Bursting the filter bubble

image by Jordi Boixareu (Flickr)

A recent article in the NY Times addressed the issue of the notorious filter bubble in social media, namely the phenomenon that we tend to be served up by Facebook and other services the stories that contain the same points of views as items we have liked in the past, thus reinforcing the views and beliefs we already hold. In that way, we tend not to be exposed to opposing points of view or alterative takes on issues. This has been much in the news since the US presidential election, with many stories about the viral spread of fake news stories within Facebook and other online communities. Given the media coverage about the filter bubble, interest has developed, at least in some folks, about how one might break out of it, in order to gain some insight into the other side. The Times articles points to tools and sites which let users see to what extent they might be trapped in a filter bubble. The Chrome browser extension, PolitEcho, for example, lets you “find out how polarizing the content on your news feed is”:

PolitEcho shows you the political biases of your Facebook friends and news feed. The app assigns each of your friends a score based on our prediction of their political leanings then displays a graph of your friend list. Then it calculates the political bias in the content of your news feed and compares it with the bias of your friends list to highlight possible differences between the two.

Similarly, NPR has made available a quiz, which purports to show if “you live in a bubble”. The first question is “Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American neighborhood in which the majority of your 50 nearest neighbors did not have college degrees?”. The article also discusses “other tech products invite us to reach out and understand other people without the hassle of actually talking to the”, such as a Twitter plug-in that replaces your regular Twitter feed with “that of a random, anonymous user of a different political persuasion” or an iPhone app which makes a game out of changing color (red or blue) depending on the political bent of the news source you are reading.

A number of other sites and tools are listed in the article. The author points to the irony of many of the suggestions coming from the very sources that are responsible for the filter bubble: “A cynical impulse lies behind many of these kumbaya vibes. The same social media networks that helped build the bubbles are now being framed as the solution, with just a few surface tweaks.” That is especially the case with Faceboook. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, famously claimed after the election that it was a “crazy idea” that the fake news stories on Facebook could have influenced the election. That, despite the fact that a Pew study has shown that 62 percent of Americans get their news from social media, with of course the big player being Facebook. Facebook did subsequently take some measures, using third-party fact-checkers and giving users the ability to manually report fake news. More recently, Zuckerberg has significantly changed his tune, releasing a manifesto, Building Global Community, in which he claims for Facebook a central role in making the world better by exposing us to new ideas and different perspectives. It remains to be seen to what extent that means a change in how Facebook news is delivered.

Rejecting likeability

By Slowking - Own work, GFDL 1.2

Chimamanda Adichie by Slowking

The Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, has published a new novel, Dear Ijeawele, Or A Feminist Manifesto In Fifteen Suggestions. The book was written after a friend asked for advice about how to raise her newborn daughter to be a feminist. In an interview on NPR, Adichie talked about some of the 15 suggestions in the book.

On “feminism lite”, the idea of conditional female equality:

“It means raising a girl to believe that she is inferior to a man but that the man is expected to be good to her, that women are somehow naturally subordinate to men but men have to treat women well. And I find it dehumanizing to women because I think that surely we have to have something more than male benevolence as the basis for a woman’s well-being.”

On teaching difference:

“I think it’s important to just say to kids, look; the norm of our existence as human beings is difference. We’re not all the same, and it’s OK.”

On girls rejecting likeability:

“I think the way that a lot of girls are raised in so many parts of the world is that idea that you have to be likable. And likable means you have to kind of mold and shape what you do and say based on what you imagine the other person wants to hear. And I think instead, we should teach girls to just be themselves and that idea that you don’t have to be liked by everyone.”

That last point is an interesting take on a communication style associated by Adichie with women, but often seen as part and parcel of an indirect or implicit The idea is that in high context communications, often seen as characteristic of Asian cultures, one tends to use means beyond explicit language to guide what one says, using knowledge about the interlocutor’s social status, for example. Part of that process is taking into consideration the possible reception of what you say on your conversation partner, gauging that reception by observing body language and other indicators. In Western cultures generally, that kind of communication style is indeed more associated with women than men. Women are seen as being more observant and better listeners, making them more adept at sensing what the other person is feeling. The danger Adichie sees here for women is that using this approach to conversing leads women to adopt a persona which hides their real selves.

Adichie is not alone in this view, encouraging women not to see being “nice” as a guide to their behavior. The reaction to the “nasty woman” description of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump led both to a call for solidarity among women, but also to a celebration of the right of women to assert their own personalities.

Symbolic ethnicity or cultural appropriation?

The Ganley Sisters doing a brush dance

Last night I attended a Karneval Fest (German version of Mardi Gras celebration, also called Fasching), sponsored by one of the local German social clubs, the Deutscher Sport Club Richmond. It was an interesting experience, with good German food and drink, music, and dancing. As is the case in Germany, there were also quite a few humorous talks, all given in German, in fact, often at least in part, in Rheinland dialect, as the most famous celebrations happen in cities along the Rhine, especially in Cologne and Mainz. These talks are called Büttenreden, meaning talks delivered on a vat or barrel (in dialect a Bütt). Judging from the paucity of laughs at punch lines, I am pretty sure the majority of attendees did not understand the jokes. That didn’t seem to bother anyone – the use of German contributed to the atmosphere, in the same way that the costumes, decorations, and the music did. Most of the folks there were enjoying playing at being German for the evening, just as most of them probably had done at the Richmond Oktoberfest.

I had another experience of what is sometimes called symbolic ethnicity today at a concert given by the Irish-American group, Cherish the Ladies. As this was held at noon, an Irish breakfast was served, with bangers and soda bread (however, no black or white pudding). The group consists of women from the US, Ireland and Scotland, but the featured ethnicity was definitely Irish, the source of almost all the songs (often written by members of the group inspired by visits to Ireland) and the jokes (many at the expense of the Scots). Just as we will next month on St. Patrick’s Day, we were all honorary Irish for the occasion.

In the US, assuming for fun and celebration a different ethnicity can be a tricky proposition. No one is likely to complain if a non-German wears Lederhose and a Bavarian hat to an Oktoberfest celebration. But donning a Native American costume for Halloween is considered inappropriate, an example of “cultural appropriation”. This month Is Black History month in the US, but it’s not likely any White Americans will honor African-Americans by wearing blackface. It may come down to the context in which the ethnic borrowing takes place, and the kind of portrayal used. Representing German ethnicity by wearing an SS uniform would be problematic, as would enacting an Irish identity by dressing as a starving potato farmer. It’s also the case that historically disadvantaged and mistreated groups, like American Indians and African-Americans deserve to by treated with dignity and respect by the mainstream culture, which oppressed them. There have been too many distorted and negative portrayals of those groups in the US media and culture for it too be ok to perpetuate the stereotypes.

One of the interesting aspects of both the German and the Irish events this week-end was the incorporation of women’s domestic work in a humorous or musical way. One of the talks at the Karneval Fest was given by a self-professed “Putzfrau” (cleaning lady), who brought along her mop and bucket. Two Irish sisters, preceding Cherish the Ladies (the Ganleys), did a “brush dance”, using ordinary brooms as props around which and with which they danced. Perhaps such evocations of an underprivileged class (women in domestic roles) is permissible in this instance because of the fact that both Irish-Americans and German-Americans have become part of the cultural mainstream. We White Americans can laugh at our own, confident, at least for now, in the maintenance of the power structure that provides white privilege, even for the least prestigious among us.

Alternative facts

Interesting news story in the New York Times today, about the increased sales of George Orwell’s novel, 1984, in which a totalitarian state has absolute control over news dissemination, using “newspeak” to provide the view of reality the state wants to project, in the novel called “reality control”. Apparently, the surge in interest is related to the use by Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway of the term “alternative facts”, in defense of the false claim by White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, that Mr. Trump had attracted the “largest audience ever to witness an inauguration.” This first week of the Trump presidency has brought other “alternative facts”, such as that there were 3 to 5 million fraudulent votes in the presidential election, an explanation the President gives for losing the popular vote.

It might not seem all that important, whether there were more people at the inauguration this time compared to 2008, although clearly it does matter a great deal to Trump. The real problem is not with a president whose ego is so easily bruised. It’s that this refusal to acknowledge facts is likely to be something we will be seeing again, and in situations in which getting the facts right is vitally important (terrorist threats, trade negotiations, legislation). Having a government that puts out false information is clearly a threat to democracy. It risks putting the USA in the company of regimes, past and present, in which information from the government is routinely assumed by the citizens to be false. The media, mainstream and other, needs to be the safeguard, and we, as news consumers need to be more aware than ever of what sources to trust and which to doubt. It will be a sad state of affairs indeed if one of the sources we learn to mistrust is the White House.

Big changes

Here in Richmond, we saw amazing shifts in the weather last week, after 8-9 inches of snow (20-22 cm) on Saturday, the temperature dropped to 0° F. (-18° C.) early in the week, but then went up to 68° F. (20° C.) on Thursday. That big change, however, pales in comparison to the political change we will be experiencing in the US this week, with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. The two men could hardly be more different in temperament, bearing, and convictions. As many have commented, the big concern many have voiced in the Trump presidency is not only in the kinds of new laws which may emerge, but also in the example that he represents in terms of acceptance of people different from himself, in race, ethnicity, gender, country of origin, or ableness. In my classes on intercultural communication, we talk about the importance of having leaders who are tolerant and counter-act stereotyping. Given the high profile and influence of the US President, the danger is that the attitudes in evidence in the White House may shape the views of the young and impressionable. In a country on its way to becoming minority white, that development is troublesome.

A big change is coming to the press in the US as well. That was clearly in evidence in the Trump press conference last week, which was highly adversarial. As he has done in the past, Trump deflected questions on topics that put him in a bad light, while using props (in this case stacks of folders) to assert the reality of his positions. He is not someone who is bothered by fact-checking – he simply makes up his own facts and ignores stories which expose his twisting of the truth. He exemplifies our post-factual political world. This makes the job of the press during the Trump presidency both more difficult and more important. It was announced today that the White House press corps may be moved outside the White House, allowing for additional kinds of press to be represented, including bloggers and reality show hosts. We are likely in the next four years to be bombarded with greatly contrasting press reports on what’s going on in Washington, D.C., making it all the more important for US citizens to engage in critical assessment of information sources.

Last night my wife and I attended a concert by folk singer Greg Brown, a terrific song writer and story teller. He ended with a song about the transition, with the refrain “Trump you won’t get this” after listing the things important to him such as love, music, and family. It may be that many Americans will respond to developments out of Washington with a turn inward. That’s understandable, but it’s good to remember President Obama’s comments in his farewell speech last week, namely that in a democracy the most important position is not the leader of the government but the citizen.

As we grow older, it’s more difficult for a lot of us to accept big changes. Part of that may be physical, as Greg Brown sang in the concert last night in relation to bones:

Apps or paper

Looking back at 2016, the news story that overwhelms all others (at least in the USA) is the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States. The surprise and shock was universal, due to the near certainty in national polls that Hillary Clinton would be the winner. And, in fact, she was in the popular vote, by nearly 3 million votes. Maybe it should not have been such a surprise, given the similar upset win in the Brexit vote, which in showed the similar growing momentum of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments as evinced in the Trump campaign. That same movement is evident in other countries as well, such as Italy (upset loss of constitutional referendum), France (rise of LePen and the Front National), and Germany (electoral victories in regional elections by the “Alternative for Germany”). These movements have gained through electoral victories a kind of legitimacy that would have seemed impossible in the recent past. Along with that new political power comes a sense of empowerment to voice openly anti-immigrant, racist, and misogynous views – after all, if the President–elect has made similar pronouncements, doesn’t that put such talk and tweets into the main stream of public speech?

It will be interesting to see if Twitter – used in such a mean-spirited way by Trump –will lose any of its luster as an instrument of personal outreach and self-promotion through such an example. Of course the other significant influence on the election through technology was on the other side – Clinton’s email debacle. In point of fact, neither candidate can be considered digitally literate: Trump is said to have never used a computer, while Clinton is a notorious technophobe. Both camps, however, did include highly competent tech folks, who took care of promotion through social media and the use of data analysis to guide internal polling, advertising spending, and the get out the vote ground game. The conventional wisdom was that the Clinton campaign had in these areas an overwhelming advantage, with data analysis expertise much better than that on the other side. Since the Trump win, the media have been revising that view.

While the Clinton campaign’s decisions on where to spend time and money were based on models of likely voters based on voter-registration files, supplemented by tracking polls, the Trump camp used a different, more flexible strategy, based on evidence from local canvassers and early voter trends. According to Ed Kilgore, the Clinton approach “tends to create a more static view of the electorate and its views, and probably builds in a bias for thinking of campaigns as mechanical devices for hitting numerical ‘targets’ of communications with voters who are already in your column.” The Trump camp approach was more nimble and more technically up-to-date, at least as described in an interview on NPR by Brad Parscale, the data guru for Trump:

If you had an app on your iPhone or Android, you could go knock doors. And when you knock that door, you push a button on your iPhone – you talked and communicated with this person. It would immediately send back to our database, so now we know we don’t have to communicate with that person in another method, where Democrats still use pieces of paper that have to be scanned in and then databased later. So they weren’t getting real-time information on their door-knocking program. That’s a huge advantage for us into our ground game.

In the days leading up to the election, I was surprised that Trump was spending money and putting in time in “safe” Clinton states like Wisconsin and Michigan, which polls showed were securely Democratic, at least as far as the presidential race was concerned. But Parscale and his team were seeing shifts in local preferences and voting trends that weren’t being picked up by others. In the end, it was those Americans who were dismissed as unlikely to vote who made the difference. The next electoral go-around will see the application of lessons learned from 2016, not least of which will be in the area of technology: 1) It’s great to have a state-of-the-art data-driven model for guiding the direction of the campaign, but that model better be able to note and take into account subtle and last minute changes in trends and voter behavior; and 2) Speed in some instances is key, and apps feeding directly and instantly into a central data base in the cloud beat the pants off “pieces of paper”.

I’m in the process of writing a column for Language Learning & Technology on “big data” and learning analytics. In education, too, good decisions in technology use can have a profound influence on success. These days, that means increasingly looking to data-driven evidence of what works and what doesn’t.

Trump President “because of me”

Example of fake news spread by social media

Example of fake news spread by social media: Pope endorses Trump

An article today in the Washington Post features Paul Horner, who apparently makes a good living off of posting fake news on Facebook and other online services. Of the many posts, some appeared as news on Google, such as the Amish committing to vote for Trump. In the interview, he prided himself on the effect his fake stories had on the election:

My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up. I posted a fake ad on Craigslist.

The irony is that Horner asserts in the interview that he “hates Trump” – he assumed, he says, that his stories would be fact-checked, but clearly that didn’t happen. Since the election there have been a number of stories on the influence of fake news on the outcome, particular on Facebook, although similar comments could be make about Twitter. A BuzzFeed News analysis found that top fake election news stories actually generated more likes and total engagement than real news stories.

It’s not just that people are misled by fake news, it’s also the case that the skepticism that fake news has engendered has led to distrust of news media in general, something that was quite apparent in the presidential election campaign, as discussed in an article in the New York Times today. As President Obama commented in a press conference in Berlin yesterday, the high volume of “active misinformation” makes it difficult to know what to believe, and, in the long run, can endanger democracy.

Many folks were shocked by the election of Donald Trump, in part because of social media reinforcing their already-held convictions that Hillary Clinton was certain to win. The “echo chamber” of the Internet seems to be particularly strong when it comes to politics, feeding user stories that online clicking and browsing habits and algorithmic analysis has indicated you want to see. A story in the Wall Street Journal, “Blue Feed, Red Feed” shows how different the information provided was for those Facebook users identified as Democrat (blue) from those profiled as Republican (red).

It seem that it’s more important than ever for us all to become informed and critical consumers of news and to try to seek out ways to break out of our personal bubbles and get different perspectives on what’s happening in our world. It’s also important to be engaged enough in what’s going on to vote in elections. A story today in the local media here in Richmond reported that, ironically, 5 of the 12 students arrested last week for blocking a highway while protesting the election of Trump had not voted.

The perils of digital illiteracy

Photo: REUTERS

Photo: REUTERS

The strange twists of the US presidential campaign continue. On Friday, the FBI notified members of the US Congress that the investigation into Hilary Clinton’s emails would be re-opened. It seems that the Bureau found through an unrelated investigation emails on a laptop which may be related to the Clinton case. In another bizarre twist, that laptop was shared between Clinton top aide Huma Abedin and her estranged husband, notorious sexting enthusiast Anthony Weiner. The incident raises a host of questions, beginning with why the FBI would release this information 11 days before the election, therefore at a time when such a bombshell could affect the outcome. For me, one of the intriguing questions is why would the couple have been sharing a laptop. These are well-to-do folks who are likely heavy users of the Internet and social media. Couldn’t they manage to have their own laptops? Given Weiner’s unsavory use of online media, wouldn’t he want to keep his partner from having access to his messages? And given his history, wouldn’t she want that as well? It could be that, although using the same laptop, they may have had separate user accounts, requiring individual logins – but that is not really a foolproof way to secure privacy.

