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Protests, Peaceful & Otherwise


In response to the nighttime announcement of the Ferguson verdict in which officer Wilson was not indicted, some people attacked the police and damaged property. Some experts have been critical of the decision to make the announcement at night, since the time of day does actually influence how people behave. In general, making such an announcement at night is a bad idea—unless one intends to increase the chances that people will respond badly.

Obviously enough, peacefully protesting is a basic right and in a democratic state the police should not interfere with that right. However, protests do escalate and violence can occur. In the United States it is all too common for peaceful protests to be marred by violence—most commonly damage to businesses and looting.

When considering reports of damage and looting during protests it is reasonable to consider whether or not the damage and looting is being done by actual protestors or by people who are opportunists using the protest as cover or an excuse. An actual protestor is someone whose primary motivation is a moral one—she is there to express her moral condemnation of something she perceives as wrong. Not all people who go to protests are actual protestors—some are there for other reasons, some of which are not morally commendable. Some people, not surprisingly, know that a protest can provide an excellent opportunity to engage in criminal activity—to commit violence, to damage property and to loot. Protests do, sadly, attract such people and often these are people who are not from the area.

Of course, actual protesters can engage in violence and damage property. Perhaps they can even engage in looting (though that almost certainly crosses a moral line). Anger and rage are powerful things, especially righteous anger. A protestor who is motivated by her moral condemnation of a perceived wrong can give in to her anger and do damage to others or their property. When people damage the businesses in their own community, this sort of behavior seems irrational—probably because it is. After all, setting a local gas station on fire is hardly morally justified by the alleged injustice of the grand jury’s verdict in regards to not indicting Officer Wilson for the shooting of Brown. However, anger tends to impede rationality. I, and I assume most people, have seen people angry enough to break their own property.

While I am not a psychologist, I do suspect that people do such damage when they are angry because they cannot actually reach the target of their anger. Alternatively, they might be damaging property to vent their rage in place of harming people. I have seen people do just that. For example, I saw a person hit a metal door frame (and break his hand) rather than hit the person he was mad at. Anger does summon up a need to express itself and this can easily take the form of property damage.

When a protest becomes destructive (or those using it for cover start destroying things), the police do have a legitimate role to play at protests. While protests are intended to draw attention and often aim to do so by creating a disruption of the normal course of events, a state of protest does not grant protestors a carte blanche right to interfere with the legitimate rights of others. As such, the police have a legitimate right to prevent protestors from violating the rights of others and this can correctly involve the use of force.

That said, the role of rage needs to be considered. When property is destroyed during protests, some people immediately condemn the destruction and wonder why people are destroying their own neighborhoods. In some cases, as noted above, the people doing the damage might not be from the neighborhood at all and might be there to destroy rather than to protest. If such people can be identified, they should be dealt with as the criminals they are. What becomes somewhat more morally problematic are people who are driven to such destruction by moral rage—that is, they have been pushed to a point at which they believe they must use violence and destruction to express their moral condemnation.

When looked at from the cool and calm perspective of distance, such behavior seems irrational and unwarranted.  And, I think, it usually is. However, it is well worth it to think of something that has caused the fire of righteous anger to ignite your soul. Think of that and consider how you might respond if you believed that you have been systematically denied justice. Over. And over. Again.


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Thoughts on the Ferguson Verdict


In August of 2014 police officer Darren Wilson shot the unarmed Michael Brown to death. On November 24, 2014 a grand jury in Missouri failed to indict police officer Darren Wilson. Like most Americans, I have some thoughts about this matter.

In the United States, a grand jury’s function is to determine whether or not there is probable cause to prosecute. This level of proof is much lower than that of a criminal trial—such a trial requires (in theory) proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Unlike in a criminal trial, the grand jury is effectively run by the prosecutor and the defense has no real role in the process. As might be suspected, grand juries almost always indict. Almost always, that is, unless the person under consideration is a police officer who has killed someone. In such cases the officer is almost never indicted. As such, the decision in the Wilson case is exactly what should have been expected.

Now, it might be that the reason that police officers are almost never indicted for killing is that nearly all the killings are justified. In contrast, the reason that non-officers are almost always indicted is that there is almost always legitimate probable cause. This is, obviously enough, not impossible.

Of course, the real concern here is not with the grand juries in general, but with this grand jury in particular. According to the various news reports and experts, Wilson received a “gold plated” grand jury in terms of how it was handled by the prosecutor and the state. To be specific, the grand jury seemed to be run in such a way that Wilson received exceptionally good treatment in regards to the case. This is in contrast with the sort of grand jury treatment other citizens typically get, which have been described as “tin plated.” In these grand juries an indictment is almost a forgone conclusion. This is not to say that Wilson’s grand jury involved corruption or misdeeds. Rather, the point is that there is a stark contrast between the sort of grand jury that a typical citizen will receive and the one that Wilson received.

