Big data and language learning

The big news in artificial intelligence (AI) this past year was the arrival of GPT-3, a substantially improved version of the “Generative Pre-trained Transformer” from OpenAI, an advanced AI system built on a web of artificial neural networks, deep machine learning, and massive collection of data on human language. The system has been described as a giant step towards the realization of AGI, “artificial general intelligence”, the ability of a system to use language in virtually any domain of human activity. I wrote about this development in the latest issue of Language Learning & Technology, a special journal issue on big data and language learning. I discuss the breakthrough represented by AGI:

Normally, an AI system will be able to deal effectively only within a narrowly defined domain, for which the system has been trained, so as to expect specific language patterns typically used in that context. Google Duplex, for example, does a remarkable job in conversing over the phone with human operators in making dinner reservations or reserving a ride on Uber. GPT-3, in contrast, has been shown to interact through language in a wide variety of genres and content areas: creative writing, journalism, essays, poetry, text-based gaming, and even writing software code. The Guardian newspaper ran an article written by the program, while the New York Times asked it to write about love. A blogger used GPT-3 to write multiple blog posts, subsequently receiving numerous subscribers and notice on tech websites. The fact that many readers were not able to tell that the GPT-3 generated texts were written by an AI system raises questions of trust and authenticity, mirroring the concerns raised about audio and video “deepfakes”, based on training an artificial neural network on many hours of real audio or video footage of the targeted individual.

The system represents a remarkable achievement in its ability to write in natural sounding language (idiomaticity, flow, cohesion). That ability is based on the collection and analysis of huge volumes of speech data collected by crawling the internet, including all of Wikipedia. GPT-3 translates that data into a very large (175 billion!) set of connections or “parameters”, i.e. mathematical representations of patterns. These parameters provide a model of language, based not on rules, but on actual language usage. That allows the system to predict speech sequencing, based on regularly occurring constructions of words and phrases, thereby enabling the machine production of natural-sounding language utterances. One can imagine how powerful GPT-3 could be integrated into a smart personal assistant such as Siri. We are already seeing interesting uses of chatbots and intelligent assistants in language learning. A company called LearnFromAnyone is building on top of GPT-3 a kind of automated tutor, which can take on the identity of famous scientists or writers.

While GPT-3 and other advanced AI systems represent a significant technical achievement, there are, as I discuss in the article, plenty of reasons to be cautious and thoughtful in their use, as is the case generally with big data in both social and educational contexts. While the language generated by GPT-3 mimics what a human might write in terms of language use, compositional structure, and idea development, the texts don’t always make sense in terms of lived human experience, i.e. demonstrating an understanding of social norms and cultural practices. Human beings have the advantage in communicative effectiveness of having lived in the real world and and having developed the pragmatic abilities to generate language that is contingent on human interactions and appropriate to the context. We also can use crucial non-verbal cues, unavailable to a machine: gesture, gaze, posture, intonation, etc.

I argue in the article that a human factor is a crucial mediating factor in implementations of AI systems built on top of big data, particularly in education. Learning analytics (collection of data about student academic performance) tends to treat students as data, not as human beings with complicated lives (especially these days). I discuss these and other ethical and practical issues with data collection and use in the context of D’Ignazio and Klein’s Data feminism (2020). The book explores many examples of inequities in data science, as well as providing useful suggestions for overcoming disparities in data collection (favoring standard language use, for example) and for recognizing and compensating for algorithmic bias.

Auschwitz and politics

Samuel Pisar and the cities from which Auschwitz inmates were sent

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, 75 years after the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp. It’s interestingly the first day of work for the new US Secretary of State (= Foreign Minister), Antony Blinken, who was confirmed by the US Senate yesterday. At the event announcing his nomination to the position, Blinken spoke movingly about his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, a survivor of the Auschwitz concentration camp and two other camps. From his school in Poland which had 900 students, he was the sole survivor, and also the only member of his own family to survive the war. He escaped from the camp at the age of 16 and hid out in the Bavarian forest.

Blinken spoke at the event about how his stepfather, hiding in the forest, heard a rumbling and saw a tank coming towards him, but not with the Swastika insignia, but rather showing a 5-pointed star, the indication that it belonged to the US army. Seeing the youngster, the driver of the tank opened the hatch; it was an African-American soldier. Pisar spoke the only English words he knew (taught to him by his mother): “God bless America”. The soldier hoisted him into the tank.

Blinken spoke of that episode as an indicator of the idea of “America” as the last best hope for humanity. His stepfather, Pisar went on to become a celebrated diplomat and international lawyer, with the goal of achieving world peace through ongoing conversation among all countries, both friend and foe.

Blinken intends to follow his stepfather in terms of fostering multilateral relationships and international agreements, a direction opposed to that of the Trump administration. He also announced that his intention as Secretary of State was to run the office with “confidence and humility”. If he follows through with “humility”, that will be a stark contrast to the Trump Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who entered into the position announcing that his approach would be characterized by “swagger”, something he repeated recently as he was leaving office.