There has been speculation that Abedin may have had Clinton emails on the shared laptop because Clinton wanted her aide to print them for her to read. A number of media reports have indicated that Clinton is far from tech savvy. In some cases, it may be that Clinton has asserted ignorance of tech in order to protect herself, for example, when she took literally the “wiping” of her hard drive. But other stories seem to indicate a woeful ignorance of tech-related issues. Abedin apparently had a quite difficult time, for example, getting Clinton to understand how to use the telephone for faxing. Printing emails is a bad idea on a number of counts, not least of which is the possibility of having print copies of sensitive information lying around. In fact, the whole email controversy which has so dogged her campaign has been execrated by Clinton’s failure to explain clearly how her email was set up. That failure may derive from Clinton’s tendency to want to keep her affairs private, but it’s even more likely to be related to her not taking the time and effort to understand.

When I teach courses in intercultural communication, one of the reasons I list for having students become sensitive to issues of how to communicate effectively with representatives of other cultures is that we want potential leaders to have those skills and knowledge. I would argue as well that we want our future leaders to be digitally literate – that’s important not only so as to avoid snafus like the Clinton email problem, but also to serve as role models. President Obama participated in a coding workshop in which he learned to write JavaScript. We probably don’t want the US President spending a lot of time writing code, but knowing what’s involved in that process can lead to more informed decisions involving technology.

English and the EU

Theresa May

Theresa May: No Brexit negotiations in French

One of the interesting questions surrounding Brexit is the status of English in the EU. This was raised in an article in the Guardian yesterday in which it was reported that the EU’s chief negotiator has indicated that he expects the talks to be conducted in French. The British Prime Minister, Theresa May has said that will not be the case. Just in case, the Guardian has published a tongue-in-cheek guide for the PM, Le Brexit: a linguistic guide for Theresa May. Included are French translations of such helpful phrases as “Brexit means Brexit. How many times do I have to say it?” or “Can I interest you in a some tea and biscuits? I also have some very innovative jam to sell you”. The latter phrase is in connection with a recent tweet from the British trade secretary, “France needs high quality, innovative British jams & marmalades”.

The unhappiness in the EU over Brexit may be reflected in the recent comment by Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, that he will no longer speak English in public. According to the article, “Speculation that English would be abandoned by Brussels emerged on the day after the referendum when the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is fluent in English, conducted his Brexit press conference in French”.

With Great Britain leaving, Ireland is left as the last native English speaking EU member. Irish Gaelic is one of the 23 official EU languages, so if English were to go, Irish officials may need to brush up on their likely rusty Gaelic (spoken as a mother tongue by less than 1% of the population). In reality, it’s not likely that there will be a change in the status of English, as it is widely used as the lingua franca in the EU, as it is elsewhere in the world.

As it happens, I am currently in London, having come over for a conference at the Open University on “MOOCs, informal language learning, and mobility”. Brexit was something which came up frequently, as a number of the projects presented at the conference were funded by the EU. For language educators, Brexit is unfortunate not just due to possible loss of project funding, but also for the isolationist message it sends. Of course, the kind of nationalism Brexit represents is not just to be seen in Britain, it’s been on full display in the US presidential campaign. I’ve had frequent pub conversations in the last few days about the election, with most Brits expressing incredulity over Trump and how far he’s gotten. Yesterday I was asked in separate conversations the same question: “Aren’t you ashamed?” Being in this situation as a US citizen abroad takes me back to the conversations I had in Europe during the Vietnam war and the war in Iraq – like the Trump candidacy, events that don’t show the US in the best light. However, during one conversation last night, “Tangled up in blue” played over the pub’s sound system, so I was able to say, there are things about the US I’m proud of, like our newly minted Nobel Laureate in literature!

