Sunday, 5 May 2013

Q: When is a door not a door?

A. When it's a jar of angry worms.

That long-running men opening doors for women thing. Or offering them their seat on the bus. Very few people get worked up about this but rather more people seem to assume that they do. I think both areas are yawning pits of social awkwardness but that's because I'm all kinds of socially awkward.

This micro-musing by Peter Hitchens, tweeted by @RopesToInfinity is why I'm thinking through this now.* The key phrase is, "it's so deep it feels like an instinct". For Hitchens, holding a door open for a woman feels like the right thing to do. I'm sure that's what's going on with most men who habitually extend small courtesies to women; it just feels like the done thing. If you want to understand why some people might have a problem with this, ask yourself how it would feel to have a man treat another man in the same way.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three reasons why a man would feel a gut urge to hold a door open for another man**, other than the fact that he got there first. The same reasons apply to giving up your seat.

1. The other person is incapacitated in some way, maybe carrying something or on crutches.
2. The other person is a guest or someone whose comfort you feel in some way responsible for.
3. The other person is of a higher or lower professional standing and you are somehow trying to bridge that gap. You fuss around a superior because you want them to think well of you; you may show extra politeness towards a subordinate because you want to show them that you value them.

There will be others I haven't thought of. Again, I'm not talking about the universal politeness of not letting the door slam in someone's face after you've gone through it. I'm talking about the "deep" "instinct" that dictates that you should try to get to the door first and make a bit of a show of it, because that would be better than them opening the door themselves. With that in mind (and please imagine the situation as giving up your seat if you still don't get where I'm coming from), what does it convey to a woman if, all other factors being equal, a man goes to some extra effort to open a door for her?

1. That the man sees her as in some way incapacitated.
2. That the man sees her as a guest in this location, or feels somehow especially responsible for her comfort.
3. That the man sees some kind of difference in social or professional standing, which needs to be bridged.

The discomfort caused by the first two implications should be fairly clear. With point three, I'd like to emphasise that it doesn't matter which way that difference in status works. Regardless of whether it is yourself or the other person that you (or your deep-seated instincts) are placing on an ever-so slightly higher rung, the problem is that you're acting according to a supposed difference. Whether you'd class it as chivalry or a special favour, something in your brain has gone ACHTUNG: FEMALE and caused you to slightly change your behaviour.

The worry is that if someone displays that "deep", "instinctive" assumption of difference in one situation, and doesn't realise why they're doing it or how it might come across, what else might it affect?

*The resulting conversation also led me to this post, which is all kinds of excellent.
** Or a woman for another woman, or any other combination... I'm using the example of two men because it best shows the weirdness of what's going on. I'm not assuming that every reader is male, but I would like you to imagine yourself as male for the purpose of the exercise.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Eight Signs of a Bogus Historical Narrative

On Saturday afternoon, as an attendee of the QED convention in Manchester, I sat through a panel discussion entitled "Is Science the New Religion?". At least, it was intended to be a four-way discussion. Despite the moderator's best efforts, it quite quickly deteriorated into an exasperated and highly entertaining bun-fight between the journalist who made the opening statement (which he has posted as a "speech" here) and the comedian and critical-thinking promoter Robin Ince (who has blogged about the exchange here).

I spent the time playing "Bullshit Narrative Bingo" as the journalist obligingly ran through nearly every one of the tell-tale signs of a bogus fall-from-grace story. These red flags are the narrative tricks I look for whenever I suspect that someone is seeking to rail against the current state of affairs, but knows absolutely nothing about how, when or why it came about, or what can be done to change it. I thought I'd share my observations, because these are useful indications of Bad History, in the same way that incomplete or misinterpreted statistics are indications of Bad Science.

My notes are rather sketchy, and I don't wish to misrepresent the journalist's arguments (much of the fun happened when he was asked to elaborate on the points made in his opening statement) but here are the items I ticked off, and the examples I wrote down at the time. Hopefully, there will be an official recording or transcript available, at which point I will amend anything which I have reported incorrectly.

1. A "look how far we've come" introduction, establishing the speaker's credentials as a lover of the right kind of progress. In this case, it is the gradual extension of voting rights to people who were not considered to have specialised knowledge; In the past, working men and all women were excluded from the political process because it was assumed they did not have the intellectual capacity for it. Nothing to disagree with here, but for an opener, it was suspiciously unrelated to the question.

2. Assumption of novelty, without recourse to actual facts. The argument seemed to be that politicians nowadays lack the moral confidence to argue for their preferred course of action, and so are looking to scientific authority instead (I think this was when the smoking ban was mentioned as an example of when scientific arguments trumped moral ones). In fact, medical research and scientific developments were used by politicians back in the Victorian era and almost certainly earlier.

3. Description of a previously unbroken tradition. I can't remember if the number given was 2000 or 3000 years of politics being driven by morality and a sense of responsibility, but either way, this would be something of an oversimplification. Quite often in a bogus narrative, it is the 1950s which is described as the pinnacle of any such trend, and therefore as a golden age destroyed by the excesses of the 1960s. Which brings us to...

4. Call for a return to a more 'natural', 'traditional' or 'healthy' state. When asked, repeatedly for some indication of what scientists should do instead, one of the answers given was, "We need a healthy public space". I have no idea what this means, exactly, but who could possibly argue against health of any kind?

5. Magic keywords. Pro-tip: If you feel that your argument is looking a little thin in places, or that your audience may have forgotten that you're on the Right Side, sprinkle in some references to undeniably positive qualities such as "individual freedom" and "moral autonomy", even though these have little to do with the matter being discussed.

6. Unsubstantiated turning point. My recollection of this part is hazy, as there was a lot of grumbling, shouting and laughter from the audience and the argument seemed too ridiculous for anyone to make... but I think it was argued that since the 1970s, we've stopped pushing for economic growth because we've prioritised science-led environmental concerns instead. There may also have been something about a recent hatred of industrialisation around the same time because 'science' makes us worry about public health? In any case, the golden age of responsible, morality-based politics at some point changed to the current technocratic tyranny. Evidence for when and how this is supposed to have come about was not provided.

7. Ignoring other, obvious factors. In this case, I was surprised that nobody mentioned the development of the environmental movement, which is not known for having completely overlapping aims with all scientists.

8. Accusations.Veiled (or not) suggestion that the other side's argument is very like racism. From what I can remember, arguing that politicians should understand the probable impact of their policies (and gain this understanding via solid, scientifically-tested research) was compared to the introduction of tests designed to exclude minority voters in the American South. Understandably, this did not go down well.

All of this means that the only thing preventing me from shouting "house" was a lack of mention of the Nazis, and a reference to "authoritarian governments since Labour", combined with the racism comparison, came pretty damn close.


For some further reflection on the panel: