On sexuality: dolphins.

On sexuality: dolphins.

Dolphins, like humans, fool around throughout the year.  But dolphins, unlike humans, can conceive only during certain seasons.

(After writing the preceding sentence, I wanted to mention which seasons.  I typed “when can dolphins conceive” into my search bar.  The top hit was a website called Can Male Dolphins Get Pregnant, with the blurb “There will be nothing you can do about it but pray.”  I clicked the link.  The page instantly re-directed to a website called Trusted Health Tips featuring a “new groundbreaking online video that reveals how to get pregnant,” alongside the disclaimer that “pharmaceutical and fertility companies have requested the government to ban” the video, since it would clearly destroy their businesses.  Our generation is the first to have all the world’s knowledge at our fingertips!  We are like gods, are we not?)


Dolphins, like humans, are attracted to a wide range of sexual partners.  Pairs or trios of males form long-term strategic alliances, and they will engage in “psuedo-sexual” behavior with their allies.  Presumably one or both of the participants finds these activities pleasurable.  They’ll tumble with females, and males, and humans, too.

As best we know, dolphins hold no negative stereotypes against those who pursue consensual pleasure, no matter what form it takes.

I’ve felt surprised, when discussing sexuality in jail, that so many men who’ve spent time in prison still use starkly binary terminology.  I’ve never heard anyone use the word “bisexual” in jail.  Instead I’ve heard things like, “I’ve got nothing against people who want to be gay.  It’s not for me, but I’ve got nothing against it.  What gets me is when people who I know are gay, who I saw be gay inside, they get out and want me to back up their lies that they’re not.  I’m like, excuse me, I know you’re gay, so how can you ask me to tell somebody that you’re not?”

Grande_Ludovisi_Altemps_Inv8574.jpgAt another class, we discussed human sexuality throughout history.  Physical affection was encouraged among the troops of ancient Rome, with the idea that a soldier might fight more fervently to protect his lover than his country.  Japanese samurai were considered unrefined if they didn’t savor the occasional dalliance with another male.  (I refrain from describing the samurai’s encounters as “sexual,” because many were not consensual by contemporary standards – the objects of their desire were often too young.)

In many cultures, if someone was so persnickety that he had sex exclusively with women, despite spending long periods of time surrounded only by other men, he’d be seen as deviant.

One of the guys interjected, “Yeah, but what they were doing wasn’t, you know, cause I heard you’re only gay if your testicles touch.”

This was immediately disputed.  “No way – there’s positions with two guys and a girl where your testicles touch, and I know for a fact that don’t make you gay.”

My co-teacher and I sighed.  We’re both long-haired, relatively effeminate men, typically dressed in some measure of women’s clothing – every pair of pants I own comes from either the Indiana University dumpsters or the women’s department of Goodwill, and the same is true of most of my co-teacher’s jackets.

But my co-teacher and I live in a world where ambiguity is safer.  The way we punish people in this country carves away the nuances of people’s personalities – immersed in violence, they’ll need friends, but people are shuffled so often that there’s little time to build friendships.  They make do with communal identity instead.

When people were talking over a young black man as he read a poem, they were shushed by a convicted murderer covered in Aryan Brotherhood tattoos.  The tattooed man never seemed particularly racist.  He was very well read, and often mentioned things he’d learned from reading The Quran or Confucius.  But he was socially a white supremacist.  A pragmatic choice for a dude who’d spent eighteen years in prison.  At cafeterias under AB control, he’d get to eat.

Likewise, no matter who men fool around with, most choose to identify as socially heterosexual while they’re inside.

Morgan-Freeman(A lovely quote from Morgan Freeman that I first saw as an epigram in CAConrad’s While Standing in Line for Death: “I hate the word homophobia.  It’s not a phobia.  You are not scared.  You are an asshole.”)

Our world didn’t have to turn out this way.

In the poem “Gilgamesh,” Spencer Reece documents the slow crumbling of an affair – the poet fell in love with a man who desires only the young.  As Spencer ages, the romance fades.  This man wants only to recapture the love that was denied to him in youth.

This instability is tragically common – Spencer’s paramour was raised in a culture that considered all sexual desire to be sinful, and homosexual desire especially so.  Even outside prison walls, we consider certain ambiguities too fraught to tolerate:

          Fragments, clay cylinders, tablets, parchment –

to write Genesis, they say, the writers

searched their neighborhood,

found all kinds of things, including

the epic about Gilgamesh, much of it damaged,

regarding the man who saw into the deep.


          Somehow, the part

about Gilgamesh and Enkidu

in love

got lost.

What a different world we’d have if our sacred books taught that love was love was love.  People could comfortably be all of themselves.

41tsPGUSiCL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In his poem “Dolphin” from An Aquarium, Jeffrey Yang writes that

The Greeks thought dolphins

were once men.  The Chinese

river dolphin was a goddess.

Scientists tell us that if we

rearrange a few of our genes,

we’d become dolphins.  Wouldn’t

that be real progress!


On driving.

On driving.

MARK SCHLERETH: Everybody’s done it — it’s depending — depending upon how much cheating you think it is. And again, I think to me it’s setting your cruise control in a 65 mile an hour zone at 72 and think “I’m not gonna get a ticket for that because nobody’s gonna give me a ticket for going, you know, 6 or 7 miles an hour over the speed limit.”

STEPHEN A. SMITH: Well, to touch on your last point, Mark Schlereth, as just a fun way of getting into it, most brothers that are behind the wheel, we anticipate we may get pulled over if we go seven miles over the speed limit. Let me just throw that out there as an aside.

— ESPN First Take Podcast, May 21st, 2015

When I was nineteen and visiting a high school buddy at his college, a cop tailed me for two miles, flashed his lights after I parked, then sauntered up and complimented me on my impeccable driving. I’d ferried a carload of friends down from Northwestern for the weekend, and by way of a “thanks for letting us crash on your couches” offering for my (twenty-one-year-old) buddy, we’d stopped at a liquor store to pick up a case of beer and a bottle of rum just after hitting town.

Unbeknownst to me, a recently-passed law made it illegal for minors to operate any motor vehicle being used to transport alcohol, even in the trunk1. Since I’d driven, then sat chatting in the car with a friend while our twenty-one-year-old companions ducked into the liquor store, the cop who spent his evenings idling on a ridge overlooking the parking lot (fighting crime one entrapment site at a time!) pegged me for an easy mark.

It’s true. I’m a privileged dude. I grew up in a wealthy suburb outside Indianapolis. At nineteen, I was having my first interaction with the police. I answered the cop’s questions because I naively thought that’s what you do, with the denouement being confiscation of our alcohol and citations — six hundred dollars all around — doled out to me, the underage driver, and my of-age friends, accomplices to the crime.

Perhaps it’s worth mentioning that my friend riding shotty had a baggie with a quarter ounce of pot in his coat pocket. To my suddenly paranoid mind the whole car seemed to reek from the furtive smoking he’d done during our drive, but I was a wealthy-looking white kid — the cop yoinked our sack of booze from the trunk without asking to search the car.

I’m less oblivious now. My high school was pure Wonder Bread, roughly what you’d expect in a suburb full of Republican doctors and lawyers served by an illegally-bigoted real-estate association2. Big houses and pale bland robot kids. I had black friends in college, but my mild touch of Asperger’s meant I never noticed their treatment by the outside world. Hell, we were college kids. We mostly walked around campus or hung around the student housing co-op, smoking pot and playing chess. We rarely even saw the outside world together.

During graduate school my big-C Consciousness score bumped from dead zero to something I hope is at least passable. My brown-skinned colleagues were routinely belittled by their advisors, and there weren’t many of them, and all the janitors were black and Latino, and the verbal abuse showered upon them was worse. Very frustrating to see. Although it’s shameful that it took me so long to notice.

White-looking white dudes in this country are free to be placidly oblivious. Maybe a bit less easily now — shortly after I finished my Ph.D. the national media started giving some coverage to the most egregious police abuses, like murdering people in the street3 — but, given all the “War on Police” coverage rolling on Fox News4, it can’t be that hard to remain ignorant.

As far as my own blindness goes, I’m trying to atone. I’ve done a lot of reading lately; I went through twenty-three years of education without picking up a single book by Hurston, Baldwin, Ellison, or Morrison. I’d blame my teachers but, at some point, didn’t it become my own damn fault?

Still, better late than never. I teach now, twice a week at the local jail. I volunteer with Pages to Prisoners, an advocacy organization that sends free packages of books. I run a correspondence writing program for inmates across Indiana, hoping that I can help some of our nation’s most stigmatized citizens find an audience for their stories.

And I drive really, really slowly. Like 27 in 30 m.p.h. zones. Like consistently below the speed limit, even downhill. Because heartbreaking work from contemporary thinkers like Michelle Alexander got me thinking about the Fourth Amendment.

