Michelle Jones: Does the Academy Devalue Children?

  • Michelle Jones

    Years ago, in a four-plex owned by my mother, I heard a baby’s cries coming from a ground-floor unit. I was doing maintenance nearby, patching walls and taping baseboards in preparation for painting. When the cries became worrisome, I knocked on the door, twice. No answer, but the cries worsened. I got out my keys and entered the unit. I found the baby on the kitchen floor, facing downward. She appeared to have been walking but had fallen and wasn’t able to turn over or pull herself up. That wasn’t the worst part, however; she was alone and had been for at least half an hour. I called my mother and asked her what to do.

    She called the tenant’s mother and about 45 minutes later the woman arrived. She had a grave expression on her face and so I said very little. It was only one of many emergencies I experienced at the building.

    The street had once been middle-class, but had gone to seed after a nearby manufacturing plant and hospital were shut down. Shortly after that, the provincial government built a housing complex in the neighbourhood, one that provided subsidized housing to low-income families. 

    After it opened, we struggled to find suitable tenants. The ones we did find were too disorganized to apply for government housing, a fact that turned us into de facto social workers. We had to intervene when they senselessly antagonized one another, when neighbours complained about their anti-social behaviour, when they tried to pay their rent in five-dollar increments and, finally, when the police were called and we were asked to come to the building to provide information or survey new damage. The odd time we did get good tenants, they rarely stayed more than a few weeks because they too became overwhelmed by the social disarray. In the end, my mother sold, but years of managing those unruly tenants took its toll: any romantic tendency to “see potential in everyone” had been decisively kicked out of me, and I was no longer a naive optimist. 

    * * *

    The outrage over Harvard’s rejection of Michelle Jones’ graduate admission is curious. Jones is the ex-convict who received a prison sentence of 50 years for killing her four-year-old son, a crime that could easily have taken place in my mother’s building. That term was reduced to 20 years when she started excelling at academic work. She eventually proved herself as an accomplished historian and playwright, one who conducted video conferences from prison and, according to the New York Times, enlisted other prisoners to “produce the Indiana Historical Society’s best research project” of the year. 

    Harvard had initially accepted her into their doctoral program, as had other universities, but they reversed their decision when two American Studies professors flagged her application, believing she may have “minimized her crime to the point of misrepresentation.” The official version of her rejection, coming from university administrators, was that they were concerned about conservative news outlets focusing on Jones’ crime; they also worried about complaints coming from rejected applicants and the parents of students. In other words, the real brouhaha was over Harvard’s capitulating to external pressures, an assessment that in itself makes light of Jones’ past.

    So why the outpouring of support? There’s a love affair North Americans have with rags to riches stories. In 1910, Finnish folklorist Antti Aarne classified popular folk and fairy tales by motif. Cinderella is important because it is, arguably, the story most deeply imprinted in our psyches. It is also the template most used to narratize real life underdog stories, especially those involving women. The tale starts with the motif of a “persecuted heroine,” who with the aid of “magic help” seeks to rejoin society and, in doing so, “meets her prince.” From there she “proves her identity” with the glass slipper, “marries the prince” and therefore “proves her worth.”

    In Jones’ case, the final goal isn’t marriage with a prince, but is publicly experienced redemption and high-octane success. She’s the persecuted heroine, pregnant and beaten by her mother at 14, who, with the help of inspiring prison tutors, seeks social integration via the academic world. She proves her identity as a scholar by publishing papers, and marries her prince and shows her worth by being accepted into a Ph.D  program at an ivy league university. If this correlation sounds dubious, consider what would happen if Jones had been a man. These days, it’s not hard to imagine a sea of women with placards storming the university, shouting for his head. The brutal details of his crime would be maximized and the prominent motifs would be entirely different. He would have done his time too, but it wouldn’t save him from becoming the dragon that needs slaying for the good of the community. 

