Someone is writing down your mistakes. Someone is documenting your downfall. –KMFDM, “Dogma”
When faced with the resolution Resolved: The “right to be forgotten” from Internet searches ought to be a civil right, I am pleased that it is timely, that it has an affirmative side (no matter how weak) and that I can explain from my expert and professional vantage point why it’s a bad idea.
But let’s set the tone with this 7-minute John Oliver video explaining what’s going on:
Got it? Now on to the affirmative case:
Observation 1: This potential “right to be forgotten” is an extension of and expansion on existing legal protections from exposure of private truths (known as doxxing) or public fictions (generally libel). Search engines already allow for de-listing such legally questionable content to avoid being complicit in participatory infringement of the law and existing protections for individuals.
Observation 2: Using the European Union as a case study for the “right to be forgotten,” we find that it is checked by public interest rather than being an absolute right. For our purposes, the obvious example would be that it’s unreasonable to think that we’re going to accept requests to purge the sex offender registry, or expunge records of corruption, or moneyed conflicts of interest.
“The European Court of Justice ruled in May that people worried about their privacy can ask Google and other search engines to remove sensitive links from their search results. But search engines can decline the requests if they believe the links in question are in the public interest. … Google said Friday that it had received 144,954 requests so far involving 497,695 URLs. Of that total, it has removed only 42%, keeping 58% in its results.”
Observation 3: By specifying “from Internet searches,” this resolution is intentionally avoiding questions of censorship. It doesn’t ask whether or not the ostensibly factual information has a right to be recorded; indeed, it says nothing about asking the publishers of that information to delete their records. The question is whether or not a common set of commercial tools should mindlessly consume and regurgitate that information for their public users.
Observation 4: “Internet Searches” implies public access, different from protected extranet or intranet searches. An internet search engine is a publicly accessible tool that refers to publicly accessible information. I’ll defend this with technobabble in cross examination if necessary.
Supporting Evidence: An Internet search of terms has Google fetching the following definitions from Wikipedia:
Internet: “The Internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks” Extranet: “An extranet is a computer network that allows controlled access from outside of an organization’s intranet.” Intranet: “An intranet is a computer network that uses Internet Protocol technology to share information, operational systems, or computing services within an organization.”
So an intranet is like your office network where you have to log into it and outsiders don’t really know about it. If outsiders do know about it and can request access to it, then it’s an extranet — most web applications (Facebook, Gmail, dating sites) are extranets: they have a small public facing area but most of their content is login-required to access and also user-specific. If outsiders know about the network but no logins are required, then it’s on the Internet. So what we’re talking about here is the information that a publicly accessible search engine like Google or Bing would serve up to anybody who asks for the Huffington Post or Drudge Report, but not the contents of a restricted-access database like your insurance company or the NSA keeps, or even content on Facebook that has appropriate privacy settings applied to it.
Now that we’ve established what we’re talking about, let’s focus on why: The Right to be Forgotten should be treated as a civil right to mitigate the ongoing encroachment of bio-power.
I say this because I value the idea of rights, which is necessary to understand that people are not just individuals, but also separate from power structures: you are not just an employee or citizen; the ability of your employer or the nation to place duties upon you is legally checked by your rights.
And this is foundational to the social contract in any formulation: we are expected give up access to some liberties to ensure rights are codified within society. We sacrifice some individualistic chaos for a predictability that allows us to grow into the future: the hypothetical contract is supposed to give us some benefits… but we’re not currently using them.
The first thing we have to acknowledge is that not everybody loves the social contract — some people prefer to take control and undermine the usability of rights:
“Historians of ideas usually attribute the dream of a perfect society to the philosophers and jurists of the eighteenth century; but there was also a military dream of society; its fundamental reference was not to the state of nature, but to the meticulously subordinated cogs of a machine, not to the primal social contract, but to permanent coercions, not to fundamental rights, but to indefinitely progressive forms of training, not to the general will but to automatic docility.”
But how does this relate to being on the Internet? Isn’t it great when people pay attention to us? Well, not necessarily; not anymore. See,
“For a long time ordinary individuality – the everyday individuality of everybody – remained below the threshold of description. To be looked at, observed, described in detail, followed from day to day by an uninterrupted writing was a privilege. The chronicle of a man, the account of his life, his historiography, written as he lived out his life formed part of the rituals of his power. The disciplinary methods reversed this relation, lowered the threshold of describable individuality and made of this description a means of control and a method of domination. It is no longer a monument for future memory, but a document for possible use. And this new describability is all the more marked in that the disciplinary framework is a strict one: the child, the patient, the madman, the prisoner, were to become, with increasing ease from the eighteenth century and according to a curve which is that of the mechanisms of discipline, the object of individual descriptions and biographical accounts. This turning of real lives into writing is no longer a procedure of heroization; it functions as a procedure of objectification and subjection.”
And a soft ubiquitous network of camera phones feeding Google amplify the objectification and subjection because:
“He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. By this very fact, the external power may throw off its physical weight; it tends to the non-corporal; and, the more it approaches this limit, the more constant, profound and permanent are its effects: it is a perpetual victory that avoids any physical confrontation and which is always decided in advance.”
And because of our fear of shame or embarrassment while under observation,
“it does not matter what motive animates [the observers]: the curiosity of the indiscreet, the malice of a child, the thirst for knowledge of a philosopher who wishes to visit this museum of human nature, or the perversity of those who take pleasure in spying and punishing. The more numerous those anonymous and temporary observers are, the greater the risk for the inmate [or observed subject] of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed.”
In short, perpetual opportunities to be observed cultivate feelings of narcissistic paranoia: we’re constantly afraid to not be at our best lest we be incidentally recorded at not our best. These feelings neutralize our legally protected rights because
“although the universal juridicism of modern society seems to fix limits on the exercise of power, its universally widespread panopticism enables it to operate, on the underside of the law, a machinery that is both immense and minute, which supports, reinforces, multiplies the asymmetry of power and undermines the limits that are traced around the law.”
