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.

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.

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.

Inappropriate arrogance?

Megan Rapinoe celebrating

Alex Morgan celebrating

The US Women’s National Team won the FIFA World Cup in soccer (football). They have had a very successful tournament, not having lost a single game. But they have been controversial as well. That started even before the tournament started, as the team sued the US Soccer Federation over a significant discrepancy in pay (and in other areas) between the men’s and women’s national squads. The controversy continued after the US team beat Thailand in their opening game 13 to 0, being accused of bad sportsmanship for running up the score and for overly enthusiastic goal celebrations. There have also been comments off the field that have been in the news, particularly star Megan Rabinoe’s emphatic statement of disinterest in visiting the White House, should the team win the World Cup.

It’s particularly the nonverbal behaviors around the goal celebrations that have aroused controversy. In part, the criticism is a natural result of the US being ranked number 1. On the other hand, there has been body language from the players’ celebrations that has been interpreted as arrogant and even culturally insensitive. That has been the case for Rapinoe’s power pose with outstretched arms and especially for Alex Morgan’s tea-drinking mockery. The latter came in the match against England, where tea time is an essential cultural practice. Such body language has been criticized for disrespect of opponents.

The US players have responded, especially comparing their behavior and public reaction to that of male players. Morgan commented,

I feel that there is some sort of double standard for females in sports, to feel like we have to be humble in our successes and have to celebrate, but not too much or in a limited fashion. You see men celebrating all over the world in big tournaments, grabbing their sacks or whatever it is. And when I look at sipping a cup of tea, I am a little taken aback by the criticism.

As in other areas, there does indeed seem to be a revealing discrepancy when it comes to what’s acceptable in the behavior of men and women. It’s not just lower pay and lower respect, there is also a higher bar of expected appropriate nonverbal behavior among female athletes – all evidence of the power gulf between men and women resulting in gender discrimination. That extends well beyond the US.

Another undercurrent of criticism of US players celebrations derives from an interpretation of the player’s behavior as instantiations of US feelings of superiority and national arrogance. While that may frequently be on display when it comes to US behavior at home and abroad (maybe too loud and frequent U-S-A, U-S-A, U-S-A chants?), I think it’s misplaced in this case. There has been so much pressure on the US team due to their ranking and to the public attention to key players that I judge the celebrations as understandable outward manifestations of letting off steam.

Interesting that Ellen White, star of the English National Team herself used the tea-drinking gesture after scoring a goal in the 3rd place game against Sweden (which was later disallowed due to a hand ball). That was clearly a response to Alex Morgan, intended to signal English pride. BTW, in terms of exhibits of patriotism, the Dutch team offers a wonderful model. All dressed in national orange color and vocally very supportive of their team, the Dutch fans have been at the same time the most popular among the national fan groups in France, where the tournament took place. Although devoted to their team, they have not gone overboard in demonstrations of patriotism and have easily gotten along with fans from other countries. They demonstrate that you can be proud of your country but respectful of other cultures at the same time.

Angry White Men

I was recently at a conference at the University of Oregon and while waiting to give my presentation at the Student Center there, I walked around and noticed a “Men’s Center” located on the same floor. The existence of a student organization dedicated to men was in itself surprising to me – it seemed to me the only thing more superfluous than a “men’s center” (which after all equates to US society as a whole) would be a “white, heterosexual men’s center”. Surprising to me as well were the posters and messages on the door and outside the walls of the Men’s Center, which voiced support for all kinds of marginalized, disadvantaged, or traumatized groups: Native Americans, LGBTQ+, the disabled community, African-Americans, non-gender-binary individuals, and rape victims. Nothing in support of men’s rights.

It turns out that this Center was established in 2002, according to the university website, to address issues of male behavior in general in the US, and specifically at the University of Oregon (UO):

The development of the Center occurred in response to concerns raised by UO staff, faculty and students about men on campus…nationally, college-aged men were having serious problems: committing over 70% of the major conduct violations, engaging in sexism, sexual assault, and other bias incidences. Additionally, men are responsible for the overwhelming majority of shootings that have occurred on college and high school campuses nationwide…UO staff, faculty and students recognized that UO men were in crisis and wanted to take action. These pioneers decided to open the UOMC, the first center of its kind in the USA.

