Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Why Debate Will Not Save Us

Debates are won by good debaters, not good ideas. That's why.

Everywhere I look these days, I see people championing debate as the only way to preserve our democracy and move society forward. But this valorization is based on the false belief that debate is good thing in every context. Simply put, it isn’t, and it isn’t for one very obvious reason.

Debates are won by good debaters, not good ideas.

Some would argue that ideas operate in a sort of marketplace, and that if we allow all ideas to circulate freely, the best ideas will win out. This is simply not true. It would be more accurate to say that the ideas with the most powerful appeal to emotion will win out. As a marketing professional, I can tell you that my entire multi-billion-dollar industry is predicated on the knowledge that appeals to emotion will invariably win out over appeals to some higher-order reasoning.

This is all to say that we shouldn’t be so quick to celebrate debate as though it were good and that shutting it down were bad. 

The most vocal calls for debate nowadays tend to come from the alt-right and other regressive voices, which often take on the message of “Hey, I’m just asking questions,” or “Why can’t we put this to a debate?” But it must be understood what a debate fundamentally is, and how it can be distinguished from conversation. Which brings us to my second point.

A debate is a contest.

A debate is a contest in the same way that a fistfight is a contest. The contestants use words instead of their hands, which is more palatable to society. But in essence, a debate does not guarantee the victory of good ideas over bad ones any more than a fistfight does.

So why this valorization of debate? Quite frankly, because we like to see victors and we like to see losers. We like to hone our own debating skills. We like to believe that being a good debater is a sign of great intelligence or superior ideas. We lie awake in bed, algorithmically going over arguments we've had in the past, and thinking about what we could do better if we had it to do over again.

It is our love of blood sport that causes us to return to debate as the proper forum for contesting ideas. Of course, this assumes that contesting ideas occurs in a realm separate from the contesting of space and bodies. We fool ourselves into thinking that a debate is a clash of ideas between two disembodied, ungendered, raceless minds. We mock those who refuse to debate with the easy explanation that they’re simply afraid they’ll lose. In doing so, we implicitly state that we know that good debaters win debates rather than good ideas. But through this sleight of hand, we equate being a good debater with having good ideas.

Do we forget so easily that when people practise their debating skills through debate clubs and the like, these people are randomly assigned different points of view to argue for? In this, we see a complete disconnection between the ideas one is debating and one’s skill as a debater. This should seem very obvious, but the champions of debate as a vehicle of positive social change are very quick to forget that debate is a form of battle that tests one’s skills as a rhetorician, not one’s capacity as an ethical thinker.

I’m not suggesting that we get rid of debate altogether. But what we must do is shed this dangerous belief that debate is somehow inherently good and that closing off debate is inherently bad. Ultimately, debate is a contest, plain and simple. It tests a person's rhetorical skills, but tells us nothing about which ideas are better than others. 

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Progressive white men: give up your faith in your own persuasiveness

I’m a white cishet male who grew up in an upper middle class household and has enjoyed nearly every privilege our society can confer. I have always had a profound belief in the power of listening to your political opponents and using empathy and persuasion to bring them to a more progressive view of the world.

I now believe that this faith in persuasion has been fed to me since birth, and that it has had extremely damaging effects on those who are more vulnerable than myself, which is to say almost everybody.

Growing up, I was constantly exposed both at home and at school to the victories of twentieth-century civil rights movements. Yet this exposure was always filtered through a lens that privileged rhetoric as the principal vehicle of societal change. I was implicitly told that Martin Luther King Jr. was such a great public speaker that he more or less persuaded America to become less racist. When I saw footage of black bodies filling the streets and being attacked with dogs and fire hoses, it seemed as though the footage was only there to show me just how much injustice King had managed to overturn with his words.

In school, I learned that having a command of language was a form of magic, that it was the best and only way to further the cause of justice. My university education more or less confirmed this belief, as it confirmed that critical thinking and the persuasive essay were the greatest tools available for creating social change.

What I didn’t see in all of this were the bodies that had filled the streets throughout history, the erased and marginalized bodies that shouted and dared to take up space, and were destroyed. 

While these bodies were being destroyed, I watched a lot of the Daily Show with Jon Stewart during the Bush/Harper eras. Stewart's brand of comedy made me feel very self-satisfied in the knowledge that regardless of what way the world went, intellectual and moral superiority belonged to me and people like me.

Then Obama was elected, and it seemed as though the world had finally gotten its act together. Obama came into office validating what I had always believed. He said that he was going to heal a divided America by forging bi-partisan unity through the magic of compromise, empathy, and his peerless rhetorical and intellectual abilities.

Except that’s not what happened. Conservatives shut down Obama at every turn and forced him much farther toward regressive policies than the public ever could have imagined. Also, his bipartisan, consensus-building approach was wrong on at least one key point—Those in power are never persuaded to concede any of their power. They are only forced, and forcing them requires bodies in the streets.

Then came the Occupy Movement, which many criticized for its lack of focus. What did the protesters want? Who was their leader? The movement refused to answer.

I retreated to online message boards and coffee shop commiserations to express my anxieties about what I saw as the failure of the Occupy Movement. I didn’t realize that when the protests had "ended," the concepts of the economic 99% and intersectionality had become as common in media discourse as the concept of freedom had become under George W. Bush. Occupy shifted political discourse itself, a feat more important than pushing through any concrete policy. 

The time of reckoning for my faith in persuasion came with the election of Donald Trump. It felt at the time that intellect and a persuasive command of language truly didn’t matter. And that was really the most important lesson of all—that my ideas and my powers of persuasion were not nearly as consequential as I’d once thought.

Among the many privileges and fantasies the progressive man must interrogate and relinquish, one of the most destructive is his belief in his own persuasiveness. I think this belief is at the heart of many instances of mansplaining.