So in order restore our belief in our own rights through the balanced exchange of social contract, to be unafraid of the repercussions of our freedom of speech or freedom to publish or freedom of peaceable assembly, we need to believe that we can mitigate the casual surveillance society by establishing a Right to be Forgotten from Internet searches. The alternative is, as Foucault observed, a mass automatic docility of people afraid of saying the wrong words, doing the wrong things, or looking the wrong way, punctuated only by the unabashed shamelessness of sociopaths.
That’s the affirmative case, and I’m feeling pretty good about it. At least until the negative stands up and says a couple of things.
Here’s what the negative case would say:
Whatever the affirmative values? Great, whatever, they’re not going to get it.
Contention 1: First, the (previously mentioned) status quo in Europe show that there are a few things wrong with this right: the government isn’t upholding this right; it’s passing the responsibility for upholding the right off to private corporations. The private corporations are, in turn, ignoring this so-called right 58% of the time. This actively undermines the social contract by diluting the very idea of what a right is. So if you’re okay with this sort of chickenshit:
then you may be peachy-keen with a civil right that’s been overruled by a corporate review board 58% of the times it has been asserted so far. I’m not; I think it shows how weakly-held the social contract is these days and piling hollow rhetorical rights on top of it will merely obfuscate our inability to rely on our rights being legally protected. And the people who need to believe otherwise won’t be fooled by this track record; it’s obvious that rights aren’t being strengthened by adding new faux-rights.
Contention 2: Because this only applies to Internet searches and not to the original publication of data, this procedurally highlights the information people want to keep hidden. Here’s the technically gory way how (and yes, I am an expert if you want to quote me directly).
Some anonymous troll writes a web crawling script that loads a web page, analyzes the content, then follows all the links on the page, analyzes their content, follows all the links on those pages, et cetera, indefinitely. This is basically how search engines traditionally discover everything on the Internet, but this anonymous troll would probably start with the Huffington Post’s Sideboob section — it seems a likely target.
The anonymous troll adds one special feature, though: ask an actual Internet search engine if it knows about each page that’s been found. Any page the crawler finds that the search engine insists it doesn’t know about is going to look suspiciously like it has been intentionally forgotten. The search engine’s act of forgetting creates a tell-tale hole of metadata where a link should be.
The anonymous troll now has a collection of things that people probably wanted forgotten. This list will, of course, be posted on Reddit and 4chan and wherever else anonymous trolls infest these days, highlighting all the pages that shouldn’t be remembered.
That’s how the shameless sociopaths will easily remember everything people do manage to have “forgotten.” As venture capitalist Alistair Croll observed, “metadata is leaky, and relying on it to protect user data is risky at best.” Or as the Penguin said in Batman Returns, “What you hide, I discover. What you put in your toilet, I place on my mantle. Get the picture?” Because that’s what we’re dealing with here.
Contention 3: By reducing public visibility while simultaneously highlighting the damning data for the cretins that want to find it, the affirmative would actually create a new institutional power of anonymous trolls to go alongside the anonymized power of your credit card company and the NSA. While this doesn’t weaken the social contract the way generic all-pervasive surveillance would seem to, it certainly continues down the path of having unaccountable institutions subjugating ordinary people for being found out as mere humans, rife with flaws and imperfections. This is ultimately the point of John Oliver’s #MutuallyAssuredHumiliation: that until society is generally willing to accept the people in it, we can’t restore the exerciseability of our rights, and we’re not going to get there until everybody feels a bit humiliated by their own humanity. Instead, the affirmative tries to help people ineffectively hide their humiliation, thus leaving the power of the credit card companies, insurance companies, and NSA intact while also empowering the shameless sociopathic anonymous trolls who have no respect for any sort of social contract whatsoever.
The so-called “right to be forgotten” from Internet searches is wildly counterproductive for privacy, rights, and the general concept of a social contract featuring consent of the governed, and is not something that should be affirmed as a civil right.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way, here’s the Billy Idol song (performed by Simple Minds) from which this post got its name.
This is not that 90%. This is the starting point for resources that my smartest students over the years (debaters all) consistently reviewed favorably if not enthusiastically as beneficial to their critical thinking, their persuasiveness, and their capacity for charisma.
Scott Berkun’s “The Attack of the Butterflies.” A book chapter that’s all about handling the stresses of public presentations; should take about 10 minutes to read. Starts with:
“While there are good reasons people fear public speaking, until I see someone flee from the lectern mid-presentation, running for his life through the fire exit on stage left, we can’t say public speaking is scarier than death.”
Shawn Achor’s “The happy secret to better work.” This 13-minute TED-talk covers an insane amount of material on psychological framing for superior performance and is hilarious while doing so.
Paul Graham’s “What you’ll wish you’d known.” This essay is about how to optimize for being stuck in high school; it’ll take about 20 minutes to read. Contrary to what you’re generally being told but super-relevant to my techniques, Graham observes that:
“It’s dangerous to design your life around getting into college, because the people you have to impress to get into college are not a very discerning audience. At most colleges, it’s not the professors who decide whether you get in, but admissions officers, and they are nowhere near as smart.”
Movie: Thank You For Smoking. 90 minute film covering a wide variety of rhetorical and persuasive techniques. Rated R for pervasive language, a couple instances of mild violence and 2 non-graphic sex scenes; you’ve likely seen and heard worse just wandering the halls between classes. Sample scene (low video quality, sorry): Demonstration of Reframing a Debate.
Tavris & Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). A book explaining why people insist on being wrong and irrational, which is important because everybody often is. It is a litany of cognitive blunders and horrors, but a simple and compelling read. For example:
“Self-justification… allows us to create a distinction between our moral lapses and someone else’s, and to blur the discrepancy between our actions and our moral convictions. … A president who justifies his actions only to the public might be induced to change them. A president who has justified his actions to himself, believing that he has the truth, becomes impervious to self-correction.”