The mission of the Center, according to their website, is to fight “toxic masculinity”, defined as “the current configuration of practice that legitimizes men’s dominant position in society and justifies the subordination of women”. So the Center is not at all about supporting “angry white men” upset at the prospect of losing their dominant place in US society. The book by Michael Kimmel, Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, documents that perspective through interviews with men from around the US. Kimmel introduces the idea of aggrieved entitlement in the book, namely that for white men social equality means not equality, but a loss of social position. They are aggrieved because they expect life to be the same as it was for their fathers or grandfathers. The book was published in 2013 and republished recently, as the election of Donald Trump has shown that those grievances have been widespread enough in the US to lead to the election of someone who rejects social equality and the declining role of white males in US society. The slogan of “taking back our country” represents well this idea of going back to a time when white males had undisputed primacy in society.

Kimmel has a new book, Healing From Hate: How Young Men Get Into And Out Of Violent Extremism, in which he looks at how aggrieved white males have become neo-nazis, extreme right-wing skinheads, or adherents to the Alt-Right in the US, Sweden, and Germany. He documents in the book stories of men growing up isolated or abused and who turn to right-wing extremism for social acceptance. The book also shows that such men can go in different, healthier directions if they can find fulfilling relationships with women or within other groups. In fact, small numbers of men who have not had successful relationships with women have turned to aggrieved violence. These are the so-called Incels, short for “involuntary celibates,” a largely online group who have been in the news in recent years through violent attacks as retaliation against women. It may be that a group such as available through the University of Oregon’s Men’s Center, which sponsors weekly discussion groups, can be helpful in showing young white men another avenue towards social acceptance and group solidarity.

Monuments contextualized

The American Civil War Center

A new museum has opened up recently here in Richmond, Virginia, namely the American Civil War Museum, located in the former Tredegar Iron Works, along the James River. The new institution is a merger of two museums: the long-standing Museum of the Confederacy and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. The museum is striking, dug into the Tredegar hillside, with a glass curtain as an entrance.  Upon entering, visitors pass through ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works before reaching the museum proper. The take on the Civil War is equally striking. Rather than serving as a shrine to the Confederacy, as one might expect in the city that served as the capital of that break-away entity, the museum strives to tell a balanced and broad history, one that includes narratives from the variety of participants: Union and Confederate, soldiers and civilians, women and children, enslaved and free African-Americans. There is no attempt to provide a single perspective, but rather to mirror the diversity of experiences. According to the architect responsible, Damon Pearson, that idea is built into the building design: “The exhibits themselves are meant to be fragmented. We tried to reinforce that with the architecture. You’re meant to see this event from as many different viewpoints as possible. And you’re seeing all of them simultaneously” (interview in the Richmond Times Dispatch).

One of the crucial aspects of the museum artifacts is that they are shown and documented in context, with rich information on their provenance and on the people involved. That’s in contrast to the famous (or infamous) Confederate statues along Monument Avenue in Richmond (of Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and other Confederate war heroes), which are shown larger-than-life, sitting defiantly on their horses, inviting the admiration of viewers who must assume, given the statues’ size and prominence (on a famous avenue), that these were indeed great historical figures. Of course, the reality is more nuanced, as these were the men fighting to maintain slavery, the real issue of the Civil War, as the new museum makes clear. What particularly is missing in viewing the Monument Avenue statues in their current stand-alone status (a small name plaque provides basic info), is the fact that they were built during the Jim Crow era, as a manifestation of the belief in the Confederate “lost cause” narrative, i.e. that the Confederacy was a just cause and that the South was in its rights to secede (and to maintain slavery). In other words, the statues are a monument to white supremacy. Without the historical context, that is not immediately evident. Monuments have such a profound influence on the narratives that shape personal and group identities that we need to have as much historical context as possible to provide story lines that accord with historical reality.

One of the ways that context could be provided in viewing historical or culturally significant sites would be to use mobile technology through augmented reality. A mobile app could provide an overlay of information when a viewer points a mobile phone at a statue or other artifact. That is being done today often for tourists with apps such as wikitude, which uses image recognition technologies that allow for viewed images (through the phone’s camera) to trigger the display of localized information. That approach is being used today in Miami to provide context about climate change to murals in the Wynwood district of the city, famous for its many murals.