When it comes to harping about the Bill of Rights, Democrats yelp most about the First Amendment, Republicans about the Second … although Republicans will invoke the First, too, when it comes to their right to emblazon courthouses with religious iconography, or to deny pizza to homosexual weddings (only tasteless straight people would even consider serving greasebomb pizza at a wedding, but still), or to banish mandatory medical information from their “pregnancy crisis centers.” The First and Second Amendments bogart all the big press.

But it’s the Fourth Amendment that actually needs our help. Protection from unreasonable search and seizure. As you may have noticed, I have at times had non-zero quantities of marijuana on or around my person. My youthful indiscretions were less egregious than those of any sitting president of the last sixteen years, but they were certainly prosecutable offenses. And yet. I got to finish college, earn my Ph.D., marry, raise my children. No police officer thought to poke his nose into my pockets, cluck what have we here, and charge me for the eighth that I was holding. But just last month I sent a care package to a dude my age, my height, my weight, who has been in prison since he turned 19, six years of that in solitary, all stemming from a conviction of “possession with intent to sell” a very ordinary quantity of marijuana.

Dude has no beautiful wife. No beautiful life. I sent him, among other things, some erotic stories to read5. In his letter he apologized for even asking for them, but explained that after six years in solitary he felt so achingly lonely.

All of which he earned by being black. Caught with less pot than I’ve at times had in my own vehicle.

But he was searched. I was not.

In a world with real Fourth Amendment protections, he would’ve been safe. His life could’ve been like mine. He’s my age, my height, my weight! Except for more melanin and shorter dreads, his picture even looks like mine.

The heart of the problem is that you can’t do much in this country without a car. And the illustrious members of the Supreme Court have issued a series of rulings that cumulatively result in our Fourth Amendment rights evaporating almost as soon as we step into a car6. These are lucidly described in David Harris’s George Washington Law Review essay, “Car Wars: The Fourth Amendment’s Death on the Highway.” Unless you’re prone to high blood pressure or apoplectic rage, you should give it a read.

The Supreme Court reasoned that the Fourth Amendment was designed to protect innocents. As soon as you break a law, you give up your rights. Doesn’t matter that incorrect use of a turn signal is totally unrelated to the likelihood you’re dealing drugs — once you slip up, any cop who wants can nab you. Question and answer time! Trawl for outstanding warrants time7! Stroll around your vehicle with the drug-sniffing dog time!

The tangle of laws on our roadways is brutal, too. At times it might seem impossible to know and follow them all. Worse, it is often literally impossible to follow them all.

That’s why white people should drive more slowly.

Almost every road has a posted maximum speed. In most states, if you drive one mile per hour above that limit, you’re breaking the law. Fourth Amendment rights? Gone!

I’ve got itchy feet. I listen to music in the car. I plan out stories in my head. What can I say? Sometimes my mind isn’t totally focused on the driving. So it’s pretty common for my speed to fluctuate a few miles per hour here and there. To stay consistently under the limit, I have to aim for something like eighty or ninety percent of the maximum speed. 27 m.p.h. in a 30, say. 49 in a 55. Then my slight moments of inattention won’t bump me over.

But most states’ vehicle codes also contain a clause stipulating that you are in violation of the law whenever you drive at a speed “that impedes or blocks the normal and reasonable movement of traffic.” 8 The normal movement of traffic in most places I’ve lived is about ten miles per hour above the posted limit, which means that any driver below the limit will be in technical violation of the “impeding traffic” clause9. Which means, again: Fourth Amendment rights? Gone! The courts have ruled that technical violation is all it takes. And, yes, I’ve been stopped for driving “suspiciously slowly.”

The driving habits of the majority ensure that there is no speed at which minority drivers will be safe from harassment.

You might wonder, am I ranting about all this just to protect criminals? After all, if a dude doesn’t have marijuana in his car, or coke, or pills in somebody else’s name, then he’s got nothing to fear. Right?

Let’s set aside the sheer degradation of being searched, being presumed to be and treated like a criminal, and simply point out that this supposition is incorrect. The innocent are not safe. From Douglas Husak’s Overcriminalization I learned that some states prohibit “the possession of paraphernalia — items used for a variety of purposes, such as storing or containing drugs. Defendants may be convicted without knowing that the items that qualify as paraphernalia are typically used to commit drug offenses.

This is by no means a toothless prohibition. Did you know that some people use soda straws to store or transport heroin? I didn’t. Not until I read about Tyrone Tomlin, who was arrested in 2014 in New York City — and beaten severely, causing irreparable brain damage, during his 21 days at Rikers — for possession of a soda straw. The soda in his other hand was insufficiently mitigating evidence to keep him safe and free.

Have you ever driven with a soda straw in your car?

Or, how about money?

Seems ridiculous that it would be illegal to have U.S. legal tender in your vehicle. But, for some people, it is. Why? Because money is sometimes used in drug transactions. Which means that if a police officer stops someone — perfectly legal whenever any stipulation of the vehicle code has been violated, which, given that every speed technically violates either the posted maximum or the “impeding traffic” clause on most roads, means roughly whenever the officer wants — and searches the car, and finds money, that money can be confiscated. Especially if the driver looks like someone who might’ve intended to use that money to buy drugs. Or if the driver looks like someone who might’ve earned that money by selling drugs. Basically, if the driver looks black.

Police officers have seen MTV. They’ve seen videos with young black men flashing bills and braggin’ ‘bout the bricks they moved to get ‘em. Doesn’t matter that these videos are fiction, that many were produced and disseminated by white people, that studies have shown that the vast majority of both drug users and drug dealers in this country are white10. Facts are trifling things compared to how people feel.

Without Fourth Amendment protections to contend with, police officers have enormous latitude to make their prejudices come true. If the police think a certain type of person looks like a criminal, they can focus their attentions on similar-looking people, which will lead, lo and behold, to the capture of many criminals who fit that description.

To me, this sounds unfair. But because the unfairness is visible only through aggregate statistics, the risk that any particular driver will be stopped, searched, and incarcerated unfairly is considered to be merely “conjectural” or “hypothetical.” No young black male can know in advance that he will be the unlucky driver discriminated against today. So the Supreme Court has ruled that individual citizens do not have standing to introduce these statistics into any court case, even though anyone glancing at the data can see that they’re unfair11.

I’ll admit, the stakes here may seem small. When you next find yourself behind the wheel, you might feel an urge to goose the engine, nudge over the legal limit, get where you’re going a little sooner. After all, as long as you personally are not a police officer unfairly targeting minority drivers, are you causing any harm?

Yes. I would argue that you are. By contributing to the “normal” flow of traffic above the designated limit, you preclude the existence of any legal speed. This is a harm we cause collectively. But there is more: by arriving at your destination early, you profit from injustice. Those who profit from injustice are tainted by it. As a white person grappling with these issues, I find these words from Jim Wallis’s America’s Original Sin particularly instructive:

White people in the United States have benefited from the structures of racism, whether or not they have ever committed a racist act, uttered a racist word, or had a racist thought (as unlikely as that is).  Just as surely as blacks suffer in a white society because they are black, whites benefit because they are white.  And if whites have profited from a racist system, we must try to change it.  To go along with racist institutions and structures such as the racialized criminal justice system, to obliviously accept the economic order as it is, and to just quietly go about our personal business within institutional racism is to participate in white racism.

Acting alone, neither you nor I can cure the ailments of our society. But each and every one of us, individually, can forgo those perquisites allotted to us unfairly. If you, like me, look white, you could choose to violate the speed limit. You would probably face no penalty. But others, through no fault of their own, do not have that choice. They pay for your privilege.

In a world where others are required to drive slowly, shouldn’t I?



1. Indiana Code 7.1-5-7-7 stipulates, among other things, that “It is a Class C misdemeanor for a minor to knowingly transport [an alcoholic beverage] on a public highway when not accompanied by at least one (1) of his parents or guardians.” In case you were wondering about the retrograde pronoun usage, an earlier passage of the legal code stipulates that “the masculine gender includes the feminine and [sic] where appropriate, the single number includes the plural.” Equivalent laws are on the books in several other states, such as Massachusetts, but for the life of me I can’t imagine that any of these laws has made the world a safer place.

2. Harsh words, but true. It’s rumored that a company in the area once issued permits for black employees to display on the outsides of their cars because the police, knowing that black people couldn’t possibly live there, would otherwise pull them over for a little casual harassment. As recently as 1996, a black state trooper was stopped a block from his own home because a cop thought it inconceivable that he belonged anywhere nearby. The Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP brought a class action suit — this was by no means an isolated incident — that was settled in 1999, at which point the local police department claimed they would no longer systematically target older cars and black- or brown-skinned drivers.