Heinrichs, Thank You For Arguing. A modern book on rhetoric and getting people to hear what you’re trying to tell them using a plethora of simple examples such as
“As reliable as my watch and twice as annoying, the cat persuades remarkably well for ten dumb pounds of fur. Instead of words she uses gesture and tone of voice — potent ingredients of argument.”
Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why.” The most important part of any speech or presentation you give is the reason Why you are giving it. This 18-minute TED-talk covers the cognitive style of pitching on values, a technique which is obviously relevant to value-frameworks but even more effective in situations where no persuasion is expected.
So now that you’re cleverer than your peers and better prepared to persuade them to align with what you’re intending to pursue, let’s bring you back down to Earth with one final selection.
Carl Sagan’s “The Pale Blue Dot.” It’s just a 6-minute video about the entire history and foreseeable future of our species. Please watch the whole thing.
Given “Resolved: A just society ought to presume consent for organ procurement from the deceased.” we have to find in the negative, which is kind of sad because we’re totally in favor of organ donation, but presumption is simply going too far and is incompatible with the condition of a “just society.”
Seriously, this is a terrible topic because it’s mis-written. It should be written “Society ought to presume consent for organ procurement from the deceased,” with the debaters’ respective values elucidating what kind of society they want to live in. Insisting on a “just society” is nonsense — ref Niebuhr, Campbell, et al — and practically makes the resolution, as written, impossible to affirm. So I’m not going to write a sample aff case because I don’t know how to affirm this as-written; I could argue for utility or a more general good, but that’s not the same as “just society” as I’ll cover in a block at the bottom. Conversely, this half-baked neg case references Nietzsche and the Bible because — while I insist on internal consistency for people who don’t know what they’re doing — I’ve read enough of both Nietzsche and the Bible to perversely enjoy and confidently defend putting them on the same side.
First, What is presumption? It’s not an opting-system per se. With an opt-in system, the system starts at a known point and a box needs to be checked — the person’s action opts in. With an opt-out system, the system starts at a known point and a box can be un-checked — the person has an clear opportunity for action to opt-out. With a presumptive system, the system doesn’t start — it simply is — and if you don’t like what is presumed, you have to find that point that document that presumption has obfuscated within an institution, assuming you even know about it, which — looking to the history of Living Wills as an example — you probably won’t. There is no distinct or obvious point for an individual to counteract a presumption made about them.
Second, What is Just? Check the synonyms for just, synonyms like: equitable, even-handed, impartial, unbiased, neutral, unprejudiced, and open-minded. Look at the scales our iconic statue of Justice holds: they don’t weigh claims against a static objective measure, they weigh one set of claims against a competing set of claims. Heck, look a justified text: the text gets its kerning distended to ensure that the left and right margins are treated equally.
Let’s back up this assertion of Competing Claims: If some bloke is arrested in possession of 100 kilos of heroin, they still have the right to a trial in which their claims of innocence — or at least claims of mitigating factors — will be weighed against the prosecution’s claim that they were packing 100 kilos of heroin. Society accepts the cost of giving the heroin-toting defendant a fair trial instead of just railroading him off to prison because we like to think of ourselves as being interested in justice and seeing justice served, and that can’t happen if we refuse to hear his competing claims. Now, it may be true in the real world that we’re doing such a bad job of listening to the competing claims of defendants — especially impoverished defendants — that we’re lying to ourselves about our love of justice, but that’s out of scope for this topic. The point is that we require ourselves to be open to competing claims for the sake of justice even when we know the competing claims will be laughably inadequate and not change the verdict.
So what we’ve got here is society wanting to be actively partial, biased, and prejudiced in favor of organ procurement from the deceased. That’s not a just society, so the resolution is false on that part. But in order to determine just-ness in any specific situation, we need to know what the competing claims are.
Did the aff claim “Justice is giving each their due”? Then you say “If we are to give each person their due, we have to pay attention to who all is involved.” Or take a shot, if you’re old enough to turn this into a drinking game.
So while I value Justice (as my opponent almost certainly does), this debate really has to be decided on whose form of justice is open to the competing claims. So the necessary criterion to measure our adherence to Justice is Openness to Competing Claims.
Now what I’m claiming is that the affirmative’s presumption means they can’t possibly maintain a just society. But let’s look abstractly at the claims they’re ignoring, because
It’s an offense against both customs and the customary definition of justice:
Looking back a few thousand years, the Bible says “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17) If we’re ignoring the natural grieving process of orphans and widows because we’re ghoulishly harvesting the remains of their loved ones, then we’re failing to seek justice in a very traditional & customary sense.
But the affirmative’s society thinks it can claim the body of the deceased from the grieving family for its coldly calculated utilitarian purposes. Nietzsche warns that this will turn the people against the state in Thus Spake Zarathrustra:
A state, is called the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly lieth it also; and this lie creepeth from its mouth: “I, the state, am the people.” It is a lie! [Creators were they who created peoples, and hung a faith and a love over them: thus they served life. Destroyers, are they who lay snares for many, and call it the state: they hang a sword and a hundred cravings over them.] Where there is still a people, there the state is not understood, but hated as the evil eye, and as sin against laws and customs.
So the affirmative’s “just society” is sinning against the customs of its people and increasing the animosity of the already grief-stricken people against it.
How bad of an idea is it to do that? This presumptive intrusion into private grief is so abhorrent that not even the US Military — which values and honors the sacrifice of self for the sake of team and society and presumes enough ownership over its recruits to risk getting them killed — simply “presumes” ownership over their remains, despite almost certainly having lots of potential recipients for replacement organs. That’s page 8 of the Survivor’s Guide. So even our military ostensibly knows better than to ignore the human needs of widows and orphans, but the affirmative doesn’t.
So in defending the right of the widows and orphans to dispose of their loved ones’ remains with minimum state intervention, I’m siding with tens of thousands of years of history, the Bible, Nietzsche, and the US Marine Corps — a pretty diverse group, but they appear to agree on this.
