Thursday, September 30, 2010

In which I argue against a named Test.

If you've been on the Internet more than a week, you've almost surely heard of the Bechdel Test. Named after artist that wrote Dykes to Watch Out For, the Bechdel Test is intended to filter out movies that fail to feature fully fledged female characters. A movie is said to pass the Test only if:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a man.
There is some genuine insight here, as far too many movies do in fact fail to respectfully represent a whole half of humanity in their cast. The goal of encouraging more strong and interesting female characters is laudable, and likely a necessary step towards true equality. Thus, I without reservation say that the Test has contributed to the cultural conversation on equality.

On the other hand, I generally find invocations of the Test annoying, as it is far too easy to take such arguments too literally. I don't generally find much insight in discussing whether a particular movie passes or fails the Test, any more than I find that remarking upon a particularly warm day produces insight into climate change. Rather, I think the Test is best used as a means of making an argument, not as a metric.

To try and offer some support to this view, I want to list a few movies that I have seen and that definitely fail the Bechdel Test but which are nonetheless good movies which are hardly bastions of sexism. Such false negatives demonstrate to me that the Test cannot be taken overly literally without missing the rationale. Without further ado, then:
  • 12 Angry Men: No female characters at all, as the movie is a jury drama set in a time when women on juries were very rare due to sexism.
  • Dr. Strangelove: The movie is a comedy of errors about the leaders of major world powers in the 1960s--- a group that is not well known for its inclusion of women.
  • Memento: The movie is narrated by a male character who speaks almost entirely to one person at a time.
  • Moon: There's not enough characters in the cast to pass.
  • Run Lola Run: This movie also has an incredibly tight cast. (And no, I don't count it when her neighbor asks Lola to pick up some shampoo.)
  • Voices of a Distant Star: Again, only two characters with lines, each of opposite gender.
  • Wall-E: The relative lack of human characters makes it hard for this movie to pass the Test, to say nothing of the movie being nearly a silent film.
  • Hush (Buffy episode): Not a movie, I know, but I'm too sarcastic not to include it anyway.
Note that these movies fail not for their content, but for how the Test happens to be phrased. To hold it against Moon that Sam lives alone on his space station would be patently ridiculous, for instance, but it technically fails the Test for its isolated cast.

Even more ridiculous would be to hold it against Wall-E for failing the Test--- it doesn't even pass the Reverse Bechdel Test:
  1. It has to have at least two men  in it,
  2. Who talk to each other,
  3. About something besides a woman.
No one should seriously think that the existence of movies which fail the reverse Test is evidence for a bias against men, so why is the mere existence of movies which fail the Test taken as evidence of such bias against women? Such a bias exists, to be sure, but it is not well demonstrated by applying the Test to this or that particular movie.

By continuing to fixate on the Test, I feel that we do ourselves a disservice. The problem of ensuring equality in media is not an easy problem, and isn't well suited to glib analysis. Arguments such as the Bechdel Test serve well to raise awareness, but at the end of the day, are a poor substitute for informed insight.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Sex negativity considered harmful, but to whom?

For all our capacity for compassion, we humans can be rather bloody rotten to each other. It shouldn't be surprising that this duality is apparent in children as well. Indeed, it's disturbing to read this story on Salon about how a video of a teenage girl being raped was shared via the Internet by other teenagers. The rape of any person is a tragedy and an outrage; the continuing exploitation of a victim in such a manner nearly defies description.

The reason I bring this article up, however, is because of something far more subtle and insidious [emphasis mine]:
This is the typical predicament law enforcement faces when it comes to online child pornography: Once it's out there, it's usually out there for good. The digital trail is just too difficult to trace. We've seen a similar thing with teen "sexting." A boyfriend gets angry when his girlfriend breaks up with him, so he texts a naked photo of her to all his buddies, they send it to all their buddies, and so on and so forth. In the end, it's hard to know just how many people have seen the image and where it's ended up.
If that paragraph doesn't strike you as deeply wrong, then I suggest giving it another read through. How else other than "deeply wrong" is one supposed to describe the comparison between a brutal rape, child pornography and the fully consensual exchange of suggestive pictures between children. This latter phenomenon can go sour indeed when the relationship between two children changes, and can lead to abusive situations, but that's not what the neologism "sexting" refers to.