3. You could argue that Eric Garner’s death in the arms of Daniel Pantaleo was somehow accidental. But Walter Scott was clearly murdered. And these are only the men whose deaths, like horrifying low-res snuff films, were captured entirely on camera. Of the thousands of black men killed by police in the past few years, some hundred of them unarmed, it’s hard to believe — grand jury judgments aside — that no other instances constitute murder. I’d list names — they deserve remembrance — but do you realize how long that list would be?

Some of their names: 1999-2014.   2015.   2016 – present (unprocessed data).

4. Yes, the shootings in Dallas were frightening. And two officers were senselessly murdered in New York City. But the “War on Police” coverage began long before Dallas and has been incommensurate with the actual harms suffered by our men in blue. I’m not sure violence wreaked by one or two unhinged individuals constitutes a war. After the tragedy at Sandy Hook, nobody claimed there was a “War on Elementary School Children.”

5. Every prison has a unique set of regulations as to what type of books they’ll allow inmates to receive. Some prisons set a limit on quantity, others specify “no hardcovers,” or “no spiral bindings,” or, and this is trickiest for a volunteer-run organization struggling to send out free books, “no used.” This dude was at one of the “no used books, no hardcovers” facilities. Let me tell you, not many people have donated pristine paperback copies of My Secret Garden lately. I wound up sifting literotica.com for tasteful stories (I have no problem with Saxon-derived language, but no way am I sending anything with violence or the word “slutty” in it), then spending half an hour in front of our one-page-at-a-time-or-it-jams, single-sided-only printer to put together a forty-page pamphlet for him. Hopefully the guards let it through.

6. I’d like to blame this development on the usual suspects, the quintet of crusty hate machines appointed by the political right, but I can’t. Whren v. United States, for instance, was decided unanimously. This case hurts most, setting a precedent that the police may stop any driver who violates any stipulation of the vehicle code, even if that violation alone, independent of an officer’s preexisting desire to stop a particular driver, would never be considered sufficient cause to pull someone over. Because most states’ vehicle codes span many hundreds of pages, everyone commits a technical violation sooner or later. After I finished my Ph.D. and was driving a U-Haul full of books and furniture from California to Indiana, I was tailed for several miles by a Utah state trooper who eventually dinged me for failing to signal for the requisite two seconds before passing a truck. I’d signaled for only a second and a half. Of course, after he stopped me he saw past the dreadlocks, army green cap, and sunglasses to my pallid skin and nice-as-pie wife and declined to even glance in the back. So it goes.

7. Even in Justice Sotomayor’s scathing dissent to Utah v. Strieff, in which the majority seems to have been bamboozled by recent quantum mechanical evidence from dual slit experiments about time-traveling information, ruling that the future discovery of a warrant makes illegal behavior by a police officer retroactively become legal, Sotomayor acknowledges that we have a long history of permitting suspicion-less warrant trawling of anybody driving a car. “Surely we would not allow officers to warrant-check random joggers, dog walkers, and lemonade vendors just to ensure they pose no threat to anyone else,” she writes, although she knows already that she is wrong — the majority would allow this. But Sotomayor has no beef with the haranguing of drivers: “We allow such checks during legal traffic stops because the legitimacy of a person’s driver’s license has a ‘close connection to road-way safety.’ ” Make no mistake: although she writes “legal traffic stops,” the modifier is redundant. Given the state of our roadways, all traffic stops are de facto legal.

8. This is true whenever you drive so slowly that “three (3) or more other vehicles are blocked.” In the small college town where I live this takes no more than a quarter mile driving dead on the speed limit. At two or three miles per hour below, that many cars can pile up within seconds of turning from my street onto the main road.

9. Not to mention the serious risks you incur by driving at or below the speed limit on a three- or four-lane highway; outside of rush hours, traffic flows at fifteen or more above on every city-circling interstate I’ve driven.

10. This claim is obviously subject to numerous assumptions. It’s difficult to accurately assess the frequency of illegal activities: I’ve lied on surveys before, and I can’t be the only one. Even though every survey indicates equivalent rates of drug use across ethnicities, disparities could exist. But it seems unlikely. Among people I’ve known, use of all drugs seems to be roughly correlated; I haven’t met people who never smoke, never drink, but are willing to drop acid or snort a line of coke. And the abuse rates for legal drugs, for which I imagine the data are more trustworthy, suggest that white people are slightly more interested in escaping reality than other ethnicities. As far as the racial distribution of drug dealers goes, the data are even more fraught. Total numbers are lower, which by itself means less trustworthy statistics, and it must seem even riskier to admit on a survey that you’ve been selling. So this conclusion is based instead on data that suggest people buy drugs from dealers who look like them. Again, there are caveats — even if everyone uses drugs at the same rate, and everyone buys drugs from dealers who share their ethnicity, it may be that some populations of dealers serve far more customers than others, which would mean fewer individual dealers.

If this were the case, though, we might expect incarceration rates to even out in the end. A naive expectation would be that high-volume dealers would receive longer sentences. That’s not what’s happened, though. Instead, black people are incarcerated at a much higher rate for nonviolent drug crimes, and they receive consistently longer sentences than white people for seemingly-identical infractions. Despite the fact that the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project serves a set of fourteen states where the population is only between five and ten percent black, about a third of the inmates we help are black (setting aside what it even means to be black in this country, a question far too tangled to be dealt with in a footnote).

11. This case, City of Los Angeles v. Lyons, really was decided by a quintet of hate machines. A black driver was stopped for a minor traffic violation, dragged from his car, and choked until he passed out. In an ensuing court case, the driver sought to change Los Angeles police department policy such that future drivers would not be choked. His lawyer documented that most drivers choked this way were black. The Supreme Court threw out that evidence and dismissed the case. Justice Marshall wrote a dissent that clearly describes the harm caused by willful blindness to this type of statistical evidence: “Since no one can show that he will be choked in the future, no one — not even a person who, like Lyons, has almost been choked to death — has standing to challenge the continuation of the policy.

On fish (and their similarities to us).

On fish (and their similarities to us).

I had a pet leopard gecko when I was growing up – he lived with me from fourth grade until I graduated from high school.  After that, my father took care of him, but I’d visit several times a year.  He would sit on my chest, occasionally skittering up to hide between my chin & neck, or buried in my underarm, while I lay on my back reading a book.

In all his glory (circa 2002).

He was a good friend to me, Mr. Lizard was (it took me almost an entire year to name him, and this was the name all that cogitation produced).  We had similar interests, mostly involving lying down in warm places to think.  I assume he was thinking.  But I have no idea what he was thinking about.  He rarely spoke – only twice that I remember – and, when he did, he made an irate chirping sound.  We didn’t have a great way to communicate.

But we, as humans, are moving closer to being able to understand some of the thoughts of other animals.  With some species, this is manageable for laypeople.  Dogs, for instance, co-evolved with humans (during which time both their & our brains shrunk as we sloughed certain tasks off onto the others).  Most humans are pretty good at guessing what a dog is thinking, especially when the dog’s thoughts involve wanting the human to scoop kibble or go on a walk.

fishFish, though?  I find fish inscrutable.  Mr. Lizard ate crickets, and the cricket bin at the local pet store was kept in the middle of the fish room, so I spent a lot of time peering into the various aquaria while their inhabitants blurbled lackadaisically about.  I always liked seeing the velvety black goldfish with eyes telescoped outward like hammerhead sharks.  I even bought a few to put into the pond in our backyard, but they swim slowly.  Within a week the raccoons had caught them all.

fishknowsJonathan Balcombe thinks I’ve been unfair, ignoring the thoughts of fish.  In What a Fish Knows, he combs through many decades of research into fish cognition in order to give blithely naive readers like myself some insight into their world.

It would be remiss of me to proceed with this essay without mentioning that, for many years, numerous scientists have argued that fish lack consciousness.  The crux of this argument is that fish brains are very different from human brains.  Indeed, fish lack the brain region that most humans use to process the experience of pain.  But that’s okay – recent animal cognition research has found that very different brain regions can be used for the same tasks in different species, as with parrots learning to sing and human children learning to speak.  And we’ve recently learned that blind humans, who use the brain regions most of us devote to sight for other purposes, are able to rewire their minds if suddenly granted vision.  Thank you Project Prakash.

So I’m not convinced by most of the arguments against fish feeling pain.  Throughout history, we’ve argued over and over again that perceived others don’t feel the way we do.  Descartes claimed that animals were nothing but automata.  White people in the United States often think that black people feel less pain.  That last sentence – I’m not just writing about the horrific way African Americans were treated long ago.  This is about how black people in the U.S. are treated today by highly-educated medical doctors.  Belief in bizarre racial stereotypes is widespread, and one consequence is that doctors offer less treatment for black people in pain than they would for equivalent white patients.

