Women, the Google Memo and Me

James Damore

When it comes to the infamous Google memo, I don’t have much data to add–I’m not a scientist. How I do qualify to comment is that I’m a woman who’s been in the workforce for over 40 years. Although I initially believed workplace sexism was an unpleasant norm–one whose burden fell squarely on women–that belief started waning after I left graduate school at 31 and embarked on a professional career. 

It’s hard to have a panoramic view of working women’s lives. It’s a wide field and those who believe it riddled with inequalities would be wise to remember that. Most won’t, however, because the singular narrative of workplace sexism has become inviolate. Women are defined as victims so frequently that to question this is to risk having one’s reputation irreparably damaged. Google’s James Damore, the writer of the memo, is only the latest in a long line of men who have tried.

Damore’s generalizations may be controversial, but so are those made by his detractors. Mona Charen, writing in the National Review, observes that far from being oppressed, women dominate in many professions:

…women far outnumber men in many other realms. Besides earning 56 percent of all bachelors degrees, women comprise 55 percent of financial managers, 59 percent of budget analysts, and 63 percent of insurance underwriters. Sixty-one percent of veterinarians are women, along with 72 percent of Ph.D. psychologists. Why are these disparities tolerable?

That these numbers go largely unnoticed raises questions about how we perceive the employment disadvantages experienced by women. Are they frequent victims of sexism? And what about the gender paradox observed in Norway? It appears that in truly egalitarian countries, men and women who are free to choose their professions still gravitate toward those reflecting traditional values.

(Photo: Jefferson Graham)

Charen’s numbers tell one story, but there are other stories that rarely get told. When we accept as bedrock the assumption that women are typically ill-treated by male colleagues and employers, we create collateral advantages that are unfair or dangerous or both. This isn’t true for all fields, but is true for many, with the potential negative outcomes being unevenly distributed. For example, an incompetent librarian is simply displacing a competent librarian; an incompetent nurse, however, can kill you.  

The bias that women are naturally disadvantaged has created several no-go zones in discussions about women’s employment issues. Damore touches on some of these in his memo. The relatively new idea that businesses should engage in social engineering is one:

Philosophically, I don’t think we should do arbitrary social engineering of tech just to make it appealing to equal portions of both men and women. For each of these changes, we need principles reasons [sic] for why it helps Google; that is, we should be optimizing for Google—with Google’s diversity being a component of that.

The words “we should be optimizing for Google” supports Damore’s other observation that “Google’s funding is finite so its allocation is more zero-sum than is generally acknowledged.” The fact is that most businesses are run for profit. Optimizing toward that goal provides security for all employees, a fact increasingly minimized by some organizations in favour of maximizing political agendas. But businesses are not social welfare agencies nor should they be: among other things, blurring that distinction can inhibit growth and stifle innovation. If you want a concrete example, take a look at your smartphone. Its capacities were developed, in part, because of the fierce competition between Apple and Samsung.

That zero-sum dilemma became a central theme in my life when my I had the task of finding a suitable live-in caregiver for my newly disabled, 77-year-old mother. In Canada, the government-run Live-in Caregiver Program brings qualified foreign workers to Canada and requires that families adopt a de facto small-business status and adhere to official employment rules. This means paying into an employee’s taxation, holiday and retirement funds. I had no problem making these contributions, but when I considered that a foreign caregiver might become pregnant, I worried about the complications of subsidizing a maternity leave. My problem was that I could simply not afford this; it would funnel money away from my very ill mother at a time when she needed it most. So inflexible rules and limited finances meant I had no choice but to discriminate against a specific demographic. I’m sure there are small business owners doing the same.

Damore also discusses the use of shame to silence opposition:

Google’s left bias has created a politically correct monoculture that maintains its hold by shaming dissenters into silence. This silence removes any checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies.

Shame used to be simple. It was a warning to those who refused to conform, a harbinger of more overt strategies like ostracism, banishment or aggression. That changed, of course, with the advent of social media. With the knowledge that a bad joke or off comment can go viral and heap on individuals the scorn of thousands, those with opposing views, especially those with valuable opposing views, are often silenced.  Is the formation of a dangerous monoculture, beyond Google, taking shape before our eyes? Consider this: since the 1960s, the concept of ‘questioning authority’ has been synonymous with questioning only capitalism and other right-wing, conservative institutions. When I’ve asserted that a fair implementation of the concept should encompass all authorities, including left-wing, progressive institutions, I’ve been greeted with blank stares and the sight of people’s backs as they walk away. When did the idea that debate is necessary for a properly functioning democracy lose its purchase?

Damore is also correct when he asserts there is a need for “checks against encroaching extremist and authoritarian policies.” This applies to my mother’s experience with the Canadian healthcare system, a system that is government-run, has no competition and is a bona fide monoculture. In 2012, I described my experience with some of its authoritarian employees:

An unsettling theme emerges when I look back at my experience: I spent a lot of time fighting the manipulative strategies of a workforce that shames patients’ relatives into silence. And shame is a powerful force when it comes to making people work against their own best interests.

