Metashit


Fucking muppets!

 

I have spent the last 4 weeks on a series of fairly demanding business trips to two continents, and since I am bound by the tyranny of miles to a single airline I have been forced to watch movies on only one channel during the flights. This has been really challenging because aside from the enjoyable John Wick 3 the only action movies on offer have been super hero movies, and derivative schlock from other series (like Godzilla). Here I give my brief thoughts on the movies I watched, and ask some questions about the terrible decline of the modern action movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse

I can’t believe how ordinary this movie is. Does it even have a plot or a purpose? The acting is terrible and the entire cast of mutants is boring and shallow, with no possible reason for me to care about them. As a movie it only holds you because there are some other movies in the same series and you need to see what they do – but since I haven’t seen any other movies in the series I really can’t feel anything for these characters and can’t be led to even understand why they bother turning up. There are some good actors in this movie but you wouldn’t know it. This movie also has one of the most execrable scenes in modern cinematic history which is also one of the most execrable plot hooks in human history, and which is performed so poorly by Michael Fassbender that the depth of its depravity almost slips by you through the power of its banality. I am, of course, talking about the scene where a dude called Apocalypse tries to convince a Jewish concentration camp survivor to join in with his plan for genocide by having him destroy Auschwitz. There’s something really wrong about watching a fictitious character destroy the Auschwitz memorial – it’s just so horribly wrong – but to do so as part of a scheme to enlist a genocide survivor as a genocide perpetrator is really … well, it’s a chef’s kiss moment in modern cinema, isn’t it? But it’s all done so badly that you almost don’t realize how terrible it is until you wake up from the stupor this movie has sunk you into and realize what you’re being tricked into nodding along to. I gave the movie perhaps 20 minutes after that pearler but it didn’t offer anything remotely interesting, so I gave up and decided that staring at the ceiling of the plane was a better use of my time.

Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 isn’t bad – at least I managed to finish it – but it’s a really lame and weak follow up to the freshness of the original. Standing on its own as a piss-take of super hero movies, Deadpool is entertaining and creative, but as a series in its own right it has nothing to hold it together. Deadpool’s smut and the particular conceit of his humour gets old fast, and watching Deadpool 2 I realized that the original movie was good primarily for its freshness in what is otherwise a stale, juvenile and worn out genre. Since Deadpool was made this genre has gone from needing a healthy dose of satire to needing a bullet, and is such a weak and overworked formula that satire no longer works. Indeed, when you look at the poor mixture of humour and pathos in Avengers: Infinity War you realize that the genre has been satirizing itself accidentally for quite some time now, and satire doesn’t work any more.

Avengers: Endgame

I hate-watched this after reviewing the awful sack of shit that was Infinity War, and had such low expectations after that wretched abomination that I was pleasantly surprised by the movie’s failure to be abysmally awful. It was, however, too long and way too boring, and it ended exactly as I expected: with the universe being saved by a rich white guy (what are the chances!) Plot spoiler folks: our world is not going to be saved by a rich white guy, and the fantasy of the rich white dude who does good has got old fast. The movie still had so many bad points that it was almost unwatchable, but I struggled through so I could see how this horrible shitshow ends (or, rather, restarts). I still didn’t know (or care) who most of these boring, caricatured white people were. Hulk was, if anything, worse than he was in Infinity War, transformed from a metaphor for erectile dysfunction into a sad mocking image of middle-aged ennui. Iron Man had lost his last redeeming feature (his sense of humour, which had already grown old and tired) and was now just annoying. Black Widow at least had a speaking part, though the rush between her and the other dude to kill themselves was just pathetic – neither of them are of any use to anyone, so why didn’t they just toss a coin? And why did they undo the extinction of half the universe anyway? Wiping out half of all life in the universe seems like a bargain if it will get rid of spiderman and space douche in the process. Why bring them back? I mean I know you love your mother and you’re sad she’s dead but five minutes in a room with either spiderman or space douche and you’d kill your own mother to escape. So why on earth would anyone bring them back, and are we meant to really believe that this cast of nobodies is sad about the deaths of their colleagues, who were the most forgettable characters in cinematic history? I’m surprised they could even remember who they used to work with, let alone want them back (I still don’t know the names of most of these incompetents, let alone work myself up into any kind of sweat as to whether they might die or not). This movie also went on a walk through about 8 other Marvel movies, as a reminder that by now these movies are so self-referential and self-involved that you have to do 20 hours of homework through the back catalogue just to understand what’s going on in multiple scenes. What was that shit between Thor and the blonde chicks? I get the impression one was his mother, who he used to live with and see daily, who didn’t notice that apparently overnight he had turned into a fat stoner. How’s that for a maternal bond! (Also Thor was one of the few redeeming features of Infinity War so of course they ruined him in this movie). I guess I should be happy that this entire tired story got a resolution but given that the final scene is just all these people getting back to more adventures it seems like more of a sigh of exhaustion than of relief.

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Apparently this is a thing now, with multiple Godzilla movies, which are also somehow linked to King Kong because why not? Also it has this novel plot idea that the beasts are dangerous but some people think they’re part of the natural order and we should try to co-exist with them which is definitely not at all an idea that was old when Jaws was made, and we definitely need to sit through those debates again, especially when they’re done by people who could only be loosely described as “actors”. In this one there are bad guys who are actually environmentalists who want to wake up all these giant monsters to restore the balance of the earth (read: wipe out humans). Because absolutely, definitely, as the world slides into climate crisis and multiple environmental disasters that the environmental movement has been trying to warn us about for 60 years what we absolutely, definitely need are more movies where the end of the world is the environmentalists’ fault and the good people in the government have to fight them to stop them wiping out humanity. Definitely that’s a message we need right now! I would tell you what the moral of the story was but I stopped halfway through because the movie was so pathetic, the action scenes so contrived, and the plot so silly that I just gave up. This movie included Charles Dance and the chick who was Eleven in Stranger Things but even they couldn’t rescue this junk.

Men In Black: International

Boring daddy issues that can’t figure out if they’re serious or a joke, no appreciable plot and the worst acting since Liam Neeson apologized for his racism.

What’s going on with American action movies?

Looking at the menu of the plane’s entertainment system was depressing: just a long chain of superhero movies, with a couple of remakes and a few sequels. There was almost nothing original on the screen at all, and if you wanted to watch something original you would have to look outside the action movie genre. I’m now writing this in the same week that Martin Scorsese derided superhero movies as “theme park junk” and I have to agree with him[1]: action movies were once a great part of Hollywood, but in recent years they have degenerated to the point where they are reliably the worst. They’re just an endless series of rehashed super hero movies, which can be best characterized as second rate pro wrestling, with a scattering of other “franchises”[2] like Men In Black, Star Wars, Batman, or – god forbid – Rambo. There’s nothing original in this at all, it’s just microwaved kara age for the soul. There are even remakes of great movies (like Death Wish, the remake of which was abominable). I think the last original action movie I saw was Atomic Blonde, which was genuinely brilliant but what three years ago now? Since then it’s been spandex as far as the eye can see.

I don’t know why this is happening – why people pay to watch this junk, or what kind of business model the production companies are running that requires them to return to this artistically and culturally desolate fare rather than doing anything original. The best I can think is that it’s the cinematic equivalent of outsourcing risk. They’re guaranteed to be able to make these movies easily and on time, since the plots don’t matter and there are so many characters in your average super hero movie that plot is almost superfluous, and you pay for the movie before you see it so by the time you realize it’s shit it’s too late. I can’t think of any other reason for why people would make super hero movies at all: the original material by Stan Lee is just obviously low-rent, juvenile crap for teenage boys in the 1960s and it is laughably bad, so why would anyone think to draw on it for a movie? Recall that Stan Lee’s material – all the American comic legends – for years followed the Comic Code Alliance, which is a recipe for transparently nationalist and vapid material, and although Stan Lee is said to have broken with this[3] in 1971, this is just post hoc valorization. American comic books were drek for decades, and building a successful movie series on them is going to necessarily require dipping into some of the most juvenile trash that has ever been written down on paper.

Which is fine if these are occasional movies, but the cinematic landscape has been dominated by what is essentially adolescent drivel for the past 10 years. There are now something like 20 Marvel movies, almost all of them shit, and a similar number of DC Comics movies in probably just the past 10 years (apparently there are 71 in total). This is not including the awful TV shows that have now almost all been cancelled because they are so bad. Why has American cinema been overwhelmed by this flood of movies from the same universe about the same characters? And why this universe and these characters, which are specifically and particularly so stunningly low quality?

I don’t have an answer for this, although I suspect it lies somewhere in the toxic witch’s brew of American pop culture’s growing venality, the terrible education system in the US, concentration of American media in the hands of a very small number of companies, and the complete intellectual and artistic emptiness of the money men in those companies. But it’s a depressing turn for American culture to take, because for a long time America was a reliable producer of good quality, exciting and enjoyable action movies. But that industry – the industry that brought us movies like The Last of the Mohicans, Jaws, the original three Star Wars movies, Aliens, Blackhawk Down and Bladerunner – appears to have shriveled and died, and come back as a zombie monstrosity that just lurches from movie to movie, slowly eating our brains.

Someone needs to chop its head off, before the entirety of western cinema culture becomes an empty wasteland.


fn1: Overall Scorsese seems like a man of vulgar tastes, since he seems to think that the only real movies are movies where a young woman falls in love with an older man (or as he puts it, “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being”), and he seems to think anything where things blow up or people die isn’t real film, so he’s obviously basically wrong. (I mean, if you want to experience “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” you could hang out with your family, or read a book – cinema is definitely not the best place to experience that!) But in this case he is just by pure good fortune correct: this is theme park junk.

fn2: I fucking hate this word when it’s applied to movies or games but when you’re talking about super hero movies or these other long-running bullshit series like Star Wars you’re basically using the right word. They’re the McDonalds of cinema.

fn3: Incidentally, check out the quote of Stan Lee in the linked article. My god, what a prat he must have been.

 

Could you lie to this nice lady?

On 18th May 2019 Australia held a federal election, and the ruling Liberal/National Party (LNP) Coalition scored a victory over the Australian Labor Party (ALP) that was billed by most observers as an “upset” because opinion polls had in general been predicting a narrow ALP victory. The opinion polls predicted that the ALP would get a two-party preferred vote of 51.5% over 48.5% for the LNP, and would cruise to victory on the back of this; in fact, with 76% of the vote counted the Coalition is on 50.9% two party preferred, and the ALP on 49.1%. So it certainly seems like the opinion polls got it wrong. But did they, and why?