Locker room talk

Locker_RoomThe infamous 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording of Donald Trump on the set of a soap opera in which he boasted about using his celebrity to fondle and abuse women has been dismissed by Trump and his supporters as “locker room talk”. What does that mean? Apparently, the idea is that this is how men talk when they are among themselves, as they would be in a locker room, with the implication that this is meaningless boasting, not to be taken seriously. Many professional athletes, who have spent a lot of time talking in locker rooms, have expressed their disagreement with that perspective, claiming that comments about women are not the normal subject matter of the banter.

“Locker room talk” is apparently not an easy expression to translate into other languages, being a term with a lot of US cultural baggage. That was made clear to me as I as watching the German news recently, in which locker room was translated as “Umkleidekabine”, meaning a changing cubicle, normally a place where one would be by oneself, not a locale for communicating with others. “Locker room talk” was variously translated as “Männergerede [men talk] in der Umkleidekabine” or “Gequatsche, wie Männer es in der Umkleidekabine machen” [nonsensical talk, as men tend to use in changing booths]. What doesn’t come through in the German versions is the cultural connotation of male locker room culture. I’m curious about how locker room talk is being translated into other languages. Another term in that regard is “quip”, which is how vice-presidential candidate Pence described Trump’s comment during the last debate, that Clinton will be “in jail” if he is elected.

Two bodies at war

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

From the Atlantic article by James Fallows

It’s likely that the debate tonight will have little to do with substance, but rather with how the two candidates are perceived by viewers, which may not be determined to any great extent by the content of their answers or the explanations of policy differences. Rather, it is likely to come down to non-verbal communication, namely body language, gestures, and paralanguage, i.e., the tone of voice and speech characteristics. In a recent piece in the Atlantic, James Fallows discusses this aspect of the encounter. In reference to Donald Trump’s body language, he quotes noted anthropologist, Jane Goodall, that “the performances of Donald Trump remind me of male chimpanzees and their dominance rituals”. Indeed, his imposing physical stature on the stage at the Republican primary debates did seem to overpower the other candidates. The exception was Carly Fiorina, who was alone in standing up to him in the early debates. This time around, he will be facing no men but a woman who is unlikely to be cowed by the kind of chest-beating and belittlement he bestowed on his male competitors. As Fallows comments, “The potential first woman president of the United States, who is often lectured about being too ‘strident’ or ‘shrill,’ is up against a caricature of the alpha male, for whom stridency is one more mark of strength.”

Fallows points out, correctly, I believe, that one of the keys to his success so far has been the simplicity of his messaging and the language used. After the first debate, the transcript of Trump’s remarks was run through the Flesch-Kinkaid analyzer of reading difficulty, which indicated they matched a fourth-grade reading level. In politics (in the US), that’s a good thing. If it’s spoken language, the simpler, the better, making it more likely that listeners will both understand and retain what is said. According to the article, and experts on body language Fallows consulted, Trump’s facial expressions tend to have a similar narrow range. Jack Brown of BodyLanguageSuccess.com, commented that Trump’s range of expressions was considerably less that that of most people, with an interesting corollary:

The reason most people betray themselves through body language—we’re generally poor liars; others can tell when we’re faking a smile—is that our face, hands, and torso do more things involuntarily than most of us are aware of or can control… The payoff in this understanding of Trump’s body language, according to Brown, is that it explains why he can so often say, with full conviction, things that just aren’t true.

Fallows points out that in the first US presidential debate in 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy, those who heard the debate on radio thought it was a draw, but those who watched it on TV gave the win to the elegant, relaxed Kennedy over the sweating, shifty-eyed Nixon. Today, with high-definition TV, we will be able to spot the possible beads of sweat before even a candidate notices. Fallows says that, “the most accurate way to predict reaction to a debate is to watch it with the sound turned off.” If the battle of words becomes too much to bear, I might just try out his advice tonight.

Update: 9/28/2016
Yes, the non-verbal side of the debate was fascinating, especially in the last hour, in which Trump get increasingly feisty and defensive and Clinton began to smile more and more. There was one segment that proved particularly memorable, after Trump had engaged in one of his rambling responses, ending with, “I have much better judgement than she has. There’s no question about that. I also have a much better temperament than she does.” Clinton’s response: “Whoo. Ok.” and a broad smile and several shakes of her shoulders:

debate

The shoulder shimmy seemed a perfect indicator of how the debate went – Clinton delighted in Trump’s difficulty in presenting himself as “presidential”, namely thoughtful, well-spoken, and serious.