This distinction in treatment is one reason that people are justifiably angry about the matter. After all, a proper justice system would treat everyone equally—everyone would get the “gold plated” grand jury (or the “tin plated” one) rather than getting the sort of justice deemed fit for the person’s race, class, or profession. This sort of disparity is yet one more example of the injustices of our justice system.

Naturally, I am well aware that the real does not (and probably cannot) match the ideal. However, this sort of appeal to the real is more of an acceptance of the problem than a refutation of criticisms of the problem. Also, I do not expect a perfect system—merely a reasonably fair one.

In addition to the nature of the grand jury, there is also obviously the central issue: was Wilson justified in shooting Brown to death? In this case, the justification is grounded on the principle of defense of life: an officer is justified in using violence to protect his life or that of an innocent person when he has an “objectively reasonable” belief that there is such a threat. In Wilson’s case, the shooting of Brown would be warranted if Wilson had an “objectively reasonable” belief that Brown presented such a threat. Since the justification is based on the reasonable belief in a threat, the warrant for the use of force ends when the threat ends.

According to the information released to the public, there is evidence that Brown had close contact with Wilson, which is consistent with Wilson’s claim that Brown attacked him and tried to take his gun. Brown died a considerable distance from Wilson and this raises the legal and moral question of whether or not Wilson still had an “objectively reasonable” belief that Brown still presented a threat that could only be dealt with by lethal force. The grand jury decided that he did, which settles the legal aspect of the case. However, there is still the matter of the moral aspect—was Wilson actually warranted in killing Brown?

On the one hand, when one considers that Brown was unarmed and too far from Wilson to attack him, then it would be reasonable to consider that Wilson was not justified in killing Brown.  On the other hand, if Brown appeared to be charging towards Wilson, then Wilson could be justified in shooting him. Since Wilson was not shot in the back, it does seem clear that Brown was facing Wilson—but facing someone is not the same thing as being a threat. Unfortunately, there is no video of the incident and the eye-witness reports conflict (and eye-witness reports, even given in all honesty, are not very reliable). Since Brown is dead, we only have Wilson’s side of the story. As such, one cannot be certain whether Wilson was justified or not, assuming a right to kill when one has an “objectively reasonable” belief that one is threatened.

This principle can, of course, be challenged. Some people take the principle to set a very low threshold—an officer just has to feel threatened in order to be warranted to use deadly force. This, as might be imagined, can be seen as a threshold that is too low. Some states do give citizens the same right (against other citizens) as shown in the various infamous stand your ground laws and these have proven rather problematic. Others take the view that the principle itself is reasonable—after all, it essentially expresses John Locke’s principle that force can be used to protect one’s life or the lives of the innocent. But, even if the principle is reasonable, there is also the question of whether or not it is applied correctly. My view is that the use of lethal force requires a comparable threat to justify it, on the principle of a proportional response. That said, one must also consider the practicalities of combat situations—it can be difficult to judge intent and the heat of a fight can easily change a person’s perceptions.

As one final point, even if Wilson was justified in shooting Brown, the perception remains that the police and the justice system treat black Americans very different from white Americans. Not surprisingly, some white people doubt this and do so in all honesty—they are assessing the system from their experiences and assume that everyone else has the same sort of experiences as they do. However, one must look beyond one’s experiences and consider those of others. While no one can completely get the experience and being of another, it would be a good thing for white folks to give some thought to what it is like to be non-white in America.

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Checking ‘Check Your Privilege”

Privilege (album)

Privilege (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a philosopher, I became familiar with the notion of the modern political concept of privilege as a graduate student—sometimes in classes, but sometimes in being lectured by other students about the matter. Lest anyone think I was engaged in flaunting my privileges, the lectures were always about my general maleness and my general appearance of whiteness (I am actually only mostly white) as opposed to any specific misdeed I had committed as a white-appearing male. I was generally sympathetic to most criticisms of privilege, but I was not particularly happy when people endeavored to use a person’s membership in a privileged class as grounds for rejecting the person’s claims out of hand. Back then, there was no handy phrase to check a member of a privileged class. Fortunately (or unfortunately) such a phrase has emerged, namely “check your privilege!”

The original intent of the phrase is, apparently, to remind a person making a claim on a political (or moral) issue that he is speaking from a position of privilege, such as being a male or straight. While it is most commonly used against members of what can be regarded as the “traditional” privileged classes (males, whites, the wealthy, etc.) it can also be employed against people of classes that are either privileged relative to the classes they are commenting on or in different non-privileged class. For example, a Latina might be told to “check her privilege” for making a remark about black women. In this case, the idea is to remind the transgressors that different oppressed groups experience their oppression differently.

As might be imagined, many people take issue with being told to “check their privilege!” in some cases, this can be mere annoyance with the phrase. This annoyance can have some foundation, given that the phrase can have a hostile connotation and the fact that it can seem like a dismissive reply.