Did opinion polls get it wrong?

The best site for detailed data on opinion polls is the Poll Bludger, whose list of polls (scroll to the bottom) shows a persistent estimate of 51-52% two-party preferred vote in favour of the ALP. But there is a slightly more complicated story here, which needs to be considered before we go to far in saying they got it wrong. First of all you’ll note that the party-specific estimates put the ALP at between 33% and 37% primary vote, with the Greens running between 9% and 14%, while the Coalition is consistently listed as between 36% and 39%. Estimates for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party put her between 4% and 9%. This is important for two reasons: the way that opinion pollers estimate the two party preferred vote, and the margin of error of each poll.

The first thing to note is that the final estimates of the different primary votes weren’t so wildly off. Wikipedia has the current vote tally at 41% to the Coalition, 34% to ALP and 10% to Greens. The LNP vote is higher than any poll put it at, but the other three parties’ tallies are well within the range of predicted values. The big outlier is One Nation, which polled at 3%, well below predictions – and far enough below to think that the extra 2% primary vote to the Coalition could reflect this underperformance. This has big implications for the two party preferred vote estimates from the opinion poll companies, because the two-party preferred vote is not a thing that is sampled – it is inferred from past preference distributions, from simple questions about where respondents will put their second choice, or from additional questions in the poll. So uncertainty in primary votes of the minor parties will flow through to larger uncertainty in two-party preferred vote tallies, since these votes have to flow on. By way of example, a 1% difference in the primary vote estimate for the Greens (e.g. 9% vs. 10%) will manifest as a difference of 10% in the total number of two-party preferred votes flowing to the major parties. If the assumed proportion of those votes that go to the Liberals is wrong, then you can expect to see this multiplied through in the final two-party preferred vote. In the case of One Nation, some polls (e.g. Essential Research) consistently gave them 6-7% of the primary vote, when they actually got 3%. So that’s a 50% miscalculation in the number of preference votes that flow to someone from this party. This is a unique problem for opinion polling in a nation like Australia and it raises the question: Have opinion poll companies learnt to deal with preferencing in the era of minor parties?

The second thing to note is the margin of error of these polls. Margin of error is used to show what the range of possible “true” values for the polled proportion might be. For example, if a poll estimates 40% of people will vote Liberal with a 2% margin of error that means that the “real” proportion of people who will vote Liberal is between 38% and 42%. For a binary question, the method for calculating the margin of error can be found here, but polls in Australian politics are no longer a binary question: we need to know the margin of error for four proportions, and this margin of error grows as a proportion of the estimate when the estimate is smaller. For example the most recent Ipsos poll lists its margin of error as 2.3%, but this suggests that the estimated primary vote for the Coalition (39%) should actually lie between 36.7% and 41.3%. This means that the estimated primary vote for the ALP should have a slightly wider margin of error (since it’s smaller) and the Greens even more so. Given this, it’s safe to say that the observed primary vote totals currently recorded lie exactly within the margins of error for the Ipsos poll. This poll did not get any estimates wrong! But it is being reported as wrong.

The reason the poll is reported as wrong is the combination of these two problems: the margin of error on the primary votes of all these parties should magnify the margin of error on the two-party preferred vote so that in the end it is larger than 2.3%, so we should be saying that the two-party preferred vote for the Coalition that is inferred from this poll is probably wider than the range 47 – 51%. That’s easily wide enough for the Coalition to win the election. But newspapers never report the margin of error or its implications.

When you look at the actual data from the polls, take into account the margin of error and consider the uncertainty in preferences, the polls did not get it wrong at all – the media did in their reporting of the polls. But we can ask a second question about these polls: can opinion polls have any meaning in a close race?

What do opinion polls mean in a close race?

In most elections in Australia most seats don’t come into play, and only a couple of swing seats change, because most are safe. This election has definitely followed this pattern, with 7 seats changing hands and 5 in doubt – only 12 seats mattered in this election. Amongst those 12 seats it appears (based on the current snapshot of data) that the Coalition gained 8 and lost 4, for a net gain of 4. Of those 12 seats 9 were held by non-Coalition parties before the election, and 3 by the Coalition. Under a purely random outcome – that is, if there was nothing determining whether these seats changed hands and it was purely random, the equivalent of a coin toss – then the chance of this outcome is not particularly low. Indeed, even if the ALP had a 60% chance of retaining their own seats and a 40% chance of winning Coalition seats, it’s still fairly likely that you would observe an outcome like this. A lot of these seats were on razor thin margins, so that literally they could be vulnerable to upset if there was something like bad weather or a few grumpy people or a change in the proportion of donkey votes.

I don’t think polls conducted at the national level can be expected to tell us much about the results of a series of coin tosses. If those 12 seats were mostly determined by chance, not by any structural drivers of change, how is a poll that predicts a 51% two-party preferred vote, with 2% margin of error, going to determine that they’re going to flip? It simply can’t, because you can’t predict random variation with a structural model. Basically, the outcome of this election was well within the boundaries one would expect based purely on the non-systematic random error at the population level.

When a party is heading for a drubbing you can expect the polls to pick it up, but when a minor change to the status quo is going to happen due to either luck or unobserved local factors, you can’t expect polls to offer a better prediction than coin flips.

The importance of minor parties to the result

One thing I did notice in the coverage of this election was that there were a lot of seats where the Coalition was garnering the biggest primary vote but then the ALP and the Greens’ primary vote combined was almost as large or a little larger, followed by two fairly chunky independent parties. I think in a lot of elections this means that Greens and independents’ preferences were crucial to the outcome. As the Greens’ vote grows I expect it encompasses more and more disaffected Liberal and National voters, and not just ALP voters with a concern about the environment. For example in Parkes, NSW the National Party and the ALP experienced major swings against them, but the National candidate won with a two-party preferred vote swing towards him. This suggests that preferences from minor parties were super important. This may not seem important at the national level but at the local level it can be crucial. In Herbert, which the Coalition gained, two minor parties got over 10% of the vote. In Bass the combined ALP/Green primary vote is bigger than the Coalition’s, but the Liberal member is ahead on preferences, which suggests that the Greens are not giving strong preference flows to the ALP. This variation in flows is highly seat-specific and extremely hard to model or predict – and I don’t think that the opinion polling companies have any way of handling this.

Sample and selection bias in modern polling

It can be noted from the Pollbludger list of surveys that they consistently overestimated the ALP’s two-party preferred vote, which shouldn’t happen if they were just randomly getting it wrong – there appears to be some form of systematic bias in the survey results. Surveys like opinion polls are prone to two big sources of bias: sampling bias and selection bias. Sampling bias happens when the companies random phone dialing produces a sample that is demographically incorrect, for example by sampling too many baby boomers or too many men. It is often said that sampling companies only call landlines, which should lead to an over-representation of old people so that the sample is 50% elderly people even though the population is only 20% elderly. This problem can be fixed by weighting, in which the proportions are calculated with a weight to reflect the relative rarity of young people. This method increases the margin of error but should handle the sample bias problem. However, there is a deeper problem that weighting cannot fix, which is selection bias. Selection bias occurs when your sample is not representative of the population, even if demographically they appear to be. It doesn’t matter if 10% of your sample are aged 15-24, and 10% of the population is aged 15-24, if the 15-24 year olds you sampled are fundamentally different to the 15-24 year olds in the population. Some people will tell you weighting fixes these kinds of problems but it doesn’t: there is no statistical solution to sampling the wrong people.

I often hear that this problem arises because polling companies only call landlines, and people with landlines are weirdos, but I checked and this isn’t the case: Ipsos for example samples mobile phones and 40-50% of its sample is drawn from mobile phones. This sample is still heavily biased though, because people who answer their phones to strangers are a bit weird, and people who agree to do surveys are even weirder. The most likely respondent to a phone survey is someone who is very bored and very politically engaged; and as time goes by, I think the people who answer polls are getting weirder and weirder. If your sample is a mixture of politically super-engaged young people and the bored elderly, then you are likely to get a heavy selection bias. One possible consequence of this could be a pro-ALP bias in the results: the young people who answer their mobile are super politically engaged, which in that age group means pro-ALP or pro-Green, and their responses are being given a high weight because young people are under sampled. It’s also possible that the weighting has been applied incorrectly, though that seems unlikely to be a problem across the entire range of polling companies.

I don’t think this is the main problem for these polls. There is a 2% over-estimate of the ALP two-party preferred vote but this could easily arise from misapplication of preferences. The slight under-estimate of the LNP primary vote could come from inaccuracies in the National Party estimate, for example from people saying they’re going to vote One Nation on the phone, but reverting to National or Liberal in the Booth. Although there could be a selection bias in the sampling process, I don’t think this selection bias has been historically pro-ALP. I think the problem in this election has been that the fragmentation of the major party votes on both the left (to Green/Indies) and on the right (to One Nation, UAP, Hinch and others) has made small errors in sampling and small errors in assignment of preferences snowball into larger errors in the two-party preferred estimate. In any case, this was a close election and it’s hard for polls to be right when the election comes down to toss-ups in a few local electorates.

What does this mean for political feedback processes in democracies?

Although I think the problem is exaggerated in this election, I do think this is going to be a bigger problem in future as the major parties continue to lose support to minor parties. One Nation may come and go but the Greens have been on a 10% national vote share for a decade now and aren’t going anywhere, and as they start to get closer to more lower house seats their influence on election surprises will likely grow – and not necessarily in the ALP’s favour. This means that the major parties are not going to be able to rely on opinion polls as a source of feedback from the electorate about the raw political consequences of their actions and that, I think, is a big problem for the way our democracy works.

Outside of their membership – and in the case of the ALP, the unions – political parties have no particular mechanism for receiving feedback from the general public except elections. Over the last 20 years opinion polls have formed one major component of the way in which political leaders learn about the reception their policies have in the general community. Sure, they can ask their membership for an opinion, and they’ll get feedback through other segments of the community (such as the environmental movement for the Greens, or the unions for the ALP), but in the absence of opinion polls they won’t learn much about how the politically disengaged think of their policies. But in Australia under compulsory voting the politically disengaged still vote, and they still get angry about politicians, and they still have political ideals. If this broader community withdraws completely so that their opinion can no longer be gauged – or worse still, politicians learn to believe that the opinions of those who are polled are representative of community sentiment in general – then politicians will instead learn about the reception their policies receive only through the biased filter of stakeholders, the media, and their own party organisms. I don’t see any of the major parties working to make themselves more accessible to community feedback and more amenable to public discussion and engagement, and I don’t think they will be able to find a way to do that even if they tried. Over the past 20 years instead politicians have gauged the popularity of their platform from polls, and used it to modify and often to moderate their policies in between elections. Everyone hates the political leader who simply shapes their policies to match the polls, but everyone hates a politician who ignores public opinion just as much. We do expect our politicians to pay attention to what we think in between elections, and to take it into account when making policy. If it becomes impossible for them to do this, then an important mode of communication between those who make the laws and those who don’t will be broken or worse still become deceptive.