Finally, the current Foreign Minister of Germany, Heiko Maas, presents a very different perspective. When interviewed in 2018 when he took on that position, he stated, “Ich bin wegen Auschwitz in die Politik gegangen”, i.e., I got into politics because of Auschwitz. He acknowledges Germany’s guilt and the responsibility it bears “for all time”, as Maas has repeatedly stated. That represents again a contrast to the Trump administration, which in its 1776 project, insisted on downplaying the US history of slavery and of systemic racism.

Our plague year

Scene from the 1918 pandemic

Few of us are likely to regret the passing of the plague year 2020 (see the comprehensive New Yorker piece on the catastrophic handling of the COVID-19 virus in the US). Just a few thoughts here on the last day of the year on what has changed in our lives.

1) Human lives
My grandmother died in the 1918 “Spanish flu”. That had a profound effect on my father’s life, growing up without a mother, forming habits, tastes, personality traits that surely would have been different had his mother not died. I’m sure it contributed to my grandfather being taciturn and withdrawn. My Dad had trouble expressing emotion, as did many men of his generation, and was rather coarse in his habits (eating, for example) and abrupt in his dealings with others. No one can tell if having had a mother would have made a difference, but it seems like it could have. In turn, I see many aspects of my father mirrored in my own personality, and likely passed on to my children, and now, quite possibly to my grandchildren.

One death and many ripple effects. In the US we are approaching 350, 000 dead from the virus, many more world-wide. Unbelievable real-life repercussions on lives and families everywhere. Grieving now and long, long-term effects.

2) Cultural practices
For friends and families losing loved ones: So sad not to be able to say good-bye in normal and meaningful ways and to engage in rituals that can be tremendously meaningful to many. It seems likely that end of life practices will slowly come back, but for other culture-related practices changes may be longer-lasting.

Handshakes, hugs, standing close to others: They have disappeared this year. Will they come back or is physical distancing of one kind or another here to stay? Will it be different depending on the culture? In some parts of the world, the adjustment may not be a big deal, but if you’re used to cheek kissing as a normal greeting ritual, that’s a big change. Elbow bumps don’t seem like a satisfactory replacement.

Work cultures seem certain to have changed. Many more folks likely to continue to work remotely. That in turn brings changes to everyday lives, more time at home, more options for cooking, gardening, other homebody activities, maybe more pets?

Changes in education are equally profound. Distance learning is not likely to go away. But just as in employment opportunities, this trend will not affect us all equally. The divide between those with white collar jobs, able to work from home, and those in the service sectors, exposed to the virus, has led in the US to disproportionally high number of black and brown infected and dead Americans. Similarly, well-off parents can afford the better computing set-up and higher-speed Internet crucial to effective online learning. Those are some of the many ways the virus has brought into sharper contrast the stark inequalities in US society.

3) Trust in science (and in each other)
Another dividing line in the US (and elsewhere) has been the extent to which individuals have changed their public behavior to protect themselves and others from the spread of the virus. That has exposed the extent to which many people deny the findings of science and medicine (i.e., masks work) and show blind faith in voices of leaders and media figures, with no science expertise, but with plentiful political goals. Those skeptical of science, or even of the reality of the virus, have shown that they are not reachable through objective, factual information. Their beliefs in areas related to the virus have become part and parcel of their identities, of their personal life histories, and thus are nearly impossible to dislodge by logic or by any other means.

Sad to say, it seems unlikely that 2021 will bring meaningful change in that area.

A new anti-racist icon: Robert E. Lee

A photograph of Breonna Taylor, projected onto the statue of Robert E. Lee in July, 2020

As this tumultuous year comes to an end, the partisan polarity in the US remains and may even have intensified in the wake of the election this month. Just today, a lawyer for President Trump, Joe diGenova, called for the former head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, Chris Krebs to be “drawn and quartered” and then to be taken out and shot. His crime? He had declared the election to have been secure and legitimate.

On the other hand, the massive protests from this summer in the wake of the deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other African-Americans at the hands of police officers seem to have subsided. However, here in Richmond, VA, there remains a strong visual reminder of the inequity between Blacks and whites in the US and of the racist history going back to slavery and the Civil War. The NY Times has named that reminder, namely the massive Robert E Lee statue on Monument Avenue, the most influential work of American protest art since World War II. The statue is one of the last remaining monuments of Confederate figures left in the city, the former capital of the Confederate States of America, after almost all others have been either toppled by protesters or ordered removed by the Richmond mayor. Since this summer, the statue has been transformed. No longer a towering reminder of the Confederate “Lost Cause” and of the Jim Crow era of enforced segregation, it is now covered with graffiti, much of it supporting “Black Lives Matter”, protesting police brutality, and evoking the names and faces of Blacks unjustly killed.

Whether the statue will be removed is uncertain. A judge has ruled that the city may remove the statue, although it is on state-owned land. Opponents of removal have vowed to appeal to the Virginia Supreme Court. It seems to me a shame to remove the statue now, as it is currently configured. It has been argued convincingly that the problem with the Confederate statues is that they provide no historical context and imply by their size and prominence that these men so honored are heroic figures, whose actions are to be celebrated. Nothing about the statues indicates they were defenders of slavery. But now there is plenty of context around the Lee statue. It’s not just the messages and art on the statue itself; there are signs and objects that have been placed all around the statue. Images have been projected on the statue that feature Breonna Taylor and others. The intersection where the statue is located has been popularly renamed Marcus-David Peters Circle, in reference to a man who was shot and killed by police in Richmond in 2018 during a mental health crisis.