No, fellow men. Mansplaining doesn’t mean you’re never allowed to explain anything to anyone. It means that you need to be aware of that confidence that fills your veins when you feel like someone is not communicating a concept or idea as effectively as you could. If only you could just interrupt the person and fill in the gaps in their explanation. You feel yourself resisting because you know that interrupting is rude, but fuck would this conversation be over so much quicker if the other person just let you commandeer the explanation. Yes, other people can see this eagerness in your body language and your darting eyes, the expectant intakes of breath indicating that you’re only barely resisting the urge to interrupt. You’re right to think that holding back is better than actually interrupting. But don’t expect a cookie for your efforts. The same confidence can be seen when you spend more than thirty seconds explaining something without interruption, unaware that speaking without interruption is a privileged form of claiming and taking up space. 

One of my favourite novels is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. I used to think it was the book’s depiction of unreformed toxic masculinity that I found most compelling. But I think that what rings truest for me now is the fact that even after the time-traveling black protagonist Dana has repeatedly saved the life of her white slave-owning ancestor Rufus, the toxic male still tries to rape her and she must kill him. It is one of the most compelling depictions of the failure of persuasion and reformation I’ve ever encountered.

I used to despair at the ineffectiveness of the ideas I was encountering in my university classes, especially those involving critical theory that sought to identify systemic injustices in our language and material practices. I became overwhelmed by the reality that even when I invoked something as patently undeniable as, say, Eve Sedgewick’s work on homosocial relations, a friend or relative of mine could simply say, “Nah, I don’t buy it” and laugh when I persisted in flummoxed frustration. I despaired over the realization that an idea could never compel someone to agreement, no matter how true it was.  

It was only recently, while reading Angela Davis’ Freedom is a Constant Struggle, Rebecca Solnit’s Hope in the Dark, and Judith Butler’s Notes on a Theory of Performative Assembly, that I realized what my problem has been all along. It’s a problem that might appear stupidly simple to anyone of less privilege than myself, but for me, it was nothing short of a fissure in the bedrock of my understanding. It was the realization that no powerful group has ever given up its power because it was persuaded to do so by a superior set of ideas. Rather, social change comes about only when bodies take up space and make a big, hot, stinky fuss. Protest doesn’t care whether anyone is persuaded by it—especially those who seek to silence the marginalized.  

This is why trolls like Milo Yiannopoulos are destined to lose. The only power they have is the power given to them by progressives who cling to a belief in the respectful exchange of ideas and the power of rhetorical persuasion. If a progressive gives up the belief that their ideas and intelligence are superior to those of their antagonists, the experience can be very liberating. No, we aren’t rhetorically superior to trolls, and it wouldn’t matter if we were. The right way to deal with someone like Milo is to go to one of his events and scream your fucking head off, a tactic that vulnerable people know and practice much more readily than people like me. That’s because they understand that contesting Power has never been a conversation—it has and always will be a fight, and it is only due to my enormous privilege that I’ve ever had the luxury of believing that a calm exchange of ideas and superior argumentation could bring justice for those more vulnerable than myself.

Yiannopoulos and his acolytes may try to hold themselves up as the great defenders of calm, respectful dialogue (which is bullshit, since Milo begins nearly every talk with some comment about a marginalized group that is extremely disrespectful. For some reason, his supporters think that if he issues his slurs with a calm voice, this somehow preserves his claim to a respectful exchange of ideas). But on top of this, people looking to defeat Milo need to realize that having better ideas or better arguments are completely inconsequential from a political standpoint. Power only responds when bodies make a big, hot, stinky fuss. This is not to say that ideas aren’t important. It’s just that persuading opponents is pretty far down the list of things that ideas are meant to accomplish. When you read Tah-Nehisi Coates’s account of encountering revolutionary ideas at Howard University in Between the World and Me, you don’t hear him talking about how he then used these ideas to persuade racist white people to become less racist. No, he used these ideas to understand his own experience and to illuminate injustice for other vulnerable bodies. 

The belief in the power to persuade is responsible for the rise of one of the most faithless characters we’ve seen crop up in the age of the Internet—the pathological devil’s advocate. Posturing as a Socratic gadfly, the devil’s advocate seeks to paralyze progressive arguments simply by exposing the fact that they—like all ideas—are predicated on a set of assumptions that begin to crumble when subjected to sophistic scrutiny.  But such weaponized skepticism is merely another tool of Power.

Power does not operate according to the laws of reason. It convinces you through your education that reason is a set of rules you should adhere to if you want to persuade people to accept your arguments. But then Power laughs at you when all of your arguments fail to prevent a Donald Trump from getting elected. This must mean there’s something terribly wrong with what you’re arguing, right? This must mean that we need to give up on the whole intersectionality thing and work harder to understand and empathize with the people who voted for Trump, right? Absolutely not. What the election and its aftermath have shown us is that the political change we seek will only come about if we make a big, hot, stinky fuss and keep on doing it indefinitely.  For privileged cishet white men like myself, it rests on the ability to let go of the fantasy of our own persuasiveness as a tool for meaningful social change. 

I need not make these points for those who have experienced vulnerability and marginalization in ways that I never will. But to privileged cishet white men like myself, I want to reiterate: give up your belief in your own intellect and persuasiveness—these things wouldn’t matter even if you possessed them. If someone reaches out to you for a genuine conversation, then meet them halfway. But be done with engaging devil’s advocates or those who never have and never will make an earnest attempt to defend the rights of bodies more vulnerable than their own. You can’t persuade these people about anything, and it wouldn’t matter if you could. The bigot’s support is inconsequential. The misogynist's is unwanted. Garnering his support simply doesn’t matter even if you can get it. It doesn’t matter whether your ideas win elections. Nixon created the EPA while Clinton deregulated the financial industry: what matters is the environment of protest that forces all of political culture to shift. That means you need to get out among bodies that are more vulnerable than your own, be the best ally you can be, and do whatever you can to make a

BIG

HOT

STINKY

FUCKING

FUSS.

And please, be mindful of how you’re taking up space when you do it.  Like I said earlier, there’s no precedent for a powerful group giving up its power willingly, and that group includes you. It’s not up to you to decide when you’re being a good ally. The group you’re trying to support gets to decide that.


