The Paradox of Progress: why does making things better make things worse?

One more labor saving device and I think I’m going to crack.

A strange truth shadows modern society: the better things get, the closer we all drift towards collectively admitting ourselves to the psych-ward. We are the richest miserable people to ever exist.

Yet it’s not just us. This enigma haunts civilization – each jump up in technology has resulted in humanity face-planting into some awaiting tree branch we didn’t see coming. Agriculture gave us food. Great! Then it gave us cholera. Not so great. The industrial revolution gave us rapid fire consumer goods. Then rapid fire machine guns. Then Auschwitz, and nukes, and climate change, and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. We stand today at the peak of our powers, the precipice of our annihilation, and in desperate need of a pick-me-up.

Why is progress so problematic?

One answer is we’re all just whiners. Buck up. Be happy. Everything we measure is getting better, you whiny wimps.

Unless… we’re measuring the wrong things.

The global economy is very good at meeting material needs. Too good. Like a supercharged robot gone rogue, the global economy is so committed to making stuff that it is on a suicidal quest to convert the entire mass of the solar system into a spinning disc of Buy-One-Get-One-Free deals. Meanwhile all the other things us humans need are being destroyed: community, meaning, stability, equality, nature….

Coupled onto all this is a pill-poppingly depressing narrative. We are told we live in a meritocracy. Rags to riches – anyone can do it. We all end up where we deserve. Therefore, if you fail then you are a pathetic worthless loser. And by the way, we’re all engaged in ruthless selfish competition. Don’t bother asking for help. Just die. Worm.

Slather on top the 24hr tragedy news-stream and it can’t start to feel like the world is ending. What’s worse, we might not be wrong. Climate change, nukes, mass extinction….

Be happy?

Go suck a foot.

The rate of change alone is enough to do us in. We go from snappy youngsters with all the latest tech, to confused eighty-year olds stumped by doors. Our progress is progressing too fast.

Technology has another big problem – The Law of Unintended Consequences. Each new techno-power cuts the red ribbon to a new district of possibility. Sadly, many of those new neighborhoods turn out to include crime-infested ghettos of horror. Sometimes, it’s all ghetto. We’re looking at you leaded petrol.

These muck-ups aren’t all the fault of incompetent inventors. The nature of the system invites surprises. Solving problems creates new problems.

Imagine you are a butt-naked farmer. It’s you, the dirt, and some beans. A three component system. As simple as it gets.

But you aren’t growing enough. To boost production you make a digging stick. It’s a stick. You dig with it. Great! One wrinkle – now you have to cut up a tree. Now it’s five components: you, the dirt, the beans, the stick, and the tree.

Wood is hard. Snapping it up by hand is borderline impossible. The time you spend tugging at that tree could’ve gone into growing beans. So you make a stone-axe. Now the system has seven components: you, the dirt, the beans, the stick, the tree, the axe, and the stones.

Each round of problem solving – progress – lifts the complexity of the system exponentially. Every new component requires resources, maintenance, and managing. They all interact. Each problem solved creates a myriad of new problems to solve. Keep this process going and soon you’ll be needing deep-shaft mines, trade caravans, governments, and ten-thousand years later, the entire global economy. Billions upon billions of components.

The Law of Unintended Consequences rules supreme. Components conflict. Energy requirements grow. Resource depletion sets in. Interactions spin off in unexpected directions.

Problematically all this complexity is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Going from bare hands to a digging stick is a big win. But adding the stone-axe is only useful insofar as it allows more digging sticks. With us, we have reached a point where we are considering vast Geo-engineering projects whose sole purpose would be to save our bean farming from all the things we done to improve our bean farming.

Progress becomes regress.

We end up in a dizzying world which paradoxically winds down the more it winds up. We feel like we’re losing our minds. Thankfully we solved that problem by inventing anti-depressants. What could possibly go wrong?

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Just in case you weren’t already feeling depressed, according to Dr Joseph Tainter diminishing marginal returns on complexity is the sign of a civilization about to collapse, watch on Youtube here.

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

 

 

 

 

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Why Do Politicians Act Like Children?

Politicians. What is wrong with them? They are supposed to be the best we’ve got. Government matters. So why, why, why do they keep giving me flashbacks of highschool? No. Primary school. Wait… he said what? Damn. Kindergarten?!

Arghhhh!

Why do politicians act like children?!

Well, as experts on children are quick to point out, most kids are actually better than that. Get it right dude.

Oh.

Okay.

Why are politicians acting so immaturely that calling them children is an insult to children?!

Arghhh!

Well… power perennially summons up certain beasts.  An ego the size of Mars is a good motivator to enter politics in the first place. That explains the toddler tantrums.

Politics is also a twisty business. Compromises. Machiavellian plots. From the outside it all looks like chaos and stupidity.

More importantly, politics cuts to the core  – identity, purpose, money. Politics pits opposing sides against each other. It triggers some instinctive craziness show-down reflex: two groups of baboons throwing poo at each other. It’s going to get messy. Throw in some polarization, or some chest-thumping ideologies and you’ve got a giant fracas of offense, irrationality, and day-time news. And fist fights. For real.

Yet, the biggest cause may be that thing we value most. In a monarchy the leader must exude god-like glory. Childishness is unbecoming. In a dictatorship the leader must live surrounded by an oil-slick of fear. Childishness is weakness. In a democracy…

Talk, talk, talk, and opinion polls.

Things get nutty. The leader must win elections. British politician Boris Johnson (foolishly?) gave us an insight into political campaigning by revealing Dead Cat Theory:

“Let us suppose you are losing an argument. …Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as “throwing a dead cat on the table, mate”.

That is because there is one thing that is absolutely certain about throwing a dead cat on the dining room table – and I don’t mean that people will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted. That is true, but irrelevant. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout “Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!”; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.”

Who’s that great Aussie campaigner he’s referring to? Probably Lynton Crosby. This Wizard of Oz has gained a reputation for campaigns that claw at the chair legs of society. Tornado-through-a-cattery amounts of dead cats. Whether or not his reputation is justified Crosby does believe one thing: people never vote based on policy. They vote out of emotion.

Therefore erudite discussions of flat versus progressive tax structures are pointless. Appeal to identity. Appeal to the gut. Appeal to whatever gets the key voters going – even if that’s a fear of immigrants.

Indeed, a vast array of competing policies is way too complicated for even well educated voters to grasp. Better, say people like Crosby, to tell a very simple story. Clown-like Donald Trump was no mindless buffoon when he endlessly chanted ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Make America Great Again’. This was strategy. Give ’em a choice: do you want greatness or a crook?

So the conundrum circles around. Politicians act like children because they believe we vote like children. When you hear childish madness you are hearing the well researched prejudices of your nation being fed back to itself. You get what you vote like – emotional and irrational.

This strategizing can get deep-nasty. Negative messages stick in the emotional gullet. Rile them up. Push the hot-buttons. And, never forget, anarchy is smart-weapon.

Wedge politics involves using controversial issues to fragment your opponents. Find an internal disagreement. Stab it. The opposition will spiral into vitriolic internal debates. Hopefully the losing side will be so pissed off they leave and join other parties. Chaos, anger, and insults – in exactly the right place.

The battleaxe of attack politics is the scandal. Virulent ad hominem attacks. Insults. Innuendo. Denigration. Lies. Hacks. Leaks. Scandals can be used to remove people from office, take them out of the race, and destroy, destroy, destroy.

Politics becomes the Thunderdome.

Two men enter!

One man leaves!

Two men enter!

One man leaves…!

As Boris kindly pointed out, you do this kind of stuff when you’re losing. Just pile-drive that other guy into the floor, and the voters will have no choice but to choose you. Voters do deserve to know the bad news too, but taken too far this tactic creates a political world in which only two kinds of people truly belong – psychopaths and sadists. I don’t know if they’re childish, but they sure aint models of maturity. Their politics becomes so off-putting decent people prefer not to touch it, voters disengage, and the attack-artists are left to grow like fungus on a dead cat.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole

Boris Johnson in the Telegraph accusing other people of using Dead Cat Theory, here.

A free master class with Crosby, on Youtube here.

When Politicians Attack, action shots from ABC, here. (By attack, we’re talking fists to the face.)

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Thou Shalt Give up Bacon, Tasty, Tasty Bacon…

When it comes to food people get weird. It’s not what they do eat, it’s what they don’t eat. Think about it. Despite famines, despite high food prices, despite all the amazing eating opportunities on offer, people across the world have steadfastly refused to eat:

  • pigs
  • cows
  • rabbits
  • root vegetables
  • mushrooms
  • lettuce
  • fish
  • horses
  • insects
  • cats
  • alcohol
  • dogs
  • satay goat testicles
  • whales
  • hot beverages
  • uncooked food
  • guinea pigs
  • mice
  • pumpkins
  • beans
  • camels
  • garlic
  • your grandparents.

That’s just to name  a few.

Each of these foods has been proclaimed wonderful, or at least mouth-worthy, by one culture, and condemned as pig-swill and sin by another. How can we have such wildly different opinions about what counts as good food?

Here’s a few reasons why:

A) We Have No Imagination

Functional fixedness. A cat is a pet. A rat is a pest. A cow goes well with pasta. What it does is what it does is what it does.

That’s what it does.

A horse is a horse is a… tasty meal in France. But in England it’s just… no… you can’t… it’s a horse. You ride them. Horses. Riding. Don’t you get it? You don’t… no! Damn Frogs.

B) Philosophy and Religion

An environmentalist’s refusal to eat endangered sea turtles is easy to understand. Likewise a do-no-harm Jain’s refusal to eat animals, and your daughter’s refusal to eat her pet rabbit. And cannibalism is… do I really need to explain that one?

Other prohibitions get a bit stranger.  Believers in reincarnation might go vegetarian out of fear of eating grandpa in goat form.  Believers in animal spirits may only feed their children small animals, until the child’s spirit is strong enough to deal with eating bigger animal spirits. And believers in controlling one’s uncontrollable passions often dislike garlic because… garlic gets ya going?

When it comes to religious food taboos Judaism is head of the table. God said “Thou shalt not boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk.” and that was that. What can you do? It’s one of the Ten Commandments. (The other ten. Yes, there’s others.) No one’s clear why God said this. He just did. So Jews have been keeping their milk and meat kosher ever since. (P.S. ‘Kid’ here refers to a baby goat. Boiling children in mummy’s breast milk falls under that “Thou shalt not kill” bit. Just so we are clear.)

C) I Don’t Eat Garlic. Who Do You Think I Am?

What is it with garlic? Forget politics. You want a divisive issue, take a whiff of garlic. Go to the right time and place and “Garlic Eater” is a racial slur.

Food is community. Nothing sets you apart more than refusing to eat what others are eating. Nothing binds you together more than eating something no other group will eat. We are what we eat.

D) Power Games

Imagine if you could convince half the population that only you and people like you can safely eat chocolate. Wouldn’t that be great! All the chocolate for me!

Seems people have had this kind of idea before. Especially men. All the meat for me! And then, if they can, the rest of the group swings back around and slaps another taboo on you. Yes, you may get the chocolate and sausages, but we get the bananas and fish fingers! Ha! Social divisions end up getting written in food. Thus the elderly, chiefs, widows, children, and more end up with their own special taboos and rights of violation.

