Monthly Archives: March 2015

Judgement

The phenomena of judging people is fascinating.

In face-to-face conversation, for example, I find it common to say things like, “this is a judgement-free zone.”

And I think that’s important.

After all, I’m in no position to judge anybody for anything. I have my own faults, my own quirks, my own self; any of which could easily be put under scrutiny and fall short of someone else’s perfection.

So I don’t judge.

Except when I do.

Let’s be honest: if I’m out on the street, surrounded by strangers, I judge the hell out of everybody. That girl who pushed the “walk light” button and crossed the street without waiting –  I judged her. That guy wearing – what is he wearing? – I judged the hell out of him. The person who wrote an article about her gentrifying love for my home town – you better believe I judged her.

I judge people all the time. Faceless, nameless people. Anybody I actually know – real people – get a pass. After all, we’ve all been there, right? Who am I to judge?

I imagine there must be something healthy about judging. Something satisfying to the soul.

A friend told me today that she “hates everyone.”

I say the same sometimes.

Except, of course, I don’t really hate everyone. It’s just a general sense of antagonism towards the world.

It’s the kind of thing you say when the world is just too much.

And we all know the world can be too much some times.

And I suppose that’s how it is with judging. You can be open minded. You can be accepting of all types of people doing all sorts of things. You can refuse to sit in judgement of the real people you meet.

But you still need that outlet. That general feeling of superiority over something. Even if it comes from silently judging a stranger for something you know you’ve done before. There’s something cathartic about it, I suppose.

The real task, then, is to find the appropriate time to judge, the appropriate way to judge. When it’s solely an internal experience completely divorced from the reality of another person.

Is that possible, I wonder? Is it then okay to judge?

Either way, it’s all good, I suppose. After all – I don’t judge.

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The Dangers of Empathy

Today I attended a talk on “Generative Empathies,” part of the Tisch Talks in the Humanities hosted by Tisch College.

The talk focused on exploring the question, “What does empathy produce?”

While you might imagine possible answers to that question – empathy produces shared understanding, it acknowledges another’s experience, it expresses our shared humanity – I was most taken with some of the concerns raised about empathy.

That is to ask, is empathy always “good”?

What if you are empathetic towards someone or something that is justifiably “bad”? What if you choose the wrong side of an issue because your empathy is misguided?

Perhaps more fundamentally – does feeling empathy relieve you of further ethical work? Does empathy soften a critical eye?

I am reminded, for example, of a recent story in Slate about the research efforts of a group of women incarcerated in the Indiana Women’s Prison to look at that institution’s history.

The traditional story of the prison’s 1873 founding went something like this: after shocking allegations of sexual abuse in a unisex prison, two angelic women fought for the creation of the first all-female prison in the country to protect their incarcerated sisters.

In this simple retelling, the two well-to-do women felt empathy towards wayward women, establishing a women’s prison to rectify their tragedy.

Of course, the story is much more complicated than that.

And empathy is more complicated than that.

There is evidence that the two women each had moral failings of their own. That it was their virtue of wealth more than anything that kept them on the right side of the law. By modern standards their crimes were worse than some of the inmates they oversaw.

There are indications that terrible things happened in their prison. That at least one of the women knew about and even instigated abuse.

Yet they are remembered as angels who saw fit to save the fallen women of their day.

Just who should one feel empathy for in this story?

And importantly, was it appropriate for the prison’s founder’s to claim empathy towards the inmates?

Their empathy was a resource of privilege. Left unjudged for their own crimes, it was easy for them to find empathy for those “less fortunate.”

And perhaps what’s most remarkable about this story that I’m left with little doubt that those two women thought they were doing the right thing. Regardless of their own failings, they thought they were doing what was best for incarcerated women.

Enshrined in empathy, they thought they were the angelic saviors history remembers them to be.

And that is, perhaps, one of the rockiest shoals of empathy – that it might be treated as a free pass, an escape hatch, an all-encompassing rebuttal to any challenge:

I can do no wrong, because I truly care.

Perhaps empathy can be used as such a shield, but it shouldn’t be.

Empathy does not relieve the need for a critical eye, does not lessen the burden to constantly question what is right and what is wrong, does not change your moral obligations.

It simply helps you see more…by demonstrating that you understand nothing.

As one speaker put today, quoting Leslie Jamison in the Empathy Exams, “Empathy requires knowing you know nothing.”

All we can ever really understand, all we can ever really know, is our own experience. Empathy helps us feel around the edges of what we know, comparing our own experiences to others, touching the similarity and feeling for the differences.