  



Friday, 11 November 2016

An Email to My Mother in the Wake of Trump's Victory

Hi Mom, 

Sorry I've been a bit silent since Tuesday, but it's taken me this long to process what has happened in the U.S. I have decided, ultimately, that this might actually be a positive thing in the long-term, even if it's very difficult in the short term. Here are my reasons why. 

1) At heart, I am a New Brunswick populist. One of the reasons I left the academy is because I truly believe that highly educated progressives are far too dismissive of less-educated people, writing them off as racist idiots and demanding recognition of their own authority as highly educated intellectuals. I think the highly educated needed a huge trauma to make them understand that they need to do more to close the divide between themselves and the less-educated. We can look back to the 30s and 40s for inspiration, where many intellectual socialists spent almost all of their time among the working class, trying to organize and support them (i.e. Moses Coady, Jimmy Thompkins). I think intellectuals will finally get the message and get out of an ivory tower shell that has existed for too long and grown far too thick. 

2) The more difficult part here is that beyond the populist victory, this election demonstrates that many Americans fundamentally believe that the country belongs to straight, white people more than it does to anyone else. I think this is the aspect of the election that scares most people. But I think this is also going to be okay for several reasons. First, I don't believe that Donald Trump has turned anyone into a misogynistic, transphobic racist who wasn't already one. In fact, he has shone a light on how much this already exists in American society, and now America will have to deal with it. People will get hurt, but I think the long-term effect will be a progressive one because I think the election has made the American public more aware than ever before about how vigilant it needs to be in combating racism, sexism, and all of these other things that liberals were content to think could not carry an election. Violence has always been happening toward marginalized groups in the States, and now we're just going to pay more attention. This same debate is coming to Canada, and now we'll be ready for it.

3) I think that this election is going to spark a fundamental rethink of the Democratic party, which (let's face it), has been a pro-market right-of-centre party ever since Carter's crushing defeat by Reagan. A lot of people are now looking at Bernie Sanders and realizing that he may, in fact, have had a better chance of beating Trump. Even the notorious Charles Koch has come out in the wake of the election saying that Trump's victory demonstrates a frustration with the two-tiered society America has turned into. This might be a case where conservatives are actually embracing economic populism, as long as they feel like they're getting it on their terms instead of having it imposed on them by a leftist government. 

4) Like I said, the next two years (at least until the congressional elections) are going to be difficult. But they have also shown us that the flows of global capitalism are no longer an inescapable reality that both parties agree on. It has shattered a political inertia that I think has existed since Reagan, and in that sense, it really might be the punch in the face America needs. 

The sad part is that I have the privilege of writing this as someone who will likely be least affected by what's happening. The real struggle will come with the members of the LGBTQ community, Muslims, African Americans, and other vulnerable groups who will need to stand up and fight a newly emboldened bigotry every step of the way. I am going to try to find new ways to get out of my comfort zone and be an ally to these efforts in any way I can. 

In any case, I just waned to share this. I love you Mom, and tell Dad I love him too. I think things are going to be okay. 

-Phil

Monday, 24 October 2016

The Decline and Death of the Rational Man


The Enlightenment ideal of the Rational Man will not survive in its current form.

In its heyday, the Rational Man was seen as the basis for a universal conception of human rights, a beautiful image of human equality that brought an end to the divine right of kings. The concept of the Rational Man was predicated on the idea that Reason and Power were antithetical, with Power being the tyrant and Reason the hero. 

The ostensible goal of the Rational Man was to create a Platonic slot that any human could potentially occupy, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexuality, and any number of other factors. In this idyllic world, individuals would exchange and debate ideas in a calm and respectful manner, and the best ideas would ultimately prevail.

Yet history has taught us that the type of rationality envisioned by this model is a fantasy, since knowledge can never be separated from power. The public belief that court judges can be unbiased, that science is immune from political and commercial influence, or even that political fact checkers can provide us with objective insights is eroding, and this is because of one inescapable premise: that knowledge and power cannot be separated. To call for calm and rational dialogue in this epoch is to reveal one’s privilege, a fact that can be easily illustrated by the science of gambling.

The House Always Wins

Why do casinos know that they will always make a profit on their gaming? It’s simple math. Take a roulette wheel, for example. It has 38 pockets into which the ball can drop, with the numbers 0 and 00 in addition to 1 through 36. The odds of the ball landing on black or red are the same, yet to land on 0 or 00 entails an automatic win for the House. Without these two green pockets, the game would be fair—a 50/50 chance. Yet the addition of the two green slots means that the house has a 5.26% aggregate advantage over any player. A lucky player may enter the game at any time and walk away a winner. But in the aggregate, the casino is guaranteed to win.

Now imagine that I, a middle-class white male, have been asked to participate in a debate on the subject of sexual assault. My opponent is a woman with a personal history of sexual assault and who has developed PTSD as a consequence of her experiences.

The debate has one simple rule: each participant must remain calm, respectful, and rational when making their arguments.

Much like the roulette wheel, the very nature of the situation gives me an intrinsic advantage. Yes, the other participant may remain calm and defeat me on the basis of her rational ideas. But if you hold the same debate over and over with many individuals, the advantage of the person who has no personal experience of sexual assault will express itself.

This advantage is called privilege.

Take for example professional pundits who have made a living out of saying politically incorrect things. The very purpose of saying these things is to make their opponents uncomfortable, because doing so increases the likelihood of their opponent becoming emotional or irrational. The point of saying upsetting, politically incorrect things is to widen and exploit this gap already created by social privilege. Again, the pundits’ opponents might remain calm and still manage to win a debate with clear, rational thinking. But over time, the advantage of privilege will manifest itself, just as surely as the House always wins.

With the decline of the Rational Man, we will see the decline of calm, rational dialogue as the ideal standard for mediating disagreements. This is not to say that calm, rational dialogue will disappear and that we will replace it with vitriolic shouting matches. Rather, what rational dialogue will lose is the self-evident superiority accorded to it by the ideal of the Rational Man. It will become one form of debate among others, and “becoming emotional” will no longer discredit a person’s argument.