That might offer as well be an option in the reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris after the horrific fire last month. There have been a variety of fanciful suggestions for re-imagining the roof and spire of the Cathedral. However, the French Senate recently passed a resolution to rebuild the Cathedral the way it was, to the extent possible. The creative re-workings of the Cathedral, if not present in reality, could be available virtually through an augmented reality overlay. That could include not only striking visualizations of Notre Dame’s roof (the spire as a beacon into space) but also historical info, such as the role of Victor Hugo’s novel (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in exerting public pressure to preserve the valuable cultural heritage the Cathedral represents.

Black faces in Virginia

Freeman Gosden, in blackface, as Amos

The current crisis in the government of Virginia is full of ironies. The three men at the top, all Democrats, are each facing scandals and calls to resign. That started with Governor Ralph Northam last week when a picture from a yearbook surfaced showing a man in blackface and another in KKK garb (Klu Klux Khan, the violent white supremacist group) on his personal page. Northam first admitted he was one of the men in the picture, then the next day denied it, but did admit to wearing blackface at a dance contest, where he imitated Michael Jackson. Should Northam resign, he would be replaced by Justin Fairfax, the Lieutenant Governor, who is African-American. But Fairfax faces 2 allegations of sexual assault. Third in line is Attorney General Mark Herring, who admitted that he too wore blackface as a student at the University of Virginia. Should all three be forced out of office, the governorship would go to…a Republican! House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox. That fact has led to some recent support for Northam to remain Governor, after near universal calls for him to resign early on, including from both local and national Democrats.

The ironies abound. Justin Fairfax, just over a week ago, stepped aside from his usual duty as Lt. Governor, of chairing the State Senate, in protest over the celebration of the birthday of Confederate Leader, Robert E. Lee. Richmond, the Capital of Virginia, was of course also the Capital of the Confederacy, the defender of slavery. Richmond is also the home of Freeman Gosden, Bojangles Robinson, and Charles Gilpin. Gosden, a white man from a socially prominent family whose members had included high-ranking officers in the Confederate Army, played a black man, “Amos”, in the Amos n’ Andy radio show of the 1920’s and 1930’s, which was hugely popular. He voiced Amos, as well as other Black characters such as Kingfish and Lightnin’ in an imitation of Black Vernacular English. He became very wealthy, moved to California and played golf frequently with the President of the United States (Eisenhower). The other two Richmond-born entertainers, Charles Gilpin, a famous actor, and Bojangles, a celebrated dancer/singer, both Black, each died penniless and forgotten. Gilpin became well-know from playing the title role in Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones, but his career when downhill when he insisted that O’Neill remove the word “nigger” from the play. Bojangles paired with Shirley Temple in many popular films but died so impoverished that Ed Sullivan stepped in to pay for his funeral. A statue of Bojangles was erected in Richmond in the 1970’s

Statue of Bojangles in Richmond, VA,

but it pales in comparison to the huge statues of Confederate heroes along Monument Avenue. Gilpin also is remembered in Richmond through Gilpin Court, the oldest and largest public housing project in the city, but notorious today for its high rate of crime and decrepit condition.

The supreme irony may be that while the three Virginia politicians are facing strong pressure to resign, at the federal level, the President of the United States faces no such pressures, despite having been implicated in many instances of racial insensitivity, misogynistic actions, and voiced support for white supremacists.

Learning from history, or ignoring it

Lynching Memorial in Montgomery

Holocaust Memorial in Berlin

History is not an abstraction: past events shape our culture and our view of others. That’s why it’s so important to get history right. Made-up history can be as damaging as made-up science.

An episode from the NPR radio show On the Media, The worst thing we’ve ever done, that was broadcast this week (originally aired in June) seemed quite appropriate for this time of the end of the year, when we take stock of the past. It was an interesting comparison of how a shameful period in a nation’s history has been viewed by later generations. The contrast was between Germany and its Nazi period and the USA and slavery. The report pointed to how many public reminders there are in Germany of the Holocaust and how it is extensively present in education and in the public sphere generally. An interview with Peter Weissenburger, journalist for the Berlin taz was enlightening in that regard. He talked about how ubiquitous the presence of the Nazi past was for him growing up, in school and in the media. For him, German identity is defined by Nazi Germany, something that can never be “resolved” so that it belongs to the past: “There’s no point in which we can say, ‘ok, we’re done now.’ This is always going to be what happened.”