But you may still want to vote affirmative — this is actually normal. Reinhold Niebuhr observes in Moral Man & Immoral Society that:
The inevitable hypocrisy, which is associated with all of the collective activities of the human race, springs chiefly from this source: that individuals have a moral code which makes the actions of collective man an outrage to their conscience. They therefore invent romantic and moral interpretations of the real facts, preferring to obscure rather than reveal the true character of their collective behavior.
And the romantic and moral interpretation of this situation is simple: you think you can help somebody that needs an organ transplant, that you can give them their due health care, and that you therefore should. It’s a lot harder to want to relate to the powerless primal grief of the bereaved. We don’t know what they need from us; all we really know is that we don’t want to be them. We’d rather identify with the people we know we can help than identify with the people suffering the profound grief that we can’t help.
But respecting their situation and defending their rights in that awful situation that we don’t want to identify with is exactly what justice requires. And our society can’t be just if we can presume to turn away.
Now the affirmative is almost certainly going to make two claims; each has multiple responses that really augment the power of this negative case:
“There’s good to be had from donating organs to people that need them.”
But the resolution specifies a just society — not necessarily a good society or a utilitarian society or an expedient society. Goodness is more general than justice and the specificity of the resolution requires a tighter focus from the affirmative.
The resolution also only specifies “organ procurement” making no mention of what happens to the organs once society procures them. Presumably the just society will do something just with them, but without a stated purpose for the procurement, any consequentialist cost/benefit analysis goes extra-topical when the affirmative assumes they know how the organs are being used.
“People who need organs are due organs, so it’s just to procure them from people who aren’t using them anymore because they’re dead.”
Cross-apply extra-topicality from above: the affirmative is assuming that society is justly redistributing the organs, but the claimant in the resolution is society, not any specific individual in need of a new kidney.
This totally and unjustly ignores the rights of the next of kin as this resolution (wrongly) intends to; the affirmative must show — which they can’t — that they’ve considered all competing claims in this situation, and they can’t because actual claims can’t be abstracted down for expedient presumption.
Most importantly, why does the affirmative’s just society need people to die in order to give other people their due medical care? Shouldn’t a just society be working to give people what they’re due without relying on the timely demise of suitable organ donors, never mind the part where this society is exercising eminent domain on corpses despite the rights and responsibilities of the survivors? That violating the rights of widows and orphans with what is essentially grave robbery is the affirmative’s go-to plan “for great justice” is utterly astounding and I am gobsmacked that they’re trying to defend their position like that.
You probably won’t want to say that last line out loud in competition, but damn was it a fun mic-drop line to write.
It seems odd to me that a bunch of nerdy kids ought to argue about “Resolved: On balance, public subsidies for professional athletic organizations in the United States benefit their local communities.” but I suppose this is appropriate irony as you may catch on to by the end of the sample negative material below.
Before we run the negative material, though, let me address common affirmative sleight of hand: it is likely that they will go off-topic to say that professional athletic organizations benefit their local communities, which can easily be true regardless of public subsidies that are a fiscal detriment to the public. It is always in the interest of professional sports organizations to make money, and they will always endeavour to do so, and even if they aren’t actively bribed to maintain a position within a specific community in violation of free-market capitalist principles, they will ultimately provide whatever vague and hypothetical benefits that halos their existence for whatever communities they settle in. To re-clarify: any supporting jobs or whatever that a subsidized team would create in metropolis A are indistinguishable from the jobs that a proper team would create in metropolis B; the subsidy does not create a benefit.
Now let’s negate the community-oriented resolution.
“The leisure class lives by the industrial community rather than in it. Its relations to industry are of a pecuniary rather than an industrial kind. Admission to the class is gained by exercise of the pecuniary aptitudes—aptitudes for acquisition rather than for serviceability.”
Easterbrook then drops a laundry-list (Tom Landry-list?) of status quo subsidies:
In 2010, the National Football League moved its annual Pro Bowl away from Honolulu for the first time in 30 years. At the very time Hawaii was cutting its budget for public schools, state lawmakers voted to pay the NFL $4 million per game to bring the event back to their capital.
Though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to be an anti-spending conservative, each year the state of Louisiana forcibly extracts up to $6 million from its residents’ pockets and gives the cash to [Saints' owner Tom] Benson as an “inducement payment”—the actual term used—to keep Benson from developing a wandering eye.
Judith Grant Long, a Harvard University professor of urban planning, calculates that league-wide, 70 percent of the capital cost of NFL stadiums has been provided by taxpayers, not NFL owners.
The fact that game images created in places built and operated at public expense can be privatized by the NFL inflates the amounts kept by NFL owners, executives, coaches, and players, while driving up the cable fees paid by people who may not even care to watch the games.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would owe at least $6 million a year in property taxes. Instead he receives no property-tax bill, so Tarrant County taxes the property of average people more than it otherwise would.
The National Football League is about two things: producing high-quality sports entertainment, which it does very well, and exploiting taxpayers, which it also does very well. Goodell should know—his pay, about $30 million in 2011, flows from an organization that does not pay corporate taxes. … That’s right—extremely profitable and one of the most subsidized organizations in American history, the NFL also enjoys tax-exempt status.
So we’re looking at 3 types of subsidies:
blatant subsidy of directing public funding to private enterprise,
subtle subsidy of refraining from taxation with the larger public having to pick up the full expense of infrastructure, and
legally sanctioned privatization of wealth generated by public spectacle.
These are the obvious and prominent dollar-damages. And all of this is allowed wherever the elected officials that vote on laws and budgets say it is: “Politicians seem more interested in receiving campaign donations and invitations to luxury boxes than in taking on the football powers that be to bargain for a fair deal for ordinary people” Easterbrook explains.
At the point where professional sports teams can-and-do lobby the government to pillage the public treasury, they aren’t just not being of great benefit to the community; they are being evil. As Lawrence Lessig describes in Republic, Lost:
“The great evil that we as Americans face is the banal evil of second-rate minds who can’t make it in the private sector and who therefore turn to the massive wealth directed by our government as the means to securing wealth for themselves.”
