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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Of Inequality, Mental Illness and Bootstraps

A recent opinion piece in the New York Times discussed how inequality hollows out the soul. A key focus of the piece is that major and minor mental illnesses were three times as common in developed societies where there are large income disparities between rich and poor, such as in the United States. This piece resonated with me. One section in particular caught my attention:

"Two sociologists at the University of Toronto, Robert Andersen and Josh Curtis, found that although there is always some connection between people’s income and the social class to which they feel they belong, the match between the two is closer in societies with bigger income differences between rich and poor."

I found this an interesting claim. Because of my early life, I still think of myself as poor. If pressed I'll acknowledge that I am not, at this time, poor.  It is very difficult for me to think of myself as middle or upper middle class; if I am better off than I used to be, I tend to see it as both fortuitous and temporary. This is in some ways a positive situation for me, since it makes me empathetic to the poor. But my difficulty in acknowledging that my class position might have changed since my childhood and early youth also means that I sometimes miss out on the advantages of my change in class. In many ways, I am still breaking out of the box that first constrained me.

I don’t think that the opinion piece advocates the elimination of income disparity. Instead, I take it as a useful part of a broader discussion about how we view income disparity and the toll that our views take on the mental condition of both the poor and the rich.  As the article notes, the poor are much more likely to experience depression than the rich.  And the rich are, according to some research, more likely to experience conditions such as narcissism or feelings of grandeur. The interesting thing I find, however, is that narcissism, perhaps because of its greater association with the rich, is less stigmatized as a mental disorder than depression. 

Though we tend to laugh about narcissistic outliers, we are not really laughing that hard at most of them. Instead, our laughter is often the ambivalent, envious laughter of the socially striving. We wish that we were laughing with the narcissistic. There is some sense that narcissism is not a failing at all, unless it’s really, really out there.  Even recent psychological thinking on narcissism tends to move away from a categorical approach and towards a dimensional approach that centers on the severity of the dysfunctional personality. Recent changes in the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual reflect this approach. What goes undiscussed much of the time is that there is, as I have written before, a distinctly gendered and classed aspect to discussions of narcissism. (See my previous post (In)Sanity, Thy Name is Woman.) There is also a racial aspect to narcissism. People of color, men or women, who exude, shall we say, too much confidence, are far more likely to be considered at the social if not psychological extremes of narcissism. Ask Richard Sherman.

It is almost as if we are supposed to be (somewhat) self-absorbed, vain, and self-aggrandizing as a result of being (or in order to become) wealthy. How else are we going to have the gumption to pull up our own bootstraps and keep them up?

Monday, December 2, 2013

Black and Pink and Re(a)d All Over: Michelle Obama, Shotgun Feminism and the Media

A recent article in Politico magazine called First Lady Michelle Obama a “feminist nightmare” and lambasted her for her failure to be “edgier” and more vocal about more controversial issues. One commenter quoted in the article asserted that Michelle Obama has become “an almost music-hall-level imitation of a warm-and-fuzzy, unthreatening, bucolic female from some imaginary era from the past.” The author ends on a note of somber resignation: “Someday somebody will shatter the conventional First Lady mold. It just won’t be Michelle Obama.” Nothing, however, could be farther from the truth. Michelle Obama is the most unconventional First Lady in the history of First Ladies. No amount of reading to children and gardening will undo this.  

Discourses of the good wife and mother, along with discourses about empowered womanhood, have historically been forged within the frameworks of racial and class based ideologies. This is especially true today. There remains, for instance, an intimate link between motherhood, race, class and civic membership. Black motherhood is a particularly difficult role to occupy in contemporary United States society, and that difficulty is heightened for educated black women who sometimes find themselves conflicted by the possibility of desireable work outside of the home and meaningful work within it. While an iconic goal of the mainstream (white) feminist movement has often been to get out of the house, for too many black women the goal has long been to get into the house—that is, into their own houses and out of the houses of others where for centuries they worked for no wages or low wages.  

Black First Ladyhood is a whole other dimension of black motherhood and womanhood. It is a role whose demands are at once so complex, novel, and difficult to maneuver that its performance certainly defies and disrupts most labels that we might try to append to it.  This is in large part because being a black First Lady involves a much-too-short historic journey from the kitchen of the plantation Big House to the Executive Residence of the White House. And we live even now in a world where Ivy League-credentialed, business suit wearing, briefcase carrying black women may easily be confused with the cleaning staff, courtesy of a pervasive, deep-seated social and cognitive dissonance that admits of few other possibilities. It is perhaps little wonder that Michelle Obama might like to pause to relish her role as Mom-in-Chief. Indeed what a wonder it is for Michelle Obama to be cast as Everybody’s Mother rather than as somebody’s mammy.

