As you might guess from reading my title, I believe there is a connection and that is it. Here's a bit of disclaimer before going further. I tend to see connection in disparate things. Sometimes those are really there. Other times, I'm probably forcing the issue beyond what the evidence suggests. In those cases where I'm right, making note of the connection provides some insight into the underlying causality. We really do need to understand the causality before we talk about remedies, both those currently in place and potential alternatives. In this piece, I won't consider remedies at all and will focus only on the underlying issue. I will do this by considering a variety of snippets that are neither current nor directly related to these matters. They are meant to illuminate and bring out the parallels that seem evident to me.
Let's begin with this one, a clip from SNL circa 1990, when I still watched the show - Hans and Franz Pumping You Up. The bit is a parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was at the height of his film popularity then. (Terminator 2 - Hasta la vista, baby - would come out the following year.) Satirical comedy of this sort gives some insight into popular stereotypes, in this case what it means to be a man. It is about being strong, but it is more than that. It is being strong of a certain type. This is not strong in the sense of speak softly but carry a big stick. This is totally in your face. It is talking trash, the way Larry Bird talked trash. Talking trash includes putdowns of rivals. The ultimate putdown for Hans and Franz is to call somebody a girly man. (You can hear that usage around the 1:35 mark of the clip. Dana Carvey as Hans is talking then.)
So there are two take aways from this particular example. One is the implied phobia in males from being identified with feminine characteristics - somehow this make you less manly and you should be ashamed if that is the case. The other is that the notion of what it means to be strong may have changed from the time I was a kid to when this SNL skit was aired. With the earlier notion a strong person was courageous but didn't show bluster. That would have been unseemly. With the later version, it's part of the package. It may be that both versions co-exist now, in which case we should ask when one will prevail and not the other as well as why that is the case.
This next snip is from my class last fall, a blog post by a student who writes under an alias, the first real post of the course. The class in on The Economics of Organizations and the prompt for this post asked for students to discuss some of their own experiences with organizations. He wrote about his fraternity, a very interesting read for the mindset it illustrates. He writes about how the ritual of initiation transformed him and his fellow pledges from a boy into a man. Many years earlier I had a student who joined the Marines after taking my course; I believe he enlisted for this purpose of entering manhood. When I next saw him after his training had concluded, he had gotten noticeably thicker in the chest and the upper arms. In my class from last fall there was a different student who was in ROTC. He had done a summer of boot camp of some sort in Northern Virginia. From the little I know about it, I believe such intensive experiences can be transformative. I was far more skeptical that one hell week in a frat could have a like effect.
After describing the initiation process he discussed how the national organization had banned the initiation week, as something entirely unnecessary. He was very upset by that. He thought the ritual of initiation integral to what the fraternity was about. Eliminating the ritual would eventually kill the fraternity. He thought the people at the national were misguided in banning the practice and he felt aggrieved about it as a consequence. His fellow fraternity members were likewise aggrieved.
I wrote extensive comments on this post. I deliberately didn't engage my own skepticism about what he argued, but instead looked at what the national was doing from the lens of liability insurance and limiting the chance that liability occurs after some incident at the frat where things went too far and turned out horribly wrong, along with another argument about maturing without the need for a rite of passage like fraternity initiation. In his response (which was quite tardy) he engaged the second argument, but not the first. He was able to maintain his grievance that way. It was important to him, so I perceived, that he not cave in.
I should note that a different student in the class also wrote about the general issue of the University cracking down on the Greek system and that the bad press that fraternities and sororities have received the past few years had been unfair. She reported that her sorority was disadvantaged as a consequence. She made the point that the bad actors were usually fraternities, not sororities, but the new rules applied equally to both. There is thus the similarity between the two posts about feeling resentment toward the new rules. But this second post didn't try to defend sorority practices as fundamental to personal transformation of the sorority members. A couple of years earlier I had a student who was then president of her sorority and she used that as an example for most every post. She referred to the members as girls, not women, which I found noteworthy. She also gave the distinct impression that most members who were not sorority officers were interested in the sorority primarily as a means for having fun, which for me is not hard to imagine at all, but is hard to reconcile with the notion of personal transformation.