Many of the Privileged Have Already Given up on the Rational Man

In many cases, we find large groups of privileged individuals who have already conceded to the fall of the Rational Man, and they are now trying to make their arguments within the new terms of engagement. Those who recognize the connection between knowledge and power have begun arguing that they are in fact the oppressed.

Men’s rights groups claim that they have been emasculated; they point toward the fact that they die earlier than women and are more likely to commit suicide. What they often do not point out, and probably should, is the fact that many men will also experience sexual assault in their lifetime—with the caveat that it usually occurs in childhood. Regardless of what one thinks of these arguments, they mark a willingness on behalf of these men to frame the debate within the terms of marginalization, vulnerability, and power.

In the United States, supporters of Donald Trump have decided to do away with the Rational Man altogether. They have instead embraced the principles of might makes right, me first, and fear of the cultural and racial Other. 

Many of the lingering calls for the Rational Man come from people who identify as secular progressives. Bill Maher, for example, will often cite statistics from around the world that supposedly demonstrate a fundamental incompatibility between a Western conception of human rights and a religion like Islam. Slavoj Zizek has voiced a similar opinion. Many secular progressives in Quebec and France will not hesitate to ban Muslim clothing on the belief that such clothing is the token of a barbaric culture.

There is one respect in which I think people like Maher and Zizek are right, and that is this—it is utterly impossible for a white male to envision a world in which their historical privilege is gone, and this is terrifying.

On a similar note, there is one respect in which I agree with Donald Trump, and it is this: white men feel disempowered.

What I would add to this sentence is “… compared to the historical privilege they’ve become accustomed to.”

The Law

Our laws are built around the ideal of the Rational Man, for they do not treat people as historically bound entities caught up in a complex web of power relations. Rather, they treat us as sexless, raceless, genderless rational actors who are immutably responsible for our choices and actions. This conception of the law, however, has one crucial flaw—it is subject to the bias of whatever judge is interpreting and enforcing it, and even more so if that judge is blind to the influence of privilege.

We find a clear case of this inconsistency in the trial of Jian Ghomeshi. After Ghomeshi’s acquittal, his lawyer Marie Henein appeared on TV in an interview with Peter Mansbridge and received widespread praise for her performance. To put it quite frankly, her argument was airtight. Mansbridge asked her whether sexual assault cases should be treated differently than others in the courts, and she said no. When Mansbridge realized he didn’t have a way through this defense, he began reading out cruel Tweets that people had posted about Henein on the Internet.

What Mansbridge should have asked Henein about was the bias of judges, particularly in this case, where the judge clearly lacked a rudimentary understanding of how trauma and violence can affect the memories of sexual assault survivors. To be clear, this is not to argue that the judge should have found Ghomeshi guilty on the basis of the evidence provided. But his characterization of the women as a group of deceptive liars, combined with his clear lack of understanding about the psychology of sexual assault, revealed a significant gap in the legal system that cannot be addressed by changing the laws themselves. Then again, it is extremely unlikely that Henein would have commented on the potential bias of the judge.

The Slippery Slope

You would think that the Rational Man would be the last figure to resort to logical fallacy in order to make His case. Yet in his waning days, the Rational Man is doing just that by resorting time and time again to the slippery slope argument. It has become commonplace for educated thinkers to defend free speech against what they see as oversensitive whiners; to say that if we ban one type of Halloween costume because someone is offended by it, we’ll have to ban all of them; to say that the moment we allow our decisions to be influenced by the fact that different groups have different levels of exposure to threats, violence, poverty, incarceration, and any number of other social ills; we will essentially create an unequal system.

What all of these arguments miss is something the Rational Man should know as well as anyone—that the slippery slope is a fallacy, a form of argument that is by definition logically incoherent. We have known this for thousands of years, and the fact that the Rational Man would appeal to it so regularly in his waning days displays a level of hypocrisy and moral cowardice that is hard to fathom, much less tolerate.

Fighting for Space and Freedom of Speech 

One of the places we are most likely to find the Rational Man nowadays is on university campuses, wading into debates about the sanctity of free speech. Students and community members from marginalized groups are protesting, making loud noises, and disrupting events that feature controversial speakers. The Rational Man sees this and feels great fear, for these students are revealing something he wishes would stay hidden: that one cannot separate knowledge and power.

Desperate, the Rational Man appeals to the ideals of calm and respectful dialogue, implicitly shaming the marginalized groups for being too emotional, irrational, and unwieldy; for being incapable of seeing an issue from the other side’s point of view.

When the protestors continue to draw back the curtain on power, however, the Rational Man will once again resort to the slippery slope fallacy, saying that we are heading for a world in which no one will be able to say anything because someone will always be offended. The thought of having to judge students’ grievances on a case-by-case basis, taking power and context into account, is off the table. What the Rational Man wants in His law, in His speech, in His society is a universal standard by which everyone can be judged.

Why does He want this? Because if you have a universal standard, you don’t have to talk about race, gender, sexuality, and all of the other manifestations of power that the Rational Man wishes would stay hidden. 

Now for the Clowns

In the past several months, another phenomenon has spread across college campuses and public spaces—the seemingly inexplicable appearance of creepy-looking clowns. These clowns have been seen across much of the world, and the Western world in particular, and yet they have so far been met with a mixture of fear and confusion from commentators. Some people have felt so threatened that they have attacked and even killed the clowns.

So what can these clowns tell us?

To begin, we know that dressing up as a scary clown means going out into public space while invoking the potentially contradictory feelings of menace and humour. If you laugh at the clowns, that’s great. If you feel threatened by them and complain, you’re just somebody who doesn’t get the joke.

Last week, an individual on the campus of the University of Guelph dressed up as a scary clown and held up a sign bearing the message “#clownlivesmatter,” in addition to other signs that reportedly made light of language that is often used to advocate on behalf of sexual assault survivors. After clashing with students, the individual voluntarily left the campus when asked to do so by police. Yet a video of the event went viral and quickly created a significant debate regarding freedom of speech and campus safety. After all, it is not illegal to dress up as a scary clown and occupy public space, nor is it illegal to make light of Black Lives Matter.

