About the author

Matt is the author, co-author, secondary-author, ghost-author, and non-author of articles, speeches, book chapters, and even entire books! The most recent is his blockbuster The Accidental Activist, which Amazon claims is by his wife Anne Green. So it goes. Currently, he is President of One Step for Animals; previously, he was shitcanned from so many nonprofits that we can’t list them all here. Before Matt’s unfortunate encounter with activism, he was an aerospace engineer who wanted to work for NASA (to impress Carl Sagan). His hobbies include photography, almost dying, and {REDACTED}. He lives in Tucson with Anne, along with no dogs, no cats, no guinea pigs, and only the occasional snake or scorpion.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Equality

It seems like there has always been an attitude of "Kids these days!" Looking through history, crotchety adults have complained about the spoiled, lazy, disrespectful kids with their music and crazy clothes and obscene dances and "fancy new technology" (radios, telephones, etc.).

So it is easy to dismiss the book The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt as yet another in the long series of adults whining about kids these days. Yet I found a lot of interesting and useful insights in the book.

Perhaps the most relevant for me is their discussion of "safetyism," the idea that kids need to be protected from everything. This resonated with me. When EK was four years old, my mom asked what values they had learned - EK answered "kindness and safety." I still have flashbacks of three times something really bad almost happened to EK.

Lukianoff and Haidt make the point that humans are antifragile - that we need to experience stress and be tested to get stronger. Not that everything that doesn't kill us makes us stronger, but that facing (reasonable) challenges is the only way we can grow and develop. "Luckily" for EK, they've had plenty of challenges (despite my best efforts). (We were just talking about how something that happened in 2007 had a very specific influence from then on.)

Where Lukianoff and Haidt lose me is their argument against looking at outcomes when working for social justice. Their example is that under Title IX, the University of Virginia made women's rowing a varsity sport to help offset the huge (men's) football program. Their argument is that if more males are interested in sport than females, why shouldn't there be more (school-sponsored) athletic opportunities for the boys?

But how can we know that there is an inherent difference in interest? Who makes those determinations? For as long as adults have complained about kids, white males have said that girls don't like math and are more concerned with "nurturing" than having a career. (And blacks don't care about school or are "natural athletes," etc. And not just from ignorant rednecks - Nobel laureates, too, like James Watson.)

I'm not a "blank-slater" - I don't think that every human is conceived and born with equal potential in all areas. It is theoretically possible that Larry Summers is factually correct that boys have a greater standard deviation in math ability (see this for more discussion; see this for a counterpoint). But my question is: how can we know? People treat a baby - a baby - differently if that baby is dressed in pink vs blue. The same baby!

Can we really think that being treated a certain way from day one doesn't have an impact on a child's interests and subsequent "strengths"? Can we really claim that anyone who is not a straight white male is not influenced by society's stereotypes of them? It just boggles my mind that anyone would think they can measure the "natural and inherent" inclinations and skills of anyone.

This, of course, brings up Sam Harris' egomania. He paints himself and his center-right straight male friends as the only ones willing to "speak the truth." One of his "only I'm brave enough to say" claims (in addition to his bewildering ongoing insistence to talk about race and IQ) is that James Damore was "right" in his Google memo that women just don't like working with computers, so tech firms should stop trying to hire women.

I think the evidence actually does not support Damore and Harris - listen to this for an explanation (video version), and see this for proof that it doesn't have to be this way.

But regardless, can he really say that no girl could ever have an interest in coding? Here's my question to Sam: would you really want your daughters to have to work with someone with Damore's attitude?

What continues to amaze me is that straight white males spend their time defending Charles Murray or complaining that male rowers at the University of Virginia aren't varsity athletes. Do they really think these are the main injustices that need to be addressed?

More importantly, can they not see that promoting the idea of "natural" and "inherent" differences between men and women or between races supports active discrimination (you don't have to watch many videos of Nazis and white supremacists before you hear one of them pointing to Charles Murray's book The Bell Curve as "scientific proof" of racist views). Questioning underlying societal assumptions, recognizing the power of nurture and stereotypes, and working for more equality in outcomes is better than supporting the straight-white-men in control status quo.


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