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Why does society work the way it does?  Why is there such a disconnect between the common people and politics.  Jonathan Cook examines the power structures in our society and how they work.

 

“Rather than thinking in terms of individuals, power is better visualised as the deep waters of a lake, while the powerful are simply the ripples on the surface. The ripples come and go, but the vast body of water below remains untouched.

Superficially, the means by which power conceals itself is through stories. Its needs narratives – mainly about those who appear powerful – to create political and social dramas that distract us from thinking about deep power. But more fundamentally still, power depends on ideology. Ideology cloaks power – in a real sense, it is power – because it is the source of power’s invisibility.

Ideology provides the assumptions that drive our perceptions of the world, that prevent us from questioning why some people were apparently born to rule, or have been allowed to enclose vast estates of what was once everyone’s land, or hoard masses of inherited wealth, or are celebrated for exploiting large numbers of workers, or get away with choking the planet to the point at which life itself asphyxiates.

Phrased like that, none of these practices seems natural. In fact, to a visiting Martian they would look pathologically insane, an irrefutable proof of our self-destructiveness as a species. But these conditions are the unexamined background to our lives , just the way things are and maybe always were. The system.

True, the individuals who benefit from the social and economic policies that uphold this system may occasionally be held to account. Even the policies themselves may occasionably be held up to scrutiny. But the assumptions behind the policies are rarely questioned – certainly not in what we are taught to call the “mainstream”.

That is an amazing outcome given that almost none of us benefit from the system we effectively sanction every time we turn out to vote in an election. Very few of us are rulers, or enjoy enormous wealth, or live on large estates, or own companies that deprive thousands of the fruit of their labours, or profit from destroying life on Earth. And yet the ideology that rationalises all that injustice, inequality and immorality not only stays in place but actually engenders more injustice, more inequality, more immorality year by year.

We watch this all unfold passively, largely indifferently because we believe – we are made to believe – we are powerless.

Regenerating like Dr Who

By now, you may be frustrated that power still lacks a name. Is it not late-stage capitalism? Or maybe neoliberalism? Globalisation? Or neoconservatism? Yes, we can identify it right now as ideologically embedded in all of those necessarily vague terms. But we should remember that it is something deeper still.

Power always has an ideological shape and physical structures. It has both faces. It existed before capitalism, and will exist after it (if capitalism doesn’t kill us first). Human history has consisted of power consolidating and regenerating itself in new form over and over again – like the eponymous hero of the long-running British TV sci-fi series Doctor Who – as different groups have learnt how to harness it, usurp it and put it to self-interested use. Power has been integral to human societies. Now our survival as individuals and as a species depends on our finding a way to reinvent power, to tame it and share it equally between us all – and thereby dissolve it. It is the ultimate challenge.”

To change a system, one needs to understand how it works.

 

 

 

The term gender-neutral is a misleading term.  It is because gender neutral spaces almost always become male spaces due to the previously existing imbalance in society.  Because many women still rightly fear men in restricted spaces, many women avoid gender-neutral spaces because those spaces give males access to them.  These are cultural, as well as structural differences that need to be addressed first before simply slapping a ‘gender neutral’ sign over the ladies sign in public spaces.

“In April 2017, the BBC journalist Samira Ahmed wanted to use a toilet. She was at a screening of the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro at London’s Barbican arts centre, and it was the interval. Any woman who has ever been to the theatre knows what that means. This evening, the queue was worse than usual. Far worse. Because in an almost comically blatant display of not having thought about women at all, the Barbican had turned both the male and female toilets gender neutral simply by replacing the “men” and “women” signage with “gender neutral with urinals” and “gender neutral with cubicles”. The obvious happened. Only men were using the supposedly “gender neutral with urinals” and everyone was using the “gender neutral with cubicles”.

Rather than rendering the toilets genuinely gender neutral, they had simply increased the provision for men. “Ah the irony of having to explain discrimination having just been to see I Am Not Your Negro IN YOUR CINEMA”, Ahmed tweeted, suggesting that turning the gents gender neutral would be sufficient: “There’s NEVER such a queue there & you know it.”

On the face of it, it may seem fair and equitable to accord male and female public toilets the same amount of space – and historically, this is the way it has been done: 50/50 division of floor space has even been formalised in plumbing codes. However, if a male toilet has both cubicles and urinals, the number of people who can relieve themselves at once is far higher per square foot of floor space in the male bathroom than in the female bathroom. Suddenly equal floor space isn’t so equal.

