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Display of rectitude as a war of attrition

July 25, 2014

It is as foil to his brutal, sport-mad, loutish classmates that Stephen Dedalus is thrown into relief as a quiet, sensitive young artist-to-be.

In the schoolyard, delicate and wheezing, Stephen is not like other boys:

The wide playgrounds were swarming with boys. All were shouting and the prefects urged them on with strong cries.

The evening air was pale and chilly and after every charge and thud of the footballers the greasy leather orb flew like a heavy bird through the grey light.

He kept on the fringe of his line, out of sight of his prefect, out of reach of the rude feet, feigning to run now and then. He felt his body small and weak amid the throng of players and his eyes were weak and watery…

He was caught in the whirl of a scrimmage and, fearful of the flashing legs and muddy boots, bent down to look through the legs. The fellows were struggling and groaning and their legs were rubbing and kicking and stamping.

Then Jack Lawton’s yellow boots dodged out the ball and all the other boots and legs ran after. He ran after them a little way and then stopped. It was useless to run on…

It would be better to be in the study hall than out there in the cold.

To such extravagant lack of athletic ability, add a record of conversational misfires and a tendency to lapses in classroom etiquette.

This experience of youthful difference is disagreeable. Stephen the aesthete must find a more suitable habitat in which to fit himself — if not a different, less provincial country entirely.

Theophile Gautier

Yet revealing one’s type in this fashion  sticking out from the plodding, lowing herd of peers and contemporaries  is not all bad.

It is through such outward and visible signs of inward distinction that the sheep are separated from the goats, the philosopher from the street-porter, and those with a special destiny from the ordinary run of people.

And how do you distinguish yourself from the crowd when, having progressed to a better school, all your peers are of similarly thoughtful and bookish temperament?

The pale gleaming purity of the ‘model youth’ is readily perceived against a background of ‘undistinguished dullards.’ But what to do on those nights when all the cows, like you, are black?

In David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest, readers are introduced to the grad student Molly Notkin, ‘as of yesterday enjoying ABD pre-doctoral status in Film & Film-Cartridge Theory at MIT’.

Molly’s pious, high-minded ex-boyfriend is described:

[An] erotically circumscribed G.W. Pabst scholar at New York University tortured by the neurotic compulsion that there are only a finite number of erections possible in the world at any one time and that his tumescence means e.g. the detumescence of some perhaps more deserving or tortured Third World sorghum farmer or something, so that whenever he tumefies he’ll suffer the same order of guilt that your less eccentrically tortured Ph.D.-type person will suffer at the idea of, say, wearing baby-seal fur.

Here is a kind of arms race of sanctimony, the pursuit of holding the most exacting and conspicuously austere standards of conduct within one’s reference group (i.e. of grad students in the liberal arts).

The Pabst scholar is engaged with his peers in a bidding tournament to exhibit the most delicacy and unremitting sensitivity, the most guilt for his lapses into the profane:

Molly still takes the high-speed rail down to visit him every couple weeks, to be there for him in case by some selfish mischance he happens to harden, prompting in him black waves of self-disgust and an extreme neediness for understanding and nonjudgmental love.

In The World of Odysseus, Moses Finley portrayed Homeric contests for esteem as a kind of zero-sum tournament of social climbing:

It is in the nature of honour that it must be exclusive, or at least hierarchic. When everyone attains equal honour, then there is no honour for anyone. Of necessity, therefore, the world of Odysseus was fiercely competitive, as each hero strove to outdo the others…

In the final analysis, how can prepotence be determined except by repeated demonstrations of success? And the one indisputable measure of success is a trophy.

The prestige gained by the ‘winner’ was a kind of positional good. The value of honour depended on its being unequally distributed: having it entailed that some other people didn’t have it.

This encouraged a competitive rat race of escalating heroism, a tournament or bidding war in which ever more resources — time, effort, spilt blood — were expended.

It resembled what Veblen would later describe, in Gilded Age Chicago, as a treadmill of ‘pecuniary emulation… a restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary interval between himself and this average standard.’

For abiding by an obligatory norm wasn’t enough to distinguish the Homeric warrior (or the ‘tortured PhD type’) as a hero or elicit the approbation of others. One had to go beyond the call of duty.

Admiration was reserved for supererogatory acts: those that surpassed the norm.