In other cases, the use of the phrase can be taken as an attempt to silence someone. Roughly put, “check your privilege” can be interpreted as “stop talking” or even as “you are wrong because you belong to a privileged class.” In some cases, people are interpreting the use incorrectly—but in other cases they are interpreting quite correctly.

Thus, the phrase can be seen as having two main functions (in addition to its dramatic and rhetorical use). One is as a reminder, the other is as an attack. I will consider each of these in the context of critical thinking.

The reminder function of the phrase does have legitimacy in that it is grounded in a real need to remind people of two common cognitive biases, namely in group bias and attribution error. In group bias is the name for the tendency people have to easily form negative opinions of people who are not in their group (in this case, an allegedly privileged class). This bias leads people to regard members of their own group more positively (attributing positive qualities and assessments to their group members) while regarding members of other groups more negatively (attributing negative qualities and assessments to these others). For example, a rich person might regard other rich people as being hardworking while regarding poor people as lazy, thieving and inclined to use drugs. As another example, a woman might regard her fellow women as kind and altruistic while regarding men as violent, sex-crazed and selfish.

Given the power of this bias, it is certainly worth reminding people of it—especially when their remarks show signs that this bias is likely to be in effect. Of course, telling someone to “check their privilege” might not be the nicest way to engage in the discussion and it is less specific than “consider that you might be influenced by in group bias.”

Attribution error is a bias that leads people to tend to fail to appreciate that other people are as constrained by events and circumstances as they would be if they were in their situation. For example, consider a discussion about requiring voters to have a photo ID, reducing the number of polling stations and reducing their hours. A person who is somewhat well off might express the view that getting an ID and driving across town to a polling station on his lunch break is no problem—because it is no problem for him. However, for someone who does not have a car and is very poor, these can be serious obstacles. As another example, someone who is rich might express the view that the poor should not be helped because they are obviously poor because they are lazy (and not because of the circumstances they face, such as being born into poverty).

Given the power of this bias, a person who seems to making this error should certainly be reminded of this possibility. But, of course, telling the person to “check their privilege” might not be the most diplomatic way to engage and it is certainly less specific than pointing out the likely error. But, given the limits of Twitter, it might be a viable option when used in this social media context.

In regards to the second main use, using it to silence a person or to reject the person’s claim would not be justified. While it is legitimate to consider the effects of biases, to reject a person’s claim because of their membership in a specific class would be an ad hominen of some sort.  An ad hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B makes an attack on person A.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

Because of the usage of the “check your privilege” in this role, I’d suggest a minor addition to the ad hominem family, the check your privilege ad hominem:

1. Person A makes claim X.

2. Person B tells A to “check their privilege” based on A’s membership in group G.

3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

This is, obviously enough, bad reasoning.

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Twitter Mining

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In February, 2014 Twitter made all its tweets available to researchers. As might be suspected, this massive data is a potential treasure trove to researchers. While one might picture researchers going through the tweets for the obvious content (such as what people eat and drink), this data can be mined in some potentially surprising ways. For example, the spread of infectious diseases can be tracked via an analysis of tweets. This sort of data mining is not new—some years ago I wrote an essay on the ethics of mining data and used Target’s analysis of data to determine when customers were pregnant (so as to send targeted ads). What is new about this is that all the tweets are now available to researchers, thus providing a vast heap of data (and probably a lot of crap).

As might be imagined, there are some ethical concerns about the use of this data. While some might suspect that this creates a brave new world for ethics, this is not the case. While the availability of all the tweets is new and the scale is certainly large, this scenario is old hat for ethics. First, tweets are public communications that are on par morally with yelling statements in public places, posting statements on physical bulletin boards, putting an announcement in the paper and so on. While the tweets are electronic, this is not a morally relevant distinction. As such, researchers delving into the tweets is morally the same as a researcher looking at a bulletin board for data or spending time in public places to see the number of people who go to a specific store.

Second, tweets can (often) be linked to a specific person and this raises the stock concern about identifying specific people in the research. For example, identifying Jane Doe as being likely to have an STD based on an analysis of her tweets. While twitter provides another context in which this can occur, identifying specific people in research without their consent seems to be well established as being wrong. For example, while a researcher has every right to count the number of people going to a strip club via public spaces, to publish a list of the specific individuals visiting the club in her research would be morally dubious—at best. As another example, a researcher has every right to count the number of runners observed in public spaces. However, to publish their names without their consent in her research would also be morally dubious at best. Engaging in speculation about why they run and linking that to specific people would be even worse (“based on the algorithm used to analysis the running patterns, Jane Doe is using her running to cover up her affair with John Roe”).

One counter is, of course, that anyone with access to the data and the right sorts of algorithms could find out this information for herself. This would simply be an extension of the oldest method of research: making inferences from sensory data. In this case the data would be massive and the inferences would be handled by computers—but the basic method is the same. Presumably people do not have a privacy right against inferences based on publically available data (a subject I have written about before). Speculation would presumably not violate privacy rights, but could enter into the realm of slander—which is distinct from a privacy matter.

