Friday, August 18, 2017

In favour of better jokes.

Some days ago we learned that the Norwegian minister of knowledge (education, I guess) delivered what he thought was a funny joke about white power. He immediately after had to do what it took Pewdiepie months to do - renounce stupid nazi jokes. Which proves that if nothing else, he is quicker in the uptake than at least one well-paid streaming star. The apology is however not going over well with - why am I not surprised - white men with some education. They claim it is another example of the supression of free speech. (And I am not directly quoting here because no way am I pointing the shamers and trolls of the world at individuals who are not elected officials or Youtube millioneers.) (If you don't think you said anything like that, I am not talking about you.)

Anyway - I suspect the problem with not acknowledging the danger of these casual jokes and what they symbolise isn't that Norwegian educated men any moment now will be donning the SS-shirts hanging in their closets. (Note: I do not believe all white educated men are secret nazi's. Was this a bad joke? Perhaps, if so I apologize. Irony is hard. It's based on stating what we all know is impossible or unreasonable. It stops working if the other party doesn't know what you said is impossible.) Our lack of acceptance that "race" is important is rather the opposite of the problem with America: where they reject the existence of class, we reject the possibility of ethnicity and race as dividers of the population.

Scandinavian social democracy, whether we have a red, green, blue or darkblue government, has a set of basic ideals, and one of those is the value of honest work. There is no shame in what your work is, as long as you work. Of course, like with all ideals, this isn't perfect. There is still a shadow of class arrogance between neighbourhoods. There is a center/periphery divide with a definite class flavour to it. Classic markers like language, taste in music, reading habits, artistic ability, education, etc etc - they still influence us. They make it easier to get jobs, gain influence, find the right kind of friends. We are however aware of them, know how to navigate the class issue and how to either counter or take advantage of it in different situations. Through the acknowledgement of the existence of a class-based society, we can work on making the effects of it less obvious and painful.

Gender is also getting there, although it takes a bit longer. This is among other things because the fight for class equality for a long time overshadowed the issue of gender equality. I apologize for not translating the following quote, but it is mainly here to demonstrate that I am not taking the socialist movement resistance to gender equality from my own imagination:
Fagorganisering av kvinnelige arbeidere foregikk i siste halvdel av 1800-tallet, men gikk tregt. Kvinnene var oftest ufaglærte, og de fleste var unge og så på lønnsarbeidet som midlertidig. Noen var gift og hadde både arbeid ute og mann og barn hjemme. Dette kunne gjøre organisering av kvinner vanskelig. Det hjalp ikke at menn i arbeiderklassen ofte var svært negative til å få kvinner inn i sine organisasjoner. 
Mange var mot at kvinner i det hele tatt arbeidet i industri og håndverk, blant annet fordi de hadde lavere lønn, og dermed kunne konkurrere med menn om arbeidsplasser. Samtidig mente mange menn, og som regel også kvinner, at det var langt bedre om kvinnene var hjemme og tok seg av familien.
So, yeah, minimising class difference is better explored and the tools better developed than for minimising  gender difference. On this background, it makes sense that we still have difficulties dealing with a more ethnically diverse society. After all, while the first labour movements started to bloom, and the first socialists started to talk about votes for all, we still had a paragraph in our constitution that denied jews access to the country. It was removed in 1851, and one of the most active builders of the image of Norway, the poet Henrik Wergeland, was a vital agent in opposing it, so we got on with it reasonably quickly, but it wasn't at the top of our agenda.

The tragedies that followed in the second world war, and the time it took for Norwegians to understand what was really happening, not even the heroics of the border guides and shetland boats could totally wipe away. Norway's past, when it comes to ethnic diversity, is blotted with attempts to eradicate the culture and language of the Sami and the Norwegian travellers, "taterne". But it is coming together, slowly, as the basic value of equality means that there is a positive trend in Norwegian society. Lately, however, the societal changes have just been too rapid for this slow assimilation. And so it is hard to understand why a bunch of white men can't, in a private party, joke about "white power", if black men can use racial epithets about themselves.

The difference is: the white power groups were very busy eradicating all the others, and not enough time has passed to let the ideology pass into history. While armed protesters still march to insist on white supremacy, racist jokes are bad. Perhaps wait a few generations after the last nazi is gone before you start, like with the white knights. If it is hard to understand, think about Isis. I suspect it would be time for some apologies if a muslim politician joked about fighting for Isis in a private party, that is, if the terror police didn't get him first. And that is not even a joke. A muslim politician being overheard as speaking in favour of Isis could end really badly, no matter how funny he thought his ironic comment was.