By equating the consensual activity to which "sexting" refers with the form of abuse described, the author communicates a decidedly sex-negative position, objecting to the very presence of sexuality in the lives of teenage children. I suspect that this is unintended, or a product of miscommunication and misunderstanding, but it is a common enough position to take that it's worth discussing, to be sure.

Many others have described much more eloquently than I ever could how sex-negativity such as the anti-porn movement harms adults, but children undeniably suffer as well. Even beyond the direct consequences, sex-negativity can tie into other problems, such as sexism, leading to young girls being shamed for engaging in a very natural aspect of human experience.

Perhaps more disturbing is that sex-negative motivated approaches to education leave children ill-informed about their own sexuality, leading them to engage in riskier behavior. Indeed, children often live in a virtual sexual Prohibition, so should we be surprised to find them drinking of moonshine? That this approach of keeping children in the dark is also being applied to higher education by sex-negative advocates is something that we should find very disturbing.

There's another way, however, of dealing with the complexities and problems inherent in teenage sexual relations: treat children as competent, but in need of education. Don't hide them from the complexities of sex, and don't fall into the trap of well-meaning but sex-negative approaches to education. I am glad to see that even a state like Alaska can work towards implementing sex and relationship education programs that deal with such complexities. Rather than engaging in the kind of sex-negativity which so harms adults and children alike by teaching them to be ashamed of their own sexuality, harm reduction based education starts from the radical view that children are people, too.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A few immoderate things.

I like Jon Stewart. As far as understatements go, that's a pretty big one. Like with any other human being, though, there are some things that I don't agree with him on. One of these times occurred recently, when he announced a rally to restore sanity, where sanity is defined as political centrism. Glenn Greenwald rather well argues why this is problematic, and so I don't wish to flog that dead horse any further. Rather, I want to emphasize a somewhat tangential point: that the truth isn't always in the middle.

Sometimes the extreme position is the only correct option, or even the only morally defensible one. While I don't deny that the centrist assertion that truth always lies between the extremes is a decent heuristic, I flatly deny that is is true in full generality.

Take the pope's visit to the UK, for instance. What Richard Dawkins said about the pope is surely not moderate, but a moderate response would put one in the unconscionable position of defending someone who, by all available evidence, knowingly and deliberately protected those priests that raped children in their charge.

Similarly, though it isn't moderate to insist that Bush should be tried as a war criminal for his role in the torture of prisoners of the United States, a moderate position is one in which the laws and treaties that protect prisoners are fungible. Such a position ultimately allows for more people, both innocent and criminal, to be exposed to inhumane treatment in the future.

Should we sacrifice religious freedom on the altar of moderation by taking a position less extreme than that the Park51 facility (whatever kind of facility you wish to call it) be allowed? Should we put moderation above the well-being of future generations by taking the moderate "wait-and-see" approach to climate change? Should we deny the human rights of GLBT people by taking the moderate "civil unions, not marriage" route?

Don't get me wrong, though-- moderation in one's opinions is a fine and wonderful thing at times. What I cannot abide by, however, is when moderation is allowed to be the goal. One's opinions should, I submit, be aligned with reality, whether that reality is moderate or not.

Academia and the unreal.

A little while ago, someone offered me advice on how to get a job in the real world after grad school. This advice, though unsolicited, was undoubtedly well-intentioned, but hidden in the offer is the germ of an idea that I find quite poisonous. Implied is that the academic realm is somehow disjoint from the "real world." This phrase is often, in my experience, used in a condescending way to separate and denigrate various environments from some set of environments that are sufficiently "real" to merit recognition.