In contrast, the period of slavery and the following violence and discrimination against African-Americans is far less known in the US, or acknowledged as a problematic period in US history. According to the report, many US citizens believe that in fact slaves were treated well and are skeptical that lynchings took place (despite numerous photos and other documentation). Indeed, there are monuments to well-known slave holders and heroes of the Confederacy, which defended the institution of slavery. The report discusses initiatives to bring to the public’s attention the crimes and injustice associated with slavery and its aftermath. In Montgomery, Alabama, the first capital of the Confederacy, there are two monuments to that past, the Legacy Museum, and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. As seen from the photos above, the massive hanging steel columns in the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, each dedicated to a lynching in a particular US county, is impressive and haunting, similar to the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. However, the project takes a step further, in an effort to bring home to local communities the reality of racist actions in the past. It is inviting communities where lynchings occurred to claim their histories in a tangible way:

The memorial is more than a static monument. In the six-acre park surrounding the memorial is a field of identical monuments, waiting to be claimed and installed in the counties they represent. Over time, the national memorial will serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not. (Monument’s web site).

The current embrace by some of “alternative facts” has led to the questioning of widely accepted scientific findings, in areas such as climate change and pollution. Pseudo-science is used to justify political views and further entrenched economic interests. History too can be retold, refused, or re-focused to accommodate political or ideological positions. The Nazis used pseudo-history to legitimize their power, presenting themselves as continuing ancient heroic Germanic traditions. Just as we need to learn from history, so as not to repeat it, we need to recognize how history and science can be distorted to support group interests.

Sensitivity training at Starbucks

African-American being arrested at Starbucks

This week I was on the way to a conference in Illinois and changed planes in Chicago. I had time, so I stopped by Starbucks for some caffeine. I asked the barrister whether she shouldn’t be at sensitivity training. She laughed and said she thought it was a big joke. The executives of Starbucks certainly didn’t see it as a joke. This was May 29th, the day when most Starbucks (except apparently the airport outlets) closed down for sensitivity training. The employees were asked (on a voluntary basis) to take part in a workshop on countering bias and prejudicial treatment of customers based on their race or ethnicity. This developed out of an incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in which 2 black men waiting there to meet others for a business meeting were arrested. The rationale given by the manager was that the two men had not ordered anything and thus were not allowed, according to Starbucks rules, to be there. Many people have pointed out that if the men had been white, the manager likely would have not called the police.

Following the uproar over the incident, Starbucks announced the training session, aimed at showing employees their unconscious bias, with the hope that doing so would result in more equitable treatment of all customers. Part of that training was viewing a powerful 7-minute video by documentary maker Stanley Nelson, which included moving statements of personal experiences:

As good as that short video is, its effect, as well as that of the rest of the 4-hour training may expose Starbucks employees to the reality of inequitable treatment of African-Americans in public spaces, but there’s no guarantee that such knowledge will change behaviors. Sherrilyn Ifill comments in the film that when Whites in the US encounter Blacks they use “the shortcut that’s been wired into your brain because of the society we live in that tells you when you see me that you should be nervous”. Such prejudicial views may not be something we are aware of – it is likely to be a case of unconscious or hidden bias.

This is a topic that has been studied in sociology and social psychology as well as discussed in public forums. The Project Implicit provides a popular online test, the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to reveal “your implicit associations about race, gender, sexual orientation, and other topics”. However, being aware of one’s implicit biases may not be the key to changing behaviors. A recent critique of the IAT by Olivia Goldhill in Quartz points out that “the implicit bias narrative lets us off the hook. We can’t feel as guilty or be held to account for racism that isn’t conscious. The forgiving notion of unconscious prejudice has become the go-to explanation for all manner of discrimination”. The article cites studies that have “found that reducing implicit bias did not affect behavior”.

The kind of training and workshops being conducted by Starbucks have been used by many other companies and organizations in recent years. It is certainly well-intentioned, but it may not be the best approach to changing people’s hearts and minds. Goldhill points to what may be more effective:

Hiring goals, diverse senior management, and penalties for those who repeatedly exhibit prejudiced behavior—rather than a soft talk about how we’re all biased but it’s not really our fault because it’s unconscious—would be effective alternative strategies for those serious about changing institutional inequality.

