I have previously recommended use of a hyperreality critique as a useful way to break down a barrage of horribly fabricated bullshit. Given how much of high school and suburban teenage life lends itself to being horribly fabricated bullshit, I can understand why a hyperreality K is popular among teenagers. And, to be fair, a judge may want to vote for that K simply so they can disregard horribly fabricated bullshit that other teenagers have introduced into the round — like “Nuke war will break out when the economy collapses because we don’t repeal a 15-year-old law that scoffs at trademarks on Cuban rum.” But even given that there’s a problem with the hyperreality critique that goes back to its source.
First issue: what is and is wrong with hyperreality? As far as I can tell on just a quick reading, when given something to treat as a fact — like the fiated plan in a policy debate round — the multiple speculative chains of events (models) that might flow from that fact and are also regarded as fact (but strangely weightless — like multiple extinction scenarios in a debate round) form a hyperreality where everything is predicted such that nothing is not foreseen and thus ostensibly controlled and yet almost none of it is ever true and the prevalence of noise over signal drowns out any meaning in what is true as well as the possibility of any emergent value in reality. Or, to simplify, when everything is thought of in advance then reality becomes deterministic with the future being a mere fact that neutralizes the value of the now with the loss of meaningful choice.
I think Baudrillard is what might happen if Nietzsche, Hegel, and Rousseau were mashed into the same brain and forced too watch too much television.
Second issue: why is it bad to use in debate? Because Baudrillard says that all of America is consumed by hyperreality, and this was 30 years ago before the Internet was popular. This actually gives the affirmative two responses: 1) No Alt (obviously) but also 2) the duration and comprehensiveness of hyperreality makes the policy debate exercise actually more-real in that it’s likely engaging in the same hyperreality as “actual” policymakers do. The unreality is introduced when a dead French nihilist is called upon to grumble meaninglessly (emergent meaning is eradicated within the hyperreality) about the whole process. And that means that 2a) the K should be disregarded as meaningless and weightless or — if the K is novel and surprising — 2b) then it’s proof that the claims of hyperreality are overblown and thus the K is non-credible.
Here’s Baudrillard in Simulacra and Simulation claiming that all of America is already hyperreal, so there’s no alt possible:
Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the “real” country, all of “real” America that is Disneyland (a bit like prisons are there to hide that it is the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence, that is carceral). Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, whereas all of Los Angeles and the America that surrounds it are no longer real, but belong to the hyperreal order and the order of simulation… The imaginary of Disneyland is neither true nor false, it is a deterrence machine set up in order to rejuvenate the fiction of the real in the opposite camp. Whence the debility of this imaginary, its infantile degeneration. This world wants to be childish in order to make us believe that the adults are elsewhere, in the “real” world, and to conceal the fact that true childishness is everywhere — that it is that of the adults themselves who come here to act the child in order to foster illusions as to their real childishness.
Or we can explain what Baudrillard is whining about like this:
But Baudrillard goes on to say
I am a nihilist… I observe, I accept, I assume, I analyze the second revolution, that of the twentieth century, that of postmodernity, which is the immense process of the destruction of meaning, equal to the earlier destruction of appearances. He who strikes with meaning is killed by meaning… The dialectic stage, the critical stage is empty. There is no more stage. There is no therapy of meaning or therapy through meaning: therapy itself is part of the generalized process of indifferentiation… The stage of analysis has become uncertain, aleatory: theories float (in fact, nihilism is impossible, because it is still a desperate but determined theory, an imaginary of the end, a weltanschauung of catastrophe).
Yes, Baudrillard just double-turned himself and should be voted out of the round right there, but let’s go a bit further…
Analysis is itself perhaps the decisive element of the immense process of the freezing over of meaning. The surplus of meaning that theories bring, their competition at the level of meaning is completely secondary in relation to their coalition in the glacial and four-tiered operation of dissection and transparency. One must be conscious that, no matter how the analysis proceeds, it proceeds toward the freezing over of meaning, it assists in the precession of simulacra and of indifferent forms. The desert grows.
I recoil from the gross irresponsibility that this anti-analytical stance maintains. H Richard Niebuhr advocates for ongoing analysis within reality as a precondition of goodness and rightness in his book The Responsible Self:
[W]e may say that purposiveness seeks to answer the question: “What shall I do?” by raising as the previous question: “What is my goal, ideal, or telos?” Deontology tries to answer the moral query by asking, first of all: “What is the law and what is the first law of my life?” Responsibility, however, proceeds in every moment of decision and choice to inquire: “What is going on?” If we use value terms then the differences among the three approaches may be indicated by the terms the good, the right, and the fitting; for teleology is concerned always with the highest good to which it subordinates the right; consistent deontology is concerned with the right, no matter what may happen to our goods; but for the ethics of responsibility the fitting action, the one that fits into a total interaction as response and as anticipation of further response, is alone conducive to the good and alone is right.
But we don’t have to be good or right; the way meaning is killed in hyperreality is by it being anticipated and neutralized by preclusive structures of discipline — and this goes back to the line of discipline Foucault was looking at in Discipline and Punish, where a commander exerted some capriciousness over soldiers or workers until the actions of the soldiers or workers were functionally an extension of the commander’s will. Extensive analysis within hyperreality allows the order of the commander to change from “you will do this” to “I don’t care what you do so long as it’s this” to “I don’t care what you do because I’ve ensured that you can’t do anything I don’t want you to.” That’s how modern power has evolved and also how your iPad works and also why the judge should disregard the hyperreality K on the grounds that you prepped for it since the anticipation kills the meaning according to the K.
But not according to Camus who — in The Rebel – observes the myth of Prometheus, shackled and punished for all eternity as he calls out “No misfortune can fall upon me that I have not myself already foreseen.” The Promethean myth affirms the value of foresight to secure the intended meaning of an action even when, especially when an act of sacrifice is required. It is only when your intent is precluded by somebody else’s superior analysis and control that its meaning is lost. Perversely, this is exactly what I love to see in a debate round and why a hyperreality K should be ultimately quite good for whoever it gets used against.
On a tangent, going back to Baudrillard and Foucault and how wrong Baudrillard was, Baudrillard claimed that the Panopticon lost its power with the arrival of reality TV. Only he was wrong because he was staring at the wrong model: the mere viewers of televisions have no power to pass meaningful judgment over what they saw on television (as doctors do over patients or wardens over prisoners). No, the power was in the hands of the producers who, through the disciplined response of their audience, had the power to put the shows out there and judge the reaction of their audience; the movie Network should have shown Baudrillard that. His error is obvious: power doesn’t flow from the many against the few — that’s mere force, usually chaotic. Power is focused and directed, always flowing from the few (those that command) to the many (those that obey).
Previously I mentioned that Baudrilliard sounded kind of like Nietzsche, but what would Niezsche say about that? Well, in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche explains that
there may even be puritanical fanatics of conscience, who prefer to put their last trust in a sure nothing, rather than in an uncertain something. But that is Nihilism, and the sign of a despairing, mortally wearied soul, notwithstanding the courageous bearing such a virtue may display. It seems, however, to be otherwise with stronger and livelier thinkers who are still eager for life.
