, nationally, globally?
  • Getting into discussions about "what racism really is" obscures the issue.
  • Surely acting on racial prejudice is definitionally bad, yes?
    • Prejudice leads to discrimination, or so the Google tells me.
    • Discrimination is bad because
      • It undermines equality of opportunity (1).
      • It's unfair and leads to negative externalities (2).
      • Other permutations in this same vein.
  • "Ah-hah", says the interlocutor, "in order to do any of those things you must have power!"
    • "Yes!" says I, but the relevant power differential to consider is that which exists between the parties in the transaction.
    • Clearly the races of the participants play a part, but aren't anywhere near the whole story.
    • When my jerk-ass First Nations boss gives me shitty shifts because he hates black people I've still been wronged, even if indigenous peoples have relatively less power when considered in any scope.
  • Given the above, it's far from clear that the formulation "Racism = Racial Prejudice + Enhanced Power of one race relative to another" actually gets us anywhere.
    • Aforementioned jerk-ass boss isn't engaging in "racism" by this definition.
    • Presumably this type of behavior is important enough that it deserves its own term; what word do you use for "someone who acts out of racial prejudice"?
  • Also, I'm personally appalled by the formulation, since it sees participants in the exchange only in terms of their group membership; it fundamentally denies their individual personhood.
  • I think you can raise similar objections to any variant of "Oppression = Prejudice + Power".

Tap tap...

Is this thing on?

Great, still works.

No time for prolonged posts these days, but I've things rattling around in my head. Getting them down on paper should stop the rattling.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Schadenfreude, Forbidden Waffling Edition

I've been watching the Ophelia Benson Shitshow with some interest because this level of... vigorous disagreement... is unusual for the FtB crowd. And now it looks like PZ haz a sad too which, given the timing, is almost certainly a reaction to it as well.

Before I get to the substantive bit of this post I'd like to point out that they made their bed and now they have to sleep in it. It's fairly rich for Ophelia to be arguing "nuance" given her history with #upfordebate. And PZ... well, someone should tweak this cartoon to cover the current kerfuffle.

Spleen vented, moving on. Two observations regarding this contratemps:

  • Universal principles are universal.
  • Replacing one form of epistemic privilege with another doesn't actually fix anything.

Regarding the first point: The FtB crowd seems to forget from time to time that when you make sweeping declarations of principle they apply to everyone, "good guys" and "bad guys" alike (see, for example, my exchange with Deacon Duncan). If we say that the relatively-privileged need to listen to, and seek to understand, the lived experience of marginalized others instead of offering uninformed opinions then, absent qualification, this principle holds true regardless of the identifies of the parties in question. White, cis-and-heterosexual men are privileged relative to women of all stripes; the former need to be willing to be educated by the latter. Similarly, since white, cis women are privileged relative to trans* people (under any reasonable definition of "privilege", at least), they too would do well to recognize the limits of their perspective rather than making flip comparisons to Rachel Dolezal.

Needless to say, I have serious reservations about the reasoning outlined above, which brings me to the second point: There's a difference between listening to marginalized others and reflexively deferring to their opinions. Letting relative privilege become an epistemic trump simply recreates the original pathology ("truth" defined by social hierarchy) with a slightly different dramatis personae. It's rarely as straightforward as "sit down and shut up, white man" (though that does appear to be the essence of some of the recent critiques of Jonathan Chait), but epistemic deference of the type I've described seems to underlie the phenomena of "closed questions"/"JAQing off".

Here, for example, Ophelia maintains that certain questions have already been answered and that they should be treated "as closed for practical purposes". So what to do when someone responds to Ophelia's call for nuance by asserting that the question "Are trans women, women?" is closed and the answer is "yes"? Not to pick on Ophelia in particular, but she ducked into the punch on that one. Similar things can be be said with respect to JAQing off; read the comment threads associated with this whole ordeal and you'll find a number of people accusing Ophelia of "JAQing off" and "philosophical wankery".

Ultimately what I'm trying to highlight is that there is a collection of epistemic practices which has the effect of removing topics from the realm of rational discourse altogether. Which would be fine if everyone agreed on what those topics are, but the evidence outlined above strongly suggests to me that reasonable people can disagree about the effects of priviledge or when a question should be considered "closed".

Honestly, this makes me want to grab certain parties who complain about fragmentation of the atheist community and ask them what the fuck they expected? They are certainly smart enough to foresee exactly what has come to pass, that legitimating modes of discourse anchored in the subjective interpretations of individual listeners will necessarily create irreconcilable differences.