    The support for Jones, so at odds with her crime, appears to come from a deep, emotional well, and I would argue that the collective knowledge we have of the Cinderella template, especially with its theme of virtue rewarded, accounts for at least some of the water in it. The narrative is in fact so powerful that variations of it exist in every culture, with the latest count being 900 known versions. (The motifs vary: an indigenous version has a moccasin instead of a glass slipper; a Chinese version has a talking goldfish instead of a fairy godmother.) It’s a feel-good story, with sanitized western versions, starting with Charles Perrault’s in 1695, conveying the message that there is good in everyone. 

    The problem is that it’s a fairy tale meant for children, not adults. As such, the initial focus is on Cinderella’s chronic suffering, and the final focus is on the happy ending, with the active difficulties in-between becoming a distant memory as her glorious new life unfolds. Applied to Jones’ experience, it’s a narrative that is satisfying and allows her supporters to gloss over the pesky details of her crime and focus instead on the socially constructed obstacles that preceded it. That means her background as an abused child, contrasted with her adult achievements, is maximized, while the in-between action–the fact that she gave her child a severe beating and left him to die–is minimized. As much as we would like to overlook the ugly aspect of her story, Jones is a real person who killed another real person, not an imaginary princess nor a likeable character out of Orange is the New Black. Hers may indeed be a redemption story, but it’s hardly a fairy tale and should not come with accolades and privileges.

    However, the wishful thinking this represents prevails in most arts and humanities faculties, where the belief is that once we construct society appropriately, all evil will disappear. It’s a utopian vision, bolstered by feminism, that has a profound influence on university curriculums but is rarely challenged. However, domestic violence researchers in New Zealand’s Dunedin Longitudinal Study have tried. When they divided their subjects by gender, they found

    …that women hit men just as often as men hit women. The girls thought it was quite all right to hit their partner; they thought nobody would care. They thought their parents wouldn’t disapprove [and] thought the police would not come if anyone called them, and they thought they wouldn’t injure anybody. When this finding first came out it was flat rejected by feminist criminologists, so we really had difficulty getting those papers published. Even after the papers were published, we were never invited to present the findings at any conferences.

    The conclusion reached by the Dunedin researchers has been quietly replicated in other studies in other countries, among them the United States, Britain, Canada, Israel and Korea. Another revealing statistic, published by the Australian Institute of Criminology, shows the child murders in that country are second only to partner murders and that 52% of these child murders are committed by women.

    Even with countervailing evidence, our image of the violent male partner persists in the west, resulting in the widespread misallocation of resources. This prompted a politician in Sweden, one of the world’s most gender-equitable countries, to conclude that one of her own government’s reports, which focused solely on male perpetrators, was mistaken and that children’s experience differed significantly. Eve Solberg, a self-professed feminist, stated, “We must recognize the fact that domestic violence, in at least half of its occurrence, is carried out by female perpetrators. Otherwise, our efforts to protect the most vulnerable among us, the children, will never become more than just an aspiration.”

    How to explain the dissonance? Wishful thinking is the desire to distance oneself from reality. When it comes to Jones’ supporters, I would argue that it’s their desire to avoid precisely the kind of people who rented my mother’s apartments, not unless, of course, it’s a case of catching them on their way up and out of their dismal circumstances, in which case they become interesting projects. That’s an indictment of ivory tower attitudes, but it’s true nonetheless that a lack of contact with our lowest castes, especially when they aren’t repentant, can skew one’s worldview. It’s a state of affairs academics in the humanities would disavow strenuously, since most are guided by a surfeit of compassion and believe their conception of life at lower social levels is accurate. Their naïveté is manifest in their desire to relegate even the most serious of crimes to socially constructed circumstances instead of holding individuals responsible. In the past this allowed some prison authors–Austria’s Jack Unterweger and Canada’s Stephen Reid come to mind–to become darlings of their respective literary sets. They too were excused and celebrated and the results were disastrous.