And in Thus Spake Zarathrustra he goes on to say
To many men life is a failure; a poison-worm gnaweth at their heart. Then let them see to it that their dying is all the more a success.
But there’s a chapter in Thus Spake Zarathrustra that may better show the connection between Baudrillard and Nietzsche, so I’m going to include almost the whole thing here. It ends with one of the greatest things Nietzsche ever wrote.
Thus slowly wandering through many peoples and diverse cities, did Zarathustra return by round-about roads to his mountains and his cave. And behold, thereby came he unawares also to the gate of the GREAT CITY. Here, however, a foaming fool, with extended hands, sprang forward to him and stood in his way. It was the same fool whom the people called “the ape of Zarathustra:” for he had learned from him something of the expression and modulation of language, and perhaps liked also to borrow from the store of his wisdom. And the fool talked thus to Zarathustra:
“O Zarathustra, here is the great city: here hast thou nothing to seek and everything to lose. Why wouldst thou wade through this mire? Have pity upon thy foot! Spit rather on the gate of the city, and—turn back! Here is the hell for anchorites’ thoughts: here are great thoughts seethed alive and boiled small. Here do all great sentiments decay: here may only rattle-boned sensations rattle! … Seest thou not the souls hanging like limp dirty rags?—And they make newspapers also out of these rags! Hearest thou not how spirit hath here become a verbal game? Loathsome verbal swill doth it vomit forth!—And they make newspapers also out of this verbal swill. They hound one another, and know not whither! They inflame one another, and know not why! They tinkle with their pinchbeck, they jingle with their gold. They are cold, and seek warmth from distilled waters: they are inflamed, and seek coolness from frozen spirits; they are all sick and sore through public opinion. … But the moon still revolveth around all that is earthly: so revolveth also the prince around what is earthliest of all—that, however, is the gold of the shopman. The God of the Hosts of war is not the God of the golden bar; the prince proposeth, but the shopman—disposeth! By all that is luminous and strong and good in thee, O Zarathustra! Spit on this city of shopmen and return back! Here floweth all blood putridly and tepidly and frothily through all veins: spit on the great city, which is the great slum where all the scum frotheth together! … Spit on the great city and turn back!”
Here, however, did Zarathustra interrupt the foaming fool, and shut his mouth.
“Stop this at once!” called out Zarathustra, “long have your speech and species disgusted me! Why did you live so long by the swamp, turning into a toad? Aren’t your own veins flowing with tainted, frothy swamp-blood when you have learned to croak and revile like this? Why didn’t you go into the forest? Or why didn’t you till the ground? Is the sea not full of green islands? I despise thy contempt; and when you warned me — why didn’t you warn yourself? … your foolish prattle injures ME, even when you are right! And even if Zarathustra’s word WERE a hundred times justified, you would ever—DO wrong with my word!” Thus spake Zarathustra.
Then did he look on the great city and sighed, and was long silent. At last he spake thus:
“I loathe also this great city, and not only this fool. Here and there— there is nothing to better, nothing to worsen. Woe to this great city!—And I would that I already saw the pillar of fire in which it will be consumed! For such pillars of fire must precede the great noontide. But this hath its time and its own fate.— This precept, however, give I unto thee, in parting, thou fool: Where one can no longer love, there should one—PASS BY!”
Thus spake Zarathustra, and passed by the fool and the great city.
But to sum up the answers to a hyperreality K: If we take it seriously, there’s no alt to it so it can’t weigh for either side unless we’re unprepared for it in which case it’s unexpected and thus shown to be false by its novelty or we are prepared for it and risk nothing by conceding its factual status thus depriving it of meaning with either of those scenarios turning it, as a rhetorical artifact, back on the other team and while all advantages and disadvantages in the round may be weightless, our opponents are cognitively dragged down by the K they now wear around their neck; ergo vote for us since only our reasoning can still stand up straight.
So the most common plan of the year for CX debate is lifting the Cuban embargo. In Oregon, this is even the #1 novice case area. This means that if the negative runs Topicality on it for any reason, but especially claiming “predictability,” they should lose for being stupid. And this is kind of sad because there are so many other more creative ways to lose… also by being stupid.*
Please note that this post is based on an open division semi-final round; these kids are plenty bright for their age. I don’t like having to use that qualifier and thus they get this post dedicated to their semi-final round in the hopes that I’ll be able to simply describe them as “plenty bright” in the near future.
The typical embargo-dropping affirmative case runs like this:
The Castro regime is wily and has used nationalistic resistance to the embargo to prop itself up, but if we drop the embargo they’ll totally want to trade with us not realizing that the economic prosperity will open their people’s liberal and democratic eyes and result in regime change.
Negative should cross examine thusly:
If the Castro regime is using the embargo to prop itself up, then won’t they be annoyed if we drop the embargo?
If the Castro regime is wily enough to use the embargo to prop itself up, then what makes you think they’ll not be wily enough to stay in power after it’s gone?
Between the published evidence you’re reading and the actual legislative process of dropping the embargo, what make you think that the Castro regime won’t realize that you’re trying to undermine them?
Given our ongoing trade relationship with China and China’s ongoing relationship with its people, what makes you think that trade will lead to regime change?
And then the 1NC should go like this: Our opponents are grossly underestimating the mental capacity of the Castro regime as their own harms evidence shows and even if they weren’t their link chain to solvency is still massively speculative and actively contradicted by reality — specifically China, as mentioned in cross-examination. Thus, being unable to solve the problem they’ve identified with the policy they’ve proposed, you should vote against their policy proposal.
And then the 1NC should sit down instead of filling the flow with things that can be used against them.
What happens instead is the 1NC reads something like this:
First, the US trade with Cuba will obliterate Vietnamese rice sales to Cuba and leads to [insert hand waving] nuke war. Second, Cuba won’t trade with the US because that would annoy Venezuela which would be unnecessarily dumb.
And the affirmative should cross examine like this:
Let’s walk through that rice disadvantage again. The US is selling rice to Cuba, which displaces Vietnamese rice and what are the bad impacts for Vietnam?
And why can’t Vietnam sell the spare rice to China or the Philippines?
And the rice that we’re not currently selling to Cuba but would start selling to Cuba… why aren’t we seeing the bad impacts predicted for Vietnam here in the US?
And then the 2AC should run the math on the rice impact to the Vietnamese economy (it’s tiny) and point out that global trade solves by allowing for the rice to move into other markets, and if Vietnam wants to mitigate the economic impact of ever-so-slightly cheaper rice — and, oh, it won’t be — then they can switch crops to something more in-demand. But what is absolutely critical to note (and it wasn’t noted in the round I was watching) is that the rice disadvantage, now having no actual downside, grants that Cuba will be trading with the US more. And this nixes the “they won’t trade with us because Venezuela” disadvantage and also any “they won’t trade with us because they see that we’re trying to undermine them” analysis, and even if the neg team claims that that’s not what they meant, it is what they said and if you can’t trust them to say what they mean about Vietnamese rice then you shouldn’t trust the rest of what they’re saying either. But as far as we’re concerned, the US will be selling rice to Cuba by our opponents admission and this is clearly an advantage for US rice farmers, such that regardless of whether or not the Castro regime crumbles in the face of a free market, we’ve still got a domestic advantage for affirming this policy.