That is my point though: we haven't learned how to be a multicultural society yet. We want to be, and we want to not feel guilty when we do the wrong things, and we want to be funny when we crack jokes, and we want everybody to understand that we are working hard on being a society with strong values on the side of democracy and equality. But we have to give ourselves time to learn. Learning is painful, not only for the teacher, but also for the student, and right now, we Scandinavians are students of how to live in a heterogenous society. We will do stupid things. We should apologize. We should rethink. And then do smarter and more universally funny things. Because a joke only you like isn't really a joke worth retelling. Let's all aim for better jokes all around.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Free speech, right?

One of the arguments that keep popping up in Twitter and Facebook feeds is a discussion around free speech, and how the feminist agenda is limiting it. Of course, occasionally other agendas are killing free speech, such as those who fight for ethnic equality, economic equality or just plain human rights. With the claim that the feminist (or other equality based) agenda is accused of limiting free speech, there tends to be one think they all have in common. The threatened speech can be seen as supporting discrimination.

The most recent discussion is concerned with the engineer who circulated a memo at Google. In this document he argued for why male characteristics are better for engineers than female, and why that discussion should be permitted. Going through and arguing with the entire document is a time-consuming and painful thing to do, but luckily it has already been done pretty well. Suzanne Sadedin over at Quora has a pretty well articulated walk-through of the arguments concernine biological differences between men and women, for instance. Cynthia Lee ladysplains the computer science side of the argument over at Vox. I am not even going to go into the discussion as to whether Google had the right to fire an engineer who went against their diversity policy, because of course they do. That is actually how a free market, which libertarians love, works.

So what am I going to talk about?

I want to talk about the idea that all free speech should be without consequence. Because that is what is argued in the case of the Google engineer. He has, after all, not been refused his right to speak, quite the opposite, he has been asked to speak quite a lot since he was fired. What he wants is to speak without any negative consequences to himself. When he then claims it is a free speech matter, he commits a logical fallacy. Dissent of a woman made a pretty good list of logical fallacies concerning free speech back in 2012, long before this, and at least one is directly relevant:

4) An edict that states that an employer, school or club cannot form or enforce policies on speech that happens within its own environment and boundaries. 
Citizen G: You’re a stupid bitch! 
The boss: You’re fired. 
Citizen G (to the lawyer he or she hopes to hire): That stupid bitch violated my right to free speech. 
Clarifying the fallacy: The lawyer will not be taking Citizen G’s case because employee discipline is not legal censorship. Citizen G’s right to curse about his or her boss is protected, but will not receive safeguards from anything except arrest or government assassination. Firing Citizen G did not nullify his or her ability to call his or her boss a stupid bitch.

Google is huge, and if Google really does practice censorship of free speech, we'd be in trouble. I would probably be in trouble personally, since Google owns this blog platform. Now there are ways in which Google regulates speech, and while I don't think it's with malicious intent, it's really annoying to borderline problematic. For instance: if you're a scholar and use Google scholar, you really should make sure to do your searches while you are abroad on conferences as well as from home. The algorithm that makes sure that your search for "same day car repairs", or "pizza takeaway" gives you the local hits high up on your list, apparently messes with Google scholar hits. After a year of travels and writing from different countries, it has become pretty obvious - articles which are not frequently used in local searches and libraries come far down the list. This kind of censorship causes a bias in academic writing and publishing which makes it almost impossible for dissenting voices from remote locations to be heard, as it strengthens the centrally positioned scholars' tendency to only cite each other, making it less and less likely that others will be heard.

But even this isn't a violation of free speech. That would be if Google stopped displaying hits outside of our geographic area, suppressing them in specific searches, and is exactly the kind of censorship that comes into play in the Google vs China discussion:

Google vs. China 
Google has had a rocky relationship with the Chinese authorities since January 2010, when the company said it might shut down Chinese operations due to a "sophisticated and targeted" cyber attack. Google said at the time that it was no longer willing to censor its Chinese search engine. The forced blockage of Google's service and Google's subsequent threat to pull out highlight concerns of cyberspace security within China. While Jiang Yu, a spokesperson of the China's Foreign Ministry, promoted the Chinese government's "development of the internet", Wang Chen of China's State Council Information Office defended online censorship: "Maintaining the safe operation of the Internet and the secure flow of information is a fundamental requirement for guaranteeing state security and people's fundamental interests, promoting economic development and cultural prosperity and maintaining a harmonious and stable society."[56] In 2014, in response to a series of terrorist attacks, China made all Google services almost unusable by tightening its Internet censorship, often called the "Great Firewall of China". In 2009, one-third of all searches in China were on Google. As of 2013 the US company has only 1.7% market share.
Now, this is actual censorship in action, and this is a threat to free speech. What we are looking at here is how Google controls what I guess we can all agree is an asset to freedom of speech, and they refuse to adjust it to facilitate the kind of censorship practiced in mainland China.