However, such inferences would seem to fall under privacy rights in regards to the professional ethics governing researchers—that is, researchers should not identify specific people without their consent whether they are making inferences or not. To use an analogy, if I infer that Jane Doe and John Roe’s public running patterns indicate they are having an affair, I have not violated their right to privacy (assuming this also covers affairs). However, if I were engaged in running research and published this in a journal article without their permission, then I would presumably be acting in violation of research ethics.

The obvious counter is that as long as a researcher is not engaged in slander (that is intentionally saying untrue things that harm a person), then there would be little grounds for moral condemnation. After all, as long as the data was publically gathered and the link between the data and the specific person is also in the public realm, then nothing wrong has been done. To use an analogy, if someone is in a public park wearing a nametag and engages in specific behavior, then it seems morally acceptable to report that. To use the obvious analogy, this would be similar to the ethics governing journalism: public behavior by identified individuals is fair game. Inferences are also fair game—provided that they do not constitute slander.

In closing, while Twitter has given researchers a new pile of data the company has not created any new moral territory.

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Maleficent & Rape: Rape Culture

Maleficent's dragon form as it appears in the ...

Maleficent’s dragon form as it appears in the climax of the film. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In my previous essay I focused on the matter of metaphors in the context of Hayley Krischer’s claim that the movie Maleficent includes a rape scene. In this essay I will take on a rather more controversial matter, namely the question of why it might matter as to whether the movie contains the alleged rape scene or not. This might result in some hostile responses.

It might be wondered what taking the scene as a metaphor (or implied) rape adds to the work. One might say “Maleficent is betrayed and mutilated—what does adding the idea that this is a rape metaphor add? Does not the betrayal and mutilation suffice to serve the purpose of the narrative or does it need to be believed that this is a metaphorical rape?”

One way to answer the question would be to focus on aesthetic matters: does accepting the rape metaphor enhance the aesthetic value of the work? That is, is it a better film on that interpretation? If the answer is “yes”, then that provides an aesthetic reason to accept that interpretation. However, if this does not improve the aesthetic value of the film, then it would not provide a compelling reason for that interpretation over the alternative.

Another way to answer the question is to look at it in terms of academic value. That is, taking it as a metaphor for rape provides an insight into an important truth—the most likely truth being the existence of a pervasive rape culture.

However, there are risks in embracing a view on academic grounds. One common risk is that theorists often accept a beloved theory as an intellectual version of the ring of power: the one theory to explain it all. It could be objected that taking what happens in Maleficent to be rape (rather than something horrible but not-rape) it expands the definition of “rape” to encompass ever more and thus validates the rape-culture theory by redefinition.

However, there appears to be an abundance of evil that does not seem to be driven by the motive to rape—unless all evil is the result of some sort of Freudian sublimation. This is, of course, not impossible and might even be true. But, being too enamored of a theory can easily blind one—wearing the goggles of matriarchy can blind one as effectively as the goggles of the patriarchy (which allow people to use phrases like “legitimate rape” and really mean it).

Another way to look at the matter is in terms of ideological value. In this case, taking what happens as a metaphor for rape provides support for an ideology—most likely that regarding an ideology that includes a belief in a pervasive rape culture. By expanding the definition of “rape”, rape expands within the culture—thus making the case that there is a pervasive rape culture. However, there is the legitimate concern as to whether or not such expanded definitions are accurate.

People seek evidence for their ideology (or deny evidence against it) and can do so in ways that are not consistent with critical thinking—a subject I examined in some detail in another essay. The risk, as always, is that people accept something as true because they believe it is true, rather than believing it because it has been shown to be true.

It might be contended that taking an academic or ideological interpretation of Maleficent is harmless and that debating its accuracy is pointless. However, I contend that overuse of the notion of rape culture is problematic. To show this, I will turn to the murders allegedly committed by Elliot Rodger.

In response to Rodger’s alleged murder of three men and two women, Salon editor Joan Walsh asserted that “the widespread recognition that Elliot Rodger’s killing spree was the tragic result of misogyny and male entitlement has been a little bit surprising, and encouraging.” Even self-proclaimed nerds have bought into this notion, apparently not realizing the significance of the fact that three of the victims were men—rather odd targets for someone driven by misogyny and male entitlement.

While in many cases the motives of alleged killers are not known, Rodger wrote a lengthy manifesto that allows an in-depth look at his professed motives.

Fellow philosopher Jean Kazez has analyzed the text of Eliot Rodger’s manifesto and presents the view that while Rodger eventually adopted misogynistic views, these were late in the development of his hatred. Her view is supported by text taken from his manifesto and it seems clear that his views that are characterized as misogynistic are the terrible fruit of his previous hatreds.

Kazez notes that “But if you read this manifesto, what seems much more overwhelming is the overall pattern of hate, envy, loneliness, resentment, sadness, hopelessness, craving for status, humiliation, despair, etc.  So it is baffling to me that we’ve settled on misogyny as key to understanding why this happened.”