This is non-unique to professional sports, but the lobbying efforts of privately profitable professional sports participates in the corruption of our government and the transformation of our nation into a plutocracy. Lessig reports in the wake of the great bailout:
“when Rock the Vote! polled its members about their plans for the 2010 election, the single largest reason that young people offered for why they did not plan to vote was “because no matter who wins, corporate interests will still have too much power and prevent real change.””
Even if you ignore the great piles of money transferred from assorted anonymous communities to the billionaire trolls like Donald Sterling, even if you ignore all of the other civil benefits that the money might be allocated to instead, these points remain:
Crony Capitalism is antithetical to our shared principles of Free-Market Capitalism and
Reinforcing the socioeconomic power of Plutocrats is antithetical to our shared value of — and belief in — Democracy.
And because this behavior, this practice of transferring public funds to private sports teams, contradicts our self-description of who we are it is flat-out bad for the existence of our communities.
As previously noted, the affirmative may claim that people love their sports teams — but this is irrelevant: I’m choosing to avoid arguing that professional sports are bad (because it runs into too much judge bias), but rather that subsidies for private enterprise are bad. Here’s the snarky response from Veblen — and yes, snark existed in 1899:
The possession and the cultivation of the predatory traits of character [common to sporting competitions] may, of course, be desirable on other than economic grounds. There is a prevalent aesthetic or ethical predilection for the barbarian aptitudes, and the traits in question minister so effectively to this predilection that their serviceability in the aesthetic or ethical respect probably offsets any economic unserviceability which they may give. But for the present purpose that is beside the point. Therefore nothing is said here as to the desirability or advisability of sports on the whole, or as to their value on other than economic grounds.
Affirmative is going to claim that there are really economic benefits (which will be utterly indistinguishable between subsidized and upstanding teams), but Kurt Vonnegut explains the problem with this in Hocus Pocus, reminiscent of Veblen’s “aptitude for acquisition”:
“The richer people at the top of a society become, supposedly, the more wealth there is to trickle down to the people below. It never really works out that way, of course, because if there are 2 things people at the top can’t stand, they have to be leakage and overflow.”
But if we’ve got elected officials who are acting with the ostensible “consent of the governed,” then clearly this is all okay, right? Except that it’s not because the consent of the governed is actually the silence of the ignorant. Lawrence Lessig recounts from a variety of sources:
“Americans are ignorant about politics and our government no doubt. Less than a third of us know that House members serve for two years, or that senators serve for six. Half of us believe foreign aid is one of the top two federal expenditures. It is actually about 1 percent of the budget.”
And solving for that is why a bunch of nerdy kids ought to argue about “Resolved: On balance, public subsidies for professional athletic organizations in the United States benefit their local communities.”
“I don’t care if you think someone making a dating profile is a frivolous thing. Somebody made that. They thought the company hosting it could be trusted to present it honestly. They were wrong.”
But the most surprising revelation to me was the Experiment #3, where OKCupid essentially says that in order to prove their matching algorithm works, they released a bug on their site that should get things exactly wrong. So the thing we expect from OKCupid — that they’ll recommend reasonably compatible people to meet? — yeah, they intentionally tried to botch that in a nigh-inexplicably unprofessional way. They say A/B testing, Tim says “being an asshole.” They say scientific rigor, I say actively callous disregard for the people who use their service, vindicated exclusively by the possibility that everybody involved should know that it’s all bullshit anyway.
Really, we know better than to trust what people say about themselves when they’re self-representing. Dr. Bell reports her associates at Cornell University claim that online dating profiles have — statistically speaking — about 100% chance of containing falsehood. And while Dr. Bell is generally correct in her assertion that
“If 100% of people are lying, it’s really easy to factor that in, right? You just factor in that all that data is invalid, or all that data is faintly problematic. It’s much more complicated when only some people lie in a data set.”
the problem is that simply factoring in the “faintly problematic” doesn’t enhance trust. It instead gets us used to trusting other people less on the expectation that they’re going to misrepresent themselves. But beyond that, our own misrepresentations indicate that we either believe everybody else is either easily duped by common deceptions, or is too jaded to be fooled by common deceptions, or is so shallow that they require common deceptions to have any interest in factual information. The problem isn’t just what it says about us or what it says about them, it’s what it says about how intend to relate to them.
The “intend to relate” becomes a problem when the abstract intention becomes self-deception. Here’s a hypothetical how: start with a dubiously-founded belief (“Men like football”) that doesn’t associate with the status quo (“I don’t like football”) and then claim that the belief will guide your actions (“But I’d watch the game with my man”) running exactly contrary to cultivated habitual behaviors and what we generally know about humans. Then put the claim into your profile (“I’ll watch the game with you”) and it’ll grow into a source of conflict later: “You said you wanted to watch the game with me!” “I really just wanted to spend time with you!” — the passive consent to watch the game was trustfully misinterpreted as actually wanting to watch the game.
But if it’s all bullshit anyway, what’s wrong with OKCupid acting like, well, its users? After all, “The worst thing could have happened [with the OkCupid testing] is people send a few more messages, and maybe you went on a date you didn’t like” claims Rey Junco. But Michael O. Church points out that “Most people aren’t broken, but broken people go on orders of magnitude more dates than everyone else, which is why most peoples’ dating histories have a disproportionate representation of horror stories, losers, and weirdos.” And if we parse the event as a “Bad Date,” we’re getting into the terminology that prostitutes use to describe clients that engage in behaviors that the prostitutes absolutely do not consent to.
This is why web sites like OKCupid get blanket consent up front: so that they’ve got your prior passive/submissive “clicked okay” action to defend themselves when you realize you don’t trust them to not abuse their power. “Carries a gun to a party?!!” asks a blog commenter, but “Dude, they invited me to the party,” would be heat-packer’s response that blithely ignores the issue of social and interpersonal norms he disregarded.
Similarly: in Steven Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Prince Charming defends a love-‘em-and-leave-‘em seduction by observing that he’s Prince Charming, not Prince Sincere. He got her (legal brightline) consent and promptly betrayed her trust.