In short, I told you so.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Solved: 'mount failed - no mountable file systems' When Trying To Mount ISOs under OS X


Nevermind what I wrote below; the diagnosis is right, but the solution is wrong. A much simpler approach, which I finally found mentioned here, is to simply install 7Zip. Files from the ISO can then be extracted via: 7z x -o<destination dir> -y <ISO file>

Recorded for posterity because it took me way too long to figure this out and I generally know what I'm doing. Thanks to Rod Smith, who's comment here put me on the right track.

The Problem

You're trying to mount an ISO image under OS X and you're getting the error 'mount failed - no mountable file systems'.


  • The ISO image is probably a Linux installation CD/DVD. In researching this question it seems to turn up most frequently in connection with recent Ubuntu releases, but it also affects RedHat-derived systems.
  • Linux virtual machines running on the Mac via a hypervisor can mount the ISO no problem.

What's Going On?

Sometime in the not-too-distant past a bunch of Linux distros started putting out installation ISOs that are designed to work both when written to a CD and dd'd to a USB key. This is accomplished via the creation of a partitioned ISO9660 image (usually via genisoimage it seems) that tends to make OS X sad. Looking at a sample image:

$ hdiutil imageinfo OL7.iso
   partition-name: Master Boot Record
   partition-start: 0
   partition-synthesized: true
   partition-length: 1
   partition-hint: MBR
   boot-code: 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
   partition-name: OL-7.1 x86_64
   partition-start: 1
   partition-synthesized: true
   partition-length: 146919
   partition-hint: Apple_ISO
   partition-start: 146920
   partition-number: 2
   partition-length: 12616
   partition-hint: Type EF
   partition-name: OL-7.1 x86_64
   partition-start: 159536
   partition-synthesized: true
   partition-length: 538512
   partition-hint: Apple_ISO

A Solution

After some trial and error I determined that you can extract an ISO that mounts under OS X by snagging the first two partitions, which encompass the MBR and actual CD image. In the case of the example image above these partitions start at offset 0 and continue for (1+146919)=146920 512-byte blocks:

$ hdiutil mount OL7.iso
hdiutil: mount failed - no mountable file systems
$ dd if=OL7.iso of=test.iso count=146920 bs=512
146920+0 records in
146920+0 records out
75223040 bytes transferred in 0.308544 secs (243800104 bytes/sec)
$ hdiutil mount test.iso
/dev/disk2                                         /Volumes/OL-7.1 x86_64
$ ls /Volumes/OL-7.1\ x86_64/
EFI        LiveOS        images        isolinux

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A(nother) Response To Greta Christina

Quoth Greta Christina:

There are the ones who care about social justice; the ones who want to make organized atheism more welcoming to a wider variety of people; the ones who want their atheist communities to do a better job replacing the very real services that many marginalized people get from their religions; the ones who want their atheist communities to work in alliance and solidarity with other social change movements. (Or, to be more accurate — the ones who care enough to take real action.)

And there are the ones who don’t care, who aren’t interested in connecting their atheism to social justice — or don’t care enough to take significant action. They’re the ones who would be perfectly happy to have more women or black people or other marginalized folks at their events, but don’t care about it enough to examine why their events aren’t diverse, to listen to criticism about it, to accept some responsibility for it, or to change what they do. In some cases, they’re the ones who don’t want to connect their atheist activism with social justice — and don’t want anyone else to do it, either, to the point where they’re actively working to poison any efforts in that direction.

However, she has also said:

Now, I’m going to be very clear about this: We don’t all have to agree about how exactly social justice should be reached, or what our priorities and goals should be in reaching it, or even what the concept means. We don’t have to march in political lockstep. One of the best things about atheism/ freethought/ etc. is that we value lively dissent, and that we don’t have any dogma we’re all expected to agree on.

So someone explain to me how it makes sense to devote the Atheist community to "social justice" when we shouldn't even be expected to agree on what that means? I mean, hell, John Rawls and G.A. Cohen are both concerned with "social justice", but you get radically different results depending on which one you pick. Or consider the issues that Amartya Sen (generally considered to be a warm and cuddly progressive AFAIK) raises in his essay Equality of What?.

I encourage Greta Christina to consider that some fraction of the Atheist community aren't assholes, they just don't consider "social justice" to be a sufficiently well-defined concept to be able to commit to it. As an alternative, perhaps she could state some specific propositions with which people can explicitly (dis)agree?

Also, vaguely annoyed that registration is required to comment on her blog.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

A response to Belle Waring on Jonathan Chait

TL;DR: Jonathan Chait may be a wanker, but the problem he's writing about is real.

Two points regarding Belle Waring's analyses (1, 2) of Jonathan Chait's recent article:

  1. The concerns that he voices are not solely restricted to white males who write for Slate.
  2. The core issue is a real phenomena and is not confined to academia or the comment sections of select blogs.