So I’m suspicious of any claims that the way we think, or feel, or suffer, is special.  As is Jonathan Balcombe.  In his words:

Thanks to breakthroughs in ethology, sociobiology, neurobiology, and ecology, we can now better understand what the world looks like to a fish, how they perceive, feel, and experience the world.

What this book explores is a simple possibility with a profound implication.  The simple possibility is that fishes are individual beings whose lives have intrinsic value — that is, value to themselves quite apart from any utilitarian value they might have to us, for example as a source of profit, or of entertainment.  The profound implication is that this would qualify them for inclusion in our circle of moral concern.

Not only is scientific consensus squarely behind consciousness and pain in fishes, consciousness probably evolved first in fishes.  Why?  Because fishes were the first vertebrates, because they had been evolving for well over 100 million years before the ancestors of today’s mammals and birds set foot on land, and because those ancestors would have greatly benefited from having some modicum of wherewithal by the time they started colonizing such dramatically new terrain.

Despite claiming that fish are extremely different from us, scientists have used fish to study human mental conditions for many years.  Since the 1950s, researchers have tried dosing fish with LSD, finding that, like humans, most fish seem to enjoy low doses of psychedelic drugs but are terrified by high doses.  Even today, antisocial cave fish are being investigated as a model to test drugs for autism and schizophrenia.  It is illogical to simultaneously claim that fish may be useful models to understand our own brains and that their brains are so different from ours that they cannot feel pain.

Of course, there probably are very significant differences between our minds and those of fish.  I’ve discussed some of these ideas in two prior speculative essays on octopus literature.  I stumbled across another lovely insight into fish brains in Sean Carroll’s The Big Picture.  He suggests, quite reasonably, that fish brains probably operate faster than our own, with less tendency toward meditative rumination.  His argument is based on the behavior of light in water versus air; in his words:

bigpictureAs far as stimulating new avenues of thought is concerned, the most important feature of their new environment was simply the ability to see a lot farther.  If you’ve spent much time swimming or diving, you know that you can’t see as far underwater as you can in air.  The attenuation length – the distance past which light is mostly absorbed by the medium you are looking through – is tens of meters through clear water, while in air it’s practically infinite. (We have no trouble seeing the moon, or distant objects on our horizon.)

What you see has a dramatic effect on how you think.  If you’re a fish, you move through the water at a meter or two per second, and you see some tens of meters in front of you.  Every few seconds you are entering a new perceptual environment.  As something new looms into your view, you have only a very brief amount of time in which to evaluate how to react to it.  Is it friendly, fearsome, or foodlike?

Under these conditions, there is enormous evolutionary pressure to think fast.  See something, respond almost immediately.  A fish brain is going to be optimized to do just that.  Quick reaction, not leisurely contemplation, is the name of the game.

Now imagine you’ve climbed up onto land.  Suddenly your sensory horizon expands enormously.  Surrounded by clear air, you can see for kilometers – much farther than you can travel in a couple of seconds.  At first, there wasn’t much to see, since there weren’t any other animals up there with you.  But there is food of different varieties, obstacles like rocks and trees, not to mention the occasional geological eruption.  And before you know it, you are joined by other kinds of locomotive creatures.  Some friendly, some tasty, some simply to be avoided.

Now the selection pressures have shifted dramatically.  Being simple-minded and reactive might be okay in some circumstances, but it’s not the best strategy on land.  When you can see what’s coming long before you are forced to react, you have the time to contemplate different possible actions, and weigh the pros and cons of each.  You can even be ingenious, putting some of your cognitive resources into inventing plans of action other than those that are immediately obvious.

Out in the clear air, it pays to use your imagination.

(An aside, added later, not about fish: dolphin sonar & whale songs often travel farther in water than visible light does near the Earth’s surface, perhaps inclining whales & dolphins to be more imaginative and introspective than land animals.  I neglected this thought when I first posted the essay because it’s hard to avoid favoring our own forms of perception.)

Human brains are amazing.  I think that goes without saying, especially because my ability to type the words “I think that goes without saying” is already a dramatic demonstration of our mental capacity.  As is your ability to read those words and understand roughly what I meant.

And yet.  Our brains are sufficiently remarkable that I think there’s no need to denigrate the cognitive abilities of other animals.  They can feel.  They can think.  They almost certainly have their own wants and desires.

Recognizing their value shouldn’t make us feel bad about our own minds, though.

We’ve come a long way.  We still have more, as a species, to do.  That’s glaringly obvious to anyone who so much as glances at the news.  Still, I’d like to think that the average person is doing a better job of recognizing the concerns of others than was common in our past.  There is dramatically less (but non-zero) slavery in the modern world than in the past.  And we treat non-human animals far more kindly than we used to.

From Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?:

smartenoughDesmond Morris once told me an amusing story to drive this point home.  At the time Desmond was working at the London Zoo, which still held tea parties in the ape house with the public looking on.  Gathered on chairs around a table, the apes had been trained to use bowls, spoons, cups, and a teapot.  Naturally, this equipment posed no problem for these tool-using animals.  Unfortunately, over time the apes became too polished and their performance too perfect for the English public, for whom high tea constitutes the peak of civilization.  When the public tea parties began to threaten the human ego, something had to be done.  The apes were retrained to spill the tea, throw food around, drink from the teapot’s spout, and pop the cups into the bowl as soon as the keeper turned his back.  The public loved it!  The apes were wild and naughty, as they were supposed to be.

On the shifting sands of family, specifically: whose counts?

On the shifting sands of family, specifically: whose counts?

In her fourth year of graduate school, an acquaintance of mine realized that 1.) her project was going nowhere, 2.) she was uninterested in the particular field of developmental biology she’d been assigned, and 3.) she wanted to devote her life to anything but research.  She began dragging herself to work later and later each morning, checking out earlier and earlier in the afternoon.  In a department where most people worked from ten a.m. till eight p.m., she arrived near noon and left by four.

Her advisor — who at one of our departmental retreats gave a fifteen minute presentation describing the need for a slightly better animal model of the developmental process they were studying, then clicked forward to a slide showing a rare primate cuter than anything I even realized existed and announced his hope that his students would soon be dissecting them — was flush with grant money.  He was managing a huge team of students and post-docs.  It took months before he noticed her slothful behavior.

Mouse lemur.  See, I told you: incredibly cute.

Eventually, though, he did.  At which point he called her into his office, closed the door, and told her sternly, “_____, I don’t even leave that early, and I have a family.”

I’d like to imagine that he meant to say he had school-aged kids.

A few months later, our department hosted a special event for women in science.  Invitations were sent to a dozen female post-docs around the country, rising stars who were interviewing for faculty positions.  They were wined & dined.  There were, as ever, several seminars.  The women met privately with various professors to discuss grant writing, laboratory management, that sort of thing.

At a luncheon for these professors-to-be hosted by the two female professors from my department, one of the guests asked, “How many female professors at Stanford have families?”

It’s a pertinent question.

The tenured professor sitting at the head of the table leaned forward and said, chidingly, “________, we all have families.”

The woman who had asked felt too embarrassed to clarify that she’d meant children and so never (officially) received an answer.  Personally, I don’t remember the percentage for the university as a whole.  Not high.

Woman_teaching_geometryI do know that neither of the female professors in my department had children.  As it happens, this absence was something that the woman who’d leaned forward to answer the question had complained about frequently to her students.  And yet she also declined to hire a promising post-doctoral candidate when she learned that the woman had a child (and sternly lectured her students, who had chatted with the woman, that they should’ve reported this bit of espionage back to her sooner so that she wouldn’t have wasted so much time considering a mother), and demoted a hard-working post-doc to effectively “research assistant” status after the woman gave birth.  That post-doc, deeply aggrieved, soon switched laboratories and went on to considerable success.  Despite her “strange” priorities.

The concept of family can shift and squirm, becoming whatever those in power want it to be.

Of course, it’s hard to see the blight from here.

I found myself thinking about this while reading a recent New York Times article titled (on paper) “Violence in St. Louis traced to cheap Mexican heroin.”  The article is bleak, as you might expect.  The current culture of the United States values instant gratification and devalues suffering, so it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s been a boom in painkiller prescriptions.  But painkillers are addictive.  And painkillers are expensive.  After people acquire a taste for opiates, many switch to heroin — compared to vitamin V, it’s a bargain!

Heroin is cheaper for consumers than most pharmaceuticals, but it still yields hefty profits for the dudes at the top of the supply chain.  Hawkers on the street eke out sub-minimum wage, but they can see the big money at the top and dream the dream.  And those hefty profits have lured bad men with guns to the trade.  Feel free to read my recent post on Ioan Grillo’s Gangster Warlords here.

So, there’s a lot of money involved.  And the product is illegal, which means there are no state-sanctioned protections for that money.  Inevitably, this leads to violence.  That’s what the Times article was about.  Nothing you wouldn’t expect.