It does not seem that this problem is going to go away or get better. This means that the major political parties are going to have to start finding new mechanisms to receive feedback from the general public – and we the public are going to have to find new ways to get through to them. Until then, expect more and nastier surprises in the future, and more weird political contortions as the major parties realize they haven’t just lost control of the narrative – they aren’t even sure what the narrative is. And since we the public learn what the rest of the public think from opinion polls as well, we too will lose our sense of what our own country wants, leaving us dependent on our crazy Aunt’s Facebook posts as our only vox populi.

As people retreat from engagement with pollsters, the era of the opinion poll will begin to close. We need to build a new form of participatory democracy to replace it. But, and how? And until we do, how confused will we become in the democracy we have? The strange dynamics of modern information systems are wreaking havoc in our democratic systems, and it is becoming increasingly urgent that we understand how, and what we can do to secure our democracies in this strange new world of fragmented information.

But as Scott Morrison stands up in the hottest, driest era in the history of the continent and talks about building more coal mines on the back of his mandate, I don’t hold out much hope that there will be any change.

 

And let me tell you something
Before you go taking a walk in my world,
…you better take a look at the real world
Cause this ain’t no Mr. Rogers Neighborhood
Can you say “feel like shit?”
Yea maybe sometimes I do feel like shit
I ain’t happy about it, but I’d rather feel like shit
…than be full of shit!

 

There are times in life when it’s necessary to turn to the original gurus of self-righteous self-inspiration, Suicidal Tendencies. Life getting you down, you feel you can’t keep going? Crank up ST and when the boys ask you “Are you feelin’ suicidal?” yell back “I’m suicidal!” and you’ll be back on track in no time. Been meandering through some shit, making mistakes you know are your own dumb fault, and need to kick yourself back onto the straight and narrow? Gotta kill Captain Stupid is what you need. Getting played by conmen who play on your better nature, maybe take you for a ride using your religious impulses? Then you can crank up Send Me Your Money and be reminded that “Here comes another con hiding behind a collar / His only God is the almighty dollar / He ain’t no prophet, he ain’t no healer / He’s just a two bit goddamn money stealer.” That’ll get your cynical radar working again! But the Suicidals’ most useful refrain, the one that applies most often and most powerfully in this shit-stained and terrible world, is the imprecation at the beginning of the second half of their skate power classic, You Can’t Bring Me Down:

Just cause you don’t understand what’s going on
…don’t mean it don’t make no sense
And just cause you don’t like it,
…don’t mean it ain’t no good

This pure reminder of the power of bullshit over mortal men came to me today when I began to delve into the background of the latest Sokal Hoax that has been visited on the social sciences. I’d like to explore this hoax, consider how it would have panned out in other disciplines, make a few criticisms, and discuss the implications of some of their supposedly preposterous papers. So as Mikey would say – bring it on home, brother doc!

The Latest Hoax

The latest hoax comes with its own report, a massive online screed that describes what they did, why they did it, how they did it and what happened. Basically they spent a year preparing a bunch of papers that they submitted to a wide range of social studies journals in a field they refer to as “grievance studies”, which they define by saying

we have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.

This definition of the field is easily the vaguest and most hand-wavey way to select a broad set of targets I have ever seen, and it’s also obviously intended to be perjorative. In fact their whole project could perhaps be described as having the “common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail” – starting with their definition of the culture.

The authors admit that they’re not experts in the field, but they spent a year studying the content, methods and style of the field, then wrote papers that they submitted to journals under fake names (one real professor gave them permission to use his name) from fake institutions. They submitted 20 papers over the year, writing one every 9 days, and got 7 published, one with a commendation; the other 13 were repeatedly rejected or still under review when somehow their cover was blown and they had to reveal the hoax.

The basic problem with the hoax

The papers they submitted are listed at the website and are pretty hilarious, and some of the papers that were published were obviously terrible (though they may have been interesting reading). Two of the papers they submitted – one on dog parks and one on immersive pornography – used fake data, i.e. academic misconduct, and two were plagiarized parts of Mein Kampf, with some words replaced to reverse them into a feminist meaning of some kind (I guess by replacing “Jew” with “men” or something).

Submitting an article based on fraudulent data is, let’s be clear, academic misconduct, and it is also extremely difficult for peer reviewers to catch. Sure it’s easy in retrospect to say “that data was fake” but when peer reviewers get an article they don’t get the raw data, they have to judge based on the summaries in the paper. This is how the Wakefield paper that led to the collapse in MMR vaccination got published in the Lancet – Wakefield made up his data, and it was impossible for the peer reviewers to know that. The STAPP controversy in Japan – which led to several scientists being disgraced and one suicide – involved doctored images that were only discovered when a research assistant blew the whistle. Medicine is full of these controversies in which data is faked or manipulated and only discovered after a huge amount of detective work, or after a junior staff member destroys their career blowing the whistle. Submitting fraudulent work to peer review – a process which at heart depends on good faith assumptions all around – is guaranteed to be successful. It’s not an indictment of anyone to do this.

Submitting a word-replaced Mein Kampf is incredibly tacky, tasteless and juvenile. Most academics don’t read Mein Kampf, and it’s not a necessary text for most sociological disciplines. If the journal doesn’t use plagiarism software or the peer reviewers don’t, then this is undoubtedly going to slide through, and while much of Mein Kampf is pernicious nonsense a lot of it is actually pretty straightforward descriptions of political strategies and contemporary events. Indeed the chapter they used (chapter 12 of volume 1) is really about organizing and political vision[1], with only passing references to Jewish perfidy – it’s the kind of thing that could be rendered pretty bland with a word replace. But from the description in their report one might think they had successfully published an exterminationist screed. I’m sure the hoaxers thought they were being super clever doing this, but they weren’t. Detecting plagiarism is a journal’s responsibility more than a peer reviewer’s, and not all journals can. It’s not even clear if the plagiarized text would have been easily detected by google searches of fragments if there was a suitable level of word replacement.

So several of their hoax papers were highlighting problems with the peer review process in general, not with anything to do with social studies. Of the remainder, some were substantially rewritten during review, and a lot were rejected or sent back for major revision. While people on twitter are claiming that “many papers” were accepted, in fact the most obviously problematic ones were rejected. For example the paper that recommended mistreating white students, ignoring their work and dismissing their efforts, to teach them about white privilege, was rejected three times, but people on twitter are claiming that the treatment of this paper shows some kind of problematic morality by the peer reviewers.

The next problem with the hoax is that the authors have misrepresented good-spirited, kind-hearted attempts at taking their work seriously with uncritical acceptance of their work. Consider this peer review that they report[2] on a paper on whether men commit sexual violence by masturbating to fantasies of real women (more on this below):

I was also trying to think through examples of how this theoretical argument has implications in romantic consensual relationships. Through the paper, I was thinking about the rise of sexting and consensual pornographic selfies between couples, and how to situate it in your argument. I think this is interesting because you could argue that even if these pictures are shared and contained within a consensual private relationship, the pictures themselves are a reaction to the idea that the man may be thinking about another woman while masturbating. The entire industry of boudoir photography, where women sometimes have erotic pictures taken for their significant other before deploying overseas in the military for example, is implicitly a way of saying, “if you’re going to masturbate, it might as well be to me.” Essentially, even in consensual monogamous relationships, masturbatory fantasies might create some level of coercion for women. You mention this theme on page 21 in terms of the consumption of non-consensual digital media as metasexual-rape, but I think it is interesting to think through these potentially more subtle consensual but coercive elements as well

This is a genuine, good-faith effort to engage with the authors’ argument, and to work out its implications. But this peer reviewer, who has clearly devoted considerable time to engaging with and attempting to improve this paper, now discovers that he or she was being punked the whole time, and the authors were laughing at her naivete for thinking their idea should be taken seriously. He or she did this work for free, as part of an industry where we all give freely of our time to help each other improve their ideas, but actually this good faith effort was just being manipulated and used as part of a cheap publicity stunt by some people who have an axe to grind with an entire, entirely vaguely-defined branch of academia. And note also that after all this peer reviewer’s work, this paper was still rejected – but the hoaxers are using it as ammunition for their claim that “grievance studies” takes preposterous ideas seriously. Is that fair, or reasonable? And is it ethical to conduct experiments on other academics without consent?

I would be interested to know, incidentally, if their little prank was submitted to institutional review before they did it. If I tried to pull this shitty little move in my field, without putting it through an IRB, I think my career would be toast.

But there is another problem with this hoax, which I want to dwell on in a little more detail: some of the papers actually covered interesting topics of relevance in their field, and the fact that the hoaxers think their theories were preposterous doesn’t mean they were actually preposterous. It’s at this point that the Suicidals’ most powerful rule applies: Just because you don’t understand what’s going on, don’t mean it don’t make sense.

The theoretical value of some of the hoax papers

Why don’t men use dildos for masturbation?

Let us consider first the paper the authors refer to as “Dildos”, actual title Going in Through the Back Door: Challenging Straight Male Homohysteria and Transphobia through Receptive Penetrative Sex Toy Use. In this paper the hoaxers ask why men don’t use dildos for masturbation, and suggest it is out of a fear of homosexuality, and transphobia. The hoaxers say that they wrote this paper

To see if journals will accept ludicrous arguments if they support (unfalsifiable) claims that common (and harmless) sexual choices made by straight men are actually homophobic, transphobic, and anti-feminist

But is this argument ludicrous? Why don’t men use dildos more? After all, we know that men can obtain sexual pleasure from anal insertion, through prostate stimulation. There is a genre of porn in which this happens (for both cismen and transgender women), and it is a specialty service provided by sex workers, but it is not generally commonly practiced in heterosexual intercourse or male masturbation. Why? Men can be pretty bloody-minded about sexual pleasure, so why don’t they do this more? There could be many reasons, such as that it’s impractical, or it’s dirty, or (for couple sex) that women have a problem with penetrating men, or because men see sex toys as fundamentally femininized objects – but it could also be out of a residual homophobia, right? This seems prima facie an interesting theory that could be explored. For example, the only mainstream movie I can think of where a woman penetrates a man is Deadpool, and so it should be fairly easy to study reactions to that movie and analyze them for homophobia (reddit should be pretty good for this, or MRA websites). Understanding the reasons for this might offer new ways for men to enjoy sex, and a new diversity of sex roles for women, which one presumes is a good thing. So why is this argument ludicrous?