So with the overly-simplistic case that the affirmative started with, the negative should win easily. Except that if the negative grants too much as a matter of course, then the affirmative should win. And it is common for negative disadvantages to grant too much speculative ground to the affirmative. Unfortunately, it’s almost as common for the affirmative to not notice the gifts they’ve been given, probably because of the mushroom-cloud motif on the wrapping paper. So, 2AC, take your prep time to look at the generic disadvantages that were stupidly run against you and figure out what they assume to be true about your case and turn those assumed truths against your opponent.
Additionally, the affirmative could punch up their case from the get-go by looking at our legal code, noting that it’s a pile and a mess, and calling an advantage on reducing the code such that there are fewer laws to worry about complying with (and thus more freedom). This is relevant because it’s a non-speculative link-story: we have too many laws, so we’re going to delete some laws. There is no “hey buddy, if I give you $5 will you start a revolution so I can feel better about your human rights?” speculative solvency involved — “we’re going to delete some laws” is exactly what the plan does and while the solvency isn’t worth much, the part where it does exactly what it says it’s going to do is rock-solid — and that’s how you actually win instead of merely not-lose.
* Why yes, I have been reading Nietzsche who is notorious for describing a great many things as stupid and everything as needing to be surpassed again, how ever could you tell?
The resolution single-gender classrooms would improve the quality of education in American public schools is absurd on-face — it semantically relies on the false gender binary to avoid the frighteningly ambivalent word “sex” that notoriously swings both ways: noun and verb. But if the wording of the topic is (flatly) wrong, what is it supposed to be about?
Single-sex education in public schools came about with the advent of the No Child Left Behind Act. The U.S. Department of Education in 2006 rolled back a portion of Title IX, which bans sex discrimination in public education and guarantees equal federal funding for boys and girls across all education-related activities, in order to allow single-sex public schools and classrooms. … However, enrollment in single-sex education must be entirely voluntary, and school districts need to prove that there’s a compelling educational reason for creating a single-sex classroom or school.
So that’s the real core issue: If a unisex classroom can improve the quality of education, then a public school district can create one under No Child Left Behind. That’s both what and why we’re debating today.
Now, to be fair, Al Jazeera was providing context because…
In their study, which appeared Monday [Feb 3 2014] in Psychological Bulletin, a journal published by the American Psychological Association, the psychologists said that students who attended single-sex schools weren’t any better off than peers who attended coed programs in terms of self-esteem or performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.
But we’re not going to argue for splitting out the math department. We’re going to argue for splitting out History and Literature, both of which have a core interest in dead white guys with alternate points of view being merely grafted on to the core curriculum and never being able to critically engage the patriarchal narrative that defined what the “RIGHT ANSWERS” were decades ago.
Students in Year 9 selected single-gender or coeducational classes in mathematics and English during the second half of a school year. Student scores in standardized tests and school-based assessment in these subjects were obtained before and after the establishment of the initiative. Results indicate no significant difference in mathematics achievement that can be attributed to gender or class composition. However, scores in school-based English improved for students in single-gender classes. Improvement for girls in single-gender classes was greater than that for boys in single-gender classes.
Again confusing gender with sex, but the point is that the ability to refine a curriculum based on a cultural narrative to a narrower demographic of students can-and-should increase the relevance of that curriculum to those students, thus improving the quality of the education by all normalized metrics.
And gaining control of that narrative is critical. As Jen Pozner writes in Reality Bites Back,
Representation in media is often key to our ability to feel valued and to believe that the world holds positive possibilities for people who look like us and share similar backgrounds and identities. Yet when a community’s main media presence consists of mockery, misrepresentation, or demonization, invisibility may be preferable.
And when we look at the typical Shakespeare on the curriculum featuring a suicidal Juliet, and a suicidal and insane Ophelia, and a psychotically evil and possibly suicidal Lady Macbeth, all of whose parts were originally played by boys, we can see how parts of the curriculum which are most immediately relevant to girls are also possibly sending bad messages to girls.
But this isn’t just a matter of being inclusive for the sake of inclusivity — our curriculum pays lip service to that already — or improving test scores. This is also about college preparedness. As Professor James Loewen explains in introducing Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, college history professors have to de-program the shallow patriarchal jingoism out of their students prior to any serious study of actual history. Similarly, of the over 600 women’s studies programs, generalized high school curriculum prepares exactly no students to meaningfully participate in any of them. By allowing for a possible increase in the demographic granularity of classrooms — as we already do by academic achievement — we grant our teachers greater opportunity to tailor the curriculum to match the collective educational aspirations of their students. And when working with a narrative-based curriculum, this can improve student engagement, and test scores, and sense of identity, and college preparedness.
And that’s the kind of classroom that school districts should be keenly interested in making available to students today. We’re not enforcing segregation. We’re certainly not enforcing segregation by gender. We’re sticking to the real-world opt-in policy of the United States and seeing how it can be applied for the advantage of our students. We’ve found a way, and because of this way you should vote affirmative.
Except you shouldn’t because single gender classrooms aren’t going to improve the quality of public education in the United States.
First, the resolution requires a regressive heteronormative patriarchal conflation of gender with sex into a false binary to make any sense whatsoever, with that regression coming about in 1993 thanks to — of all government departments — the FDA. More than a decade earlier, “most feminist writings had agreed on using gender only for socioculturally adapted traits.” See, even if we disregard the spectrum-nature of gender (as meant by anybody who’s actually taken a gender studies course) and limit ourselves to a mere half-dozen more-or-less distinguishable forms of gender, splitting public school classrooms based on gender — which can shift in an individual, especially one that is in the process of maturing from childhood to adulthood — would be an absurd process that would only sap time and resources away from all six classrooms. So our opponents are going to want to talk about the heteronormative patriarchal false gender binary as a basis of division, which they’ll claim will have educational advantages without noting a critical disadvantage of entrenching the lie of the heteronormative patriarchal false gender binary within codified public policy. When our schools lie to our students about who they are and who they can be, quality of education is diminished so the resolution is false not just because it’s built from bad semantics, but because even if we were to forgive those semantics for the purposes of this debate, the bad semantics would have a counterproductive impact in education as a matter of policy.
The team of psychologists examined all available research on single-sex education published within the past seven years, which included 184 studies comprising 1.6 million students from kindergarten to 12th grade in 21 different countries, and found no evidence to support proponents’ claims. … In their study, which appeared Monday in Psychological Bulletin, a journal published by the American Psychological Association, the psychologists said that students who attended single-sex schools weren’t any better off than peers who attended coed programs in terms of self-esteem or performance in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects.