What struck me was this line:

Mr. Slay in conversation with U.S. Sen. Clarie McCaskill (Flickr).

“These heroin addicts are daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or, in my case, a brother,” Mr. Slay [the mayor of St. Louis, whose brother was arrested for possession] told reporters last month.

It’s nice that Mr. Slay is able to distinguish these addicts from the addicts of the past, who were all robots, test-tube babies, science experiments gone wrong, and other socially-isolated monstrosities.  Or, wait.  No.  Those heroin addicts were minorities, as opposed to daughters, sons, husbands, wives, or brothers.  Which was why they deserved incarceration, as opposed to the treatment options that have been vociferously proposed recently.

And even that was never true.  The popular misconception was that most heroin users were black people.  But, even when our brutal imprisonment of drug addicts was at its peak, it’s unlikely that more than about 15% of heroin users were black.  All the statistics are vaguely suspect — it’s not easy to study criminal behavior — but most data suggest roughly equal rates of heroin abuse across ethnicities.

Graph on the left by Timeshifter (Wikipedia).

Black users were over-represented in prisons, but that’s because our criminal justice system (from police officers to district attorneys to judges) views black people’s drug use as scarier than drug use by “these heroin addicts.”  The mothers and sons and brothers.

(It’s perhaps worth noting that, although heroin use does not seem to enrich for any particular ethnicity, it is inversely correlated with wealth.  People with money can afford prescription painkillers.)

I’m not upset that politicians are finally willing to acknowledge that drug users have families.  Or that drug users deserve our compassion and mercy.  It’s true.  They do.

They always have.

On depictions of (non)violence for the cause of justice.

downloadGraphic novelist Nate Powell, alongside his March co-authors John Lewis & Andrew Aydin, will be speaking in Bloomington next month.  I’m excited about the talk.

I first learned about Powell’s work by reading The Silence of Our Friends about the civil rights movement in Texas.  That book was especially meaningful for me because I’m generally non-confrontational, preferring to quietly do the right thing rather than make a fuss.  It’s important for me to remember that silence in itself can cause harm — silence can be interpreted as assent — and there are times when it’s necessary to instead advocate for change.  My little family is always a bit over-scheduled these days, but we try to make time to act upon & advocate for our beliefs … and both K & I turned down careers in academia in order to work toward changing the world for the better more effectively.

marchbookone_softcover_copy0_lgYesterday, in preparation for Powell’s talk, I read the first volume of March.  Hopefully I can read the second volume during naptime today.  It’s a nice book, does a great job of mixing contemporary and historical scenes to depict the long arc of the moral universe.  And the pages showing the students’ preparation for the sit-ins were amazing — in those, the reader sees students spitting on, assaulting, & verbally denigrating their friends as practice, to be certain that they wouldn’t lose control and strike back during the protests.  A beautiful panel shows a serious young man bowing out, apologetically announcing that he would not be able to remain non-violent, that he would act to defend himself and his allies.

Even though he is an unnamed character in a graphic novel, it hurt seeing that young man leave, unable to participate in the protests because he felt too strongly about their cause.

This is something that might not have made such a deep impression on me had I not recently read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (which you should read — it’s short, fast, and enlightening.  But if you’re worried that it’ll be a while before you can make it to a library or a bookstore, click here to read the condensed version he prepared for The Atlantic.  A lot of the key pieces of his book are included and with the time you save you can read his “Case for Reparations,” which I’ll try to put together an essay about sometime in the next few weeks).

320px-Ta-Nehisi_CoatesHere’s what Coates wrote about his experience being taught the history of the civil rights movement in school:

Every February my classmates and I were herded into assemblies for a ritual review of the civil-rights movement.  Our teachers urged us toward the examples of freedom marchers, Freedom Riders, and Freedom Summers, and it seemed that the month could not pass without a series of films dedicated to the glories of being beaten on camera.  Why are they showing this to us?  Why were only our heroes nonviolent? 

I’d never thought about the psychological ramifications of depicting exclusively non-violent protest for the civil rights movement, of history classes full of pictures & video clips of black protestors being beaten, bitten by dogs, sprayed with hoses… and never fighting back.  Because it takes power away from those advocating for change.  Not that those protestors weren’t powerful.  They were.  I liked that March showed what steely resolve was necessary to maintain non-violence in those circumstances.  But, still, the civil rights protests depicted in U.S. history classes required change to come from the horrible white people.  The protests waited on those white people to stop being violent, to stop opposing, to stop yelling, to stop murdering men & women & children.

Yes, for anyone watching that footage it’s blatantly obvious that that the brutalized black protesters are heroes and that the white aggressors are villains.  But power is still shown to be on the side of those who were acting, i.e. the villains, and the change comes from their having stopped acting.

I’d never thought about what it must have been like for Coates, or any other brown-skinned student, to be shown so much footage with the implicit message if you’d like to be treated as a human being you have to submit cheerfully to abuse and perhaps your abusers will realize that they are in the wrong.

This isn’t the way we celebrate other victories in history class.  (Look at that last sentence I pulled from Coates again: Why were only our heroes nonviolent?)  We show the dramatic action of the Boston tea party.  We show Americans killing the British in the revolutionary war.  We celebrate violent conquest.  For World War II, our “good war,” we celebrate violent reprisal against those Germans who were oppressing and murdering their Jewish population.

But violent reprisal against the arguably more horrific treatment of blacks in the United States is rarely shown.  Even though his rebellion failed, if Nat Turner had been an escapee from the German concentration camps his story would’ve been long celebrated as a glorious tragedy, at least they killed some 60 Nazis before they died!  They went out with honor!

1831: Slaves rebelling in Virginia during the revolt led by Nat Turner. (Photo by MPI/Getty Images)

(Although someone is making a film to celebrate this uprising… a mere 180 years later.  Should come out sometime next year.)

(And, yes, it’s troubling that they killed children.  The enemy nation they were at war with also killed children, though, and tortured children, and enslaved them.  Plus, given the paucity of their armaments, Turner’s army needed the element of surprise to succeed — survivors would alert the enemy nation.)

Or there’s Charles Deslondes’ revolt.  Until the bicentennial, I’d never even heard of it.

And, look, I dislike violence.  I don’t watch violent movies, I’ve read as little about war as possible (I think it’s necessary to learn the underlying causes of armed conflict, but I hope never to read anything celebrating the tactics employed in the Civil War or WWII), I think the Sanskrit ahimsa is one of the world’s most beautiful words.  I think those who employed satygraha in India & those who practiced nonviolence in the U.S. should indeed be celebrated as heros.

It’s just that, before reading Coates’ book, I’d never considered the message being sent to black students by showing only protestors being harmed.  As though we’re trying to convey the message that only by suffering might you receive fair treatment.  So thank you, Coates, for helping put my own racist education into perspective.

On racism and the empathy gap (while sneakily building toward the idea that teaching kids to root for your favorite sports team might be kinda evil).

There is an unfortunately compelling evolutionary model to explain why humans are so predisposed to racism.  The rotten treatment of presumed outsiders may well be a corollary of our genetic inducements toward altruism.  Which is grimly ironic, the idea that the same evolutionary narrative could explain both the best & worst sides of human nature.

In brief: self-sacrificing altruism will be favored by natural selection if such behavior improves the outlook of a group of genetically-similar individuals.

Photo by Justin Lindsay (Flickr).
Vampire bat.  Portrait by Justin Lindsay (Flickr).

But there’s a problem.  Taking advantage of the goodwill of others without contributing anything in return is even more effective.  All the benefits of altruism (having others be nice to you) with none of the costs (having to be nice to others)!  Like choosing to live in a country with good roads, a functional education system, reasonable protections for property rights, etc., but then declining to pay taxes.  Or being willing, as a vampire bat, to scarf some donated blood from others on your bad days, but not returning the favor if a neighbor comes up dry on a night you scored.  Or partaking of scavenged feasts as a protohuman, but never volunteering to charge forward with arms flung wide and attempt to scare off the lions (which is apparently less suicidal than it sounds; there’s a modern re-enactment of this on BBC Earth’s Human Planet).

Which means that, for genes that nudge their bearers toward altruism to flourish, there needed to be a mechanism for defectors to be detected and excluded.

One component of this is good — it’s been proposed that our innate sense of justice resulted from the need to ensure cooperation in societies.  Even very young humans are likely to intercede when they observe unfair behavior.

But, ah!  That tricky word, “observe.”  We have to trust that our compatriots will act ethically even when we can’t see them.  And, sadly, numerous studies have revealed that people will, on average, behave more ethically when exposed to eye imagery.  As with any social psychology finding, there’s large interpersonal variation… these studies almost all have wide error bars.  This result is clearly not that you are worse when you think no one is watching, but that the average individual is inclined to be.

