Friday, November 30, 2012

Sometimes the Simpletons Aren't So Simple

Here's one of the stories we're working on at this hour. Like I said, this is a blog about everything.

The central myth of our gendered society is the idea that men are simple and women are complex. This is the underlying vision of masculinity and femininity that continues to shape people’s thinking, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum. Ultra conservatives and radical feminists both seem to maintain the same major stereotype about how basically simple men are and how complex women are. Pat Robertson and Andrea Dworkin would appear to agree on this basic point. Their competing ideologies flow in part from the same basic myth.

It’s a very popular, very rarely challenged assumption, probably because it’s such a useful myth. No matter what your rant is about gender, you can make any point you want by appealing to this basic stereotype. Men have benefited from the myth and been hurt by the myth. Women have benefited from the myth and been hurt by the myth. Sometimes being labeled “simple” is an insult, and sometimes it is a badge of honor. Similarly, being “complicated” can look like you’re “sophisticated” or “evolved,” or the label can make look like you’re chaotic or irrational.

Men themselves may be the biggest proponents of this simplistic view of men. Pretending to be simple can be very useful in getting out of boring social obligations, after all, and there’s great benefit in lowering your girlfriend’s or wife's expectations of you.

I propose the strangely radical concept that men can be just as complex as women. More specifically, in the aggregate, on average, any given man may be as complicated as any given woman. Men and women may be complex in totally different areas, and some individuals may be “wired” more simply than others, but I recommend that we suspend the assumption of male simplicity for the moment.

Unfortunately, this looks like a very dangerous, inconceivable idea to many people. Too much of the way society organizes itself is based on this stereotype, and a lot of people have a lot to lose if people started assuming men and women were equally complicated. The whole advertising industry would have to retool, at the cost of billions of dollars. This revolution would lead to a wholesale turnover in the self-help industry and might turn the bestseller lists upside-down. Imagine if men and women were both from both planets – how many books is THAT going to sell?

(On the upside, the men's fashion industry might get a big boost from this revolution -- imagine if you could market something besides the exact same tuxedo for every man going to a formal event. Imagine if a man's tuxedo could go out of fashion as quickly as a woman's evening gown. Cha-ching! Twice as much money for the fashion industry generated by every Oscars night. Think outside the box, people!)

At the very least, let’s step back and think of it as a hypothesis that men are simpler than women. Maybe it's true, maybe not. How would one go about testing that theory? What kinds of proof would you accept one way or the other? I suspect most of what you think supports this stereotype is just wishful thinking and confirmation bias, only seeing what you want to see.

Maybe I’m wrong, and on the whole men really are simpler than women. I’m just amazed at how few people challenge the stereotype at all. I’m amazed at how much is built on this stereotype, even though it goes unchallenged. Even if men are simpler than women, I seriously doubt the difference is as big as we’ve been led to believe.

What’s remarkable to me is how often men are given reminders that men are simple. Everywhere we turn, the media images in pop culture tell us that we’re simple-minded, over and over again. It’s like society has to constantly remind us to think in very limited terms.

But, if we really are naturally and contentedly simple-minded apes, then it’s a waste of energy to remind us to behave like that, because we would already be doing it. If we are already the kinds of men portrayed in beer commercials, then the beer commercials don’t need to tell us how to behave like that.

So, why remind people to act a certain way if they’re already acting that way? Reminders are for people who sometimes forget, sometimes resist the expectations put on them, or sometimes break the rules. Perhaps the answer is that many men seem to be violating that stereotype, which is why the reminders continue to exist. Too many men appear to be more complex than they are supposed to be, so someone has to put them back in line.
So, guys, don't go back in line. If you were ever in that line in the first place, that is.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Please don't vote.

I won’t tell you to get out there and vote. In fact, I think it would be disingenuous of me to tell people to register if they haven’t already.

First of all, I doubt that this would work anyway. Are there people out there who are right on the edge of registering to vote, haven’t quite gotten around to it, and my nagging them puts them right over the edge? Somehow, I doubt it. I am fatalistic about telling people to vote, the same way that people are fatalistic about voting itself – will my one voice really make that much difference?

Second of all, I do understand the idea that the greater the voter turnout, the “healthier” the democratic system. There’s a certain collective goodness that comes from more participation compared to less participation. On the other hand, to my mind that depends on how people cast their votes. There are candidates and proposals that are disastrous if they win. I don’t want people voting in such a way that makes the situation worse.