Assuming nothing, knowing nothing. Just groping for common ground across a dark chasm of difference.

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The Humility of Learning

Someone told me recently that education is a quintessentially humbling experience.

If you are truly learning, then by definition you are pushing the limits of what you know. The further you advance in this process, the closer you come to pushing the limits of what anyone knows.

You may even eventually have the capacity to generate new knowledge, but there’s a whole lot of not knowing that comes first. Well, really, there’s a whole lot of not knowing the whole time.

I find that image of education resonate, but also kind of odd – why should a lack of knowledge be shaming in the first place?

To be fair, there are many different ways to not have knowledge.

For example, I have very little patience for those who are willfully ignorant. If you think you know everything, but don’t actually know anything – that’s a problem. If you aren’t interested in exploring other data, viewpoints, or opinions – that’s a problem. If you simply refuse to learn about a topic which is entirely relevant to you – that’s kind of a problem.

But if you simply don’t know something –

Well, that should be forgivable.

Expected, even.

And yet our social norms seem to prohibit admitting such weakness.

I mean, I can’t be the only person whose been known to use the phrase, “yeah, that sounds familiar…” as code for, “I have no earthly idea what you’re talking about.”

It’s like the law of always saying yes in improv – when someone asks if you are familiar with something, it just feels right to claim you are.

The only problem with that, of course, is that you never learn anything if you don’t ask.

The Internet has changed that a bit, I suppose, as I have been known to make a mental list of things to Google later.

But generally speaking, if you don’t ask – if you don’t admit a lack of knowledge – you will never learn.

And that is humbling.

But it shouldn’t be shaming.

We all have a lot to learn. We all have so much to learn.

And none of us will ever know everything.

So I like to sign off sometimes – particularly after a long rant full of my own views, opinions, and biases; after pontificating about anything I claim to know – I like to sign off with the one thing I do know:

I know nothing.

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Northeastern

I’m spending most of my day on the campus of Northeastern – where I will begin a Ph.D. program this fall – so it seems only appropriate that I share a bit about Northeastern’s history today.

While the name “Northeastern University” dates to 1922, the school marks its founding as 1898. It was that year when, under auspices of the Boston YMCA, “the Evening Law Institute” was established.

According the Northeastern University School of Law, the program – the first evening law program in Boston – was groundbreaking. “The school was founded on the notion that a law school could and should respond to the needs of local community — a maverick educational idea at the time.”

The law program was soon followed by an Automobile School – the first automobile engineering school in the country – an Evening Polytechnic School, a School of Commerce and Finance, and a Cooperative Engineering School – all by 1910.

In 1926, Northeastern established the “Husky” as its mascot – an effort it apparently took quite seriously as it “inaugurated” a real-life husky, King Husky I, for that role. Northeastern went through several such live mascots before eventually deciding it was a bad idea.

While King Husky I apparently had a peaceful reign before dying of natural causes, the same could not be said for those who followed in the role.

King Husky III was put to sleep over 1955 summer vacation. When appalled students learned of this in the fall, they penned a scathing editorial for the student paper. When administrators stepped in to keep the piece from running, four editors resigned in protest.

Queen Husky II abdicated due to stage fright and was replaced by her son, King Husky VI, who was named in 1972. When this poor husky escaped his kennel and was struck by a car less than two months after taking his post, Northeastern apparently decided put the days of dog monarchy on pause.

In 1959, during an earlier break in the university’s live-mascot history, Northeastern began electing a “Mr. Husky” from the male student body. Despite adding a “Ms. Husky” in later years, this apparently began to be understood as a bad idea.

It seems that these elections may still happen, but the official school mascot, “Paws” was introduced in 2003 to, in the diplomatic language of Wikipedia, “replace the student-elected Mr. and Mrs. Husky with a more athletic and charismatic mascot.”

And if you are wondering, Northeastern is apparently back to having a live Mascot, King Husky VIII, who was named in 2005.

And why all the focus on huskies? The mascot was selected by a Northeastern committee, and the the first Husky to fill the role was trained in Poland Springs, Maine by Leonhard Seppala.

According to Northeastern:

When Vice President Carl Ell sought out Seppala in 1927, he did so not only because Northeastern needed a mascot but because Seppala had already inspired one great tradition: the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race.  In 1925, Nome, Alaska experienced an infamous diphtheria epidemic in which teams of sled dogs played an important role in bringing diphtheria serum through extremely harsh conditions.  Leonhard Seppala and his team of Siberian huskies carried the serum over 91 miles of the treacherous relay.