The All-Seeing Eyes by Caneles on Flickr.  CC 2.0 license.
The All-Seeing Eyes. By Caneles (Flickr).

The protohumans to whom we owe our genetic heritage didn’t think to plaster eye imagery all over their environs (not in a literal sense, anyway — it’s been postulated that belief in an all-seeing deity has a similar effect on people’s behavior, and that such beliefs were integral to the growth of large communities).  And, unlike us oh-so-clever modern humans, our ancestors also failed to install privacy-obliterating surveillance cameras throughout their campgrounds and hunting ranges.  There were numerous opportunities to lie or cheat or steal or otherwise defect from cooperative behavior without the risk of being caught.

The genes that nudge people toward altruistic behavior had to be selected for in an environment with large quantities of hidden information.  And altruism is only a good evolutionary strategy if you can be pretty sure that, when you help someone, it’s most likely another altruist you’re helping.

This may be why our brains are so good at dividing the world into us and them.  By reserving altruism for a small group of allies, our ancestors may have increased the odds that the recipients of their aid were genetically similar to themselves.  And then, because our mental architecture is so flexible, we can adapt this wiring to use a wide variety of cues to distinguish between self and other.  Species, skin color, political affiliation, clothing style, whether someone is presumed to over- or under-estimate the number of dots on a screen ...

Once the world is divided into us and them, it seems that we may be less altruistic to those outside our own group because we don’t even perceive them as needing help.  There’s been a lot of research done on the “empathy gap,” the way we discount the suffering of those we presume to be unlike ourselves.  I really like the paragraph in Paul Gazda’s article “I Was an Animal Experimenter” that reads,

See the NYT article here.

“One day, while programming an experiment, I accidentally touched the electrodes and got a jolting shock that numbed my entire arm.  I was amazed that, according to my professor, the shock level was the correct one to use for pigeons.  I told myself that pigeons must not feel pain as much as I did.”

Similarly, people often seem able to convince themselves that other humans with differing levels of melanin in their epidermis also feel less pain: observing someone who resembles us get hurt triggers an empathetic response, as though we were feeling the pain ourselves.  This empathetic mirroring is diminished when the individual in pain is one of them, however.

So far, this essay has just been a bleak recounting of information about humans & our failings.  And I could go on.  Really, our genetic heritage is ill suited to the way I think we ought to live.  But I’m not sure what the benefit of listing all our foibles would be if there were no findings relevant to how we might make the world a better place … like, yeah, sometimes I learn things just because I love feeling depressed, but it’s nice to stumble across a glimmer of hope every now and then.

Let’s look for some hope now, shall we?

I’ve been thinking about this ever since reading Jeneen Interlandi’s article “The Brain’s Empathy Gap.”  There is a section in her article where she discusses research conducted with Israeli and Arabic subjects who underwent magnetic resonance imaging while reading about the Middle East. Capture

[The researcher] had noticed that a common sticking point in regional dialogues was that each side found the other ignorant or irrational or both.  [He] wanted to see if those perceptions could be traced to a specific part of the theory-of-mind network.

For the most part, the results were as expected.  Israeli subjects were more likely to harbor anti-Arab biases and to rate Arab perspectives as unreasonable, and vice versa.  And in both groups, a small region of the brain, the medial precuneus, which may be associated with the theory-of-mind network, responded more strongly when the subject was written by members of the other group.  But for three subjects, the psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other.  The psychological and neurological tests contradicted each other.  The psychological tests indicated that they held the same types of anti-Arab biases as the other Israeli subjects, but their brain scans, and their reasonableness ratings, indicated that they were able to identify with the Arab perspective nonetheless.  All three of these outliers, it turned out, were Israeli peace activists.

Clearly there are people who treat presumed outsiders more kindly than the prevailing norm.  Not everyone, it seems, discounts the suffering of others equally.  And, lo and behold, there are numerous findings that indicate psychological correlates of that discounting.  From the abstract of Masten et al.’s “Children’s intergroup empathic processing,”

“… those with a stronger ingroup identity displayed more empathy bias favoring their ingroup.”

To eliminate that reflexive, neurological discounting of the suffering of others, it may be necessary to identify less strongly with our own exclusionary groups.  To not think of ourselves as members of a species (which isn’t a hard and fast distinction anyway), or an ethnicity, or nationality, or members of a particular fraternity, or fans of a particular sports team…

The 2009 US Air Force Thunderbirds fly over Superbowl XLIII in Tampa, Fla., Feb. 2.  (RELEASED)
Superbowl XLIII.

Not all of these have implications for social justice — I’ve seen no research, for instance, suggesting that fans of the White Sox are systematically oppressed — the issue is that the human mind is malleable and performs best at those tasks which it’s been trained on.  I suppose it would be reasonable to speculate whether sports fandom could provide a replacement outlet for exclusionary reflexes — the idea that someone could drain him- or herself of racist attitudes by channeling that into dislike of a favorite team’s competitors — but, sadly, that seems not to be what happens.  I think the Eric Simons article “What science can tell us about why we love sports” has some perspicacious analysis:

In a more collective way, we also know from psychology that people divided into groups behave differently toward, and even unconsciously think differently about, in-group and out-group; sports provide an easy and arbitrary group division.  It does not follow, though, that sport is sublimated war — even though one of the most popular narratives about fans is that they’re merely channeling that same my-people aggression, in a (slightly) more constructive manner.  Humans are competitive and oriented toward thinking about the world in groups, but there’s no evidence that sports are a way for us to slake our warlike natures.

Personally, I think there is a stronger conclusion that can be drawn (although, let’s face it, my conclusion won’t include a phrase as beautiful as “slake our warlike natures”).  I’d wager that exclusionary pride in one context trains the mind to be more exclusionary in other contexts as well.

I know there are people who really benefit from the thought that they are part of something larger than themselves… but if our goal is to create a less racist society, it might be counterproductive to expend so much energy trying to instill school pride in children, for instance.  My high school had numerous pride rallies throughout the year, and every university seems to raise a fair bit of money through the sale of pride sweatshirts and the like… and wouldn’t it be ironic if we were training students’ minds to be worse as adults?


p.s.  Quite possibly the above findings do not apply to you.  Maybe you read this and thought, “Hey, wait a second, I’m a huge sports fan, I’ve got loyalty to my team, and *I* am not a racist jerk!”

Image by Neil Owen.
Image by Neil Owen.

And, look, I agree.  You’re not a jerk, dear reader!  (Unless you are, in which case you’re both a jerk *and* a liar, but let’s not consider that possibility)

The thing about all these social psychology results is, there are huge interpersonal variations… often the variation from person to person is larger than the observed effects.  If you want to see for yourself, really, go ahead, pull up almost any of the papers I cited above and take a gander at the error bars… they’re huge!

I’ve seen several articles cite Avenanti et al.’s study showing that white subjects feel less empathy when black people’s hands are poked with needles, for instance.  Earlier in this post I also included a link to their paper implying that this is what they saw.  But what they really observed is a small shift in the average response amongst thirty-two young people in Italy.  Their actual data isn’t available in the supplemental material for the paper but judging from their bar graphs it seems pretty likely that a few of their thirty participants empathized just as much no matter the melanin content of the hand being poked.

Quite probably they would have had one more non-racist data point if they’d included you.

But, then again… if they included too many people like you, then their paper couldn’t have been published.  Because nobody wants to read a paper saying “humans feel empathy when they see another human being poked with a needle.”  Or, no, that’s not true.  I’d be pretty happy to see some results like that.  But most journals wouldn’t publish it.  That result isn’t interesting.  And so studies like all the ones I linked to above are enriched for jerkish participants, because otherwise the papers wouldn’t exist for me to link to.  Kind of a conundrum, inn’t it?

So, carry on… as long as you’re being nice, go ahead and root for your favorite sports team.  Celebrate your Native American or Irish or Taiwanese or mixed or unknown heritage.  Buy yourself one of those decalcomaniaed license-plate holders from your alma mater.  The results from all those papers might be totally bunk.

It’s just that, if they aren’t, it’s quite possible that, for the statistically-averaged hordes, that type of behavior makes our world worse.  If all these findings are meaningful, then the cheering and the school pride and all the rest of it might make subconscious racism more prevalent.

On Welcome to Braggsville and…

CaptureBecause it’s a tragicomic collegiate novel about racism (hey!  I wrote one of those too!), I’ve been looking forward to reading Welcome to Braggsville for a while.  And, praise be to the local library, I finally got my chance!  Thank you, library.  Thank you, T. Geronimo Johnson, for caring about these issues enough to write your book.