While I share her bafflement, I can suggest three possible explanations. The first, and easiest, is that the modern news media generally prefers a simple narrative and it tends to get easily caught up in social media trends. The idea that Rodger (allegedly) killed because he is a misogynist is a simple narrative and one that started to trend on social media like Twitter.

The second is that there is an academic commitment in some circles to the rape-culture theory that includes as essential components views about misogyny and male entitlement. Given a pre-existent commitment to this theory and the conformation bias that all people are subject to, it is no surprise that there would be a focus on this one small part of his manifesto.

The third is that there is also a commitment in some circles to the rape-culture ideology (which is distinct from the academic theory). As with the theory, people who accept this ideology are subject to the confirmation bias. In addition, there are the usual perils of ideology and belief. As such, it is certainly to be expected that there would be considerable focus on those small parts of his manifesto.

Serving to reinforce the theory and the ideology is the fact that a critical assessment of either can be met with considerable hostility. Some might also suspect that certain men publicly support the ideology or theory due to a desire to appear to be appropriately sensitive men.

As a final point, it might be wondered why being critical of such theory and ideology matters. The easy and obvious answer is that the danger of excessively focusing on the rape culture idea is that doing so can easily lead to ignoring all the other causal factors that contribute to evil actions. To use the obvious analogy, if it is assumed that a factor is a cause of a broad range of diseases when it is not, then trying to prevent those diseases by focusing on that factor will fail. In regards to the specific matter, addressing the rape-culture will not fix the ills that it does not cause. This is not to say that rape culture is not worth addressing—there are horrific and vile aspects to our culture that directly contribute to rape and these should be addressed with an intent to eliminate.

There is, of course, also the matter of truth: getting things right matters. As such, I freely admit I could be wrong about all this and I welcome, as always, criticism.


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Suspending Students for Hate Tweets

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Thanks to social media like Twitter and Facebook, students can share with the world what some might regard as hate Tweets or hate posts. For example, Kent State wrestler Sam Wheeler sent out a series of rather unpleasant tweets about Michael Sam (the openly gay college football player). In response, Kent State suspended Mr. Wheeler from the team. There have been other incidents in which students have posted or Tweeted comments that could be deemed racist, sexist and so on and in some cases the schools take action against the students. There is, of course, the question of whether schools should do so.

One obvious approach is to take the view that students agree to a code of conduct. So, if the student code of conduct specifies certain behavior as being grounds for suspension or other action, then the action would thus be warranted on this gorund. In the case of student athletes, there are also the rules that govern the sport. When I was a college athlete, I had to follow the NCAA guidelines and could be legitimately punished for breaking them. As such, the suspension of an athlete who breaks the rules would be warranted on this ground.

Of course, there is still the question of whether there should be such rules. After all, rules that forbid a student from expressing views would seem to be a violation of the student’s free expression and thus would be, on the face of it, morally unacceptable.

My own view is, not surprisingly, that students do not lose their right to free expression by being students or student athletes. However, freedom of expression is neither absolute nor a free pass to say anything.

Obviously enough, things like actual threats of violence are not covered by the right to free expression and students can be justly held accountable for such things. However, merely saying things that are regarded as hateful (racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) would not justify a school taking action against a student. This is because while people have a right to not be threatened, they do not have a right to not be offended or insulted by the speech of another person. So, if a student goes on a homophobic rant on Twitter and does not cross over into such things as threats of violence, then she is acting within her rights and the school has no right to silence or punish her. The school also has no right to create rules that forbid the expression of ideas and views, however offensive those views might be. To do so would, of course, make a mockery of the very idea of the academic freedom that is supposed to be a foundation stone for the university.

A student can, however, be in a position in which she can be legitimately called to task for such speech. If the student is acting in the capacity of a spokesperson for the university, then she can be held accountable in that capacity because she is not acting as a private individual but as a representative of the school. The same can apply to athletes as well—athletes are taken to represent their school and, as such, occupy a position that would plausibly make them spokespeople for the school. As such, they can be held accountable in that capacity. So, for example, a cross-country team captain who insists on making hateful, vulgar and poorly written Tweets about Christians can be legitimately censured—as a member of the team he is in the role of representing his school. If he wishes to remain on the team, he will need to cease that behavior. He can, of course, elect to leave the team—if he regards being able to tweet hateful and vulgar things about Jesus as being more important to him than being on the team.

There is a rather serious concern about the extent to which a student can be regarded as representing the school and also the important matter of sorting out what sort of speech would warrant action being taken against the student. Unfortunately, I cannot cover these matters in this short essay, but in general, I would favor a moral policy of tolerance and erring heavily on the side of free expression.


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The Age of iSolation

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

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After my three hour committee meeting, one of my colleagues, Steve, and I had a conversation that began with Twitter and ended up as a general discussion about the coming age of iSolation (trademarked).

