The authors present an initial framework for tackling an important real world question: how can you automatically extract from a news corpus the names of civilians killed by police officers? Their study focuses on the U.S. context, where there are no complete federal records of such killings.
Filling this gap, human rights organizations and journalists have attempted to compile such a list through the arduous – and emotionally draining – task of reading millions of news articles to identify victim names and event details.
Given the salience of this problem, a Keith et al set out to develop a more streamlined solution.
The event-extraction problem is furthermore an interesting NLP challenge in itself – there are non-trivial disambiguation problems as well as semantic variability around indicators of civilians killed by police. Common false positives in their automated approaches, for example, include officers killed in the line of duty and non-fatal encounters.
Their approach relies on distant supervision – using existing databases of civilians killed as mention-level labels. They implement this labeling with both “hard” and a “soft” assumption models. The hard labeling assumes that every mention of a person (name and location) from the gold-standard database corresponds to a mention of a police killing. This assumption proves to be too hard and an inaccurate model of the textual input.
The “soft” models perform better. Rather than assume that every relevant sentence corresponds to a mention of a police killing, soft models assume that at least one of the sentences do. That is, if you take all the sentence in the corpus which mention an individual known to have been killed by police, at least one of those sentences directly conveys information of the killing.
Intuitively, this makes sense – while the hard assumption takes every mention of Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, or Philandro Castile to occur in a sentence mentioning a police killing, we know from simply reading the news that some of those sentence will talk about their lives, their families, or the larger context in which their killing took place.
For both assumptions, Keith et al compare performance between a convolutional neural net and a linear regression model – ultimately finding that the regression, with the soft assumption, out performs the neural net.
There’s plenty of room for improvement and future work on their model, but overall, this paper presents a clever NLP application to a critical, real world problem. It’s a great example of the broad and important impact NLP approaches can have.
Ally Lee Steinfeld had been missing since early September. Her body was found recently, mutilated and burned. She was 17.
Her death made Steinfeld at least the 21st transgender person killed in the United States this year. A record high of 22 murders were captured by the Human Rights Campaign last year.
We have to do better.
Steinfeld’s case is not being pursued as a hate crime. The sheriff overseeing the case told the Associated Press: “You don’t kill someone if you don’t have hate in your heart. But no, it’s not a hate crime.” That talking point was echoed by the prosecutor in the case, who told Time: “I would say murder in the first-degree is all that matters. That is a hate crime in itself.”
Perhaps this is accurate in a practical sense – in Missouri, where the crime took place, first-degree murder is punishable by execution or life imprisonment. A hate crime charge would be unlikely to add penalty.
Such comments, however, miss the point. A woman is dead. We have to do better.
Some advocates have even started to question whether hate crimes prosecution is an effective strategy. As one ACLU lawyer put it, “I worry that what hate crime laws do is narrow our focus on certain types of individual violence while absolving the entire system that generates the violence.”
And that’s the thing – it is a problem with the entire system. We are all culpable in perpetuating the gross transphobia of our society – through violent transphobic acts, through subtle jokes and misgendering, or by being complicit through silence while such hateful acts take place.
We have to do better.
Personally, I’m not prepared to abandon hate crime legislation just yet – whether adding to a punishment or not, ignoring the hate of a crime seems to implicitly indicate that while the crime may be punishable, the hate itself is sanctioned. But I’ve met a lot of good, smart lawyers who tell me that sometimes you have to sacrifice framing in the legal system – you go for the toughest penalty you can go for.
I do not know whether we can best accomplish our work through hate crime legislation or through other modes of advocacy. I only know that we have to do better.
We tell young women that they can be anything, that they can do anything. That they should shut down the haters and embrace their true selves. We tell women that it is their right in the 21st century to be the person they want to be. We tell them this is America. We tell them they are free.
Three months before she died, Steinfeld posted to Instagram: “I am proud to be me I am proud to be trans I am beautiful I don’t care what people think.”
“Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger,” says Audre Lorde in The Uses of Anger, her 1981 keynote talk at the National Women’s Studies Association Conference.
I have been thinking a lot about this piece recently. It feels sharply relevant today, 36 years after it was written.
Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger. An arsenal built from fear; from the constant slights and dismissals; from living and functioning in a world which takes us for granted, insists we are not enough, and half-heartidly feigns distress over the violence used against us. Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger.
I know I do.
Lorde argues this anger is a strength, that it has powerful, transformative uses. Anger, she argues, leads to change.
Importantly, in conflicts between the oppressed and their oppressors, there are not “two sides.” The anger of the oppressed leads to growth while the hatred of the oppressors seeks destruction. As Lorde writes:
Hatred is the fury of those who do not share our goals, and its object is death and destruction. Anger is the grief of distortions between peers, and its object is change.