Media portrayals of Michelle Obama’s allegedly deficient feminism are often assumed to be neutral and ideologically pure, fueled by the wisdom of decades of well-honed feminist activism and deep thought.  However, too often neither writers nor readers of such portrayals are conscious of the strong ideological biases that are inevitably encoded, and they sometimes adopt such stances without much critical inquiry. It is certainly true that every act by every woman is not feminist. Even so, feminism is a broad, multifaceted, and highly contextual concept. Media pieces like the one in Politico do feminism a grave injustice by framing Michelle Obama as one of the enemies of feminism, taking scattershot aim with a claim that is at once overwrought and undertheorized.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Of Ethical Parenting and Lines in the Sand

I find this article really confusing. It seems to decry some parents’ lack of operational principles, that is, their failure to adhere to their established values and ethics in the face of  mounting pressures to help their children succeed. In assailing such behavior, the article seems to lump acts such as paying for expensive tutors together with cheating, lying or other "corrupt" acts on behalf of your child.  Maybe I misunderstand the piece, but if this is what the author is claiming, I disagree.

Comparing access to expensive tutors or test preparation with cheating is not only a false analogy but also a claim that misapprehends the full nature of privilege.  If providing educational advantages such as tutors were evidence of corruption, then it would be hard to say where the corruption starts. Where is the line? Does it begin with providing comfortable homes, plentiful, nutritious food and appropriate clothing? Or does it begin with providing access to good schools in safe neighborhoods? Maybe it starts with access to travel, visits to museums and summer camps. I discuss similar issues in my blog article Thief Me.

The parents in the article who seem to speak apologetically about engaging an expensive tutor as if they are making a drug deal should come out of the shadows. They should spend the money proudly, push for the best educational outcome possible for their child, and along the way teach her or him to be the kind of person who critically interrogates the notion of “merit.” They might even encourage their child to be someone who dedicates her or his career to eliminating the inequities of the current system. At a minimum, they could encourage their child to financially support organizations that are trying to make a good education more broadly accessible. Money helps to change things.

The article, however, seems to make a virtue of refusing tutoring or other such assistance, as seen in the example of a student who eschews test preparation:

I know a young man who, on moral grounds, steadfastly refused to enlist the help of an SAT tutor or indeed do any test prep during his overheated senior fall at a private school whose name you know. The college-application system is broken and corrupt, the kid said. “I could sense around me this horrible stress and this defeated feeling,” he told me. “The more prep you take, the more tutoring you do, the better your scores. It seemed like a gross system. I didn’t want what I was doing to be determined by it. I didn’t want to play their game. I wanted to play my game.”
Does this story have a happy ending? The kid didn’t get into any college and lived at home, working, until it was time to apply again. (At which point he still blew off SAT prep, feeling that the test he’d already taken was preparation enough.) But he learned something about himself, which was that he really did want to go to college, and now he’s happily studying classes at a school not in the U.S. News top 50, composing electronic music that would blow your mind.

My first response to this story is “Um, what?” How is choosing not to study for college entrance examinations exemplary of a principled moral or ethical stand or of any broad notion of social justice? How is his choice to study electronic music "at a school not in the U.S. News top 50" any different from any other election made by a privileged youth? I would perhaps be more impressed if the young man in question had chosen to study education in order to help disadvantaged children. Since the young man seems under no immediate pressure to support himself, I would have been even more impressed if he had foregone college altogether in favor of volunteering full time at a soup kitchen or teaching basic skills to those without the advantage of a private school education.  If the young man was really exorcised about the "gross system" all around him, he might even have withdrawn from his private school during senior year in high school, enrolled in a public school, and asked his parents to donate his tuition to a worthy cause. 

The profiled young man doesn’t seem to understand that his possible outcomes are already largely determined by a life full of past and continuing advantages. This young man, in making what the article implies is an ethically principled stand, is like the person who draws a line in the sand that he refuses to cross. Only, the line he draws is not a perpendicular barrier to the line on which he walks. The line he draws doesn’t impede his progress at all: it is a parallel line. His refusal to cross the line makes little difference. He still makes the same journey, only on a slightly different path.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Gravity--It's the Law: Science and Free Speech

Popular Science magazine is shutting off its comments.  Here is part of its rationale:

A politically motivated, decades-long war on expertise has eroded the popular consensus on a wide variety of scientifically validated topics. Everything, from evolution to the origins of climate change, is mistakenly up for grabs again. Scientific certainty is just another thing for two people to "debate" on television. And because comments sections tend to be a grotesque reflection of the media culture surrounding them, the cynical work of undermining bedrock scientific doctrine is now being done beneath our own stories, within a website devoted to championing science.