But even if male and female toilets had an equal number of stalls, the issue wouldn’t be resolved, because women take up to 2.3 times as long as men to use the toilet. Women make up the majority of the elderly and disabled, two groups that will tend to need more time in the toilet.

Women are also more likely to be accompanied by children, as well as disabled and older people. Then there’s the 20–25% of women of childbearing age who may be on their period at any one time, and therefore need to change a tampon or a sanitary pad.

Women may also require more trips to the bathroom: pregnancy significantly reduces bladder capacity, and women are eight times more likely to suffer from urinary-tract infections. In the face of all these anatomical differences, it would surely take a formal equality dogmatist to continue to argue that equal floor space between men and women is fair.”

“Yes, it makes for a more violent society. It makes gun crime, including the mass shootings, vastly more prevalent that it is in the UK and other European countries. But that is a choice that Americans have made. They may tweak their laws a little at the edges in response to the latest atrocity. They may require a medical certificate here, or a licence there, or curbs on the open sale of the most murderous automatic weapons. But they will not legislate, still less amend their Constitution, to deny people the right to bear arms.

To blame the US gun lobby for this, in the shape of the National Rifle Association, is to see things the wrong way around. The NRA is a force and has money because gun-ownership enjoys public support, and no amount of mass shootings or appeals from shocked Europeans is going to change this. Americans have accepted a trade-off, between permissive gun laws and the high incidence of death by shooting. It is a trade-off that regards El Paso and Dayton, and Columbine, Stoneham Douglas and the rest, as a high, but largely tolerable, price for what is seen as the ultimate in personal freedom. This view will persist well after Donald Trump has left the White House, and probably for a long time after that.”

The price is bit to high for me.  I’m quite okay with not have the degree of freedom that American’s possess in exchange for the reasonable expectation that I will not be gunned down as I teach class, or while I’m watching or movie, or really doing anything in public.

 

Free speech, or the ability to speak one’s mind in public without physical/material consequences, is one of the hallmarks of democratic society.  Now if everyone was nice, and peace ruled the world, I think the concept of free speech would be less problematic.

I’d like to talk about three ideas regarding free speech, the first being our responsibility in maintaining it, the second being the seeming incongruity when it comes to individuals who use protected speech to promote hate, and thirdly the tie in with Radical Feminism versus the gender identity set.

Free speech, like voting, or freedom of movement for most is a quality we often overlook in our daily lives.  We’ve always had it, it has always been there and there has been no reason to critically examine our responsibilities in context of the maintenance of our freedom to speak our mind in public.

Our collective casual acceptance (perhaps even apathy) in terms of the general public is problematic because it would seem that, until one starts feeling the push back when one speaks, the general collective sentiment is that there are no problems with the status quo and people can pretty much say what they want.  People in general though, are dumb and we should not be content with this lax stewardship.  Please see any social media platform that is open to the general public as evidence of such.

We hive off and create our own tribal communities and proceed to chuck rhetorical rocks over the wall at the other camps that oppose our viewpoints.  From what I’ve been able to observe, the process starts and does not end with regards to rocks being thrown.  Authentic engagement comes a distant second to outrage, manufactured or otherwise, and debate shares a similar fate versus trading insults and fellifluous comments.

Thank you, Social Media…

Social media has given us the means to exercise our right to free speech, but not the concurrent responsibilities that go along with placing one’s opinion in the public sphere, not to mention the intellectual responsibilities of offering fact based arguments and being charitable to the inevitable counter-arguments that occur.  So in a way, we are maintaining free-speech, just that the calibre of the discourse is absolute tosh.  Another unsavoury aspect of the current public chatter is that amplification of thoughts and ideas to such an extent that the nuance is lost, and the remaining message garbled as it is, is blasted out to the vox populi to take sides over and being the rock throwing process.

It is therefore unsurprising that many intellectuals and educated individuals want no part of the social media driven discourse.  It is a wrestling with pigs sort of situation.  However, the problem is that despite the raucous nature of discourse, it bleeds over into the real world and can and often does affect society, necessarily so.  It is distressing though, because although the speech is free and generally unencumbered, the signal to noise ratio makes dross the most likely outcome on many of the issues that make it into and out of the public social media sphere.

I’m not sure what we can do about that when we have a media and journalistic corps that are profoundly unable to tell the truth about what is happening in the world.  The state of the news media is a post for another though, lets leave it with the very basic idea that GIGO (Garbage In, Garbage Out) is a maxim that applies to our news media, and we as a society are suffering the consequences of a ill-informed public.