So the context of racism – and anti-racism – the newly transformed statue represents is abundantly clear.

Who is Kamamboamamla?

Senator David Purdue

This week, Georgia Senator David Purdue, warming up the audience for a Trump rally, in Macon, Georgia, pretended he didn’t know how to pronounce the first name of the Democratic vice presidential candidate: “Ka-MA-la, KA-ma-la, Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever”

Perdue then warned the crowd of a potential liberal takeover of government with “Bernie and Elizabeth and Kah-mah-la or Kah-ma-la or Kamamboamamla or however you say it.” It should be pointed out that Senator Perdue has served with Kamala Harris in the Senate for 3 years, in fact on the same committee. So he clearly knows how to say her name, but through pretending to have trouble with the pronunciation, he wanted to draw attention to fact that she does not have a familiar first name, from a white American perspective.

In fact, both Harris’ parents were immigrants to the US, with her mother coming from India. They gave her a name that in the original Sanskrit (कमला) means “lotus” or “pale red”. For Harris, her name is a reminder of her heritage. For Purdue, it points to her foreignness, implying through the mocking way he played on her name that there was something not quite right about her. In other words, his words were a clear racist dog whistle, a signal his audience understood quite well, as they laughed along with Purdue.

This is not the first racist action from the Senator. He recently ran an ad, increasing the size of the nose of his Democratic opponent in November, Jon Ossoff, who is Jewish. Purdue has also accused Ossoff and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of trying to “buy Georgia.” In embracing the caricature of Jews with large noses and leveling the scurrilous accusation that Ossoff and Schumer – both Jewish – are trying to buy influence and power, Perdue invoked two of the world’s oldest antisemitic tropes.

This is another troubling sign that open racism has unfortunately become mainstream in many segments of the US population.

Free academic speech or racial slur?

USC Professor Patton, removed from course

Earlier this month, the University of Southern California removed business professor Greg Patton from his classroom. His offense? In a lecture on linguistics, he used a Chinese word as an illustrating example of filler words (“um” or “like” in English). So far, so good, but that Chinese expression, 那个, or ne ga sounds a lot like a racial slur in English (the N word). That word is one that I have found to be tremendously useful when I’m in China. It means “that one” and comes in handy ordering in a restaurant when you can just point at a picture of a dish and say “ne ga”, i.e. I’ll have that one. Additionally, native speakers of Mandarin use it in conversation as a filler, as the USC professor was trying to illustrate, making the point that such words or sounds are common across languages. He made clear that the expression was Chinese (not English). Despite that, several African-American students took offense and complained. They wrote a letter to the dean of the School of Business, describing Patton as insensitive and suggested he be removed from his post. They wrote,

There are over 10,000 characters in the Chinese written language and to use this phrase, a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, is hurtful and unacceptable to our USC Marshall community. The negligence and disregard displayed by our professor was very clear in today’s class.

In fact, the letter sent by the students is incorrect, in that the Chinese term is not a “a clear synonym with this derogatory N-Word term, ” in fact not a synonym at all, i.e. a word with the equivalent meaning. It is at most a homonym (words sounding alike), but that is not normally seen as significant or meaningful when you are dealing with two different languages.

As reported in Inside Higher Education, the complaint and removal have been controversial with a petition for Patton’s reinstatement stating:

For him to be censored simply because a Chinese word sounds like an English pejorative term is a mistake and is not appropriate, especially given the educational setting. It also dismisses the fact that Chinese is a real language and has its own pronunciations that have no relation to English.

The professor himself apologized to those students offended, but also reported to Inside Higher Education, “Given the difference in sounds, accent, context and language, I did not connect this in the moment to any English words and certainly not any racial slur.”

In a report on the incident in The Atlantic, a fellow professor (from UCLA), Eugene Volokh, suggested how the Business School Dean should have replied:

This should go without saying, but of course many languages have words that sound vaguely like English epithets or vulgarities, and vice versa … Naturally, USC students are expected to understand this, and recognize that such accidents of pronunciation have nothing to do with any actually insulting or offensive meaning. To the extent that our first reaction to hearing such a word might be shock or upset, part of language education (or education of any sort) is to learn to set that aside. The world’s nearly one billion Mandarin speakers have no obligation to organize their speech to avoid random similarities with English words, and neither do our faculty (or students or anyone else) when they are speaking Mandarin.

On the other hand, as the article discusses, this kind of reply, as reasonable as it sounds, does not take into account the real feelings of the USC students who were upset by the incident.

Cancel culture and shifting power

D. Trump Jr. at the Republican Convention

One of the expressions current in the media is cancel culture, a term heard many times at the Republican Convention in the US last week. At that event it was used as a political weapon against the Democrats; according to buzzfeed:

A few weeks ago, most Americans either hadn’t heard of “cancel culture” or were quite unfamiliar with the term. And then President Donald Trump’s Republican National Convention began. Since Monday night, primetime convention speakers repeatedly have warned of a future where conservative patriots are silenced and vilified as a nation led by Joe Biden descends into lawlessness. Democrats and the media, they’ve argued, are canceling your beloved founding fathers and will cancel you next if you don’t adhere to their politically correct point of view.

