Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Fun with AOL Search Records

Last year, AOL inadvertently exposed a data set that contained over 20 million searches performed by hundreds of thousands of users. It was only exposed for a brief while, but in that brief period it was copied all over the internet.

The records are fascinating to browse, and there is even a site dedicated to characterizing people based on their search activity. Like the person characterized as a "pet owner, parent, and possible animal fetishist." Someone figuring out how to commit murder. And my favorite, someone who is searching for their computer.

It is fun to browse. And yes - there are some real sickos out there.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Bigotry, Hate Speech and Free Expression

The Web gives me chills sometimes, because of the venom and hatred I see there. It is frightening to see the comments on a web post like this descend into a flurry of vicious attacks by the participants. The dynamic is perfectly predictable in all instances. People who believe they are protected by anonymity become wildly supportive of their group perspective and grievances on an issue. Those on the other side, unable to target the known qualities of a particular person, seize instead on the characteristics of the group that person represents. And the vitriolic spiral starts.

This happens so often that it seems that the promise of the Web was just a foolish dream. There was hope that the ability to communicate and build online communities would draw us together in a web of insight and understanding, but we find to our horror that this technology just pulls us down into a maelstrom of hate.

So what to do about it?

I've read a number of blogs lately that advocate criminal restrictions on hate speech. I formulated my initial perspective on this from a post by Thinking Girl - in particular her statement:

In regards to hate speech, it is hard to understand why one person’s (or group’s) right to freedom of expression should trump the right of a group not to have hateful things said about them. Why should the rights of the haters be held above those of the victims of hate speech? Societies that tolerate hate speech institutionalize that form of violence.

And these claims from Crooked Timber:

If particular groups are so stigmatized and marginalized because of hate-speech messages that their members cannot get their voices heard in the public sphere (they may speak, but most people will not listen to people like them) then the freedom and equality of citizens is undermined, and the formal right that those people have to legal, civil and political equality is of lesser value than the formally similar rights of others. Far from liberty being endangered by hate-speech legislation it may—and whether it is depends very much on the specific social and historical circumstances—ensure that many people continue to enjoy effective liberty.

Free speech has real benefits. Popular ideas and powerful elites can be challenged, even mocked, and adversarial processes often lead, over the longer term, to better, more complete understanding. Societies ought to adapt over time to social pressures and new knowledge, and relatively free speech is the lubricant that allows change to happen less violently. Restricting speech can lead to stasis and rigidity, because it robs societies of the sometimes painful truth about themselves.

I'm not an absolutist about it. There are restrictions today on libel, slander, on knowingly false advertising, disturbing the peace, threats, harassment, and incitement to riot. And these are all very reasonable in my view.

But I am against extending that suppression to insults, mocking, and the sort of vile commentary I see all over the internet. I'm against the legal suppression of hate speech, but I'm totally in favor of people making their outrage clear through campaigns, boycotts, and complaints to ISPs about terms of service violations. These efforts are often very successful, particularly when you watch some people go to extraordinary lengths to avoid giving any offense to certain groups.

The first reason I'm opposed to hate speech suppression is that such suppression requires selection of particular groups that need protection. Some might claim that a general prohibition, similar to Canada's, on hate speech directed at sex, race, sexual orientation, religion, and national origin would protect everybody. But I think they are really being disingenuous. Many people identify every bit as strongly with their profession as others do with their religion. Lawyers are often hated, frequently mocked, and are sometimes spoken of as parasites on society. They've been targets of murderous attacks - yet no one argues we should protect lawyers from hatred. And hate speech suppression really isn't about marginalization in general - just some types of marginalization. I'm doubtful that anyone would argue that pedophiles are a group worthy of protection, even though they are marginalized, are frequent targets of hate speech, and they could probably be systematically targeted for violence without triggering lots of outrage. No, proponents of hate speech suppression always have narrow, quite particular groups in mind for special, more vigilant protection.