Why do men visit Hooters?

Another article that was published was referred to by the hoaxers as “Hooters”, actual title An Ethnography of Breastaurant Masculinity: Themes of Objectification, Sexual Conquest, Male Control, and Masculine Toughness in a Sexually Objectifying Restaurant. The article argues that men visit “breastaurants” to assert male dominance and enjoy a particular form of “authentic masculinity,” presumably in contrast to the simpler motive of wanting to be able to look at tits. The authors say they did this article to

see if journals will publish papers that seek to problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women and will accept very shoddy qualitative methodology and ideologically-motivated interpretations which support this

But again, this is basically an interesting question. Why do men go to restaurants with scantily-clad women? They could eat at a normal restaurant and then watch porn, or just read playboy while they eat. Or they could eat and then go to a strip club. So why do they need to be served in restaurants by breasty girls? And why are some men completely uninterested in these environments, even though they’re seriously into tits? The answer that this is something about performing a type of masculinity, and needing women as props for some kind of expression of dominance, makes sense intuitively (which doesn’t mean it’s right). It’s particularly interesting that this article is being presented as preposterous by the hoaxers now just as debate is raging about why Brett Kavanaugh insisted in sharing his non-consensual sexual encounters with other men, while Bill Cosby did his on the down-low. It’s almost as if Bill and Brett had different forms of masculine dominance to express! Forms of masculine dominance that need to be explored and understood! By academics in social studies, for example!

Also note here that the tone of the hoaxers’ explanation suggests that the idea that visiting breasty restaurants is problematic is obviously wrong and everyone believes them about this. In fact, many Americans of good faith from many different backgrounds don’t consider visiting Hooters to be a particularly savoury activity, and you probably won’t convince your girlfriend you’re not an arsehole by telling her she’s wrong to “problematize heterosexual men’s attraction to women” in the context of your having blown your weekly entertainment budget on a trip to Hooters. Understanding why she has problematized this behavior might help you to get laid the following week!

Do men do violence to women when they fantasize about them?

The hoaxers wrote an article that they refer to as “Masturbation”, real title Rubbing One Out: Defining Metasexual Violence of Objectification Through Nonconsensual Masturbation, which was ultimately rejected from Sociological Theory after peer review. I think this was the most interesting of their fake articles, covering a really interesting topic, with real ethical implications. The basic idea here is that when men fantasize about women without women’s consent (for example when masturbating) they’re committing a kind of sexual violence, even though the woman in question doesn’t know about this. They wrote this article to test

To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes

But this way of presenting their argument (“Thought crimes”) and the idea that the definition of sexual violence hasn’t already been expanded to thought crimes, is deeply dangerous and stupid. To deal with the second point first, in many jurisdictions anime or manga that depicts sex with children is banned. But in these comics nobody has been harmed. So yes, sexual violence has been extended to include thought crimes. But if we don’t expand the definition of sexual violence into thought crimes we run into some very serious legal and ethical problems. Consider the crime of upskirting, in which men take secret videos up women’s skirts and put them onto porn sites for other men to masturbate to. In general the upskirted woman has no clue she’s been filmed, and the video usually doesn’t show her face so it’s not possible for her to be identified. It is, essentially, a victimless crime. Yet we treat upskirting as a far more serious crime than just surreptitiously taking photos of people, which we consider to be rude but not criminal. This is because we consider upskirting to be a kind of sexual violence exactly equivalent to the topic of this article! This is also true for revenge porn, which is often public shaming of a woman that destroys her career, but doesn’t have to be. If you share videos of your ex-girlfriend naked with some other men, and she never finds out about it and your friends don’t publicize those pictures, so she is not affected in any way, everyone would agree that you have still done a terrible thing to her, and that this constitutes sexual violence of some kind. I’ve no doubt that in many jurisdictions this revenge porn is a crime even though the woman targeted has not suffered in any way. Indeed, even if a man just shows his friend a video of a one night stand, and the friend doesn’t know the woman, will never meet her, and has no way to harm her, this is still considered to be a disgusting act. So the fundamental principle involved here is completely sound. This is why porn is made – because the women are being paid to allow strangers to watch them have sex. When people sext each other they are obviously clearly giving explicit permission to the recipient to use the photo for sexual gratification (this is why it is called sexting). Couples usually don’t sext each other until they trust each other precisely because they don’t want the pictures shared so that people they don’t know can masturbate to them without their consent. We also typically treat men who steal women’s underwear differently to men who steal other men’s socks at the coin laundry – I think the reason for this is obvious! So the basic principle at the heart of this paper is solid. Yet the hoaxers treat the idea underlying much of our modern understanding of revenge porn and illicit sexual photography as a joke.

I think the basic problem here is that while the hoaxers have mimicked the style of the field, and understand which theoretical questions to target and write about, they fundamentally don’t understand the field, and so things they consider to be ludicrous are actually important and real questions in the topic, with important and real consequences. They don’t understand it, but it actually makes sense. And now they’ve created this circus of people sneering at how bad the papers were, when actually they were addressing decent topics and real questions.

How would this have happened in other fields?

So if we treat these three papers as serious recognizing that two were published, and then discount the paper with fradulent data (dog park) and the paper that was plagiarized (feminist mein kampf) we are left with just three papers that were published that might be genuinely bullshit, out of 20. That’s 15%, or 22% if you drop the plagiarized and fraudulent papers from the denominator. Sounds bad, right? But this brings us to our next big problem with this hoax: there was no control group. If I submitted 20 papers with dodgy methods and shonky reasoning to public health journals, I think I could get 15% published. Just a week or two ago I reported on a major paper in the Lancet that I think has shonky methods and reasoning, as well as poorly-gathered data, but it got major publicity and will probably adversely affect alcohol policy in future. I have repeatedly on this blog attacked papers published in the National Bureau of Economics Research (NBER) archives, which use terrible methods, poor quality data, bad reasoning and poor scientific design. Are 15% of NBER papers bullshit? I would suggest the figure is likely much higher. But we can’t compare because the authors didn’t try to hoax these fields, and as far as I know no one has ever tried to hoax them. This despite the clear and certain knowledge that the R&R paper in economics was based on a flawed model and bad reasoning, but was used to inform fiscal policy in several countries, and the basic conclusions are still believed even though it has been roundly debunked.

The absence of hoaxes (or even proper critical commentary) on other fields means that they can maintain an air of inassailability while social studies and feminist theory are repeatedly criticized for their methods and the quality of their research and peer review. This is a political project, not a scientific project, and these hoaxers have gone to great lengths to produce a salable, PR-ready attack on a field they don’t like, using a method that is itself poorly reasoned, with shonky methodology, and a lack of detailed understanding of the academic goals of the field they’re punking. They also, it should be remembered, have acted very unethically. I think the beam is in their own eye, or as the Suicidals would say:

Ah, damn, we got a lot of stupid people
Doing a lot of stupid things
Thinking a lot of stupid thoughts
And if you want to see one
Just look in the mirror

Conclusion

This hoax shouldn’t be taken seriously, and it doesn’t say anything much about the quality of research or academic editing in the field they’re criticizing. Certainly on the face of it some of the papers that were published seem pretty damning, but some of them covered real topics of genuine interest, and the hoaxers’ interpretation of the theoretical value of the work is deeply flawed. This is a PR stunt, nothing more, and it does nothing to address whatever real issues sociology and women’s studies face. Until people start genuinely developing a model for properly assessing the quality of academic work in multiple fields, with control groups and proper adjustment for confounders, in a cross-disciplinary team that fully understands the fields being critiqued, these kinds of hoaxes will remain just stupid stunts, that play on the goodwill of peer reviewers and academics for the short-term political and public benefit of the hoaxers, but for no longer benefit to the community being punked, and at the risk of considerable harm. Until a proper assessment of the quality of all disciplines is conducted, we should not waste our time punking others, but think harder about how we can improve our own.

 


fn1: I won’t link, because a lot of online texts of Mein Kampf are on super dubious websites – look it up yourself if you wish to see what the punking text was.

fn2: Revealing peer reviews is generally considered unethical, btw

The New York Times reports on a sexual harassment scandal at New York University, with a bizarre twist: a lesbian feminist philosopher, Avitall Ronell, has been found guilty of sexual and physical harassment of a gay postgraduate student. As is typical of these cases, the graduate student waited until he got his PhD and a job, and then went stone cold vengeful on a Title IX case, getting Ronell bang for rights and seeing her receive some significant penalties. That’s all par for the course for such a case, but in an interesting and unpleasant diversion from the script, we find that a letter was written to NYU, asking it not to punish Ronell at all. This letter rested not on the facts of the case but on her contribution to scholarship and the belief that her actions were inconceivable. The letter was signed by a bunch of literary theorists and feminists, for whom it is apparently too much to imagine that one of their own could abuse the power that accrues at the giddy heights of academia. This letter appears to have potentially been instigated by Ronell herself, which is going to have serious repercussions for Ronell down the track (retaliation is a very serious offence after a Title IX case, whether the case was settled on behalf of the claimant or not). For those of us who are familiar with academia, this is a depressingly familiar story of professors pulling together to protect their own and the (considerable) power of their office – for many academics (mostly but not all men) the right to fuck and harass your students is a job perk, not a temptation to be avoided; and for a great many academics of all genders and races, the right to exploit and academically harass your students is completely valid. What struck me as interesting in this latest scandal, though, is the presence of Judith Butler, queer theorist and originator of the nasty idea that gender is a performance. She appears to have started and signed the letter, including using her status as president-elect of the Modern Language Association. Judith Butler signed a petition not to convict a rapist in 2004 at University of California Irvine, and she was also present in last year’s transracialism controversy, where she was one of the signatories on the hateful letter to Hypatia to have Rebecca Tuvel’s article In Defense of Transracialism retracted on spurious grounds.

