Why We are Throwing a Tantrum  

 

Imagine I asked you whether you like Coke or Pepsi more. You have 8 months to decide. Then during those 8 months, I launched a successful campaign branding Coke as the “racist soda.” I convinced millions of people that Coke stands for racism and misogyny. When it comes to decision day, it doesn’t matter if you like Coke more. It doesn’t matter that your preference for Coke is purely based on taste and that it’s absurd to think Coke has anything to do with racism (it’s a freaking soda!). All that matters is that I succeeded in rebranding it as racist. “Coke” is no longer an option; your choices are between Pepsi and Racism. Yes, it’s not fair that I took this tactic, but all that matters is that I succeeded in convincing enough people of it. You must now vote for Pepsi.

Likewise, liberals succeeded in creating the “myth of Trump” (although Trump’s rhetoric easily lends itself to this strategy). If you vote for Trump, you yourself are a racist, whether you actually are a racist or not. All conservatives succeeded in doing was brand Clinton as corrupt. If I vote for Clinton, I may be stupid for supporting a corrupt person, but I myself am not corrupt. This is what made this election different. Before we voted for people and we argued about personal flaws. In 2012, conservatives posted their Facebook rants on how Obama’s policies will harm the nation, and in 2004, liberals complained that Bush would keep us in an unjust war. But it stopped at their policies. We only disputed things on the margin; whether this policy tweak or that small change was better. This election however, has not been driven by much policy considerations. The issues were not marginal and technical. We were fighting over what we want the nation to represent. We voted for symbols and ideas, not people and policies.

And this is why we are throwing a tantrum. I couldn’t care less if Trump is president. If Trump won back when he campaigned as a Democrat, I’m sure him winning wouldn’t be as surreal. Looking at his goals for his first 100 days, his policies are mainstream conservative (in strict policy, I think Cruz would do a much worst job). What matters is how Trump was elected. He spouted racism and sexism, and he still won. I can accept that many of his supporters aren’t more racist than the rest of us, and therefore supported Trump for reasons other than his bigotry, but the fact that they are willing to accept a little racism to fix the economy does make them racist. It’s a reminiscence of European fascism – conservatives who promised a strong economy and even a welfare state if you promised to look the other way in their bigotry. I can’t help but to recall Hannah Arendt: “in order not to overestimate the importance of the propaganda lies, one should recall the much more numerous instances in which Hitler was completely sincere and brutally unequivocal in the definition of the movement’s true aims, but they were simply not acknowledged by a public unprepared for such consistency.” Sounds like, “Trump won’t actually do what he said. Don’t worry.” The reason Trump voters are racist is not because of what they are willing to do, but because of what they are willing to accept in order to achieve what they want. One may defend them, saying I misunderstand how much they suffer. Well, the German hyperinflation surely constituted worse suffering than many in the American working class deal with today, and yet when we look back, we don’t think the German bargain was justified. An American genocide is unlikely, but racism is racism is racism.

The premise we operate on is that symbolism matters. When you elect a president surrounded by racist symbolism, then that will matter. If you say racist thing, I will assume you are capable of racist actions; there’s no such thing as “just talk.” The election revealed that America had an apolitical bigot base that the mainstream was unaware of; as Arendt wrote, “they exist in every country and form the majority of those large numbers of neutral, politically indifferent people who never join a party and hardly ever go to the polls.” And it turned out that PC culture worked in holding off the tide. Racists were afraid to be publicly so, as it would risk their careers and open them to social judgement. They were so afraid that they lied on anonymous polls to such a degree that we mispredicted the results by huge margins (called the social desirability bias by social scientists). But there’s no greater signal that it’s ok to be openly racist again than a president who is perceived to be racist (all that matters is that he is perceived to be, not that he actually is). Trump’s ascension lowers the social costs of racism, and even if only 10% of his followers are fundamentally racist, that’s still a lot of Americans. We protest because we want to signal that the social calculation has not changed; it is still not acceptable for bigots to be bigots, and we want them to know they will be punished if they do so. If we reject Trump’s legitimacy, then that means not even their president can help them if they resort to bigotry. We also want to signal that America has not rejected minorities. We want to emphasize that the nation is divided, and there is a large group of people willing to fight for minority rights. There is a large group of people who do not think racist words don’t matter if they aren’t backed by concrete actions, and that many of us value human rights so much that we are willing to accept a cost to ourselves to uphold it.

The economist Arnold Kling predicts: “I also think that those progressives who are predicting that the election will have dire consequences for women, gays, and people of color are making a tactical error. They are setting a very low bar for Mr. Trump and the Republicans. When four years from now we still have civil rights laws in place, mostly-legal abortion, and widely-legal gay marriage, these putative victim communities will be wondering what all the fuss was about.”

I’d rather look back to that world than one in which racism prevailed while we did nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

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To Liberal America, This is Why We Lost

Despite the odds, according to pollsters and their polling data, it seems that Donald Trump is officially our president for the next 4 years whether you, we, they, I like it or not. Across an overwhelming majority of surveys and forecasts, Hillary was set to win the election this week by a landslide, and this begs the question – what happened? The statement made earlier in the election cycle resonates with me: “It’s Hillary’s race to lose”. It was our race to lose, and we lost it. We can cry, joke, run away, and blame it on the rest of the country, but there will need to be a moment of self reflection. If anything this is a wake up call to the establishment and liberal culture.

The Racist America and the Much Bigger

For those naive individuals that have lived a sociopolitically isolated life and have only been exposed to liberal America, this was a wake up call to the institutional racism that is very much real in American culture and politics. But there is a flip side to this story and that is to say that the Left did not lose the election because a majority of Americans are racist or sexist. To make such a statement is not just polarizing to an already polarized people, but does a great disservice to understanding the goals, the intents, the world views, etc of the 59 million individuals who voted for him. Sure Trump was able to win because certain demographics had racial and sexist intents, this is very certain, however this is not the reason why the Left lost.