In any event, it is useful to consider the fraternity as a metaphor, for the type of people it attracts and the mental outlook it encourages in its members. There are service fraternities and academically oriented fraternities that are not based in a common living arrangement. There are also student organizations that are similar to fraternities but don't call themselves that. One of those that I'm a little bit aware of is ACM, which attracts students interested in programming and other computer science and computer engineering issues. At least at Illinois, when I was told about it (fall 2009), the student members talked trash with one another as the normal banter within the group.
This third snippet is meant to suggest there are other possibilities for what it means to be a man (really what it means to be an adult). I wrote about this in a post on my dad's morality and whether it holds up today. I was discussing various principles that taken together gave the core of my dad's beliefs. This is the most relevant paragraph to the current discussion.
The second comes from when I was a working adult and my parents had moved to Century Village West, a very large condominium community for retirees, most of whom are Jewish. We referred to the men who lived there as AKs, my dad included. This bit of philosophy is how the world seems from the perspective of an AK. My dad divided the adult non-retired population into two groups. Most were in the first group, SHs. (My dad would say the SH word out in long form. I'm using initials here only because I'd prefer not to write an expletive repeatedly in this post.) These people were SHs because they cared about themselves only and were quite willing to screw others for personal benefit. The much smaller group were human beings (or in Yiddish mensches). When I would visit my parents in Century Village I would completely surrender myself to their rhythms and ways of doing things, the only way I knew that we'd all get along. Being a mensch meant you did whatever it took to get along. In this case the ethical imploration was, don't be an SH.
Let's make a few further points on this. First, while the notion of a mensch is fundamentally Jewish, by the time I was a kid the idea had penetrated the popular culture, as evidenced by this schmaltzy movie, The Apartment. Second, similar notions can be found in other religions. Human decency is the core idea. Yet, recalling my dad's expression, SH's exist in all religions. Hatefulness is in no short supply. If people can barely fend for themselves, their selfishness may be easier to understand and accept. Otherwise, it is hard to tolerate. Third, it may be that most of us act one way as the general rule, but then in special domains we act either even more like a mensch, as I did when visiting my parents in their condo, or more like an SH, talking trash when in some competition. Around the time of that Hans and Franz bit, a group of us, professors and graduate students mainly from the Econ department, would have boys night out and play some poker about once a month. The talk at the card table was a little more aggressive, though we played dime-quarter with a three-raise limit to deliberately keep the maximum somebody would lose within reasonable bounds. The point here is that competition calls for a different tone than when you are helping somebody out.
My sense of things is that those who try to be a mensch and have been doing so for some time don't fear emasculation, though if I may take myself as an example, there are many other things of which such people might be phobic. Being a mensch doesn't cure those fears, only this particular one. Indeed, being a mensch may expose you more to these other fears as it requires shedding some layers of self-protection in order to open up oneself to others. People who view manhood as strength, in contrast, have an inner fear of emasculation. (Recall the scene from the Godfather with Johnny Fontaine.) That is true whether the strength is physical or intellectual. The fear may remain dormant when the person is successful. It comes out when the person is put under extreme stress, where the person isn't capable of relieving that stress on his own.
I want to bring in one more snippet and then tie all of them taken together to the current news. This one is about the first episode of the TV miniseries, Centennial, entitled Only the Rocks Live Forever, with a focus on the character Pasquinel, who is a French Canadian trapper and trader. He has traveled far into the wilderness in what is now Colorado. He is the embodiment of manhood as strength. Yet he is fair with the Indians he encounters. He has an initial harrowing experience with the Arapaho chief Lame Beaver, but they both stand down. Soon thereafter they become trusted friends. Lame Beaver, before he dies, requests that Paquinel marry his daughter. Pasquinel honors this request. Yet Pasquinel is no saint. Far from it. He also takes another wife, this time white, one who lives in St. Louis and is the daughter of one of his business partners. The polygamy notwithstanding, even though it creates some awkwardness because he can only be in one place at a time, Pasquinel treats people decently as long as they have done no harm to him. He is ruthless with those who have stolen from him or who try to hurt him. So this snippet illustrates that the strong person who treats others with disregard or is mean to them, when there has been no prior provocation, creates a distortion of the ideal that the Pasquinel character embodies, where human decency is both the norm and the initial way to behave. Selfishness by the strong as a first move should not be championed.