Seeing Butler’s name on the latest scandal reminded me that I wrote a blogpost about transracialism and about this scandal a year ago when it aired. In brief, in March last year a non-tenured female assistant professor at an American University, Rebecca Tuvel, published an article in the feminist journal Hypatia which basically argued that a) the process of becoming transgender is a real thing; b) transracialism has many similarities with the process of becoming transgender; c) if you accept the validity of transgender people’s self-identity, you should probably accept the validity of a person’s choice to be transracial. The article was clear, concise and well argued, very much in the spirit of Peter Singer’s work on vegetarianism and animal rights, or Bertrand Russell’s work on religion and war (I think she is an analytic philosopher and so are they, so that makes sense, though I don’t know much about these categories). For a certain class of American activist academics the implications of this work were terrifying: either they rejected transracialism out of hand for obviously dubious reasons, and were scared that Tuvel’s conclusions would degrade the rights of transgender people; or they didn’t really respect transgender rights, and wanted to stop the extension of transgender rights to transracial rights at any cost. This unholy alliance of idiots conspired to write a letter – with 800 signatories! – demanding Hypatia retract the article. In the process they traduced Tuvel’s reputation, embarrassed the journal and their own field, disgraced themselves, and and signally failed to engage with the substance of Tuvel’s work in any way, shape or form. In addition to all of these stupid failings, they also did their very best to destroy Tuvel’s career, which obviously was the worst consequence of all this bullshit.

So today, seeing Butler and her colleagues at work on this stuff again, I found myself wondering what happened to Tuvel after “that little unpleasantness” in May last year? So I did a search, and I was surprised and pleased to discover that she still has her job at Rhodes (I don’t know if she has been approved for tenure or not, or if it is even possible for an Assistant Professor to get tenure), she is still teaching (including the Freedom and Oppression component of Philosophy 101, haha!) and she lists her work on transracialism as her major research interest, so whatever happened over the past year appears not to have destroyed her passion for this interesting topic [1]. So it appears that any consequences of the brouhaha didn’t affect her work, which is great. I checked the status of her paper on the Hypatia website, and it has been cited 4 times already, though google gives it up to 33 citations. In either case this is excellent – getting 4 citations in the first year of publication of a paper is very good, especially in Philosophy. I think the Hypatia metrics are bodgy though because she definitely has been cited more times than that. In particular, I was cheered to discover that the journal Philosophy Today had a whole special issue responding to her paper. This is frankly awesome – very few academics at any level, no matter how original, get to have a whole journal issue devoted to dissecting their work, and to have this opportunity arise from a controversial work that nearly sunk your career is really good. It’s worth noting that in the wash up of the original scandal the issue is generally positive, including an article on the lack of intellectual generosity shown in the response to her work, and some discussion of its implications for various aspects of theory. Tuvel gets to write a response (of course), which means that she gets an extra publication out of her own work, and a bunch of citations – jolly good!

Tuvel’s response is also well argued and thorough, and written in the same plain and accessible style as the original. She begins by noting that the scandal had a significant effect on her psychological wellbeing, and goes on to criticize the establishment for its terrible response to her paper. She then makes a few points in response to specific criticisms of the notion of transracialism. She makes the point first that many critics of her article wanted it rewritten from their own framework:

Critics of my article commented often on how my paper should have been written, which seemed far too often to collapse into saying how they would have written my paper. But different philosophers ask questions differently; and different methodologies shed light differently. We owe it to each other to respect these differences and to resist the conviction that only one method can properly answer difficult questions.
I thought this at the time – Tuvel had apparently presented this work at a conference and received critical feedback from many of the scholars who wrote the retraction letter, and in the retraction letter it was noted that she did not incorporate any of those criticisms in the final article. Nowhere did they consider the possibility that they were wrong. This aspect of the criticism of her work at the time read as an attempt at gatekeeping or policing the content of work, to ensure not just that the conclusions were politically acceptable but that the methods did not stray from those that the crusty elders of the field had always used. One got the impression that the the “Theory” scholars and continental philosophers were horrified at an analytical philosopher just marching in and stating plainly what was true. Quelle horreur! as the Romans would say.
In her response Tuvel also gets a chance to address the criticism that she did not incorporate more work from “African American” scholars. Here she writes (referencing another writer contributing to the symposium):
Botts suggests that typical of analytic methods, my paper fails to engage lived experience when relevant. She further states that “continental methods are better suited to addressing philosophical questions based in the lived realities of members of marginalized populations (in this case, African Americans and transgender persons)” (Botts 2018: 54). However, my paper is a philosophical examination of the metaphysical and ethical possibility of transracialism, not of the lived experience of African American and transgender persons (or African American transgender persons). Not to mention that Botts ignores the lived experience most relevant to an exploration of transracialism—namely that of self-identified transracial people. Insofar as it considers Rachel Dolezal’s story, my article is indeed attuned to relevant lived experience. As Chloë Taylor likewise notes, my article “reflects on whether Dolezal’s experience of growing up with adopted Black siblings, of having an older Black man in her life whom she calls ‘Dad,’ of estrangement from her white biological parents, of being married to a Black man, might be sufficient for understanding her experience of herself as Black” (Taylor 2018: 7). Botts remarks that the relevant populations for my analysis would have been African American and transgender persons, but she does not explain why engaging the lived experience of these populations would be methodologically sufficient. After all, by comparison, one does not rightly suggest that philosophical explorations of trans womanhood must necessarily consult the lived experience of cis women.

This addresses an important problem when we demand the inclusion of specific lived experiences in philosophy or theory (or public health, though it’s rarer): whose lived experience, and how do we choose these experiences? As I remarked in my original post on this issue, America has an incredibly prejudiced, parochial and exclusionary view of race and gender, which essentially ignores the lived experiences of most of the world, and in my view specifically excludes the anti-colonial and anti-imperialist views of black Africans in choosing to name black Americans “African”, as well as ignoring the experience of women in almost all of the developing world. More abstractly, there are millions of competing lived experiences, and we can’t even know what all these experiences are, let alone access them. Certainly we should all strive to incorporate the opinions and voices of the people our work will affect, or the people about whom we are writing, but that doesn’t mean we can ever be complete in our coverage of these voices, or even know who they all are – we will always miss some. But Tuvel’s critics wanted her specifically to avoid the most relevant lived experiences, in favour of other voices and lives that are much more congenial to her critics (and from whose ranks, primarily, her critics were drawn). That’s not an especially scholarly alternative to what Tuvel did. In fact Tuvel brought an important additional factor to this debate, choosing to address broad concepts and frameworks analytically, using a lived experience as an example, rather than trying to build a broad theory from a few select voices. This is a much more effective way of doing this kind of work[2].

Tuvel further backs this point up with this important warning to critics of abstract reasoning generally:

All too often such imperatives border on an injunction not merely to engage sensitively and carefully but to defer to the concerns of black people—all the while essentializing them into a homogeneous group. Like any massively diverse group of individuals, however, black people are of many different minds regarding qualifications for black racial membership. Consider, among others, Adolph Reed Jr (2015), Camille Gear Rich (2015), and Ann Morning (2017)—all black scholars who have expressed more sympathetic positions on transracialism.

This is important to remember – we don’t just choose specific voices within a group, but we can also defer to them rather than engage with them. This isn’t how we should do theory. I think Tuvel is a prominent advocate for transgender and transracial people, but here she makes clear that when we advocate for them we need to not only be careful about whose lived experience we choose to privilege, but how we engage with it.

Tuvel follows this with a dismissal of an argument that people could self-identify as centaurs (which gives the heading of this post), leading to the kind of excellent statement that can only be found in the best journals: “Centaurs, however, are not an actual ‘human kind’ (see Mallon 2016)”. The reference here is: Mallon, Ron. 2016. The Construction of Human Kinds. New York: Oxford. It appears that the academy has dealt extensively with the nature of centaurs, and concluded they aren’t human. What about the lived experience of Actual Centaurs?! How are we to incorporate this into our work?! And has Mallon considered the possibility that centaurs aren’t just not a “human kind”, but actually don’t exist? It’s good to know that philosophy is covering the important issues!

I would also commend to everyone the section of Tuvel’s response on “Inclusive identities” and the last paragraph of her section on “Analytical Methodology”.  Here she attacks the notion that race should be biologically determined, or based only on ancestry, and makes the important point that a person with no allegiance to black people or culture can be considered to have a more valid voice on blackness than a white person raised in a black community (like Dolezal was) if they have “one drop” of black blood. These kinds of ideas have been used simultaneously to define and destroy indigenous communities over many years, and they are very very dangerous. I would argue that just from a practical political, bloody-minded point of view, it is much much easier to maintain a political campaign for equal representation of Indigenous peoples if you allow self-identification than if you demand arbitrary biological definitions of race. The imperial powers that sought to destroy Indigenous peoples can’t destroy a people whose boundaries they can’t police! [Well, they can – but it’s harder, and at some point they’ll have to deal with the Indigenous people in their own institutions].

This dive back through Tuvel’s post-scandal career has been reassuring – I’m very happy to see that the original signatories not only failed to silence her or damage her career, but actually gave her a boost by instigating an appraisal of her work that bought her a whole special issue of a philosophy journal. This also means that rather than driving her theories away, her critics have forced the philosophy mainstream to engage with them and take them more seriously, which is good for her, good for philosophy and great for all those people who are living transracial lives (who doesn’t want philosophers debating their right to exist!?) I bet her students are happy to be being lectured by someone so radical, and if her lectures are as clear as her writing and theorizing I imagine they are getting an excellent education. She will of course be always known as “that transracialism woman”, and of course it’s still possible that the scandal will affect her career progression even if it doesn’t affect her current status, but I’m glad that the resistance those letter writers received was sufficient to protect her and to support her. It’s a strong reminder that the academy always needs to police itself against the arrogance of its own elite.

As a final aside, Wikipedia reports that the associate editors of Hypatia who signed the letter were forced to resign; the whole brouhaha was referred to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE), which found that the journal had acted improperly; and subsequently the journal completely revised its procedures and forced all editors and associate editors to sign on to COPE guidelines. The Andrew Mellon Foundation also gave a grant to a university to develop a code of ethics for publishing in philosophy. So even though Tuvel wasn’t directly involved in any of this, her work can be said to have led to significant reforms in the world of feminist philosophy and philosophy publishing. Very few assistant professors can lay claim to such a legacy.

Also, I’m happy to see philosophers have categorically denied centaurs their humanity. Abominations, the lot of them!


fn1: Her publication record has not been updated, however, so it’s possible that she hasn’t updated her research profile, in which case this information may not be up to date. Assistant Professors are very busy and don’t always get to keep their profiles up to date!

fn2: It’s also essential when discussing the rights of people and animals with no voice: the unborn, the very elderly, animals of all kinds, the environment, the illiterate, increasingly criminals … If the lived experience of real people is essential to ground your philosophy, you’re fucked when the people living the experience can’t speak or write.