Steve told a story of the eerie silence as he approached his classroom and how what greeted him was not an empty room, but a room full of students all interacting with their smart phones, tablets and other devices. No one spoke or paid the least attention to anyone around him or her. I added my own tale of feeling vaguely disturbed by students walking in groups, yet interacting only with their phones and not each other. Unless, perhaps, they were Tweeting or texting the people with them.

The conversation then turned to the push for online learning and how it might be the case that we will see the last generation of students who get to choose between being taught in person and being taught online. Naturally, the push for online learning is driven mostly by economic concerns: having masses of students enrolled in online only classes that are auto-graded (or graded by low paid graders) would replicate the exploitative or automated model (or both) of factories. This would mean far lower costs and thus far higher profits for those owning the machines of education and the lucky few left to run the process.

We did, however, set aside the economic motivation to consider an important question (at least for educators): would the online model be better than the traditional model in terms of providing quality education?

This sparked a side discussion about digital books and digital music. Steve is Jazz person and is of the school of thought that the analog approach is superior to the digital approach-not just in terms of the music but also in terms of the social aspect. He spoke of how he used to go to music stores and be able to discuss music with others of like interest. The idea of joining a Facebook group to post about Jazz had little appeal to him, perhaps even less than the vision of people downloading digital music in iSolation from each other.

I added in my view of books-namely that while I find the Kindle very appealing because it allows me to carry hundreds of books when I travel, I still value the experience of reading an actual book.

Thinking about this, I realized that my preference was based not in any rejection of digital books (I like my Kindle and love the books I sell for the Kindle). Rather, I value the full aesthetic experience of reading an actual book. There is, I contend, a different aesthetic experience when it comes to a physical book: its design, the weight in one’s hand, the act of turning the pages, and so on all create an experience that has aesthetic value and one that cannot be (as of yet) replicated by a digital book. In support of this claim, I made an analogy between seeing a movie and going to a play based on the same story. While the movie will provide an aesthetic experience, the play will provide a different one in virtue of its nature. Likewise, the same would seem to hold for digital books and actual books.

Being a philosopher, I did note that our concern over the shift to the digital world might simply be a manifestation of the usual lamentations of people as they grow older and things are not as they were when they were kids. I imagined my ancestors of long ago lamenting the kids and their new-fangled writing and how it would wreck everything. Why not, I imagined them saying, just stick with speaking and remembering? As such, I believe it is important to consider that my concerns are fueled not by reason but by feeling.

That said, I believe it is equally important to consider that my concerns might have a foundation-that is, worrying about the age of iSolation is not just a matter of yelling at the damn kids to get off my lawn, but a point of legitimate worry regarding the road we are now following.

In conclusion, buy my damn books.  Then get off my damn lawn. 🙂

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Sex & Resignation

Anthony Weiner

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As night follows day, sex scandals follow politicians. Being an American, I hear the most about our fine politicians and their various scandals. However, this sort of thing is hardly limited to the United States.

While the Anthony Weiner episode has been dominating the American media, this incident does raise a general question about when a politician involved in a sex scandal should step down. After dragging out the tragic drama, Anthony Weiner finally decided to resign his position. This puts him in stark contrast with fellow New Yorker Chris Lee. After his shirtless-photo-Craigslist scandal, Lee promptly resigned.

Weiner’s career-ending injury was, of course, self-inflicted. The fatal blow was not his virtual infidelity. It was, of course, his decision to launch a prolonged campaign of deceit. If he had simply admitted to his behavior, then he would have been regarded as creepy but he might have not have been pushed to resign. Without the attempted cover up, the bump in his briefs would have probably been a brief bump in his career.

It might be argued that such virtual misdeeds would be sufficient grounds for resignation. After all, Chris Lee resigned after attempting to have an affair via Craigslist. This does have a certain appeal. After all, a politician is supposed to serve the interests of his people and he cannot do his job properly if he is caught up in a scandal.

This does have considerable appeal. To use an analogy, many jobs (including my own) restrict the outside employment that an employee can undertake. The reason is, of course, that outside employment can interfere with the primary job. While being caught up in a scandal is not a job (though it might have been caused by one), it can have the same effect by consuming far too much time and focus. Of course, if the person is able to keep the scandal from impacting his duties, then this argument would fail in that case.

It can also be argued that members of a political body who cannot keep their own members under control are unfit for office. This falls under the general question of what sort of unethical behavior (or violation of social norms) would be grounds for expecting a politician to resign.

One obvious answer is to refer to the rules specified by office. As with any job, there are conditions of employment and these set the limits of allowed behavior. Provided that these limits are not violated, then there would seem to be a lack of justification to expect a resignation-even when the person behaves in ways that are regarded as inappropriate or even unethical.  For example, a university professor typically cannot be fired merely for having an affair since his job does not specify marital fidelity as a condition of employment.  Naturally, having an affair with a co-worker or student could be grounds for dismissal, but not because it is an affair but most likely because the university has rules against that sort of behavior.