So free speech being exercised and maintained, but in a bluntly oblivious form that may not be beneficial for the advancement of society.  We can classify ‘hate speech’ squarely into this category.  This is a distinctly Canadian phenomena, so let’s define what hate speech is, via Wikipedia’s entry on Hate Speech Laws in Canada.

“The various laws which refer to “hatred” do not define it. The Supreme Court has explained the meaning of the term in various cases which have come before the Court. For example, in R v Keegstra, decided in 1990, Chief Justice Dickson for the majority explained the meaning of “hatred” in the context of the Criminal Code:

Hatred is predicated on destruction, and hatred against identifiable groups therefore thrives on insensitivity, bigotry and destruction of both the target group and of the values of our society. Hatred in this sense is a most extreme emotion that belies reason; an emotion that, if exercised against members of an identifiable group, implies that those individuals are to be despised, scorned, denied respect and made subject to ill-treatment on the basis of group affiliation.[4]

More recently, in 2013, Justice Rothstein, speaking for the unanimous court, explained the meaning of “hatred” in similar terms, in relation to the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code:

In my view, “detestation” and “vilification” aptly describe the harmful effect that the Code seeks to eliminate. Representations that expose a target group to detestation tend to inspire enmity and extreme ill-will against them, which goes beyond mere disdain or dislike. Representations vilifying a person or group will seek to abuse, denigrate or delegitimize them, to render them lawless, dangerous, unworthy or unacceptable in the eyes of the audience. Expression exposing vulnerable groups to detestation and vilification goes far beyond merely discrediting, humiliating or offending the victims.[5]

Sounds good, right?  The recent rise of the false populist-nationalist right in North America (and the world) has put considerable stress on free speech and what we consider to be hate speech because so much of what these ideologies espouse can be considered hateful, corrosive, and essentially banal in nature.

Should the speech of the false-populist right be banned?  Absolutely not, it must be challenged though, at every turn and shown to people for what it is.  And that folks, is a tall order because of the problems I mentioned earlier about our new preferred methods of debate and discourse.  Social media.  The false-populist messaging is simple and stirring and benefits greatly from the amplification in social media, but suffers little distortion because of the simplicity of the message.  The message being roughly this:

    “Right-wing populism in the Western world is generally—though not exclusively—associated with ideologies such as anti-environmentalism,neo-nationalism,anti-globalization,nativism,protectionism,and opposition to immigration.”

The messaging plays directly on the general populations fears, and allows the problems of the nation to be unfairly pinned on a subcategory of people who are vulnerable and easy to scapegoat.  False populist messaging can be countered, but the medium of debate works against those who seek to argue and debate false populist points because nuance and detailed refutations are not the currency social media deals in.  So instead we get catchy slogans like “punch a nazi” and the “alt-right” which are both statements that originated on the left side of the political spectrum, but are profoundly unhelpful in combating the false-populist ideology and messaging that presently, has a strong foothold in our social media platforms.

The medium really is the message – social media is polarizing – let’s look at this latest tweet making the rounds in the left-twittersphere:

Wenn ein Nazi am Tisch sitzt, und daneben 10 andere, die dasitzen und mit ihm diskutieren, dann hast du einen Tisch mit 11 Nazis.”  – (English Translation)-  “As we say in Germany, if there’s a Nazi at the table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 Nazis.”

   What do we do with this?  The sentiment is good, one shouldn’t tolerate Nazi ideology and by sitting idle, one tacitly condones it.  But, what about free speech?  So many contextual aspects in this situation are rubbing up against each other.  Corrosive ideology has no place in a free society, but should there be a space for it to flourish in the public sphere?  Is the German quote appropriate for North America where there has been proto-fascist movements, but never in power?  Where does the argument for tolerance come into play, because this is at face-value, is most definitely an intolerant statement.

    Taken in the German social-political context, I have no problems with it.  However, throw it into the social media public sphere where it adds fuel to the fire that generally reverberates as “anyone who I disagree with politically, is a Nazi” and the statement becomes much more problematic.  Make no mistake, there is a large nuance vacuum on both the left and right side of the political divide (to both sides detriment).

   It’s too easy to simply brand someone a Nazi and demand their speech be taken down.  Yet, how does one actively guard against the rise of actual fascism and not curtail free speech in the process is a key issue in these debates.  False-populist ideology can easily careen into straight up fascism and the genocidal bent that goes along with it, so how do we deal with it?  I do not think there is a good answer, at least not until we get more public engagement and understanding in the social sphere.