In a zero-sum health care system that does not appear to be one–Canada’s is driven by outsized idealism–euphemisms, lies, and prevarications are often integral to how patient information is disseminated. (And yes, the system’s structure is part of the problem.) The urgency of my mother’s situation meant dispensing with the niceties and expecting my mother’s nurses and doctors to be direct so I could make informed decisions. Power struggles ensued–knowledge is a power worth hanging on to after all–and resisting numerous shaming strategies designed to make me more docile and less inquisitive became my new norm. In the end, a phone call to another hospital saved my mother’s life: a doctor there broke with protocol and shared vital information with me, information the staff at my mother’s hospital should have reported. So doggedly gathering knowledge and withstanding the shaming granted me considerable power. It was a salient reminder of two things: (1) being shameless when it matters can be effective and (2) silencing opposing views means silencing information, and silencing information disempowers the vulnerable, whoever they are. 

Although the task of dealing with the staff was grueling–the hospital had a reputation for low morale–an especially troubling aspect of it soon emerged. Against all expectations, I had the hardest time interacting with several female nurses; our shared gender seemed to produce an inexplicable and aggressive attitude that often felt intense and personal. I was mocked openly, confronted randomly and, on more than one occasion, told to leave. Several memories surfaced. I remembered the all-female utopias included in the literary module of a Women’s Studies course and understood, in a very concrete way, that they were indeed fantasy. I then recalled three famous social experiments, by Solomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and Philip Zimbardo, all of which helped me understand I was being pressured to conform, but was under no obligation to do so. I also recalled an essay by Doris Lessing, “Group Minds,” where she cautions readers against “obeying the atmosphere,” and asserts that being the one in ten with a dissenting opinion is difficult, but manageable.

Lastly, I remembered that the suicide rate for female doctors is considerably higher (by 250% in the U.S.) than the general population. (Suicide for male and female physicians and physicians in training are roughly equal.) Social constructivists would put this down to the patriarchal structure of medicine. While there may be some truth to that, it didn’t account for all the sexism I saw expressed by women toward other women, especially toward women with authority. I wondered about the underlying causes of those suicides as my authority as a legal advocate was assailed daily. It raised the question, what are female physicians really up against? In the end, my struggles with those nurses led to only one conclusion: their hostility was not patriarchally induced self-loathing as most feminists would have me believe. It was personal and we were fighting for control of my mother’s life.

Damore also addresses inclusivity incentives. Below he identifies three problem areas:

  • Programs, mentoring, and classes only for people with a certain gender or race
  • A high priority queue and special treatment for “diversity” candidates
  • Hiring practices which can effectively lower the bar for “diversity” candidates.

An unspoken consequence of these policies is that companies can end up with under-performing employees. It’s also likely they will be hamstrung by the momentum of these policies when it comes to managing their human resources. Can an employee who’s been accepted under more lenient standards (and been mentored lavishly) be terminated easily? Hasn’t an expectation of job security been created for this employee that makes doing so deeply unpleasant for him and legally risky for the company? Fair competitions among employees can be intellectually invigorating and boost morale. Less fair competitions, where some employees have been given a leg up, are more likely to foster resentment, even when those favoured employees become productive and reliable colleagues. In fact, this is one reason why extravagant corporate bonuses rankle. They too seem unfair, especially given the pervasive belief that high-level executives are by definition corrupt. Incentives for women and minorities aren’t so different, but their context–they are given with politically correct intentions–makes criticizing them far more difficult. Damore’s firing makes that clear.

What about other incentives? The sort designed to attract workers to positions that are hard to fill? There’s a global shortage of health care workers–orderlies, nurses, and doctors. This has given rise to competitive incentive programs, especially for doctors and nurses in many developed countries. Incentives are there for orderlies too. In Canada, individuals can usually qualify in six weeks. Jobs in hospitals and government sponsored nursing homes are plentiful, pay a decent wage and come with generous benefits packages. The problem is that many of the applicants who are attracted to these jobs are temperamentally unsuited to the work. They are trained and hired regardless.

I’ve seen the results of this incentivizing at my mother’s nursing home. While roughly half of the orderlies seem competent and happy with their work, the other half seem mostly indifferent. However, indifference isn’t their only problem: this latter group has also been responsible for several unpleasant incidents I’ve witnessed. I remember cringing as I watched my mother attempt to communicate with an orderly who was wearing ear buds and refusing to make eye contact with her; on another occasion, I saw two others laughing while imitating the motions of a resident with poorly controlled Parkinson’s. (They were standing right in front of her.) Dire personnel shortages in our hospitals and nursing homes mean we have no choice except to muddle along and manage the bad apples. That’s not true of every field, and I would argue that targeted incentives, especially for the tech industry,  are not only unnecessary, they are a bad idea. It’s better to give disadvantaged young people scholarships to study what they choose instead of incentivizing them (or recent graduates) to go into fields they may not be suited for. Damore wrote about how these supports and incentives seem discriminatory; in my experience, they are simply unwise.