E) Conservation

Don’t eat the milk cow. You get milk from it. Seems sensible. Likewise, if each neighboring village has a different taboo for hunting a different forest animal then the chances of everyone driving these different creatures extinct is diminished.

F) Blame the Grim Reaper

Food can kill you. New food is suspicious. Is that really edible? Are the garlic eaters trying to poison us? They said it was the brown mushroom, right? That looks brown to me.

In the game of evolution, one bad experiment and you lose.

Our food taboo paranoia reaches a high point with pregnancy. Don’t eat fish. Do eat fish. Only eat rats if your husband done the butchering. And no hen’s eggs. You don’t want the baby to be too chicken to come out.

~

Us humans never do anything straightforwardly. Nothing could be more animalistically basic than food. Yet we can’t stop ourselves from squirting identity politics and religious dogma straight into the middle of your lunchtime sandwich. It’s enough to make you want to go get a plate full of bacon and horsemeat, garnished with extra garlic, gluten, and plus-sized animal-spirits, just to spite them. Mmm, yum!

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

Food Taboos: their origin and purpose. Victor Benno Meyer-Rochow (2009) Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. Here.

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Yeah Nah, Nah Yeah!

Yes no, no yes. Is this the death of the English language? This makes no sense.

“Yeah, no this does make sense!”

“Nah, yeah I get it.”

“Yeeeah, no, I mean… don’t yes and no cancel out?”

“Um…yeah, nah.”

How do we explain such flat out contradictory language? Plenty of ideas are out there:

  • The yes acknowledges the speaker, the no shoots them down. “Damn I look good in this dress!” “Yeah, no, you should stop cross-dressing dude.”
  • Defusing a comment. “You’re amazing! You saved that child’s life!” “Yeah, no, I mean, it was my own kid anyway. But thanks.”
  • Shifting the topic without really commenting. “Dogs are great.” “Yeah, no, now chickens, that’s where it’s at.”
  • Agreement then addition. “Pizza is yum!” “Yeah, nah, but I’m getting too fat for pizza.”
  • As an intensifier. “I hate clowns.” “Yeah, no, clowns freak me out too!”
  • Sarcasm. “Can I drive your car?” “Yeeeah, no.”
  • To introduce an unexpected idea. “I hear you’re dying of cancer.” “Yeah, no, I made that one up.”
  • Answering yes to a negative question. “You don’t know Kung Fu do you?” “Yeah, no, I know him.”
  • Answering yes to a question, but contrasting your answer with how the question was asked. “Do you like Billy?” “Yeah, no, I love Billy!”

Yeah, nah, okay we get it. Yes-no makes sense. But why use it? Why use a phrase that is so obviously ambiguous?

Because we are cuddly.

Yes-no has been described as a form of verbal cuddling. It lets you preface a smack down insult with a life affirming ‘Yes!’ The blow of ‘no’ is padded with all the heartwarming fluffiness of ‘yeah’. Yes-no and no-yes are an expression of an indirect communication style. Squishy-squashy vagueness can be useful.

Some cultures prefer direct communication. Get to the point! Cut to the chase! Say it like you mean it! Other cultures go in for indirect methods. Get to a related point! Cut to a tangent! Say it like you don’t really mean it!

The direct says, “Please leave!” The indirect says “You must be very busy today!”  Directness sacrifices harmony for the sake of clarity. Indirectness sacrifices clarity for the sake of harmony.

‘Yeah nah’ and friends are so very very indirectly cuddly that they turn up all over the world. The New Zealanders think ‘Yeah nah’ is their unique catchphrase. “Yeah, nah, mate,” say the Aussies, “We do that too.” Yes-no has been reported in California, and New York, and Bill Clinton. The Brazilians, Romanians, Polish, Germans, South Africans, Indians, and more are all reported to have their own cases of ‘yes-no’ or ‘no-yes’.

So is ‘Yeah nah’ an inexplicable contradiction? The demise of English? Yeah, nah. Nah, yeah. Ah, no, no. yeah. Nah. Yeah nah. It’s good.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

An exploration of the use of ‘yes-no’ on the Language Log, by Mark Liberman. Here.

Aussies and academics wrestle with the rise of ‘Yeah no’ in “Slang’s ‘yeah no’ debate not all negative” from the Age, here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

 

May I Mansplain a Case of Doublethink?

“Mansplain” is a word that ought not exist. I don’t mean morally. I mean logically. It shouldn’t be possible. Yet “mansplain” has made it to the dictionary.

Allow me to explain:

1) “Mansplain” combats real sexism. A contraction of “Man” and “Explain” it points out sexist explaining.

2) “Mansplain” is a problematic word that gets abused in sexist ways.

Therefore, “Mansplain” is hypocritical at best, Orwellian doublethink at worst – the acceptance of two contradictory ideas at once:  sexist anti-sexism.

We are on controversial ground here, but I’m not the first to point out that “mansplain” has issues. The fact that the word has to be forever qualified with “not all men” and “yes women can mansplain too” goes to show how dysfunctional a term it is. For brevity we’ll take it as a given that “mansplain” is sexist (If you’re unconvinced I give links, and a full argument below. You should also read that bit if you don’t think mansplaining is real). Even if you disagree about the word being inherently sexist the fact remains: it gets abused. People are using sexism to fight sexism.

How is that possible?

The answer is not clear, so here’s some theories:

A)  We needed it?

We did need a word. We got one. It got used. It was dodgy, but it was all we had. The downsides were overlooked out of need.

B) Humor (and the enduring power of sexism)?