Anger is the grief of distortions between peers. Anger arises when you and I fail to understand each other, when we fail to listen genuinely and to acknowledge each other’s experience. Anger arises when the world insists that your perceptions and experiences aren’t real.
But anger has it’s uses, Lorde says. “Anger is loaded with information and energy.”
Anger, articulated with precision and “translated into action in the service of our vision and out future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.”
Anger at the distortions between peers creates space for us to clarify and remove those distortions; to genuinely accept the experiences of others.
This is particularly important in the context of gender because the experiences of women vary radically across numerous dimensions of race, class, and identity.
In order to successful use our anger, we must “examine the contradictions of self, woman, as oppressor.”
Lorde is diplomatic on the topic, recognizing that she, too – a lesbian woman of color – has at times taken on the role of oppressing other women. But drawing on my own identity, I’m inclined to be more direct here: white women, and particularly white cis women have played a long and important role in building and maintaining systems of white supremacy and cisnormativity.
We have suffered our slings and arrows, no doubt, and with good reason our personal arsenals are well-stocked with anger. Yet we, too, are oppressors. We have oppressed our sisters directly and indirectly, intentionally and unintentionally. Recognizing this is, as Lorde describes, a painful process of translation. But is a process we must undertake; a process we must engage in order to radically change the systems of power, privilege, and oppression we are embedded in; the systems which oppress us and our neighbors.
Furthermore, Lorde argues that anger can bring out this change – guilt at our own complicity does nothing:
I have no creative use for guilt, yours or my own. Guilt is only another way of avoiding informed action, of buying time out of the pressing need to make clear choices, out of the approaching storm that can feed the earth as well as bend the trees.
Guilt is a proxy for impotence; for inaction. But anger is transformative. As Lorde writes:
…The strength of women lies in recognizing differences between us as creative, and in standing to those distortions which we inherited without blame but which are now ours to alter. The angers of women can transform differences through insight into power. For anger between peers births change, not destruction, and the discomfort and sense of loss it often causes is not fatal, but a sign of growth.
“On June 15, 2012, the Secretary of Homeland Security announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and meet several guidelines may request consideration of deferred action for a period of two years, subject to renewal,” reads the website for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Consideration of deferred action for childhood arrivals, or DACA, has narrow guidelines as to whom is eligible: to qualify, you must have arrived in the US before the age of 16; you must have continually resided in the US for the past 10 years (since June 15, 2007); must be a student, high school graduate, or an honorably discharged veteran of the US armed services, and must not “pose a threat to national security or public safety.”
In short, DACA applies to people who have gone to American schools, contributed to American society, and who came to this country before they were even old enough to have a choice in the matter. They are students virtually indistinguishable from their classmates.
Many don’t even remember a time when they weren’t living in the U.S.
This is their home country.
There are many reasonable debates to have around immigration policy. We could talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which opens with the shockingly straightforward line:
Whereas, in the opinion of the Government of the United States the coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof…
The Act, passed by Congress and signed by President Chester A. Arthur, represents the first time ethnic exclusion was explicitly stated in U.S. immigration law; justified merely by the flimsy fear of colonizing Europeans that Chinese residents endangered “the good order of certain localities.”
The Chinese Exclusion Act was renewed as the Geary Act in 1892 and made permanent another decade later. Incidentally, the Geary Act also expanded the language used; targeting any “Chinese person or person of Chinese descent.”
In 1943, in the midsts of World War II and after 60 years of virtually banning Chinese immigration, the Magnuson Act allowed for limited Chinese immigration and provided a path to citizenship for persons of Chinese descent living in the U.S. It did nothing, however, to address issues such as California’s Alien Land Law, which barred non-citizens from owning property. The full repercussions of the Chinese Exclusion Act weren’t legally addressed until the Magnuson Act itself was repealed in 1965; after eighty-three years of explicit discrimination.
In relaxing restrictions on Chinese immigration, the Magnuson Act brought Chinese immigration guides inline with another U.S. immigration bill, the U.S. Immigration Act of 1924, or the Johnson-Reed Act.
This act, which introduced national-origin quotas, was designed to “preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity,” according the U.S. State Department’s Office of Historian. This act greatly restricted immigration of Italians, Eastern European Jews, and people from other Asian countries, most notably Japanese. Quotas were calculated in such a way as to have little effect on immigration from Western Europe.
The point of this history lesson is simple: the United States has a long history of racist, exclusionary immigration policies designed to favor that amorphous group of “people like us.” For all our talk of a melting pot and the American dream, where any child – any child – can grow up to succeed – we have long merely shrugged while endorsing policies with the clear message, we conquered here first.
There is so much I would change about U.S. immigration policy if I could. I find myself generally inclined to agree with Peter Singer’s argument that it is time to abandon the constructed narrative of a national community in favor of conceptualizing ourselves as members of a global community.
But the plan to end DACA, to end legal protections for over 800,000 people who have grown up in this country, goes beyond philosophical debates about what immigration is or ought to mean. It is straight up unconscionable. These are our friends and neighbors. They are members of our community.
Quite simply, in the most robust sense possible: this is their country, too.
There’s a certain narrative about deliberative democrats which paints them as hopeless idealists.
John Dewey is perhaps the quintessential example of this – he writes passionately about the “great community,” and was steadfast in his belief that humanity could and would achieve this sublime state. While broadly agreeing with critics such as Lippmann as to the modern problems of civil society, the optimism of Dewey’s solutions is notably divergent.
The problem, he argued, was not that average people did not have the capacity to properly govern themselves, but rather that civic infrastructure did not fully allow them to exercise this capacity. Given robust civic education and institutions which genuinely encourage and incorporate citizen participation, humanity could achieve great things. In short, we have the capacity to self govern, we simply need to trust ourselves.
This optimism is echoed in the works of Habermas, who writes prolifically about the power of ideal dialogue to build ideal societies. He envisions salons and coffeehouses where citizens engage in passionate debates about what is right and just. “Moral argumentation,” he writes in Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action, “serves to settle conflicts of action by consensual means.”
In short, citizens engaging in meaningful debate about moral issues will eventually come to agree on what is right. The solution which emerges from such a process is intrinsically moral thanks to the collaborative filtering of discussants and it is bolstered by the rich process of debate which led to the consensus.
The enthusiastic visions of Dewey, Habermas, and other pragmatists may be inspiring, but they rightfully earn a lot of skepticism. Is such ideal dialogue even possible? Perhaps our moral divisions are ultimately intractable.
Most troubling to me are the concerns raised by Sanders, Frasier, and others. These visions of the Great Society, and the roadmap for how we get there do not give proper care to the role of power.
In an imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy – to borrow a phrase from bell hooks – it is not enough to encourage people to enter deliberation with an open mind. It is not enough to teach core civic values. The structural inequality of society will pervert deliberation amongst even well-meaning participants.
I am particularly fond of this critique from Sanders: “If we assume that deliberation cannot proceed without the realization of mutual respect, and deliberation appears to be proceeding, we may even mistakenly decide that conditions of mutual respect have been achieved by deliberators.”
Such false deliberation – which leaves those in power with a claim to moral consensus when none was achieved – is arguably even worse than a state with no deliberation and no appearance of legitimacy.
Fraser builds off Habermas, arguing that these rich conversations don’t happen merely in a single, mainstream public sphere. Rather, the public sphere as we encounter it is deeply restrictive – despite claims to the contrary, not everyone gets a voice. Thus, we also have counter-publics – smaller communities where those who are blocked from the mainstream can engage safely and fully in the sort of discussions Habermas envisions. The counter-publics can and do influence the mainstream, but they are constantly pushed to the fringes by a society which doesn’t want them.
These critiques of deliberation also point to a deeper challenge: dialogue only works when all parties are willing to enter and participate in good faith.
You can’t engage in dialogue with someone who wants to destroy you.
This concern is never satisfactorily addressed by Dewey or by Habermas. They both engage deeply with questions of manipulation, force, and instrumental action, but they seem content to believe that such problems can be dealt with effectively and are not too deeply interwoven into our social fabric.
A skeptic would argue that these concerns point to a sizable gap in their philosophy – if dialogue only works in ideal conditions, then dialogue necessarily cannot be enough.
In the face of racist, anti-semitic, and other harshly vitriolic rhetoric, other tactics are necessary. Dialogue could never be enough.
I imagine Dewey wouldn’t give up on his Great Community so easily, though. Perhaps he under appreciated the danger of hate groups, but he would have believed in humanity’s ability to navigate these waters. He would have believed that even the worst among us could learn to participate thoughtfully in productive dialogue.
Dewey’s vision seems impossibly far off these days. Few, if any of use, seem prepared to be citizens capable of constructing the Great Community. There are good reasons by skeptical of his claims.
But I’m not ready to give up on dialogue just yet, and here I think is where a network perspective can be valuable. As long as we have connections between all elements of our communities, dialogue may be possible. Perhaps every person cannot – and should not, for their own self-care – engage in dialogue with every other person. But if allies serve as the bridges, if those positioned to do have the difficult conversations with the hate-filled fringe, if we truly believe that no one is born to hate, perhaps then we could build the Great Community and, inch by inch, bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.
It has been a difficult few days. Following the violent white supremacist rally which took place this weekend, I am angry, heartbroken, ashamed, unsurprised, and resolutely full of an overwhelming sense of love.
There is too much hate in this world; I choose love.
To be clear, love is not a passive emotion. It is not a empty gesture intended to claim allyship. As Dr. King teaches us, love is not “emotional bosh.” Rather “a strong, demanding love…is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems.”