Veblen on keeping up with the Joneses:

As fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new pecuniary classification of one’s self as compared with one’s neighbours.

One-upmanship is typical when this kind of (indivisible, positional) prize is at stake.

We’re all familiar with social contests (e.g. pursuit of prestige through conspicuous consumption of luxury goods, arms races in education leading to ‘credential inflation’, litigation battles with massive legal expenses incurred by both parties, R&D races, competitive giving in potlatch, etc.) that generate escalating and wasteful consumption of resources.

Each participant knows that the prize in these tournaments will be awarded to whoever is willing to match others’ bids and commit that extra epsilon of costly resources, refusing to drop out.

The rents accrued, in the end, by the winner are often matched or surpassed by the resources squandered during the contest.

When new standards are successively established and function henceforth as a baseline or default, we have a kind of ascending-bid auction.

The latter is an auction where everyone submits bids, with successively higher iterations, and the prize winner is the one who can afford the most costly investment.

Sensitivity, insofar as it confers prestige while bringing expense of time and effort, may be one such contest.

How does the tournament proceed: in what manner are competitors pruned and a prize allotted?

The needs of some individuals are easier to satisfy than the needs of others: society must, for example, expend more of its limited resources to supply electricity to a resident of a remote farming region than it does to provide the same good to an urban dweller.

A person (e.g. someone with restricted mobility who must amend the design of their house or workplace to be capable of getting around) may have ‘expensive tastes’ even without voluntarily cultivating the latter.

Some societies (and some agents i.e. governments, firms, individuals) can afford to spend resources satisfying such costly needs. Others cannot.

A large corporation may be able to afford diversity and inclusion programmes or sensitivity training for its employees, and can modify office facilities to allow access by disabled workers and visitors, etc.

A small proprietor may be unable to afford either investment, or may have to choose between them.

Regularly maintaining and upgrading manuals of approved usage or conduct is a costly task, as is employing compliance officers, or monitoring the speech and behaviour of oneself and others.

It will only be undertaken by those with resources to spare.

This is, of course, to say nothing of the inclination to undertake such costly benevolence. Willingness rather than capacity may be the decisive factor.

Yet such enlightened attitudes must themselves be cultivated or acquired through training, reflection or experience. Thus their possession  like table manners, personal decorum or the ability to play a musical instrument  itself requires expense that not all can sustain.

BAE Systems diversity and inclusion matrix

Displays of sensitivity therefore function as a discriminating signal. They are, in certain contexts, a screening device that sorts insiders (the initiated) from outsiders.

A display of rectitude is only valuable as a screening service if it reliably distinguishes the ‘good’ from the ‘bad.’ If some display is easy to emulate (i.e. relatively cheap) then it is not credible as a status symbol.

Self-punishment, as exhibited by the sexually tortured film student, satisfies the handicap principle. It is not for everyone, being costly to maintain. Only the earnest need apply. The elaborate tartufferie of the big corporation, for different reasons, is also expensive to fake.

How much sensitivity, or guilt in the case of the film student, can one sustain?

This challenge triggering an arms race and squandering of resources — is the currency or subtext of many social interactions where, for lack of anything else to do, jockeying for prestige is the object: online discussion, for example, in which participants compete to parade the most costly investment (in knowing the currently approved or most esoteric terms, etc.).

But similar contests of one-upmanship pervade the bien-pensant circles of the professional and managerial classes, and their social satellites, as described in a recent post.

Genteelisms, as is well known, aim to provide a signal of distinguished taste and courtesy, as reliable as any good food and stylish furnishings. (Kojève, observing the survival of now-meaningless archaisms like tea ceremonies in postwar Japan, called this ‘snobbism’). They are a chief method for regulating in-group membership.

Yet, rapidly outdated, or too widely dispersed to work as shibboleths, they provoke a ceaseless euphemism treadmill.

The standard of circumlocution now set higher, an escalating level of resources must be devoted to mutual monitoring to detect infringements, and to lexical ingenuity to repel attacks, in order to come out ahead of the pack.

In general, the class of behaviour involves acquiring redundant goods or credentials, or undertaking some costly investment of time or effort, in order to maintain one’s position relative to competitors for some prize.

Such contests, as Finley and Veblen described, are a high-wire act of ‘restless straining.’