This is too bad, but I hear you, Popular Science magazine. Too often the comments on an article (scientific or otherwise) are little more than ad hominem political attacks that betray not only the ill will but the absolute incomprehension of some readers. These types of comments, for me, are like people throwing rotten tomatoes at a work of art available for us all to look at. I don't always like the art piece, but at least I want to be able to contemplate and absorb it unencumbered by people who aren't there to look and offer reasoned critique in the first place. This art metaphor doesn’t go far enough to express what’s wrong with throwing rotten tomatoes at scientific assertions of facts.  At least with art a person can reasonably entertain his or her own opinion about the “truth” or the “merits” of a piece. In the case of science, you can’t seriously argue with certain foundational principles. As one of my high school teachers used to say: “Gravity: it’s the law.”

Now, there are some people who will insist that shutting down comments is somehow a loss for “free speech.” But, to them, I say, “not really.” There is, of course, no Constitutional right, First Amendment or otherwise, to post comments in response to an article in a privately run journal (though this is the very sort of assertion that such commenters often make). Even if we think more broadly about philosophical freedom of expression norms that govern public discourse and ongoing political debates, there is no “right” to make inane, offensive comments that subvert the underlying communication. I talk more about claims around freedom of expression norms in my NYU Review of Law and Social Change article A ‘Ho New World: Raced and Gendered Insult as Ersatz Carnival and the Corruption of Freedom of Expression Norms.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Swedish Exposure Redux, Redacted

[This is the longer version of a post originally titled “Swedish Exposure.” It was originally edited down and posted at another site but ran into sociotechnical difficulties: too many words were deemed “pornographic.”  I think it was the u-word and the m-word, each of which was used once in the edited down version; of course, it might also have been the s-word, or even my first name, which has its own L-word frissonne. To protect both spam filters and sensibilities, I have redacted certain portions of the text below. I trust that readers will use context and/or their imaginations to fill in blanks.]

Some of my colleagues and I have been discussing the recently decided Swedish case in which a 65-year-old man was acquitted of charges of s______  assault after taking off his shorts at a beach near Stockholm and m______into the ocean. You can read about it here. There has been so far a pretty even split between my colleagues who think public m_______  should be punished (though not as a s______ assault, as was the charge in the referenced case) and those who think that public m_______ is acceptable, or at least, should be treated no differently than public u______.  Public u_______, even though deplored and subject to penalty, often goes widely unpunished. Here are some of my thoughts on all of this from a gender, spatial and visual regulatory perspective.

The gendered aspects of this situation intrigue me, starting with the comparison between public u________ and public m________. This is a real Scylla and Charybdis dilemma for me: I don’t want to see either public m_______ or public u______. I will concede that both public m_______ and u_______ often involve exposure of s____ organs, either of which I could conceivably turn away from.   Were I forced to choose which one to view, I am tempted to prefer u_______. I see u_______ as a more compelling sociobiological function whose public performance I am more willing to forgive, though only slightly more willing. I must note that with public u_______, however, I am struck by the gender differences typically involved: men u_____ in public because they can. It is rare for Western women to u_______ openly in public. This is mainly because of a combination of physiological impracticability (it’s easier to stand as men typically do for u_______, than to squat as women do) and social norms that frown deeply on women publicly exposing themselves. At least there is no physiological barrier to women’s public m________ (though there would still be immense social barriers with which to contend), so there is theoretically greater gender parity in regard to the practice of public m__________.

But, since I assume, (and the assumption is not always true, I’ll grant) that the public m________ often uses other members of the public as the impetus for his (and it is usually a he) actions (such as staring at persons he finds s________ desirable), public m______ to me reeks of gross s_______ objectification of others and of breaching the boundaries between public and private. Although the public/private dichotomy has long inhered to the disadvantage of women, keeping n________ g________ and s_________ acts in the private sphere is an example of where the public/private divide serves women. Because of the way in which male public m_______ and g______ exposure have historically been and continue to be used to s_______ harass women, it is not possible to accord male public m_______ and/or other male g______ exposure a neutral valence (“it’s just another bodily function/bodily part”) that ignores this history. Keeping m_______ private is a legitimate, well-founded constraint that protects the public (mostly women) from a potential form of harassment and accords a measure of dignity to m_______ as an intimate s_____ act. Allowing public m________, in contrast, promotes what is chiefly a masculinist prerogative all while cheapening it as a s_________expression.