In fact, President Trump’s administration has been active in suppressing speech from opponents, labeling as “fake news” not false reporting, but any news item not supporting the President’s views or actions.

The term cancel culture has been around for a while and has little to do with any conventional understanding of what a “culture” is. Instead it references a social practice, principally on social media, involving ostracizing or shaming someone for their behavior,  thereby “cancelling” their participation in human society, making them social outsiders. There have been famous cases in which social media attacks, for perceived or real transgressions, such as offensive tweets in the past (the film director, James Gunn) or calling the police on a black bird watcher (Amy Cooper), have resulted not only being “cancelled” in the media, but actually losing their jobs.

The phenomenon has been interpreted as indicating a shift of power in society (at least in the US), giving more weight to social media over official government authorities such as the courts or police. As reports of incidents or transgressions turn viral online, immense pressure is placed on those connected to the “cancelled” (employers, landlords, associates) to disassociate themselves from those individuals. The NY Times has run a number of stories on cancel culture, including several by Jonah Engel Bromwich. In one recent piece he commented:

People tend to see cancellation as either wholly good — there are new consequences for saying or doing racist, bigoted or otherwise untenable things — or wholly bad, in that people can lose their reputations and in some cases their jobs, all because a mob has taken undue offense to a clumsy or out-of-context remark. Personally, I think it’s best viewed not as either positive or negative, but as something else: a new development in the way that power works — a development brought about by social media.

The views on whether this is a good development vary.  Harper’s Magazine published an open letter, signed by a number of influential public figures, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” which decried the development. The letter received some negative feedback, with the signers being accused of fearing that their own power and influence would be lost. However one might judge cancel culture, it seems undeniable that the power of social media it demonstrates is unlikely to go away any time soon.

“Karens”: women only?

Today a “Karen” was criminally indicted. The woman’s name is not Karen, but Amy, Amy Cooper. She appeared as “Karen” in the tweet seen here, posted by Melody Cooper (no relation), the brother of a bird watcher, her brother, Christian. Amy was walking her dog in New York’s Central Park, but contrary to the regulations in that area, her dog was not leashed. Christian asked her to use a leash, to keep the dog from scaring away the birds. She responded by threatening to call 911, telling Christian that she was going to tell the operator that she was being threatened by a black man. She did in fact call, saying “There is a man, African American, he has a bicycle helmet and he is recording me and threatening me and my dog…please send the cops immediately!”. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said today, in announcing the prosecution, “Our office initiated a prosecution of Amy Cooper for falsely reporting an incident in the third degree. We are strongly committed to holding perpetrators of this conduct accountable.”

So why is Amy Cooper a Karen? “Karen” has in fact become a popular online meme, typically used as shorthand for a white, middle-aged North American woman, reeking of privilege (whiteness, class, wealth) and selfishness (I matter more than you) who asserts her own rights over those of (racial, cultural, financial, political) others in confrontations captured on video and posted online. Many of those encounters in recent weeks deal with women asserting the right not to wear a face mask, even in environments in which that is required. Also reported have been women protesting stay-at-home orders, demanding the right to have nails done or to visit a hair salon. But Karens are not new. A recent report from the NPR program “On the Media” listed a host of Karen types, often with names linked to the activity they reported or the context of the encounter: Barbecue Becky, Bus Berator Brenda, Lawnmower Lucy, Pool Patrol Paula, Racist Roslyn, Walmart Mary, Airline Amy. In that report, the host, Brooke Gladstone, explored with Apryl Williams, a professor of communications and media at the University of Michigan, the origins of the Karen meme.

Interestingly, these annoying individuals seem to always be women. In that sense, the phenomenon resembles the complaints about speech patterns like vocal fry (use of a deep, creaky, breathy sound), upspeak (rising intonation applied to all utterances, not just questions), or use of hedges (disclaimers, tag questions), all associated with women. It’s not that these speech habits do not exist, it’s that social censure rarely is directed to particular male speech patterns like self-assertiveness, insensitivity, or excessive volume. Why the difference? In the US there is been lately a growing awareness of the reality of institutional racism in this society, but the same power structure, favoring white males, also tilts in favor of men.

BTW, the incident in Central Park occurred on May 25, the same day that George Floyd died in police custody. In the discussion on “On the Media” on Karens, Professor Williams emphasized that racism is at the core of Karen behavior:

It is the primary motivating factor for placing that call to the police. I’m not sure that if these incidences were happening to white people that they would feel the need to call the police at all. If they were, we would hear about it, as we have recently with COVID, where white people are being kicked out of stores because they refuse to wear a mask. So, if it were the case that white people were calling the police randomly on other white people, I think we would hear about it. The fact that these incidents keep happening to black people, black men in particular, says that we are still grappling with the same type of racism that we were dealing with under Jim Crow era segregation. And that’s central to these memes.

It may be that the US is at a turning point in race relations. Some recognition of male privilege, as well as white privilege would be welcome as well.