The Left lost because it failed to capture the moderates of America that voted for Obama in both his presidential runs. The Left lost because it failed to re-energize a voter base that did not come back to vote because they felt insignificant and alienated by the political system. African Americans didn’t show up. 29% of Latinos voted for Trump, higher then Romney’s record back in 2012 – even though Romney did not make such blatant racial remarks. 42% of women voted for Trump. Clearly the polarizing story of those voting along racial or gender lines, leaves out something much much larger. The inability for Liberal culture to understand why people can vote for Trump despite his remarks, why both Latinos and women can still vote for him; the inability for Liberal culture to understand that there are bigger issues than race or gender is in itself a very strong indicator of how isolated and naive it may be.

If race and gender were an issue that was to be ‘make or break’, as many of us in Liberal America had expected, then this election would have been a landslide in the opposite direction; Latinos, Women, and African Americans would have voted in a land slide against Trump like they did when Obama ran against Romney or McCain. The fact that this is not the case is not necessarily a story of how people don’t care about race or gender, but a story of how there are bigger issues and lines that voters have voted along. The story has generally always been the same – people voted for economic security in an economic system that is rapidly becoming more inequitable, people voted for national security in a global political climate that has been becoming more tumultuous. All are issues that Trump, although in a xenophobic and isolationist matter, strongly addressed as real issues to be concerned about. In fact his platform has been that: to repealing NAFTA, to preventing Syrian refugees, to building a wall, etc.

Meanwhile I cannot stop feeling that the main agenda for the Left has not been to address these issues but to point fingers at our opponent’s controversial remarks. In the words of Bernie Sander’s, we didn’t talk about the issues that really matter, instead we talked about the person. Ironic to think that so many of us who admired this philosophy turned around after the primaries and did just that. We became reality TV, a medium that Trump excels, and that was our demise.

Generalization, the Great Hypocrisy, and Alienation

It’s odd to think that a political culture that often finds itself fighting against the powers of generalization in the form of racism, sexism, prejudice, etc can then turn around and generalize an entire voter base. Liberal culture stresses the dehumanization that results from generalization; it’s ability to take away from the individual’s ability to represent themselves. To label all Muslims as terrorist is to strip away their individuality.

Yet the political conversation for the entire election cycle has been to label certain voter groups – those who voted for Trump, those who voted third party, those who protest voted, and those that didn’t vote at all – as sexist, racist, biggots, sociopaths, uneducated, homophobic, and privileged – to assume the political motivations, inspirations, and goals of every individual. Not to say that Trump is non of these, but the relationship between a candidate and the voter is not necessarily transitive. Just because I voted for Hillary, does not mean that I stand behind her in everything that she has said or done; quite the opposite. To strip them of their individuality and their unique set of beliefs, views, and motives, and to create a certain perception or representation of them has in a way been a form of oppression itself that does not help to be inclusive but to be alienating. We did not try to reach out to them or to try to understand the individual. When you antagonize an entire group of people, it is then not surprising that they would come out and vote against you.

We were angry when Trump made allegations of Muslims and Mexicans. We were angry when conservative media, like Watters’ World, depicted certain communities in a way that helped promote and continue prejudices and stereotypes that people already had. But it’s important to understand that there wasn’t necessarily a moral high ground in this election cycle. Liberal culture and media did the exact same thing to swaths of the American population – people who are an integral and working part of our society whether we like them or not. They were used as jokes, made fun of, and belittled. The uneducated may be ignorant and naive of certain ethnic, racial, gender, etc groups, but in the same way Liberal culture has been ignorant of the uneducated and the non-Liberal.

The Echo Chamber and Safe Space

The fact that the Trump Win was inconceivable to liberal media and to the overwhelming majority of us, should be an alarm to the lack of feedback or internal deconstruction that is prevalent in Liberal Culture. When there is little disagreement and everyone is coercively forced to think a certain way is when the housing market explodes, when economic bubbles burst, when complacency leads to self-destruction. In a sense P.C. culture has gotten so big that the balance between ‘safe space’ and reality may have been broken. An environment that has helped provide those who have been oppressed a place to escape to, if large enough can easily interfere with our ability to keep in touch with the rest of the world. A comfortable environment leads to complacency, much like how a comfortable sofa disconnects us from those dying in the rest of the world.Whether we like it or not, there needs to be a re-evaluation of P.C. culture as it transforms from the force of the anti-establishment to the institution of the establishment.

Despite where you stand on the political spectrum, we must acknowledge that both the fear of economic security amidst a rapidly changing global economy that is increasingly displacing Americans out of the work place and the fear of national security amidst a violent global political climate that has culminated into forces such as the Paris shootings or ISIS are legitimate. While the solutions to these problems in the form of banning all Syrian refugees or building a “great wall”, may not be necessarily healthy to our country, we cannot just ostracize the very discussion of it. Is it reasonable to believe that the immigration of low skill workers are beneficial mainly to employers and businesses and can be detrimental to American’s whose skills have increasingly become obsolete due to the changing global economy? Probably. Is it reasonable to believe that events like the Paris shooting can happen in the States? Probably. Is it reasonable to believe that individuals with these concerns are racist? Probably not. These are legitimate opinions that people have that are void of the racial hatred often attributed to them but rather are honest concerns that these people face day in and day out.