   I’m a teacher so my biases lean toward more education and knowledge being a strong tonic against the mistakes humanity has made in the past.  Yet, all the cruelty and barbarism that has occurred (20th and 21st century) and is still occurring has happened under the not so watchful guise of an ‘educated’ public.  The answer might not lay in more education, but a social system that holds each individual to a higher standard of accountability and understanding of their role and responsibility within the world.  Something better than the “fuck you, I’ve got mine” mentality that has such a sure grip on the current social zeitgeist.

   Let’s make part three a separate post, as this piece is overlong already.

 

 

Claiming to be having an OCD moment seems quite common, but what is OCD and how has evolution selected for this particular trait? Ms.Svoboda answers the question and provides a great deal of background information on OCD defining it through her own struggles with the psychological feature.

“In people with OCD, this threat-detection system turns hyperactive, generating what the psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has called ‘a persistent error-detection signal’. OCD, in other words, is like a tripped car alarm that won’t stop screeching even when you try to disarm it.

While no one likes the sound of a screeching car alarm, most of us are willing to install one if we’re afraid of getting robbed. Obsession could have arisen for a similar reason, evolutionarily speaking. ‘A driving anxious tension is the emotional core of obsessive character,’ writes the psychologist Steven Hertler at the College of New Rochelle in New York, and this tension, he explains, goads us to take the actions that are necessary to ensure survival. People who obsessed about potential threats – intruders, snakes, tigers – might not have been much fun to be around, but their Cassandra tendencies protected their friends and families, and improved the prospects of their offspring. ‘OCD,’ writes the German psychiatrist Martin Brüne, ‘can be understood as an extreme on a continuum of evolved harm-avoidance strategies.’”

Seems to be a fairly reasonable assumption: being hyper aware does have certain survival benefits.

“The survival advantages of a sensitive threat-detection system can explain why millions of us have ended up with threat detectors that are just a little over-tuned. While about one in 40 people have clinical OCD, about one in 10 experience obsessions and compulsions not quite severe enough to interfere with daily life.

While most of us have a hard-wired tendency to obsess, and some more than others, our current cultural milieu has encouraged and amplified that tendency. Our collective paean to the virtues of obsession has its roots in the Protestant work ethic, the concept of industriousness as a calling on the level of the sacred. ‘Such an attitude,’ wrote the German sociologist Max Weber in 1905, ‘is by no means a product of nature. It … can only be the product of a long and arduous process of education.’

Today, that process of education – the systematic way in which we reward and reinforce obsession – begins as early as primary school, when kids barely out of diapers can be rejected for not being academically ready. It persists throughout the school years, as teenagers compulsively assemble letter-perfect transcripts to capture the interest of brand-name colleges. And it continues well into adulthood as we cast our résumés onto the waters, scrambling for that indefinable something that will set us apart from the rest. In a system that prizes what Weber calls ‘economic survival of the fittest’, plum placements are scarce, differences between candidates are minute, and the economic implications of missing out are profound. No wonder our already-sensitive threat detectors are cranked up to orange alert.”

I’ve felt it.  I’m pretty sure we’ve all felt the pressure in our academic days to make the grade, a good impression, a daring splash in our chosen field.  Like many sociological features, there is an interplay between society and the individual.  We certainly are not hardwired to be OCD, but many aspects of our environment feed the expression of the traits we associate with OCD.  Does our society create people with OCD, or is that our society has been created by people with OCD and thus encode those features into the normative structure of our society?  I would postulate that it probably both, as that is how many social-dynamic features of society work.

Ms. Svoboda ends with a rather Aristotelian solution to the challenges she faces.  Finding a place of moderation and mindfulness, for her, is the solution that is currently working.  The dance between the positive and negative consequences of OCD is difficult, and like many psychological features not particularly clear cut or easy to accomplish.

“Is it because I’m an obsessive that I did well at school, that I applied to writing internships relentlessly until I got one, that I’m willing to pitch editors over and over until a story idea lands? Well, yes – and my obsessive ancestors probably reaped the same kinds of rewards, as do many of my contemporaries with and without OCD. But I’m also determined not to succumb to the paradox at the heart of OCD: that taking self-protection too far means engineering my own destruction. To put it another way, I still hold on to the red thread, but I no longer allow it to yank me around. Awareness has been a mitigating factor: I realise, more than I did before, the extent to which my obsessive tendency echoes our culture’s blaring, interminable one. That allows me to consider how, and whether, I want to go along with its dictates.