Consider one particularly harmful example of this. Since children are often told that things aren't like their school environment out there in the real world, reality as recognized by this phrase must surely exclude the first 20 or so years of our lives. Years in which we discover much about ourselves and in which our bodies change and betray us in myriad ways. Years in which we undergo challenges that we are, almost by definition, unprepared for. Years in which we experience emotions and pains which are all too real. To add to those burdens the condescending dismissal of unreality is a tragic perversion of the good intentions that must surely underlie the use of a phrase like "real world." What is seen by adults as a promise of a better tomorrow comes across as a failure to empathize with the problems of adolescence. This is why I call the ideas epitomized by the phrase "real world" poisonous: they pervert and distort our intentions and empathies.

How, then, does such a term come to be applied to academia? To many people not in academics, I suspect that the academic world is unfamiliar and arcane. Many people are not concerned with funding proposals, postdoc applications, tenure reviews, or any other of the myriad distractions from research. Even more fundamentally, the goals of an academic researcher are very different from the goals of most people employed in industry. It is all too easy, then, to fail to recognize these goals and concerns as being as real as those associated with other pursuits. Likewise, it is all too easy to compartmentalize the concerns of academics to some mythical ivory tower, locked away from daily life as surely as the princesses locked away in the towers of our more misogynistic fairy tales.

What could be more real than learning? In all walks of life, we must learn and grow to succeed, and it is this process that academia tries to incorporate and cultivate. When we lock this ideal, however imperfectly realized, out of our conception of the real world, we do ourselves a great disservice. Rather than responding to the foreignness of academia by drinking the poison of the real world, then, I encourage my friends and loved ones to ask questions of their academic friends. It can be difficult to bridge divides, to be sure, and those of us on the academia side of this divide aren't always the best at empathizing with the rest of society, but we can all do better than to dismiss so thoroughly the concerns of those around us.

Monday, September 06, 2010

The flip side of DBAD: we can call people dicks, too.

Who knew that Mass Treble's (Twitter) Golden Rule, don't be a dick, would be so controversial? Even stranger is that, due to how the word "dick" is interpreted so widely as to include many things which I find to be quite positive, I find myself often arguing against how DBAD is implemented. That said, I do in general think that not being a dick is a good and laudable goal, so long as one keeps a reasonable definition of the term.

In fact, I think it's a laudable enough goal that I'm quite willing to ask others to not act in asinine ways towards me and (more importantly) those people around me that I care about. To take one specific example, I'm quite content to demand that people not be misogynistic dicks. I consider it to be quite dickish to take prudish, sex-negative views about women and impose them on the world around you. Over at Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse points out a few particularly appalling examples of this, including a picture that drives the point home:

Let me make this perfectly clear: if you are to escape being called a dick by people like me, you don't get to demand that women sit at the back of the bus any more than you get to demand that blacks do. I really don't give a flip if your religion says that you have the moral obligation to be dicks to those around you or not, so much as I care that this behavior causes real and physical harm to other human beings. If there is a more clear sign of being a dick than being willing to subjugate half of the human race to appease your own twisted morals, I don't know what it is.

At its most basic, much of why I write the words I write and spill the pixels that I spill over religion come down to the DBAD principle. Evidence such as these examples shows that religion is a rather efficient machine for either turning people into dicks, or at least amplifying dickish behavior by insulating it from analysis and criticism. After all, it takes religion to get one to say that maybe gay kids shouldn't be as protected from bullying as everyone else. It takes religion to lead otherwise decent people to oppose a lifesaving mode of defense against AIDS and other STDs.  And so on, ad nauseum.

In short, if we're to really take seriously, Mass' Rule, then that doesn't mean that atheists and other freethinkers should shut up, but rather, that we should be more vocal than ever about diskish and unjust acts, whether religiously motivated or not.

On ideas.

Yes, my blog posting has been slow as of late. Blame working on funding proposals, a lack of good sleep or the phase of the moon if you like. The real problem, though, has been one far more mundane and frustrating: a lack of good ideas.

Ideas are the currency of my career, really, along with hard work and technical skills. Some ideas can be turned into research directions, others into specific solutions to technical problems, and still others become blog posts. Research is, after all, a creative enterprise. What to do, then, when ideas run dry?

The short answer is that I don't think that ideas ever do run dry. We are surrounded by a whole ether of ideas, after all. The trick is finding those ideas which solve your problem, ideas which motivate you, ideas which others may find interesting. It is less, then, that I am short on ideas so much as I am short on ideas that are applicable to the tasks in front of me, including blogging.