A larger concern that I have has no bearing on whether the public m_________ uses another member of the public to fuel his m______ or merely uses his own imagination. I am concerned with the way in which the public m______, the public u________ and the public g______ exposer, all of whom typically display their s______organs, wield what some social theorists have called synoptic power: the power of an actor to compel others to look at the actor or at a place the actor directs.  Via display of his s_______organs in a context where such displays are not only non-normative but socially and morally offensive to many, the public m_______ and his ilk shape public behavior patterns, commanding attention or repulsion, and thereby exercise social control. This is true even where, as in the Swedish case, the actor did not “target” a specific person with his m________ (or so the court says). This even stands true where the public m________ does not particularly seek an audience but performs where an audience is in fact present. Public m________ features what is often an intensely coercive, oppressive, and obscene power of “made you look” and of “made you look away.”

So, while I understand the impulse to treat public m_______ as an aspect of broader social and personal freedom, it is a freedom whose exercise threatens to constrain the liberty of many others to enjoy public space.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

There But for the Grace of God Go I, Again

Do the well off to do disdain the poor? According to research conducted by psychologist Susan Fiske, the answer is “yes.”  In the project subjects were placed in neuroimaging machines and shown photos of the poor and homeless.  The brains of subjects responded as though the photos depicted objects, not humans. This, apparently, is a sign of revulsion.

I find the claim here of poverty disdain to be very interesting chiefly because of the questions that the claim raises. What were the gender, race, class and educational levels of the subjects and of the observed persons? The answers to these questions would, I think, make a tremendous difference in assessing the subjects’ responses. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the research is the asserted connection between seeing people as objects and reviling them. I have no trouble believing that objectification is tied to revulsion. Whether discussing racism, misogyny, homophobia, or any other number of human ills, objectifying people is often a key element. But what is perhaps missing here is the consideration that an adverse reaction to the poor may not be triggered by disdain but rather by a well-founded fear of rejoining the ranks of the poor.

We like to posit that those who observe the poor and homeless should ideally experience a strong feeling of “there but for the grace of God go I.”   “There but for the grace of God go I” is a saying that is often meant to express humility at the recognition that the misfortune of others could be easily be one's own, but for divine or other fortuitous intervention.  It is also an expression of charity and amity towards the unfortunate. Fiske’s research tends to suggest that there is a good deal more enmity than amity towards the poor. This is not surprising. I find it odd that we would ever expect that the primal response of those observing images of the poor would be to acknowledge the role of providence or luck. We live, after all, in a society where many people persist in believing that both privilege and disadvantage are earned and/or deserved. Privilege and disadvantage are sometimes earned.  But just as often, maybe more often, they are not. Even where those viewing images of the poor do express humility and amity in professing a sense of “there but for the grace of God go I,” my sense is that these viewers are among the very comfortable and long-term well to do. For those viewers whose tenure in the middle class is newer and more tenuous, “there but for the grace of God go I” may express not humility but fear.  This latter group are often people who, like me, have already lived in poverty and do not want a return trip.

As a young child I lived with an aunt and her ten children. I am sure, to most observers, we hit all of the negative stereotypes--impoverished, black, poorly fed, unwashed and poorly dressed, barely housed, badly behaved (I speak for myself--I was a demon child with a cunningly angelic demeanor during that period of my life). My aunt did have a husband, though he was not the father of all of her children and she usually sent him out when the social worker came over to "inspect" how she was using her welfare benefits. I honestly do fear that I will live like that again, and that fear will never leave me. Some years back, when I was practicing law, I had to make a phone call to reach a client who had not appeared for a court hearing. As there was no available phone at the court, I had to use a public phone in a nearby welfare office. I found myself trembling as I waited for my turn using the phone and stood looking at all of the people around me and a flood of memories washed over me.

I experienced a very visceral and likely very measurable reaction to the poor people around me that day in the welfare office. But I did not tremble because I reviled the people or because I was afraid of the people; I was afraid of the possibility of living in that condition again. Some people may scoff at the notion of an apparently middle class person fearing that she will rejoin the ranks of the very poor. For some people, discussions of poverty in such a context may seem purely academic and so they are dismissed along with most other discourses on poverty that challenge the notion of the journey from poverty as a one way street. But for those of us who came from poverty and who continue to work for a living, however “professional” our jobs, past poverty does not make future poverty a moot possibility. This is anything but a moot point. The silence around the threat of re-impoverishment is part of what allows it to occur. By the time re-impoverishment happens, it is often too late for talk to prevent it. Like so many other social scourges that we refuse to talk about, re-impoverishment is a harm that, while imminently capable of repetition, evades review. 