To disregard people’s fears and to attribute them to some defection in their humanity or lack of education says a lot about the lack maturity in political discourse on our part. Furthermore the ability for those to assume the intent or reasonings behind someone’s choices in regards to voting is an absurd proposition in itself. Too often has been the case where honest discourse has either been shut down or more often prevented from taking place, because people fear being labeled by a very label-centric culture, because the argument is too often diverted away from the actual issue and toward the person, or because the discussion is simply turned into a joke. There is no safe-space for people to express their potentially racist ideas in a constructive matter without having the discussion turned against them or memed, and there really needs to be one. And this frustration is what has culminated in the expression of “we’re tired of P.C. culture” that has been expressed so often by voters this year; the uneducated feel oppressed by the sociopolitical atmosphere that P.C. culture has institutionalized.

Not to say that people can’t be racist, but people can make racist remarks or have racist ideas with honest intents and fears that are not rooted from some racial hatred. Not to say that people can’t have inherently hateful racial intents, but lacking a way to differentiate between them and by using the same label, we have in a way lumped moderates who voted for Obama, but are deeply fearful of the current state of the world, with those who are actually members of the KKK. We have given the uneducated to the racists. It is then no surprise that if people didn’t feel comfortable being open about their support for Trump, that we would have a harder time knowing about it, that the pollsters would have a harder time getting accurate data, that we would have a harder time having an honest discussion about the issues that matter to prevent this outcome from happening. Furthermore when you don’t take an entire political movement seriously, then you are going to be the butt of the actual joke. It is then no surprise that we lost in such disbelief, because complacency.

Liberals as the New Establishment

Trump, whether you believe he is one or not, did a better job portraying himself as the outsider – the anti-establishment force that is to knock down Washington unbiased to the forces of Wall Street and corporate money. And this was probably not very hard to do, since Clinton in every way is an insider – part of the Clinton dynasty, current member of Washington and the Obama administration, long history in politics, long history in the DNC, etc. But it wasn’t just Clinton who felt like an insider.

P.C. culture and liberal culture has spent most of its life time fighting against the establishment. The anti-establishment comes with some perks, in that it allows you to better align yourself with the people and the populist vote. It better helps you juxtapose yourself with a system that isn’t working. And as many people stated, this was the election cycle where being an insider was critically detrimental. In a world where the rich are becoming richer and the rest of us are becoming poorer, it isn’t much of a surprise that the hate toward the current institutions and establishment are at an all time high. People want change in a system that seems to be benefiting  only those on the inside. What happened to the Liberal agenda and platform of the Occupy era? What happened to reeling in Wall Street? To bringing change to the economic landscape? To changing the lives of the middle class? To going after the 1%? These were all agenda’s that the Clinton campaign failed to critically carry over from the Sander’s campaign. These were things that I felt like the Left Wing had lost during the campaign trail – the agenda for the people, the issues that really mattered.

Instead we became establishment politics or failed to portray ourselves otherwise. By becoming the establishment, we came to, sadly, represent what we’ve been fighting against for the past years: Wall Street, big banks, big corporations, the political establishment, etc. What have we been fighting for? The Left lost what made the Left the Left, and I can not stop but feel that there was no Democratic vote on the ballot this year, but rather a vote for conservative politics or jingoistic politics. For people who were suffering from the status quo, many simply wanted change, and by no surprise many voted simply against “conserving” the broken system.

Instead of the liberator, we have in a sense become the oppressor. The economic force against the people. The sociopolitical force against the uneducated. For the first time, we find ourselves in a position where it seems like we have aligned ourselves against our voter base and with our enemies. Whether if its true or not or whether we like it or not, there needs to be some fundamental change for both the Democratic party and Liberal Culture if we are to capitalize on what is really capable of America. Unfortunately up to 3 supreme court justices are likely to be appointed within the next 4 years, and this will probably be irreversible until much later in our life times. However this gives me hope that much like so many believe Trump will bring some kind of change to Washington, this series of events will bring some positive change to the Democratic party. And maybe from positive change, some healing to the partisan-ism in this country. This is not to say that I am not disappointed by America’s choice. This is not to say that I don’t feel like people may regret their decision. But since this is a democratic process and 59 million people have made their final decision, we have to move on to the next step.


Mentions:

Good. For months and months this subreddit posted article after article calling anyone not supporting Hillary Clinton sexist, racist, homophobic, uneducated, white privilege trash regardless if they were voting for Trump or a third party. It was just as bad when people were supporting Sanders in the primary.

You are the reason why she lost. You insulted people instead of reaching out to them. You downvoted them and mocked them instead of trying to reach out to and connect with them. You belittled and mocked them for having differences in opinion.

This isn’t on just Clinton.

-Tiamdi

For a group that boasts tolerance and acceptance, I can’t help but feeling a lot of hypocrisy.

-Anonymous

 

Zen Policy: America, the Philippines, and Singapore

Although satisfying, scolding and shaming people into proper behavior is certainly a futile policymaking strategy. It’s merely an escapist illusion from our powerlessness in the policy process; individuals cannot easily enact large infrastructural projects or sweeping social change, but we can tell our neighbors that they are at fault for our national grievances. This form of rhetoric – the “personal responsibility model” (PRM) of politics – reared its head in the wake of the Great Recession. From the Left, we are told that the crisis could have been avoided if bankers followed their fiduciary responsibility, while the Right says the problems came from ordinary people irresponsibly borrowing beyond their means. They should have known better. Even many of those who are more sophisticated in their postmortem find ways to bring personal responsibility into it. They blame Christopher Cox’s lax attitude towards enforcement during his time at the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ben Bernanke’s poor decisions as head of the Federal Reserve, and of course Obama. In the Philippines, I hear this argument from those frustrated by their environment. They blame Manila’s infamous traffic on “discipline” rather than urban planning, which implicitly draws a false equivalency between their country and the West in everything except culture. Even Benigno Aquino, a national hero and leader, said, “they profess love of country, but love themselves – individually – more.” In Europe, the sovereign debt crisis brought cultural critiques. Many economists and politicians argued that the problems stemmed from the incompatibility between southern European culture and the northern supranational institutions governing it. When Greece became bankrupt, it was the Greeks fault for spending more than they could. ‘Why can’t they be more like the Germans,’ they asked? ‘The Greeks are irresponsible. The Spanish are lazy. The Italians are chaotic.’