In the face of a world that knows such terrible hate, love is a defiant act. It is a way of living, being, and interacting. Love is a way of fighting. Love, as Dr. King says, is how we “implementing the demands of justice.”
I choose love.
Elie Wiesel, too, spoke to the transformative power of love when, nearly 20 years after Dr. King, he noted that “the opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.”
Indifference is a passive act. It is the quiet comfort of moderates who enable the deep injustices of the status quo with their silence and complicity while patting themselves on the back for staying beyond the messy fray. Indifference is to cede your power, to abdicate your responsibly, to accept things as they are with a half-hearted shrug, but what could I do?
Indifference is to give up on love.
If we’re being honest with ourselves, the hateful acts our country saw this weekend could have happened in any American city. Our problems are not restricted to a single party, a single region, or a single demographic. The blistering hate we saw on display was merely the articulation of a wound we have collectively let fester far too long.
All of us who benefit in some way under the current status quo bear responsibility for these atrocities. We may hate the perpetrators and everything they stand for, but we haven’t done enough to respond. We’ve chosen for too long the smooth path of indifference.
It is time to choose love.
It is not an easy road. A passionate dedication to the type of love Dr. King espoused requires strength, courage, and heartbreak. There’s a reason civil rights educator and activist Myles Horton titled his autobiography The Long Haul.
There is so much work to be done, and on dark days like to today, the entire task can feel hopeless. Love may be right, but it is far easier to settle in to indifference.
When confronted with hopeless tasks, I like to remember Camus’ inspired description of Sisyphus, the Greek man mythically condemned to “ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain” for all eternity.
It is the quintessential futile task. His work will never be accomplished. Yet despite the dreadfulness of his fate, Camus describes Sisyphus as proud and unbroken; despite it all, he is impuissant et révolté (powerless and rebellious).
That is how I feel on days like today. There is so much to do, and so little I can hope to accomplish. I am utterly powerless, an insignificant piece in the larger social machine. There is nothing for me but the thankless strain of rolling a boulder, or the foolish optimism of tilting at windmills. The task we face is just too great.
Yet, despite this powerlessness, despite my own petty insignificance, I remain steadfastly rebellious. I remain committed to love.
And I will send that love into the world with everything I’ve got. I will speak out against hate, and I will love passionately, radically, and unapologetically. I will not be broken by the enormity of the task. Hate is too great a burden to bear; indifference too superficial a comfort. Amidst the pain, the hate, and the fear, the greatest thing I can do is this:
I recently participated in an excellent workshop on Gendered Creative Teams, hosted by CEU in Budapest. It was an amazing conference, and I am so glad to have had the opportunity to participate. I’ve included the text of my talk Confidence and Collaboration: A Gender-Based Look at Working Together in the Public Sphere below:
I wanted to start with a brief introduction of myself:
– My name is Sarah
– I know nothing.
Now, when I say, “I know nothing,” you might interpret this in a couple of different ways. For simplicity, let’s start by considering two scenarios:
– Either I actually know something.
– I really don’t know anything.
Most of you know very little about me, so you may feel as though you don’t have the capacity to accurately select between these two options.
But, I am here, and I traveled a long way to get here, so if you’re inclined to give me the benefit of the doubt, you may assume that I have done something worthwhile in my life to earn a place here.
Let’s assume, then, that I do know something.
If that is the case, then why might I begin this talk by saying that I know nothing?
Again, let us consider a few scenarios:
– Perhaps I am exceedingly humble or don’t want you to think me too immodest. Perhaps I feel as though the amount that any one person can know pales in comparison to the vast wealth of human knowledge. Perhaps in recognizing that none of us knows everything, I want to create space so that I may learn from others: learn from all of you.
– Perhaps I find myself stunned to be in a room with so many brilliant and thoughtful people – to be sharing a panel with such great scholars. Perhaps I simply feel as though I know nothing when compared against the outstandingly smart people around me. Perhaps I suffer from imposter syndrome – or, perhaps, I really am an imposter who doesn’t deserve to be here at all.
I don’t intend to answer this question for you.
But I do intend to draw attention to the natural tension between these narratives: to raise questions of confidence, courage, knowledge, and humility.
My broader research focuses on civil society, asking what we – literally you and I, along with all the citizens of the world – what we should do?
Implicit in this question is my focus in today’s talk: how should we act in the public sphere? How should we interact with one another? The exploration of this question is complicated along multiple dimensions of identity and power, but in line with the overarching theme of this conference, I focus today on a dimension that is particularly salient to me: gender.
Traditionally in the western world, women’s voices were not welcome in the public sphere.
I use the term “public sphere” here broadly, and you may take it to mean any interactions which take place beyond an intimate circle of family and close friends: interactions at school, at work, at community gatherings, on social media, and in formal politics. Interactions which are “public” in their contrast to the “private” interactions of the home.