The American Association of University Women published Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls (1998), which notes that single-sex education is not necessarily better than coeducation. According to the report, boys and girls thrive on a good education, regardless of whether the school is single-sex or coeducational. [... And ...] When elements of a good education are present—such as small classes and schools, equitable teaching practices, and focused academic curriculum—girls and boys succeed.
And that caveat — “when elements of a good education are present” — leads us to…
Third, this topic is an insult to the students and teachers that actually want to improve educational quality, because we know how to do it: more school days, not shutting down for 10 straight weeks, and actually controlling class sizes. Evidence from a wide variety of sources follows:
After several years of state and local budget cuts, thousands of school districts across the nation are gutting summer-school programs, cramming classes into four-day weeks or lopping days off the school year, even though virtually everyone involved in education agrees that American students need more instruction time. [New York Times]
Oregon students spend only about 165 days in class on average, three weeks less than the national norm. This is particularly unfair to lower-income students, who lose the most academic ground when school is out of session. It’s also unfair to teachers, who tend to lose wages when their employers balance the budget by chopping days from the calendar. [The Oregonian]
[H]aving [schools] shut down all summer critically undermines them. … The burden on parents is segmented by income, and the impact on children is as well. A 2011 RAND literature review concluded that the average student “loses” about one month’s worth of schooling during a typical summer vacation, [ed: loss amount varies by subject and is usually more in math] with the impact disproportionately concentrated among low-income students. … the impact is cumulative. Poor kids tend to start school behind their middle-class peers, and then they fall further behind each and every summer, giving teachers and principals essentially no chance of closing the gap during the school year. [Slate]
There’s no doubt that some groups of boys—particularly Hispanic and black boys and boys from low-income homes—are in real trouble. But the predominant issues for them are race and class, not gender. Closing racial and economic gaps would help poor and minority boys more than closing gender gaps, and focusing on gender gaps may distract attention from the bigger problems facing these youngsters. [Education Sector]
[Dynarski, Hyman, & Schanzenbach] find that assignment to a small class increases the probability of attending college by 2.7 percentage points, with effects more than twice as large among blacks. Among students enrolled in the poorest third of schools, the effect is 7.3 percentage points. Smaller classes increase the likelihood of earning a college degree by 1.6 percentage points and shift students towards high-earning fields such as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), business and economics. [National Bureau of Economic Research]
We know from common sense that laying off teachers, increasing class sizes, eliminating critical programs, shortening the school week or shortening the school year all mean that our students receive less attention and fewer chances to achieve in their education… substantial evidence exists that smaller class sizes – especially in the early years – produce better outcomes for students. Yet job losses for teachers from 2008 to 2010 erased a decade’s worth of improvements in the student-teacher ratio. [The White House]
But let’s bring this all home.
Portland, Oregon, [Feb 7 2014] teachers have voted nearly unanimously to strike. … After two decades of constant cuts, Portland teachers feel stretched to the breaking point. The districts has increased the caseloads of special educators, counselors, and school psychologists, and reduced the number of arts, physical education, library, and other specialist positions. … Class sizes have increased — elementary classrooms are often 30 students or more — and classroom teachers are asked to do more with less support. … Teachers hoped the district would use the contract negotiation process as an opportunity for dialogue and collaboration with teachers. Instead, the district refused to talk about any of these issues, including class size. … “What’s going on in Portland Public Schools (PPS) has shed light on a bigger problem: that for too long, education has been underfunded by design,” said teacher Adam Sanchez during debate before the vote. “It’s time to demand that the money flows into the classroom—not to corporations, not to testing and textbook companies, not to bureaucrats and high-priced consultants.” [Labor Notes, and here's monetary misdirection at work in Chicago]
So, to put it another way, this debate topic is just another mechanical rabbit for us to chase around the track while obvious issues like the diminishing length of the school year, the tangibly counterproductive nature of summer vacations, and uncontrolled class sizes are all undermining the quality of public education especially for the economically disadvantaged working poor in the United States. Any and every speculative claim of advantage our opponents make will be hamstrung by basic, systemic, a priori issues that school districts — as we see in Portland — are simply refusing to address. And as long as we’re debating this semantically bullshit and evidentially wrong topic, we’re not pressing on real ways to improve education.
Update: First, the good news — Portland public schools avoided a strike and added some school days (quantity unknown) back to the calendar.
Now let’s talk about what I’ve seen on this topic. There’s a common piece of evidence claiming that segregated classrooms leads to the de-gendering of subjects which is good for girls in STEM education. We’ve already got the evidence against that, but let’s look at what’s implicit in the claim: tech jobs are better jobs, and better jobs is the mark of public educational quality. This is absurd on-face: nobody becomes a rocket surgeon right out of high school, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s look at the jobs that your judges are visualizing you pursuing… and debunk them. As Jeff Hammerbacher, former research scientist for Facebook, explained: ”The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” Alternative high-income careers for STEM education include shattering the planet to extract fossil fuels and shattering the economy to extract money. But let’s pause on that last one for a moment: The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports, in a story highlighting how America’s friendly vampire squid Goldman Sachs is recruiting engineering majors, that
Harvard Business Review [published a report] about why women are dropping out of some technical fields, “The Athena Factor: Reversing the Brain Drain in Science, Engineering and Technology.” [finding] that 52 percent of highly qualified females working for science, engineering and technology companies quit because of the pressures of working in a male-dominated environment… Among the factors driving women away, according to the study, are sexual harassment on the job; isolation and lack of mentors or female support in the workplace; and a lack of clear-cut career paths for women.
That’s nuts. And we don’t want to go critiquing capitalism here, but making exploitative private industries the purpose of public education seems wrong to us. Not everything is a total downer, though — back in 2007 (when pretty much all US public schools were co-educational), the Boston Globe reported that “79 percent of the seats at the nation’s 28 veterinary schools are occupied by females [and] the number of practicing women veterinarians nationwide is equal to the number of practicing males.” Women appear to have no problem engaging with the science courses on that career path.
So when the claim that we can measure quality of education by test scores(because it’s easy) comes out, look at what goals those tests are supposed to support — skilled workforce and college prep — and realize that actually looking just a bit further down the chronological road, those test scores mean nothing at all: our skilled workforce will be superfluous and past college admission is no indication of future results. Higher test scores that might be produced by segregated classrooms won’t change the macro trends that are deforming our economy. (And segregated classrooms would seem likely to increase sexism in already-sexist economic enclaves, too.) Heck, in 1CX, I’d recommend that the negative pin the affirmative down on burden — “What metric are you using to define ‘quality of education’?” — and then have the 2NC spend up to a minute railing on how meaningless that metric is and how a quality education doesn’t get tied to that sort of thing.
Here to demonstrate this point for me is Nicole Sullivan, who is great and does web development (kind of like me) but also runs conferences (unlike me) and whose success has been mostly dumb luck (kind of like me) and Dance Dance Revolution (unlike me), talking about her education and career. The relevant part is from about 7:50-17:20.
So I’m well off-topic now, but off-topic is where all of the interesting stuff is anyway — and that is the most important thing you can learn and the one thing public schools can’t teach and also why the negative should always be able to win any debate.