“Mansplain” is a funny word for some funny stories. Some of those stories are deeply depressing. But others are hilarious!

On this take, “Mansplaining” isn’t an issue. It is a popular joke. We like jokes. The word was just asking to become a joke. Man. ‘Splain. Ha ha. Good one. Is this why Sweden’s mansplaining hotline includes comedians?

On this view, I predict “mansplain” will loose all of its anti-sexist bite. The contradiction will resolve in favor of sexism. “Mansplain” could even become a positive word as men try to align themselves with their gender identity, which now includes the quality of explaining things like a man. At best it will join our other male gendered belly-ticklers, such as Dad-jokes and clichés about grumpy old men. “Mansplain” slides right on into these existing comic stereotypes, which may explain why it went mainstream with such ease.

In the end we will be left with “-splain” as a joke suffix, and “man-” as a joke prefix. “-splain” is already providing us with an endless series of  new “-splainings” (whitesplaining, geeksplaining, femsplaining). “Man-” has generated “manspreading” and “manslamming”. In this wave of tacky linguistic humor the original issue will be forgotten.  Sooner or later we’ll once again be in desperate need of a word to describe a certain widespread form of misogyny involving explanations.

Team sexism wins again.

C) Sexism is easy?

Egotism and laziness. The hypocrisy of people we agree with is too hard to see. Coming up with a better word is too hard. Self-examination is too hard. Figuring out the true motives of the person you are talking to is too hard. Is it really mansplaining? I don’t know. Feels like it. He’s a man. Screw it. He’s mansplaining.

Team sexism wins again.

D) When you fight monsters…?

So many men are sexist. You fight sexism everywhere you go. Those men. So sexist. They must be stopped. Them. Those sexist men. Them! Men are all the same.

And now you’re a monster too.

But don’t worry.  The fact that you’ve internalized the us-versus-them thinking which underlies all bigotry need not stop you. You can squish your nagging conscience and carry on. Look how violently you attack sexism. You can’t be sexist. It’s just like how those preachers who angrily condemn homosexuality can’t possibly be gay. Yup.

Team sexism wins again.

E) Do we have a double standard for sexism?

Men are not morally permitted to be sexist… but women are? If this is so, then the double standard fits well with our gender stereotypes. Women are tender and need protecting. Men must be stoic gentlemen, enduring the sexism valiantly.

Team sexism wins again.

F) Doubleplusgood doublethinkers are among us?

“Mansplain” wears it’s sexism on the outside. Man. Explain. Bad. Surely the contradiction was obvious from the start. This is straight up doublethink.

In Orwell’s novel 1984, doublethink is a tool of totalitarian mind control. Is that what’s going on here? Is it just a coincidence that “mansplain” is built like a word from Newspeak? Bring on the conspiracy theories! We can rule out all the ones about Reptilians in the White House. This was a bottom up process. Viva la Internet.

Here’s an idea that isn’t completely bonkers:

Relativism and Feminism often go together. Relativism in its extreme form is doublethink: no truth is true for everyone, and relativism is true for all. Applying this principle to all of society would lead to a form of intellectual totalitarianism. Relativism could never be criticized, because real criticism requires real truths. The only thing relativism can criticize is the giving and taking of offense, which seems to be something of an obsession these days.

If doublethink is already your permanent home, sexist anti-sexism is no trouble. So let the duckspeakers quack goodthinkwise! Unless that offends someone.

Team sexism wins again.

G) Revenge?

Why merely destroy the power of sexism over you, when you can take that power for yourself? Revenge feels good.

I doubt anyone is consciously thinking “Yeah, I’m going to sexist the crap out of this guy!”, but it may well give “mansplain” a certain seductive appeal. The hypocrisy is worth it. Besides they need to get taught a lesson. About time they felt what it’s like. Bastards. This one’s for team woman!

Congratulations.

Team sexism wins again.

All or none of these theories may explain how we got “mansplain”. But if more than a few of them are true then we are left with a curious conclusion. “Mansplain” ought not exist because it is both sexist and anti-sexist. And, “mansplain” is popular because it is both sexist and anti-sexist. Man, all this explaining is hurting my poor little head.

~

Deeper Down the Rabbit-hole:

I promised I wasn’t the only person who has issues with “mansplain”. Dive into the debate on Reddit. That’s always… interesting. It’s not just men: try “Why You’ll Never Hear Me Use the Term ‘Mansplain‘” by Lesley Kinzel on the women’s site xojane.com, and “Allow me to explain why we don’t need words like ‘mansplain'” by Liz Cookman from the Guardian.

Read about Sweden’s Mansplaining hotline, from the Independent here.

For self-reported examples of mansplaining try Academic Men Explain Things To Me. Here.

Read about the psychology of hypocrisy, in the Guardian here.

Doublethink, on Wikipedia, here.

Confused by duckspeaking? See Newspeak on Wikipedia, here.

~

I  Totally Un-patronizingly Explain Why “Mansplain” is Sexist

Self-reported examples of “mansplaining” are easily found online. From these I’ve identified six different uses. The first two get at what seems to be the original intent. The rest are misfires and abuses.

Examples are from Academic Men Explain Things To Me.

1) Sexist Assumptions

Here’s an example from an American woman having dinner with her Australian boyfriend:

“… The policies of Julia Gillard came up. “Julia Gillard,” he explains to me, pausing the conversation, “is the Prime Minister of Australia.” “I know,” I respond, in a tone intimating that no further mansplaination is necessary. “A Prime Minister,” he immediately continues, as his friends look on, “is kind of like a president.””