Coddled millennials?

whatAs universities in the US have started up a new academic year, there continues to be a good deal of discussion about the degree to which college students need to be protected from speech and actions which may offend. A recent article in the NY Times, “Campuses Cautiously Train Freshmen Against Subtle Insults,” outlines the efforts at a number of US universities to provide orientation to new students, with concepts such as “microaggressions,” comments which unintentionally express prejudicial views or stereotype others. Examples given from the article, taken from an orientation at Clark University, include: “Don’t ask an Asian student you don’t know for help on your math homework or randomly ask a black student if he plays basketball. Both questions make assumptions based on stereotypes. And don’t say ‘you guys.’ It could be interpreted as leaving out women.” The orientation at Clark mentions as well “environmental microaggressions” with the example given: all pictures of professors in the Chemistry Department lecture hall are of white men, causing non-whites and women to feel marginalized. The article continues:

A nonverbal microaggression could be when a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Latino person approaches. Another subset of microaggression is known as the microinvalidation, which includes comments suggesting that race plays a minor role in life’s outcomes, like “Everyone can succeed in this society if they work hard enough.”

Also discussed in the article are other terms frequently heard in this context, namely “safe spaces”, where marginalized students can come together on campus, and “trigger warnings”, advance notice given to students of a topic about to be raised in a class which might upset some students. The orientations follow a series of incidents of racist speech and behavior at campuses last year, including the University of Missouri and the University of Wisconsin.

The Dean of Students at the University of Chicago provided a quite different perspective from Clark and other universities striving to limit students’ exposure to potentially harmful speech. In a letter to incoming students, he wrote: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” This is a view which has been aired by others as well, particularly alumni and conservative commentators, some of whom are cited in the article. They view the idea of safe spaces and trigger warnings as coddling students, ill-preparing them for the real world, and cutting off free speech on campus.

A compelling counter-argument has been supplied by a Black graduate of the University of Chicago, writing on Vox, “I’m a black U Chicago graduate. Safe spaces got me through college,” in which he describes how important the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs was throughout his college career, providing a respite from the frequent discrimination he encountered. He wrote that he used this safe space “not to ‘hide from ideas and perspectives at odds with my own,’ but to heal from relentless hate and ignorance, to hear and be heard. My ideas were always challenged, but never my humanity. I mattered.” There is an interesting interview with him on NPR’s On the Media. Recently 150 U of Chicago professors signed an open letter in opposition to the welcoming letter from the Dean of Students.

Burkinis & European integration

burkini_banThe highest administration French court (Conseil d’Etat) today overturned the ban imposed on some French beaches and swimming areas of women wearing a “burkini”, a swimming suit that covers the body and includes a hood. The ban has led to the strange scene in the photo above, of four policemen at a beach in Nice forcing a Muslim woman to remove some of her clothing. The ban follows other measures in France that have sought to use the tradition of laïcité, the strict separation of church and state, to prevent the wearing of head scarves in schools or the burka when driving. The measures have been widely seen as discriminatory, as they target Muslim women. If integration of immigrants is socially desirable, forcing Muslims either to reject traditions and religious beliefs or to stay away from public spaces does not seem to be an effective strategy.

There has been discussion recently in Germany as well of passing regulations aimed at how Muslim women dress, with suggestions from the state interior ministers representing the conservative CDU to ban the wearing of the burka and the niqab in public places including schools, government offices, court rooms and in traffic. A recent poll in Germany found that 81% of respondents favored simply banning the burka in Germany. It was exactly a year ago that Chancellor Merkel at a press conference famously commented “Wir schaffen das” (We will get it done) in the context of integration of the flood of refugees coming to Germany. At the time, she received considerable praise for her welcoming attitude, both within and outside of Germany. That positive assessment has changed considerably in recent months, following the attacks on women by foreigners New Year’s Eve in Cologne and other cities, and especially by a series of small-scale terrorist attacks in several German cities this July. It may even be that Merkel will be in trouble in the national election a year from now.

In a report from NPR today, the changing attitude in Germany was discussed in the context of a small town in Germany (population 280) struggling to integrate over 80 immigrants. The story illustrates that the difficulties of integration go well beyond appearance and language. Some of the immigrants took swimming lessons, but the locals were upset that they didn’t stay in their lanes – public behavior in Germany insists on Ordnung (order), meaning in a pool context, you stay in your lane. The rumor mill soon turned that behavior into intentional harassment of the Germans by the immigrants – it was not possible for the locals to accept that others would not have the same appreciation of what they likely saw as a universal human value, expressed through the proverb Ordnung muss sein (There must be order).