* * * * *
To make the previous discussion operational, one needs some model as to how the fears we have influence our behavior and our preferences with regard to the preferred culture in which to live and work. I am not a psychologist nor a sociologist. So I will do some hand waving here. My underlying assumption is that the psychology of misogyny and the psychology of racism are fundamentally the same. They are both about boosting the ego of the practitioner, to cover up for fundamental fears. There are surely differences in degree. If there are also differences in kind, what I say next is somewhat off, perhaps totally off. I will treat each as an aggressive response to the fear of emasculation.
I have reached this point in writing this essay without having read James Damore's essay about Google culture. I had read several pieces about the essay, but hadn't read it myself. I've just had a look. My reaction follows. I want to note this sequencing here for the following reason. It may seem that I cooked the above to refute what Damore has to say. I did not. What actually happened is that I found this piece in the News-Gazette where the CS Department here criticizes Damore's essay. From this I learned he is a U of I grad, class of 2010, though in Biology rather than Computer Science. The thing is, his date of graduation is near to when I learned the little bit I did about ACM. Was Damore a member of ACM when he was a student here? That would be an interesting tidbit to know. In any event, having garnered this background information I began to make the connection between Damore and my student from last fall whom I wrote about above. The similarities seemed strong to me, especially in each holding to their own view passionately and in each possessing a strong sense of grievance.
Pretty early in Damore's essay the reader is confronted with this table in a section called Google's Biases. This precedes any discussion of gender. I really just want to focus on the table, but because the PDF split it across two pages, my screen shot includes some of the surrounding text as well and I will make note of one bit of that.
I found the expression"deep moral preferences and thus biases" puzzling. Let me suggest what I have in mind via recommending that we take an axiomatic approach. We should first identify a few axioms that constitutes what it means to be ethical. If you are religious, that might be the ten commandments. Alternatively, you might consider a set of ethical principles as articulated by some political philosopher, such as John Rawls in his essay Justice as Fairness. I went through such an exercise in a post called A schlub in a business school, which was written 9 years ago when the economy was tanking and where it was quite evident that the burst of the housing bubble was due to a massive amount of irresponsible behavior - predatory lending, if you will. So, I started with the question, what does responsibility mean? (At the time there was a lot of discussion about responsibility in my college.) I deconstructed responsibility into three axioms: 1) responsibility as obligation, 2) responsibility as enlightened self-interest, and 3) responsibility as belief in The Golden Rule. Now this may not be perfect. Defining the boundary of each of these is likely to be quite difficult and, as I have noted recently, the philosopher Peter Singer makes the same point about the difficulty with determining the boundary. I can also imagine that the ethical system we focus on not make responsibility the exclusive province. But in any system that I can envision, The Golden Rule or some equivalent would be one of the axioms.
Now, to continue with this program, there might be Left Preferences about social behavior that provide a set of additional axioms and Right Preferences about social behavior that offer a different set of additional axioms. Then, take the common axioms that are the ethical principles and the two different sets of preference axioms and from that derive something like the table that Damore gives us. In this exercise, you can't choose your ethical principles. They are there for moral people to adhere to. You can choose your political preferences and we might disagree about those.
Given that program, we might then go in the opposite direction. Take a table such as what Damore provides. Can the ethical principles be extracted from those. In particular, can The Golden Rule be extracted from those. My reading of the table is that The Golden Rule can be extracted from the Left Biases column, but it can't be extracted from the Right Biases column. If Damore or some other Conservative can show convincingly that my reading of the table is in error and they can get The Golden Rule out from their side of the table, then we can have a conversation. Otherwise, this table appears to be the artifice of an SH who wants to claim the moral high ground, when no such claim is warranted.