As someone who has always been determined to succeed on merit, I’m troubled by the lack of balance in discussions about women’s employment issues. The fact is there are double standards that protect women unfairly too, standards with enough weight to produce unreliable performance reviews and discriminate against men in professions where competence (and a clear record) matter. In Canada recently, this double standard was made clear. Justin Trudeau, our much fawned-over prime minister, selected former female astronaut, Julie Payette, to be our next Governor General. While Payette is eminently qualified, two black marks on her record appeared after Trudeau’s announcement. Several years ago, a second-degree assault charge had been brought against her by a former spouse. When questioned about the charge, Trudeau responded with “no comment,” and Payette made light of it, simply saying it was “unfounded.” James Baxter, of iPolitics, a Canadian news site, had this to say:

“We think this is a story because it was such a random check and we turned up an arrest,” Baxter said. “From there, as we began to look, we saw the elements of a concerted effort to sanitize the record.”

Payette was also involved in a vehicular death, one where she was exonerated fully. However, whether she is innocent or not, it’s the magnitude of these events that has many Canadians asking if a male candidate could have survived these same revelations. It’s likely he would be labelled a misogynist, with feminists and left-leaning journalists making hay by claiming, “What? He assaulted one woman and killed another?”

If there’s a common theme here, it’s that making exceptions and blurring boundaries, when it comes to gender and employment issues, is a tricky business. Should we hold everyone, regardless of who they are, to the same standards? Should Google–with its huge scope of influence–be engaging in social engineering? I don’t think it’s wise to let an unelected, for-profit company adjudicate on issues regarding social welfare. The fact Google fired James Damore for daring to say so is a very bad sign indeed.

Below is Jordan Peterson’s interview with James Damore:

Share Button

Addicted to Success

This is a repost from July 2013.  It’s been included in Understanding Global Higher Education: Insights from Key Global Publications.

The Con

Diederik Stapel

In the summer of 2011, a Dutch social psychologist was in the process of losing his job. His name was Diederik Stapel and he’d committed an unimaginable fraud: over ten years he’d falsified data for over 55 experiments, some of which formed the basis of doctoral theses he’d supervised.

Stapel was a researcher who studied “priming,” the influence exerted on individuals by suggestive information. He was most interested in its effects on self-assessment: his doctoral thesis focused on how we assimilate or contrast when primed with information. He argued, for example, that subjects asked to meditate on the abstract idea of “intelligence” will assimilate and see that trait in oneself and others. Conversely, subjects asked to imagine something more concrete, like “Einstein,” will contrast with the man’s genius and see themselves and others as unintelligent. The impact this data-gathering has for the persuasive arts cannot be underestimated. All good persuaders – from carnival barkers to political scribes – succeed or fail on the basis of this knowledge, be it the product of native intelligence or data gathering from focus groups. The work of professors like Stapel has the power to influence those in power and, arguably, to influence the kind of beliefs they disseminate.

Stapel’s story fascinates because, as the Greeks recognized, there’s a rubber-necker in all of us. His is a cautionary tale of hubris, accentuated by the sheer size of his deception. Like Bernie Madoff before him, Stapel fooled many people for many years. His mea culpa, a 315-page book titled Ontsporing (Derailment), has done little to redeem his reputation.

addicted, successThe facts are this: for three years after receiving his Ph.D, Stapel did the grunt work of experimentation and played within the rules. However, he reached a turning point while experimenting with attractiveness. He wanted to prove that how individuals rate theirs is influenced by their proximity to beauty. Subjects were flashed – on a screen and in a tenth of a second – the faces of others. Stapel’s hypothesis was that those who were flashed a plain face would assimilate and rate themselves as more attractive; those who were flashed an attractive face would contrast and find themselves less so. He started tinkering with the numbers when his hypothesis failed — he’d invested time and effort in the study and didn’t want to abandon it. His tinkering went undetected and the results were published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2004. According to Yudhijit Bhattacharee, who wrote about the scandal in the New York Times, the article caused a sensation and “Stapel’s career took off.”

Was he addicted?

Stapel’s thoughts about his actions are naturally self-serving and suspect. However, his references to addiction, in Bhattacharee’s account, ring true:

He described his behaviour as an addiction that drove him to carry out acts of increasingly daring fraud, like a junkie seeking a bigger and better high…Some friends, he said, asked him what could have made him stop. “I am not sure,” he told me. “I don’t think there was going to be an end. There was no stop button. My brain was stuck. It had to explode. This was the only way.”

addicted, success
Yudhijit Bhattacharee

Even after he became a dean at Tilburg University, Stapel still had difficulty “resisting the allure” of more falsified experiments. The allure appears to have been the obvious rewards of success, but also, and perhaps more darkly, the risk-taking involved in his fraud. He experienced the “high” of achieving acclaim, but also of knowing he was fooling his colleagues and getting away with it. No wonder then that when Ontsporing was published, unofficial and free versions soon appeared online. In what seems to be a reasonable response to collateral damage, Stapel’s victims did not want him to profit from the chaos he’d created. As I write this, several of his doctoral students are still awaiting judgements: their Ph.Ds theses, based on data authorities assert they knew was fabricated, may be revoked.