Given the topic Resolved: Placing political conditions on humanitarian aid to foreign countries is unjust, the answer comes out “obviously.” We can get that just by looking at synonyms for “unjust” like “unfair, prejudiced, biased, inequitable, discriminatory, one-sided.” But everybody’s going to have a definition of what’s just and what’s unjust, so let’s cut to the chase and put it in the context of trade-offs.
It may be regarded as axiomatic that the less a community is held together by cohesive forces in the texture of its life the more it must be held together by power. This fact leads to the dismal conclusion that the international community lacking these inner cohesive forces, must first find its unity through coercive force to a larger degree than is compatible with the necessities of justice. Order will have to be purchased at the price of justice; though it is quite obvious that if too much justice is sacrificed to the necessities of order, the order will prove too vexatious to last.
But that’s pretty big. Let’s define some scope so we can get more specific:
Wikipedia’s working definition for humanitarian aid is “material or logistical assistance provided for humanitarian purposes, typically in response to humanitarian crises including natural disaster and man-made disaster. The primary objective of humanitarian aid is to save lives, alleviate suffering, and maintain human dignity.”
Note: “Justice” is not part of the goal of humanitarian aid. We can have humanitarian aid that successfully achieves its goals while being totally unjust to somebody or some government in the process… but only up to the point where it would undermine human dignity. Wikipedia on Human Dignity: “Dignity is a term used in moral, ethical, legal, and political discussions to signify that a being has an innate right to be valued and receive ethical treatment. … Dignity is often used in proscriptive and cautionary ways: for example in politics it is usually used to critique the treatment of oppressed and vulnerable groups and peoples…” — In other words, in this case dignity is subjective based on the cultured definition of the nation that has enough power (that maintains order) to provide aid. Where this case is going is that Nation A will coercively and unjustly condition aid to Nation B based on its definition of human dignity; in point of fact it has to because otherwise it won’t be providing humanitarian aid — that’s how “and” logically works in that list of primary objectives — at least partially on the belief that sharing an understanding of human dignity promotes international peace and order.
We should be able to agree that “political conditions” are any conditions issued to the government of a specific foreign country that must be satisfied prior to the remittance of humanitarian aid to that country.
Now in dealing with a foreign government — and, indeed, in establishing “foreign countries” as differentiated from “this country” — we should focus this debate on nation-to-nation relations. By way of counterpoint, Doctors Without Borders is big into providing humanitarian aid, but their very name disavows the notion of “foreign countries” much less levying political conditions on them. The ability to place political conditions on an interaction with a foreign country requires a political entity and point of view in this country, whichever country this happens to be.
You may well expect me to tell you at this point that conditioned humanitarian aid is unjust and that’s a bad thing. But I’m not going to do that. I’m merely going to tell you that it’s unjust and that’s just the way it is because I value honesty. And when we evaluate the positions in this debate through a criterion of political realism (that places high value on conserving the imperfect status quo level of peace and order), I think you’re going to agree with me.
Note that in this situation we’re doing something odd with the value: instead of convincing the judge of the rightness of your value and, by association, your position, claiming a value of honesty here drives you to speak and then actually convince the judge on other grounds — specifically the rightness of your contentions. This is a necessary anomaly: society is acting according to the values of society which aren’t the values of the individual — that’s the point of this whole case, so to claim as an individual to value what the nation values would be a turn against yourself. Beyond that, it would make no sense to claim to value Justice on the affirmative while saying that political conditions are unjust since our nation is not opposed to them and it further makes no sense to claim to value Justice on the negative when we’re sending out humanitarian aid that leads to famines abroad and cutting food stamps at home. Justice is totally the wrong frame for this resolution (hence I focus on the affirmative); Mercy would’ve been a much more sensible frame. Anyway, point is that if you have to argue values, you’re going to come back to “honesty may not seem like much, but I can actually give you honesty — my opponent can’t actually give you Justice [or whatever your opponent is arguing for, but do find their weak links and break them].”
Sometimes the humanitarian impulses and the sentiment of justice, developed in these groups, serve the policy of official governments and seem to affect their actions. Thus the agitation of E. D. Morel against the atrocities in the Belgian Congo was supported by the British Government as long as it desired, for other reasons, to bring political pressure upon the Belgian King. Once this purpose was satisfied the British Cabinet dropped Mr. Morel’s campaign as quickly as it had espoused it. It is of course possible that the rational interest in international justice may become, on occasion, so widespread and influential that it will affect the diplomacy of states. But this is not usual. In other words the mind, which places a restraint upon impulses in individual life, exists only in a very inchoate form in the nation. It is moreover, much more remote from the will of the nation than in private individuals; for the government expresses the national will, and that will is moved by the emotions of the populace and the prudential self-interest of dominant economic classes.
The structure of this story which becomes a larger pattern is that an individual political agitator within a country may be concerned about foreign justice in a way that is useful to the government in its stewardship of the collective interest of its people, but the collective interest should not be mistaken for the individual’s ideology.
Contention 1: National interest is not coherently projected from individual interests
The development of social justice does depend to some degree upon the extension of rationality. But the limits of reason make it inevitable that pure moral action, particularly in the intricate, complex and collective relationships, should be an impossible goal. Men will never be wholly reasonable, and the proportion of reason to impulse becomes increasingly negative when we proceed from the life of individuals to that of social groups, among whom a common mind and purpose is always more or less inchoate and transitory, and who depend therefore upon a common impulse to bind them together. [ ... But ... ] Such is the social ignorance of peoples, that, far from doing justice to a foe or neighbor, they are as yet unable to conserve their own interests wisely. Since their ultimate interests are always protected best, by at least a measure of fairness toward their neighbors, the desire to gain an immediate selfish advantage always imperils their ultimate interests. If they recognise this fact, they usually recognise it too late.
And the incoherence of where our collective personal interests coalesce enough to become a national interest is why we’ll send food-aid to some parts of the world but not others will at the same time cutting back on food stamps domestically. The incoherence translates into non-uniform behavior which becomes somewhat arbitrary and opportunistic and necessarily unjust.
Contention 2: Injustice is normal; claims of international justice are myopic
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 moralist may be as dangerous a guide as the political realist. He usually fails to recognise the elements of injustice and coercion which are present in any contemporary social peace. The coercive elements are covert, because dominant groups are able to avail themselves of the use of economic power, propaganda, the traditional processes of government, and other types of non-violent power.
Put another way, the conditions that we don’t put on aid that we may offer Australia or Costa Rica or Japan actually does have conditions on it — and those conditions are that they maintain our status quo of friendly normalized relations, the sort of relations we don’t have with Iran or North Korea or Cuba. The injustice is still there, it’s just that we’ve reduced it to a level where keeping the friendly normalized relations in each situation is preferable to openly arguing about international policies. Why do we merely pay lip-service to China’s human rights abuses? How are we maintaining relations with Germany and Brazil despite the NSA’s spying programs? By ensuring that maintaining friendly normalized relations is preferable to arguing over the coercion and injustice that come out of the exercise of power in international relations. Humanitarian aid, whether the political conditions are overt or merely implicit, is just another display of national power and international injustice.
