Archive for January, 2017

Trump banned refugees on Holocaust Remembrance Day. That says everything

January 28, 2017


Liberal arts

January 28, 2017

Over the past year, I have had a few different ideas about how to save the world and get a Phd simultaneously. This combination of world-saving and self advancement is perhaps not intuitive, but I won’t go into a critique of capitalism at the moment. What I will go into is my long-held belief that education, done well, could help to address a lot of the sociological and cultural problems that sprout up locally, nationally and globally. My initial thoughts on dialogue across boundaries (social, religious, economic, ethnic, political, etc.) was that it was best begun in schools…partly because attendance is compulsory, but mostly because we would want to instil in young people the skills, abilities and habits to critically assess their own and others’ statements and beliefs, and external input generally.

I then began thinking about other aspects of education, particularly liberals arts. There had been some chat in the media about threats to funding for liberal arts in schools and universities, which I had registered but not engaged with. In fact, I hate to admit it, but my two degrees and journal publication not withstanding, I have never seriously thought about why anyone should study literature. Neither can I remember any teachers, from Kindergarten to university, expounding on why we were reading literature or what it could possibly do for us. The closest I got was a vague sense that this was (in a phrase I never heard as a student) cultural capital, and was just stuff that people would expect me to know. In fact, along with the occasional music lesson, it felt more like a process of getting students up to speed on what was going on in western society to date, with critical viewpoints or contextualisation left up to the historians. For me personally, I just enjoyed it.

When I did start thinking about whether education could help in a long-term overhaul of the polarisation and isolation evident in American (and other western) societies, I was reminded of a couple articles I had read about the power of novels to increase readers’ empathy or emotional intelligence (see here and here). Wanting to know more, I read Empathy and the Novel, which ties a lot of research in the field together. And I realised that part of the reason that I was so intrigued by this idea was that, when considering different issues that I have been confronted with, I often draw on the immersive experience of reading. It helps me to understand why people do ethically or morally troubling things; it helps to understand the lived experience of poverty or abandonment or war; it helps to simply remind us that everyone has a complex interior life.

So I thought about a longitudinal project that studied undergraduates’ levels of empathy throughout a literature course and what other factors came into play (reflection, discussion, etc.). But this idea was a bit too tangential for me in my increasingly alarmed state (as 2016 progressed, and I use the term in the temporal sense only). I wanted something that would get closer to what I wanted to achieve (and involved fewer privileged white students reading primarily privileged white authors, etc.), so my thoughts moved on. But as a concept, I had come to have much more respect for literature as doing something in society. I also began to consider how the approaches learnt in what might be considered esoteric subject like philosophy and Classics were transferrable to life generally–critical attitudes, ability to discuss different opinions with others, integrity, research, etc.

These are the qualities and skills sought by employers recruiting our students (the aforementioned predominately white and privileged ones) to management-track jobs in London. But there seems to be a shift–whether or not it’s related to the reported threats to liberal arts generally (and the actual cutting of some A-levels)–toward less nuanced job-focussed bachelor’s degrees. Alarm bells rang for me when I read JISC’s visions for HE in 2020 and 2030. There was a prevalent theme that suggested that the purpose of education is to directly prepare a student for a job. The idea that a university education was preparing students for Life–civic, personal, cultural and global as well as professional–was almost absent. Instead, it was imagined that every student would do a work placement as part of their degree, and every employer would be able to see a detailed portfolio of the student’s progress through the degree. So we’re back to capital.

I’m not so concerned about what came first (the increasing prioritisation of job-focussed education or the sidelining of liberal arts), but what it will mean if it keeps on going. Will this be another example of slow migration from whole-person education to machine-cog production? Has the term ‘liberal’ doomed us already?

Growing partisanship fuels fake news – but we can stop its spread

January 27, 2017

Saving the world v8

January 23, 2017

So my latest plan to save the world (or assuage my liberal guilt, or something) is a little bit of Corrymeela, this brilliant project that a lovely Facebooker posted a little while ago, and my general despair about the increasingly polarised political camps of the world. It’s quite simply getting people of diverse, or indeed completely contrasting, viewpoints to talk to each other in a safe, respectful, non-deterministic atmosphere.