Much has been made of the academic context of Stapel’s fraud. Questions about the honesty of social scientists have arisen and rounds of finger-pointing, within the discipline, are focusing on subtler forms of dishonesty. However, despite the spectacle of Stapel’s fall, his addiction to power is almost canonical in our winner-take-all world. Chrystia Freeland writes about this phenomenon in Plutocrats, pointing to one clear symptom of it: the emergence of a more broadly defined superstar culture. This new stratosphere is not just for rock stars: there are celebrity chefs, decorators and, yes, professors too. It’s a new paradigm of meta-recognition, built on twin pillars of meritocracy and technocracy. Thanks to the internet, its effects are being felt globally.

Dislocation Theory

Bruce Alexander is interested in economics too. He’s a Canadian addiction specialist and professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University. His ideas about addiction parallel trends noted by Freeland and provide further insights into them. He focuses on “dislocation,” a theory taken from the work of economist Karl Polyani:

addicted, success
Bruce Alexander, Author of The Globalization of Addiction

“Dislocation” is the condition of great numbers of human beings who have been shorn of their cultures and individual identities by the globalization of a “free-market society” in which the needs of people are subordinated to the imperatives of markets and the economy. Dislocation affects both people who have been physically displaced, such as economic immigrants and refugees, and people who have remained in place while their cultures disintegrated around them. Dislocation occurs during boom times as well as recessions, among the rich as well as the poor, among capitalists as well as workers. 

According to Alexander, the privileging of free-market systems, at the expense of cohesive communities, is at the heart of a global addiction problem that’s growing exponentially. A conspicuous addiction tells the story: obesity in the U.S. has risen steadily since the 1970s, a trend that correlates with the institution of free trade, a failed “war on drugs,” and various deregulation and anti-trade-union movements. The convergence of these policies started the U.S. on a path of income inequality that has, 30 years later, quite literally shot off the charts. This growth forward toward a pinpoint of privilege has been recognized, albeit belatedly. The problem is that leaders in a position to stop its momentum seem as helpless as the general public, and opportunities to redress its root causes are frequently foiled by partisan politics. That failure to strengthen communities and share prosperity, Alexander argues, has brought about widespread psychosocial disintegration and cultural diminishment. It’s a context that makes escape, chemical or otherwise, attractive.

addicted, successHow does Stapel’s fraud fit into the addiction landscape? Like Freeland’s superstars, Stapel sought recognition in his discipline and then meta-recognition beyond it. His needs, like an addict’s, come into sharper focus when we discover he initially studied acting and, later, once he finished his Ph.D, often appeared as a commentator on Dutch television. The search for acclaim is nothing new; big cities the world over are full of seekers and their stories. However, what sets Stapel apart is his level of success, which was quite laudable to begin with.

The Peacock Class and Income Inequality

This is where Freeland’s study of the peacock class — earners in the top 10% — comes in handy. Stapel’s excessive striving for recognition is hardly unusual when set against their behaviour. What is novel is that their environment seems to be changing and changing in ways that echo Alexander’s ideas about dislocation. For example, stratas within that elite group are appearing, stratas resembling divisions that used to exist in the lower 90%. Mirroring Stapel’s behaviour, these changes seem driven by individuals who are already rich, but want to be even richer. It’s a process of intensification addicts refer to as “the disease of more.” Freeland explains:

addicted, success
Chrystia Freeland

And even within tribes whose training collectively vaults them into the 1% — like bankers, lawyers or computer programmers — there’s a twist to the impact of skill-biased technological change that lessens the sense of group prosperity. This is what economists call the “superstar” effect — the tendency of both technological change and globalization to create a winner-take-all economic tournaments in many sectors and companies where being the most successful in your field delivers huge rewards, but coming in second place and certainly in fifth or tenth has lesser economic value.

The distribution of wealth in the top 10% reflects this obsession with earnings and perfection: it’s the top 1% within the 10 that are earning the most and earning the most by far. While on the surface this intensification seems inexplicable — we might wonder why these people aren’t satisfied —  an explanation can be found in a phenomenon called the “paradox of unhappy growth.” What this refers to, loosely, is the anxiety associated with instability caused by growth, even when the growth itself may be positive. So while the rural poor move to urban centers and earn more, they are generally less happy. They are also, Freeland observes, more “frustrated with their income.” These feelings of frustration, anxiety and unhappiness are paradoxical for those at the prosperous end of their class’ wealth spectrum: it seems that to avert uneasy feelings, they spend or reach for more.