Naturally enough, if a resignation is expected, this often means that there are not actual grounds for kicking the person out As far as I know, inappropriate (but not illegal) sexual behavior is not grounds for being given the boot from most political offices. Lying, except for the obvious case of doing so under oath, also does not seem to be against the  usual rules. If it were, then the halls of most governments would be empty.

Obviously enough, people are sometimes expected to resign even when they have not actually violated the rules. In the case of politicians, this happens often enough in cases involving sex.

It can be argued that politicians who are involved in sex scandals that do not break the relevant rules should still be pushed to resign. This could be done on ethical grounds. While we tend to regard politicians as an unethical lot, we still expect them to behave in ways we consider appropriate when it comes to sex and regard such violations as unethical. A rather appealing argument is that if a married politician will betray his wife, then he cannot be trusted and hence should leave office.

An obvious reply is that as long as the politician has not actually acted in ways that are relevant to his job, then his betrayal of his wife is not relevant. After all, a man can be relentlessly unfaithful to his wife and still be very competent and capable in his job.

Another appealing argument is that if a politician is engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior and has tried to conceal it, then it would seem reasonable to suspect that he might be up to other misdeeds and concealing them. The obvious reply is that such behavior (provided that it does not cross over into the criminal realm) is not actually relevant to job performance and the person’s competence. After all, I suspect that most married men are involved in some degree of what would be considered inappropriate behavior, yet they are able to function in their jobs.

Naturally, the above would apply to women as well as men. However, it is far more common for male politicians to be involved in such scandals than female politicians.

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Weiner & Tragedy

Anthony Weiner

Image via Wikipedia

Congressman Anthony Weiner recently made headlines over a Tweeted photo of a groin. He denied that he had sent the photo and insisted that he had been hacked. However, his handling of certain questions led many to doubt his veracity. In a press conference on June 6, he admitted that he had sent the Tweet and that he had lied to cover this up.

The press conference was a rather interesting in four ways. First, he accepted full responsibility for his actions and did not try to shift the blame to anyone or anything else. Second, he noted that his actions were due to a weakness and flaw in his character. Third, he answered question for about thirty minutes, visibly taking a beating. Fourth, his wife was not present-which is something rather unusual when an American politician has been caught in a scandal involving a sexual element. Seeing this conference started me thinking about tragedy in the Aristotelian sense.

Briefly put, a tragedy has two main aspects: the nature of the action and the nature of the main agent. In terms of the action, a person has to go from happiness to misery via a mistake on his part. Second, the agent needs to be good, but not overly so. The fact that the downfall was due to an error on the person’s part enables people to feel fear-“there, but for the grace of God, go I.” The fact that the person is basically decent enables people to feel pity. After all, when bad things happen to wicked people, we are not generally inclined to feel for them. However, when bad things happen to decent people, this tends to elicit feelings of pity.

In Weiner’s case, he clearly has gone from happiness to misery. He has been revealed as a liar and his wife is certainly not happy with him. His chances of being re-elected have been diminished. This misery is, of course, self inflicted and the result of poor choices: though he is married he was inappropriately  involved via Twitter and Facebook with women and when he accidentally exposed himself, he chose to lie about it.

Looking at things honestly, I think that most of us can easily imagine being in a situation somewhat like Weiner’s. After all, social media makes it very easy to communicate with people and engage in what might begin as harmless friend making that devolves into flirting. As Weiner himself pointed out, social media is not to blame for our failings-but it does provide a rather slippery social slope. Social media also provides an instantaneous way to be stupid, thus sometimes shorting out one’s better judgment. Email and blog commenting also have a similar effect: it is easy to dash off a thoughtless email or comment and then realize the full extent of the stupidity when it is too late.

When people make mistakes, especially shameful mistakes, they are rarely inclined to admit to these errors. Rather, people tend to do just what Weiner did: try to conceal the error and then resort to lying. This, as Weiner knew, merely makes things worse by compounding the original error with more poor and unethical choices.

As such, it seems quite reasonable for most of us, especially us men, to think “yes, I could have been a Weiner.” For the record, I have never sent a “junk shot” via Twitter. However, I have made decisions in life I regret and hence have some sympathy for Weiner. I do, however, have far more sympathy for his wife.

What is obviously more controversial is whether he is basically a decent man who made a mistake or not.  Obviously enough, Weiner is not morally outstanding. He was involved with women via social media in a way that he felt comfortable sending “junk shots.” He also lied to cover up his misdeeds. However, he does not seem to be a wicked man. Assuming he is not lying again, his relationships with the women allegedly did not go beyond the realm of social media. While this was hardly ethical, it was not wicked or evil. While his lying was also unethical, he did not violate his oath of office or break any laws. As such, the extent of his immorality was fairly minor-lies told to cover up something shameful and embarrassing. As lies go, his lies are rather low on the evil scale.Weiner also appeared (although it is hard to judge from a single press conference) to be sincerely repentant and remorseful for what he had done-especially the hurt he had inflicted on his wife.As such, Weiner does not seem to be a wicked man who was brought low by his wickedness. Rather, he seems to be a basically decent sort of person who chose poorly due to flaws in his character. As such, it seems reasonable to consider the situation as a minor tragedy-at least in Aristotle’s sense.