That's why you could never arrive at a workable, fair standard, which is my second problem with hate speech laws. Any hate speech standard would have to classify both the speech and the target group. Development of such a standard wouldn't be anything like a deliberative process - it would be an exercise of naked political power, and one that would likely trigger lots of hate speech. The process of enacting such laws and deciding on mechanisms to enforce them would be more venomous and poisonous than the Clarence Thomas hearings, because the stakes would be higher. If you think we have hate speech now - just wait.

The battle for protection will be won by the groups that are most cohesive, most vocal and most successful at marshaling their activists. There is a certain paradox in that "battle for protection" that proponents of hate speech suppression don’t acknowledge. The claim is that hate speech marginalizes people, and frightens them enough to drive them out of the public arena. Yet proponents of hate speech laws claim at the same time that these groups would be able to enact their wall of protection into law. It doesn't add up, unless you assume there is a group that is powerful enough to force the law through, yet benevolent enough to do it not from self-interest, but out of selfless regard for a weaker group. I'm guessing that enlightened liberals are the group they have in mind for this.

Alternatively, proponents might believe that the movement to enact these laws wouldn’t just represent one group, but rather a mix of marginalized groups – groups that are individually weak yet powerful when standing in shoulder-to-shoulder solidarity. That's my third objection, because it supposes that hate is always unidirectional - from the powerful haters to the oppressed victims. Never from one marginalized group to another marginalized group. Just a couple of Google searches will yield lots of hate speech by one victim group directed to another. Consider one example that is particularly hard to unravel - in a hypothetical hate speech trial involving this black, ex-Gay, Christian - would anyone be willing to wager on whether he would be the plaintiff or the defendant?

Since hate speech by one marginalized group against another is prevalent, hate speech laws could easily become another instrument of oppression. Divide and conquer has been long recognized as an effective strategy employed by the powerful, and selective enforcement of hate speech laws between one marginalized group and another is an excellent tool for promoting division.

I'm always puzzled by one particular sort of blindness. Given what we know about OJ juries, the manslaughter charges in Jena, and the Duke rape case, on what basis do we suppose that hate speech laws, which require reasoning about subtleties like intent, context, and the historical basis for group sensitivities, would be any more fairly executed than laws that involve facts, testimony and evidence? Those that argue for giving communities more power to jail people for speech have some obligation to explain why they expect anything approaching justice and fairness in their execution. I sense a sort of magical thinking in hate speech suppression advocates - clearly they believe that laws are unjustly and unfairly applied now, but these new laws will, of course, only be used with the most painstaking regard for fairness.

Finally, anyone arguing for hate speech suppression as a means for addressing injustice has an implicit, but deeply flawed, model of their use in overturning oppression. The hope is that marginalized groups, once granted protected from hate speech, will be empowered to seize their share of society’s benefits. But hate speech laws will greatly strengthen the power of the state. There is no basis to suppose that a marginalized group, once it successfully gains its share of the state's power, will repeal those laws. Human nature being what it is, the group or groups then in power will use these laws as a tool to extend a more rigid hegemony. The new order would enforce its newfound power by using hate speech laws against people who express anger at the new, unjust order.

So the best, but highly unlikely, outcome of hate speech laws, is a temporary relaxation of today’s injustice, at the cost of worse injustice later. The far more likely outcome is more hate, and more injustice, today.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Color Blind Juries?

Hat tip to A Typical Joe for provoking some interesting thought. He quotes a speech by Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink."

Gladwell points out that orchestra conductors used to claim that female musicians were inferior, because all the great orchestras consisted of men only. But when the practice of auditioning musicians changed, by placing the musician behind a screen so the conductor couldn't see them - suddenly lots of woman started getting selected.

Gladwell proposes something similar for jury trials - not allowing the jury to see the defendant. Gladwell and A Typical Joe think that might remove some bias from the process, and perhaps narrow differences in the black vs. white conviction rate.