Alan Watts once said that to be “Zen” is to help people without them realizing you had helped them. It’s a philosophy that applies to politics as much as personal conduct. This contrasts with PRM, which grandiosely demands people be accountable for their mistakes even though they were just following incentives like the rest of us. The American public for instance, is frustrated that the recession saw few Wall Street executives jailed. However, the most surreal realization of the crisis is that it was mainly created through legal means; few people were jailed because few people did anything illegal. They merely followed the structural incentives presented to them by the system. By criticizing them rather than the system itself, the public signals that self-regulation is a valid policy tool. Talk about moral hazard. I am not willing to rest my fate on the kindness of strangers, and I see no value in looking for blame in individuals.

We ought to be “Zen” in the sense that we manipulate policies in order to control how people behave, instead of relying on the public’s moral adherence through their own will. This needn’t take the form of direct government intrusion, but involve subtle adjustments to incentives so that people are more likely to behave in ways beneficial for society – as Richard Thaler called it, “Libertarian Paternalism.” An often-mentioned example of this is making “organ donor” the default choice, but allowing people to switch if they so choose. It turns out most people do not really care whether they are donors or not, so making it the default increases the donor population. In fact, in opt-in countries (like the US), only 15% of the population are organ donors, but in opt-out countries, 90% of the population are donors. If these countries followed the PRM, then they might have just unsuccessfully ran ad campaigns with pictures of dying children waiting for new organs.

The implicit theory of PRM is that culture is conscious and free-floating. However, a materialist would argue that all culture precedes from economic realities and formal structures. If we want to change “deviant” cultural practices, we ought to address these underlying realities rather than shame people into compliance. This approach however, is difficult because it requires the creativity and ingenuity to see the relationships between seemingly unconnected features of life. Take the Philippines. It has been 70 years since its independence from America and over 100 years from Spain, but colonial norms still dictate its direction. In Filipino politics, corruption and patronage are rampant. The system is plagued by political dynasties to such an extent that Filipinos are willing to elect the same people that they had revolted against. The current mayor of Manila is Joseph Estrada, who had been ousted as president during the EDSA II revolution. He also finished second in the 2010 presidential race. And “Bongbong” Marcos, the son of the ousted dictator Ferdinand Marcos, is a former senator and was second in the recent vice presidential election. Despite their histories, these people are able to remain in public office because of their name and regional allegiance. In explaining this, many Filipinos follow PRM by blaming their fellow countrymen for their ignorant electoral choices and politicians for their disregard of the public good. But if we take a structural approach, we can see how subtle incentives promote this state of affairs.

Like other developing nations, the Philippines still grapples with its colonial history. Unlike the British, the Spanish Empire was very hands-off. They opted to rule their colonies with indigenous proxies through the Catholic Church or selected officials. In the Philippines, the Spanish appointed Filipinos to be tax-collectors. Being in a privileged position within the colonial bureaucracy, these appointees consolidated power and became the landed-gentry, the ilustrados. When America took over after the Spanish-American War, they continued using the ilustrados as bureaucrats, further increasing their power. The Americans also transferred land from the Catholic Church to the ilustrados in the Philippine Organic Act of 1902. Japanese occupation followed a similar structure. When the Philippines gained independence after the war, they had a chance to reorganize power. Since the Japanese had used the ilustrados, there was legal grounds to prosecute these elites as national traitors. However, in the interests of national healing, newly-elected resident Manuel Roxas absolved them. Thus, the road was paved for these colonial elites to form modern political dynasties. If Filipinos are looking for someone to blame, they ought to point towards their colonial oppressors rather than themselves. But of course, blaming Spain, America, and Japan is much less personal than blaming themselves, so many opt for the latter. The relationship between modern problems and colonial histories is much too complex to be intuitively satisfying. But it is by recognizing these relationships, even if they are frustratingly complex and hidden, that public policy can be used most effectively.

As a model against PRM, we can look to Singapore. The nation’s “father,” Lee Kuan Yew, was a great practitioner of Zen policy in that he focused on structures and incentives to control the way his people behaved. As a multicultural nation, Singapore experience race riots early in its history. Lee Kuan Yew however, realized that people were less likely to spread mayhem if they risked their own property. Through government subsidies, he increased home ownership, which consequentially mitigated the damages of race riots. It became too risky to riot; your property may be damaged. The link between housing policy and racial tension is obscure, but in finding the connection, Lee Kuan Yew addressed the problem much more effectively than scolding the public would. Singapore also has one of the least corrupt governments in the world. To achieve this, Lee Kuan Yew changed the incentives of officials so that corruption would be less attractive. He understood corruption to be cultural, saying Asians “openly accept it as a part of their culture.” But rather than attacking the culture itself, he attacked the factors that created it. The government placed low caps on campaign finances so that officials would not be incentivized to solicit kickbacks in preparation for the next election, and civil servants were given salaries that rivaled corporate executives so that they would not need to seek alternative sources of wealth.

Furthermore, Lee Kuan Yew wanted to distinguish Singapore from the rest of the Third World in its cleanliness. One of the ways he did this was through a tree-planting program. If the environment people live in appears clean and ordered, then their behavior will reflect that. Singapore does have strict pollution laws, but I am unconvinced that it makes much of a difference. Many other countries have harsh laws for civil violations, but it does little to curb the deviant behavior. And anecdotally, urban parks in Southeast Asia appear to be much cleaner than the rest of the city.