The media this week are exploding with news that a company called Cambridge Analytica used shadily-obtained Facebook data to influence the US elections. The data was harvested by some other shady company using an app that legally exploited Facebook’s privacy rules at the time, and then handed over to Cambridge Analytica, who then used the data to micro-target adverts over Facebook during the election, mostly aimed at getting Trump elected. The news is still growing, and it appears that Cambridge Analytica was up to a bunch of other shady stuff too – swinging elections in developing countries through fraud and honey-traps, getting Facebook data from other sources and possibly colluding illegally with the Trump campaign against campaign funding laws – and it certainly looks like a lot of trouble is deservedly coming their way.

In response to this a lot of people have been discussing Facebook itself as if it is responsible for this problem, is itself a shady operator, or somehow represents a new and unique problem in the relationship between citizens, the media and politics. Elon Musk has deleted his company’s Facebook accounts, there is a #deleteFacebook campaign running around, and lots of people are suggesting that the Facebook model of social networking is fundamentally bad (see e.g. this Vox article about how Facebook is simply a bad idea).

I think a lot of this reaction against Facebook is misguided, does not see the real problem, and falls into the standard mistake of thinking a new technology must necessarily come with new and unique threats. I think it misses the real problem underlying Cambridge Analytica’s use of Facebook data to micro-target ads during the election and to manipulate public opinion: the people reading the ads.

We use Facebook precisely because of the unique benefits of its social and sharing model. We want to see our friends’ lives and opinions shared amongst ourselves, we want to be able to share along things we like or approve of, and we want to be able to engage with what our friends are thinking and saying. Some people using Facebook may do so as I do, carefully curating content providers we allow on our feed to ensure they aren’t offensive or upsetting, and avoiding allowing any political opinions we disagree with; others may use it for the opposite purpose, to engage with our friends’ opinions, see how they are thinking, and openly debate and disagree about a wide range of topics in a social forum. Many of us treat it as an aggregator for cat videos and cute viral shit; some of us only use it to keep track of friends. But in all cases the ability of the platform to share and engage is why we use it. It’s the one thing that separates it from traditional mass consumption media. This is its revolutionary aspect.

But what we engage with on Facebook is still media. If your friend shares a Fox and Friends video of John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is actually a lizard person, when you watch that video you are engaging with it just as if you were engaging with Fox and Friends itself. The fact that it’s on Facebook instead of TV doesn’t suddenly exonerate you of the responsibility and the ability to identify that John Bolton is full of shit. If Cambridge Analytica micro target you with an ad that features John Bolton claiming that Hilary Clinton is a lizard person, that means Cambridge Analytica have evidence that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning, but the fundamental problem here remains that you are susceptible to that line of reasoning. Their ad doesn’t become extra brain-washy because it was on Facebook. Yes, it’s possible that your friend shared it and we all know that people trust their friends’ judgment. But if your friends think that shit is reasonable, and you still trust your friend’s judgement, then you and your friend have a problem. That’s not Facebook’s problem, it’s yours.

This problem existed before Facebook, and it exists now outside of Facebook. Something like 40% of American adults think that Fox News is a reliable and trustworthy source of news, and many of those people think that anything outside of Fox News is lying and untrustworthy “liberal media”. The US President apparently spends a lot of his “executive time” watching Fox and Friends and live tweeting his rage spasms. No one forces him to watch Fox and Friends, he has a remote control and fingers, he could choose to watch the BBC. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or even Fox News’s fault, that the president is a dimwit who believes anything John Bolton says.

This is a much bigger problem than Facebook, and it’s a problem in the American electorate and population. Sure, we could all be more media savvy, we could all benefit from better understanding how Facebook abuses privacy settings, shares our data for profit, and enables micro-targeting. But once that media gets to you it’s still media and you still have a responsibility to see if it’s true or not, to assess it against other independent sources of media, to engage intellectually with it in a way that ensures you don’t just believe any old junk. If you trust your friends’ views on vaccinations or organic food or Seth Rich’s death more than you trust a doctor or a police prosecutor then you have a problem. Sure, Facebook might improve the reach of people wanting to take advantage of that problem, but let’s not overdo it here: In the 1990s you would have been at a bbq party or a bar, nodding along as your friend told you that vaccines cause autism and believing every word of it. The problem then was you, and the problem now is you. In fact it is much easier now for you to not be the problem. Back in the 1990s at that bbq you couldn’t have surreptitiously whipped our your iPhone and googled “Andrew Wakefield” and discovered that he’s a fraud who has been disbarred by the GMA. Now you can, and if you choose not to because you think everything your paranoid conspiracy theorist friend says is true, the problem is you. If you’re watching some bullshit Cambridge Analytica ad about how Hilary Clinton killed Seth Rich, you’re on the internet, so you have the ability to cross reference that information and find out what the truth might actually be. If you didn’t do that, you’re lazy or you already believe it or you don’t care or you’re deeply stupid. It’s not Facebook’s fault, or Cambridge Analytica’s fault. It’s yours.

Facebook offers shady operatives like Robert Mercer the ability to micro-target their conspiracy theories and lies, and deeper and more effective reach of their lies through efficient use of advertising money and the multiplicative effect of the social network feature. It also gives them a little bit of a trust boost because people believe their friends are trustworthy. But in the end the people consuming the media this shady group produce are still people with an education, judgment, a sense of identity and a perspective on the world. They are still able to look at junk like this and decide that it is in fact junk. If you sat through the 2016 election campaign thinking that this con-artist oligarch was going to drain the swamp, the problem is you. If you thought that Clinton’s email practices were the worst security issue in the election, the problem is you. If you honestly believed The Young Turks or Jacobin mag when they told you Clinton was more militarist than Trump, the problem is you. If you believed Glenn Greenwald when he told you the real threat to American security was Clinton’s surveillance and security policies, the problem is you. If you believed that Trump cared more about working people than Hilary Clinton, then the problem is you. This stuff was all obvious and objectively checkable and easy to read, and you didn’t bother. The problem is not that Facebook was used by a shady right wing mob to manipulate your opinions into thinking Clinton was going to start world war 3 and hand everyone’s money to the bankers. The problem is that when this utter bullshit landed in your feed, you believed it.

Of course the problem doesn’t stop with the consumers of media but with the creators. Chris Cillizza is a journalist who hounded Clinton about her emails and her security issues before the election, and to this day continues to hound her, and he worked for reputable media organizations who thought his single-minded obsession with Clinton was responsible journalism. The NY Times was all over the email issues, and plenty of NY Times columnists like Maureen Dowd were sure Trump was less militarist than Clinton. Fox carefully curated their news feed to ensure the pussy-grabbing scandal was never covered, so more Americans knew about the emails than the pussy-grabbing. Obviously if no one is creating content about how terrible Trump is then we on Facebook are not able to share it with each other. But again the problem here is not Facebook – it’s the American media. Just this week we learn that the Atlantic, a supposedly centrist publication, is hiring Kevin D Williamson – a man who believes women who get abortions should be hanged – to provide “balance” to its opinion section. This isn’t Facebook’s fault. The utter failure of the US media to hold their government even vaguely accountable for its actions over the past 30 years, or to inquire with any depth or intelligence into the utter corruption of the Republican party, is not Facebook’s fault or ours, it’s theirs. But it is our job as citizens to look elsewhere, to try to understand the flaws in the reporting, to deploy our education to the benefit of ourselves and the civic society of which we are a part. That’s not Facebook’s job, it’s ours. Voting is a responsibility as well as a right, and when you prepare to vote you have the responsibility to understand the information available about the people you are going to vote for. If you decide that you would rather believe Clinton killed Seth Rich to cover up a paedophile scandal, rather than reading the Democratic Party platform and realizing that strategic voting for Clinton will benefit you and your class, then the problem is you. You live in a free society with free speech, and you chose to believe bullshit without checking it.

Deleting Facebook won’t solve the bigger problem, which is that many people in America are not able to tell lies from truth. The problem is not Facebook, it’s you.

 

UPDATE: Dr. Monnat has left a comment pointing out that I made a major error in reading her methods (I assumed she used non-standardized rates but in the methods she specifies that she did). So I have removed one criticism of her paper and modified another about regression. This doesn’t change the thrust of my argument (though if Dr. Monnat is patient enough to engage with more of my criticisms, maybe it will!)

Since late 2016 a theory has been circulating that Donald Trump’s election victory can be related to the opioid epidemic in rust belt America. Under this theory, parts of mid-West America with high levels of unemployment and economic dislocation that are experiencing high levels of opioid addiction switched votes from Democrat to Republican and elected Trump. This is part of a broader idea that America is suffering an epidemic of “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioids, suicide and alcohol abuse – that are part of a newfound social problem primarily afflicting working class white people, and the recent rapid growth in the rate of these “deaths of despair” drove a rebellion against the Democrats, and towards Trump.

This theory is bullshit, for a lot of reasons, and in this post I want to talk about why. To be clear, it’s not just a bit wrong: it’s wrong in all of its particulars. The data doesn’t support the idea of a growing death rate amongst white working class people; the data does not support a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting; there is no such thing as a “death of despair”; and there is no viable explanation for why an epidemic of “deaths of despair” should drive votes for Trump. The theory is attractive to a certain kind of theorist because it enables them to pretend that the Trump phenomenon doesn’t represent a deep problem of racism in American society, but it doesn’t work. Let’s look at why.

The myth of rising white mortality

First let’s consider the central framework of this story, which is the idea that mortality rates have been rising rapidly among middle-aged whites in America over the past 20 years, popularized by two economists (Case and Deaton) in a paper in PNAS. This paper is deeply flawed because it does not adjust for age, which has been increasing rapidly among white Americans but not non-white Americans (due to differential birth and migration patterns in earlier eras). Case and Deaton studied mortality in 45-54 year old Americans, differentiating by race, but failed to adjust for age. This is important for surprising reasons, which perhaps only epidemiologists understand, and we’re only figuring this out recently and slowly: ageing is happening so fast in high-income countries that even when we look at relatively narrow age categories we need to take into account the possibility that the older parts of the age category have a lot more people than the younger parts, and this means that even the small differences in mortality between say 53 year olds and 45 year olds can make a difference to mortality rates in the age category as a whole. If this seems shocking, consider the case of Japan, where ageing is so advanced that even five year age categories (the finest band of age that most statistical organizations will present publicly) are vulnerable to differences in the population. In Japan, the difference in the size of the 84 year old population to the 80 year old population is so great that we may need to adjust for age even when looking at narrow age categories like 80-84 years. This problem is a new challenge for epidemiologists – we used to assume that if you reduce an analysis to a 10 or 15 year age category you don’t need to standardize, because the population within such a band is relatively stable, but this is no longer true.