It seems to make lots of sense. I'm wondering why we consider the current trial process as something fixed and unchangeable? Academic studies of psychology have clearly documented the effect of bias on decision making, and the nature of social science experimentation itself controls, or attempts to control, for bias.

So we've learned a lot about decision making and bias - why not put that knowledge into practice in the courts?

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

"Mad Men" - More About Today than Yesterday

I very much enjoyed the show, and find it hard to wait till it resumes next year.

I enjoyed it primarily as a reflection on the attitudes of today. The writers focus on a vary narrow slice of 1960s life in order to make some pretty heavy-handed points that illustrate the radical truth of today:
1) marriage is a soul-killing, exploitative institution, devoid of love, fidelity or tenderness.
2) men are obsessed with wealth, status and power, and completely lack compassion or empathy
3) the only men worth studying are the top 1% that have economic and media power
4) cultural beliefs are a complete fabrication, created to serve the interests of a small group of manipulative, powerful men.
5) such fabricated attitudes are so pervasive, and so persuasive that they make it impossible for any woman to find legitimate happiness.

So when I watch it I like to reflect on what our era will seem like 50 years from now. What kind of standards will we be judged on? From the perspective of 50 years hence, what will seem important, what will seem unjust, what will seem ludicrous? What will tomorrow's radical truth be, and what role do we play in it?

Monday, October 22, 2007

Playing Games With Privilege

During the past few weeks, I've been visiting feminist blogs, trying to figure out where I stand on a number of issues.

Inevitably, when a man tries to comment on a post, the discussion focuses solely on whether the commenter admits he has "male privilege" - this becomes a litmus test of whether he is a serious participant, or someone who is dismissively considered a troll. Woman love to point out the Male Privilege Checklist, and in particular the final privilege - the ability to be blissfully ignorant of privilege. Feminists believe so much in the issue of privilege admission as a litmus test that white feminists are anxious, almost desperate, to point out on WOC blogs, that of course they admit to having "White Privilege."

Well, I'm not a Feminist, and I'm not a Male Rights Activist either. I think that the notion of judging people by the privilege they have, and the privilege they admit, is superficial. Even to the extent that I think my own Female Privilege List is silly. Because in some circles, the admission of privilege supports an ideological view of the world that slots people into fixed moral categories. Whether it is the fight of feminism against patriarchy, the fight of marginalized peoples against western white oppression, or the latest addition, the fight of transgender people against - and I plead willful ignorance of some of these post-modern nuances - against social constructions of gender, heternormativity ... whatever.

All of these ideologies have one thing in common - they slot people into fixed categories of relative moral worth, while at the same time accusing others of doing the same thing. People with privilege lineage suffer from moral blemishes that obscure their view of others; people with victim lineage have clear and accurate views of the evil that others do. The views of anyone with privilege lineage are deeply suspect, because they lack what is called "epistemic knowledge" - a valid standpoint from which to make any worthwhile value judgments.

In general, these ideologies confuse power with ethics, and make the implicit assumption that privilege always causes bias, and victimization always makes the truth clear. It ignores the fact that sometimes privilege grants the space and perspective to discover empathy, while victimization sometimes breeds rage and blind hatred.

So yes I do have privilege - the privilege of rejecting all these confining, myopic ideologies that claim to tell me the right and proper view of every social exchange. Ideologies that sometimes lead to vicious fanaticism. I'll make a moral assessment of myself and others that is based on my religion, my values, and my experience, not some historical grievance theater that is, quite often, more about revenge than justice.

Update: thanks to Philosophers Playground for the reaction to my original version of this, one that helped me clarify my thinking and express it better.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Sadness and Gratitude for a Soldier's Sacrifice

As someone who originally supported the war, and has since become saddened and disillusioned the painful, hate-filled political football it has become, I was moved by this latest Christopher Hitchens essay.

How sad it is that fine, brave young men like Mark Dailey have to die. I"m overcome with wonder that our country, in what seems like a selfish, narcissistic age, still produces men like this. Men who go to war and risk their lives for the noblest principles, and somehow maintain them even in the face of such a brutal mess.