Policymakers ought to take Zen policy more seriously. We like to believe we make choices from our own accords, but the evidence is strong that our environment dictates what we do. Recognizing this offers a more efficient and effective way to conduct policy. It may receive criticisms as overambitious social engineering, but PRM is much more ambitious in this respect. How can we expect to change the behavior of a national population simply from blame? We should work with the tools nature has provided, which are human responses to incentives. I suppose the case could be made that shame is a disincentive; no one likes to be blamed, so the social exile that comes from widespread shame will discourage bad behavior. I think history has proven this not to be effective. It is also unreliable to expect society to consistently distribute blame in a socially beneficial way. More effectively, we should work to change incentives.

My Thoughts on UChicago

My alma mater, the University of Chicago, is under fire for the controversial welcome letter it sent the Class of 2020. The most damning passage is: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from the ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

My initial impression is that nobody knows what anybody is talking about. Phrases like “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” are too vague for pedagogy, and no one is attempting to formalize them. More importantly, the phrases are imbued with political meanings that transcend their literal meanings, and so when one speaks of “trigger warnings,” there is often an implied charge that may have little to do with actual trigger warnings.

Those that support trigger warnings make the simple argument that these warnings already exist in everyday life, and so it is natural to extend them to traumatizing events like rape and racism. The argument is intuitively appealing to me; I am willing to accept rape is as traumatizing as the war horrors that underpin PTSD. But the problem I face is one of social cost. I suppose there are three types of people we are dealing with:

  1. Those who knowingly exaggerate the effects of triggers
  2. Those who perceive triggers as more essentialist than they are, and are therefore “curable” with tough love
  3. Those who sincerely experience trauma with triggers to a level that may rival death

I believe all three categories exist, but I am unsure what proportion they make up of trigger warning claimants. Intuitively, I think (2) represents the majority of claimants, as I would expect more public breakdowns if (3) were the majority and I don’t think the world is wicked enough to have a significant number of (1). So the question is how large must (3) be to justify the use of trigger warnings. Does the benefit of helping (3) outweigh the costs? It’s not like we warn PTSD victims of potential triggers (if you are thinking of movie ratings, that’s meant for children not PTSD victims. It’s only by coincidence that it’s a trigger warning).Although in fairness, I imagine many forms of trauma, like rape, is significantly more common that PTSD.

Activists may argue two things: that the effort of putting a simple label is so negligible that the mere existence of (3) justifies trigger warnings and that the traumatized do not seek to inhibit the freedom of the privileged, but only to make their world a little bit more bearable. I think these arguments ignore the social cost of enabling (1) and (2). If we create trigger warnings for (3), then we are allowing (1) to free ride society and reneging on our moral duty to drag (2) out of the cave. Although such costs do not necessitate that we sacrifice (3), it does mean that the actions activists demand are not consequential only to the traumatized. But I’m not prepared to solve this value calculation.

Another problem is that there are different ways trigger warnings are understood. In my experience, they are generally taken in two ways:

  • A) Warnings that allow traumatized people to prepare for triggering materials
  • B) Warnings that allow traumatized people the opportunity to avoid triggering materials

If we suppose (A), I think the activists are correct; surely the cost of informing people about what lies ahead is negligible, and since everyone is still forced to confront the issue, we avoid enabling (1) and (2). But if we suppose (B), then I vehemently oppose the activists. The value of truth accepts psychological trauma.

A similar divergence is found in safe spaces. If by “safe space,” we mean

  • C) A place where the traumatized may retreat to after a day of stress,

Then it is reasonable to provide such spaces. But if we mean

  • D) A place where people can avoid the harshness of life,

Then I do not believe they should be created. The latter is an argument I hear in the form of, “it is not my duty to teach others. I am not a warrior. I just want to relax.” Although I accept it is tremendously unfair that minorities and the traumatized must contend with racism and bigotry on a daily basis, it is their moral duty to “teach others” and to be warriors. All of us have a moral duty to teach the ignorant, and as Kant would say, we cannot let our empathy cloud us of that duty.

A criticism I expect against me is that (B) and (D) are strawmen. For instance, the historian Kevin Gannon wrote on Twitter, “Safe spaces are NOT some sort of hermetically-sealed place where students can ask to go and hide forever from ‘scary stuff…’ Rather, safe spaces are an environment where students can go sometime, if needed, to be with others who share their experiences.” He thinks that portraying the activists’ demands as (B) and (D) are caricatures. Well, I can only speak to my experiences, but I have heard some crazy arguments from SJWs. My favorite of these is a Johns Hopkins Feminist member telling me that using reason and logic is a tool of the Patriarchy. Perhaps they only represent a vocal minority in a mostly rational movement, but I do not think they are as minor as Gannon thinks. There are so many instances of universities cancelling speakers for being too controversial. Is Gannon to have me believe that the protesters only meant this to be temporary, and that the speaker would be allowed back later? Let me know when that happens.

But the important question is, what did the University of Chicago mean when they used these vague terms? I believe they were referring to (B)-type trigger warnings and (D)-style safe spaces. It is clear in their language, prior actions, and advocacy for academic integrity. For instance, the university continues alerting people of nuts in their food, so clearly they do not literally oppose all trigger warnings. And the university has a program that is called “Safe Space,” with a mission to foster “an inclusive environment that challenges oppression and provides support for LGBTQ students.” So clearly, the administration doesn’t literally oppose safe spaces. Furthermore, the research is clear that those who are comfortable are better participants of the market of ideas, so why would the university advocate stressing them in the name of academic freedom? Is it because the University of Chicago, a major research institution, failed to notice the academic research that established this?

