Wednesday, November 23, 2005


When I was young, I read a book from off my father's bookshelf. At the time, he had some 20,000 books, so it wasn't hard to find one that looked interesting. This book claimed to include a test that would allow me to have my personality broken down into discrete categories, and "profile" the kind of person I was. I discovered that I was an "E.N.T.J" personality (Extroverted, Intuitive, Thinking, Judgmental). I would later rediscover this method, apparently called the "Keirsey Temperment Sorter." The idea is simple enough: on a variety of possible dimensions people are either one thing or another (e.g. thinkers vs. feelers), so you can create thumbnail sketches based on those distinctions you think are most important. This can (it is believed) at once inform yourself as to who you really are, as well as give you similar insight into other people.

This got brought back into mind by a conversation I had today with a professional poker player, who makes several hundred dollars a month playing poker online and in casinos. Poker (specifically, Texas Hold 'Em) is a game that requires quickly and accurately reading people identify the signs that they're bluffing (their "tells"), and to guess at how they'll behave. Apparently, the poker world has its own "personality profiling," an informal list of the kinds of people one can expect to meet at a poker table. A "table boss," for example, wants to run the show, and is inclined to tell others how to play (which, apparently, happens to usually be a guide as to how they themselves play). There's many such "types." More importantly is an apparently widely-held view that most people, when stressed, behave according to a small number of different "scripts" defined by their personality. Some people might bet or fold more, others less, is the scenario becomes high stress. What's interesting about this is that these categories speak to a sense that there aren't a lot of variations among people, such that (with the exception of the occasional oddball), you can memorize a handful of strategies for dealing with various personality types and ignore the subtext (because, in poker, you rarely interact with people long enough for the subtext to matter).

I was actually exposed to the idea of "context-dependent personality types" very young. Matt Groening's "Life In Hell" was a formative influence on me, and he often explored the humor potential of this approach to personality. As a youth (say, 8 to 12 years of age), I often tried to approach people in this way, often in a pejorative manner. It wasn't until high school that I really started to think of my peer in terms of social customs rather than absolute black-and-white pigeon-holing of their personalities.

It's a strange sort of paradox. Our society wants the easy answer to any problem. There's a "guaranteed" 12-step program for every "problem" a person might have, and in that program, the seller profits on the desire of the many buyers to "have it explained to them" or to "get an edge" in the battle to get by. But at the same time that people want to have little boxes drawn in their headspace to simplify their lives, they really dislike being reduced to a stereotype themselves. It's a strange sort of arrogance to assume that you can follow the same 12 steps to success as everyone else and yet somehow still be unique and special.

Not everyone feels that way, of course. Many reject 12-step programs. But many people go the other way. Grant Morrison is the author of the dense and difficult comic series The Invisibles, a Scottish anti-authoritarian type with a taste for consciousness-expansion. He comments, in response that some of his characters are stereotypes:

"It always annoyed me when people said they were stereotypes. People are stereotypes. I'm a stereotype; I fit the exact stereotype of an Aquarian, every inch of it. Stop fighting it. So what? I'd still be a real character if you put me in a comic." -(Anarchy for the Masses: The Disinformation Guide to the Invisibles)

A lot of this arises, I think, from laziness. People don't generally spend a lot of time deciding how they should behave, what they should value. Most people have their ideals handed to them by their friends and family early on, and they run with them. Even people who take time to really think things through have to constantly remain vigilant not to fall into their old habits, their old traps. Stress tends to bring out the "us" we don't control, the people we "really are" when we can't self-monitor.

Overall, I'm inclined to think of these personality types as tools. They're a quick-and-dirty heuristic for getting a bead on someone quickly. But they're so far from perfect that I'd hate to have to rely on them to try to understand people. They're the sort of thing I might use for a customer if I were in sales, but not that I'd use for my friends.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

"Reactionary" is not "Enlightened"

Recently, I've been faced with a bogeyman that I haven't had to deal with in a long time: feminism. Just its appearance signals a brawl. In academic circles, terms like "feminism" get brandished like firearms. By this, I mean that they are only brandished in one of two ways: as an attack, meant to belittle another person's ideas (and themselves by proxy, as often as not), or as a form of braggadocio among the like-minded (think rednecks shooting rifles into the air at a party). Feminism is far from alone on the list of "terms whose use represents a throwing down of the gauntlet" (Marxism and Psychoanalysis come to mind), but it is certainly the one that I've had to deal with most frequently.

The basic problem arises from the following paired circumstanced: (a) people use the word to mean a wide variety of different things, and (b) people who disagree on its use usually see the disagreement as a sign of moral inadequacy on the part of the disagreed-with party. I, for example, maintain that "feminism," historically and today, is a term that, at its core, is a reactionary attitude that defines itself by a set of assumptions (rather than facts) about society and gender differences. Others maintain that what feminism *really* means is valuing equal rights for people of both sexes. Clearly, then, because I don't agree with them, they are prone to accuse me of not valuing equality between the sexes, and I am prone to accusing them of not valuing rational ideas.