Defendants of the individual said that he or she was simply making a joke, or that he/she was making a point about political correctness and free speech. What they didn’t highlight was that the individual specifically chose to do so by trivializing a social movement that is predicated upon African Americans occupying public space and highlighting their disproportionate levels of exposure to violence, threats, poverty, and a number of other social ills. The Rational Man sees this and says “All lives matter,” trying to invoke a universal concept of human equality that has never made it from theory into practice. 

In essence, the scary clown phenomenon is the physical manifestation of the Internet troll. The mask provides an opportunity to invoke a menacing anonymity without breaking any specific laws. The attempt to trivialize Black Lives Matter tells us one more important thing: that this phenomenon may in fact be an explicit reaction against the threat of black bodies occupying public spaces and pulling back the curtain on power.

With the decline of the Rational Man, we have the embrace of the scary clown, a menacing absurdity that can be found in Donald Trump just as easily as it can be found in those who now openly embrace this role on a more literal, if not any more subtle level.

The End

With power made visible, and attempts to conceal it failing, we face a new situation—one where governments will insist on values testing for new immigrants to see whether they embrace the universal human rights that are embodied in the figure of the Rational Man. As I’ve said above, we’ll do this for one obvious reason: because absolutely nobody can claim to know what the world will look like if the Rational Man disappears altogether, and along with Him the privilege historically enjoyed by white men.

The Rational Man appears again at this point, yet something has changed. He has come to resemble the wheezing tyrant king that He deposed hundreds of years ago. It is the Rational Man who is the tyrant now, telling us that all will fall into chaos without Him. That there will be blood in the streets. That the slippery slope is in fact real and that everything we have worked for since the Enlightenment will be lost.

But He doesn’t know, and neither do we. 






Sunday, 3 January 2016

Novel "Lune" Now Available on Amazon.com


My new gothic novel Lune is now on sale at Amazon.com.

http://www.amazon.com/Lune-Philip-Glennie/dp/1329780876/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1451846932&sr=8-1&keywords=lune+philip+glennie 

An excerpt of the novel can be found below. 