This is the first case of classic mansplaining: the man assuming the woman doesn’t know anything, even when it’s become obvious that she does. Hooray then! “Mansplain” actually refers to real sexism…

…and it’s sexist. Putting the “man” in “mansplaining” treats this as a uniquely male problem. Isn’t that… dare I say it… sexist?

Good intentions don’t help.

The concept must be distinguished from the word itself. If the word was  “Igglypop” or “Zapwak” we’d be okay. But “mansplain” is too transparently constructed.  Therefore it automatically falls into a narrow meaning that attributes specific negative qualities to one gender. Man. Explaining. Bad.

Using “mansplain” doesn’t automatically make you sexist, but the weight of the word’s construction is too strong to avoid. It lends itself much more easily to sexist uses. It gets abused as a result, and huge numbers of men get offended by it’s face-value blanket condemnation of all men.

A better term would be “Stereosplaining” (stereotype + explaining), or “Assplaining” (assumption + explaining). Men may well be the most guilty of this, especially towards women, but clarity of language is important. Whenever someone has a cliché reason to think you’re an idiot, then you’ll receive a “Stereosplaining”. Take this brilliant example from an Asian American woman’s conversation on a plane flight:

“…He asked me why I was going to the university so I told him I teach English.

He says, “You mean you’re learning English.”

“No,” I say. “I’m teaching English.”

“You see,” he replies, “You are confusing the words ‘teach’ and ‘learn.’ You are learning English.””

This is about gender, and race (possibly just race). Age, language, clothing, education, job title, disability, …. People will assume you’re an idiot for a lot of reasons.

2) Power Games

Here’s an example from a woman who confronted a fellow student who was attempting some illegal activity:

“…Then he told me to “stick to your programming and let the lawyers handle the law” – the equivalent of “get back in the kitchen”.

When I explained that I had taken my classes that addressed copyright law, and that the head of the department herself could confirm everything I told him, he brushed it off and said the she didn’t know what she was talking about either because she was “just a teacher”….”

This is the second serious case of mansplaining: using a real or imagined difference in knowledge as a way of dominating someone. This deserves a word, but “mansplaining” isn’t it. Clarity of language!

One, it’s not just men, and two, it’s not about explaining – it’s about putting someone in their place. These games can be played all sorts of ways: questioning, name dropping, listing your qualifications, comparing IQ scores…. The word “mansplain” itself can be used to play this game.

Now for the misuses…

3) Being sexist

Sometimes people make sexist comments while explaining something. Some people call this “mansplaining”. Seems like a misfire.

4) Being an asshole

Being an asshole during an explanation can get you accused of “mansplaining”. Being an asshole is a problem. Hence the word “asshole”. But not all assholes are sexists, and some sexists are mighty polite. Assuming all male assholes are sexist is sexist.

5) Disagreement

The word “mansplain” can be used to shut down a conversation. No actual mansplaining needs to have gone on. The man is mistaken, or he’s a bit slow, or he just disagrees, or he is merely expressing his opinion. So he gets shut down. Game over. “Mansplaining” becomes a thought stopping cliché. You can use it to dismiss someone’s opinions purely based on their gender. That’s sexist.

6) Persuasion

Here “mansplain” is used to prohibit persuasion by men, especially when it is strident, passionate, or worst of all, insistent on agreement. Again this acts as a sexist thought stopping cliché. Hypocritically, the word “mansplain” is itself a strident persuading word. It belongs to that category of words that carry their moral condemnation within them, words like “slut”, “brown-nosing”, and “terrorist”.

I hope I’ve made my case.

© Under Obvious, 2017.

National Animals: Why New Zealand? Why?

The national animal of New Zealand is the kiwi – a brown, chicken sized bird, which is all-round weird. The kiwi is a strange choice. Yet New Zealanders are kiwi mad. They named themselves Kiwis. They renamed Chinese gooseberries Kiwifruit. They named a bank Kiwibank. They named a retirement fund Kiwisaver. They stuck pictures of kiwis on the stamps, the money, and the air-force (despite the fact that kiwis are flightless). Kiwi, kiwi, kiwi! Kiwis are everywhere.

Which is strange.

Real kiwi are pretty much nowhere.

Most New Zealanders have never seen a wild kiwi. In most places where people live, kiwi are extinct. Paradoxically, the less contact New Zealanders have had with actual kiwi, the more attached New Zealanders have became to kiwi. Should the kiwi ever go extinct, logically New Zealand will be renamed Kiwiland. It is inevitable.

Kiwi-mania is perplexing. How can a nation become so extremely fond of an animal they never see? It’s like being fond of the Dodo.

New Zealand isn’t the only place to have a made an odd choice.  The national animal of the Mauritius is the Dodo. They love it. It’s dead. The English lion is even less real. The last time England had lions was… was… yeah. But that can’t top the Scottish. Their national animal is a unicorn.

These bizarre choices show us how we got national animals in the first place. The Lion of England and the Unicorn of Scotland are heraldic symbols from centuries ago. They were never meant to be real. Okay, the Scots did think unicorns were real, but the point is they are emblems. Symbols.

Places lacking suitable medieval heraldry can pick themselves some outstanding real animal. Or some outstanding fake animal. Asia loves its dragons. North Korea went for a winged horse. Indonesia has the humanoid bird that gets ridden by Lord Vishnu. Laugh if you like, but the truth is all national animals are imaginary. Some just happen to refer to real animals too.

National animals are symbols. The less something is a concrete reality the easier it is to make it into a symbol. As the kiwi slid towards extinction, New Zealanders were free to project onto the word “Kiwi” whatever they wanted. An animal became a symbol. A national animal. With kiwis gone, “Kiwis” no longer needed to worry about being confronted with the bizarre nature of actual kiwi. The symbol was safe.