So here's my take on the matter:

(1) One Gender Is Not Better Than The Other

I'm a big fan of meritocracy. And I don't think a person's gender (or, for that matter, their ethnic background) has a positive or negative value. I think the most qualified people should be selected for the most competitive positions, regardless of gender. I value an opinion based on its merits, not based on its origins. I would like to see this kind of color/genderblindnes permeate society.

Therefore, precisely what I don't want to hear is the constant repetition of a "women are better than men" rhetoric, any more than I want to hear "White/Black is better than Black/White" rhetoric. For many people, in practice, feminism means "men are evil/inferior/stupid." Which is really just sexism.

Which is not to say that there isn't evidence. Mind you, if your data collection is poor, there's evidence for everything. But real, reliable, empirical evidence shows difference between men and women. And not just physical differences (yes, I know women aren't, on average, as physically strong as men) - important societal differences exist. Critical differences. But, I assert, these differences exist because of societal inequality, not inherent inequality. Take, for example, findings discussed in Ralph Keyes' excellent book, The Post-Truth Era:

"When I comes to lying, men and women clearly have different agendas. To oversimplify, men lie to impress, women to oblige. Women are more likely to accommodate others with their lies, men to accommodate themselves. Men specialize in self-aggrandizing lies ("I just swung a big deal - huge"), women in charitable ones ("Love the dress") or fibs that are self-protective ("I eat mostly low-fat foods"). Their deceitfulness seems to be based on caring, perhaps too much, what others think of them. This reflects a broader psychological finding that women feel judged more on the quality of their relationships, men on the quality of their achievements."

So far, nothing I find surprising. Nor would most feminists, including those who would use this passage as "proof" that women are more charitable, and men more selfish. However, Keyes continues:

"Let's examine the basis for this distinction a little more closely. Members of both sexes said they lied to women in order to protect them, but told men lies in order to one-up them. Why? Because, [Bella] DePaulo explained. "they thought that the women to whom they told their lies would have felt even worse if they heard the truth instead of a lie." Isn't this patronizing? And what does this say about relative deceitfulness, independent of motivation? As DePaulo herself admitted, "At least some of the times when women are being protective of other people's feelings, they are simply lying. Men are less supportive in those ways, but also more truthful."

"DePaulo originally thought this contrast reflected female supportiveness and male competitiveness. That was before she discovered how frequently women lies to each other. In same-sex interactions, they routinely told "kind" lies, "love-the-dress" lies. Women don't lie to spare other *people's* feelings, DePaulo found, so much as they protect other *women's* feelings. What's more, the least stressed of all her subjects were women lying to women. Women felt much greater distress when lying to a man. Men didn't feel quite so stressed when lying to each other, and hardly stressed at all when lying to each other. Before assessing lying by gender, DePaulo concluded, one must first consider the gender of a lie's target. Men who routinely tell other men boastful stories switch to protective, other-oriented lies when dealing with women. Women's lies also change dramatically when aimed at the opposite sex. Then, self-serving deception becomes more common. In mixed groups, women are nearly as likely as men to concoct stories about their spurious achievements."

As a scientists, this is exactly what I'm talking about - many simplistic assertions for which one can proclaim supporting evidence (e.g. "men are selfish compared to women") become much, much more complex upon careful examination. Similar findings have been found with race and IQ - according to a superficial reading of certain experiments, blacks have a lower IQ than whites - until you take the "IQ test" used and present it to the same subjects as "fun games to pass the time." At that point, the difference evaporates. In other words, the blacks seemed to be self-handicapping when told their intelligence was being tested. *Not* that they were, in fact, less intelligent overall.

My opinion is that, in our society, there are predominant gender roles. These gender roles will change in time, and how they change will in turn transform these now-commonplace phenomena accordingly. In a truly gender-equal society, for example, we might expect what kinds of lies people tell to be shaped by the victim's personality more than their gender.

(2) Reactionary Feminism Is Bad for Women's Rights

Reactionary belief systems can be found all over the country. Americans are quite good at being reactionaries, descended as they are in large part from religiously reactionary European exiles, wage/genuine slaves brought over by cruel injustice, and self-reinventing go-getters. This is because nothing ferments irrational fervor like the mixture of the sense of having been wronged and the force of ambition. We label those reactionary belief systems as "counter-cultural" today, but we often ignore what counter-culture means: it means that without a mainstream culture to rebel against, the counter-cultures lose their ability to define themselves. Without developing values that are based on something more concrete that rejection of the status quo, all counter-cultural movements, given enough time, are doomed to irrelevance when society as a whole changes.