Or is it that I am lacking the discipline and energy to refine those ideas into proper posts? After all, writing (like research) doesn't stop with ideas, as Gaiman so gracefully puts it in an essay on writing:
The Ideas aren't the hard bit. They're a small component of the whole. Creating believable people who do more or less what you tell them to is much harder. And hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you're trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.
[Source: "Where Do You Get Your Ideas," an e-book extra to the Kindle edition of Anansi Boys.]
If there's one thing that life on the Internet teaches, it's that any idea is interesting when placed in the right context and explored with passion. For instance, it seems that much of science fiction works by exploring perhaps mundane ideas in fresh contexts and thus making them new, as Gaiman puts it. Snow Crash doesn't thrive because (to pick a small example out of many from that book) Neal Stephenson invented the idea of a gated community, so much as because he placed it in the context of extreme corporatism and factionalism and thus makes the idea new again in a particularly terrifying way. Manifold: Time isn't a wonderful read because Stephen Baxter invented the idea of the end of the world, but because he puts it in the context of a physically manifest observable and explores the consequences.

Certainly, authors such as Sky McKinnon write based on wonderful ideas, but I think that they have something else to teach us as well: that successful writing is the synthesis of ideas and a dogged enthusiasm for exploring ideas. In that way, writing, be it for a blog or a book, isn't so different from research, even if the tools for exploring the consequences of an idea are very different.

All this leaves me, however, with nary an excuse for my protracted blog silence. Ideas aren't my problem, after all. Oh, well. Maybe I should write a post about how ideas aren't my problem?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Much needed closure.

Closure is an important concept in mathematics, and is deceptively simple. If you have a set of things and some operation acting on those things, then the closure of your set is the smallest set that contains your original set along with everything that operation gives you.

The words get in the way, though, so let's consider an example. If you have the numbers zero and one, then their closure under addition would be all positive integers. Why? Because you can get to any positive integer by adding one to itself over and over. For instance, 2 is in the closure, since addition produces 2 from our set: 1 + 1 = 2. By the same argument, 3 is in the closure since 1 + 2 = 3, and since 2 must be in our closure.

We say that this set is the closure of our original set since it is the smallest set which is, well, closed. If, in our previous example, we omitted the number 2, our set wouldn't be closed any more, since addition could take us outside of the set.

As of late, however, the way that mathematicians use the word closure has started to be seen well outside of mathematics. Witness the rise of "epistemic closure" (closely related to deductive closure) as a useful term in political science. The word finds much use even outside of mathematics, as it gets to the heart of a very powerful technique in rational thinking: asking what, given some tool, one can produce. In epistemic closure, the tool is reasoning itself, while in our more pedestrian example, our tool was basic addition. In both cases, however, what remains is the use of closure as a mechanism for understanding and characterizing an operation.

In the spirit, then, of exploring closure, I'd like to bring some much needed closure forward. Specifically, I'd like to consider a kind of causal closure. If we consider some set of events which may or may not be causally related, we can for any specific event ask what events may be caused and what other events may cause it. Both of these are a kind of operation; extrapolating both directions in time to understand the causal structure of your set of events. The causal closure, then, of a set of events is the full set of events which caused the original set, along with the full set of effects caused by these events.

Luckily, we already have a term for this kind of causal closure. What we mean when we say that two events are causally related is that they lie within the same universe, so that the universe can be thought of as the set of all events which are causally related to an event representing our powers of observation. Under this realization, if A causes B, then A cannot be in a different universe than B.

All this is well and good, but why do I bring it up now? In a recent post, I asserted that religious claims were of a material nature, and thus amenable to the methods of science. That this is the case can be easily seen by invoking a principle of causal closure; if religious claims include any causal relation to the material universe, then they must, by closure, be entirely about the material universe. Of course, that alone does not mean that such claims are subject to scientific understanding, but that is an argument I have made before and don't wish to repeat here. Rather, my intent was simply to bring some much needed closure to bear on an argument that has gone on too long.