So why isn’t the American middle-class getting richer? The class that found its footing in the post-war years of the last century is slowly being hollowed out by technology, leaving two classes left: high earners who are well-educated and at ease with computing, and low earners, who are left with the barista jobs. The chart below illustrates these nascent stratas in the top 10%. The lowest earning households in that group take home an average of $161,139, while the highest earning, three levels up and comprising just one-tenth of 1%, take home an average of 24 million.

addicted, success
Graph courtesy of Mother Jones.

The superstar effect is the key to explaining these top layers of wealth. The elites have the power to make the people who provide services for them — their lawyers, chefs and hairdressers — into superstars of their own. As Freeland points out, these providers are undoubtedly talented, but that doesn’t make their less-recognized peers any less so. Madonna may feel she has to fly to France to visit her superstar dentist, Bernard Touati, but that doesn’t mean there are no good dentists closer to home. However, it’s the perception of scarcity and value combined that is driving this clustering of money and talent, with the elites creating their own class of super-rich servants.

Cheat to Succeed?

So what do things like income inequality, Diederik Stapel and obesity have in common? The feelings that led Stapel to his choices are worth reflecting upon. As Bhattacharee reports:

Stapel did not deny that his deceit was driven by ambition. But it was more complicated than that. He insisted that he loved social psychology but had been frustrated by the messiness of experimental data, which rarely lead to clear conclusions. His lifelong obsession with elegance and order, he said, led him to concoct sexy results that journals found attractive. “It was a quest for aesthetics, for beauty — instead of the truth”…he [later] admitted to a lifelong obsession with…symmetry. 

Embedded in Stapel’s words are the technocrat’s credo: data, symmetry, order. There’s also the desire to avoid a mess, which is another trope of the technocratic perspective, a perspective that breeds organizing principles intolerant of less logical details, details that by their abundance and diversity contribute to communities’ identities and make them unique. It’s this wish to conveniently bin the elaborate tapestries that are our identities — that messy mass of details, in other words — that lies at the heart of Stapel’s troubles. The problem is that he is not an outlier in this regard, as his comments about the business of academic life make clear. Talking about that crucial moment when he first decided to cheat, Stapel told Bhattacharee that journal editors actively discourage complexity: ‘They are actually telling you: ‘Leave out this stuff. Make it simpler.'” After hearing it often enough, he said, he made the decision to write “elegant” rather than truthful articles.

Commercial Interests and Education

What are the larger implications of this sort of commercial interference? The global student body is currently being seduced by a technocrat class that would like to train it for their future. One of its latest propositions is this: we will teach you online and cheaply, and you will be taught by the world’s best professors. Yes, there will be 10,000 of you in the same class, but you will connect via the internet. Yes, you will be graded by computer, which will have a reductive effect on what you learn, but your education will be affordable.

The superstar effect  — the perception of value and scarcity — is being used here to suggest that only a handful of professors, plucked off the global stage, are qualified to teach Calculus, American Literature or Anatomy. It’s a lie and a sales pitch, but combined with the prospect of inexpensive learning, it just might work. The real cost, of course, is that it’s a form of education that will relegate graduates to a lower class in a system designed by those in power. Their chances at upward mobility will depend, largely, on whether or not they please their betters.

It’s worth noting here that the wealthier classes will not be educating their children this way, and that there is more to this intersection of business and education than meets the eye. While most people are susceptible to the idea that if something is expensive it must be good, there is another rule that emerges when we apply this to private education, particularly education in the lower grades. It’s the less stated, albeit equally powerful idea that if one pays a private school a lot of money, one will get the grades one wants. That’s because intimidating non-unionized teachers in a private school is easier than intimidating unionized teachers in a public one. When it comes to universities, relegating masses of students to an online university (and away from a brick and mortar one) is a way of replicating, for the students who remain, the privileged environment of the private system — the balance of power, it’s likely, will be the same.

Diane Ravitch and Community Support

Diane Ravitch is an American historian of education. She and Bill Gates have crossed swords on many issues, but a recent argument that stands out is this: Gates is demanding that school boards stop paying premiums to teachers who have advanced degrees in education. It’s the latest bid he’s made to “improve” education, one in a series of eccentric bids that has brought about no improvement to the (mostly chartered) schools he’s supported. His camp will report that some under his guidance have improved, but as Ravitch points out, these are schools whose populations have changed composition. What she really means is that the weakest students have been weeded out and sent to neighbouring schools in the public system. That’s a system in decline, she says, thanks to the interference of Gates and other business leaders like New York City mayor, Michael Bloomberg.

addicted, success
An American tent city

One difference between charter and public schools can be found in how they each reward students. Charters, it’s clear, focus on merit almost exclusively. Rewarding students on that basis — which is another technocrat ideal — is not in itself a bad thing. However, Gates and others like him are missing something important: these rewards need to be contextualized. They need to be managed locally, by communities that intimately know the children they are educating. That means letting go of donations once they are made. Rewards and punishments should not, as is the current case in some of Gates’ schools, be applied to third graders who don’t do well at math.