-------------------------------------------------------------------------


The night of the next full moon arrived.  Invisible waves radiated from its surface and passed through cosmic lifetimes before descending over the northern forests. No cover of clouds could block them. The waves fell upon trees, rocks, and cabin walls alike, penetrating every crevice, passing silently like wandering spirits. Jean and Marie-Claire Comeau were blind to the force that slipped into their home and altered every supple cell in their daughter’s infant body.
Marie-Claire thought Marie was suffering from a fit of hunger when the girl began wriggling in her arms. Yet the struggle soon grew much stronger, and Marie-Claire glanced across the dinner table to find her husband furrowing his brow at the bundle she held. Slowly, he was overcome by an expression she had never before seen from him. His pipe fell from his lips and chipped its bowl against the floor. She swallowed and lowered her eyes.
A changeling! It was the same creature from a month before. Yet it no longer possessed the closed and helpless eyes of a newborn cub. It wore a full coat of fur and peered upward through abysmally black eyes. Marie-Claire yelped and hurled the bundle into the air. The animal landed on the kitchen table and sprang from its bonds. Here was a beast with no natural mother, one whose young animal mind had appeared in only an instant amidst the facts of existence. It made a chirping squeal and ran for the edge of the table, yet instinct told it that it could not leap from the ledge without injury. It ran about the table’s perimeter, checking the distance to the floor from every side. Monsieur Comeau wasted little time before snatching up a cast iron frying pan from the kitchen. 
Little Jacques emerged from his bedroom with sleep-crusted eyes. He spotted the grey figure that scampered across the kitchen table and screamed when he saw his father raising the pan to kill it. Forever a child of the wilderness, Jacques rushed forward and wrapped his arms around his father’s knees while his mother struggled to take the pan from the man’s hand.
You cannot harm this creature! shouted Marie-Claire.
You saw what happened, answered Jean. That thing transformed in your very hands.
It was at this moment that Jacques became aware of his sister’s absence. He scanned the room for an indication of where she might be, yet even during this search, he could already perceive the truth behind what his father had said. He released his grip on his father and looked toward the wolf cub, which was kneading the edges of the table and still gazing with uncertainty at the drop to the floor. Jacques cursed himself for having interfered with his father’s efforts to destroy the thing.
Marie-Claire gave no ground between her husband and the animal. She is your daughter, she shouted, and you would burn in the fires of hell if you murdered her!
She is a demon sent by Satan and it is my Christian duty to destroy her, answered the man, who took a step forward.
Marie-Claire set her feet more widely apart, bracing for a struggle. You know that she will not be like this for long, Jean. Soon, she will change back into her beautiful Christian form, and I will not have you murder her in this way. You must confront Marie not as an animal, but as your daughter. Only then can you decide whether you can murder her.
Resignation flickered inside Jean after Marie-Claire had finished. He paused to gather a fresh wave of anger, hoping that its crest would heave him into action, yet the sensation came and went, and he felt only a further weakening of his resolve. He could not help but love the daughter he had baptised himself—the girl he had failed to protect from the wild spirits of the forest.
When will this transformation occur? he asked.
In the morning.
Just as Jean felt the approach of calm, a fresh darkness overtook him.
How do you know this, Woman? Have you known about this monstrosity all this time? Is this the complication Mademoiselle Tremblay spoke of on the night this—this thing was born?
Marie-Claire held his eyes.
So you planned never to tell me of what happened? Is that it? Jean stepped toward her again. You were going to keep this a secret? You would have me give sanctuary to a demon without my knowing? The Bible tells of a man who was tricked by a woman, and for this they were banished from Paradise forever!
He struck Marie-Claire across the face.
Seeing the blow, little Jacques rushed forward and rammed his fist into the softest, most numbing place he could reach on his father’s body. The man felt his legs buckle as he collapsed onto the floor, choked with pain, aghast that his son would strike him where he had. Marie-Claire regained her footing, and when she saw the crimson-blue mixture of anguish and rage that engorged her husband’s head, she threw the swaddling sheets over her daughter and spirited her into the bedroom.
Jean watched from the floor as his wife slammed the door behind her. When he had recovered enough strength to regain his footing, he leapt after her and pounded against the barrier with his fist. He promised God that he would kill the demon-child before dawn, and this pledge reminded him of the axe that was lodged in the wooden stump outside. He turned to leave the cabin, but only to find his son Jacques still standing in the middle of the room, a look of hatred on his face.
You will pay for what you have done, boy.
Jacques recognized from the look in his father’s eyes that he was in mortal danger. He rushed away from the man and hurled himself through the cabin’s front door, sprinting toward the black forest. He could hear his father pursuing him, and knew that it was only the meagre speed of his seven-year-old body that stood between him and death. He led his father deeper and deeper into the woods, passing through tangles of brush that not even the full moon’s light could reach through the canopy of trees. He had spent most of his life among these woods and was adept at navigating them in blindness. He listened with triumph as his father cursed at the same brambles and soft patches that he evaded with ease. Yet his blood froze at the thought that he was leading the man farther away from his little sister. What if the man became so exhausted that his temper cooled, and he no longer possessed the strength to return home and kill that sickening creature?
It took a severely twisted ankle for Jean Comeau to give up on catching his son. He turned to grope his way homeward, and it was only after an hour of blind wandering that he finally arrived there. He glanced wearily toward his bedroom door before collapsing onto the floor in a dreamless sleep.
*
Just as Marie-Claire had hoped, the next morning brought the miraculous return of her daughter’s perfect human form. Yet she knew she would not be able to protect the poor girl from her husband forever. If the man wished to kill her, he was bound to succeed. Marie-Claire held the infant tightly to her chest, and with tears in her eyes she left the bedroom and stepped toward the body of her unconscious husband. This would be the best and perhaps only chance she would ever have to save the girl’s life. She stood over her husband, and when she looked into the man’s sleeping features, she tried to convince herself of his fundamental decency. She knew that Jean’s zeal could rival that of Abraham, but there was nothing left to do but test his love for his family, to place her daughter’s fate completely within his brutal hands and to confront him with the face that would haunt him forever if he dared to rob it of life. Marie-Claire knelt and nestled her child into the crook of Jean’s sleeping arm. Tears had run to the corners of her mouth, and she could taste the salt that swam within them.
Monsieur Comeau moaned like a man possessed as he emerged from sleep, and he stiffened when he felt his daughter’s face resting next to his own, her skin brushing against his stubble. Little Marie giggled and reached for his nose. He blinked and glanced about for some sign of Marie-Claire, but being unable to find her, quickly understood the decision she had thrust upon him. He cradled the child in his arm and rose from the floor to press her against his chest. The thought that a child like this should suffer such damnation filled him with a rare pity. Yet the raging flames of Christian duty had not expired within him, and thus it was with great regret that he made his final resolution. He walked to the door of his bedroom, and finding it unbarred, went inside to meet his wife.
Marie-Claire sat at the edge of the bed with her eyes toward the wall. When her husband entered, she knew from his breathing that he would allow their daughter to live. He handed her the bundled child without a word and turned away. She stared after him as he went, and once he had disappeared, she moved to the window and watched him approach the wooden stump outside that held his axe. Her heart leapt in terror, yet calmed again when Jean brought the blade down on a nearby log. He was chopping wood to warm his family.  
 Jacques Comeau had not returned home the previous night, but had found a sunken place on the forest floor and had lain there to drift in and out of a tortured sleep until dawn. It had been a warm night for that time of year, yet despite this luck, he began his homeward walk with a deathly chill in his chest. Not even his young rhythms and hot blood could keep his teeth from chattering wildly. His joints cracked like an old man’s. As he stumbled over the final distance toward the cabin, he spotted his axe-wielding father in the backyard and wondered how much time still lay between him and the next world.
Jean paid little attention as his son crossed the yard and staggered icily toward the front of the cabin. He figured that the boy’s sorry state was punishment enough for his insolence on the night prior. He began working away at a new piece of wood. It was not kindling, but a long and hard trunk that he planned to hew into a seven-foot timber. His daughter would not always be an infant, and therefore would not always transform into a mere cub. She would soon grow into a juvenile wolf, and it would be madness to keep her within the house beyond a certain point of maturation. This concern impressed Jean with peculiar gravity, for he did not yet know what unseen force had provoked his daughter’s curse. If Marie Comeau were going to live, the cabin would require a special place for her.

Friday, 11 September 2015

When Tenured Professors and Administrators Are On the Same Side



I was disappointed to read a recent note in The Atlantic titled “No One Cares That You Quit Your Job,” in which the author showered derision on people who had left careers in academia and written about their decisions in a growing body of reflective essays known as “Quit Lit.” The author, tenured Georgia Institute of Technology Professor Ian Bogost, mocked these “quitters” with statements like, “Why should anyone be impressed that somebody else can quit something? Much more impressive is figuring out how to live with it.” There is a temptation to take the bait here and respond with anger to Bogost’s lack of sympathy (and even contempt) for a struggling generation of professionals. Yet I think it’s much more productive to focus on what Bogost’s comments (and others like them) obscure about the state of academic labour today. In short, Bogost fails to acknowledge that he and tenured professors like him reap significant material returns on the people his piece singles out for derision.

To begin, we need to establish that the vast majority of people who end up writing “Quit Lit” pieces have never held tenure-track jobs like Bogost; they have instead worked as poorly paid part-time instructors with no job security, or they have left their PhD programs before graduating out of despair at their prospects upon graduation. Second, we need to highlight a crucial distinction that comments like Bogost’s either neglect or willfully obscure: there is a fundamental difference between the expression of frustrated professional aspirations and the criticism of an exploitative system of labour. Yes, Quit Lit might contain a lot of the former; but it emerges predominantly from the latter. The two are without doubt intertwined in complex ways, but the problem with responses like Bogost’s is that they treat Quit Lit solely as the whining of wannabe intellectuals who simply can’t hack it in the elite world of tenured academia. In doing so, they absolve tenured professors from having to confront the systemic exploitation of part-time labour from which these professors benefit on a daily basis.