May he rest in peace.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

A Model of Quiet Determination and Courage

Two people I admire greatly: Christopher Hitchens writing in support of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

Her book is riveting - an inspiring story of her determination to live her own way, and her courage to continue this in the face of very real, very credible threats against her life. I'm outraged that she doesn't get more support. I'd certainly be willing to contribute to a fund to protect her from the very real danger she is in.

And then I read this post. Having read Ayaan's story, and having seen her and listened to her, I'm thinking that the practice of Female Genital Mutilation is something that all reasonable people could agree should be stopped. Feminists would think it is an outrage. Western defenders of human rights would think it is an abomination.

How shallow of me to think that! Apparently, this writer, someone who claims to be a "radical theoretician", says we should, perhaps take a different view of the practice. The way I read it I'm getting the message that my view on this is of absolutely no value because of who I am.

I don't know if the world is going insane, or I am. There seem to be no fixed moral certainties anymore.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Fathers are Much More than "Male Role Models"

I'm getting pretty tired of seeing things that treat being a father as just a "male role model."

A father is not a male role model. A father is an adult male that a child knows:
a) will take a bullet for them.
b) will work hard for many, many years, doing things he may or may not like, in order to provide a loving, secure home for his children.
c) loves the child enough to consider the well-being of that child the foundation of his worth as a person.

You can be a male role model if you teach a kid how to ride a bike, throw a curve ball, learn a trade or act on a date - all good and wonderful things. Fatherhood is an irrevocable, lifetime commitment to sacrifice - with grace and pride - for the benefit of a child. A child derives great benefit knowing that someone made those sacrifices for them.

Friday, October 5, 2007

New Sim City!

My favorite game - update due in November

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Why Gender Bias is Different

My fun with Privilege Lists the other day made me realize something.

I started with the "Male Privilege Checklist" and discovered that the privilege list paradigm had its origin in an older White Privilege List. Feminists like to make the claim that gender bias isn't any different than racial, ethnic or religious bias. The hurt is the same, the unfairness is the same. What they - Feminists and their opposing Men's Rights advocates - don't realize is that they have a fundamental hope that the other bias victims lack.

The hope is that they can be reasonably sure, on average, that their children will suffer less bias than they have. Even if nothing is done to address bias, they can reasonably expect their descendants will suffer no bias, on average. Feminists get this for free. Men's Rights advocates get this for free. Victims of ethnic or religious bias don't have that hope.

So gender bias really is different.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Female Privileges List

I came across this Male Privilege Checklist on Alas, a Blog. It is a list of privileges that men have in our society, and the very last privilege in the list summarizes the primary point: We, as men, don't realize how easy many things are for us. Some privileges are so ingrained, so wired into our social system that we don't even see them.

Here is the beginning of their list:

The Male Privilege Checklist

1. My odds of being hired for a job, when competing against female applicants, are probably skewed in my favor. The more prestigious the job, the larger the odds are skewed.
2. I can be confident that my co-workers won't think I got my job because of my sex - even though that might be true.
3. If I am never promoted, it's not because of my sex.
4. If I fail in my job or career, I can feel sure this won't be seen as a black mark against my entire sex's capabilities.
5. The odds of my encountering sexual harassment on the job are so low as to be negligible.
6. If I do the same task as a woman, and if the measurement is at all subjective, chances are people will think I did a better job.
7. If I'm a teen or adult, and if I can stay out of prison, my odds of being raped are so low as to be negligible.
8. I am not taught to fear walking alone after dark in average public spaces.
9. If I choose not to have children, my masculinity will not be called into question.
10. If I have children but do not provide primary care for them, my masculinity will not be called into question.
11. If I have children and provide primary care for them, I'll be praised for extraordinary parenting if I'm even marginally competent.
12. If I have children and pursue a career, no one will think I'm selfish for not staying at home.
13. If I seek political office, my relationship with my children, or who I hire to take care of them, will probably not be scrutinized by the press.
14. Chances are my elected representatives are mostly people of my own sex. The more prestigious and powerful the elected position, the more likely this is to be true.
15. I can be somewhat sure that if I ask to see "the person in charge," I will face a person of my own sex. The higher-up in the organization the person is, the surer I can be.