Rather, the letter is a political opposition to a certain style of activism. It opposes the (B)-style methods people use to avoid uncomfortable truths. Rhetorically, such is the function of using quotations around “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” – to signal that it is a specific approach that the university opposes. The quotations also sarcastically challenges the vagueness, and therefore corruptibility, of these tools. For instance, what exactly constitutes a “safe space?” Can a space truly be free from judgement and trauma as to be safe?

So safe spaces are political tools for certain groups, who frame it in a way to attain legitimacy. It is understandable why these groups need and deserve these spaces, but what the university won’t tolerate is for these spaces to be excuses. The danger is that these malleable spaces will be redefined whenever it serves an ideology, or that trigger warnings will be reshaped whenever the need arises. The history of the Red Scare and similar hysterias underpin the fear. One may argue that certain things are so self-evidently wrong that protection from it is warranted, that comparing it to historical mistakes like censuring communists or abolitionists is a false equivalency. But how do we know that? It is often useful to clearly state an extreme position to illustrate a point, and this is one of those times: we should never be so sure that the Holocaust is immoral as to not give it the opportunity to be advocated for in a public space. We must always allow the possibility – no matter how insignificant and infinitesimally quantum that may be – for slavery to return. We must never say “never again” when we have a market of ideas. Fiat veritas et pereat mundus.

The charge the University of Chicago makes is for truth. It is their view that truth is so sacred and important that the chance of trauma is an acceptable cost. Reading between the lines, I do not believe the university thinks allowing the traumatized to suffer is conducive to ideas. Reading between the lines, I think the university is clear in opposing permanent escapism. One may temporarily retreat from their demons, but one must eventually confront them. While a strictly-defined set of trigger warnings and safe spaces do not hinder the eventual goal to attain truth, the popular political use of these tools in a carefree way does. It is the latter, not the former, that the university opposes. Of course, it would have been nice if they rigorously explained this, but I guess it wasn’t rhetorically-appealing to include a philosophy thesis in a welcome letter.

 

TLDR: Trigger warnings that let one prepare for a traumatizing lesson and safe spaces that allow respite are good. Trigger warnings that allow one to avoid a traumatizing lesson and safe spaces that allow permanent shelter are not. It’s ambiguous which style most activists desire, but I believe they want the former. It’s ambiguous which style the university meant, but I believe they meant the latter.

 

 

Social Safety Nets, Evolution, and the Local Maxima

Sure social safety nets are Samaritan, but is there more to it than just morals? From a pragmatic perspective is there a productive aspect of having a social safety net? Analysis via an evolutionary standpoint can help serve a good reference frame for answering this question.

The evolutionary algorithm can be thought of as a method of problem solving and is often used in the fields of machine learning and AI as an optimization algorithm. The algorithm is much like what you have learned from a basic bio text book and is composed of several discrete steps that continue in a loop. Here is the general idea of these steps via wikipedia:

  1. Generate the initial population of individuals with varying characteristics (first generation)
  2. Evaluate the fitness of each individual
  3. Repeat on the population:
    1. Select the best fit individuals for reproduction
    2. Breed new individuals via crossover and mutation operations to create new individuals
    3. Evaluate the individuals fitness of the new generation
    4. Replace least-fit population with new individuals

But how is simulating the evolutionary process, a form of optimization? Let’s give some context. For example lets look at one aspect of the parenting process; what age should a mother stop taking care of its cub? Too early and the cub does not have the means to protect and take care of itself. Too late and it may drain resources from the mother while not giving the initiative for the cub to learn independence. There is an optimal solution from an evolutionary standpoint and that is the age which allows for the most successful off springs, and this is the solution that the evolutionary algorithm tries to arrive at. This can be graphically represented by the image below,

offsprings vs age of release.png

figure 1

where the y-axis represents the number of successful offsprings and the x-axis represents the age of release by the mother. The relationship between the two variables is defined by the function p(a), the # successful offsprings as a function of the age of release. The optimal age, a*, allows for the optimal number of offsprings, p*. The optimal solution therefore can be represented by the point p(a*). However it is hard to suppose that the relationship between the two variables is one that has one maxima and one that is completely continuous. Various reasons that quickly come to mind e.g. 1) not all points of development are equally substantial to survival of the cub, the completion of the development of a muscle, limb, or any other functional part of the body can make a drastic difference from one that is still in development (discontinuous), 2) not all developments happen together but can happen in succession, the completion of the development of a muscle, limb, or any other functional part of the body may prompt the next stage of development which could leave the infant at a more vulnerable state, which may allow for a time frame in which the cub can learn to get by. The modified model is represented below,

offspring vs age of release 2.0

figure 2

where p(a*) represents the solution to the optimization of the function p(a).

When the genes or the bit representation of the age of release is modified from generation to generation via crossover or mutation, the individuals in the species moves along the given function p(a). Although the movement is discrete, it is limited enough that we can think of it as continuous. Complex and drastic changes to the gene pool happens gradually in most cases because of how the crossover process works. Indeed it is this gradual process that gives the evolutionary process its direction and efficiency. If gene pools were completely random from generation to generation, it would only be by chance that we would reach the optimal solution. This is conceptually equivalent to a bogo sort where there is no guaranteed time until a solution is reached and thus can run forever. It would ruin the point of having genes in the first place. The gene pool is analogous to memory, it stores data about what kind of genes were successful in the past and helps limit the approximations for success. Thus the gradual feature of evolution is a limiter which gives the algorithm direction towards a maxima.

gradual evolution.png

figure 3

The graph above illustrates the gradual change of the fittest individuals from generation 1 (s) to generation 2 (e). (p(as) -> p(ae)); note that this is different from the average fitness of each generation or the fitness of every individual in the generation.