These are the students being counselled out of some charter schools. It’s a Darwinian approach to education as imagined by technocrats unprepared for the complexities of inclusive and comprehensive school management. It is a problem, moreover, that can be solved without Draconian measures: a qualified teacher with a manageable class size, ideally, would have the time to help her weaker students. Community support for both teacher and student, of the kind advocated by Alexander, Polyani and Ravitch, would help too. Fostering that kind of support is a messy business, however, making it less attractive to philanthropists expecting a return on their dollar.

It’s easy to blame university administrators and professors for the rise in the cost of education. They are obvious targets since they are on the physical premises. But they did not create the many tent cities that sprang up in the aftermath of 2008 financial crisis. That was the direct cause of greed and unethical business practices. If we want answers about why this happened, we need to look at banks and business communities and the people leading them. We also need to look at the politicians, and their parties, who gave these entities the lax oversight and standards they wanted.

When it comes to Diederik Stapel and his addiction to power, he is right about one thing: it was up to him to resist the siren call of fame. However, it might be helpful to ask who played the role of playground pusher and led him to where he would hear it.

More importantly, we can ask if he had enough support, the kind that would have allowed him to acknowledge he was addicted to success.

Share Button

Laura Kipnis and Camille Paglia on the Trouble with Campus Sex

Laura Kipnis

Reading Laura Kipnis’ Unwanted Advances is difficult. Not because Kipnis isn’t a gifted writer, but because her experience with Title IX administrators, today’s campus equivalent of a morality squad, is downright noxious. What landed her in trouble was an article she wrote, “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe” (Chronicle of Higher Education, February 2015). Many of us who remember the heady days of 70s and 80s campus life appreciated her candour about sex, especially when it came to the empowerment we felt then. Young campus feminists today, groomed to see themselves as victims disagreed, claiming they found the article “terrifying.” A campus petition to sanction Kipnis at Northwestern followed, as did a Title IX inquiry.

Continue reading at Quillette.

 

Share Button

Disrupting Julius Caesar on Broadway

Regarding the disruption of Julius Caesar on Broadway by right-wingers Laura Loomer and Jack Posobiec: I don’t agree with what they did. (They objected to the fact that the play “had been politically altered to feature the assassination of U.S. President Donald Trump.”) I think the disruption was silly and immature. But the reaction of some people–even people I normally agree with–has me shaking my head.

Point one: Loomer and Posobiec performed their act in front of what had to be a hostile crowd, unlike SJWs who interrupt speakers in universities, speakers who are the unpopular (and therefore more vulnerable) individuals.

Point two: They had no weapons other than themselves and their voices. Compare this to the violent eruptions happening on campuses everywhere. (Berkeley, for example.)

Point three: What they did was disruptive, obviously, but it wasn’t dangerous in any way, making it difficult for me to understand the hysteria.

Point four: I was asked by someone who disagreed with me how I would feel if I were interrupted by protesters. Here’s my answer:

1) Days after the Columbine shooting, a young man dressed in a black trench coat walked into my classroom (in an isolated annex of my college). He stood in front of the class and laughed maniacally for 30 seconds before running off. That was disturbing, given the direct connection his clothing made to the tragedy.

2) I experienced a school shooting in 2006. I was not near the action, but evacuated a classroom and was outside on the crowded grounds of the college when shots were fired. I witnessed what can only be described as massive pandemonium, a situation that could have easily triggered a stampede. It was prevented only because it was hard to tell where the shots were coming from–no one knew where to run.

3) A few years ago, student protesters in Montreal were disrupting classes wearing black balaclavas, demanding that their universities cede to their demands. The balaclavas were frightening to students living in Montreal, a city that has seen three school shootings since the early 90s. Apart from regular, working Montrealers, whose children were affected and whose commutes were disrupted by students clogging highway ramps, very few people condemned these tactics (although I did so on this blog).

So yes, in conclusion, I do think I could handle a public disruption. However, what I object to, where Loomer and Posobiec are concerned, is the hysteria around their non-threatening behaviour. What they did was simply silly, and to put it into the same category as Berkeley or other protests seems to me a gross and deliberate overstatement.

Besides, the disruption will generate free publicity for the company mounting the play. I wonder if we’ll hear complaints about that?

Share Button

Swingers, Feminism and Social Constructivism

In my late 20s a friend played a trick on me. She invited me along to a party, the kind that turned out to be a cover for an orgy. An hour or so after we arrived, the host started projecting a porn video onto a blank wall in the living room. That’s when everyone’s clothes started coming off.