Contention 3: … And claiming otherwise doesn’t make it so.
It’s a common debate tactic to show “two worlds” — like voting for one side or the other means something. Here it doesn’t; there’s only one world and it’s this world and in this world:
Men will not cease to be dishonest, merely because their dishonesties have been revealed or because they have discovered their own deceptions. Wherever men hold unequal power in society, they will strive to maintain it. They will use whatever means are most convenient to that end and will seek to justify them by the most plausible arguments they are able to devise. [ ... Furthermore ... ] Our contemporary culture fails to realise the power, extent and persistence of group egoism in human relations. It may be possible, though it is never easy, to establish just relations between individuals within a group purely by moral and rational suasion and accommodation. In inter-group relations this is practically an impossibility. The relations between groups must therefore always be predominantly political rather than ethical, that is, they will be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group. The coercive factors, in distinction to the more purely moral and rational factors, in political relations can never by sharply differentiated and defined.
I now invite my opponent to demonstrate the correctness of my third contention.
But wait, we’re not done yet because your opponent will bring stuff up. And much of the stuff that may be brought up Niebuhr already shot down.
Locke’s Social Contract gets hit in The Children of Light and The Children of Darkness:
John Locke, who thinks government necessary in order to overcome the “inconvenience of the state of nature,” sees self-interest in conflict with the general interest only on the low level where “self-preservation” stands in contrast to the interests of others. He therefore can express the sense of obligation to otheres in terms which assume no final conflict between egotism and the wider interest… [But] most of the gigantic conflicts of will in human history, whether between individuals or groups, take place on a level, where “self-preservation” is not immediately but only indirectly involved. They are conflicts of rival lusts and ambitions.
Kant’s Categorical Imperative that derives from Deontological Ethics is incompatible with the composite interests of a nation as covered in Moral Man and Immoral Society even before you try to force an ethical framework onto other people in a way that is incompatible with the content of that framework:
Kant’s maxim that human beings must always be treated as ends and never as means, is not the axiom of rational ethics that he supposes. It cannot be, in fact, consistently applied in any rational ethical scheme. It is rather, a religious ideal inherited from Kant’s pietistic religious worldview.
Utilitarianism is a popular thing to claim, as Bentham did, but hard to make work, as Bentham confessed which Niebuhr quotes in Moral Man and Immoral Society about how everybody overestimates their own capacity for happiness:
Writing in 1822, after many of his reform movements had failed to claim the popular support he had anticipated, Bentham confessed: “Now for some years past all inconsistencies, all surprises have vanished… A clue to the interior of the labyrinth has been found. It is the principle of self-preference. Man, from the very constitution of his nature, prefers his own happiness to that of all other sentient beings put together.”
As keen as I am on philosophers that work in the low-morality + high-individualism segment, Niebuhr does a particularly good job of documenting the difficulties of civilization in a way that invites the individual to engage with its imperfections. Hopefully the evidence in this case prompts your interest in his work.
Update: Bonus Baudrillard! This is to back up the counter against the social contract. To make it work, you have to establish that humanitarian aid is empowered by material wealth — i.e.: capital. Once you’ve got that, Baudrillard mocks the notion of justice being applied to it by some contract in Simulacra and Simulation writing that
[A]ll the recrimination that replaces the revolutionary thought today comes back to incriminate capital for not following the rules of the game. “Power is unjust, its justice is a class justice, capital exploits us, etc.” — as if capital were linked by a contract to the society it rules. It is the Left that holds out the mirror of equivalence to capital hoping that it will comply, comply with this phantasmagoria of the social contract and fulfill its obligations to the whole of society. … Capital, in fact, was never linked by a contract to the society that it dominates. It is a sorcery of social relations, it is a challenge to society, and it must be responded to as such. It is not a scandal to be denounced according to moral or economic rationality, but a challenge to take up according to symbolic law.
The thing that’s odd in here is that it’s not going after just/unjust but rather claiming that there’s “ajust” ground which cannot be evaluated in terms of justice. This means that it can be used against any neg that claims that preconditions can be just, but also used against any aff that is opposed to unjust preconditions (somehow tied to a social contract by means I’m unfamiliar with) by a neg that is content to argue simply that preconditions aren’t unjust without going so far as to claim the opposite (for which the “aff has a case to prove, default vote to the neg if they fail to prove it” bit of debate theory becomes a necessary observation). Do note where to cut the card before Baudrillard goes all post-modern, pretending to advocate action devoid of meaning.
Update: Get Real. Having judged a few rounds of LD on this topic, I’m seeing that competitors don’t really know what kind of political conditions would be set on aid. So let’s talk about that.
The most obvious condition is “don’t shoot at us,” as is our behavior with regards to ongoing aid to North Korea. One of the crucial things you’re going to see here is that even if we value justice (we don’t — see above) we know that we can’t get justice from interacting with the known-unjust North Korean government. Furthermore-or-but, going back to the shadow block on Dignity, any aid that we unconditionally send to North Korea isn’t humanitarian because it can’t maintain their human dignity in the face of the unspeakable atrocities – documented in a 400-page UN special commission report in February 2014 — that the government perpetrates against its people. If we know our our supposedly humanitarian mission is going to fail, then we must have a non-topical ulterior motive for our actions. But we can look past that to in injustice of the North Korean regime and their songbun class system, as detailed by Robert Collins and summarized by Eberstadt: Songbun features
50-plus distinct strata, ranging from highly favored ‘core’ classes to the so-called ‘hostile’ classes at the bottom. [... And ...] during times of extreme food shortage the North Korean regime didn’t care too much if ‘hostile’ class members perished — and may actually have perceived some slight political benefit in those deaths.
So the impartial and equitable distribution of aid can only be assured with political conditions that would circumvent North Korea’s current political conditions. This point can be argued for either side.
The more common condition is “don’t get in the way,” and we see this in countries which have a weak central government, either due to benign incompetence or active corruption; either way, the donors (and these can be non-governmental donors) place the political condition on the aid they want to send into the nation that it be allowed to bypass the central government (political) controls. We can see examples of this push away from centralized aid in Kenya, and also in Haiti. (Of course, Haiti’s still not doing so well, but that’s neither here nor there.) But this is a clear example of how the intention to deliver aid is a power relation: the weak government is practically pushed aside so that the outsider can rescue their people. It’s not bad, but it’s not a just and equitable practice from government-to-government. And conversely, where the government has more power and control, the de facto political condition of being able to competently direct aid is already fulfilled so those governments don’t get overtly asked to stand aside. Simone Dietrich spells this out, arguing:
that the selection of delivery mechanisms is not random but a selective response to the quality of recipient state institutions. Haiti’s state institutions are dysfunctional, fraught with corruption, and lacking developmental credibility. Tanzania, on the other hand, has managed to build institutions of intermediate strength, demonstrating indigenous capacity to pursue development-oriented policies. While Tanzania’s state institutions generate confidence in effective aid implementation among donors, encouraging them to deliver more aid directly through the recipient government, Haiti’s weak state institutions undermine donor confidence in the effective use of aid.