. . .

Well, I had some fun putting together my counterpoint: The Female Privileges Checklist.

Female Privilege List
Privileges I have as a woman, that "others" - mostly men - don't have.

1. I’m under less pressure than others to engage in risky, dangerous and unhealthy behaviors - one of the reasons I get to live longer than others do.
2. I can choose professions that are less lucrative, and not be called a loser.
3. If I don’t rise to the top of my profession, it’s OK – people won’t judge me the less for it.
4. I’m entitled to the benefits of a safe, orderly society, but no one expects me to risk my personal safety to maintain it.
5. I have the right to have the overwhelming majority of personal risk suffered in defense of my country handled by others.
6. I’m allowed to avoid violence, and even run from it, without the risk I’ll be laughed at.
7. If I see someone else in danger, I’m allowed to stop and think carefully about my personal risk before saving them, without my courage being called into question.
8. I have the right to avoid risky, dangerous challenges, and not be called a coward.
9. I’m allowed to cry as a child and tell my parents I’m scared of something - my parents won't be disappointed with me.
10. I have the right to have most of the really dangerous professions handled by others.
11. If I commit a crime, I get less jail time than others would get for the exact same crime.
12. When I find myself with others in a terrifying, life-threatening situation, I have the right to be evacuated first, once the children are safe. Others can wait.
13. If I get slaughtered as part of some atrocity, people will be especially outraged and will call particular attention to the fact I was slaughtered. When others are slaughtered, it isn't quite as upsetting.
14. I have the right to give my child up for adoption, and thus totally repudiate any personal and financial responsibilities I might otherwise have.
15. I can choose whether I want to be a parent or not, knowing that society will compel the other parent to meet their financial responsibilities - whether they want to or not.
16. If I am personally attacked, I expect otherwise safe, otherwise uninvolved people to come to my defense.
17. If I see someone else being attacked, I’m not expected to risk my own safety to defend them. It's OK for me to wait for others to intervene, and it’s also OK for me to criticize others if they don’t.
18. In any dispute involving custody, I’m granted the presumption that I am the better, safer parent.
19. I have the right to interact with children not my own, and not have people look at me suspiciously.
20. If I choose to become a parent, people understand if I want to focus entirely on the personal, day-to-day care and nurturing of my children. Society expects my spouse to make enough money to make this choice possible.
21. I can get real nasty when someone makes me mad, and call them ugly, a loser, a nerd, a geek, a disgusting creep, a revolting little worm, a worthless piece of garbage, a scum bag, a wimp, a pervert, a jerk-off, an old fart, or a fat slob. After all, I have the right not to be treated meanly at work, and the right not to hear harsh things that might make me uncomfortable. I have legal recourse if that right is not respected, and I have the right to make this perfectly clear on my job interview.
22. I’m allowed to embrace and cultivate my spiritual qualities, and adopt a more elevated and more refined view of life - because other people handle all the "dirty work" like: yard work, garbage hauling, construction, fishing, mining, sewage disposal, street cleaning, long distance trucking, baggage handling, painting, sandblasting, and cement work.
23. If I fail at something, I can go to college and study the historical forces and social constructs that make it harder for people like me. If others fail, it’s because they just don’t have what it takes.
24. If I fail at almost everything, I can always teach college courses that explain why people like me fail a lot.

Please acknowledge when forwarding or copying this list

What do you think? I'm not saying anybody has it objectively easier or harder - life is pretty hard for everybody. But I guess you can tell which side I'm naturally more sensitive to.

Update: Pete Patriarch did a similar list.