When I understood what was happening, I bid a polite goodnight to the man and headed out to my car. My friend followed me, hectoring me in a half-whisper, saying that I was embarrassing her. When the host followed her out and apologised (to me) for the misunderstanding, I reassured him no apology was necessary. I have no issue with what consenting adults do behind closed doors, I told him. Swinging just wasn’t my scene.

To keep reading more of this at Quillette.com, click here. 

 

 

Share Button

The Senate, Teens and Don Meredith: Did Lyse Ricard get it right?

Senator Don Meredith

A Canadian senator, a member of Canada’s “second chamber of sober thought,” has come under fire for having an inappropriate relationship with a young woman.

As with most sex scandals, the facts are in dispute. Senator Don Meredith, a Jamaican immigrant turned Canadian businessman, is alleged to have engaged in a sexual relationship with “Ms. M.” Meredith is also a Pentecostal minister whose raison d’ete has long been youth empowerment. The two met at a Black History Month event at an Ottawa-area church in February 2013. He was in his late 40s and married with children. She was 16.

Their relationship, where consensual sex was alleged to have taken place three times over two and half years, was intermittent, with most of their contact taking place via text, Skype and Viber. A report written about it, by Senate Ethics Officer Lyse Ricard, reads like most reports produced by administrators with sensitivity training: the woman’s victimization is a given, while mitigating evidence, the kind that might raise doubts about her narrative or her intentions, is minimized, left out, or deemed extraneous.

 * * * 

I’m an academic and back in the 1990s, when the first wave of political correctness was cresting, several male colleagues I knew personally were accused of sexual misconduct. Of the three cases I’m most familiar with, two were dismissed when unassailable witnesses came forward. The third and most complex ended in a colleague’s forced resignation (or in other words, a firing). His experience is worth looking at.

First, as in Meredith’s case, this colleague was considerably older than his young accuser.

Alice Munro writes about adolescent sexuality in the title story of this collection. Why are so many of us denying that it exists?

Second, as in Meredith’s case, the accuser’s family became aware of the sexual nature of the relationship and did nothing about it. (The extent of Ms. M’s family’s knowledge is notably missing from Ricard’s report, but given the relationship’s duration, and Meredith’s many dealings with Ms. M’s family, it’s hard to believe they were unaware of any attachment.)

Third, as in Meredith’s case, my colleague failed to deliver on some promises. One was for a letter of reference, which, given his impeccable credentials, would have carried some weight and helped his accuser gain admission to a prestigious university to which she had applied.

Fourth, as in Meredith’s case, my colleague lost interest in his accuser, a pattern that was consistent with his cynicism about love generally. After a painful divorce several years earlier, he’d had a long series of relationships–with women of all ages–none of which lasted longer than a few months.

Fifth, as in Meredith’s case, the young woman alerted authorities when the relationship ended.

While neither my colleague nor Meredith acted in a princely manner, I’m not sure that one man’s firing or the other’s removal from office is appropriate. The question of Ms. M’s age is the issue in Meredith’s case, although I believe it is something of a red herring. Ms. M’s family sent her to university in Ottawa, away from her home country, at the age of 16. Clearly they felt she was mature enough to go on her own and, by all appearances, her involvement with Meredith, which did not become physically sexual until shortly before her 18th birthday, was consensual.

In my colleague’s case, his accuser was 19. He’d hired a lawyer who argued that since she’d reached the age of maturity and had consented to sex, my colleague had not broken the law. It didn’t matter; he still lost his job. However, what was most intriguing was his accuser’s recent history.

Shortly after the firing, another male colleague admitted to me, privately, that he’d had problems with the accuser too. He’d taught her a year earlier, and she had formed what he thought was merely a friendly attachment to him. Then she turned up at his office one day wearing a raincoat, which she obligingly opened to show him she had nothing underneath. After catching his breath, he threatened to call security unless she left. She did, but several weeks later she turned up at his home while he was out; she informed his wife that they were having an affair.

It’s a salacious story, but what happened later is most salient: out of fear, this second colleague remained silent while the first colleague was in the process of losing his job. He simply felt safer on the sidelines. He had not reported the raincoat incident when it happened, assuming his threat to call security was sufficient. He was also afraid the accuser would say she’d had an intimate relationship with him too. She’d been seen stopping by his office, after all. Then came his concern that his by-then ex-wife (whom he trusted and who had been hurt by the allegation of an affair) would be questioned and forced to admit that a confrontation, however untruthful and contrived, had taken place. A focus on age differences—this second colleague was also in his 40s—and an over-magnified perception of the accuser’s vulnerability, had frightened him into silence.

With Meredith, those judging him seem to be doing so solely on his involvement with his accuser, with emphasis on the advantages age and power granted him. Conservative leader Rona Ambrose has said: “I just think his conduct is reprehensible…of course he should resign.” While his behaviour is certainly unbecoming, and Ricard is correct to say so, her report is myopic in all the ways I’ve come to recognize: it’s as if all the thoughts in it (I hesitate to call them all facts) supporting the young woman are in a bold size 20 font while those supporting Meredith are in non-bold size 8. There’s also that pesky percentage balance. About 70% of the report detailing the relationship supports Ms. M. It makes for a predictable and depressing read.