Providing food to North Korea poses a number of dilemmas. Pyongyang has resisted reforms that would allow the equitable distribution of food and help pay for food imports. The North Korean government restricts the ability of donors to operate in the country. Additionally, multiple sources have asserted that some of the food assistance is routinely diverted for resale in private markets or other uses.
And that’s before we get into the question of human dignity, which North Korea undermines with both a class system and the mythologizing of their Dear Leader. Trevor Todd reports that
At every site in the D.P.R.K. hang matching photos of the late Great Leader and his son Dear Leader. They hang in every household, schoolroom, and office throughout the country. … Great Leader’s face is found on the badge adorning the lapel of every citizen, irrespective of age. Korean television seems largely dedicated to illustrating the greatness of the Kim dynasty. … Every place they visited and all they have touched or commented on have become sacred. Their birthdays are national holidays; every aspect of their life has been mythologized. Both their birthplaces are holy shrines visited daily by throngs of pilgrims and foreign visitors.
(For more on this, I suggest watching the documentary Kimjongilia.) And this cultural mythology places all of the people in the destructive hands of the government; Emberstadt explains:
Apart perhaps from Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, Pyongyang has more completely demonetized its economy, and more successfully reduced its subjects to dependence upon direct provision of supplies from their rulers, than any modern government; when the supply pipeline dried up, many hundreds of thousands of those subjects were condemned to a rendezvous with death.
And thus we’re in a difficult situation. In order to actually provide humanitarian aid, we have to go around their government, prevent their Dear Leader from distributing the blessings of food to his people as he sees fit, and actively disrespect their culture so we can promote our version of human dignity and save their lives. I can’t reasonably argue that this is just; indeed, contact with the bizarro perspective of North Korea denies fixing a definition to the word. But I would argue that it is the preferably humane thing to do — at least until we realize that
North Korea’s ‘temporary’ food emergency has entered its 18th consecutive year, notwithstanding billions of dollars and millions of tons of humanitarian relief from the international community in the interim. So far as can be told, North Korea has lost the capacity to feed itself — an astonishing historical first for an urbanized, literate and industrialized [not to mention hyper-militarized and nuclear-armed] society.
And then we throw up our hands in resignation and go find a country that will actually use our help to the benefit of its citizens. Is this really “just” to the starving North Koreans? No. But they’re not going to get justice anyway, so let’s focus on what we can do.
And that puts us right back at contention #3 above: there’s only one world and it’s this world and in this world “The relations between groups must therefore always be predominantly political rather than ethical, that is, they will be determined by the proportion of power which each group possesses at least as much as by any rational and moral appraisal of the comparative needs and claims of each group. The coercive factors, in distinction to the more purely moral and rational factors, in political relations can never by sharply differentiated and defined.” At some point we have to accept that somebody’s always going to get screwed, always going to be suffering injustice, and then try to do good anyway. And that point is the point where the judge votes to affirm that Placing political conditions on humanitarian aid to foreign countries is unjust.
She was practiced at the art of deception; I could tell by her blood-stained hands. –The Rolling Stones, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
I have previously stated an affinity for profile photos that have eye movement towards the personal right (previously stated camera left). I didn’t know why, but here’s the (rough and general) findings that James Borg cataloged in Body Language, 3rd ed.:
Eye movement right and down is conscious access of feelings.
Eye movement right and up is imagination.
Eye gaze to the right while answering a question may be honest recall.
Eye movement right is reconstructing sounds.
Eye movement left and down is self-conversation.
Eye movement left and up is visualizing a memory.
Eye gaze to the left while answering a question may be making something up.
Eye movement left is remembering sounds.
So, just to be clear, we’ve got the right side being associated with emotional control, imagination, and honesty, while the left side associates with talking to yourself, living in the past, and bullshitting people. Suddenly I feel like my right-side affinity is the most normal thing in the world.
Yes, I did just hyperbolize that to make a point. And it’s not even a well-made point because review of the subjects shows that while 75% (I added one) are turned right, their gaze has to come back left in order to meet the camera. The net effect is that either I’m extrapolating a natural affinity for certain qualities one level of abstraction too far, or this really has nothing to do with anything despite sounding plausible at first glance. Anything is possible I suppose.
On an unrelated note, Borg also mentions that people who are being deceptive are likely to hold a fixed gaze more than honest people, despite — and probably because of — the belief in honesty being a “look into my eyes proposition.” Of course, this doesn’t help people who are looking in your eyes because that’s what’s expected to show honesty… so look at their hands: dishonest people are less likely to move their hands.
Tangent: Borg also mentions mirroring behavior to build rapport. It’s a common technique in interpersonal relations. I confess that I’m not particularly good at it unless I’m really trying, at which point I’m usually really trying and not actually doing a very good job of it. But even a slight mirroring behavior can be enough to — for example — pull a stressed out teenager into mirroring your careful breathing and practiced calm. It works on adults too, of course, but I don’t recall ever influencing calm in an adult to give them an edge in a competitive performance.
Anyway, after Foucault A-Go-Go, it may be reasonably asked why I didn’t go for Baudrillard as the profile is obviously at least a simulation if not a simulacra of the individual. There are two answers here: First, I didn’t have a copy to quote directly — it’s on it’s way; I promise to review it. But second I’m suspecting that the tight nature of the feedback loop — the individual is never quite separate from their profile; they create it and they stay invested in it — isn’t quite the style of abstraction Baudrillard was researching.
It is, however, the sort of digital artifact that TLP is railing on (and off and on) with the claim that people are over-invested in their online presence because their ability to always be manicuring it is preferable to the uncontrolled grinding slowness of analog reality. And this is the first half of the claim that Turkle made about people stuck online, but it also clarifies this new maxim for digital living:
Always be yourself, unless you can be +2 inches (men)/-8 lbs (women), and earning 20% more money. Corollary: and hang out with people as attractive as you, no matter who you happen to be at the moment.
This kind of perpetual fraud is getting back on topic for me because Imposter Syndrome is possibly crucial to the kind of insecurity I’m looking for. Borg actually lists work meetings as a major source of modern dishonesty and self-doubt:
You probably engage in a lot of poker-type activity at work – especially if you work in an office and you attend meetings as part of your job. As we discussed earlier, it’s in the workplace that you see the most ‘masking’, as we all play our respective ‘roles’ at the same time as trying not to display any hint of weakness in our façade that may indicate we’re ‘not up to the job’. Substitute the poker table for a meeting room table and you see the same ‘game playing’ at work. In any negotiation the same tactics of hiding true feelings and bluffing come into play.
While experts agree you’ve been remarkably successful so far at keeping up the ruse that you’re a capable, worthwhile individual, a new report out this week indicates that today is the day they finally figure out you’re a complete and utter fraud.