Frankly, not every voter acts in a responsible way. I do not want to encourage lunatics and the feebleminded to cast a vote just to cast a vote, or just to be "part of something." I am not convinced that an ignorant, thoughtless vote is always better than not voting. The U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights were originally crafted with the assumption that the majority of voters can be wrong and that you have to protect the country against irresponsible forms of democracy.

Along the same lines, if you’re waiting for someone else to remind you to vote, you are probably not highly informed about current events in the first place. If you are only swayed when somebody reminds you to vote, then you may be too easily swayed to be a responsible voter. If you need me to tell you to vote, then you really shouldn't be a voter.

If you're silly enough to think that refusing to cast a ballot will be an effective political strategy, then you are terribly misguided and therefore should not vote in the first place. If you are silly enough to think that your one vote makes no real difference, that actually shows a bit of mathematical wisdom on your part, but you can't see the forest for the trees and therefore should not be voting anyway.

Third, there’s my own political self-centeredness. I only want to encourage you to vote if you’re going to vote the way I do. I don’t want to encourage the other side, which is of course made up of the worst sort of people, and it’s beyond me how anyone can vote for them. And, the fewer other people vote, the more relative power my vote has. Being one out of 40 million gives me more power than being one out of 80 million.

Finally, I think telling people to vote has become clearly counterproductive. I suggest we try some reverse psychology in order to increase participation, especially if you want to get more young people to vote. Tell people NOT to vote. Tell them that the government does not want them to vote, and that this is “for your own good.” Tell younger voters that they are too young to have such responsibility and should leave these decisions to people who know better. Make some sort of absurd movie called “Voting Madness,” in the style of “Reefer Madness,” that shows people the horrible dangers of casting a ballot. Get some disgraced authority figures to tell people to stay away from the polls. Have both Obama and Romney tell the people in the other party to skip the election.

Make voting into more of an act of rebellion or counterculture and less one of those boring things from high school civics class, and you may be getting somewhere. Tell people not to, and watch them thwart you at every turn.

Of course, I will be voting. I will vote for all the reasons you are supposed to vote. I actually believe in all the great reasons to cast a vote. If you don't have any of that commitment, then please stay away.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

You're Right, Now Let's Talk

On the Good Men Project blog, “wellokthen” sent in a message that I was very much intrigued by. I was thinking myself along similar lines, because I get very frustrated when people online just get bogged down in their own ad hominem crusades. I don’t think I’m ready to make such an extreme statement. I see his point about getting the attacks over with, but it seems really foolish to lay yourself out there like that. I’m thinking, however, of drafting a similar statement when I have conversations online, like “you say I’m a bad person. See my disclaimer at _____ so we can move past this already.”


I just figured something out about discussing hot-button issues like racism and sexism. I can’t believe it took me so long to see the solution to dysfunctional debate.

Here’s my idea: I should stipulate ad hominem statements about me beforehand, to save everyone a lot of wasted energy. I hereby admit and accept anything anyone says about me as a person. Whatever you guess my motives are, those are my motives. Whatever you say about me as a person is true, no matter what it is.

I am a terrorist, rapist, child-molesting, victim-blaming, racist, misogynistic, homophobic serial killer who clubs baby seals and puts recyclable material in the garbage. I tear the tags off mattresses before I buy them, I immediately go swimming after I eat, I run with scissors, and I have terrible hygiene. I assassinated Archduke Ferdinand, planned the attacks of 9/11, and made the Buffalo Bills lose four Super Bowls. I have a lot of typos because the white hood that I’m wearing obstructs my vision. Whatever horrible truth you have to share with me, I am in denial about it, except for the parts about which I am totally ignorant. If you think I am trying to make fun of terrible things, then yes, that is my motivation.

I will not spend any time denying anything said about me. You can just assume you are right on the money. Whatever you say, guilty as charged. So stipulated. You can quote me on it.

Now, can we talk about ideas and evidence and truth?

(Wow. Defensive much?)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Bigger Sources, Smaller Minds

I’m sure this is old news to internet experts and I’m not the first person to see this, but this is a big revelation to me.

The internet is a paradox. It’s an open forum creating close-minded people.

The internet is a wide-open cosmopolitan place where you can find virtually anything you can imagine. On any particular subject, you can find literally millions of opinions. You can explore all over the world and never quite get to the bottom of anything, because there is always something new to investigate. It is the epitome of diversity, flux, and multiple viewpoints. You could explore the web 24/7/365.2522 and still barely scratch the surface of all the new things you can discover for yourself. Theoretically, the internet was going to make us all more informed, more rounded, more open to new ideas.