But why fight for the right of women, coloured or low-income individuals to speak, and not the right of all, specifically educated, well situated white men? Aren't they allowed to start discussions about their working conditions?

Of course they are. But here's the thing with freedom of speech - for it to work, we all need to agree that all are equal first. Otherwise it won't be free speech, it will be a mutual silencing attempt. And this is where supremacy-groups come in. Whether it's gender supremacy (all directions), ethnic, colour, educational, or based on weight or muscle strength, supremacy groups that try to silence others because they for some reason "do not fit" have already waived their right to free speech. If you claim that being somehow "better" gives you the right to shut others up, you have to accept that others, who might be "better" than you, have the right to shut you up. And since in cases like this right = might, we are not looking at a society with free speech any more, and you can't use the argument. This is also where I have a problem with some of the more extreme aspects of identity politics - silencing the opposition is never OK. However, most advocates of identity politics don't try to silence the opposition. They just want them to be polite.

So, what does this have to do with the poor engineer, who just wanted the right to not having to be so sensitive all the time? Well, he has the right to be insensitive. However, he can't force others to like him for it. Or to return to the list of things free speech is not at Dissent of a woman:

1) A guarantee that in any particular interaction between individuals, people will like you, respect your opinion or even listen to you. 
Illustrative dramatization:
Citizen A: We shouldn’t be arguing about gender equality and pay when women don’t belong in the workforce in the first place. Working women are ruining families everywhere.
Citizen B: Citizen A, you are an idiot and I do not deem your supposition as worthy of a response.
Citizen C: I agree with Citizen B.
Citizen D: What the fuck, Citizen A? I want no piece of this protosexist fundamentalist nightmare. Take that shit elsewhere.
Citizen A: I have the right to express my opinion without all you fascists ganging up on me and trying to shut me up. Freedom of speech, bitches. 
Clarifying the fallacy: Actually, Citizens B-D have the right to call Citizen A names, as well as contradict and devalue Citizen A’s stupid opinion for the exact same reason that Citizen A is free to express a stupid opinion. Both the stupid opinion and the entirely appropriate return volley of criticism are protected by the first amendment.
I sympathize with the people who are angry that they can't speak their minds and still be popular for it, I really do. But getting feedback to what we say is how we learn.

And that engineer? He is now planning to sue Google, although it's not really yet clear on which grounds. (Also, he doesn't have a Ph. D., Businessinsider, even if his linkedin page said so for a while.) If he wins, it will probably be seen as a victory for people everywhere to speak up against company regulations. And in some cases, such as with particularly stupid dress codes, perhaps that's a good thing.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Living in the future

We live in the future. Not only the actual future if seen from yesterday, but in the future of dreams. We can travel around the world in a matter of hours, rather than months, we can speak across vast distances, wirelessly on our personal phones, we have huge amounts of knowledge available at our fingertips on small easily carried devices, and we can carry all our books in a purse. (And that last link is to the Spanish Wikipedia, which I hope gives justice to the then 54 year old inventor of the first electronic book, a Spanish schoolteacher named Ángela Ruiz Robles.)

Image found here.
But has this change actually been that huge? When I was a kid, I used to think about the changes my parents and grandparents saw. My grandfather on my father's side was a sami farmer in a world that went from horses and sail to cars and motor boats. My grandfather on my mother's side was an itinerant worker, a mason, who built railroads and bridges, cutting and working stone by hand and careful use of dynamite. Both my parents experienced farming with a horse and farming with a tractor, they would grow their own food, forage, hunt and fish as easily - or more - as they read the newspaper. The technology they adopted seems simple to us, but to them it was lifechanging - they got washing machines, chainsaws, television. In their lifetimes travel became a mundane thing, to the point that when their daughters grew up jumping on a train to go through Europe was not only doable, but popular.

And then the digital age hit us.

Was this when the future arrived?