    * * *

    Years after my mother sold the building, I took on a volunteer position lay-counselling women in a local drug and alcohol rehab. On my last shift, I sat across from a woman who had had her children taken away. The official story was that she had an abusive boyfriend who was hurting them. Her version was that she was being forced by Child Protective Services to leave the man she loved. I played devil’s advocate and said, “CPS doesn’t remove children unless the situation is really bad.” Her sadness evaporated instantly and I watched as her body expanded; she was puffing herself up, ready to go on the offensive. I knew in that moment that she wanted to hit me, revealing that she too was violent. I’d seen this before when I’d angered my mother’s tenants and it struck me that a collection of behaviours, not unlike fairy tale motifs, characterized men and women like her. I had those in mind as I perused several articles about Jones.

    Here’s what I found. There’s denial:  Jones was turned in to police by another person and denied she had beaten her son. A former friend contradicted her in court. There’s minimizing: according to the two professors who flagged her application, she failed to mention the beating at that time too, saying instead that she had come home and found her son dead. There’s deflecting responsibility: responding to the accusation that she had minimized her crime on her Harvard application, she said the professors “should have asked” if they wanted more information. Given that a background check would prevent Jones from teaching at an elementary or high school, the professors were right to expect a full disclosure of her crime. There’s imprecise information: Jones claims Brandon was conceived during “nonconsensual sex,” yet there are indications that the father was involved in his life. This seems inconsistent with rape.

    Then there’s selfishness: her son Brandon’s body has never been found, which disrespects him and means others cannot properly mourn. There’s narcissism: Jones started her academic career writing a history of the prison she was incarcerated in. While this wasn’t entirely her doing–a tutor suggested the topic–the focus of her work fits in with a postmodern obsession with the self, and is one step toward the final characteristic, which is attention-seeking. Jones sought prestige, and the power it would confer, when she limited her graduate school choices to top-drawer universities only.

    How is it that these aspects of her behaviour were overlooked?

    * * *

    I started this essay with an image of an unattended baby crying and lying face-down on the floor. It’s an image that should matter to the people supporting Jones, but won’t because they’ve deselected that unpleasant option in favour of enjoying a more satisfying, altruistic experience. To them, Jones is a poor woman who made a bad choice under terrible conditions. They also argue that her story is really about our capacity for mercy and our willingness to let her rejoin society. That may be true, but it’s true in the same way that fairy tales and pulp-fiction romances are true: there’s a narrative pattern that’s reassuring and predictable, but pointedly excludes disagreeable details and unpalatable facts.  

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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:

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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.

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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.


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The Curious Case of Steven Galloway

On a frigid night a few years ago, a friend dragged me to an event at a popular Montreal bar. Students of a local graduate program in creative writing were giving a reading.

My friend and I sat close to them. I watched as pitchers of beer came and went and the students danced attendance on an older man, perhaps an instructor or organiser of the event. As the night went on and inhibitions were lowered, evidence of unruly feelings, of jealousies, slights and complications, became obvious. Most creative arts departments are proverbial hothouses as far as egos go and this group was no exception. They were living proof of that punk axiom: eventually, love would tear them apart. The emotions I saw guaranteed it.

Annabel Lyon. She's the colleague of Galloway's who insisted he be taken to a psych ward, after news of MC's accusations became known.
Annabel Lyon. She’s the colleague of Galloway’s who insisted he be taken to a psych ward, after news of MC’s accusations became known.

As a teacher and lover of literature, I’ve got an odd admission to make. I don’t like university creative writing programs: they may be prestigious and even profitable, but I suspect they are more about buying clout and less about incubating talent. The students that night read about love and sex from an autobiographical perspective—with some texts directed at other students in attendance—and yet none read anything exceptional or even interesting. Yes, they were young; yes, their work was embryonic and might improve. But that didn’t dispel my fear that they were being duped by a university experience that was misleading by its very existence. They believed they were members of a coveted cadre and destined for literary glory; a statistical improbability if there ever was one.

So it’s not surprising that the creative writing program at the University of British Columbia, another hothouse, imploded last year over allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct. Foregrounded is the alleged bad behaviour of the former department chair, Steven Galloway, acclaimed Canadian novelist, and backgrounded is a program as rife with contradictions as the one I saw that cold February night. That conversations about Galloway are taking place without acknowledging the complexities of his milieu is bizarre, a bit like summarising Robinson Crusoe and failing to mention it takes place on an island. The context is important because here’s what I’ve seen over decades of teaching: even the most level-headed students can enter these creative communities and develop borderline personalities in an instant.