In reality, however, many people who spend hours online actually behave in the opposite way. They scan the web and discover only the information and opinions that reinforce their pre-existing ideas. Their time online has made them even more Manichaean in their worldview, more absolutely convinced that they are completely right. The chaos of the internet for them translates into an absolute certainty about the truth as they see it. Very often, once you find an online forum you like, you stop exploring. There are more potential news sources than ever before, but just like the days when newspapers were king, most people get their news from only one or two sources. The internet gets bigger every day, but the number of sites each person visits stays fairly stagnant. (I’m guilty of that myself.)

Consider the nature of the language people use online. How often does anyone on a blog or in a tweet say “I don’t know” or “I’m not sure” or "I can't quite make up my mind about that" or express any sort of intellectual nuance about reality? Rarely, partly because this is virtually impossible on Twitter. It takes up too many characters to say “on the one hand, I can see it this way, but on the other hand, I can see....” For many people, the internet is not really a place to explore but a place to get as fast and as limited an amount of information as possible. A multiple-paragraph review of a restaurant will just not do. Tell me how many stars and give me a few pithy quotes. Hopefully the first few comments on the list are accurate, because that’s all I’m reading before I eat there!

The internet provides virtually unlimited room to write whatever you want. You will not run out of paper or ink on your blog. Writing 100,000 words costs you the same as writing 10 words, essentially. The sky's the limit in terms of how richly you want to express yourself. The result, though, in reality? A long paragraph becomes "tl;dr." Tweets get shorter and shorter, without any room for even punctuation anymore. Turns out the internet doesn't really contribute to verbal diarrhea after all. The nightmare scenario of people blathering on hasn't really happened (well, except on my blog.) Quite the opposite. Perhaps that's the silver lining. I can dismiss you much more quickly now because I don't have to scroll down very far to get to the next person.

Maybe the internet stimulates a kind of intellectual agoraphobia. The incredible chaotic mess that is the internet frightens people into finding safe little cubby holes where they can soothe themselves by talking to like-minded people and consoling themselves by trolling people who disagree. I’ve been in countless online discussions in which I really am trying to understand another person’s point of view and really am conscious that I could be wrong about what I’m saying, but the other person only reads what he has already decided is the case. It’s odd that such a wide-open, anything-goes place like the internet has bred fundamentalist-level paranoia about other people.

Despite absolutely clear evidence that you really don’t know anything about the people you encounter online, you will see people online draw the most incredible conclusions about you based on a few lines of text. Despite the clear reality that the internet is full of illusions, fluid identities, and the benefits and dangers of anonymity, many people are absolutely certain that if I write a particular sentence then that is clear evidence that my motivations are obviously x, y, and z and the narrative of my entire life story is clear for all to see.

The illusion that the internet makes people more informed has apparently convinced many people that the more time they spend online the more they know, so the more certain they can be about their opinions. I spend hours on the internet every day, I have only found material that confirms my assumptions, so therefore I am an excellent judge of people who disagree with me.

The internet is a great place to experiment and wrestle with ideas and language. In a practical sense, that’s the only reliable part when you’re speaking with strangers about a subject. Really, all you have to go on is the material in front of you. What did this person say, and what kind of statement is that? Is this statement true or not?

The least reliable, most speculative part of internet discussions is the internal, personal side, the part that focuses on the real identity of the person writing. And yet, a lot of people head straight for the personal territory. They are the most certain about the places they really have the least evidence about, like what motivates another writer, what the other writer believes, what they are ignorant about, etc. If my ideas are too complicated and they disagree with yours, it’s so much easier just to say that I’m ignoring the real issue, which is ___, or that I am clearly just another one of those ____s.

Maybe this is another psychological reaction to the big, scary internet. If I had to open my mind to the possibility that I was wrong about something, then who knows where that will stop? If I can’t put everyone online into just a few simple categories, then my head might explode from the complexity of the information. Perhaps if I can’t instantly analyze other people, then that may mean that I don’t really know myself all that well, either. If my sense of purpose has been based on an illusion, then what will be my sense of purpose after that? How could life have any meaning when I don’t get to see the world as angels versus demons anymore?

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Truly Unselfish Reasons to Have a Child

Yes, I’m a Selfish Childfree Person, Part II

I can think of several unselfish reasons to have children, but it’s hard to imagine any that are not totally lame or totally creepy. None of these are very common reasons for Americans to have children.