Potent symbolism: Knees, Bibles, Statues

George Floyd being killed

Symbols are powerful. They can hold meaning that is intensely felt by members of a group and can be a way to identify who is and who isn’t accepted as a member of the group. That symbolism might come in the form of dress/appearance. As I commented recently, face masks in the US have become such a symbol, signaling for many political affiliation. Recently we have seen symbolic action surrounding race relations in the US. In this case, the act of kneeling has come to be imbued with powerful meaning. This has been triggered by the death in Minneapolis of George Floyd, killed by a police officer kneeling on his neck for nearly 9 minutes despite Floyd’s pleading that he couldn’t breathe. The symbolism of white suppression is highlighted by the nonchalant posture of the officer, with his hands in his pockets.

This individual incident adds to a large number of similar deaths of black men at the hands of the police, leading to wide-spread protests against racism and police brutality throughout the US, as well as in other countries.

Protesters kneeling

Often the protesters will collectively “take a knee”, kneeling in solidarity with Floyd and with black and brown citizens generally. This in turn recalls the actions of American footballer Colin Kapernick in 2016 who famously kneeled during the playing of the US national anthem before games started, as a protest against the treatment of African-

Houston Chronicle

Americans by the police. The front page of the sports section of the Houston (Texas) Chronicle newspaper recently reflected that fact: rather than reports on game results, the page borrows from John Lennon’s Imagine, here applied to the death of George Floyd.

In response to the protests, and to the violence that has ensued in some cities, President Trump this week had the square in front of the White House cleared of protesters with tear gas, despite the fact that they were lawfully and peacefully protesting. That happened so that the President could walk across to St. John’s Church so he could have his picture taking holding a Bible. He did not pray nor kneel. Apparently, the action was intended as a signal that the President was upholding Christian values, but how that related to the protests or to police misconduct is not clear. However, as the holy script of Christianity, founded on the life of Jesus Christ, the Bible most evidently represents the values Jesus exemplified: love of one’s neighbor, solidarity with the downtrodden, leading a life of virtue and humility. It’s not evident that President Trump had those values in mind, but was more likely using the Bible to signal his belonging to politically conservative US Americans and perhaps to show his ability to use his power to disperse unwelcome protests.

Lee Statue and protesters

A very different reaction to the protests generated by Floyd’s death occurred here in Richmond, Virginia, where there have been mass protests this past week. The governor announced that the statues of figures from the Southern Confederacy, located along Monument Avenue, would be taken down. The statues were erected as a sign of pride in the Southern “lost cause” of the Confederacy, a state that separated from the Union in order to preserve slavery. This has made the statues symbols of the Jim Crow era of overt racism and therefore a frequent source of concern that they glorify racial injustice. Now they are coming down.

We will see if these symbolic actions will have lasting consequences in terms of race relations in the US, but certainly in the short term there are significant changes happening.

Face masks vs. MAGA hats

Anti-mask sign in Illinois store

One might expect that in a pandemic, a public consensus would arise on how people should protect themselves and others from catching the disease. However, in the US, the spread of COVID-19 has led to very different behaviors, that are divided along political lines. That is translating currently into different camps regarding the need to wear face masks in public. Rather than considering the practical health benefits, some refuse to wear a mask as a signal of solidarity with President Trump and his call for the country to open back up. This has turned into a face mask becoming a partisan symbol, as described in US News:

While not yet as loaded as a “Make America Great Again” hat, the mask is increasingly a visual shorthand for the debate pitting those willing to follow health officials’ guidance and cover their faces against those who feel it violates their freedom or buys into a threat they think is overblown.

That resistance to masks has been stoked by President Trump. Rather than wearing a mask to model desired behavior among the public, he didn’t wear a mask during an appearance at a facility making them. Vice President did the same when visiting the Mayo Clinic.

Vice President Pence without a mask

Wearing a mask, on the other hand, can be seen as an endorsement of the advice of medical personnel and public health officials, namely that wearing a mask protects oneself as well as those around us. In that way it is also signaling social solidarity. Not wearing a mask might be seen as a sign of selfishness – or, from others’ perspective, as an assertion of individual freedom.

In the US, this is a radical change from popular opinion on mask-wearing before the pandemic. While wearing a face mask has long been common practice in many East Asian countries, that has not been the case in the US. Indeed, wearing a mask was often seen negatively; as reported in National Geographic, “masks signaled ‘disease,’ as if the wearer had something to hide”. Not being able to see someone’s face automatically made them suspicious. We are used to reading faces as a way to evaluate others’ actions, attitudes or intentions, so not being able to see facial expressions can be disturbing in a culture not used to seeing face masks. The article points out that people may use other non-verbal cues to make up for the absence of facial expressions, such as excessive, energetic waving or extra-explicit friendly language. It may be that as more US Americans don masks, behaviors will adjust. For now, however, there remains a strongly political symbolism to face masks.

Virus shutdown: All in this together?

The line at a Job Center in Jackson, Miss [NY Times]

It’s too early to tell just what the changes in our lives will be due to the Coronavirus pandemic, some likely to be short term (face masks?), others more permanent (fewer handshakes?). One of the outcomes already clear is that the pandemic has shined a light on socio-economic disparities. In the US, those who are able to keep their jobs and work from home tend to be upper-income and white.  Those with lower-paid jobs tend to be black or Latinx and face likelier job loss or they may be “essential” workers (grocery store clerks, delivery drivers, fast-food workers) who have a greater risk of infection but are forced to keep working due to economic necessity.