So it seems to me that while young people are wrapped up in the discourse of consent, they’re being distracted from the a priori issue of how much they trust the other person. This may be because trust is generally on the decline or because we’re supersaturated with litigiousness or because our ongoing tribalistic curricular focus on “Stranger Danger” is belied by the actual statistics of familial abuse, I don’t know. What I do know is that express consent for sex is like a BDSM safeword: it’s not going to help you if you can’t trust the people you’re with to respect your limitations. Trust is the a priori issue; consent is the post hoc bright line that separates offense from weak justification when things turn bad. You may trust them to not bring a gun to the party, but not consenting to their packing heat isn’t going to be an issue until you’ve realized they’re packing heat. But beyond distracting from the a priori issue of trust, I’m concerned that the focus on consent is merely the latest euphemistic obfuscation of sex within sexuality, and that the passive/submissive history of the term encodes self-repression into the “sexually liberated” people who fixate upon consent.
If you’re familiar with Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, you probably know where this is going — but before we go there, if you’re up for a 90-minute diversion, here’s a lecture by Michael Kimmel at Dartmouth. I regard most of his analysis as shallow bullshit overly focused on frat-house behavior which ironically entrenches the aberrant behavior it describes (I’m with Foucault) if it even survives the 90 minutes without him contradicting his earlier claims and/or ignoring a larger context such as:
By the time men reach college, RAINN [Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network] explains, “most students have been exposed to 18 years of prevention messages, in one form or another.” … So efforts to address rape need to focus on the very small portion of the population that “has proven itself immune to years of prevention messages.”
And I can at least halfway confirm this because Laurie Anderson’s message of “if she’s drunk or high, there’s no informed consent” is what I was told 18 years ago when I showed up at my University. I don’t know how long the message was around before that point, but the message has not changed and a full generation of discourse has not solved — and that’s by design: sociologists have to keep their paychecks coming, right?
One of Kimmel’s observations that does seem truthy to me runs counter to the discourse of Anderson’s ilk: college students “hooking up” will often hook up while drunk. The claim is that inebriation is a common-if-not-normal state for this behavior. And the point behind it is to increase one’s capacity for consent by decreasing their capacity for social embarrassment. (Ms. Cosslett puts this assertion in context of the narrowing British/American cultural divide: “Likewise, while the Americans see the classic “are u out?” fishing text as evidence of shallow promiscuity, we see it as a convenient way of minimising social embarrassment by ensuring both parties are too drunk to attempt a conversation capable of, let’s face it, shattering the illusion whose maintenance is so essential for successful coitus.”) Kimmel glosses this point, moving right on to the gendered norms of pleasure — before being promptly oblivious on the point of procuring a new partner which requires overcoming fear of social embarrassment: Novelty of Experience, not to run a choreographed routine where your partner’s hypothetical/alleged qualities frankly do not matter. (Again, my claim: trust is the a priori issue, consent is the CYA brightline.)
But the assertion from Kimmel that I do appreciate (as I generally like Joseph Campbell’s work) is the question of ritual — which seems out of place, but bear with me. See, most ritual initiations and associated rites of manhood used to be overseen by the older and wiser men: they would take the boys and induct them into manhood through whatever traditional (and, to our minds, often strange and horrifying) process they had cultivated — that’s Campbell. Glancing to Victor Turner’s From Ritual to Theatre, it may occur to us that the term “hazing” applies to the metaphoric haze that covers the identity of the initiate during the time of trial when they are no longer an outsider but are also not yet an insider. Regardless, the point that Kimmel makes that I do like is this: the older and wiser men do not oversee these rituals in modern times — they are associated with the larger corporate institution and, in order to protect the institution from liability, will look and walk away from the ritual — effectively leaving the ritual performance to be done to naive X-year-olds by naive X+2-year-olds. Thus, the rituals of manhood that used to have a symbolic layer of trusting the men to confirm that we were like them is degraded to somewhere between cargo culting and Lord of the Flies where the jackasses who harassed and bullied us throughout our youth now demand our consent to harass and bully us some more. The point here is that the lack of higher level trust as embodied by the older and wiser mentoring figures abdicating their authoritative positions (that the public school system absolutely drubs into students they should trust) cascades into a wider decay of trust: we can’t trust the people we were taught to trust because they’re wandering off; instead we should trust these people who are being horrible to us because… At this point I don’t know; I wasn’t in a frat and wouldn’t have put up with the abuse “necessary” to join anyway.
Point is: when people with authority passively condone abusive behavior, people will mistrust authority on account of its irresponsibility but not learn how to distinguish who they should or shouldn’t trust instead.
So that’s the schism between trust and consent. But — besides it being a legal brightline — how did our discourse get moved to consent? This is where we get into The History of Sexuality.
In The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault looks at discourse on modern sexual behaviors as an un-repressed taboo. Adults don’t like talking to kids about sex because kids are both byproducts of sex and objects of ambivalence (joy and woe, hope and fear) with a quantitatively negative skew (confinement and expense), and explaining that to kids reflects badly on everybody involved. Beyond that, “The sexual act is not an evil; it manifests a permanent focus of possible ills” and adults do not trust children — or even necessarily themselves — to handle any ills encountered therein. But more critically, compared to other pleasures, sexual pleasure was “ontologically or qualitatively inferior — for several reasons: it was common to animals and men (and thus did not constitute a specifically human trait); it was mixed with privation and suffering (in contrast to the pleasures of sight and hearing); it depended on the body and its necessities and it was aimed at restoring the organism to its state prior to need.” If you doubt this, just go spend 2 minutes reading @tinderfessions. While this level of critical thinking may not occur to all breeding humans of the sort Nietzsche denigrates when he writes “And just look at these men: their eye saith it — they know nothing better on earth than to lie with a woman,” it is generally true that parents hope for their children to surpass them (if just a little bit) and a premature focus on base animal pleasures seems incompatible with an aspirational agenda. As such, we minimize the overt role of sexuality in society, passing it on as a taboo with a thousand euphemisms: “What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.” This is seen today where the word “consent” is substituted in for “sex,” such that sex-positive discourse becomes very permissive but doesn’t actually have any sex anymore: when we actually say “oral sex,” we’re talking “blah-blah-blah-jobs.” (Per above: if you actually want to have sex, then you need to be too drunk for discourse.)