Hypocrisy, said Maugham, was ‘the most difficult and nerve-wracking vice that men can pursue’, demanding constant vigilance. It could not be practised in spare moments, but was a ‘whole-time job.’

So, too, the exhausting battles for prestige, and enforcement of correct conduct and usage, among those with a deep regard for social status and the esteem of peers and colleagues.

Submitting to this regimen is not so easy as Alexander Cockburn imagined in his article on the ‘Conscience Industry’:

Today, at the level of symbolic action, a person of progressive temperament can live in a bubble bath of moral self-satisfaction from dawn to dusk… For every decision in the liberal day, there’s a certificate of good behaviour being flaunted by some of the most disgusting corporations on Earth.

Every decision, all day? Less a warm bath than an exhausting workout. The reader of the Nation cannot relax if she is to keep up with her peer-competitors in the field of uprightness and decorum.

The dinner party as rat race.


Who would play you in the movie of your life?

August 22, 2010

Is it just me or…

… Just sayin’.

Know thy foetus

May 19, 2010

If the philosophical question of when consciousness begins and ends is so contentious, then perhaps this article in New Scientist, about the sensory abilities of a growing foetus, will help to demystify the issue through scientific data. To frame Linda Geddes‘ piece in a more prosaic context, this information could certainly help many women come to a decision about terminating a pregnancy. Whether or not she believes abortion is morally acceptable (and I’d like to state that I am absolutely pro-choice), the emotional trauma experienced by a woman making the decision to abort a foetus or continue with her pregnancy cannot be denied – especially if she is ill-informed about the physiological characteristics and sensory-motor abilities of the foetus.

I hope this kind of information is available in schools, doctors’ surgeries and sexual health centres.

Link dump

May 10, 2010
  • “The [occupied territories] were to be insulated from Israel and converted into a series of enclaves, not so much like the South-African Bantustans (which were a reserve of labour for the settlers), more like the Indian Reservations, where the indigenous people could rot out of sight.” Interview with Moshé Machover.
  • “Age-related IQ decline is reduced markedly after adjustment for the Flynn effect”. From the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology.
  • “So I’m planning this trip to Costa Rica, looking at possible activities I can do when I’m there, and I come upon parasailing. Now I’ve never given parasailing a second thought, but the moment I click on this webpage and see the pictures of people soaring above the beach, I know it is something I really really want to do. Even better, the parasailing company’s website says something about ‘all shapes and sizes’ of people being able to participate in parasailing. Heck yes, I’m psyched! That is, until I read their FAQ a little closer and see that, to them, ‘all sizes’ means up to 250 pounds.” From Big Fat Blog.
  • Simulated 3D tour of the Dimona nuclear complex, based on Mordechai Vanunu’s descriptions:

How hard can you possibly fail?

April 18, 2010 has sunk to a new low:

If you’re struggling to read the caption below that woman’s breasts and the litre jugs of beer they’re swilling, it says “Drink in the atmosphere: Testing out the best beer gardens in the home of Oktoberfest.” And next to that, below the picture of the poverty stricken young’un drinking mud out of a plastic bottle, it says “Ever thought about how you can make a real difference in a child’s life? Sponsor a child.”

I know stuff like this isn’t uncommon on The Age’s website, but come ON!* This is beyond the pale.**

*Since reloading The Age’s homepage, I now notice that there’s an ad for a bank next to the busty beer wenches of Oktoberfest.

**Apologies to my fellow Churls, Alex and Nick, for using this offensive idiom.

Self-reference loops in contemporary publishing

March 29, 2010

Found by Razib Khan:

Increasing diagnostic precision?

March 13, 2010

Get in line, pal

March 6, 2010

Let’s say you’d like to withdraw cash from an automated teller machine. As you approach the bank, you see three terminals, with a customer using each one. A bunch of other people wait in a single queue, centred midway along the row of ATMs. You observe that one of the customers is very fast, zipping through the transaction; the other two seem to have trouble using their keypads and reading their screen prompts. Do you

  1. Commit to the “fastest” terminal, waiting directly behind the customer at that ATM
  2. Stick with the single, central queue, allowing the person at its head to use the first available ATM, whichever it is 

If you chose option 2 – thinking only it fulfills the strict first-in, first-out discipline behind this sort of queueing, or maximises average throughput – you’re probably a very frustrated person. Because most of us have other things on our mind than fairness or efficiency in queueing. We may need to get the next train, or be rushing to an appointment, or just not really feel like wasting time in a boring ATM line. Choosing option 1 can – if we cleverly pick the right line – allow us to skip ahead of others who arrived beforehand. And knowing that, even if we don’t, some bastard is sure to try this, most of us won’t bother with option 2, the single first-come first-served queue. For whatever reason, when faced with parallel servers (a row of ATMs, a counter full of cashiers at McDonald’s) people tend spontaneously to form multiple queues, one for each service point.