One thing that felt strange to me as I was reading, though, was the stark contrast between the collegians’ perception of racism in the Bay Area versus in Georgia.  And, yes, I realize that irony is a central theme of the book, so it’s important for the protagonists to be naive and oblivious …

LONG-ASS PARENTHETIC ASIDE STARTS HERE: (which is a major source of the book’s humor.  But not my preferred style, I must admit.  It’s obviously a valid style of comedy — satirizing the buffoonery of others, in this case over-earnest students who perceive of themselves as liberal without sufficiently understanding the issues enough to make their points correctly — but it’s just not my thing.

Like, have you seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite?  I’ve watched it twice.  The first time I watched it on my own.  I thought it was quite humorous and had a blast.  The dude was a loser but able to transcend his circumscribed existence through imagination and dreams; I was smiling often watching him carve out happiness from within a bleak situation.  Because I was that same type of loser.  I guess the current author picture I have up makes me look rather dissimilar from the protagonist of that film, but, look, here’s another, this one from my freshman year of college, from when my best friend convinced me to join his dance troupe to perform at the South Asian Student’s Association annual gala.  That pale-skinned scrawnmonster at the left edge is me.

Dance - costume fun- frank, ravi, shiva, ananda (village-hero-wannabes)But then the second time I watched Napoleon Dynamite was when it was shown at the student union of my university.  That time, I sat in the audience and felt angry; my fellow students were laughing just as much as I had, but they were laughing at the wrong times.  Turns out the movie can be funny two ways, like how the moon might have an old man in it or a rabbit.  One way, you can laugh with the guy, celebrate his triumphs.  But you could also get your chuckles by laughing at him.

Vote_for_Pedro_Rally_to_Restore_SanityWatching that film in the student union really demonstrated to me that I was going to school with a whole bunch of derisive greed-heads.  The undergrads there were generally wealthy, generally good test takers, generally no more or less intelligent than undergrads at Stanford, who tend think they are smarter, or at Indiana University, who tend to think they are dumber.  Northwestern was about forty percent greek, and as expected funneled huge numbers of students into economics majors and then into banking or consulting careers [I studied economics too, but I only took one undergrad course, “Intro to Microeconomics,” and it wasn’t fun.  In that class, I made no friends.  All my other economics courses were grad-level, because the buddy next to me in the picture above made a bet as to whether I could do their master’s series and keep up my g.p.a.  We made a lot of stupid bets — the one he was working on was, While taking a full courseload, can you start a lab-on-a-chip microscale low-cost HIV testing company?  His was a harder task, but dude very nearly succeeded].

And, here’s an additional factoid about Napoleon Dynamite for you.  Back in 2005, when Netflix was starting out and then were offering prize money to anyone who could improve their movie-preference-prediction algorithm, they realized that Napoleon Dynamite was a quagmire.  It’s a polarizing film, one that many people love or hate, but that’s not an issue; there are many polarizing movies out there.  But with Napoleon Dynamite, they simply could not predict whether people would like it based on the ratings they had given to other films.  Many attempted improvements to their prediction algorithm were stymied by Napoleon Dynamite.

All of which is not to say that Johnson’s humor was on the same tier of meanspiritedness as my former classmates’.  I’m just oversensitive to that type of humor, so I failed to find the book as funny as it’s meant to be.  But most people should laugh.) END LONG-ASS PARENTHETIC ASIDE – NOW BACK TO YOUR REGULARLY SCHEDULED REMARK ABOUT RACISM IN BAY AREA VS. ELSEWHERE

…but the pervasive racism that K and I saw in the Bay Area was a large part of why we left.  The department I was in at Stanford had only one black researcher, a post-doc in my lab and a good friend of mine (as in, she sang several times on the holiday record that my family mails out each year in lieu of a picture of us attempting to smile at a booth in the mall), and she was often treated poorly.  This wasn’t solely because of her skin; she was French and so spoke English haltingly for her first few years in California, but that doesn’t seem like a good reason to assume someone is stupid either.  Or my running buddy, a neuroscientist who was hired straight out of his Ph.D. to a professorship in the midwest.  He grew up in the Bay Area and was subject to numerous “driving while black” traffic stops.  Or K’s students…

WOULD YOU HAVE FELT SATISFIED IF THERE WAS ONLY A SINGLE LONG-ASS PARENTHETICAL ASIDE IN THIS ESSAY? (There is a well-known narrative about good teachers changing students’ lives.  People who say “I never liked history / math / literature / science until ________ made it come alive!”  Or movies like Dead Poets Society.  But it’s also true, just less often remarked upon, that good students can change teacher’s lives.

K had the good fortune of encountering an excellent budding human during her student teaching year in California.  When they first met he was failing many of his classes, tangentially involved with a gang, living on an aunt’s couch… the works.  But he took the time to meet with K and teach her about the ways school was failing him.  The next year, he showed up for parent-teacher night at her new school to translate into Spanish for the parents.  He designed several of her classroom exercises.  Taught her the importance of having students clearly articulate their motivations.  And really sculpted the person she is in the classroom.

But this narrative isn’t as common in the popular imagination — in part this may be because everyone has been a student, but a much smaller number of people have been teachers — so there isn’t a great venue to celebrate everything he did for her.  She wrote an article about it for an educators’ magazine, but there aren’t, like, awards for students who change their teacher’s life.  She did get to fly out and watch him walk at graduation, and through a massive stroke of luck he was awarded papers — being undocumented was a large part of why he was doing poorly in school.  Because, what would be the point?  The jobs where a degree matters are going to check.  And I hope his ripple travels on to make the world a better place.) THAT WAS THE LAST ONE, I PROMISE.  NOW BACK TO K’S STUDENTS AND THEIR EXCITING ADVENTURES NAVIGATING A HATEFUL WORLD!

…whom she would sometimes meet at coffee shops or the like to discuss their future plans, classroom performance, etc.  It took her a while to notice, but one day she with her life-changing student, buying some pencils and a notebook at a drug store.  K was talking to the cashier and tried unsuccessfully to bridge the conversational gap between said cashier and her student.

Afterward K said to him, “She didn’t look at you at all.  It was like you weren’t even there.”

He laughed.  “Just watch,” he said.  They walked down the street together.  Plenty of people smiled at my wife.  But no one looked at him.

“I’m not invisible.  But they act like I’m not even here.”

USS_San_Francisco_(CA-38)_enters_San_Francisco_Bay,_December_1942Or there was the tract of land just a mile from K’s and my apartment that wasn’t part of any town.  Too many Mexicans had moved there, apparently, so the local politicians redrew their town borders to make that area unincorporated space.  Police would tear through those streets with lights flashing and sirens blaring, but as soon as they hit the edge of the rich town they’d kill the noise.

And, yes, Johnson lives out there.  Obviously he knows his own experiences, and I’m thrilled if he’s been treated better there than he was in the south (unless, of course, he’s treated badly in Berkeley too and is just contrasting that with abysmal experiences in the south, but that’s not the impression I got from his work.  Sounds like Berkeley’s been fairly good to him to earn such a kind acknowledgement in his book).

But, for me … the racism in the Bay Area really let me down.  I had such high hopes!  Thought I would love living out there.  Ken Kesey lived in Menlo Park!  Well, yes.  A long time ago.  A lot of that revolutionary spirit has faded away.  Berkeley is not the hotbed of protest that it used to be.  Sure, people out there do yoga and eat yogurt.  But, where we lived especially, they also seemed mean.  There was a lot of racism.  A lot of ostentatious wealth… but at least the ostentatious wealth in New York City is often coupled with good taste.  The Bay Area had a lot of gaudy displays.

So K and I moved to Indiana.  It’s cheap.  We have family relatively close by.  The place does have its problems.  There are bilious hate sacks out here, too.  But, having done a fair bit of traveling, I’m under the pessimistic impression that there are plenty of mean-spirited people everywhere.  The main difference that I’ve noticed is that the bilious hate sacks are more open about who they are here than in California.  In a way, that makes life easier.  When you know who the evil people are, it’s harder to feel tricked.

Which, here, a treat!  From Marcel Proust’s The Captive (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff & Terence Kilmartin, revised by D.J. Enright), here is one of my favorite passages about feeling tricked:

But this does not exempt the sane from a feeling of alarm when a madman who has composed a sublime poem, after explaining to them in the most logical fashion that he has been shut up by mistake through his wife’s machinations, imploring them to intercede for him with the governor of the asylum, complaining of the promiscuous company that is forced upon him, concludes as follows: “You see that man in the courtyard, whom I’m obliged to put up with; he thinks he’s Jesus Christ.  That should give you an idea of the sort of lunatics I’ve been shut up with; he can’t be Jesus Christ, because I’m Jesus Christ!”  A moment earlier, you were on the point of going to assure the psychiatrist that a mistake had been made.