The possible ills which sex is the focus of have some limited overt points (disease and pregnancy), but the transitive nature of relationships is a concern as well. Buddhist literature advises celibacy on the grounds of not becoming attached to transitive things such as other people, and certainly not their physical beauty. This contrasts with the style of the modern libertine nee pick-up artist who attempts to maintain disconnection by hooking up with everybody; their particular skill is the manufacture of consent. While celibacy seeks to avoid risk, licentiousness seeks to mitigate risk (to the self) through ongoing engagement with risk. But the libertine is callous — an intentional and practiced callousness, no less — towards the objects of their fleeting affection. Their practice is in being charming, not sincere. While one may consent to a libertine having sex with them, the inequality in relationship between self and sexuality will result in the bulk of the emotional risk falling on more-sensitive (non-libertine) person. This is both the basis and conclusion of the ugly truth: “The person who cares less has all the power. Nobody wants to be the one who’s more interested.” Just because simply giving consent leaves a person in a relatively passive position doesn’t mean they care less; they may just care slower — and be left caring after their more-active partner has moved on. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
As a verb, consent means “give permission for something to happen” which is different from actually making something happen. There is a set passivity in the word, possibly a bit of Greek heritage. See, per Foucault’s research, the Greeks didn’t actually talk about sex much but they did agree that Real Men should be decisive and aggressive and have sex with submissive things — things like women, slaves, and boys. (“All that is quite disgusting!” says Foucault in retrospect.) The increase of rights for the submissive things as came up with Rome increases the focus on their consent without mitigating the penetration-oriented Real Man masculinity of the Greeks. And consent was even an issue for the Greeks with particular regards to men having sex with boys on the grounds that the boys shouldn’t be too submissive since they’re supposed to be growing up to be men. This sets up a temporal conflict: “What was hard for Athenians to accept — and this is the feeling that Aeschines tries to play upon in the speech against Timarchus — was not that they might be governed by someone who loved boys, or who as a youth was loved by a man; but that they might come under the authority of a leader who once identified with the [submissive] role of pleasure object for others.” To put it another way, the mutually consenting, mutually passive-submissive adults are all effectively treated (and told to treat each other) like the little boys of ancient Greece. Which is perhaps better than being a slave, but doesn’t do much unwind the disgusting Real Man masculinity of antiquity from modernity.
On a related note, the advice to Greek boys was similar to “romance” options in certain modern role-playing games: accumulate gifts and tokens of affection while resisting the Real Man’s sexual advances before ultimately submitting to them. Put another way: it’s good to play hard to get, but not to the point where you don’t get got. So from the Greek boys we see tones of the modern and internally-conflicted virgin-slut standard applied to women, and also encounter an early objectifying form of “gifts are given, consent is manufactured, sex is achieved” that is wholly incompatible to treating other people like, well, Other People.
Quandary: the other people who are most accessible are also the people most likely to be interested in you as an object or maybe an experience but not as a person (even if you are both sober). Recall that “Most people aren’t broken, but broken people go on orders of magnitude more dates than everyone else, which is why most peoples’ dating histories have a disproportionate representation of horror stories, losers, and weirdos.” And there’s only so many of them that you can encounter before you’re likely to become one of them (I have no idea what that number is, but it’s likely a fraction of Dunbar’s Number) because looking back you’ll be unable discuss who you are without relating your position to the losers and weirdos you are not, and looking forward you’ll be predictively avoiding the losers and weirdos based not on who anybody actually is but rather on your increasingly overzealous capacity for pattern recognition. (Really, even writing this it’s difficult to not refer to The Evil Exes.)
Getting to that point is not necessarily a bad thing. If you’re really that much of an individual, then you may not have enough time in your life to go seek out somebody who is both as individual as but also actually compatible with you — and all the time you spend doing that is time not spent cultivating yourself. After he wrote The History of Sexuality, Michel Foucault was asked: “Do you still think that understanding sexuality is central for understanding who we are?” To which he replied “I must confess that I am much more interested in problems about techniques of the self and things like that rather than sex… sex is boring.”
Hardly a ringing endorsement for the work he’d done, and rather antithetical to what anybody talking about sex is willing to say about it. But is it wrong? Recall that sexual pleasure is “ontologically or qualitatively inferior [being] common to animals and men (and thus [not] a specifically human trait),” meaning that it evolutionarily predates the frontal cortex. Here’s a few words on that:
The frontal cortex is the most recently evolved part of the human brain. It’s where the sensible mature stuff happens: long-term planning, executive function, impulse control, and emotional regulation. It’s what makes you do the right thing when it’s the harder thing to do. But its neurons are not fully wired up until your mid-20s.
So what this means is that the age of consent is generally too low for meaningful consent, but nobody (Laurie Anderson?) really wants to address that because the evolutionary instincts lurking in the id pre-date the frontal cortex. Sexual pleasure shoves your ego out of the way and gets you back in touch with what every single one of your ancestors did to result in your existence, with our modern notion of consent being the new anomaly in that chain of events instead of the historical norm. Intoxication can help start the ego-shoving process. And while some people may claim the liminal experience allows them to feel the universe in the process, most people just like a good-but-inconsequential fucking (with personal proclivities undiscovered save in the unpredictable novelty of the process) as they have evolved to do. There’s nothing special about it in the abstract: animal pleasure weighs against “a permanent focus of possible ills” that subjects people to the “horror stories, losers, and weirdos” of their species.
The alternative is that the people posting to @tinderfessions, building on the base discourse of sexuality with its roots in confession and exposition, are all in the process of discovering some Great Secret of Life.