Personally, I don't think so. We are just skimming the cream of all those firsts that are so much older than us. Before this blog comes the printing press, the type-writer, the moving image, the screen, the radio, the telephone, wired and wireless transmission, the Colossus computer, all inventions from the lifetime of both my grandparents and parents. What I use is all of this, put together, and used in different manners. Our inventions are bricolages, mixtures of what was already there.

The one, drastically new thing, that permits this culture of remixing the past, is the micro chip. Those who were at a "folk college" at Skjeberg in 1980-81, may remember a more than usually confused radio segment about the micro chip and how it would revolutionize the future. We knew it would happen, but at the time we had no idea how, and we particularly had no idea that what we tried to talk about was actually called an integrated circuit, had been developed since the fifties, and would thoroughly revolutionize the way we communicated.

Something as simple as remix culture isn't new, but remixing wouldn't want to be. Because what would Duchamp's L. H. O. O. Q be without art history? Remixing is possible and has meaning because of the past, not in spite of it. And in the spirit, and hopefully with the sense of humour of Duchamp, I find it fascinating and delightful that the most revolutionary invention of this age quite possibly is a better way to utilize what is already there.

Monday, August 07, 2017

The Social Media Diet

Wonderful fellow researcher Lone writes about how she does bring her phone with her on vacation, and she argues well for why, as she describes the phone as a vital part of how she experiences and shares her life. At the same time current media are packed with warnings and "social media diets". The article that triggered this blog post is from yesterday's Daily Mail, but if you google the term, you'll see that this pops up every year, in different media. It is clearly one of those topics, that like bikini bodies and barbeque accidents return regularly to our attention. So let's look at it a bit.

First, the issue of "social media diets" tend to pop up when parents have to spend time with their kids, and discover what they are actually doing. In this case, it's summer, they go on vacation, the phones may not be as easily charged or the roaming costs go through the roof, and not only do the kids rebel, but the parents can't use their own phones as a distraction, and so it's clear that there has been a change of behaviour. Social media have become extremely important in our lives, from an early age on.

Lone Koefoed Hansen connects to the tradition of the cyborg body, envisioned among other places in Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto, where she describes humanity as a hybrid between flesh and machine. The machine, in this understanding, is not a monstrous alienating force, but an extension of our bodies. As long as this extension is relatively simple and recognisable, perhaps even traditional, an axe, for instance, or a needle, we don't really question whether it ruins society as we know it. It is when this extension becomes unfamiliar that we, as a society, question its value. Do we really need to be able to fly, or will it end horribly if we try? Are souls captured by photography? Is a sun-centric model of the universe heretic? Can women play games? Change is always scary, and change in how our children act, think, speak, and in the choices they make, is perhaps the scariest of all. Hence, the reassuring, calming, idea of the healthy and controlled media diet.

Most media diets offer time restrictions. I am rather in favour of those. Kids need to do a variety of things - run, climb, be cold and warm, fall down and get back up, be stung by a wasp and get wet in a puddle - they need all of the experiences, and they need to do quite a few of them on their own, outside. This takes time. Same does reading, drawing, playing an instrument, helping with cooking, having a conversation with a friend or an adult, doing chores and playing a board-game with the family. If kids are glued to the screens, they won't get any of this very important stuff done. However. And this is where I disagree with the strict restrictions. However, by making the social media time something which is not part of all the rest, they don't need to control it, use it and take advantage of it. 

Social media today isn't something you do in isolation, it is part of everything. It's sending a snap to a friend when you're hanging upside down from a tree. It's asking when you can meet while you're stuck in your parents' car and really want to make sure you can see your friend that night. It's demonstrating your instrument skills to a proud grandma on Skype. It's the picture of the one successful cupcake, the joke shared among friends that makes you laugh while you should be doing homework, it's the reminder from your sister that you need to plan a present, it's the argument you got into that escalated when you used the wrong emoticon because you were walking to the bus while typing. 

This can't be quantified. It has to be learned in order for our kids to understand the restrictions and the possibilities. And we are the ones who need to support that learning, just like we need to support our kids as they learn how to get to school, how to choose a boyfriend, how to drink responsibly, how to have safe sex, how to go for a hike, how to drive a car, how to travel the world. And, since we are talking of diets, yes, we also need to teach our kids how to eat healthy and well. And we know very well that this isn't only about quantity. Food is both good and bad for you. So are social media. Teach your kids to be sceptical, critical and a little cautious, just like they should be about modern, processed food. Because good use of social media is as hard as smart food choices. And it's can't all be cupcakes, even if they sometimes are just what you need.