Naturally, if new information is forthcoming, my assessment might well change. If Weiner actually had “relationships” with one or more of the women or was faking his emotions during the press conference, then his status as a decent, but flawed, person would come under greater question.

In any case, Weiner is yet another example of why honesty is the best policy. Of course, an even better policy is to not do stupid stuff that one might feel tempted to lie about.

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Robot Monster... ahora resulta que los robots ...
Image by Javier Piragauta via Flickr

One interesting phenomenon is that groups often adopt a set of stock views and arguments that are almost mechanically deployed to defend the views. In many cases, the pattern of responses seems almost robotic-in many “discussions” I can predict what stock arguments will be deployed next.

I have even found that if I can lure someone off their pre-established talking points, then they are often quite at a loss as to what to say next. This, I suspect, is a sign that a person does not really have his/her own arguments but is merely putting forth established dogmarguments (dogmatic arguments).

Apparently someone else noticed this phenomenon-specifically in the context of global warming arguments and decided to create his own argubot. Nigel Leck created a script that searches Twitter for key phrases associated with stock arguments against the view that humans have caused global warming. When the argubot finds a foe it then engages by sending a response tweet containing a counter to the argument (and relevant links).

In some cases the target of the argubot does not realize that s/he is arguing with a script and not a person. The argubot is set up to respond with a variety of “prefabricated” arguments when the target repeats an argument, thus helping to create that impression. The argubot also has a repertoire  that goes beyond global warming. For example, it is stocked with arguments about religion. This also allows it to maintain the impression that it is a person.

While the argubot is reasonably sophisticated, it is not quite up to the Turing test. For example, it cannot discern when people are joking. While it can fool people into thinking they are arguing with a person, it is important to note that the debate takes place in the context of Twitter.  As such, each tweet is limited to 140 characters. This makes it much easier for a argubot to pass itself off as a person.  Also worth considering is the fact that people tend to have rather low expectations for the contents of tweets which makes it much easier for an argubot to masquerade as a person. However, it is probably just a matter of time before a bot passes the Tweeter Test (being able to properly pass itself off as person in the context of twitter).

What I find most interesting about the argubot is not that it can often pass as a human tweeter, but that the argumentative process with its targets can be automated in this manner. This inclines me to think that the people who the argubot are arguing with are also, in effect, argubots. That is, they are also “running scripts” and presenting pre-fabricated arguments they have acquired from others. As such, it could be seen as  a case of a computer based argubot arguing against biological argubots with both sides relying on scripts and data provided by others.

It would be interesting to see the results if someone wrote another argubot to engage the current argubot in debate. Perhaps in the future argumentation will be left to the argubots and the silicon tower will replace the ivory tower. Then again, this would probably put me out of work.

One final point worth considering is the ethics of  the argubot at hand.

One concern is that it seems deceptive: it creates the impression that the target is engaged in a conversation with a person when s/he is actually just engaged with a script. Of course, the argubot does not state that it is a person nor does it make use of deception to harm the target. Given its purpose, to argue about global warming, it seems to be irrelevant whether the arguing is done by a person or a script. This contrasts with cases in which it does matter, such as a chatbot designed to trick someone into thinking that another person is romantically interested in them or to otherwise engage with the intent to deceive. As such, the argubot does not seem to be unethical in regards to fact that people might think it is a person.

Another concern is that the argubot seeks out targets and engages them (an argumentative Terminator or Berserker). This, some might claim, could be seen as a form of spamming or harassment.

As far as the spamming goes, the argubot does not deploy what would intuitively be considered spam in terms of its content. After all, it is not trying to sell a product, etc. However, it might be argued that it is sending out unsolicited bulk tweets, which might thus be regarded as spam.  Spamming is rather well established as immoral (if an argument is wanted, read “Evil Spam” in my book What Don’t You Know? ) and if the argubot is spamming, then this would be unethical.

While the argubot might seem like a spambot, one way to defend it against this charge is to note that the argubot provides what are mostly relevant responses that are comparable to what a human would legitimately  send in response to a tweet. Thus, while it is automated, it is arguing rather than spamming. This seems to be an important distinction. After all, the argubot does not try to sell male enhancement, scam people, or get people to download a virus. Rather, it responds to arguments that can be seen as inviting a response-be it from a person or a script.

In regards to the harassment charge, the argubot does not seem to be engaged in what could be legitimately considered harassment. First, the content does not seem to constitute harassment.  Second, the context of the “debate” is a public forum (Twitter) that explicitly allows such interactions to take place-whether they involve just humans or humans and bots.

Obviously, an argubot could be written that would actually be spamming or engaged in harassment. However, this argubot does not seem to cross the ethical line in regards to this behavior.

I suspect that we will see more argubots soon.

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