But back to my colleague. He eventually took a university job in a country with an “emerging economy”; being fired in Canada at the age of 48, and for inappropriate sexual behaviour, meant he became unemployable as an academic in North America. He also had children to support, children who now only saw him twice a year, and a career that was still good for another decade or two, albeit on the other side of the world. I often wonder what would have happened had the story about the accuser and her raincoat emerged. Would the peers determining my colleague’s fate have reached a different conclusion? I suspect they would have and that’s what’s so tragic.

So how a story gets told is important. Ricard’s report, with its emphasis on Meredith’s unwillingness to disclose details—alternately framed as lying or evasion—ignores a simple fact. Meredith has children old enough to read about him and so his desire to limit the damage makes sense. He also has a wife who is quite capable of being hurt by the public airing of his misbehaviour and, since his contrition seems genuine, I find it credible (not to mention sensible) that he’s not volunteering much. That doesn’t mean an airing shouldn’t happen, but it does explain his reticence, a fact that’s being used to malign him and I think unfairly. His accuser may have been young, but his children were too.

And while Ms. M’s youth may be a factor, let me throw an idea out. I lost my virginity at 17 to a boyfriend who was 20. That was back in the 70s, but I still know where he lives thanks to Facebook. I’m not sure about Canada’s statute of limitations when it comes to statutory rape, but I suppose if I were feeling particularly destructive, I could look this man up and have him charged with it. It’s an absurd proposition, but I mention it because I doubt very much that I’m the only woman in Canada to have had sex before turning 18. Moreover, if all of us in the same boat had our deflowerers charged, the court system would be overwhelmed. That’s a little piece of reality to place next to Ms. M’s search for justice, a search based on the ridiculous premise that 17 year-olds aren’t having sex.

As deplorable as Meredith’s behaviour may seem, he also seems more ambivalent than evil and inescapable details in the size 8 font support that: despite his folly, he is on record discouraging Ms. M from contacting him; he also introduced her to his wife and son early on, an act that for most women, young or old, would discourage them from proceeding with a relationship. Then there are those large gaps in communication, indicating that Ms. M and Meredith lost contact for months at a time.

Like it or not, Meredith’s explanation—that he had doubts about what he was doing—seems true. The fits and starts in his communication with Ms. M, his choice to rely heavily on electronic communications rather than IRL meetings, and his protestations about her age, prove it. Her motives for going public are less discernible but seem to correspond with her disappointment with Meredith, likely for ending the relationship and failing to follow through on the help he said he would give her and her family.

I’d like to suggest another paradigm for analyzing scandals like this: instead of worrying about who politicians are sleeping with, why don’t we ask, “How much might their misbehaviour cost the taxpayer?” Near the end of Ricard’s report, she makes the following observations about Meredith’s conflicts of interest, emphasis mine:

  1. Meredith promised to get Ms. M on a committee he struck to recognize the first black soldier to receive the Victoria Cross…he acted in his capacity as Senator, at least in part, to strike this committee.
  2. Meredith made representations to Ms. M’s sister that there might be some sense of collaboration between his not-for-profit organization, the GTA Faith Alliance, and her non-profit organization.
  3. Meredith was in contact with Ms. M’s parents, engaging in discussions about the potential for them to do business together.
  4. Senator Meredith provided a reference for Ms. M in support of her application to participate in an internship on Parliament Hill.
I have to ask: if Meredith had said he’d spoken to Mohammed instead of Christ, would Ricard’s report have been so skeptical of Meredith’s claim of religious solace? I am agnostic and so have no religious affiliations, but the skepticism with which Ricard approaches Meredith’s religion is clear. I think that is worth evaluating critically.

The problem with each of these assertions is that the first three only refer to potential events, none of which materialized. The fourth—a letter of reference—was written too late to be useful. There was also the issue of helping Ms. M’s mother with residency status, another promise that apparently fell through and may have been the biggest irritant to Ms. M and her family. That that is not on Ricard’s  list, which is located near the conclusion of her report, speaks to the myopia I mentioned earlier. It’s missing because asking Meredith for help with their immigration issues makes Ms. M’s family look bad. It raises the question, “Were they using their daughter to get special treatment?”

What Meredith was doing was obvious: he was hedging, trying to keep Ms. M in his orbit without actually abusing his administrative powers. That makes his actions obnoxious, but it doesn’t make him a criminal, nor should he be expelled from the Senate on that basis alone.

Apart from a dalliance with a young woman to whom he made illogical promises, Meredith was all talk and no action. However, his lack of action cost taxpayers nothing. It may sound insensitive to Ms. M and her supporters, but I suspect a lot of Canadians are okay with that.

Share Button