We’ve still forgotten about one crucial variable and that is the number of successful off springs is also dependent on the environment and the abundance of resources that is available. The image below shows an simplified example.

cutoff environment

figure 4

Here the zero-line or the cutoff point at which an individual must lie above to survive and make off springs has risen considerably (from 0 to 0*), possibly due to a drought or some other reason of scarcity. In simulation terms, we can think of it as raising the fitness criteria in order to save processing power. In reality however an environmental change would also have an impact on the function p(a) as well, maybe new environments make new characteristics more advantageous. For the sake of simplicity and for the sake of the argument that we will be making, we will ignore these effects as they will be arbitrary anyways. The orange/red tinged area above represents the total population after the rise in the zero-line, and both the orange/red and purple tinged areas represents the total population with the original zero line. Both can respectfully be represented by an equation of integrals if you want to think in mathematical terms as they are simply the areas under the curves. As we can clearly see and expect, the lower the zero-line the greater the population (total area beneath the curve; orange area vs. orange + purple area). However what is also important to note is that the lower the zero-line the greater the genetic diversity (the domain of the function/length of the area under the curve); there exists a larger variety of ages at which the mother releases her cubs at the original zero line than at the raised zero-line.  The lowest relevant zero-line is at which all variations of the gene pool can have offspring. In this example it is the original zero-line, where all ages on the function exist in the population. However as we can imagine supporting such a population makes the algorithm more resource intensive and possibly less efficient, whether it be more CPU to simulate more individuals or more environmental resources to support that many more individuals.

This leads us to the disadvantages of the evolutionary algorithm. The limiting of the approximation for success is also limiting success itself. Evolution most of the time does not give us the best solution but rather gives us a good enough solution. Biologically we observe these results via imperfections and flaws. In conceptual terms this is the difference between a maxima and a local maxima; the function p(a) in the figures illustrate two distinct hills, but one is clearly higher than the other. As insinuated by wikipedia’s step by step of the genetic algorithm and what we have mentioned earlier, it is the process of the least fit being replaced by the most fit in the next generation which makes the algorithm efficient. If we were to keep all individuals of various finesses, then it would be a complete search for the optimal solution, checking every variation and option rather than making more of an educated guess. Also similar to a breadth first search, it would make each generation exponentially more resource intensive as the population would grow exponentially with no limiter. In philosophical terms, what even is fitness at the point at which every individual survives?

limitation

figure 5

The figure above represents a limitation of the evolutionary algorithm. The function p(a) is characterized by 2 local maximas (the one on the right being the global maxima). The solution to this set is again represented by p(a*). The purple area represents the current population. As you can see the zero-line does not allow for all genetic variations on the function to exist (important is the fact that it does not allow for the successful reproduction of the genes that characterize the trench in between the two maximas). As you can see this poses a problem with the algorithm, since genes are changed somewhat gradually, there is no way for the current gene pool to expand across the dip in the function to reach the true global maxima (a*, p*). This is illustrated by the arrow from p(a1) to p(a2), which is not possible under the current circumstances. Now why would the population be limited to the left side to begin with? It could be a limitation of where the gene pool first began, or it could be a result of some event in the past that impacted the genetic diversity.

If the zero-line rises due to economic or resource deficiency, the zero-line can be lowered via resource or economic abundance. Most importantly, a social safety net can also help lower the cutoff as it provides those with inadequate “fitness” to survive and reproduce. Thus the problem prior can technically be solved via allocating more resources or socially via a social safety net.

solution.png

figure 6

The figure above shows how lowering the zero-line now enables the population to reach the global maxima (in this case the optimal age of release by the mother). Notice how the path from p(a1) to p(a2) is now possible. If we are running an evolutionary algorithm on a simulation, and we believe that the process is stuck in a specific hump of the function like above, we can simply add more computational power and enable more diversity in the population. Likewise a population can achieve similar results by expanding its genetic pool by taking care of the less genetically fit (in other words by spending more resources).

Why does this all matter?

it matters

figure 7

The figure above depicts a negative change in environment. Due to a lack of resources, the zero-line has risen considerably high. Most importantly, the zero-line is above the local maxima on the left, and if the population were limited to the purple area it would surely go extinct. Out of the whole function it would only be a population that exists in the red shaded area that would be able to survive this event. Thus is the importance of genetic diversity. In essence, social safety nets is a population’s investment for a better solution; a better solution which will be its insurance in times of hardship. In a Darwinian perspective, the idea of caring for the less fit is not merely just a result of the development of social behaviors (strength in numbers), but it also has its advantages too (even if it is costly in terms of resources available to the population).

Some last remarks: the cost of a social safety net can effect the fitness or the success of those that are fit and effect the function p(a) (since they may be spending some of their resources), possibly reducing the heights of the local maximas. However the point of the whole process is to simply increase genetic diversity as the social safety net can easily be eliminated if needed (especially in times of scarcity) and thus those effects can in the short run be nullified or changed. Genetic diversity however takes longer to develop. The idea of investing in prosperity and saving in scarcity is not a practice that is limited to human beings. Thus as a long term insurance policy, the system still makes sense.

At What Cost Did We Triumph?

There you have it. Brexit has won. Trump is the nominee. And in the rest of the world, from the triumph of the soon-to-be-dictator Duterte in the Philippines to the stunning success of right-wing European parties, outsiders are challenging expectations. To the supporters of these unconventional outcomes, the political narrative is one of corrupt interests, globalist control, and useless democracy. Their sentiments however, are more emotional than ideological, which manifests as a strategy of taking extreme positions in order to dismantle the political machine at any cost. Take Sanders supporters. It appears as if their energy comes from die-hard progressivism, but in a survey conduct by the American National Election Studies, Sanders supporters are less likely to support a minimum wage increase, an expansion of health care, and an increase in social benefits than those “moderate” Clinton supporters. Doesn’t seem so unlikely that Trump will draw in Sandernistas now, huh?