The scuttlebutt, where UBC is concerned, is that there was none, apart from an announcement that “serious allegations” had been made against Galloway and he’d been suspended for the “safety” of students, words cryptic enough to become irresistible as click bait. Of course allegations of sexual abuse—assault and harassment—did surface eventually and came from the department’s most disaffected students. However, they arose in an atmosphere primed for hysteria: a previous case of harassment, concerning a PhD history student, had been handled too slowly for some in the UBC community and investigative journalists, from the CBC’s Fifth Estate, took aim at the university’s administration. It’s likely their coverage, and the negligence it claimed, had more to do with Galloway’s treatment than any bad behaviour on his part. 


Chelsea Rooney, one of the students who helped MC (main complainant) build a case against Steven Galloway.
Chelsea Rooney, one of the students who helped MC (main complainant) build a case against Steven Galloway. She sent out a secret memo to other students, asking them to come forward with complaints. Judge Mary Ellen Boyd rejected much of her evidence.

What happened? As that previous case was being decided, a letter was circulated, criticising the university’s handling of sexual impropriety and assault. It’s unclear whether the letter was actually written by an ex-lover of Galloway’s, a woman in her 40s and a former student, or whether she simply circulated it with the intention of getting his attention. (Sources on this issue differ.) Whatever the case, it worked. Galloway saw the letter, recognised its intent and called the woman. He’d had a two-year affair with her that started in 2011 and did not end well. Both had been in other relationships and kept their affair quiet, a decision that made sense at the time, but was eventually Galloway’s undoing. The letter triggered a series of events that would lead to further accusations by other students. However, an independent investigation, led by Judge Mary Ellen Boyd, concluded that of the five accusations against Galloway, only one was credible–that he’d had an undisclosed sexual relationship with a student. Still, UBC concluded that Galloway’s actions irreparably damaged an atmosphere of trust and he was subsequently fired. While his union grieves on his behalf, Canadian authors, led by luminaries Margaret Atwood and Joseph Boyden, wrote an open letter to UBC. They want a more transparent explanation of the process that led to Galloway’s firing.

Cue the predictable outrage.

The problem is that Galloway’s ex-lover (MC for main complainant), did not go directly to university administrators whose job it is to help students in crisis. Instead, it appears she wrote a different letter to other faculty members in the creative writing program, a letter that suggested those faculty members consult other students to collect evidence of her claim. The upshot is that two other students, both of whom ended up being complainants themselves, did their own detective work. One distributed a secret memo to other students asking them to come forward if they had any complaints about Galloway; the other, who was also an employee of the university, used her position to dig into his use of department finances. Both students did this clandestine evidence-gathering under the direction of one of Galloway’s colleagues. That colleague was the same one who insisted that he be taken to a psych ward after he received an email about the accusations against him. He was in the U.S. at the time, giving a talk at another university.

Sierra Skye Gemma. She used her position at UBC to investigate Galloway's use of financial resources.
Sierra Skye Gemma. She used her position at UBC to investigate Galloway’s use of financial resources. Apparently this was not done with the university’s approval.

As the letter by Atwood and Boyden made clear, no criminal charges were ever laid against Galloway. Although there were complaints about bullying and favouritism, any professor heading a creative writing program is vulnerable to the same. For students, the headiness of belonging to a (self-perceived) group of up-and-coming writers is bound to be matched by high levels of exquisite sensitivity, levels that would render their criticisms dubious. However, sensitivity isn’t the only problem with this department. There’s another that can be summed up with that annoying buzzword from the 90s: Everyone was violating boundaries.