Economic inequality is of course nothing new, and is widespread throughout the world, but as a recent article in the NY Times points out, the virus has exacerbated that inequality:

Workers who are college educated, relatively affluent and primarily white able to continue working from home and minimizing outdoor excursions to reduce the risk of contracting the virus. Minorities [are] suffering both higher death rates and more financial harm. In New York City and across the country, black and Latino Americans are dying at higher rates from the virus than whites. Economic polling data shows they are also losing their jobs and income to an outsize degree.

Those who are affluent are able to isolate themselves and suffer little economic pain. That might mean moving to a second home in a secluded area or even renting an entire hotel for family and friends, and flying to those locations on a private jet. On the other side of the income gap, many people in the US are applying for unemployment (now over 30 million) and waiting in long lines at food banks.

This disparity has not gone unnoticed, particularly as rich or famous Americans express their solidarity with their fellow citizens in social media, leading to considerable backlash. Hollywood billionaire David Geffen, for example, posted an Instagram photo of the sun setting behind his 454-foot yacht in the Caribbean, captioning the photo: “Isolated in the Grenadines avoiding the virus. I’m hoping everybody is staying safe.” He soon after made his account private. The backlash was similar when Madonna posted a video on Instagram of herself in a milky bath sprinkled with rose petals, with the comment that the coronavirus is “the great equalizer.”

Ellen’s “jail”

Ellen Degeneres, broadcasting from her mansion, compared the situation to being “in jail” – many comments ensued, with people wishing for a similar jail cell.

States in the US, following the urging of President Trump, are starting to re-open businesses. As the NY Times article points out, this is likely to accelerate disparities:

Those who are lower paid, less educated and employed in jobs where teleworking is not an option would face a bleak choice if states lift restrictive orders and employers order them back to work: expose themselves to the pandemic or lose their jobs.

Not all economists are convinced that re-opening will necessarily result in swift economic recovery. Until therapeutic treatments or a vaccine are developed or testing has ramped up much higher than is currently the case, it seems unlikely that many will have the confidence to resume their previous shopping, eating out, travelling, or other activities. Meanwhile, it is those most at risk for infection (members of minorities, lower-income whites) who will bear the burden of having to put themselves and their families in danger by going back to work in conditions that often preclude effective social distancing or wearing protective equipment.

Social distancing: Cultural perspectives

Human beings are social animals. That makes social distancing very difficult, the practice of keeping ones distance from others in order to slow the spread of disease, in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic. Each one of us is of course different in terms of sociability but it’s likely that almost everyone needs some degree of regular social contact. That can come through being together person-to-person individually or in groups with friends, family members, classmates, co-workers, club members, etc. Often language will play a major role in our connections with others, in that one of its major functions is to negotiate social relations. Non-verbal communication too plays an important role in relating to others. With the arrival of COVID-19 pandemic, we still have language (more and more mediated electronically) but we have largely lost personal contact, while non-verbal behaviors have changed significantly.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the aftermath of the pandemic, whether social conventions, work arrangements, and educational delivery systems will experience long-term changes, i.e. more folks working remotely, increased use of online learning, and shifts in behaviors involving such phenomena as greetings and physical interactions. Will social distancing become engrained behavior, by default keeping our personal distance from others greater than has been the social norm in the past? Will we no longer go into automatic handshaking mode in particular situations, such as meeting someone new? If the pandemic were short-term, or likely to be a once in a lifetime event, one would not expect such changes, but neither seems to be the case. Instead of weeks, the pandemic looks like it will play out for months, maybe longer, and may be with us as a recurring event. Nor is it likely the last coronavirus we will see.

One might suspect that cultures labeled “collectivistic” would have a harder time with social distancing, given communal orientations. However, cultures generally associated with that label, namely China and South Korea, have been quite successful in fighting the virus. Keeping to cultural stereotypes, one might argue that, in fact, the willingness of individuals to forego direct social contact is in line with expectations, in that they are sacrificing in the name of the greater social good, namely slowing the spread of the virus. A recent piece in the Atlantic magazine discusses the cultural difficulties many Americans have in adjusting to social distancing. The argument is that “America’s individualistic framework is deeply unsuited to coping with an infectious pandemic”. The author, Meghan O’Rourke, asserts that the North American cultural frame of self-reliance makes it more difficult for individuals to consider the common good. Similarly, the cultural theme of individual freedom of action runs counter to the need for the restriction of movement through self-quarantining. She points out that the mania for individual responsibility has resulted in the US in a lack of universal health-care system and a weak social safety net, situations which are likely to make it more difficult to deal with the pandemic and its economic aftermath. She finds it unlikely, that the pandemic will bring a change “from an individual-first to a communitarian ethos”.