I also found the table too reductive to be useful to me. I am entirely ignorant of how things are inside Google, but my hope is that it would be too reductive there as well. As I mentioned in the previous section, I try to be a mensch, which if the table did make sense would put in on the left side. But I find I'm in all the boxes, to some degree. For example, on the top line, I want my undergraduate students to call me Professor Arvan and not address me by my first name, yet I will go out of my way to help a struggling student, as long as I can see the student is trying. This is such a simple example too. How can the table accurately describe people's preferences in a much more complex setting? On the next line, for example, weren't most of us taught that we're the outcome of both nature and nurture? I still subscribe to that view. Yet I believe that some differences are better explained by variation in inherent talents, even while I also believe in the importance of Deliberate Practice as described by Ericsson, et. al. Even this, however, is not sufficient. We must come to terms with the observation that income mobility is far less in the U.S. than in other developed countries. This makes our system seemed rigged, an argument advanced by Richard Reeves in an Op-Ed piece in the NY Times, Stop Pretending You're Not Rich. If the system is rigged, there is a problem with the entry on the second line in the right column. Of course, Reeves works at Brookings, a left-leaning think tank. So Damore and his buddies might be inclined to disregard that argument. Yet the income mobility facts themselves are not in dispute, as far as I know.
There is a second issue with the table that I don't get. Damore was an employee at Google until he was let go. He was not part of Google's management team. Doesn't management have the prerogative to run the company as it wants, subject to Board approval. If Damore thinks Google's management is making an error by enforcing the left column of the table then: (1) Wouldn't the market discipline Google for making that mistake? Is there any evidence of such market discipline? (2) Couldn't Damore find work elsewhere at another company that doesn't make that mistake or start up his own venture? (3) And, in the meantime, couldn't Damore live the left column at work and the right column when he is on his own time (and then not needing to write that memo)?
On point (3) I'd like to bring in a fact that I learned from this piece, I'm a woman in computer science. Let me ladysplain the Google memo to you. (Otherwise, I will not take on the arguments in that essay.) Google is an elite employer, hiring only 1% of its applicants, presumably the best and the brightest. This F. Scott Fitzgerald quote therefore seems relevant.
The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.
If Damore and other Google employees can, in fact, do this, why is there such a strong sense of grievance? Is it that they don't want to do this, because that offends their sensibilities? In other words, is there no anti-productive effective at all by playing the left column, only some disgruntled male employees who nonetheless are as productive as they would be otherwise? Or, perhaps, there might be some anti-productive effect, which could indicate that these employees are not quite as talented as they think they are.
There are two other issues with the table as structured. There is no concept of social distance associated with it, no sense that we might behave differently with those very close to us, our immediate family and our very good friends, than with those who are somewhat close, and again differently with people we don't know at all. One way to reconcile my being in every cell of the table is to bring social distance into the discussion. I am more on the left hand side with those close to me, more on the right with those who are far away. Unlike Damore, I do value collegiality, a lot. And as I have written recently, I come to treat people who might potentially become close to me, students or work colleagues, with a sense of affection at the outset. Most won't penetrate my outer boundary, but a few will and I'd like to encourage the possibility. I will readily admit to there being jerks in the world - quite a lot of them in my experience. My preference would be to not have to deal with them at all. My having authority is useful for dealing with jerks. Then I can say bugger off (or other words to that effect). Authority is not useful for bringing people closer. For that, we're all the same at core, though clearly possessing our own idiosyncratic characteristics, which is what makes the interactions fun and engaging.
Given this omission, one has to wonder why it's not considered. This may be a generational thing. For people that I feel close to my preferred mode of interaction is face to face conversation over coffee or a meal. Online interaction is great, especially in being able to stay in touch with a much larger circle of people than I otherwise could, but if face to face conversation is available it is much better. The Sherry Turkle critique applies to my generation as well as to Millenials, but my generation still has this affinity for face to face conversation. If Millenials have a greater fraction of their interactions online, particularly on their phones where by the nature of the medium text messaging is terse, much potential richness in the discussion is lost. This may create the impression that everyone else is equidistant. If that is true, then one is apt to embrace a more pure form of interaction, either always on the left side of the table or always on the right. It is this purity which I find so frightening. This gets me to the next point.