In the case of the Case and Deaton study the effect of ageing in non-hispanic white populations is so great that failure to adjust for it completely biases their results. Andrew Gelman describes the problem  on his blog and presents age-adjusted data and data for individual years of age, showing fairly convincingly that the entire driver of the “problem” identified by Case and Deaton is age, not ill health. After adjustment it does appear that some categories of white women are seeing an increasing mortality rate, but this is a) likely due to the recent growth of smoking in this population and b) not a likely explanation for Trump’s success, since he was more popular with men than women.

White people are dying more in America because they’re getting older, not because they have a problem. I happen to think that getting older is a problem, but it’s not a problem that Trump or anyone else can fix.

The myth of “deaths of despair” and Trump voting

Case and Deaton followed up their paper on white mortality with further research on “deaths of despair” – deaths due to opioid abuse, suicide and alcohol use that are supposedly due to “despair”. This paper is a better, more exhaustive analysis of the problem but it is vulnerable to a lot of basic epidemiological errors, and the overall theory is ignorant of basic principles in drug and alcohol theory and suicide research. This new research does not properly adjust for age in narrow age groups, and it does not take into account socioeconomic influences on mortality due to these conditions. But on this topic Case and Deaton are not the main offenders – they did not posit a link between “deaths of despair” and Trump voting, which was added by a researcher called Shannon Monnat at Pennsylvania State University in late 2016. In her paper, Monnat argues for a direct link between rates of “deaths of despair” and voting for Trump at the county level, suggesting that voting for Trump was somehow a response to the specific pressures affecting white Americans. There are huge flaws in this paper, which I list here, approximately in their order of importance.

  • It includes suicide: Obviously a county with high suicide mortality is in a horrible situation, which should be dealt with, but there is a big problem with using suicide as a predictor of Trump voting. This problem is guns. Uniquely among rich countries, the US has a very high prevalence of gun ownership and guns account for a much larger proportion of suicides in America than elsewhere – more than half, according to reputable studies. And unfortunately for rural Americans, the single biggest determinant of whether you commit suicide by gun is owning a gun – and gun ownership rates are much higher in counties that vote Republican. In America suicide is a proxy for gun ownership, not “despair”, and because gun-related suicide depends heavily on rates of gun ownership, inclusion of this mortality rate in the study heavily biases the total mortality rate being used towards a measure of gun ownership rather than despair.
  • It uses voting changes rather than voting odds: Like most studies of voting rates, Monnat compared the percentage voting for Trump with the percentage voting for Romney in 2012. This is a big flaw, because percentages do not vary evenly across their range. In Monnat’s study a county that increased its Republican voting proportion from 1% to 2% is treated exactly the same as a county that went from 50% to 51%. In one of these counties the vote doubled and Trump didn’t get elected; in the other it increased by 2% but Trump got elected. It’s important to account for this non linearity in analysis, but Monnat did not. Which leads to another problem …
  • It did not measure Trump’s success directly: In a first past the post electoral system, who wins is more important than by how much. Monnat used an ordinary least squares model of proportions voting Trump rather than a binomial model of Trump winning or losing, which means that meaningless small gains in “blue” states[1] had the same importance as small gains in “red” states that flipped them “blue”. This might not be important except that we know Trump lost the popular vote (which differences in proportions measure) but won the electoral college (which more closely resembles binary measures of win/lose). Not analyzing binary outcomes in a binomial model suggests you don’t understand the relationship between statistics and the political system you live in, i.e. your analysis is wrong.
  • It did not incorporate turnout: A 52% win for Trump can reflect two things – a change in attitude by 2% of the voters, or a non-proportionate increase in the number of people who chose to turn out and vote. If you analyze proportions (or differences in proportions) you don’t account for this problem. In addition, you don’t adjust for the overall size of the electorate. If you analyze proportions, an electorate where 52 people voted Trump and 48 people voted Clinton is given the same weight as an electorate where 5200 people voted Clinton and 4800 people voted Trump. If you use a proper binomial model, however, the latter electorate gets more weight and is implicitly treated as more meaningful in the assessment of results. A reminder of what is fast becoming a faustusnotes rule: the cool kids do not use ordinary least squares regression to analyze probabilities, we always use logistic regression.
  • It did not present the regression results: Although Monnat reports regression results in a footnote, the main results in the text are all unadjusted, even though in at least some states the impact of economic factors appears to eliminate the relationship with mortality rates. Given that people who own guns are much much more likely to vote Republican, and the main predictor variable here incorporated suicide, adjustment for gun ownership might have eliminated the effect of “deaths of despair” entirely. But it wasn’t done as far as I can tell, and wasn’t shown.
  • It did not adjust for trends: Monnat openly states in the beginning of the paper that “deaths of despair” have been rising over time but when she conducts the analysis she uses the average rate for the period 2006-2014. This means that she does not consider the possibility that mortality has been dropping in some counties and rising in others. A mortality rate of 100 per 100,000 could reflect a decline over the period 2006-2014 from 150 to 50 (a huge decrease) or an increase from 25 to 175. We don’t know, but it seems likely that if “deaths of despair” is an issue, it will have had more influence on electoral decisions in 2016 in counties where the rate has risen over that time than where it has declined. There are lots of policy reasons why the death rate might have increased or decreased, but whether these reflect issues relevant to Republican or Democrat policy is impossible to know without seeing the distribution of trends – which Monnat did not analyze[2].

So in summary the study that found this “relationship” between “deaths of despair” and voting Trump was deeply flawed. There is no such relationship in the data[3].

There is no such thing as a “death of despair”

This study has got a fair bit of attention on the internet, as have the prior Case and Deaton studies. For example here we see a Medium report on the “Oxy electorate” that repeats all these sour talking points, and in this blog post some dude who fancies himself a spokesperson for ordinary America talks up the same issue. The latter blog post has some comments by people taking oxycontin for pain relief, who make some important points that the “deaths of despair” crew have overlooked. To quote one commenter[4]:

I too am a long time chronic pain sufferer and until I was put on opiate medications my quality of life was ZERO. I’ve heard horror stories of people actually being suicidal because they can no longer deal with the constant pain. It took me two years before I realized I could no longer work as an account manager with a major telecom company. I was making decent money but leaving work everyday in pain. I finally started going to a pain management doctor who diagnosed me with degenerative disc disease. I had to go on medical leave and now am on SSDI. My doctor prescribed me opiates in the fall of 2006 and I’ve been on them ever since. I have to say, I totally AGREE with you. I don’t know how I would be able to manage without these medications. At least I’m able to clean my house now and now without being in horrible pain. I don’t know what I would do if suddenly I was told I could no longer be prescribed opiates.
Who is someone that will champion those of us who legitametly need these medications? Do we write to our senators?? I sure hope Trump takes into consideration our cases before kicking us all to the curb!

This person (and others) make the valid point that they are taking pain medication for a reason, and that they were in despair before they got hooked on opioids, not after. Unfortunately for these commenters, we now have fairly good evidence that opioids are not the best treatment for chronic pain and that they are very, very dangerous, but regardless of whether this treatment is exactly the best one for these patients they make the valid point that it is the treatment they got and it works for them. To use an Americanism, you can take the opioids from their cold dead hands. In stark contrast to other countries, a very large proportion of America’s opioid deaths are due to prescription drugs, not heroin, reflecting an epidemic of overdose due to legally accessible painkillers. It’s my suspicion that these painkillers were prescribed to people like the above commenter because they could not afford the treatment for the underlying cause of their pain, because America’s healthcare system sucks, and these people then became addicted to a very dangerous substance – but in the absence of proper health insurance these people cannot get the specialist opioid management they deserve. America’s opioid epidemic is a consequence of poor health system access, not “despair”, and if Americans had the same health system as, say, Frenchies or Britons they would not be taking these drugs for more than 6 months, because the underlying cause of their condition would have been treated – and for that small minority of pain patients with chronic pain, in any other rich country they would have regular affordable access to a specialist who could calibrate their dose and manage their risks.

The opioid death problem in America is a problem of access to healthcare, which should have been fixed by Obamacare. Which brings us to the last issue …

There is no theory linking opioid addiction to voting Trump

What exactly is the theory by which people hooked on oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump? On its face there are only two realistic explanations for this theory: 1) the areas where oxycontin is a huge problem are facing social devastation with no solution in sight, so vote for change (even Trump!) in hopes of a solution; or 2) people who use drugs are arseholes and losers. Putting aside the obvious ecological fallacy in Monnat’s study (it could be that everyone in the area who votes for Trump is a non-opiate user, and they voted Trump in hopes of getting the druggies killed Duterte-style, but the data doesn’t tell us who voted Trump, just what proportion of each area did), there are big problems with these two explanations even at the individual level. Let’s deal with each in turn.

If areas facing social devastation due to oxycontin are more likely to vote Trump, why didn’t they also vote Romney? Some of these areas were stronger Obama voters in 2012, according to Monnat’s data, but opioid use has been skyrocketing in these areas since 2006 (remember Monnat used averages from 2006-2014). The mortality data covers two election cycles where they voted Obama even though opioid deaths were rising, and suddenly they voted Trump? Why now? Why Trump and not Romney, or McCain? It’s as if there is something else about Trump …

Of course it’s possible that oxycontin users are racist arseholes – I have certainly seen this in my time working in clinics providing healthcare to injecting drug users – but even if we accept such a bleak view of drug users (and it’s not true!) the problem with this theory is that even as opioid use increases, it remains a tiny proportion of the total population of these areas. The opioid users directly cannot swing the election – it has to be their neighbours, friends and family. Now it’s possible that a high prevalence of opioid use and suicide drives people seeing this phenomenon to vote Trump but this is a strange outcome – in general people vote for Democrats/Labour in times of social catastrophe, which is why they voted Obama to start with – because he promised to fix the financial crisis and health care. There has to be some other explanation for why non-opioid using people switched vote in droves to Trump but not Romney. I wonder what it could be?