One should always approach broad-brush cultural characterizations with caution. That’s called for here, as the US is culturally very diverse, with significant regional, ethnic, and socio-economic differences, despite the undoubted presence historically of the themes of freedom and individualism in the US. It may be that the pandemic will bring about different mindsets and behaviors. It seems clear at this point that not everyone will weather the storm under the same conditions. While in some professions, work at home is doable, that’s not the case for many jobs, typically low-wage work. In an opinion piece for CNN, a group of sociologists from UCLA discuss the need to offer help to those in that position:

We must be particularly supportive of those among us who are vulnerable to contagion — unable to “physically distance”– precisely because of the work they do. This includes not only health care workers but also service and delivery workers, domestic and home care workers, cashiers, sanitation workers, janitors, store clerks, farm workers, and food servers who quietly but vitally sustain our collective lifestyles, even in a pandemic.

These are jobs for which the workers cannot afford to be absent from work, cannot work remotely, and often do not have health insurance. In parts of the US, those workers are likely to be immigrants, already suffering from discrimination and unequal treatment. The authors urge that instead of using the term “social distancing” we refer to “physical distancing” to encourage the practice of maintaining physical spacing, but not being distant socially. That involves practicing solidarity with those suffering more from the pandemic, as well as using technology to maintain social connections. In the process, they write, “Just as physical distancing can give us a fighting chance of combating this virus, finding creative and socially responsible ways to connect in crisis can have positive and long-lasting effects on our communities.” So long-term changes may be on the horizon; we’ll see.

The coronavirus and globalization

The President of the United States today labeled the Novel Coronavirus outbreak a “new hoax” from the Democratic party. It’s far from being a hoax, as the number of people infected with COVID-19 has continued to mount, particularly in countries other than China, where the disease originated. Particularly worrisome are outbreaks in South Korea, Italy, and Iran. Numerous cases in the US are reported as well, including some representing community transmission, i.e. not connected with known travel to infected areas or contact with others already infected. Today the first death in the US was reported.

The virus has led to understandable concern everywhere and to draconian measures to contain its spread in infected areas. Less rational are reported incidents in currently unaffected areas in which individuals perceived to be Chinese – or just Asian – are being singled out for prejudicial treatment or even abuse. CNN reported recently on a number of such incidents, demonstrating that “rampant ignorance and misinformation [about the virus] has led to racist and xenophobic attacks against fellow Americans or anyone in the US who looks East Asian”. A byproduct of those misinformed views is that Chinese-American businesses are losing customers, particularly Chinese restaurants. Normally popular and busy restaurants have become virtually empty. One response on Twitter recommended a possible response:

Air travel has been severely affected by the virus, with wide-spread reduction or cancellation of flights to and from affected areas. Global trade has been disrupted as well, with suppliers and manufacturers not being able to sustain normal supply chains. Apple, for example, has warned that its revenues will be down due to Chinese factories being shut down. While these developments result from one specific event, the virus outbreak, its repercussions point to the vulnerabilities of the massively globalized economic world in which we live. An article in the NY Times this week speaks to that phenomenon:

Even before the virus arrived in Europe, climate change, security concerns and complaints about unfair trade had intensified anxieties about global air travel and globalized industrial supply chains, as well as reinforcing doubts about the reliability of China as a partner.

Globalization has been under attack from various directions, especially through populist and nationalist views that blame international commerce, mass migration, and global cooperation for a loss of local jobs and perceived threats to established ways of life. The likely impact of the COVID-19, especially should it become a pandemic, is likely to strengthen those sentiments. As the NY times’ article put it:

The virus already has dealt another blow to slowing economies, and emboldened populists to revive calls, tinged with racism and xenophobia, for tougher controls over migrants, tourists and even multinational corporations.

That crisis of confidence in China extends beyond China’s ability to handle the virus, said Simon Tilford, director of the Forum New Economy, a research institution in Berlin. The lack of trust “will only reinforce an existing trend among businesses to reduce their dependency and risk,” he said.

But the spread of the virus to Europe will also have a significant impact on politics, likely boosting the anti-immigrant, anti-globalization far right, Mr. Tilford said. “We already see a lot of populist concern about the merits of globalization as benefiting multinationals, the elite and foreigners, not local people and local companies,” he said.

Politicians who insist on control over borders and immigration will be helped, even as the virus transcends borders easily. “Their argument will be that the current system poses not only economic but also health and security threats, which are existential, and that we can’t afford to be so open just to please big business,” Mr. Tilford said.

That argument may attract voters “who hate overt racism but fear loss of control and a system vulnerable to a distant part of the world,” he added. The virus also allows people to express hostility to the Chinese that they may have felt but had been reluctant to articulate, said Mr. Tilford. “There is already an undercurrent of fear of the Chinese in Europe and the United States because they represent a challenge to Western hegemony,” he said.

Instead of bringing peoples from different cultures together to fight the virus cooperatively, it looks like instead there will be a game of misplaced blame and an ongoing process of accelerated racism. Our leaders need to play the roles only they can play to warn against both panic and against xenophobia. We will see in the coming weeks to what extent that occurs.

Working within or dismantling institutions: Miss America vs. the Presidency

Both serve as national icons, the President of the US and Miss America, but they represent institutions not normally brought together, although President Trump does have a history with beauty pageants. 