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Trayvon Martin, Whistling Vivaldi and Whistling Dixie

I, like so many, am struggling to cope with the killing of Trayvon Martin and the trial of his killer. I am reading and reflecting on the many commentaries in an effort to make sense of it all.

One commentary that particularly struck me was by musician and author Questlove (Amir Khalib Thompson). Questlove wrote in New York Magazine about how the death of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of his killer left Questlove feeling not only dismayed but devalued. For Questlove, Martin’s death was a reminder that too often, black lives seem not to count for very much. As Questlove notes, our very physical presence is sometimes a threat to good order. Questlove wrote:

I'm in scenarios all the time in which primitive, exotic-looking me — six-foot-two, 300 pounds, uncivilized Afro, for starters — finds himself in places where people who look like me aren't normally found. I mean, what can I do? I have to be somewhere on Earth, correct? In the beginning — let's say 2002, when the gates of "Hey, Ahmir, would you like to come to [swanky elitist place]?" opened — I'd say "no," mostly because it's been hammered in my DNA to not "rock the boat," which means not making "certain people" feel uncomfortable.
I mean, that is a crazy way to live. Seriously, imagine a life in which you think of other people's safety and comfort first, before your own. You're programmed and taught that from the gate. It's like the opposite of entitlement. 
The problem is, I do have desires to go to certain places and do certain things and enjoy the perks and benefits of being a person who works his arse off as much as I do. So I got over my hang-ups of not wanting to be the odd guy in the room sometime around 2007. It's been mixed results at best.

Sadly, the fear of black physical presence is not new. Questlove’s piece is reminiscent of an anecdote from the book Parallel Time:Growing Up in Black and White by Brent Staples. Staples wrote of his time moving about Chicago while a graduate student:
I tried to be innocuous but didn't know how. The more I thought about how I moved, the less my body belonged to me; I became a false character riding along inside it. I began to avoid people. I turned out of my way into side streets to spare them the sense that they were being stalked. I let them clear the lobbies of buildings before I entered, so they wouldn't feel trapped. Out of nervousness, I began to whistle and discovered I was good at it. My whistle was pure and sweet -- and also in tune. On the street at night, I whistled popular tunes from the Beatles and Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." The tension drained from people's bodies when they heard me. A few even smiled as they passed me in the dark.

Staples, like Questlove, comes from the position of being a large (over six feet tall) black man in a world that too often deems any black man, woman or even a child as a scary Negro. And if anyone doubts that black women and children fall into this category also, they haven’t lived in my shoes nor in any pair that remotely resembles my shoes.  Whether it is driving while black,  reunioning while black, or other WB (while black) incidents, too many black people face the perplexing, infuriating, heart-breaking, debilitating, dangerous, and sometimes fatal task of addressing what scholar Jody Armour labeled “negrophobia.”  Negrophobia is the notion that because of their perceived dangerousness, an otherwise irrational fear of blacks might be justified in situations where whites (or deemed whites—for as George Zimmerman reminds us, whiteness is frequently situational, contingent, delegated and/or relative) take preemptive action such as shooting to thwart a black attacker. This is the Trayvon Martin case in a nutshell.

 This scary Negro trope runs rampant through the minds, media and literature of a country that, for all of its racial progress in some areas, remains wedded to Birth of a Nation style anti-black imagery. Such imagery affronts black men in particular, rendering them as little more than exemplars of the criminalblackman—the mythic black wrongdoer posited by scholar Katheryn Russell Brown. 

 Whistling Vivaldi, negrophobia, the criminalblackman and the killing of  Trayvon Martin are all potent aspects of what social theorist Erving Goffman called discredited stigma—stigma resulting from differentness that is already is already known or is assumed on the spot. This difference of blackness “spoils" the identity of black people, often rendering irrelevant black people’s adherence to social norms and expectations in other aspects of their lives. If Staples whistled light-hearted pop tunes or classical music to allay the fears of mostly white passersby, he was only trying to assuage the fear of his stigma-ravaged black identity.

 All too often, however, no amount of whistling will calm the fear of blackness. Because this is true, assertions that the Trayvon Martin case was “not about race” leave us with no real way talk about what happened. A man thought someone looked “suspicious,” called police, acted against police advice and followed the allegedly suspicious person, thereby provoking a fight, and then shot and killed the unarmed person.  How does the story about initial suspiciousness or the subsequent fight make sense without viewing it from the lens of the discrediting stigma of blackness? It doesn’t—unless instead of whistling Vivaldi, you’re whistling Dixie.