Ugly Americans?

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Ryan Lochte and fellow US swimmers in Rio

Today Olympic gold medal winner Ryan Lochte lost the major endorsement deals he had with a variety of companies. This comes in the wake of his behavior in Rio after a night of celebratory drinking. He claimed that he and other US swimmers out with him had been robbed at gunpoint at a gas station by what seemed to be Brazilian police officers. It turns out the reality was quite different, namely that the group had trashed a restroom at the station and had been confronted to pay for the damages. Lochte apparently thought his story would be believed, given perceptions of rampant crime and corruption in Rio, and the fact that the claim was coming from a celebrated athlete from the US. Brazilians were understandably upset by the incident, viewing it as playing on negative stereotypes of Brazilians versus the assumed honesty of white Americans. In the US, too, Lochte has been seen as a classic example of “ugly American” behavior, US citizens acting in dramatically insensitive ways when abroad. On the other hand, Breitbart has defended Lochte against this view.

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 10.30.57 PMThe Lochte story struck me in particular tonight, as, on the evening news, it was followed by a story on the “White Helmets”, volunteers in Syria who risk their lives to go out in Syrian cities after bombing strikes to dig through the rubble to rescue survivors. They do this dangerous work with no expectations of reward or recognition. Heroic Syrians versus ugly Americans? This is the group that rescued 5-year old Omran Daqneesh, the boy who was pulled bloodied and stunned from the ruins of Aleppo and has become a symbol of the violence in Syria. It makes you not feel too bad for Lochte losing all his sponsorship money.

From pose to reality

Source: PNAS Credit: Vacharkulksemsuk et al.

Source: PNAS / Credit: Vacharkulksemsuk et al.

There were 2 recent episodes in the NPR Invisibilia series that tell some interesting stories illustrating the power of transforming oneself through outward actions – who we hang out with, what our body language is, or how we dress. The first episode, “Outside in” has this as its starting point: “There’s a popular idea out there that you can change from the outside in. Power posing. Fake it ’til you make it. If you just assume the pose, inner transformation will follow.” One story shows how acting like a celebrity in order to ridicule US celebrity culture (having a “posse” following you around, driving up to a venue in a limousine, etc.) actually created the desire for fame. Another recounted a story from Rwanda in which an inexperienced female university debate team were inspired by Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power posing, eventually gaining enough confidence to overcome both social prejudice against women in that role and their own uncertainty whether they belonged in the competition.

The second episode is entitled “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes”. One of the stories is a portrait of a famous tailor, Marin Greenfield, who makes clothes for US presidents and many celebrities. According to the story, Greenfield “learned how to sew when the SS put him to work in the tailor shop at Auschwitz, where he did an amazing thing. After he ripped the shirt of a Nazi officer, and took a beating for it, Martin decided to take the shirt for himself. No other prisoners had a shirt under their uniform but he kept his, throughout the rest of the war. We explore whether this one shirt saved his life by making him feel more like himself.” It’s an amazing story. An especially dramatic episode was the first time he wore the shirt, going out of the wrong door from the prisoner barracks at Auschwitz – whether it was the shirt or the new confidence or new sense identity it brought, the Nazi guards surprisingly did not reprimand or punish him, just let him walk by. Another story talks about the power of sunglasses to transform behavior and attitudes.

The episodes remained me of a story from another NPR series, Shots, entitled “To Catch Someone On Tinder, Stretch Your Arms Wide”, about how body language in photos on dating sites make a big difference. It’s not just a question of attractiveness, but rather body language: expansive body posture leads (in the photo above, left) to better dating responses than the contracted posture (right). According to a study out of the University of California – Berkeley from Tanya Vacharkulksemsuk, the open, expansive posture conveys power and openness: “The information packing in that nonverbal behavior is social dominance, and where that person stands in a hierarchy,” The presumption, according to the article, is that “the person high in the pecking order is sexy. Alphas are scarce and in demand.” It sounds like we haven’t evolved much from caveman days, especially in our nonverbal behavior patterns.