This isn’t fun.  Neither is attempting to maintain a casual conversation with someone who, apropos of nothing, just launched into a tirade against those Mexicans.  Or blacks.  Whatever variety of “takers” they feel aggrieved by that day.  You feel ashamed for not noticing earlier, you have to revise your interpretations of everything else they’ve said, you have to find some way to gracefully say goodbye and never talk to that person again.  Which happened disconcertingly often in California.  Whereas the hate won’t catch you off guard if it comes from somebody in a confederate-flag t-shirt.

On justice (an essay for Z).

“In Egypt, we are all about justice.  Justice, justice, justice.  Where ever you go, people are in the streets.  There are tanks.”

I was crouching in front of a swingset, gently pushing my daughter back each time she arced forward to nearly kick me in the head.  Z was standing beside me, talking politics.  It was a warm Sunday evening, nearly eight p.m. but no sign of incipient night; summer days stay light late when you’re this far west but still in EST.  Z is from Egypt and has been living in Bloomington for about a year.  He had walked over and introduced himself to me just five minutes prior to this conversation.  He is five weeks shy of nine.

“Justice,” I said, nodding.  It’s heavy stuff.  “And what do you think Bloomington is about?”

“In Bloomington? People here are about making friends.  That is what they do.”

I shook my head.  Again agreeing, but there are some thoughts you agree with by nodding, some thoughts you agree with by shaking your head.  Like, yes, you are right, and it’s a damn shame…

On Friday evening, our town had a racial justice protest and march (K and N and I were able to attend the speak-out portion of the protest, but after a mere five minutes of marching and call-response chanting, “No justice,” “No peace,” N began vigorously signing “all done.”  Unnerved by the shouting.  So we broke off from the column of marchers and watched them pass by, then schlepped her home for bath and bed), but the protest had a mere forty or so people.  Far more attended the Christian rock blissfest down the hill.

And as we were walking toward that protest, we crossed paths with a Sanskrit professor, a friend we met at last fall’s garba / raas.  Her daughter attends the school where K teaches; the two of them also recently moved here from Stanford.  And we agreed — yes, our little Bloomington is a nice town, but many people here seem to coast, they take life easy… or, as Z explained to me, they spend all their time making friends.  They do not always remember justice.

On the potential psychological ramifications of certain insular societies, or: that fraternity video in the news.

After N woke up from her nap, I strapped her into the jogging stroller and took her to the local playground.  Holding my hands, she stomped around while I dripped on her: a sudden blast of warm air from the south brought summer-like weather to our town today.  Then, after about twenty minutes of stomping, and thirty seconds of warily sitting on the swing, we jogged home, got the car, and drove to school to pick up K.

K told me, “You should write an essay about that fraternity video.”

I scoffed.  “Why?  I don’t think anybody who’s studied this would be surprised.”

“Then write that.”

So, voila!  I did!  You just read it!

But I suppose I could elaborate slightly.

CaptureFraternities are exclusive groups.  You have to rush to get an invitation to join a house, and for most fraternities you then have to survive some form of hazing.  Most fraternities have ostensibly done away with “bad” hazing, things like driving pledges to another town and having them find their way home, physical abuse, that kind of thing, but “party” type hazing, like sleep deprivation, or imbibing near-toxic quantities of alcohol, is still pretty widespread.  And most fraternities have induction rituals that resemble psychological conditioning, sloughing off the shell of childhood and family and emerging a brother and a man.

One consequence of these rituals is that people’s behaviors, at least within the confines of their house (where “house” can also include other physical locations if many brothers are nearby), can shift.  Like, you have people who weren’t bad dudes growing up, and aren’t bad dudes in class, and in all likelihood won’t be bad dudes once they graduate and move on with their lives, but who can act like total jerks during their time in the fraternity.  In a closed environment, there’s always that pressure to push things a little farther to impress your buddies.

2009-03-20_610_N_Buchanan_Blvd_in_DurhamI think the Duke lacrosse scandal is also a good example of this: closed group, they’d all proven their physical toughness to one another in initiation, practices, games, et al., but there was a constant pressure to maintain that edge.

And, sure, it was unfair that they were treated as though guilty of rape by the DA despite their being no evidence and hugely confounding factors in the initial accusation, but they had chanted obscenities like “n—–, n—–, n—–” and shouted “Hey b—-, thank your grandpa for your nice cotton shirt” at departing strippers whom they’d hired a portion of the “food budget” (huge quantities of money) they’d been given by their coach (as documented in William Cohan’s generally pro-player “The Price of Silence”).

Or you could read something like “Sexual Assault on the College Campus: The Role of Male Peer Support,” which documents some of the psychological factors besetting young men who spend lots of time in those all-male, insular environments like sports teams or fraternities.  The homogeneity of the groups, coupled with the intense pressure to prove your own self-worth, accentuates violence directed at outsiders.

NEXT0308ReevesOr you could read something like Judge Carlton Reeves’s speech to three young white men who beat a 48-year-old black man nearly to death before running him over with a truck.  Of particular importance might be the line:

“What is so disturbing… so shocking… so numbing… is that these n—– hunts were perpetuated by our children… students who live among us… educated in our public schools… in our private academies… students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates… average students and honor students.”

Point being, they weren’t bad kids.  Those SAE brothers in Oklahoma: they aren’t bad kids either.

Maybe that sounds weird.  Maybe it’d be better to phrase it as, they’re not much worse than average.  And, yeah, that statement would really impugn the average, but I think that’s fair.  Our average, in this country, is not very good.

I think this is the point of the essay where there’s supposed to be a pithy summary statement, but I’m not sure I have one.  How about, vile institutions can take a tiny seed of evil and help it bloom into a big ol’ bunga bangkai of hate.

On The New Jim Crow.

On The New Jim Crow.

Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow was very good.  Very scary, very compelling, very good.  But I think her book would have been stronger if she had addressed what I felt was a gap in reasoning for her central claim…

… I should mention, also, that I’m writing this about two months after having read her book, and I don’t have the book sitting in front of me at the moment.  Most of what I read comes from the public library, so I check things out, read them return them.  And then sometimes find myself still thinking about them sometime later, which is good – means the book was good – but has the unfortunate side effect of making it more difficult for me to quote passages directly.  In the future, I’ll try to jot out notes as I’m reading, perhaps, instead of months later.

So, here is what I took to be Alexander’s central premise: blacks commit drug offenses at about the same rate as whites.  Blacks are imprisoned much, much more often than whites for drug offenses.  Numerous supreme court rulings have been made that effectively endorse this outcome – racial profiling by police is okay, as long as race is not the only factor considered, racial profiling to exclude members of a jury, equally okay, aggregate statistical data revealing institutional racism will not be considered because only individuals with standing can bring cases, and statistical evidence garnered from many individuals does not show that racism motivated the mistreatment of any one particular individual.

Generally horrifying, and rotten, and whatnot.  If you’re interested in that sort of thing, you should read Alexander’s book.  Her presentation is much more compelling than my summary of it.

Still, here is my main objection to Alexander’s argument: an extremely racist outcome could come about independent of racist mechanisms of the judicial system if there were compelling reasons for targeted police enforcement in black communities.

For instance, if police officers were robots programmed to frisk one out of every ten people they meet for drugs, and police officers are deployed amongst communities proportional to the amount of gun violence that occurred in that community during the last year, you might wind up with an outcome similar to our current situation.  Without the police-bots being racist, that is.

(I should have a link for the claim that gun violence is enriched in black communities.  But a lot of the statistics regarding gun violence seem somewhat suspect – in theory some of these statistics would be collected by the federal government, but they aren’t, and probably will not be anytime soon.  My claim is based on crumby data that I did find, but there’s a reasonable possibility that my objection is moot because this claim isn’t true.)

And that’s not to say that the outcome would be acceptable – there are a number of explanations you could give for why there was more gun violence in black communities, and a solid fraction of those might well include the idea that because black communities can’t trust white cops or the white judicial system, there is a greater chance that personally-enacted (as opposed to state-enacted) violence will be used to enforce property rights.  (I was sufficiently lucky in the birth lottery that I have no experience of this, but this idea is at least consistent with anecdotal evidence presented in Alice Goffman’s On the Run.)

So: The New Jim Crow was very good, but I wished Alexander had addressed the ways that past judicial racism might have engendered a present in which race-neutral enforcement strategies might yield the results we have now.  But her prescriptions still seem sound – no one of any ethnicity should be thrown in jail for drug possession, police should not be given leeway to enforce laws at their own whimsy.  Personally, I feel strongly that driving five mph above the posted speed limit in residential areas should be punished more severely than possession of personal-use quantities of any drug.  The former endangers innocents, and so there is reasonable justification for government enforcement.  The latter, alone, does not, and so there is not.  But this is not likely to change – drugs are scary, hitting pedestrians while staring at a cell phone is mundane.