I particularly like the way the Alabama-California project used online discussion to do the opposite of what it usually does–namely to get people to think seriously about how they interact, to word things carefully (and then delete them and try again), to keep asking questions because there are no time constraints, and to keep on going because at no point is someone going to decide who is right or wrong.

Last night I was very keen on this idea and was trying to find the above link on Facebook and thinking I would start a Facebook group with all my willing friends from both extremes right then and there and how everything would be wonderful. Not being able to find the link and having to get up early in the morning sidelined me rather. But what really deflated my little balloon was a post from one of my opposite pole Facebook friends. I had glanced and promptly ignored it the first time, but later had thought to myself ‘if I really want to know what people who disagree with me are thinking, I’m going to have to read it’. So I did. It wasn’t one of these ‘these three words will annihilate Liberals’ or anything like that, and it was just a repost from someone else. But the effect on me was profound. Part of it must have been that I’m in a slightly wonky emotional state, but mostly it was the same feeling I always get when someone declares something on social media.

I use ‘declare’ with intention. ‘Declare’ is a speech act–you are doing something when you declare. And the problem with social media is that everything is declarative. It is a sea of lecterns, pulpits, soapboxes, judicial benches, executive orders and Words. It is newspaper headlines that anyone can write and shouting opinion-as-truth in people’s faces. (NB photos of babies and pets would be the former, not the latter.)

Okay, that’s how I see it. Maybe you don’t. The point, though, is that on social media real discussion is not encouraged. Another interesting word is ‘feed’. The Facebook and Twitter and Instagram feeds constantly churn out item after item that we barely have time to process before another one comes up. Personally, it makes me more vulnerable to emotional reaction to see someone’s newborn baby and a xenophobic cartoon in the space of two seconds. So while you might craft a long and thoughtful response to the troubling image your friend carelessly posted, it’s not likely that either the friend or yourself are really going to engage in a mutually respectful and eye-opening discussion about the issue. (I do think part of this is the culture that has randomly developed around the platform–had different social rules developed, or been actively encouraged by the platform, perhaps things would be different.)

Back to the declarative. The pace of this input also means that I have a positive emotional response when people I agree with Declare things on social media. Yes! I think, My tribe IS right, and nice, and lovely good people! This is something I need to break out of just as much as the helpless anger and hurt that come from opposing declaratives.

So I still think my idea is pretty damn good. The questions now are:

  • how in this universe could I pursue it?
  • could I myself handle it?

Which I will leave for another day…

Oblivion or Canada

January 21, 2017

New York Daily News 

The above cartoon and many like it have given me a quick laugh, and a sense of collegiality with whoever posted them on social media. But it was this one in particular, which appeared a few days ago, that started me joining up a few threads.

Leisure to care

Having never listened to Rush Limbaugh personally, I don’t know what he meant by ‘limousine liberal’. But I think this is a hint of it. In the cartoon is a well-to-do white man, obviously a wealthy city-dweller, who is so horrified by the new president that he will lose four years of his life to escape from the grim reality. This means that 1) He can afford to not work for four years while maintaining his vitals, and 2) Any of the bad things that he fears will happen during the new presidency will not affect him personally. He has no fear of waking up with a revoked marriage certificate (see wife); he has no fear of waking up in his (or his parents’ or grandparents’) country of origin; he has no fear of his job being lost in another recession; he has no fear of waking up in prison; he has no fear of war (it might create a business boom); he has no fear of waking up in a detainment camp because of his religion or ethnicity.

In other words, he’s pretty much like me. Few of the immediate threats that were made explicit in the election rhetoric would affect me personally. Of course this is especially true because I’m not resident in the US and have dual citizenship. But if our family were in the same jobs and house (and skin, etc.) in the US, the threat to my quality of life–in the short term anyway–is pretty limited.