Would I cut the red thread completely if I could? I’m not sure, but it’s a moot point: I can’t. So I have to trust that it will continue to guide me through the labyrinth.”

 

My undergraduate University days were nothing like what is routinely described as the ‘University Experience’.  It was a much more utilitarian experience – go to class, take notes, and then rinse and repeat the next day.  Add review said notes and study as test time rolled around.  The social aspect of University was pretty much all but lost on me at the time as the group of friends I had at the time did not attend.  In hindsight, not having friends doing the same thing made focusing on my studies much more difficult and it extended my stay at the lovely U by a few years.   Lessons learned and what not.

So, my Uni days were, to oversimplify, just highschool but harder.  My real learning started or at least the path to intellectual maturity started after I earned my degree.  It also helped that my partner was smart af and pushed me to become more rigorous in developing and defending my thoughts and arguments.  So when I read this essay I could understand what they where saying, but couldn’t really relate to what was being said of the state of university/college campuses regarding the moral/social development of their students.

For me, finding my moral and ethical centre was quite independent of the educational process, such as it was, during my tenure at the U.  Granted, of course, I was being exposed to and learning about topics that would, in the future, inform my ethical-self and boundaries, but nothing on the level which seems to happen in the US college scene.  So then while reading this quote intrigued me:

   “It is entirely reasonable, then, for students to conclude that questions of right and wrong, of ought and obligation, are not, in the first instance at least, matters to be debated, deliberated, researched or discussed as part of their intellectual lives in classrooms and as essential elements of their studies. “

What?  Isn’t inside the classroom where the great arguments and debates should happen?  I mean, it is in the university that you can hash out and grapple with the big problems with the help of professors and the knowledge that they bring and provide of the big thinkers that have grappled with these questions in the past.  The university is where you can make mistakes and get nuanced feedback that will sharpen your intellectual faculties and better equip you to lead the examine life, right?

(It’s funny – none of this really happened for me – sit in class, get taught stuff, regurgitate stuff – was the order of the day).  But yeah, in the formal sense, if you’re not going to university to grapple with the right and wrong questions, then why go?  Getting a degree for job is nice and stuff, but attending higher education is supposed to be more than that.

Here is an excerpt from Wellmen’s take on the the state of the university experience in the US:

 

“The transformation of American colleges and universities into corporate concerns is particularly evident in the maze of offices, departments and agencies that manage the moral lives of students. When they appeal to administrators with demands that speakers not be invited, that particular policies be implemented, or that certain individuals be institutionally sanctioned, students are doing what our institutions have formed them to do. They are following procedure, appealing to the institution to manage moral problems, and relying on the administrators who oversee the system. A student who experiences discrimination or harassment is taught to file complaints by submitting a written statement; the office then determines if the complaint potentially has merit; the office conducts an investigation and produces a report; an executive accepts or rejects the report; and then the office ‘notifies’ the parties of the ‘outcome’. 

These bureaucratic processes transmute moral injury, desire and imagination into an object that flows through depersonalised, opaque procedures that produce an ‘outcome’. Questions of character, duty, moral insight, reconciliation, community, ethos or justice have at most a limited role. US colleges and universities speak to the national argot of individual rights, institutional affiliation and complaint that dominate American capitalism. They have few moral resources from which to draw any alternative moral language and imagination. 

The extracurricular system of moral management requires an ever-expanding array of ‘resources’ – counselling centres, legal services, deans of student life. Teams of devoted professionals work to help students hold their lives together. The people who support and oversee these extracurricular systems of moral management do so almost entirely apart from any coherent curricular project. 

It is entirely reasonable, then, for students to conclude that questions of right and wrong, of ought and obligation, are not, in the first instance at least, matters to be debated, deliberated, researched or discussed as part of their intellectual lives in classrooms and as essential elements of their studies. They are, instead, matters for their extracurricular lives in dorms, fraternities or sororities and student activity groups, most of which are managed by professional staff. “

It seems less of an organic process, and more of a ritualized ‘thing ya do’ to start making the bucks in society.  It seems like such a waste that we have strict qualifications to get and to graduate, but at the same time that we’re not challenging people, making them stretch and reform their assumptions about the world.  Where else can we have the space to do such important life work?

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