So why do we bother with national animals? Well, all our friends have got them. Beyond that…

Blame cartoonists.

And politicians.

And advertisers.

All of them like to indulge in personification. All need symbols. To make a good political cartoon you often need to draw a character that represents the nation. Animals with a distinct cultural history work well. Then you can draw your disliked politician riding that animal, hitting it with a whip. That kind of thing.

Propagandists have the same need. Their ads need something distinctive that represents what they’re trying to sell. Patriotism needs a face. Hence all the lions, bears, dragons, and eagles doing all their roaring, breathing fire, and swooping majestically. Vote for Steve. Let’s go to war. Buy my boot polish. That kind of thing.

As a young country, New Zealand was in desperate need of new symbols to establish its identity. Hence a little over-enthusiasm with the kiwi. It’s a teenage thing. They’ll get over it. Hopefully.

Yet, the kiwi is still a strange choice. The Bald Eagle? Majesty. Power. Got it. The Russian bear? Danger. Power. Got it. The Kiwi? It’s a furry football with legs, whose greatest claim to fame is being able to push out an egg that is equivalent to a human giving birth to a four year old. Oh New Zealand! Sure the giant Moa and man-eating Haast Eagle were extinct, but why pick the kiwi? I see your sense of humour, but where is your pride?!

Perhaps that’s it.

National animals don’t get picked in a rational way. They just happen. Something about it just works. And the kiwi knows that New Zealand is small, cute, weird, unsure, and occasionally comical. And it doesn’t care. And it was easy to draw. Still, judging by the Scots and their unicorn… New Zealand should have picked the Taniwha. No one messes with a supernatural water monster with face tattoos.

 

 

Further Down the Rabbit-hole:

Read more about the kiwi, it’s life as a bird, and its life as an icon. From Te Ara, the encyclopedia of New Zealand. Here.

The origins of the Scottish unicorn, from the Scotsman. Here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Why do Rich People Dress Poor?

Why do well-to-do people wear ripped jeans?

And why do they buy their jeans pre-ripped?

Wouldn’t they rather look rich, than get stopped and frisked? Humans desire status. Wealth is a sign of status. So why dress poor if you don’t have to?

Welcome to Poverty Chic: where popular fashion adopts the symbols of poverty.

It makes no sense.

If you are like me then you’re probably thinking this is just a rare, weird, sub-cultural thing. Desperate fashion designers looking for ideas. Those stupid pre-faded jean shorts. End of story.

Prepare to be surprised.

Poverty Chic is everywhere.

Poverty Chic goes well beyond  clothing.  Redecorating? Rehabilitate old furniture with “shabby chic”. Guys? Try tending that beard for the rural working man “Lumbersexual” look. Going on holiday? Try a sightseeing slum tour, available now in all the world’s best slums.

Culture is littered with the ghosts of Poverty Chic past. History was into it just like us. French Queen Marie Antoinette even built herself an entire rustic village where she could play at being a shepherdess. French aristocrats liked pretending to be French peasants, back before they got executed by French peasants.

Poverty Chic has even gotten into our language. “Pimp” has become a word for over-the-top decoration. A real pimp manages prostitutes.

Any symbol of poverty that you can think of has become Poverty Chic somewhere, somehow, at sometime. Race, religion, drugs, homelessness, mental illness, even the emotions. It’s all there.

Why on earth do we do this?

We can see a touch of mockery here. It has parallels in Blackface, dressing up like Indians, and putting on a Chinese accent to make a racist joke. Stereotypes and play. Strangely, dressing like poor people denies the reality of poverty.  Suffering is reduced to a set of symbols that can be adopted and discarded at whim. The play makes it unreal. And that is half the key to understanding Poverty Chic.

Fear.

We are afraid of becoming poor. But if you can control what you fear, you feel safe. Poverty Chic is control. It’s like the difference between falling off a bridge and bungee jumping. Poverty is your plaything. You are rich enough to be poor. But only if you want to.

You are in control.

You have nothing to fear. The horrifying beast of poverty is boxed, wrapped, and yours for $99.95. Enjoy.

Poverty Chic is visibly different from poor. The Chic version is clean, temporary, and partial. Safe. Not quite real. Torn jeans above expensive shoes. An aftertaste of mockery lingers in the mouth. I do by choice what they do by force. Status. Control. However, as soon as the beast bites back the fashion flees. The “Heroin Chic” look soon vanished when its main photographer died of a heroin overdose.

Poverty Chic also has another side. Poverty is romantic. Poverty looks more real. More authentic. More simple. The monk in a cave. The starving artist. The Blue’s player, all true soul.

Poor people are cool.

Part of us wants to be them. Just like part of us wants to be a cowboy, a noble savage, a shepherdess. We want to escape. They seem to have something we don’t. In the past you might have fed this appetite by going on a pilgrimage, or joining a monastery. Today you can go shopping.

Youth in particular seem to feel this pull. The disillusionment. The angst. The escape from a culture which seems so fake. Poor musicians often lead the way. They’re standing on the outside. They’ve got that feeling too. Grunge. Hip Hop. Rap.

Soon the style goes mainstream. The symbols of poverty become associated with celebrities. The money machine takes over. A new Poverty Chic is born. The style comes to represent everything that people were fleeing from in the first place. Culture gains another Chic ghost. The cycle begins anew.

Fear and escape, then conformity and forgetting, and the search for a new fad. Poverty will always be fashionable. That is, unless you’re poor.

Further Down the Rabbit-hole:

The cases of Poverty Chic are too many to list. Here’s a few to wet your poverty hungry appetite…

Read about Poverty Chic as a way of managing upper-class fear in “Poor Chic: The Rational Consumption of Poverty”, by Karen Bettez Halnon. Here.