Miss America, Camille Shrier

Both figures were in the news this week. It so happens that the recently crowned Miss America, Camille Schrier, is a VCU student, working towards a doctorate in pharmacy. Her talent in the contest was doing chemistry experiments, with eye-popping results. She was back at VCU this week as part of her national tour to promote medication safety and to prevent drug misuse. She has said that her mission was also to promote science careers for girls, stating in an interview, “I’m trying to be like Bill Nye [the science guy]…That’s what I’m going for. I want to get kids excited, but I don’t want it to be boring.” Although in the pageant, Schrier wore a white lab coat and safety goggles for the talent performance, it’s clear that if she were not an attractive woman, she would not have earned the crown. However that may be, she is leveraging the exposure and publicity she is receiving to engage in public service, something in fact that is expected of every Miss America. In that sense she is working within normal institutional parameters.

That is hardly the case recently for many US politicians, including not only the President, but members of Congress as well. Their behavior in the impeachment process has been largely dictated by personal political interests, not by a concern to strengthen the institutions they represent. That’s not true of all those in Congress, but it’s a pattern that we’re seeing more often, and not just in politics. Self-interest rather than institutional support has become a driver of actions and attitudes, leading to wide-spread distrust of institutions in the US.

That’s laid out in a new book by Yuval Levin, A Time to Build: From Family and Community to Congress and the Campus, How Recommitting to Our Institutions Can Revive the American Dream, recently discussed with the author on NPR. In the interview Levin points out that many members of Congress “think about the institution as a way to raise their profile”, for example, Senator Ted Cruz after every session of the impeachment trial hosting a podcast commenting on the session. While Levin comments that it is legitimate “for important public figures to also have a profile in the culture”, doing so excessively and making that one’s major focus, “makes it much harder for the institution to function and much harder for us to trust it”:

When members come to think of Congress as a platform for themselves, it becomes much harder for them to see how working within the institution cooperating and bargaining is really what Congress is for…What happens in most congressional hearings now is basically a bunch of individuals producing YouTube clips to use later in campaigns.

One can make the same argument for President Trump, who has used the institution of the presidency as a platform, through Twitter, to promote himself:

President Trump is the first of our presidents who has not been formed by any of the institutions of public service in our country. President Trump has been a performer his entire adult life, and he’s been a performer as president, too. He uses the office of the presidency as a platform from which to comment on the government.

In the process, he is debasing the institution of the Presidency, leading to growing public mistrust. This is all the more disturbing given the power of that office. Levin sees this as a lesson for us all:

All of us have some roles to play within some institutions, even if that’s our family or community or workplace, let alone national institutions and politics and the economy. As a as a parent, as a neighbor, as a member of the PTA, as a member of Congress, as a CEO, what should I do in this situation? Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you’re part of seriously.

In other words, in the institution in which we are involved, we should all be focused on civic engagement. Our current Miss America can function as a model. While she had participated in pageants as a girl, she stopped on starting college, as she wanted to focus on her interest in science (she has undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and systems biology). When she was a graduate student, she heard that the Miss America pageant had been revamped — eliminating the swimsuit competition and emphasizing professionalism and social impact. That provided an opportunity for her to showcase her own interest in science and potentially to serve as a role model and mentor for girls, demonstrating that, in her words,  “Miss America can be a scientist and a scientist can be Miss America”. She is using the institution, as she found it, to further goals of inclusion and acceptance, not self-interest.

From the Capital of the Confederacy:  “Rumors of War” points to change

Rumors of War

This week in Richmond, Virginia, the Capital of the Confederacy a monumental shift took place, literally, with the erection of a new statue, a young black man astride a horse. That statue by Kehinde Wiley, entitled “Rumors of War”, installed in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts,  is located a short distance from a famous row of statues of Confederate war heroes and generals along Monument Avenue. Those statues, installed in the early 20th century, celebrate the Southern “Lost Cause”, the idea that the Confederacy, rather than being a defender of slavery, was a just and heroic effort, bolstered by the primacy of states’ rights. The era when the statues were erected was also the time of the Jim Crow Laws, which institutionalized segregation and the inferior status of African-Americans in all spheres of public life.

JEB Stuart monument

One of those statues, of Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart was, according to Wiley, the inspiration for his own statue. The Stuart statue was the first to be erected on Monument Avenue, in 1907. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, when Wiley, on a visit to Richmond, first saw Stuart’s statue, it “filled him with dread”. As an African-American artist, that reaction is quite understandable. As a White Northerner, coming to Richmond in the 1970’s, I had a less visceral reaction to the Lost Cause iconography, one of surprise. In civics class in Illinois (“Land of Lincoln”) in the 7th grade, we understood that the South not only lost, but did so defending the cruel institution of slavery. My assumption was that folks in the South would much rather just forget that whole episode of American history. Imagine my surprise on seeing huge statues of the folks who were on the wrong side of history.

“Rumors of War” is of the same monumental scale as those of Stuart and the other Confederate heroes. The black man featured is no shrinking violet. He boldly sits astride his powerful horse, with looks that celebrate the contemporary young black American male: dreadlocks, ripped jeans, hoodie. In that way, the statue is not just a counterpoint to Stuart, it is a defiant celebration of young black men, a group not widely celebrated in the US today. As cited in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Wiley wanted to suggest through the statue that US society “say yes to black men”.