Dating back to Aristotle, a woman’s purpose was confined to the private side of this divide. As Arendt describes, the private life of the household was a place driven by the urgency of life: woman was tasked with creating life and man was tasked with providing for it.
The public sphere, the polis, on the other hand, was a place of freedom. Not freedom in the modern sense, but rather freedom from unequals. It was a place where – for lack of a better phrase – men could be men: surrounded only by their peers and without disruption from those who were lesser: from slaves, from barbarians, and from women.
Entry to the public sphere was only permitted to those who had risen beyond the necessities of life: only to the man who could devote himself fully to the political, unconcerned with the mundane labor of survival.
As Arendt (1958) describes:
To leave the household…to devote one’s life to the affairs of the city, demanded courage because only in the household was one primarily concerned with one’s own life and survival. Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life.
This hardly sounds like a place fit for the delicate sensibilities of a woman.
By the mid-renaissance aristocratic women were joining their male siblings in the study of humanist arts: astronomy, mathematics, Latin, Greek. These were vehicles for human flourishing, necessary for all sophisticates of a refined society. But amongst the many areas of humanist learning, one alone was deemed improper for women to study: rhetoric.
Women were barred from learning or practicing the arts of public speaking, political dialogue, and persuasion. Their voices were not wanted.
The sentiment of this prohibition dates back to the vision of the polis. A woman entering political discourse would disrupt the equity of the public sphere: no longer surrounded by peers, men would have to tip-toe around this out of place woman.
Furthermore, what kind of woman – scandalized minds might ask – would even want to enter the public world of men?
Rhetoric was far from the secluded privacy of the household. It was an engaged battle of verbal combat, a place for masculine sport and swagger. As Bizzell (1992) describes:
The adult woman who entered the arena of rhetorical combat …risked being treated like the only female player in a touch football game: and what chaste women would take such a risk?
This distaste for female rhetors can be seen in the story of Italian humanist and intellectual, Isotta Nogarola. After attempting to enter the scholarly realm of rhetoric, Nogarola was widely debased as a prostitute who indulged in other unseemly activities.
These attacks were justified primarily on the premise: an eloquent woman is never chaste.
As Dillion (2004) notes, in the 19th century, American author Nathaniel Hawthorne stated similar concerns about women expressing themselves in print.
Writing that “the great body of American women are a domestic race” Hawthorne expressed concern about “ill-judged incitements” which turn women’s “hearts away from the fireside.” There is, he wrote, “a sort of impropriety in the display of woman’s naked mind to the gaze of the world.”
Again, we see the gendered imagery of the polis. Women’s proper sphere is domestic; this is where she belongs. A woman entering the public world does so naked; her words expose her – “an irregularity which men do not commit in appearing there.”
Hawthorne’s imagery also invokes classical Greek notions of the public sphere as a place where men fully come into being. As Arendt (1990) describes, in the private sphere, “one is neither seen nor heard by others” – a man’s wife, children, slaves and servants not being recognized as fully human, of course.
Only in the public sphere may a man “appear and show who he himself is.”
Importantly, this process of appearing is also a process of becoming. Through the reasoned exchange of the public sphere, men learn the nature of others and learn the truth of themselves. It is only through participation in the public sphere – through being seen and heard by others, that a person can fully come to be
Thus women’s exclusion from the public sphere – while charitably intended to protect her delicate demeanor, has the consequence of preventing women from becoming fully human in this sense.
Our modern sensibilities consider equality much differently than the Greeks. In much of the western world, it is now generally expected that men and women should participate equally in public life.
Yet, we continue to see unequal participation.
One of the most measurable indicators of this participation is electoral politics – though public office is far from the only way a person can engage in the public sphere.
Across the world:
Only 17% of government ministers are women (UN Women Report, 2012).
And the majority of these women oversee social sectors, such as education and health – sectors traditionally tied to home life.
Just over 20% (20.9) of national parliamentarians are female (UN Women Report, 2013)
And, if you’re curious how this breaks down:
The U.S. is just shy of the global average at 19.4% (Center for American Women and Politics, 2017)
And Hungary, I’m afraid, is much lower, with women representing only 9% of Hungarian MPs. (Várnagy, 2013)
What’s notable here is that this disparity is often coupled with a stated openness to female candidates.
In the states, 75% of Americans say that women and men are equally good at being political leaders. (AP, 2016)
Here in Hungary, 84% of Hungarians express a similar sentiment (Integrity Lab, 2016)
Given the apparent support for female candidates, then, we may be left wondering why we don’t see more women participating in public life.
One potential reason is hesitancy among women themselves: perhaps they are too shy, too quiet. Perhaps they lack confidence or are otherwise too weak for the hearty, verbal combat of the public sphere.