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Would Jesus Work as a Christian Politician?

Read the Gospels and one thing quickly becomes apparent: Jesus looks like a hippy. He gave up his worldly possessions, traveled the country with his friends, talked endlessly about love, and peace, and forgiveness, and the end of the world. He criticized the authorities, broke the rules, hung out with poor people, and beat financial traders with a whip.

In short, Jesus looks nothing like a Christian politician.

Look at Christian politicians and one thing quickly becomes apparent: they are overwhelmingly right-wing. They are often wealthy. They talk a lot about war, and fear, and crime, and the end of the world. Their policies favor the rich and powerful, and when you do catch them hanging out with a prostitute they aint giving her a Bible lesson.

Of course, these views of Jesus and Christian politics are caricatures. Jesus would hardly have been into free-love, and plenty of Christian politics is about peace. Yet, these caricatures exist for good reason.

So why does Christian politics get so… unchristian?

It’s all about power.

To get power you need to make alliances. Making alliances forces groups to work together despite their differences. These differences lead to a lot of contradictions.

Typically,  on the Left, socialist leaning economics have teamed up with social progressives – a platform of free health care and gay marriage. Meanwhile, on the Right, free-market economics teamed up with social conservatives (often Christians) – a platform of tax cuts and abortion bans.

These alliances can occur within one person’s head, yet they are still combinations of choice rather than necessity. Our own local teams tend to have such ingrained identities that it’s easy to forget that the teams can be arranged in different ways. Yet take a look at other times and places and you’ll soon find economic conservatives advocating gay marriage, and socialists promoting family values. Many key ‘Christian’ policies, are actually the result of alliances. Hence why these policies can end up contradicting Jesus.

Next, what should a Christian do with power? Jesus never gave policy advice. The political entity he cared about was the Kingdom of God – and that seems to involve a lot of stuff that’s pretty hard for a merely mortal government to do. Should the army “Turn the other cheek”? Should the justice system apply the principle of “He who is without sin cast the first stone”? These questions have been giving Christians headaches for centuries. Thankfully the Bible has so much more than just Jesus. A common answer is to forget about Jesus and ask someone from the Old Testament. What would Moses do? Turns out Moses was the kind of leader that Machiavelli admired. Hence why some Christians are more into war and executions, than peace and love.

Speaking of Machiavelli we have another problem. Power corrupts. At the very least power is ethically compromising. As Machiavelli pointed out, being a good person doesn’t necessarily make you a good ruler. Sometimes you have to kill people. Yet, even good people want the power to do good things. As a result Christians have swung back and forth between two extremes: total political disengagement, and theocratic power grabs. In the USA some Christians have been visibly hanging around the grabby end of the spectrum for a while, hence all the ethical dubiousness.

Lastly, while religion doesn’t always want to get into politics, politics always wants to get into religion. The source of all political power is belief – getting people to believe that you ought to be in charge. And no one does belief like religion. Everyone from the Divine Pharaohs, to the Divine Caesars, to the divinely mandated Emperors of China, to the divinely chosen kings of Europe, to “I love the Bible” Trump has decided to tap into the political power of religion. You don’t have to be religious to play this game, in fact it’s better if you’re not. Hence more hypocrisy. And with Christianity that hypocrisy is all the worse for one simple fact: Jesus’s main claim is that he is king, not you. Awkward.

 

 

Further Down the Rabbit-hole:

For an example of a Christian political agenda see the Christian Coalition’s site, here. Note the frequency of policies with no direct connection to Christianity that aren’t very “Jesusy” e.g. boosting the military.

For an example of different places leading to different policy combos that might be political suicide elsewhere, see a New Zealand conservative politician’s viral “Big gay rainbow” speech on YouTube Here. Watch him discuss how this works with being conservative and still getting elected in NZ, here (at 2.36). (In essence, NZ conservatives don’t need fundamentalist Christian allies. Also, due to NZ’s voting system political Christians find it easier to start new parties than fuse themselves to existing ones. Republican + Religious Right style alliances don’t happen in NZ.)

For an example of how the Bible’s political models don’t automatically lead you to meekness and sweetness, read about Machiavelli’s take on Moses as an ideal leader, including the role of religion in power, in “Moses and Machiavellism” by Steven Marx. Here.

 

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2017.

Strange Green Bedfellows

Flicking through an organic gardening magazine I noticed something strange. The advertising. Most was to be expected: chicken coops, garden tools, eco-tours. Then I saw a full page ad for a gluten-free conference. Huh? Do organic gardeners all have Coeliac disease? What does gluten-free have to do being green?

This sent me digging.

Most of the time environmentalism attracts what you’d expect: scientists, hiking enthusiasts, disillusioned nuclear weapons engineers. But then weird things keep popping up. What’s with all the dreadlocks, bongos, and pot? Why the anarchists, feminist, and spiritualists? Why, why, why, of all the people in history to have felt compelled to go green, do we find Nazis? Yes, turns out some of them were into animal welfare, organics, and mass murder.

What is going on here?

The key is this:  Green, and Green Plus. Plus free-love. Plus gluten-free sandwiches. Plus world conquest by the Aryan master-race. Figuring out what the Pluses have in common with Green, is the key to seeing why they didn’t just stick with their Plus but went and jumped in bed with Green. There are at least four points of contact:

1) Love of Nature

Obviously. Hence why the Animal Rights types jump right on in (and get one hell of a shock when they discover that Green can involve murdering truckloads of cute animals. It’s called pest control folks.) This also explains why spiritual types get involved. If Mother Nature is literally your god, then you’re going Green.