Some relatively unselfish, for-the-greater-good kinds of reasons:

1. My religion needs more followers.

2. The rain god demands more human sacrifices or else my people will starve.

3. The master race needs more members.

4. My country needs more soldiers, especially since those evil ____s are breeding like rabbits.

5. My parents want grandchildren.

6. My spouse wants children.

7. My first child needs a bone marrow transplant.

8. My cannibal village will starve without fresh meat.

9. My first child needs some companionship.

10. My pets need more human companionship.

11. My friend the neonatal nurse will lose her job if the birth rate goes too low.

12. The community garden needs compostable material, and if I don’t provide it, who will?

(Okay, some of these are gruesome, but don’t tell me that having a baby for food is really all that different from having a baby to provide organs for your other child. Potayto, potahto.)

There is another kind of extremely lame “unselfish reason,” unselfish in the sense that it is not overtly or consciously driven by self-interest, so it’s not exactly cold calculation. That doesn’t mean it’s selfless, either, just that it’s easy for that person to imagine that it’s not an actively selfish choice.

I’m talking about getting pregnant or getting someone pregnant:

1. On accident, because of laziness, carelessness, or ignorance about birth control or reproduction.  (Yes, sweetie, unprotected vaginal intercourse in a hot tub CAN result in pregnancy.)

2. Because you never really thought about doing anything else.

3. Because you let other people make the choice for you.

4. Because you were totally wasted when it happened.

5. Because you weren’t considering the consequences of your actions.

Notice how many of these unselfish reasons are grounded in ignorance or carelessness. That’s not a very noble basis for becoming a parent. Something like half the pregnancies in the U.S. are unplanned. There are a whole lot of “oopsie” babies out there. As bad as the American sex education curriculum is, it’s not THAT bad. These are largely preventable oopsies, assuming the people WANT to prevent them.

A lot of the myth of the unselfish parent is based on the reality that parenthood may not be a well-thought-out choice in the first place. “How can I be selfish when it was a total accident? Don’t blame me, it must have been fate!” To really take credit for an unselfish decision, it ought to be a real decision.

Sorry, no credit for selflessness when it's really thoughtlessness.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Parents ARE Better Workers. Sort Of.

This is inspired by a childfreedom post about a article. Check out the original to see what I'm on about.

There are ways that parents do have special skills and qualities that are useful to an employer, but they’re not necessarily things that parents or employers want to admit. When I think about what it would be like to be a stay-at-home parent rejoining the workforce after 10-20 years, here is the list of things I think I would be able to offer an employer.

1.       Eagerness.

I would do just about anything to keep the job, if it meant not going back to my life of mind-numbing drudgery. Do you need me to stay late to work on projects? You got it. You’re doing me a favor by giving me something interesting to do with my time. I enjoy having grown-up conversations with adult people. Please don’t send me back there. Please. Here is where childfree people may take their jobs for granted – you think THIS job is boring and soul-crushing? You’re lucky you’re not home with my kids....

2.       People Skills.

Does your CEO act like an impulsive, spoiled brat? Make me his assistant, because I know how to deal with that kind of person. Perhaps I can give him a cookie or make him take a time out. Maybe take away his TV privileges. If you’re a company that treats its employees like children, then my management skills are just what you need. If your firm is in any way like a group of self-centered, immature, needy people, then I have exactly the tools you want.

3.       Team Spirit.

As a stay-at-home parent, my individual identity has for years been conveniently subsumed under the needs of the collective. No need to waste time squashing my individuality, because it is already pre-squashed for your convenience. If you could train me to obsess about profits as much as I obsess over my kids, then I can guarantee you Fortune 500 status. If you could convince me that the company is my family and you could guilt me into sacrificing everything for it, then you have got one loyal worker.

4.       Managing Accountability.

Do you have outside pressures from creditors and auditors? Do you need to deflect outside criticism? As a dedicated pronatalist I have a big toolbox of techniques for doing that very thing. I’ve got the Sob Story, the "How Dare You Judge Me" Deflection, and my all-time favorite, the "You Don’t Know What Love Really Is" Speech. (I've even made a Power Point of that one.) If you are looking to offset this whole new “social accountability” fad by presenting yourself as the victim instead of the perpetrator, then I have some tactics you are going to love. As a divorced parent with stay-at-home experience, I know all about using legal action to pre-empt hostile action or to destroy the competition. I know how to launch a money-seeking lawyer at someone. That just may come in handy in your line of work.