There is also the issue of whether unrestrained authority eventually goes over the deep end, particularly when operating under stress. A good read about this is John Hersey's The War Lover. (I thought the movie version with Steve McQueen and Robert Wagner wasn't very good. To get a sense of the issues here you need to read the book.) Self-restraint on this is surely better than external constraint. Self-restraint, in turn, emerges when even those with immense authority nonetheless possess a modicum of human decency and likewise, those followers of the authority figure also maintain an element of human decency. On this one, I was pleasantly surprised by Stanley McChrystal's Op-Ed, Save PBS. It makes us safer. This is one example of somebody most of us would associate with the right column of the table operating on the other side. In my ideal, we would all do that. We would differ in degree, to be sure, but we would be not be purely on one side or the other. All things in moderation. This is where self-restraint comes from. Otherwise the possibility of going over the deep end seems far too likely. The examples of that abound.
This concludes my simple critique of Damore's argument, without ever getting at the gender issues. I believe there are fundamental flaws before you get that far. When I used to read economic working papers that one of my colleagues wrote (this was in the 1980s and early 1990s), once I found a serious error I would stop reading the rest of the paper. This would infuriate my friend and co-author Jan Bruckner, though he would nonetheless want me to have a read of his next paper (or the paper written by one of his students) because he valued my criticism. In the case of Damore's paper, I did read further, more to get a sense of what the furor was about than for any other reason. Many others have commented on it. I will leave it at that.
I wish the simple critique would suffice, but it does not. Attention must now shift from Damore's memo to Google as a company and to the entire ethos of Silicon Valley, as well as the rest of the IT industry situated elsewhere (so Amazon and Microsoft as well as Apple and Facebook and others). The broader critique is suggested in this piece, Google Doesn't Want What's Best for Us. There are several points to the argument. The first is that these companies are huge monopolies and are essentially uncontested within their own market niche. Where I asked the rhetorical question above about whether the market would discipline Google for making an unwise business decision, the reality is that Google's market power gives it an enormous buffer to manage the ill effects from any one poor decision. The market power is coupled with a Libertarian outlook that informs upper level management. The Libertarian view then is in an unholy alliance with the brogrammer culture. Both abhor external constraint, though for quite different reasons.
The second point is that where in the days when GM was America's largest company the nature of the relationship between consumers and producers was much more bilateral, now things have changed and the relationship is triangular. We users are a big part of the equation, even as we don't pay directly for services such as those that Google provides. The paying customers are the advertisers. Our use then offers personalized information that the advertisers crave, so they can customize their message to us. Google is the custodian of much of this personalized information and there is a huge amount of data of this sort. (For example, I must have done well over 100 Google searches just to write this post.) It is troubling for somebody else to have the goods on you, especially so when that person or organization is not otherwise close to you. How can you be sure that the information won't be used for some nefarious purpose in the future? (Or that it won't be hacked in the future and then used for a nefarious purpose.) So it becomes more important than ever for there to be a trust relationship between these big monopoly providers and users like me. How can that work, however, if I'm of a Liberal orientation and they are Libertarian?
So, as the linked piece argues, Google tries to have it both ways. The internal culture to Google that Damore critiques is Liberal, at least in some domains, so it can appease users like me. This makes the company two-faced, since it still has these strong Libertarian leanings at the top. The inherent inconsistency must eventually lead to fracture. In that sense, the Damore memo is the proverbial canary in the coal mine. How can this hold together in the future? My own approach to this dilemma as a user is to seek self-protection by relying on many different vendors for my cloud use, with my personal data scattered across them. With Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon, I'm guessing this works reasonably well. I'm afraid that both Facebook and Google have far too much information about me for me to feel comfortable. What recourse, if any, do I have and do people like me have? I don't know. And the issue will surely get more acute as the reliance on AI gets greater and greater. This leads me to the last point.