However, it seems to me that their success only serves to undermine their motivating rhetoric. If the world was truly as rigged as they believe, then how could the underdogs claim such victories? In their effort to dismantle vested interests, populists have confirmed that the powers-that-be aren’t as powerful as they thought, and if any good can be gained from their choices, it’s that democracy is more-or-less functioning as it should. Of course, one could make the argument that it took a devoted cause – nay, a political revolution – for the people’s will to be expressed. More likely however, the people are merely realizing that in order to have their desires expressed, one must actually care. One cannot sit at home expecting that politics will play out in her favor, then call foul and fraud when it doesn’t. One must actually take the reins in her own hands, make demands, and most importantly, vote.

Forging a movement with political energy does not constitute a drastic effort by the oppressed to reclaim their nation. Rather, such was intended to be a daily experience of a functioning civic society in a stable democracy. If the devil’s greatest trick was to convince humanity that he doesn’t exist, then the political puppeteer’s greatest trick was to convince the people that she does exist. From there, people conclude that no matter what they do, they will be undermined by corporations, lobbyists, and Hilary Clinton, and so the prophecy inadvertently fulfills itself. But as recent history shows, the people are more powerful than the myth foretold. However, I am unsure if its any better knowing that democracy is functioning when living in a society of once-apathetic racists and bigots.

Can Islam be Feminist?

 

“Their Lord responded to them: ‘I never fail to reward any worker among you for any work you do, be you male or female – you are equal to one another’” [3:195]

Progressives are crippled by a fear of Islamophobia. We recognize the historical dangers of moral absolutism, and so we are wary to criticize outsiders. But this fear can blind us to the reality of ideologies and forces us to take for granted the ability to criticize without hate. I do not believe Islam is that incompatible with the West, and as a materialist, I’m obligated to say that there is no Clash of Civilizations, a mere byproduct of colonial rationalizations that caste the East as monolithic and the West as dynamically diverse. None of this however, precludes me from criticizing aspects of Islam, and one of these criticisms is against the attempts of liberal Muslims to frame their beliefs as feminist.

Feminists Muslims argue Islam has been misunderstood by the West, and that its perceived patriarchal nature is due to erroneous interpretations upheld by global sexism, a force that affects the West as much as the Islamic World. I agree with this to some extent. For instance, it is clear that the hijab is a pre-Islamic convention forced on women by Arab traditionalists, not divine decree. In fact, before the institutionalization of patriarchal Islam, Muslim women enjoyed progressive freedoms, including participation in warfare, wealth accumulation, and sexual freedom (relative to the West at the time). Feminist Muslims are correct in saying that the Quran is an interpretable text that needs to be placed in a social context, rather than read literally; it may be the literal word of God, but God speaks in poetry as much as He lays down commands.

Progressive Muslims however, don’t fully understand Western modernity (by which I mean, the norms of the Enlightenment). When we call for gender equality, we implicitly desire an egalitarian society. Muslims deviate in their definition of equality, which they treat broadly. Specifically, Islam primarily calls for equality in worth, while the West requires equality in rights.

Let’s consider three forms of feminism:

Liberal Feminism: Gender is a social construct, but biological sex isn’t. As such, we can continue categorizing humans dichotomously as a general rule, although we should acknowledge that there are small deviations (i.e. intersex). Practically, men and women differ in physiological ways that affect their psychological and physical beings, but beyond those natural differences, all sexes should be given the same opportunities.

Postmodernist Feminism: Gender and biological sex are social constructs. Instead, humanity is organized as a spectrum that we shouldn’t force into neat categories. Just as we don’t classify humans by their belly button type since we don’t think the differences are important, so too we shouldn’t classify them by sex. For instance, we should not say that “women are able to give birth,” but simply that “some humans are able to give birth,” since the latter does not cast barren “women” as anomalies. This approach relies strongly on language.

Islamic Feminism: Both gender and sex exists, and they are tied together. This means that men should live in a particular social realm that women cannot enter, and men possess certain rights only available to them. Likewise, women also live in a unique realm. This however, does not mean that they are unequal. Since God loves both genders equally, they both have equal spiritual worth. As an analogy, compare the Canadian dollar to the US dollar; both are relatively equal in worth, yet each can only be used in their own countries.

Admittedly Postmodern Feminism isn’t a mainstream position in the West, but I do believe that’s where Liberal Feminism is headed. Even if it isn’t, Islamic Feminism is still very distinct from liberalism. The barrier that Islam is unable to cross is its semi-naturalistic worldview – that things are the way it is just because it is, because God says so. God may be a poet, but there is a limit to His symbolism. As such, it is misleading when progressives tell us that Islam is actually feminist. What they actually mean is that Islam doesn’t have to be as sexist as it is, but by Western standards, Islam is necessarily sexist. This is because no matter how far left Islam is pushed, its worldview will always require two distinct realms. This is something that modernity cannot accept, as it calls for equal worth, opportunities, and outcomes.

There is a caveat however. While Islam is innately sexist when compared to Western modernity, it is not exclusively so. The racism of the Clash of Civilizations argument is that it ignores how many ideologies within the West exhibit the same norms we criticize in Islam – in other words, how many native ideologies are themselves not “Western.” For instance, like Islam, it would be difficult to find Christian clerics who will accept Liberal Feminism. Despite this, many lay Christians are able to rationalize their Christian identity with their Feminist one, sometimes in contradiction. Why are we so reluctant to believe that Muslims can too?