I do not believe that for a moment. It seems more likely to me that @tinderfessions exists merely to provide Jud Apatow with enough material to keep Seth Rogen and Adam Sandler indefinitely and inexplicably employed. Thus I side with Foucault: sex is boring.
That likely comes off as being “sex-negative,” which isn’t the intent: I’m railing against the sexuality-empowering focus on sex which is anomalous within the past couple of centuries. As far as I’m concerned, a relationship composed of mutual love, trust, and aspiration is likely to also involve a lot of sex as well and that’s great. (Heck, relationships that aren’t so well composed may also involve a lot of sex too — 6.9 billion people got here somehow, right?) But it seems to me like our aspirations are being flattened by the deployment of bio-power, our development of interpersonal trust is being stunted by impersonal institution-oriented behaviors, and the pursuit of sexual gratification is being subverted by technomediaries that are actively participating both in the deployment of bio-power and the decay of interpersonal trust.
In short: OKCupid’s behavior is not okay, and my time will be better spent continuing to improve myself (regardless of whether or not I cross paths with a lady who is both interested and interesting) rather than participating in the impersonal power structure of modern sexuality.
“Do not ask who I am and do not ask me to remain the same: leave it to our bureaucrats and police to see that our papers are in order.” — Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge
The movie Boyhood is a tragedy in the sense that things happen — or refrain from happening — pretty much exactly like you would expect them to. And, as with real life, nothing happens rather often. Characters play fleeting parts in large societal patterns like the gawkwardness of entering a new classroom at school or the cringeworthy vapid blatherings of adolescents (forcing the uncomfortable realization of “Oh my God, did I really sound like that? I did, didn’t I?” to linger over the course of an hour) up-to and inclusive-of describing college as just another step in a prescribed path of life, or in tighter and somewhat inexplicable personal patterns: as a student, the behavioral psychologist gets involved with her professor and it doesn’t end well; as a professor, the behavioral psychologist gets involved with her student and it doesn’t end well… but shouldn’t a behavioral psychologist of all people avoid repeating behavioral patterns like that? I would expect so, but the pattern of humanity trumps the individual humans in this film and so it goes. A mid-range of subtle patterns runs the course of the film, from the boy being named after his father to the sister’s prime boyfriend being filmed at angles to make him look like the dad and the boy’s prime girlfriend having eyes very similar to the mom.
Generally speaking, the patterns play to what everybody knows, focusing predominantly on the mundane. There is a shortage of dramatic violence done to the boy: no broken bones, no criminal charges filed against him, no great conflict for him to overcome, no acquiring of supernatural powers which he has to reconcile to some philosophy he’s read — indeed, I’m not able to remember his actually reading anything despite the academic proclivities of his mom (or even writing necessarily-bad poetry as I and my teenage peer group did). This is a feature that works against the character as individual: he — in accordance to what we expect of the modern blank-slated adolescent — has neither clearly defined aspirations nor a particular capacity for reflection, either of which would make him threatening to the power of the pattern. The only substantial reflection in the film seems to come from the dad, but even then it lags by about a year to avoid threatening the power of the pattern. It was the power of the pattern that ensured the fairly-well-involved dad’s utter non-involvement when the mom fled from a violently abusive alcoholic and lived like a refugee with… I don’t even know who they were living with, I don’t think we’d seen them before. But any intervention from dad would’ve shaken up the pattern of the kids staying with their mom as everybody knows they do. The narrative untruth of this is on display as the alcoholic’s kids, but their missing mom isn’t mentioned; the film blips blithely past this at 24 frames per second.
And so the ongoing subservience of character to pattern has a certain juggernaut brutality to it. It’s enough to make one want to rebel against narrative authority, to yell “No, stop, just stop and think!” at the screen — but they won’t: the film goes drubbing on its numbing moments extending to sedated years, not unlike life itself… as Everybody Knows.
There’s a more pernicious effect to what Everybody Knows: it can make you forget your lived experience by convincing you that you can’t really remember what you did or witnessed because Everybody Knows that whatever you remember simply doesn’t happen, ergo it couldn’t have happened.
For example, everybody knows that nerds and cheerleaders don’t mix. Except I dated a cheerleader. And everybody knows that cheerleaders are vapid and non-intellectual. Except a different cheerleader-friend who went on to get her master’s degree, thus being better-educated than I (technically) am. And jocks bully nerds. Except that I was defended by jocks more often than I was attacked by them — it was the listless and directionless kids that were randomly threatening towards me. And you have to work hard to get anywhere. Unless you’re trying to be a great programmer in which case you’re going to be gifted with virtues of laziness, impatience, and hubris as I was. And if you want to program computers, you have to get a degree in computer science. Except my degree is in Public Relations (ironic; I can’t stand The Public) and Nicole Sullivan got her degree in Economics and Jen Myers dropped out — but is in the process of going back now that she’s a world-traveled professional.
I suspect we all relied more on serendipitous luck than we’d ever advise anybody else to, but the point is that the patterns Everybody Knows are not all-powerful in our lives: it is our ability to actively defy the patterns that convey dignity onto our humanity, and it is our ability to choose that adds moral dimension to our existence.
But the patterns are useful shortcuts for our brain; they help us set expectations and figure out where to spend our limited time. The almost 3-hour run-time of Boyhood covered less than .01% of the 12 years it was filmed over, but leaves us comfortably feeling like we didn’t miss anything too terribly important: we spent enough time with him.
Similarly, people could look at me and see some aging single white male hoodie-wearing computer-programming reclusive misanthrope who professionally does things they don’t understand and don’t care about and so go get on with their lives. And that’d be fine — presumably they’ve got better things to do than worry about me: I’ll be fine. But for the record:
Just in the past week, roughly 350,000 people per day directly used my work without realizing it was mine.
I’ve competed in speech and debate at the national level both in High School and College.
I was married for almost a decade to somebody I told my dad I wasn’t going to marry because… well, Everybody Knows you’re supposed to get married. Patterns are brutal.
Since getting divorced I’ve gained 20 lbs of muscle and am no longer dangerously underweight — though getting clothes that fit is still difficult.