So there you have it. Another mystery solved. I guess.

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The Terminator and Free Will

The Terminator franchise does some really interesting things with time.

Seriously.

Every storyline centers around time travel. Around events being changed, or perhaps not changed, as a result of time travel.

(The fourth movie is an exception to this, but I think we can all agree that movie was just terrible.)

I’m particularly intrigued by the Terminator movies as an argument for – or perhaps against – predestination.

At its heart, the struggle against the robot uprising and ensuing apocalypse is really an exploration of the questions can the future be changed? Is our fate already written?

On it’s face, the Terminator seems to argue against predestination.

In the eponymous 1984 movie Kyle Reese famously – yeah, that’s what I’m going with here – argues, “the future is not set. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.”

That phrase is repeated in various incarnations by human heroes throughout the franchise. It gives them the strength and determination to keep fighting.

There is no fate but what we make for ourselves.

But while our characters want to believe in their free will, while they need to believe in their ability to effect change, the actual events of the story don’t necessarily support that view.

The very words that Kyle says were told to him by John Connor – the man who sent Kyle back in time. The man who only exists because Kyle fathered him in the past.

Kyle Reese, who so strongly believes there is no fate, was apparently fated to travel back in time to father the son who would later send him back in time.

And if that wasn’t enough, there is every indication that Skynet, our nefarious robot consciousness, can also trace it’s origins to 1984.

Terminator 2 argues that Skynet exists in the future only because the technology was reverse-engineered from the robot which it sent to the past.

Skynet is its own grandpa.

If the Terminator hadn’t gone back in time, if Kyle Reese hadn’t gone back in time, neither Skynet nor John Connor would ever exist.

Yet our characters cling to the notion that there is no fate.

Of course, this sort of temporal paradox isn’t enough to resign ourselves to predestination. A paradox is a paradox…it doesn’t mean that everything is meant to be.

And yet, the most important point in human history seems to be fixed.

Judgement Day, as it’s called. When the machines rise up against man and the world as we know it is destroyed.

There is no fate but what we make for ourselves, the humans say.

Judgment Day is inevitable, reply the machines.

The date may change. The details may change. But the end always comes. Fight against it as they will, it certainly seems our heroes are helpless. It certainly seems as though, indeed, Judgement Day is inevitable.

And if that fate is sealed, the details hardly matter. Perhaps we have a sort of nominal free-will; perhaps we can make a choice, but not over anything that matters.

And yet, despite this seemingly inevitable impending doom, despite the fact that evidence seems to point to significant events being preordained, the humans keep soldiering on. Keep fighting the good fight, desperate to change the outcome and convinced that there is no fate.

And perhaps there is cause for this hope. After all, while humanity fights to alter the timeline, Skynet is altering the timeline as well. Judgement Day may not be inevitable, but rather just the most probable outcome in this temporal tug-of-war. Perhaps the future can be whatever humanity can make of it.

Or, perhaps, it is fate. Perhaps whatever we do – Judgement Day is inevitable.

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The Fall

I recently finished reading Albert Camus’ The Fall – a book I may have scared someone off of because when I was more than halfway through I still wasn’t sure what it was about.

…And I’m still not sure what it was about.

Unlike his earlier works of the Stranger and the Plague, the Fall doesn’t have much of a plot. Not really.

It’s about a man.

It’s about a man’s fall from grace – or rather, man’s fall from grace.

Or, perhaps, his rise to power.

It’s entirely unclear.

Its a book that seems, at least in English translations, to be full of backhanded jabs at Nietzsche.

We meet our hero after his fall. As he recounts the highlights of his life.

He was perfect, he says. He was happy. He pursued the highest attainable position in life, and was fulfilled by natural attributes which allowed him to achieve those ambitions.

I enjoyed my own nature to the fullest, and we all know that there lies happiness, although, to soothe one another mutually, we occasionally pretend to condemn such joys as selfishness….To tell the truth, just from being so fully and simply a man, I looked upon myself as something of a superman,” Camus writes.

He was at the height of his life, he says. But in that height it is clear he is empty.

That exemplary perfection may as well be destruction. He is self-absorbed out of self-loathing. Cavalier out of over-caring. His presumed height is actually his deepest depth.

“Thus I progressed on the surface of life, in the realm of words as it were, never in reality. All those books barely read, those cities barely visited, those women barely possessed! I went through the gestures out of boredom or absent-mindedness. Then came human beings; they wanted to cling, but there was nothing to cling to, and that was unfortunate – for them.”

And then he falls.