2) Raging Against the Machine

Environmentalism has big beef with mainstream culture and the powers that be. Hence the anarchists, feminists, and anti-globalists. Indeed, anyone who is counter-cultural, anti-consumerist, or wanting to live a simple life is going to feel good in bed with Green. Hence the hippies, the pot, and yet more spiritual types.

3) Turning Back the Clock

The modern world is an environmental disaster movie. Anyone who idolizes the pre-modern past will find Green alluring. This backwards gaze can get a bit romantic. So romantic it deserves a capital R.

Romantic.

Romanticism was so Romantic that it was a movement, and it had a big shape on who we are today. Central was an obsession with nature and the past. Consequently, Green gets yet more spiritual types, Thoreau musing beside Walden Pond, and the Nazi’s.

Yes, those damn Nazis.

Combine a love of the local, with a romantic view of the past, with a taste for myth and folklore, with a longing for a deep connection between a people and a place, and out pops nationalism. Pushed to it’s extreme, nationalism becomes fascism. Blood and soil, as the Nazis used to say.

This anti-modern streak can also go anti-science.  Science is just far too modern. They just don’t say “Holistic” enough. Hence the occasional foray into pseudoscience.

4) We are LOHAS. We are Legion.

Finally we circle back to those gluten-free ads. How does an advertiser choose where to place their ads? They target a defined demographic. This one’s called LOHAS: Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability. These are your ethical consumers, concerned about their own health, and the health of the planet.

Our final set of the weird Green mash ups, therefore, are due to demographic effects, and due to businesses targeting the lucrative market that is LOHA$. Marketers will throw anything at these guys that they think they’ll like. Some of it will be because LOHAS are green, some of it will be because LOHAS have an over-abundance of well-to-do middle aged women. Hence the wealth of organic wines, and the poverty of deep fried organic chicken nuggets.

So why those gluten-free ads? Perhaps it is because Coeliacs spend 28.42% of their lives reading labels asking “What is E-6i500 flavorant really?” then discovering that it is made from coal tar and endangered Guatemalan tree snails. Or perhaps it is because a greeny’s concern about pollution progresses to a haunting paranoia about what’s really in our food, which then progresses to a general concern with purity, and gosh-darn it, if gluten is a problem, then gluten is out! In a polluted world Health and Green tend to merge, hence LOHAS.

Nature, activism, anti-modernism, and demographics. Distinguishing the Green from the Green Plus is important for making sense of Green weirdness, and it’s also important for moving environmentalism forward. Much of what is accepted as core Green is actually optional. You don’t have to be a Green Plus. You can just be Green.

 

 

Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

For an example of Green’s perennial attraction for spiritual types, along with the kind of stuff that makes scientists cringe, see Biodynamic Agriculture, here.

Unfamiliar with Romanticism? Try here on Wikipedia.

Nazi organics haven’t gone away. Read “The Right-wing Organic Farmers of Germany” from the New Yorker here.

For an example of what LOHAS marketing looks like on the inside try the Natural Marketing Institute, here.

 

© Under Obvious, 2016.

The News is Serious Business. It’s Hilarious.

We have a strange situation. The news has been overrun by comedians. John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, John Oliver, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee…. A lot of people are relying on comedians for their news, despite the comedians repeatedly saying “We don’t do news!” The term “comedic journalism” has even been invented to explain this apparently new phenomena: comedians doing news.

Why do the comedians keep resisting the label of journalism when they look suspiciously like they are doing journalism? The answer is simple.

It’s not journalism.

It’s satire.

Close, but different.

All the claims of journalism, comedic journalism, or something new going on here are missing the mark. The current popularity of John Oliver or the Daily Show might be new, but satire is old. Very old. And it’s not journalism.

Imagine a cliché ye olde King’s court.

On one side of the throne is the herald. On the other side is the jester. The herald reads the news. The jester makes fun of it. The herald tells things as they are supposed to be. The jester tells things as they are not supposed to be. The herald proclaims the latest victory in battle. The jester points out that it was such a great victory that even the enemy is celebrating.

Satire isn’t like other forms of comedy, which is why people keep confusing it for journalism.  Satire is about the real world. Satire is always, deep down, serious stuff. Humor isn’t even in the definition. Satire is a form of social investigation, a probing, a prodding, a pulling at the threads, trying to figure out what’s really going on underneath. Satire exposes our illusions, and cuts quick to the heart of how society really works. Satire baits the powerful into exposing their own absurdity, like when Bill Maher made a joke about Donald Trump, and Trump sued him. The issue at stake: was Trump’s father an orang-utan? Trump says no.

Satire can even tell the future:

Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’

 January 17, 2001 – The Onion

September 11, Afghanistan, Iraq, and the financial crash hadn’t even happened yet. That’s the power of satire.

In contrast, journalism’s job is to report what happened. Simply. Objectively. Dispassionately. This can involve speaking truth to power, and it can involve reinforcing power. Satire, however, is always on the attack.

The herald and the jester might occasionally agree, but their jobs are very different. So why are people turning away from the herald, and towards the jester? The circumstances that would cause that to happen are not hard to figure out: people will prefer the jester when the herald’s truth sounds like bullshit, and the jester’s bullshit sounds like truth.

The heralds these days must have been speaking a lot of bullshit.

 

 

Deeper Down the Rabbit hole:

Watch John Oliver denying the repeated allegations of journalism. Here.

The Onion’s 2001 mock article on George Bush. Here.

Watch Bill Maher discussing his lawsuit with Trump. Here.

For some extreme cases of people not able to tell the difference between satire and journalism see literallyunbelievable.org.

 

 

© Under Obvious, 2016.