"Feminism" as a movement (as opposed to a self-label signifying a belief in gender equality) is reactionary in its current form. Sure, women aren't burning their bras anymore (an act that quickly fell out of fashion, perhaps because women realized that bras are *useful* - just ask any woman with a size C chest or larger who tries to jog). But many feminist organizations, schools of thought, and activists seek to "reform the system" as their defining characteristic. To be clear, I agree with them that society has serious gender problems to be resolved (such as the gender gap in wages or the glass ceiling women face on their career paths). But to define oneself according to the wrongs you are trying to right is to set a limit to your own personality.

More broadly, reactionary movements are adversarial. Feminist activists are well-versed in outlining the crimes of their opponents, but doing so angrily is only going to create enemies. Herein lies the basic paradox of reactionary movements: if people are defined by ingroup-outgroup status (e.g. Marxist vs. Bourgeois, feminist vs. masculinist) then there's a very real sense in which a sizable block of the population cannot be persuaded, because it is their nature (remember: men = evil) to be unpersuadable. But activist movements require persuasion to succeed. If a person's activism, by its nature, causes anyone you haven't already persuaded to close off communication with you, you've lost. Society may change on its own, but you'll be marginalized and ignored as a crackpot or a fanatic.

In fairness, most self-described feminists are not radical activists who seek to remove slightly less than half of the world's population (men) from power. Those who are rabidly anti-male or anti-status-quo are in the minority. But as is the case with American Christians, it's the vocal minority that distort public perception. Fervent biblical literalness are not characteristic of Christians in America, but it certainly seems that way sometimes because it's the really crazy ones we hear about on the news. So it is with feminists. It's true of all reactionary movements that seek social change: if your own intensity, your own fervor, and your own unwillingness to compromise causes people to close themselves to your ideas *because* they've closed themselves to you, you've cut off your nose to spite your face.

(3) Don't Confuse History With Biology, Or Current Events With The Possible Future

Yes, history is dominated by patriarchal societies - in fact, according to the strict definition, a martiarchal society has never existed on a large scale. If someone was keeping score (which no one is), men have won, so far. Some Feminists want to take this (histortical) fact and somehow tie it in with (biological) reasons for why "men cheat" in the gender wars. From population biology ("women have babies, so they're tied down, so men can assert dominance") to bad literary metaphor ("a penis seeks to invade and subjugate the uterus"), there's no end of really stupid theory floating around.

The same goes for the way society is. Many assert that "because society is sexist and men are in charge, societies where men happen to be dominant must by definition be sexist," which makes several assumptions. My breakdown is somewhat different: If a society lets men dominate women, men will dominate women. If a society, alternately, puts women in a dominant roles, they will behave accordingly. My take on human nature is that anyone (man or women) given the opportunity, will eventually exploit a position of unfair power. If we achieve a truly gender-blind society, guess what? Men will sometimes still hold positions of power! And in our currently sexist society, guess what? Many of the women who are in positions of power are helping to make the gender relation problems in this country worse! The real test of a person's value lies not in their heritage or their genitals, but in their beliefs. A society's value is not defined, in my view by where it is, but by where it's trying to go.

What we need is for normal, everyday people to accept each other. Rallies aren't going to do that. Protests aren't going to do that. Education is going to do that. Our children need facts, not rhetoric. Our teachers need to value the objective truth, not moralistic agendas. And the truth is this: in any issue, be it abortion, gender relations, racism, unemployment, or anything else, those who go to war and won't compromise are eventually going to find themselves sidelined by those willing to reach agreements, to compromise, and the try to meet in the middle. This is why fanatics *hate* people who are willing to compromise. Despite being "weaker" or "impure," they also usually win.

Myself, I'm just tired of knee-jerk reactionaries of all stripes. I challenge anyone who hasn't done so to try, disconnected from the internet, away from books, out of sight of a TV, to lay out their beliefs on paper, and make sure they have reasons, justifications, and values to support those beliefs. The more you feel the need to grab at some other media else for guidance, you haven't gotten it together yet.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

The Paranoid Silence

You know what's unsettling? Having someone staring over your shoulder, that's what.

This is the problem with the Internet - annonymity can be maintained with some effort, but there's this "desire to share." Well, now that people I know have been known to read this, I find myself in a quandry: if they read some stuff I've written here, will they think it applies to them, or some other mutual acquaintance?

I think, mostly, the problem is that my most recent idle musings have been on the topic of relationships. And because they aren't my relationships, it's arguably not my business. Thus, I've found myself second-guessing myself. Seeing as this isn't really intended for anyone, having an actual readership (especially one that can affect me socially) is quite disabling.

We've all heard the horror stories, of course: person X says something on the internet, word gets around somehow, person Y finds out about it, hits person X in the face. Now, my friends aren't the hittin' types. Though they might poke. Still! I don't want to get poked!

Blogs like this one should be lone islands of solipsism - just me existing on my own, with an audience of zero, or at least zero people who know who I am, who I know, or where I live. Not that I'm trying to chase my one (two?) readers away. I'm just realizing that my words are not going unnoticed.

New topic: Nerf - What happened to it?