Through nondescript tales of an ignored slight, of a spurned lover, our hero tells of his descent into further and further rungs of despair. Mapping his story as the journey through Dante’s Inferno.

At last, he is in the final circle of hell.But there, at the center of hell, at the depth of despair, there he is saved. There he finds perfection.

And in this wretched state, Camus ends the story: But let’s not worry! It’s too late now. It will always be too late. Fortunately!

And perhaps that is why I find Camus so compelling: he is a man who insists on salvation in damnation; who finds glory in despair.

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Predictive Social Science

One of the great sources of despair in the social sciences is the lack of predictive theories.

Physics can tell us what will happen when we throw a ball in the air, or when we drop two objects simultaneously. Why can’t the social sciences provide similar trajectories for human behavior?

Put another way by economist Richard R. Nelson, “If you can land a man on the moon, why can’t you solve the social problems of the ghetto?”

One argument is that the social sciences are quantitatively stunted compared to their natural science peers; that the science of social has not yet developed to it’s full potential.

Those feeling more kind may argue that human affairs are simply more complex than those of levers and pulleys; that civil society is infinitely more intricate than a Grand Unified Theory. It’s not so much an issue of scientific chops, but rather that there is so much more work to do to solve social problems.

I find both of these arguments rather uninspiring, but what’s notable is that they each lend themselves to the same solution: more data, more formalism, more math, more “science.”

As if predictive social science is just around the corner. As if the solution to poverty is one Einstein riding a wave of light away.

To be fair, the social sciences have made remarkable quantitative advances. In 2008, Nate Silver correctly predicted the presidential contest in 49 states, and the winner of all 35 U.S. Senate races.

Fueled by the promise of better sales and better customers, the field of predictive analyics is on the rise – helping companies better identify what their customers want. Or perhaps, more accurately, what they can get their customers to buy.

In 2012, for example, Target used their big data mining to figure out a teen girl was pregnant – before her father did. It wasn’t that complicated, as it turns out, just watch for the purchase of certain vitamins and you could have a lucrative customer for life.

But creeping on a teenager – or even predicting elections – is a far cry from solving our most pressing social problems.

Why can’t you solve the social problems of the ghetto?

Perhaps our first mistake is to think there is an analytical solution.

Bent Flyvbjerg, a Danish urban planner, argues that a predictive theory approach to the social sciences is “a wasteful dead-end.” Instead we should “promote social sciences that are strong where natural science is weak – that is, in reflexive analysis and deliberation about values and interests.”

Flyvbjerg calls this approach the phronetic model, explaining, “At the core of phronetic social science stands the Aristotelian maxim that social issues are best decided by means of the public sphere, not by science. Though imperfect, no better device than public deliberation following the rules of constitutional democracy has been arrived at for settling social issues, so far as human history can show.”

I’m not sure I agree with Flyvbjerg that “no predictive theories have been arrived at in social science, despite centuries of trying.” Surely, we have not solved poverty, but we’ve come disturbingly close to predicting the patterns of an individual.

But just because we could have predictive theories of social science does not mean that is all we should aim for.

There is important knowledge, valuable knowledge, in quantitative understandings of society. We should pursue those understandings fully, but we should not deign to stop there.

Why can’t you solve the social problems of the ghetto?

Surely, one white, male economist cannot. No matter how much data he has.

But perhaps we can.

Predictive social science, assuming it exists, is only one tool towards a solution. Without phronetic social science – dialogue and deliberation between all members of a society – it is worth nothing.

Of course, this phronetic social science ought to be informed by predictive social science, just as predictive social science ought to be informed by phronetic social science.

The two aren’t competing paths towards the same end – we must pursue them both.

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YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City

On April 16, The Welcome Project will host its annual YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City event. I serve on the board of The Welcome Project, and am chair of the organizing committee for YUM. It’s a fun event, and I hope to see you there!

Here is the full event description:

YUM: A Taste of Immigrant City 2015
Thursday, April 16 | 7pm
Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Avenue, Somerville, MA 02143
Tickets: $35 in Advance, $40 at the door | yumsomerville.org

Join The Welcome Project for live music and delicious food as we celebrate 25 years of building the collective power of immigrants in Somerville.The event will feature the diverse tastes of 13 immigrant-run restaurants, an exciting silent auction, and music by Son Del Sol. Additionally, the evening will recognize local leaders Franklin Dalembert, of the Somerville Haitian Coalition, and Lisa Brukilacchio, of the Somerville Community Health Agenda at CHA. Proceeds go towards the work of The Welcome Project strengthening the voices of immigrant families across the city. Individuals interested in purchasing tickets can do so by visiting www.yumsomerville.org.