Nor is this really the customers’ fault. Multi-server, single-queue systems are becoming more familiar: they’re used for airport check-in, at most government offices (for e.g license renewal and registration), inside banks, and for the new automated checkouts at supermarkets. But each of these examples shows the importance of queue-area design (cordons, signs, buffer space) for engineering cooperation amongst those waiting in line. Customers are instructed to queue in a particular way, not left individually to choose between two options, then forced to argue it out when they disagree. It is impossible to be served in any order besides that in which you arrived, whatever the relative service speeds of the staff. (My ATM example is a little misleading, because the queue space usually backs onto a narrow footpath, making multiple parallel queues more sensible than a single long line. Where ATMs are located in an internal vestibule, however, single queues are more common.)

But look at this recent example from a Melbourne supermarket, which gives customers a huge, empty queueing space to play in, and says: sort yourselves out. Madness!

She’ll be right

February 18, 2010

It’s well-known that people have trouble measuring risk.

A study from 1978, ‘Judged Frequency of Lethal Events‘, showed that, when estimating the relative probability of various dangerous events (homicide or suicide, accident or disease), subjects used the availability heuristic. The more readily an event could be brought to mind – due to vividness or media coverage – the more likely it was considered to be.

So the incidence of spectacular disasters (plane crashes, terrorist attacks) is overestimated, while less dramatic but more common causes of death are underestimated.

For some reason, the former (overestimation) variety of error gets most of the attention.

Over the past few years people like Frank Furedi have started banging on about a ‘culture of fear‘, of successive panics aroused over global warming, BSE, Y2K bug, terrorism, SARS, avian flu, etc. Furedi, it’s true, is a crank, but more worthwhile studies have also shown how hysterical media reporting induces availability bias by exaggerating new health threats.

Meanwhile Gerd Gigerenzer famously showed that excess US road accident fatalities (353) in the last 3 months of 2001, probably due to people avoiding air travel, outnumbered the 266 passengers and crew killed while flying on 11 September. Despite the hyping of terrorism’s threat by governments and media, the lifetime chance of death from a terrorist attack is roughly equal to the risk of dying from another low-probability, high-consequence event like an asteroid strike.

Clearly, given the tendency of risk perception to outrun objective probability, reality checks are necessary.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the line contrarian warnings against ‘alarmism’ have acquired a kind of prestige, and it’s become a marker of high status to suggest that nothing bad can ever happen. H1N1?  Scaremongering by the media and WHO, both in the pay of big pharma. Global warming? Overblown.

Somebody who wrote a book called The Existential Jesus can, with a straight face, intone against ‘causes that attract pseudo-religious enthusiasm and intellectual fanaticism‘, supported by ‘prophets of doom and the language of apocalypse’.

For such ‘sceptics’, political ideology is often at work, along with a desire to signal their stiff upper lip and intellectual supremacy: I won’t be duped by Al Gore’s mind control! Can’t scare me!

But these examples also show the other side of availability bias: underestimating the frequency of the non-salient.

Almost nobody can remember a high-mortality flu pandemic that disproportionately killed young adults, so we consider it impossible; none of us has ever actually observed human climate forcing, so we dismiss it. These are not even what Nassim Taleb calls ‘Black Swans‘: they are merely beyond our immediate experience, and that’s enough to reduce our risk perception.

One strange example of this tendency is a backlash against ‘peanut allergy hysteria.’

Over the past few decades, the incidence of diagnosed peanut allergies in Australia, the US and the UK appears to have increased sharply. Allergic diseases generally seem to have become much more prevalent since the Second World War. But nut allergies get a lot of attention due to anaphylaxis and a few schoolkid deaths.