5.       Blind Optimism and Trust in Authority.

I'll do what I'm told by the peer pressure that's around me. I will drink the Kool-Aid if you appeal to my need to fit in with everyone else. You could give me the worst job in the world but tell me it’s "The Best Job in the World," and I will probably believe you. I fell for that trick once, so there’s a good chance I will again.

The Yeah, But....

All sarcasm aside, I do agree as a very general rule that parenthood could be good preparation for other jobs. At least, I would agree that being a good parent could help develop attributes that would make you a good worker or good business person. If you handle parenting responsibilities well, then that could be good sign that you handle responsibilities well in general.

However, there are at least two big problems with that argument, or at least two big questions that have to be answered:

1.  Does being a parent mean that you are a GOOD parent?
I said that being a good parent could be good job training, but not all parents are good at being parents. In fact, it is extremely hard to have a parent fired. You have to break the law in some very specific ways to be fired from motherhood, for example. It is much easier to be fired from a job than to be fired from parenthood, so the level of accountability for parents is actually much lower. If your irresponsible financial habits bankrupt your household, you still get to keep your job as parent. In most businesses that would get you fired. If an employer really is supposed to use parenting experience as a guide, then the employer would need to be able to evaluate how successful you have been as a parent.


2.  Is being a parent the BEST way to get these skills?
I have no doubt that many people thrive as parents and learn a lot of valuable things that would be useful to a boss someday. But, compared to other ways of getting these skills, becoming a parent may be a really poor route to take. Perhaps there are better alternatives for acquiring these abilities. I’m guessing a few accounting classes could be as useful as running a household budget for a few years. In many fields, it could be that a decade of parenting could teach as much as just a couple years of formal education. Furthermore, there is the question of the depth of the knowledge you gain as a parent. If you’re a school district, you would do better a) to hire someone trained as a kindergarten teacher than b) to hire someone to teach kindergarten just because her one child was five years old once. Being a parent is obviously not the ONLY way of getting these skills. Spend 10-20 years doing just about anything and you’re bound to learn something useful, but that doesn’t mean every way you spend your time is equally valuable.

Like I said, parenting can be great, so parents can be great employees. I’m just not so sure they are automatically the best. Nor are they good for reasons that make parenting look good.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Progeny vs. Paper

I just received a mass e-mail at work announcing a birth. One of my co-workers just gave birth to a healthy 7-pound baby boy. The person who sent the e-mail is the secretary-supervisor in my part of the firm, and she sent it using her work account. She’s kind of a grandmother figure around the office, and on her office door are photos of everyone’s children and grandchildren, so she gets a kick out of being the one to announce every new birth.

She also likes to urge people not to waste resources, so every e-mail she sends, including this one, comes with an automated tagline at the bottom that reads:

“Please consider the impact to the environment before printing this email.”

Think about that. It’s a BIRTH announcement, asking ME to consider MY impact on the environment….

This seemed quite ridiculous to me, celebrating the entrance of one more person into the world and reminding me not to harm the environment by printing out an e-mail. The real damage at birth is the printing out of the e-mail? Perhaps she should have sent the same kind of message to my coworker when she announced that she was pregnant:  Please consider the impact to the environment before reproducing.

I wasn’t going to print it out anyway, but I think I get a little slack here. Being childfree is a massive carbon offset that I plan to take advantage of. I think if I get a vasectomy I should be able to print as many copies as I want....

Friday, January 13, 2012

Just Life, No -Style

I’ve never liked the word “lifestyle” when it’s applied to being childfree. It has a lot of derogatory feeling to it. The word “lifestyle” has the connotation of doing something not only uncommon but also somehow deviant. A lifestyle is something that other, abnormal people have, whereas the good, healthy, normal people just live their lives. “Childfree lifestyle” sounds like we’re all swingers or we are sunk in mindless decadence. (Some of the childfree no doubt are, but not in any greater percentage than any other population cohort.)

People refer to Hugh Hefner as living a “lifestyle.” We would never say that Mother Teresa had a “lifestyle,” though she clearly lived life according to a very unusual plan.

People who are hostile to homosexuality are generally the ones who call being gay a “lifestyle.” We generally don’t refer to a social conservative as someone living a lifestyle, nor do we refer to a “straight lifestyle" or "heterosexual lifestyle."

By the same token, I’ve never heard anyone refer to a “parenting lifestyle” or a “childed lifestyle.” Saying I live a "childfree lifestyle" is to suggest a lesser way of living than a life with children.

My preference would be to make it shorter. Save a few keystrokes. Why not just “childfree life”?