Participating restaurants are:
Aguacate Verde,
Mexican; Fasika, Ethiopian; Gauchao, Brazilian; La Brasa, Fusion; Masala, Indian and Nepali; Maya Sol, Mexican; The Neighborhood Restaurant, Portuguese; Rincon Mexicano, Mexican; Royal Bengal, North Indian/Bengali; Sabur, Mediterranean; Sally O’Brien’s, Irish; Tu Y Yo, Mexican; Vinny’s at Night, Italian

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Saint Patrick

Today, the Internet seems to be full of articles titled “10 things you didn’t know about St. Patrick’s Day,” or “Everything you know about St. Patrick’s Day is wrong.”

I’m not sure who these articles are geared towards, but they seem to comprise mostly of tidbits of information which I imagine most people who actually know about St. Patrick’s Day already know.

To be fair, there are plenty of people who don’t know anything about St. Patrick’s Day – which is perfectly fine. It is, after all, a somewhat obscure Catholic holiday primarily popularized in the United States.

Albeit among the more popular Saint’s Days, Saint Patrick’s Day isn’t particularly more notable than, say, St. Brigid’s Day.

St. Brigid, if you didn’t know, is another patron saint of Ireland. Sharing a name with the Celtic goddess Brigid, St. Brigid’s Day is February 1, marking the beginning of spring. In another not-coincidence, St. Brigid’s Day corresponds to an important Celtic cross-quarter holiday: Imbolic…which marks the beginning of spring.

In my matriarchal family, St. Brigid always seemed arguably more important – we didn’t celebrate St. Brigid’s Day, but we did have a St. Brigid’s cross – but somehow, nationally, the male St. Patrick seems to get all the glory.

It’s a complicated holiday to celebrate, though.

Saint Patrick is a patron saint of Ireland because he was one of the leading forces in Christianizing the Celtic nations.

He used the three-leaf clover – the Shamrock – to explain Catholicism’s trinity. He used the Celtic pentagram to describe the five wounds of Christ. Like other missionaries of his day, he took pagan customs and symbols and wielded them for his Christian cause.

Famously, St. Patrick “drove all the snakes from Ireland” – a particularly miraculous feat since the isle didn’t have snakes to begin with.

Or could it be, as some argue, that “snakes” is just a metaphor for driving out “the old, evil, pagan ways out of Ireland”?

Well, that’s nice.

St. Patrick’s Day isn’t just a day where we stereotype the Irish as drunkards and all get to be “Irish for a day.”

It’s a day of history – about loss and pain, about new beginnings and a complicated past.

We raise a pint to hope for the future and to properly mourn the past. We raise a pint because maybe that’s all there is in this life. We raise a pint, indeed.

Eat, drink, and be merry – for tomorrow we may die.

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Outliers

“Big data” is all the rage.

As if all the knowledge of the universe is somehow encoded there, just waiting to be mapped like the genome.

Don’t get me wrong, big data is very exciting. Our social science models are more accurate, our marketing more creepy. Big data is helping us understand the world just a little bit better. And that is fantastic.

But perhaps there’s something more valuable to be gleaned from all this big data.
As Brooke Foucault Welles, Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern, argues, “honoring the experiences of extreme statistical minorities represents one of Big Data’s most exciting scientific possibilities.”

At last we have datasets large enough to capture the “outlier” experience, large enough to truly explore and understand the “outlier” experience.

Why is this important?

As Welles describes:

When women and minorities are excluded as subjects of basic social science research, there is a tenancy to identify majoring experiences as “normal,” and discuss minority experiences in terms of how they deviate from those norms. In doing so, women, minorities, and the statistically underrepresented are problematically written into the margins of social science, discussed only in terms of their differences, or else excluded altogether.

There has been much coverage of how medical trials are largely unrepresentative of women – with one study finding less than one-quarter of all patients enrolled in 46 examined clinical trials were women.

This gender bias has been shown to be detrimental, with Anaesthetist Anita Holdcroft arguing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, that the “evidence basis of medicine may be fundamentally flawed because there is an ongoing failure of research tools to include sex differences in study design and analysis.”

We should insist on parity in medical research and we should settle for nothing else when it comes to the social sciences.

People who deviate from the so-called norm – whether women, people of color, or just those that experience the world differently – these people aren’t outliers. They aren’t anomalies to be polished away from immaculate datasets.

They are the rare pearls you can only find by looking.

And “big data” provides an emerging venue for finding them.

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