Getting the first point out of the way quickly, because it's mostly a distraction: Here is Maryam Namazie writing about the same thing. She is neither male, nor white, nor, as far as I have been able to determine, has she ever written for Slate (or other Slate-like publications). Given what I know of her background from reading her work its also hard to conclude that she's hangwringing/concern trolling/arguing in bad faith. So, to the extent that people have been dismissing Chait's argument solely on the basis of his personal history, publisher, or demographic characteristics, that dismissal seems questionable.

On to the second point, which is the important one: You can draw a continuous line through the MacKinnon incident, the one involving Miller-Young, and another one that just happened in my little corner of the Pacific Northwest involving someone's work at a refugee center. In each case you have one party engaging in protected (in the First Amendment sense) speech and another party claiming offense and asserting various prerogatives on the basis of that offense.

Stipulating some preliminaries to prevent the conversation from getting derailed:

  • Everyone has a right to speak.
  • No one is entitled to an audience or a platform.
  • No one is immune from criticism or the consequences of their speech.

That said, the problem lies in the third bullet, specifically determining what constitutes appropriate consequences for any particular speech act. There is no widely-agreed-upon rubric for what constitutes "offensive" speech, even among the eminently-reasonable denizens of the Crooked Timber comments section, much less community consensus regarding appropriate prerogatives for those who are legitimately offended. That this particular issue dates back to at least 1992 (and probably earlier) lends credence to Chait's underlying hypothesis; 23 years on and we're still rehashing the same discussion, with no evident progress having been made in the interim.

This fact suggests to me that the issue of arbitrating claims of offense may be fundamentally unsolvable, even among people who are otherwise genuinely inclined to get along. What this also tells me is that Chait is right; some number of people are deploying claims of offense tactically as a means of preempting discussion. What's cannot be determined, however, is the extent to which this happens, since people can't agree on the basics of what constitutes a legitimately offensive statement.

Let me end with a note on Ms. Waring: She's smart, and she certainly understands theoretical limitations. So either she's being disingenuous in her dismissal of Chait or she has a theoretic framework which solves the problem. If it's the former, shame on her for taking pot-shots at the (regrettably pot-shot-able) Chait, and if it's the latter, I'd welcome the opportunity to educate myself.


In the comments section of her first post Belle wonders "what are the actual bad effects here?":

FFS: what happens when you are impolite? People criticize you and don’t invite you back for dinner. They don’t beat you to death with an axe handle and bury you by the sump pump. Dudes like this whining about PC want something very particular indeed: not just the right to say things others find offensive but the right to say offensive things and then not be criticized for saying them. No. Political discourse is open and free, you may say what you wish, we will mock as we choose, may the best woman win. Really, what are the actual bad effects here? White men worried about people being silenced just because they’re white men–I can’t even with this shit.

Well, in the case of the Seattle incident, we have someone who seems to be doing meritorious work on the part of an under-served minority, and who may be a member of a historically oppressed minority herself, being told to sit down, shut up, and never speak again, possibly because she got caught up in a local power struggle. One plausible outcome is that she'll be less willing to help the community in the future because of the associated hassle, which would almost certainly be a loss. All this because, when the subject is "offense", we lack the analytic apparatus to tell people to GTFO.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

PZ Myers Sure Acts Like He Believes In Free Will

PZ Myers has come out, perhaps not for the first time, against the existence of free will. Fair enough and, for the record, I agree with him. But...

He sure acts like he believes in free will. He gets angry at TERFs and fedora'd dudebros and creationists and so on, but in a world without free will that's like getting mad at the tide coming in; it's just not rational. Moral outrage only makes sense in a world where dudebros can choose to be something other that dudebros ("ought implies can" and all that); if free will doesn't exist then they literally cannot act any other way.

I don't have my copy of The Blank Slate at hand, but I think it was Steven Pinker who observed that, absent free will, moral statements really just reflect an aesthetic judgement. We're justified in uttering them on the grounds that the can beneficially alter the behavior of people who hear them but, at the same time, such statements cannot be meaningfully imbued with any sort of moral censure (or approbation) in the traditional sense.

I suppose that PZ could respond that his apparent anger is an elaborate form of kabuki that he puts on for the good of society. But a much simpler answer is that he hasn't internalized just how far down the rabbit hole goes once you take free will out of the picture. Take, for example, this snippet from "Atheism and the real search for meaning":

... [O]nce you’ve thrown off your shackles you’re now obligated to do something worthwhile with your life, because now all of our lives shine as something greater and more valuable and more important. That with freedom comes responsibility.

How can you be "obligated" to do anything when you have no free will? What sort of "freedom" is he even talking about? Argh...


Anyway... yeah. I just don't think he gets it.

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