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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.