We now have a substantial history on the decline in manufacturing. (For example, see Figure 1 on page 4.) This, in conjunction with the decline in blue collar work overall, has led to real emasculation, not just the fear thereof. Some pieces of evidence for this are the opioid epidemic, the concomitant decline in life expectancy, and the replacement of cohabitation for marriage among working class people. (Low wage earners make for poor spouses.) It is unclear to me whether these negative consequences could have been anticipated until quite recently and if mitigations could have been taken were those consequences anticipated early. I don't know. But now we have this history and it is reasonably well understood. The rise of AI poses the threat of another round of significant job dislocation, this time of entry and mid-level white collar work, as well as further job loss for the blue collar worker (self-driving cars replacing Lyft drivers, for example). Surely the tech sector is aware of these issues. This makes the Libertarian view of the tech sector's responsibility particularly troubling, both in causing the potential dislocation and in not being willing to pay corporate profit taxes to finance the possible mitigations. If we ever get out of our current political moment, which now seems to be sucking up all our mental bandwidth, these are the issues that will occupy most of our attention.
* * * * *
I will have less to say about the events in Charlottesville, partly because I've been so pained by what has happened that I find it hard to discuss and partly because I am far less certain about why somebody becomes a White Nationalist, though I will walk through one possible explanation. That said, I definitely want to keep this section in the piece. I hope to make clear why momentarily.
Let's begin with the following. A friend in Facebook posted this link. The kid in the picture is of the age to be a student in my class. Indeed, he could very well be mistaken for a frat boy on campus at Illinois. (He's enrolled at the University of Nevada - Reno.) The picture makes you wonder what the age distribution is of those White Nationalists who marched. I gather that some of them are still kids.
It is probably impossible to do the social science, but I'd like to know how those marchers would react to Damore's table. Suppose they would embrace it as a reasonable abstraction of reality, if so asked. This potential result would make it defensible to consider White Nationalists as Right Biased people who have gone over the deep end. Were this observation to be realized, my guess is that it would horrify Damore and his ilk, who want no association whatsoever with racism. Yet such a connection might then stick, which could cause an OMG moment for the brogrammers that would then lead to some modification of their views along the lines I've suggested above.
Last week former President Obama tweeted about Charlottesville, an oft repeated message. Nobody is born with hatred for others. That must be learned. I heard this message for the first time when watching South Pacific as a kid. It's there in the song, You've Got to Be Carefully Taught. While this message is obviously true, it still remains to be determined how and when the White Nationalist marchers learned this lesson. Did they grow up in a racist family and that's how it happened, like father like son? Or did they grow up in a much more tolerant family and learned the lesson while in their adolescence or as young adults from people outside their household? Knowing the relative numbers on this would be interesting and informative. Absent that, I'd be curious if there is a profile one might construct to explain the behavior of those in the second category.
Fascism thrives when the economy is in severe stress. College students now, particularly those who are not ace programmers or in some other STEM field that offers good employment prospects, are operating under a great deal of stress. Many of them are experiencing depression because of the stress since their economic prospects are so uncertain. That vast majority don't turn to racism as their personal solution, or so I would like to believe. My guess, however, is that some do. Further, I'd conjecture that among this group they have a strong prior disposition toward Right Biases. They then went in search of situations where their demand for authority could be satisfied. Beyond that, fully aware of this possibility, the Alt-Right marketed in a way to target these people, to recruit them to the cause. This is the Devil in action. We all should read Eric Hoffer's The True Believer. I read it while in college and could stand to re-read it. In writing this section, I'm invoking my memory of Hoffer's argument, as poor as that is. So my presentation may be a bit off. I hope, however, that there is still something to what I'm saying here.
My fear is that we are now in a vicious cycle which will spiral out of control, driven by the causes I've sketched above. I'm guessing that many other people are worried about the same thing.
* * * * *
Over the weekend I made a post in Facebook in reference to Charlottesville - I can't deal with this. A friend responded almost immediately - yes, you can. This very long blog post is me trying to deal with it, by doing what I've been trained to do, seeing if I can make sense of what is going on by offering a plausible theoretical explanation. I'm sure I got some details wrong. I usually do. I hope there is still enough left that makes sense and that it offers a worthwhile read to those who slog through the post. I leave it to those readers and others to take it from there.