Simply put, tenured professors would be living much more difficult lives if it weren’t for an entire generation of part-time instructors who have come to shoulder more than 50% of many universities’ teaching loads. These instructors work for a fraction of the cost associated with a tenured professor and they enjoy no benefits or job stability. A combination of factors (including the encroachment of neoliberal ideologies, declining government revenues, the explosion of undergraduate enrolment, and the decline in university per-student funding) has left universities looking to cut labour costs. Without a massive pool of part-time instructors to shoulder most of these cuts, tenured professors would be facing a much more aggressive attack on their tenure and benefits from university administrations. Yet both tenured professors and senior administrators are content to pass most of their shared material burden onto these part-timers.

So here’s where we get back to the insidious underbelly of Bogost’s contempt for those who write Quit Lit. Whether Bogost personally supports or fights tooth-and-nail against the growth of part-time academic labour, the fact remains that he systemically benefits from its existence, and yes, from its continued production. In other words, he is caught up in a system where he has a direct incentive to graduate more PhDs—not so they can become tenured professors, but precisely so they can become poorly paid part-timers.

Frankly, it doesn’t matter where you stand on the relative intellectual or professional merits of those who write Quit Lit or those who remain part-time instructors. What matters to the system we’re talking about are the sheer numbers. We know now that only 18.6% of PhD graduates in Canada go on to become full-time professors; although even this depressing stat doesn’t count the students who leave graduate programs before finishing out of despair at their job prospects upon graduation or because of soaring debt, and it doesn't distinguish between full-time contract faculty and tenured faculty. The numbers are tougher to pin down for an American context, yet we can assume that a clear majority of PhDs do not land tenure-track work when we find that 76% of all instructional staff appointments in the US are non-tenure track; the remaining 24% includes an entire generation of tenured professors who were hired 20-35 years ago, making the number much more generous than the reality facing new PhD grads. Yet PhD programs continue to behave as though the production of future tenured professors is their primary mission. This supposed mission is explicitly contradicted by the numbers we have before us, which once again leads us to a dark conclusion: the real mission of today’s PhD programs is to create more part-time academics, not tenured ones.

I don’t mean to demonize tenured professors on a personal level. In fact, the majority of the tenured professors I know have been extremely supportive of my decision to leave academia and have treated me with a level of respect I would wish upon anyone in my situation. That said, we need to acknowledge that these professors work within a system that incentivizes them to graduate more PhDs to produce more part-time instructors. Yes, producing an all-star tenured academic will bring positive exposure to a senior professor and her/his department. But attracting more PhD candidates and sending the majority of them out to become part-time instructors benefits the tenured class in a much more immediate and tangible way. Many departments have done an excellent job of obscuring this fact, however, by criticizing the neoliberal takeover of university administrations and blaming this takeover for all of the part-timers’ woes (when they’re not busy blaming the part-timers themselves, like Bogost does). Yet the tenured members of these departments could refuse to work en masse until their universities instituted strict caps on how many courses could be taught by non-full-time faculty. To date, we’ve seen more comments like Bogost’s than we’ve seen political action of this nature.

On a personal level, I often feel deeply disappointed with tenured professors who criticize late-year PhD students or part-time instructors for being uncommitted or whiny. No one is disputing the fact that academia is a difficult world that has always (to some extent) frustrated the aspirations of many would-be professors. Yet when I hear tenured professors excusing academia’s exploitative part-time labour situation without acknowledging how they directly benefit from it, I can’t help but feel like I’m listening to staunch conservatives blaming the poor for their own poverty. “If the part-time job market is so awful,” they might say, “then just walk away.” But it’s unreasonable to expect a person with dreams of a tenure track job and 10+ years of postsecondary education to give up on these dreams immediately. Letting go takes time. How much time, you ask? Probably 3-7 years, which is exactly how much time the system requires to extract their part-time labour before replacing them with a fresh crop of eager PhDs that our university departments continue to produce.

Now to be fair to Canada's university faculties, it wasn't necessarily their idea to start graduating more PhDs in the first place. In the major educational centres of British Columbia and Ontario, for example, the recent boom in graduate school attendance was actually an initiative of governments that hoped to boost innovation by producing more people with advanced degrees, even though these governments had few if any plans for what to do with these people once they’d graduated. During this same time, public funding for Ontario universities only increased nominally while undergraduate enrolment grew exponentially, which meant that per-student funding dropped. This decrease has put an increased strain on university administrations that, to be fair, have come to demand much more of tenured professors when it comes to their administrative and teaching obligations. Yet it is quite clear that the burden of these budget constraints has been disproportionately felt by part-time instructors. And why wouldn’t it be? University administrators looked one way and saw long, bitter struggles with tenured faculty; they looked another and saw a group of PhD graduates who were eager to work part-time to maintain their institutional affiliations, and therein, their aspirations for tenure-track jobs. The glut of PhD graduates produced by a shortsighted government policy gave university administrators and tenured faculty a relatively easy way to transfer their shared material constraints onto someone else, and now it’s safe to say that both groups have become dependent on it. 

When we question the systemic pressures underlying today’s academic labour market, we find that the intellectual aptitude, professional commitment, or work ethic of today’s PhD graduates are completely irrelevant concerns. Regardless of how we ended up where we are, we all need to take responsibility for the system we’re confronted with and for our own complicity or resistance to this system. Despite what professors like Ian Bogost might think, we need more Quit Lit essays from people looking to build solidarity around their decisions to quit academia. We need to do whatever we can to disrupt the supply of new part-time instructors that allows academia to follow the same model as McDonald’s, burning out cohort after cohort of new PhD graduates and replenishing them from a cheap labour pool it continues to knowingly produce. Yes, some tenured professors will help us in this cause; but don’t expect this help to come in a large-scale way anytime soon. On a systemic level, part-time instructors have no friends among university administrators or tenured faculty, because both groups profit greatly by the existence of these part-timers and both have a vested interest in the continued production of them.  