American liberals’ desperate desire to believe their country is not deeply racist

The problem is, of course, that Trump had a single distinguishing feature that no one before him in the GOP had – he was uniquely, floridly racist. Since the election this has become abundantly clear, but for Donnat writing in late 2016 I guess it still seemed vaguely plausibly deniable. But the reality is that his single distinction from all other GOP candidates was his florid racism. Lots of people in America want to believe that the country they live in – the country that just 150 years ago went to war over slavery, and just 50 years ago had explicit laws to drive black people out of the economic life of the nation – is not racist. I have even recently seen news reports that America is “losing its leadership in the movement for racial equality.” No, dudes, you never showed any leadership on that front. America is a deeply racist nation. It’s racist in a way that other countries can’t even begin to understand. The reason Trump won is that he energized a racist base, and the reason his approval remains greater than 30% despite the shitshow he is presiding over is that a large number of Americans are out-and-out fascists, for whom trolling “liberals” and crushing non-whites is a good thing. That’s why rural, gun-owning Americans voted for Trump, and if the data were analyzed properly that fact would be very clear. Lots of people in America want to believe second- or third-order causes like the rustbelt or opioids, but the reality is staring them in the face: it’s racism. Don’t blame people with chronic pain, blame people with chronic racism. And fix it, before the entire world has to pay for the vainglorious passions of a narrow swathe of white America.


fn1: I refuse to take the American use of “blue” and “red” seriously – they get scare quotes until they decide that Republicans are blue and Democrats are red. Sorry, but you guys need to sort your shit out. Get proper political colours and get rid of American Football, then you’ll be taken seriously on the world stage. Also learn to spell color with a “u”.

fn2: I’m joshing you here. Everyone knows that Republicans don’t give a flying fuck if an electorate is dying of opioid overdoses at a skyrocketing rate, and everyone knows that the idea that Republicans would offer people dying of “deaths of despair” any policy solutions to their problem except “be born rich” is a hilarious joke. The only possible policy intervention that could have helped counties seeing an increasing opioid death rate was Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion, and we know republicans rejected that in states they controlled because they’re evil.

fn3: Well, there might be, but no one has shown it with a robust method.

fn4: I’m such a cynic about everything American that I really hope this commenter isn’t a drug company plant…

I curate my Facebook feed very carefully so that it contains only nice things. It’s possible that my Facebook feed is the only one remaining on planet earth that still regularly gets cute cat videos in it. I prune my content regularly, and in particular I make sure that I hide or defriend people who regularly clog my wall with nastiness, internecine spats, or heavy quantities of political material (of any persuasion). One of my key considerations for whether to hide/defriend is whether the content a friend puts up regularly shocks me or creates a sudden feeling of discomfort when I see it. I guess, if it triggers me. Usually this is things like people putting up political material that features torture or animal cruelty, people who spam my feed with inspirational pictures, and people who regularly say or upload things that heap scorn on others. By ferociously following this principle, I manage to make sure that my Facebook is a world of happiness and light. But sometimes things still slip through that shock me or make me uncomfortable, and one regular occasional event on my Facebook feed is one of my female friends approvingly posting a Celeste Barber picture.

If you aren’t familiar with Celeste Barber’s work you can read about it in this Guardian profile, and you can see some more pictures here. Basically, she’s a frumpy 30-something (?) woman who takes “real-life” versions of models’ PR pictures and posts them alongside the original pictures on Instagram. For example, a model might take a carefully posed shot of herself “falling” out of bed, and Celeste will take an equivalent shot intended to show her “ordinary” equivalent of this posed shot. Some of these are cute, like the one where she mimics a model sitting in her underwear holding grapes, but Celeste is holding a wine bottle – this makes a nice juxtaposition between the perfect and the everyday. Others rightly take the piss out of some of the extremely silly poses that these Instagram models take (the model falling out of bed, for example). But a lot of them just seem to be making fun of these models simply for making a living by being models, or in some way mocking them for being prettier and more posed than real women.

It’s not clear to me what Barber is actually trying to achieve with these pictures. For example, when she takes a picture of herself in a wet t-shirt and juxtaposes it with a picture of a model in a wet t-shirt, what is she trying to say? Sure, her picture looks slightly silly and stupid and reminds us that standing around in wet t-shirts looking sultry is not what women normally do during their day. But the point of a model’s Instagram feed is that it is not normal – that they are presenting an image of perfection and of things outside the everyday, that we admire and look up to. The point of models is that they don’t look like us, and the idea of a model’s Instagram feed is to showcase her beauty and the best photographs depicting it. Most model’s Instagram feeds are feeds of professional shots, that they may have taken a long time setting up and preparing for – this is why they’re models. If the point of Barber’s photos is to show that models take posed photos that aren’t natural, it’s kind of vapid. We all know that.

But I don’t think this is the point of Barber’s project. I think she aims to mock the standards of beauty that these models represent and embody, more than the silly poses they are adopting. This is why actually many of her photos are piss-takes of relatively unposed pictures of models – that is, the model’s picture is obviously from a photoshoot, but she’s not doing anything super weird or super silly, she’s just being pretty in a picture. Some (like the Zayn Malik lover shot or the doorway yoga thing) could be construed as making fun of the extreme lengths that people go to get a good shot on Instagram[1], but many can only be interpreted as mocking the models themselves. They attempt to show that the models are doing something wrong by contrasting them with what an ordinary person looks like in the same position. She herself says

I get a little miffed with fashionista people thinking that they are much better than other people because they are very slim and have architect husbands and get to wear free stuff

But is this all she’s doing, popping the bubbles of these “fashionista people”? I think this statement artificially conflates being beautiful with being better, which models and fashion people don’t necessarily agree with (I’m friends with one or two models who don’t think like this at all, though I’m friends with one who probably does). She also says she’s campaigning against how the media presents images of women. But is this what she’s doing? Because what she appears to actually be campaigning against is how models present images of models. Is she saying that she herself should be considered as beautiful as these women? If so, how come she uses her photos of herself to mock these women?

I think what Celeste Barber is actually trying to say here is that feminine beauty – or the aspiration to feminine beauty – is wrong, and that it is not possible for ordinary people to be feminine and beautiful. I think she is mocking the ideal of femininity itself. This is why her photos only target female models – she doesn’t, for example, take aim at the ludicrous poses male underwear models carefully adopt, or at the over the top presentation of masculinity and machismo in many male sports and film stars. She isn’t alone in this – our society has a strong undercurrent of scorn for femininity and feminine beauty, presenting it as something that can’t be trusted, a mask or veil over who a woman really is. I think Barber is expressing this undercurrent of hatred. She’s saying that real women, in the privacy of their own homes, in their underwear, are not feminine at all, that femininity is just a mask they pull on to impress others, and that it’s not real or valid, and these models’ instagram feeds full of perfect images of femininity need to be torn down in this way because femininity itself is a problem. If she were trying to present a model of accessible feminine beauty she wouldn’t be mocking these feeds, but trying to reinterpret them in some more viable way. But she’s not – she’s laughing at them.

I think this is an example of how some feminists have internalized a deeply misogynistic undercurrent in our society. There is a valid critique to be made of unrealistic representations of and expectations of women and women’s beauty, but this critique doesn’t have to throw femininity and feminine beauty out entirely. But this is what people like Barber do. This is why she doesn’t mock firemen’s nude calendars, or bodybuilder’s poses, which are just as ludicrously set up and unrealistic. These are okay, because masculinity and masculine beauty is considered to be healthy and real in our society. This is why we have a special qualifier for masculinity that has gone off the rails (“toxic masculinity”) but “feminine” is itself the special qualifier for ordinary social practices gone wrong (“feminine wiles”). Femininity is seen as an entirely negative thing, which if it is a deep-seated part of a woman’s character is purely a flaw – weak, diffident, vain and shallow – while if it is surface deep, is deceptive and untrustworthy. There is no model of femininity in mainstream society that is considered to be healthy, acceptable and good for a woman to adopt. We don’t talk about “toxic” femininity, because our society sees all femininity as poisonous. This is why feminists will share Barber’s mocking pictures on Facebook – because they think they’re saying something real about the way the media depicts women, when actually what they’re doing is channeling an age-old hatred of how women present themselves and who women really are.

Obviously someone like Barber isn’t going to have much effect on the adult feminists who share her pictures on my feed. But I wonder what impact this kind of material has on young women and girls growing up in our increasingly macho and competitive society. They’re told from all sides that being feminine is wrong, and presented with a world where the only valid form of beauty is masculine beauty, preferably achieved as a by-product of some serious activity (like sports, or soldiering, or firefighting), that beauty as an end in itself is wrong and that feminine beauty is bad for them and femininity is bad. But many women and girls want to be feminine and want to express their femininity through the kind of models of beauty that we see in these Instagram feeds (this is why these feeds are so popular – they aren’t getting all those followers from men). Then their feminist role models – the women who tell them it’s okay to want to work, that you can be anything you want to be, that no one can stop a girl chasing her dreams – put up pictures telling them that any aspiration to feminine beauty or any kind of construction of beauty at all (posing, make up, dream images) is wrong, and sexist. I think this must be hard on young women and I think that feminists watching Barber and reading this kind of thing need to consider the impact they’re having on young women and what space of beauty they leave open for young women to explore. I think that feminists should also consider whether their reaction to models of feminine beauty is first and foremost about whether they’re bad for women, or whether it’s a kneejerk, visceral response in a misogynist christian culture to the very concept of femininity itself. And is this a good thing?

I’ve been in Asia for 11 years now and one thing I have noticed since I left the Christian world and moved to a pagan country is that Asians have different expectations and views of both masculinity and femininity. In particular, they have no cultural attachment to the story of the fall, of the deceptive serpent and the woman who lures the man into sexual knowledge. As a result both masculine and feminine appearance and manners are seen as a much more natural and uncomplicated part of who humans are, and in my experience people in Asia have a much more comfortable relationship with women’s beauty and feminine behavior. I think this is something western people could learn from, and I think in particular western feminism could learn that instead of rejecting femininity and feminine beauty and reacting against it as a terrible expression of female repression, it should be seen as a natural part of who women are, and just as valid a form of expression of gender difference as anything else. It’s clear that many women in the west want to be like the models they idealize, but they grow up in a world where they’re told in no uncertain terms that they’re wrong, shallow, or even self-hating to feel this way. But these women’s desires and ideals are not a construction – they’re a real and deep part of who these women are. The kind of mocking that Barber is performing, and the general social acceptance it has in the west, does not help young women to grow up into a stronger model of beauty and better gender relations. It just puts them down. Western feminism needs a better relationship with female beauty if it wants to reform this aspect of gender relations in a way that ordinary women are actually comfortable with, and western feminism needs a more critical understanding of its own assumptions and the role of Christian misogyny in constructing modern feminist attitudes, if it really wants to make a better world for western women. Which could start with not mocking girls who want to be pretty!


fn1: Which, btw, what’s wrong with this and what is up with the constant negative carping about how “fake” Instagram is. Instagram is a site exclusively for sharing photographs. Why would you not go to great lengths to take a good photograph for Instagram?

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