In the US – and we’re not alone in this – we’ve made slow progress in bringing more diversity to upper levels of management and government. Seeing more individuals who are not white males in high social, educational, and other institutional roles may over time shift views. However, it is no easy task to change systems that benefit those holding privileged positions and thus have the power to hire and fire.

Chinese prom dress inappropriate?

Keziah Daum in her prom dress

The issue of cultural appropriation often comes up in the US in relation to Halloween. Costumes based on Native American traditions, for example, are considered to be inappropriate, unless one has that particular ethnic background. Especially problematic is the use of blackface by whites. This month cultural appropriation was in the news in reference to a prom dress, an important dance and social event for North American high schoolers in their last 2 years of school. An 18-year old from Utah wore a Chinese dress to the prom and posted pictures on Twitter.

This caused a great deal of tweeting about whether it was appropriate for a white American to wear this traditional Chinese dress, known as a cheongsam (from Cantonese), also known as qipao (from Mandarin Chinese):

Others on Twitter pointed out that dresses, fashions, and other items associated with particular cultures are “appropriated” all the time with no criticism:

This is in fact an issue in which opinions may vary significantly and where sensitivity is called for, as well as looking at contexts and intentionality. I wrote about that in a post last year:

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.

A related story in the news recently is about a quite different case of cultural borrowing, namely a white woman passing for black, Rachel Dolezal, who taught in the Africana Studies program at Eastern Washington University and even became head of a local chapter of the NCAAP. She has now been charged with welfare fraud, after authorities in Washington State learned that she had income from a variety of sources, while receiving public assistance from the state.

Leaders of state and language

A recent article in the NY Times discussed the influence that Kazakhstan’s first and only president, Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, has had on the development of a new alphabet for the Kazakh language, which is currently written using a modified version of Cyrillic. Nazarbayev announced in May that the Russian alphabet would be replaced by a new script based on the Latin alphabet. However, there is a problem with representing some sounds in Kazakh. The President has decided, according to the article, “to ignore the advice of specialists and announce a system that uses apostrophes to designate Kazakh sounds that don’t exist in other languages written in the standard Latin script. The Republic of Kazakhstan, for example, will be written in Kazakh as Qazaqstan Respy’bli’kasy.” Apparently, linguists had recommended that the new system follow Turkish, which uses umlauts and other phonetic markers, not apostrophes, but the President has insisted on his system. According to the article, this has led to intense debate in the country, with the President’s views being widely mocked:

“Nobody knows where he got this terrible idea from,” said Timur Kocaoglu, a professor of international relations and Turkish studies at Michigan State, who visited Kazakhstan last year. “Kazakh intellectuals are all laughing and asking: How can you read anything written like this?” The proposed script, he said, “makes your eyes hurt.”

Another President, Donald Trump, has made waves with his use of language as well, as in his re-interpretation of “fake news” to mean any reporting critical of him or his actions, his use of vulgar language to describe African countries, or his habit of using insults and abusive language in his tweets. In an interview with the Deutsche Welle recently, well-known linguist, George Lakoff, commented on Trump’s use of language. Lakoff laments how the wide-spread reporting of the President’s tweets tends to cite the texts. According to Lakoff, just having that language repeated – even if within an article attacking what was said in the tweet – tends, through repetition, to plant Trump’s ideas in our heads. He points out that this is the strategy used by Russia propagandists and the Islamic State in their online messaging. The twitter bots used by Russian hackers repeat tweets over and over again, with slightly different texts, but always using hashtags that support divisiveness in the US population and electorate. This was done in the 2016 election, and is continuing, as in the recent bots’ activity in spreading the #releasethememo hashtag, in reference to the controversial classified memo that some Republicans say shows bias in the FBI’s Trump-Russian probe. This is in an effort to discredit both the FBI and the investigation into the Russian electoral interference, in the desire to undermine the US people’s faith in their government, and thus weaken US democracy.

Lakoff’s advice to the media on reporting on Trump tweets:

Don’t retweet him and don’t use the language he uses. Use the language that conveys the truth. Truths are complicated. And seasoned reporters in every news outlet know that truths have the following structure: They have a history, a certain structure and if it is an important truth, there is a moral reason why it is important. And you need to tell what that moral reason is, with all its moral consequences. That is what a truth is.