And this should be comforting because it’s not just you. For example, every single woman in Oregon claims to enjoy camping. If this were remotely true, then we wouldn’t need dating websites because we’d just go out to the national forests on any given weekend to find a vast plethora of single ladies in (apparently) their natural habitat. This simply doesn’t work because everybody is exaggerating the one-off events in their lives that are interesting to the detriment of their day-to-day drudgery that’s simply not attractive. Caveat being, however, that the only single ladies you are interested in are the Dianas that do, in point of fact, go camping frequently and at random. Sorry.
Oh wait. I know her. She’s like the Nicest Person Ever. Too bad I have exactly no interest in dating the Nicest Person Ever.
In the BBC’s new rendition of Sherlock Holmes, dominatrix Irene Adler explains the difference between sexual intimacy and sexual pleasure: when asked “You knew him?” she clarifies “I knew what he liked.” This exchange is similar to the exchange done between end users and online dating sites every day, and can be better understood by looking to Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, no relation to Ms. Adler.
Way back in the days before CCTV or fire, Jeremy Bentham designed a prison called the Panopticon where a central observational tower could, at any point in time, surriptiously gaze on any inmate in the cells that ringed around it. Foucault analyzes the Panopticon thusly:
Hence the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers.
Or, to put it another way, it structurally optimizes the power of the person wielding the power by moving the stress of exercising power from the wielder to the subject. Foucault continues about the occasional observer:
it does not matter what motive animates him: 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 of being surprised and the greater his anxious awareness of being observed.
Emphasis added, oh hi.
Now you may be wondering how this relates back to online dating since “Plenty of Fish does not have just one observer.” There is an observer, in two ways: first, each individual user is the one transitive observer over the set of profiles the system disgorges to that user. The act of searching is an empowering semi-transformation, moving an aspect of the user from subject to object with an outpouring of casual judgments following — though it is critical to note that the user’s non-observing state is also still subject to any other users who observe. But second, the underlying algorithms of the site are also the observer, and they do actually watch every interaction to establish normative judgments based on the aggregation of intra-populous subjective judgments that it encourages people to make (by saying things like “you need to rate 10 profiles”).
If you don’t know what conventional normative judgments are, consider Shawn Achor’s example: a “dose” of Advil is 2 of ‘em regardless of who you are or what hurts. Seems kind of vague, but it probably works unless you’re… abnormal. And this is where Foucault — a bit of freak himself — starts getting wound up normative judgment. Gary Gutting’s provides a capable analysis of the point from Discipline and Punish:
A second distinctive feature of modern disciplinary control is its concern with normalizing judgment. Individuals are judged not by the intrinsic rightness or wrongness of their acts but by where their actions place them on a ranked scale that compares them to everyone else. Children must not simply learn to read but must be in the 50th percentile of their reading group. … Finally, the examination combines hierarchical observation with normative judgment. It is, Foucault says, ‘a normalizing gaze [that] establishes over individuals a visibility through which one differentiates them and judges them’. The examination is a prime locus of modern power/knowledge, since it combines into a unified whole ‘the deployment of force and the establishment of truth’ (DP, 184). It both elicits the truth about those (patients, students, job candidates) who undergo the examination and, through the norms it sets, controls their behaviour.
Now what is not necessarily clear is that the normative judgment is supposed to be the result of a lot of anonymous data crunching and then delivered with impersonal detachment resulting in an inability to appeal the result. This conforms nicely with what Stalin (allegedly) said: “Bureaucracy is the price we pay for impartiality.” But we don’t really want that much impartiality which is why dating site users fill out their profiles very carefully and check all of the appropriate checkboxen. But this is actually conforming to a disciplinary action, going straight back to Discipline & Punish:
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.
So the serialization of autobiographies into a searchable, comparable format extracts an abstracted truth and then mashes the abstracts together for not-quite-appropriate comparisons. For example, if I were a photographer, I might be bucketed as “artist”… but that’s also true of poets and abstract expressionist painters, and while the search engine is not strictly wrong to group us like that there’s a world of difference between a photojournalist, a goth haikuist, and some schmoe working through art therapy. Or consider Eddie Izzard’s disambiguation of “executive” transvestitism from drag queens and weirdos:
The algorithm — which is an anonymous, data-bound, and non-appealable normalizing function — is then coming back with “people that seem to be like you seem to be seem to like people who seem like this.” In short, it’s a big wild guess (and that’s if it’s bothering to pay attention to the information you gave it in the preferences form; put a pin here, we’ll be back). It then encourages you — as previously mentioned — to judge these people it presents to you not for their benefit or because they want to be judged by you specifically, but for the algorithm’s benefit: first so that it can return more popular profiles more often and second not to know you but rather to know what you like. To be fair to the algorithm, the participants know they’re going to be judged by Eris-knows-who and have presumably taken some care to embellish their profile very carefully, clearly specifying “NO DRAMA!!!” (direct quote) as part of what they’re looking for after adjusting their height, weight, and income to be just a bit more impressive than they seem to be. So people are willingly going down this Panoptic rabbit-hole with the resulting encounters being — as Slater cited Alexis in Love in the Time of Algorithms — kind of a performance-art caricature of their profile rather than accepting that their profile is a caricature of who they are.
This presents a difficulty for me: I know the Nicest Person in the World and we often exchange pleasant and mutually-affirming smiles on weekends. And while I want her to be happy, my awareness of the algorithm reading my action without the benefit of my real-world knowledge of that person prevents me from judgment on her profile: either I’m understating her qualities to the algorithm or I’m overstating my personal attraction to them. The best I can hope for while participating is that yet another apparently apathetic lack of action does the least to adversely impact her chances in the pool.
We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond, and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope.
Now you’re probably wondering why I complain that the filters are ignored. Simple; Gilbert again:
Apparently, gaining control can have a positive impact on one’s health and well-being, but losing control can be worse than never having had any at all.
And going to a search engine gives the illusion of control by means of an black box gnawing on a self-selecting subset half-baked data before putting the user through a barrage of system limitations (“can that user actually write you back?”) which are still gated by whatever alleged social norms may apply in real life (“is it awkward for the lady to write first?”). As with all telecommunication based services (and yes, my career is about to bite into this critique), the apparent increase in power is predicated on the discipline of the network. In other words, if the network goes down or is sabotaged to work against you, you quickly discover how limited your ability to “take control” really is. And this is exactly the power structure of the Panopticon: the observer in the middle is relying on not having to exercise power so long as everybody else is disciplined enough to act as if power were always being exercised anyway.
To re-cap all of that: participants in online dating sites are both the abstracted subjects of quasi-surveillance and the judgment-casting observers while the algorithmic structure of the site creates the normalizing discipline (augmented with every minor judgment) that reduces the friction between subject and object within the framework of the site, but tends to add friction to de-abstracted, de-normalized encounters outside of it.
Now, to be fair: the machine can be hacked and abused, possibly into submission. There are TED talks on this, some guy wrote a book about it — though astute readers will note that his romantic ending came from somebody messaging him and then being impressed that he’d gone to so much trouble to hack the machine. Or we could just throw down with the Drake Equation and walk away.
Given how exhausting this research is for a practiced recluse, I think I’m in favor of that last option. At least until my next couple of books arrive at the library.