There’s good reason to think there is truth to this concern. For example:
Hedges – verbal signals of uncertainty such as “sort of” and “maybe” – are used more frequently by women. (see: Hancock & Rubin (2014); McMillan et al. (1977))
Women tend to apologize more than men, indicating, perhaps, that women feel more regretful for their words and behavior. (see: Holmes (1989))
And, furthermore, there is a rich literature documenting `imposter syndrome’ and the `confidence gap’ – findings that show over and over again that women disproportionally believe they are unqualified for the positions they hold or that they achieved their success through sheer luck: certainly not because they are smart or qualified.
As Clance and Imes write in their landmark 1978 paper:
Despite outstanding academic and professional accomplishments, women who experience the imposter phenomenon persist in believing that they are really not bright and have fooled anyone who thinks otherwise. Numerous achievements, which one might expect to provide ample objective evidence of superior intellectual functioning, do not appear to affect the impostor belief.
As psychologists, Clance and Imes naturally study this phenomenon from an individual perspective, exploring the family histories and individual characteristics which lead women to mistake themselves for imposters. They automatically consider the trait as a psychopathy to be treated.
And to a great extent this is reasonable – imposter syndrome causes real anguish and can certainly elevate to the level of neurosis. It should rightly be a matter of concern.
There is some important work being done in this space, but too often, psychological and linguistic studies examining the failings of women – from hedging, to apologizing, to women’s lack of confidence and feelings of impostering – do little to touch on the broader social drivers of the behavior, losing sight of the larger question: how should one properly act in the public sphere?
I don’t mean to discount this narrative entirely. I am – and I’ll go on the record here – entirely in favor of empowering women.
But I find it disconcerting when studies like this are translated into to pop-sci advice like:
• Stop apologizing
• Be more confident
• Assert yourself
The problem I see here is that while researchers have accurately differentiated between the typical, socialized, behaviors of women and men, this advice is blithely translated to the public narrative without first deeply considering what is ideal.
In short, most of this advice amounts to little more than:
• Be more like a “man”
And not just any man, be like a manly man with all the masculine stereotypes of confidence and aggressiveness. Talk over people! Don’t apologize! Assert yourself and stand by your beliefs!
Such advice is problematic.
First of all, we may want to consider how much confidence is actually appropriate.
In perhaps the most relatably-titled academic article, “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence,” Dunning et al. (2003) argue that people who are poor performers in a field regularly fail to recognize their own incompetence due to a double curse: “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses.”
Those who are most incompetent, then, are also mostly likely to misjudge their own competence, and as a result tend to hold the greatest overconfidence in their skill.
By this account, we ought to be collectively weary of people who give themselves high marks: perhaps some of them are accurately able to assess their own ability, but many others are simply expressing the carefree confidence of incompetence.
…And some of those people may even hold elected office.
Here’s my new favorite statistic: in one study, 88% of drivers rated themselves as safer than the median driver. (see Svenson (1980))
That’s right: 88% thought they were above the median.
To be fair, that number comes from a study of United States drivers, but Svenson found only a slightly lower rate – 77% among Swedish drivers. So this tendency to overrate oneself is not purely an American phenomenon.
So, there’s good reason to think we shouldn’t trust people’s confidence in themselves at all. From this perspective, “be more confident” is pretty lousy advice.
Furthermore, we may want to examine whether typically “male” ways of acting actually achieve the outcomes a group is looking for.
Research on group intelligence has found that groups perform better at various cognitive tasks when:
• Group members have higher “social sensitivity” – which can be briefly described as an awareness of the mental states of those around them
• Discussion is more egalitarian. Groups dominated by a few people perform worse than those in which everyone participates in the discussion. (see Woolley et al (2010); Engel, et al (2014))
Given these traits, then, we should perhaps not be surprised that these studies also find that groups with more women tend to perform better.
The traits which increase group intelligence – reading the needs of those around you and creating space for others to share their voice – go hand in hand with the sort of “feminine” habits which women are advised to drop in the work place in favor of more aggressive and stereotypically male performance.
Again, this seems like pretty lousy advice. Apologizing, hedging, and otherwise not asserting yourself may indeed hold women back in current masculinized environments, but they actually lead to better group outcomes.
Perhaps it is not the women who need to change.
Finally, I want to return to the Greek ideal of the public sphere.
Yes, the public sphere was a masculine battleground; an arena where men strutted their rhetorical skills.
But it was more than that.
It was fundamentally a place to learn. To learn from others and to learn about – and fully become – yourself. Under the classical ideal, the rhetorical combat of the polis was not conducted for personal glory, but rather in service to the greater goal of discovering truth.
Ideal citizens were tolerant gladiators, to borrow a metaphor from Huckfeldt et al (2004).
“Combatants with the capacity to recognize and respect the rights and responsibilities of their political adversaries.”
Given modern gender norms and women’s long-standing exclusion from public discourse, we seem to have lost sight of the ‘tolerant’ part of the vision; restricting our view to merely “gladiators.”