And yet the man in the box and myself are sincerely and deeply emotionally affected by this turn of events. This is a good thing–we are not selfish creatures who ascribe to social Darwinism. But it’s not a good thing if we simply cannot handle being emotionally affected by bad stuff and therefore attempt to treat our emotions rather than their causes.

I’m not suggesting that me and Boxman pretend our emotions aren’t there, and sometimes a brief smile at a cartoon or a wry laugh with Trevor Noah is exactly what we need to carry on. But we’ve got to carry on and do something, not merely let this stuff be another indication that we’re right and they’re wrong. Because there are people–our friends, total strangers on the other side of the country, our neighbours, those whose neighbourhoods we fly over–who don’t have a choice about whether to ‘engage with politics’ or just ignore it, and who may very soon have cause to be much more emotionally involved in election outcomes than Boxman or I could imagine.

You’ll never walk alone

I think the ‘we’re right and they’re wrong’ meme (although I guess it’s a gene, which I’m not going to stop and research) is something else that encourages the secondary rather than primary view of political change. ‘I believe government is not responsible for x, y and z’ and ‘I believe government is responsible for x, y, z’ (for example) turn us into die-hard fans of Our Team. We get pushed by media, friends, social groups and our own desire for things to be binary into being a Cubs fan or a White Sox fan. Of course party politics (much bemoaned for centuries) has a lot to answer for. But regardless of why this happens, and regardless of whether we actually belong to a political party or not, the polarisation makes us ideologists (and sometimes package-deal ideologists).

It then makes us feel good to root for Our Team, and we are very passionate about Our Team. We follow them faithfully and scrutinise whether their choices will help them win or not. We discuss how well they are doing in recruiting players to help them win. If asked, we only want Our Team to win because it’s morally and ethically right. But I would argue that the line between our personal convictions, and even our own self-interest, and Our Team blurs to such a degree that me and Boxman no longer know whether our emotional reactions are based on righteous indignation about social injustice…or because Our Team lost the pennant.

As long as the Queen is on the money

I can’t avoid mentioning the ‘let’s all move to Canada’ meme, which is basically Boxman with free health care. While it was quickly deemed better to stay and fight in the US, those of us who were already gone bear witness to the fact that this does not solve the problem any more than cryogenics. Yes, we’re safe from what might happen domestically. But the rest of the world does not see America like many Americans see the rest of the world. America is perceived as both a material and metaphoric example/mirror/premonition. American exclusionism might make sense to Americans without passports, but the introvert at the party…is still at the party. Plus, I still rather like you guys.


Not even close. I’ve barely entered the depression stage.


  1. The one obvious thing that distinguishes me from Boxman is that he has a woman who is going to soldier through and look after him and the house while he escapes into nothingness. I imagine that there is a sociological term for that.

We just finished watching 13th. Contributing significantly to secondary emotions. This track played over the credits:

From Westworld to Homeland: pop culture’s obsession with gaslighting

January 21, 2017

Blogging blog

January 21, 2017

I write a blog post in my head every so often, and in the past few months almost every day. Once upon a time, before parenthood and studying-while-working-full-time, the head posts materialised (or digitised) on an old, long-gone weblog. But now that the studying bit is finished–or at least paused–and the parenthood no longer involves perpetual sleep deprivation, I think I might be able to start transferring thought to screen again.

As intimated, a big part of the impetus for this is the current political climate generally and specific manifestations thereof. While I always value a space to get things off my chest–and more importantly clarify my thoughts for myself–the urgency for this has risen partly because of my recent feelings of helplessness. These feelings peaked (although there is the chance that this peak is just a foothill) yesterday, 20 January. So I decided that, until I found something that I could really do, I should use this space to get it all out. My hope is that this will help me work through things with the goal of finding that thing that I really can do (instead of, as recently, swirling my head around well-meaning but highly unlikely ways that I will change the world for the better).

Before I begin, I’m going to write a Manifesto-in-progress page, with the understanding that it will never not be in-progress.

Don’t treat Donald Trump as if he’s a normal president. He’s not

January 14, 2017

Teach students to navigate fake news, say researchers | Times Higher Education (THE)

January 2, 2017