Thursday, 10 September 2015

A Note to the High-Achieving Student: Give Yourself Permission to Muddle




When I first graduated with a PhD in English Literature, I was plagued by the sense that no one in the non-academic job market cared about my achievement. After dozens of unsuccessful job applications, it became apparent that my education would not be enough without workplace experience to back it up. Like many, I assumed that “experience” was considered crucial because it indicated that workers had acquired job-specific skills and a professional knowledge base that made them immediately valuable to a prospective employer. Yet after working in the non-academic world for several years, I have realized that the “experience” that employers are looking for has less to do with a person’s skills and knowledge base than it does with the mode of learning that emerges through workplace experience.

On a general level, I believe that learning follows a trial-and-error model in the workplace much more than it does in the exam room. On any given workday, an individual can make a number of small or large mistakes, and good managers will respond by ensuring that the individual understands those mistakes and learns how to avoid them in the future. In contrast, the scholastic mode of learning (particularly for a high-functioning student) follows a perfectionist model. Parents of “A” students are not likely to say, “Just see how you do on the next test and learn from your mistakes.” Rather, they are much more likely to tell their children not to make any mistakes in the first place, especially when having a competitive GPA and applying for major scholarships doesn’t allow students the luxury of trial and error learning. This perfectionist emphasis, I argue, constitutes a fundamental point of difference between traditional scholastic learning and workplace learning. Having an impressive transcript might demonstrate your intellectual aptitude, but having work experience shows an employer that you’ve had the opportunity to learn from workplace mistakes and that (more importantly) you’ve already made those mistakes someplace else.

To illustrate the difference between a perfectionist and a trial-and-error-based “muddler,” I am drawn to Jonah Lehrer’s book, How We Decide. This book was actually pulled from stores when Lehrer was accused of fabricating quotes in a previous text, yet I believe it still offers valuable insight in one of its passages on computer intelligence. In this passage, Lehrer recounts the story of Deep Blue, the set of IBM mainframes that defeated chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997. Deep Blue was capable of processing more than 200 million possible chess moves per second, while Kasparov (a world champion) could only process five. Of course, Deep Blue carried the day and defeated Kasparov 3.5 games to 2.5 (with a .5 point reflecting a draw). Yet this match was a rematch of a contest that Kasparov had won 4-2 in the previous year. Computer enthusiasts around the world lauded Deep Blue’s eventual victory, but many people in the world of computer programming were forced to ask, “Why did a machine with 40 million times the processing power of its human opponent win by so narrow a margin?” The answer lies in the limits of a perfectionist mode of learning.

Deep Blue was designed to make the “perfect” chess move every time it played. But in doing so, the computer had to completely recreate the chessboard and process millions of moves each time its turn began. It could not learn from experience and it required an enormous amount of energy to run its calculations over and over. The computer used so much power, in fact, that it required “specialized heat-dissipating equipment so that it didn’t burst into flames.” Kasparov’s brain, on other hand, could draw upon decades of experience to limit its attention to a small series of possible next moves. He had honed his craft through a long process of study and muddling, while Deep Blue was the ultimate perfectionist.

Surprised with the limitations of Deep Blue, a computer programmer at IBM named Gerald Tesauro designed a new program to become the ultimate Backgammon player. However, he encoded one crucial feature into its software. Unlike Deep Blue, which was designed to make a perfect move on every turn, this new software was designed never to make the same mistake twice. The program could not even beat an elementary Backgammon player when it was first tested. But after it was put through millions of simulated games, the program became far superior to Deep Blue while using a minute fraction of the processing power.

Talk to any number of high-achieving students today and you’re bound to meet a few anxiety-stricken Deep Blues whose brains are ready to burst into figurative flames. The mental health consequences of perfectionism have been well documented and they (like too many social problems) disproportionately affect young women. Yet the intense pressure never to make mistakes encourages this mode of learning throughout most formal schooling processes. It’s only relatively recently that educators have begun to embrace the trial-and-error aspects of Active Learning on a broad, formalized scale, and this is a development that I celebrate.

Now that I’ve talked about the virtues of muddling, I need to talk about its vices. Just as there are drawbacks to an overemphasis on proactive learning, there are potential disasters awaiting us if we start telling everyone, “Don’t worry, you’ll learn it after you mess it up a few times.” Some mistakes are difficult if not impossible to rectify, as we find every day with the ongoing destruction of our environment or any number of other issues we fail to address in a sufficiently proactive way. One needs look no further than the great tragedies of western literature to find countless examples of people who did not learn their lessons until it was too late. In fact, I strongly suspect that the enormous emotional power of tragedy comes from our fear that we ourselves might be doomed to learn our most valuable lessons only after our mistakes have become irredeemable.

I believe that on some general level, perfectionists thrive within formal education because their tendencies are well suited to a test-based system of merit that punishes more reactive approaches to learning. This dynamic helps explain the thesis behind a book like Why A Students Work for C students and Why B students work for the Government, by Robert Kiyosaki. In this book, Kiyosaki claims that “A” students thrive in school but less so in the “real world” because they are adept at working within a meritocratic system with clear rules and significant benefits for perfectionists. “C” students, however, are more likely to be self-directed muddlers who thrive much more once they enter the less formally meritocratic world outside of school. While I do not wish to argue for or against the veracity of this thesis, I mention it here to highlight how at least one bestselling author has connected this perfectionist/muddler distinction to the biases found in traditional education.  

My purpose in writing this piece is not to turn a generation of perfectionist students into one of muddlers. Rather, I hope that this piece can get those perfectionists to reflect on the ways that formal schooling and rewards systems have pushed them to adopt a mode of learning that can create significant mental health problems and poor self-image in the long run. By better understanding these forces and by seeing the value in trial-and-error learning, I hope these students can find a renewed sense of self worth and hope for the future as they enter the world beyond that of formal schooling.