This narrowing – in boardrooms, classrooms, and elected office – is a mistake.
The “combat” of the public sphere may have value: if debate serves to sharpen understanding, then we owe it to our interlocutors to press them on their positions; to find the holes in their armor and encourage refinement of beliefs.
But this combat is meaningless without tolerance and mutual respect – without genuinely inviting our peers to similarly find the weaknesses in our own views.
The goal of rhetorical combat should not be to win, but rather “to find and evaluate arguments so as to convince others and be convinced when it is appropriate” as Mercier and Landemore (2012) write.
The goal should be learn – to learn correct things – and to make everyone wiser from the interaction.
I would further argue that mutual respect is more critical to the ideal than combat. Indeed, this process need not be combative, but can stem from non-judgmental questions of genuine interest: Can you tell me more about why you believe that?
Fundamentally, this process requires humility. It requires entering conversation with the belief that I don’t know everything and that the things I currently believe might be wrong. It requires all parties to enter the public sphere eager to learn.
This need not be a matter of confidence at all, but rather a matter of empirical fact: a single person cannot possibly know everything.
William James (1909) argues that a partial truth is essentially a falsehood, that tearing “the part out of its relations, leaves out some truth concerning it… falsifies it.”
For the network scientists in the room, I put this in more explicitly network terms: with our individually biased sample of nodes, we cannot possibly describe the topology of a full network accurately.
We all have something to learn; and every person we meet has something to teach us.
Given this vision, one of the most damaging things a person can do is to silence another. To do so not only hurts the person silenced, but does a disservice to yourself and to your communities. The process of learning is hindered when all voices and perspectives are not fully included.
And this, perhaps, is what’s most troubling about the current state of affairs.
While women on the whole may indeed be lacking from confidence; that in no doubt stems in part from the many mico-aggressions women experience while participating in public life; the constant, silencing messages that they are not wanted and that their views and voices are not valued.
It shows a solitary woman in a meeting of men. “That’s an excellent suggestion, Miss Triggs,” the caption reads. “Perhaps one of the men here would like to make it.”
I love this cartoon because it rings so true to me. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said something in a meeting only for a man to take credit upon repeating it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been talked over, interrupted, or mansplained to. I cannot tell you how many times it has been made perfectly clear to me – explicitly and implicitly – that my voice is not welcome.
Of course, I tell you all this because it’s not just me.
In deliberative settings, male voices account for up to 75% of the speaking time in mixed gender groups. (see Karpowitz & Mendelberg (2012))
Numerous studies show that women are more likely to be interrupted than men. (see Hancock & Rubin (2014); Hirschman (1994); McMillan et al. (1977))
These constant interruptions serve to re-assert male dominance and reinforce the message that women are neither welcome nor needed in conversations. (see West & Zimmerman (1983); Anderson & Leaper (1998))
So it’s too simplistic to say there is a problem with women’s confidence.
The characteristics so often observed in women of hedging, apologizing, and experiencing self-doubt are better interpreted as the joint result of both public exclusion and private inclusion.
On the one hand, toxically silencing environments make it clear to women that they should be quiet, they should be uncertain, they should be apologizing for the very space they take up in a room.
On the other hand, women’s socialized place in the private sphere gives them skills of listening, nurturing, and genuinely caring about the state of those around them. These are valuable skills in the public sphere, and, as we see in the studies on group intelligence, should be encouraged broadly as critical for collaboration.
This is not to argue that women already have the ideal habits and do not need to change – perhaps they do. But, perhaps, men need to change, too.
My argument here is more general: we shouldn’t be asking how to fix women for the current world – we should rather be asking what kind of world we want and then drawing on our collective answer to inform the skills, values, and habits we would like to have practiced by the citizens of that world; practiced by each of us.
I started this talk by claiming that I know nothing.
I stand by that claim, and I invite you to interpret it however you will.
You may choose to believe that I have too little confidence in myself – that a lifetime of being silenced and marginalized has taken its toll. That I am too meek, uncertain, or quick to defer.
Or you may take it differently: as a bold claim that despite what I know and what I have accomplished I still know nothing in the sense that I still have so much more to learn. That I want, above all, to believe true things, and in pursuit of that quest I am open to the possibility that the things I think I know are wrong. That I recognize the fact that – despite my own, personal experiences with marginalization – I am still relatively privileged as a highly educated, white, cis-gender person. That even I have a responsibility to create space for others to speak.
It feels appropriate to end here with a quote from Erasmus’ satirical essay, The Praise of Folly. In this 16th century piece, Folly herself – a woman, often depicted in in a fool’s cap and academic gown – appears, delivering a rousing oratory and sharply critiquing the intuitions of the day. She concludes:
If anything I have said shall seem too saucy or too glib, stop and think: ‘tis Folly, and a woman, that has spoken.