Here’s a recap of the emotional boundaries that were compromised:

  1. Galloway had an affair with a student while he was married. He later married his second wife, who was also a graduate of the creative writing program.
  2. When his ex-lover sent her letter to his colleagues, they did not go to the administration. Instead, they met at a private home and strategized with two students.
  3. The first of those students is married in a relationship with another creative writing professor at UBC. After Judge Mary Ellen Boyd questioned her, Boyd decided that her credibility and eagerness to insert herself into the investigation were problematic.
  4. The second student was an employee of the university and used her position to investigate financial matters.
  5. MC was also in a long-term relationship when she had her affair with Galloway.
  6. The colleague who supervised the evidence gathering also called the police and insisted Galloway be taken to the local psych ward because he was suicidal. (Galloway denies this.)

I’m not a fan of extra-marital affairs, but I’m not sure it’s the worst thing on this list. The duplicity of Galloway’s colleague reflects the kind of gaslighting most of us consider abusive, although I’d like to believe she acted from a position of confused loyalties rather than malice. And MC’s claim that she was assaulted by Galloway? It’s suspect and here’s why: were we to do an epidemiological study of recent, high-profile assault accusations just like it–against celebrities like Jian Ghomeshi and porn actor James Deen–we would have to include some rather incongruous elements.

Here are some rape “risk factors” for women:

  1. A relationship ends.
  2. The former partner is a man of some renown.
  3. The woman has some difficulty processing rejection. She continues to insist her former partner is guilty, despite evidence to the contrary. She believes the legal system has made a mistake.
  4. The woman has a tendency toward exhibitionism combined with a need for public vindication. Other non-celebrity examples of this would include “Jackie” from the false rape story reported by Rolling Stone, the “Mattress Girl” at Columbia and Mandi Gray of York University.

If you’ll notice, many of the conventional risk factors for rape, like wearing a mini-skirt in the wrong part of town, or getting drunk at a party, aren’t making it onto the list. That’s because the focus in this version of sexual assault, notable precisely because of its contagion, is on a soured relationship and a need for vindication. With the proliferation of these accusations, it may be time to start flagging these risk factors and asking tougher questions.


Galloway's novel has sold over 700,000 copies and been translated into 21 different languages.
Galloway’s novel has sold over 700,000 copies.

About 20 years ago, I had an older colleague, an inveterate womaniser, who regaled me with stories about the wild, early days of Quebec’s CEGEP system. One was about a young woman who had escaped an eastern bloc country–before the Berlin Wall fell–and how he’d helped her win a large and prestigious scholarship. He’d approached four of her other professors and asked them to also write strong letters of reference, focusing on the young woman’s escape from an oppressive regime, her determination to make it in Canada and her quick adaptation to English education. So instead of just one letter, she had five, all praising her strength and courage. The colleague didn’t tell his other colleagues that he was also sleeping with the young woman, who was then in her early 20s.

That story always rankled despite its heroic aspects. It bothered me that another woman, arriving in Canada under similar circumstances, might also deserve the scholarship, but might try to win it honestly, without resorting to sleeping with a professor. The issue came up again a few years ago. The woman’s scholarship paid for a significant portion of medical school. While I was searching for a local specialist on Google, her name came up along with about 20 ratings. She had one star out of five and patients had written comments like, “How did this woman even become a doctor?”

I’m sharing that anecdote because I’m tired of being expected to be sympathetic to women like MC. It doesn’t sound as if she benefited from her relationship with Galloway, but if she did, I think we have the right to hear about that too and to demand that her degree, or at least some credits, be revoked. As a woman in her 40s, and one who also chose to cheat on a partner, MC is not a victim. Her life experiences should have prepared her for the consequences of a relationship with a man in Galloway’s position. That that did not happen is her tragedy, not ours.

If we really want to rid the academy of discrimination, we must acknowledge all forms of it. False allegations and crying foul over ordinary life experiences–like getting dumped–should not be career-ending occasions for anyone.


Camille Paglia discussing campus politics:

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J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir written by young American lawyer, J.D. Vance. Through it he tells the story of hillbillies, impoverished immigrants who came from Scotland and Ireland in the eighteenth century to settle in the American south. It’s also an apologia of sorts, one that may explain why Donald Trump, that inveterate carnival barker, has achieved political prominence.

To read this is in full at Quillette.com, click here.

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