It seems likely that parents exaggerate the risk of peanut-related deaths due to the availability heuristic. Some schools have responded with extreme allergen-avoidance measures, like banning nuts completely.

This has led Slate to wonder ‘Are nut allergies taking over the planet? and the New York Times to consider ‘Are Nut Bans Promoting Hysteria? The point is arguable, though much of it is delivered in a silly our-way-of-life-is-non-negotiable style. (‘Taking precautions for the radically sensitive, however, means asking a lot of people to change their behavior.’)

Yet behind the opposition to ‘peanut hysteria‘ seems to be an intuitive refusal to believe that incidence of food allergies or anaphylaxis could be rising. Joel Stein of the Los Angeles Times writes in ‘Nut Allergies – A Yuppie Invention‘ that ‘[your] kid doesn’t have an allergy to nuts. Your kid has a parent who needs to feel special… But unless you’re a character on Heroes, genes don’t mutate fast enough to have caused an 18% increase in childhood food allergies between 1997 and 2007… [It] is strange how peanut allergies are only an issue in rich, lefty communities.’

Nobody seems to doubt the rising prevalence of asthma (asthma rates in Australia doubled between 1982 and 1992) or eczema, conditions which are related to food allergies. Perhaps the difference in attitudes can be explained by the higher population frequency of asthma and eczema, which leave more people with a personal experience (a friend, relative or themselves) of these conditions, and less reason to doubt their legitimacy.

In contrast, I suspect most people find food-induced anaphylactic shock not vivid but unimaginable. Where asthma has through familiarity become domesticated and somewhat mundane, death by peanut seems something that could only be dreamed up by hysterical, overprotective middle-class parents.

Real women: The fake body-image debate

January 23, 2010

Is it fair to blame socially ingrained sexism for certain kinds of attitudes and behaviour in young women? On this I’m really not sure; indeed, I’m constantly struggling with my own attitudinal double-standards regarding my feminist beliefs and (what I believe are) anti-feminist practices. For instance, I firmly believe that nobody should feel obliged to live up to any kind of beauty standard, yet, like many women, I routinely remove hair from my body that, frankly, is only offensive to morons whose “minds have been warped by porn.”* If the mainstream media are any indication, it seems that most serious discussions surrounding beauty standards become clouded by puerile feature articles about what constitutes a “real woman,” and how refreshing it is when supermodels/celebrities get naked/forego makeup and/or airbrushing and have their photo taken for a fashion magazine/”cause.” Save for the astute observations of rare columnists like Clem Bastow, the majority of opinion pieces surrounding femininity, body image and beauty standards skirt around pertinent questions regarding the extent to which people’s (women’s) appearances matter in our culture, and trivialise the effects of such a culture on many women’s social status and psychology.

On that topic, I’m again drawn to the idea of socially ingrained sexism and it’s relationship to social and psychological interactions between women. I was once told by one of my peers that particular aspects of her character were a result of  having been raised in a phallocentric society in which women are pitted against each other in competition for the attention of men, resulting in the perpetuation of jealousy, misogyny, self-loathing and a range of other unhealthy insecurities among women. While I’m willing to accept that our culture does generally encourage a range of detrimental attitudes towards and among women, including the ones I’ve listed above, I also believe that it is reductive (and reminiscent of comically pompous letter-writers in tabloid publications) to “blame society,” women’s Ugly Stepsister, for the peccadillos and character-flaws that are part and parcel of, well, being human. To claim that it is all society’s fault that people experience say, jealousy, implies that a) people are entirely subject to their social and cultural environment and b) that they lack agency over their own attitudes. To be sure, I’m not denying that emotions like jealousy, anger, and low self esteem often defy rationality and are incredibly hard to control. But in my view, blaming society’s insidious influence for one’s feelings of resentment and mistrust towards other women is akin to blaming the Bureau of Meteorology for inclement weather. Human emotions are far more complex and entwined with our individual psychological experiences; experiences which encompass the impact of culture on our psyche(s), but are not wholly manipulated by society’s misogyny.

For me, overcoming my negative feelings towards other women will entail the maturity and self-confidence that only comes from experience. While I’m working on that, I’ll continue to rant on this blog, in cafes, at work and to myself about society’s ills in the hope that I am helping to change other women’s experiences for the better.

*Credit to Dr. Bandit for this succinct yet highly evocative observation.