It is a sad day for democracy and for intellectual freedom. This morning, after an expedited process, Hungary’s Parliament voted 123 yes / 38 against for amendments to the National Higher Education Law that will make it impossible for Central European University (CEU) to operate.
CEU is one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in central Europe, and a pillar of democracy. Founded after the fall of communism and “based on the premise that human fallibility can be counterbalanced by the critical discussion of ideas and that this critical spirit can be sustained best in societies where citizens have the freedom to scrutinize competing theories and openly evaluate and change government policies.”
The message sent in moving to shutter this great institution is clear. As MEP Tamás Meszerics – who was denied the opportunity to address assembly in opposition of the measure – wrote in his statement: the government hates everything it cannot control.
Hungarian Prime Minster, Viktor Orbán has long been a leading symbol of Europe’s rising radical right. The election of President Trump, I’m afraid, has only emboldened his efforts against democratic values.
The attack against CEU is a tragic move against a valuable institution, and raises disturbing implications for intellectual freedom and democracy around the world. We cannot allow leaders of any part to silence critical voices, legislate against reason, and stifle political dissent.
To be clear, the fight for CEU is far from over. In Budapest today, thousands took to the street to protest this outrageous legislation. CEU – which just days ago found itself fighting for its life – has a helpful guide of actions you can take to support the institution. Specifically, they encourage you to:
I was reminded this morning of Charles Mackay’s 1915 poem, No Enemies:
YOU have no enemies, you say? Alas! my friend, the boast is poor; He who has mingled in the fray Of duty, that the brave endure, Must have made foes! If you have none, Small is the work that you have done. You’ve hit no traitor on the hip, You’ve dashed no cup from perjured lip, You’ve never turned the wrong to right, You’ve been a coward in the fight.
I think of this poem often, and I think it serves as an important reminder that sometimes it is not good to be polite; sometimes an aversion to conflict can be dangerous.
In Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he expresses a similar sentiment:
First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
We should not be more devoted to order than to justice.
It is said that only 7 people attended the funeral of Raphael Lemkin, the lawyer and scholar who coined the word “genocide” and who fought like hell to introduce the U.N. Genocide Convention. He made a lot of enemies by constantly pushing for stronger measures to prevent and end genocide; he made a lot of enemies by refusing to shut up when everyone was done listening to him. He made a lot of enemies by being more devoted to justice than the niceties of polite society.
There was the expectation that Presidential Travel Ban 2.0 would be upheld as constitutional.
As NPR reports, it was specifically amended to address previous concerns: “It omitted Iraq from the list of barred countries, removed references to religion and excluded green card holders and people who already had visas, among other changes.”
So it was surprising – perhaps even shocking – when a judge in Hawaii issued a temporary restraining order and a judge in Maryland soon after issued a preliminary injunction; both of which blocked the nationwide implementation of the ban.
Proponents of the ban howled at it’s continued blockage; opponents celebrated the victory; and reasonable people from both sides wondered what was constitutionally right in terms of future present beyond the scope of this immediate issue.
The U.S. Department of Justice believes strongly that the ban is legal – indeed, they revised the previous Executive Order language with the explicit goal of issuing an order that would stand up in court. Proponents of the ban further argue that the judges who have moved to block it have overstepped their judicial bounds; issuing rulings from partisan passions rather than from the blind legal ideal.
But Judge Derrick K. Watson – the U.S. District Court judge from Hawaii who issued a temporary ban – sees the matter differently. Watson argues that he was simply considering the wider context, something which is fully within his legal purview to do.
As NPR describes: “The judge concluded, based on the historical context of the travel ban and public statements made by the president, that “a reasonable, objective observer … would conclude that the Executive Order was issued with a purpose to disfavor a particular religion[.]””
In other words, it doesn’t matter if the specific wording of the new order is carefully crafted to be technically constitutional: it’s the implementation and spirit that is everything.
While this defense may ring of judicial overreaching, I’m inclined to favor the judge’s interpretation – and I’m fairly confident my opinion isn’t simply due to my own distaste for the order.
President Trump himself has made it clear that he favors a “Muslim ban,” that he wants to block people from a specific religious group from entering the country. The injunctions against this ban say, in no uncertain terms, that such a goal is unconstitutional, no matter how you dress it up.
In the days following the initial travel ban order, there was chaos and confusion as people tried to figure out what was going on. Lacking clarity from the order itself, those tasked with the actual enforcement of the ban had a lot of leeway in how it was interpreted and how it was carried out.
There is nothing to prevent a Muslim ban which is gracefully worded to avoid the word Muslim from becoming exactly what it is intended to be. The letter of the law doesn’t need to read “Muslim,” but as long as the intent is clear – as long as there’s the risk of unconstitutional treatment at our borders – such a ban is and should be considered unconstitutional. A little window dressing doesn’t change that.