He’s not advocating stopping news reports on the tweets, but rather to put them into a proper context, and point to factual discrepancies, when they exist – and in the reporting, to forego inadvertently spreading messaging through textual repetitions. The way that politicians use language can make a big difference in how policies and actions are viewed by the public, especially if a term is repeated frequently. We are seeing that currently in the US in relation to immigration. Trump and Republicans use the term “chain migration“, which has negative connotations rather than the term preferred by Democrats, “family reunification”, which makes the process sound much more positive.

Voluntary simplicity?

Black Friday shoppers: Fewer this year

It’s Black Friday in the US, and surprisingly, in European countries as well, despite not celebrating US Thanksgiving. I guess retailers are quick to find an excuse to hawk their goods, no matter the cultural significance. I’m wondering if Canadians also observe Black Friday today, given that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. Although today is a celebration of buying stuff, it appears that overall we are becoming less materialistic. That is according to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an economic geographer at the University of Southern California, who recently published The Sum of Small Things. In the book, according to the Princeton University Press advert, Currid-Halkett argues, that “the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge.” Members of this new class, which she labels the aspirational class, have moved away from conspicuous consumption: “Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast.”

In a recent interview on NPR (wow, I must be a member of the aspirational class), Currid-Halkett asserts that in fact US Americans are becoming less interested in owning more and more: “As a society, we are getting less materialistic. So we can see that in a cultural way in just the way we talk about things. We can see that in movements like voluntary simplicity.” She backs up her assertion with data she has been collecting on spending patterns. In fact, one of those patterns is less interest in spending the Thanksgiving break shopping. Fewer stores opened this year on Thanksgiving. That contrasts with recent years in which retailers were opening on Wednesday at midnight and all day Thanksgiving. It appears as well, that the violence that occurred in the past, as shoppers battled one another over the few extra cheap TVs, has not happened this year. Maybe we are moving in the direction of voluntary simplicity – giving up the pursuit of happiness through material goods, to focus on living with less and growing spiritually. Or maybe we just have now accumulated all we can fit in our homes/apartments – or that we can afford.

Why Americans Smile

I was in Russia last year, my third visit, and noticed again how solemn everyone seemed to be. In public transportation and on the street, there was not a lot of chit-chat, or smiling. Of course, that’s not surprising in Moscow – similar to New York City in that regard. But I was in Pyatigorsk, a resort town in the Caucuses, and it was summer. In terms of not seeing a lot of smiling faces on the street (or especially, in my experience, in service encounters), Russia is no different than many other countries. Germany, for one, comes to mind. But one country that is different is the United States. We tend to smile a lot. Smiling for no good reason is likely to make Russians think you’re a bit off. Walmart was not successful in Germany in part because managers insisted that cashiers smiled at customers. That irritated many Germans, after all, the customer didn’t know the cashier, so why act as if they are friends? That behavior would be akin to the cashier using the informal you, “du”, in addressing the customer, rather than the formal “Sie”. Some German men thought the cashiers were flirting with them.

So, why do Americans smile so much. That was a question addressed this week in the Atlantic. The answer, according to the article is surprising: “It turns out that countries with lots of immigration have historically relied more on nonverbal communication. Thus, people there might smile more.” The authors of a study published in 2015 compared countries in terms of the number of source countries that make up their population: “Canada and the United States are very diverse, with 63 and 83 source countries, respectively, while countries like China and Zimbabwe are fairly homogenous, with just a few nationalities represented in their populations.” The researches polled people from 32 countries about expressing feelings openly. They found that “emotional expressiveness was correlated with diversity. In other words, when there are a lot of immigrants around, you might have to smile more to build trust and cooperation, since you don’t all speak the same language.” So citizens of countries with more diversity smile in order to bond socially. On the other hand, “countries without significant influxes of outsiders tend to be more hierarchical, and nonverbal communication helps maintain these delicate power structures.”

The article points out that not only do US inhabitants smile more, their smiles are also wider, with higher levels of “facial muscle movement.” The article doesn’t discuss whether all the smiles in the US are genuine, that seems especially doubtful in the section of the article discussing how extensively politicians in the US smile.

Germany has been experiencing in recent years a large influx of immigrants, from a variety of countries – who knows, maybe next time you’re in Berlin, you’ll see more smiles.

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.