All posts filed under: Features

My Unpopular Opinion: There Are Too Many Mediocre Artists

Every now and again, a friend of mine holds a ‘what’s your unpopular opinion?’ discussion in a club we jointly run. Everyone takes turns to say something not so much outrageous or contrarian (debates are seldom about politics) but bitter – as in ‘bitter truth’. People argue, say, that colonialism is a good idea (when done by the British, of course), or that sometimes historic buildings and artefacts are more important than people (and should by preference be preserved in wartime), or that corporal punishment is probably not such a bad idea for certain sorts of crimes (and criminals). He imposes the Chatham House rule so people aren’t set upon afterwards by mobs of offendotrons trying to get them sacked for wrongthink. Well, I’ve decided to go public with one of my unpopular opinions. There are too many artists, too many people who want to be artists, most of them aren’t very good, and schools should focus on inculcating self-discipline rather than dopey ‘all must have prizes’ creativity. Most people are only ever going to …

Kimmel and Conflict Theory: Sociology Turns Its Lens onto One of Its Own

Michael Kimmel is a Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at SUNY Stony Brook who has recently been embroiled in a controversy regarding sexual harassment complaints. He is well-known in disciplinary subfields as a researcher on masculinity who has written several books, including Guyland and Manhood: A Cultural History. Only very recently has he been accused of sexual harassment and professional misconduct — charges that are currently under investigation by the American Sociological Association. A desire to sort out the charges being levied, which are based on language as opposed to physical contact, prompted Kimmel to request a six-month delay of his receipt of the Jessie Bernard award from the American Sociological Association. The first coverage of the charges against Kimmel was published on August 1 in the Chronicle of Higher Education, through which anonymous complaints about his professional conduct were made public. Then came the August 10 Inside Higher Ed piece, which was based on named complainant Bethany Coston’s medium.com account of her interactions with Kimmel when she was a graduate student. Coston is now …

Did British Merchants Cause the Opium War?

A review of Song-Chuan Chen’s Merchants of War and Peace: British Knowledge of China in the Making of the Opium War, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press (January 12, 2017) 240 pages. The war had a name even before its first shot. The first recorded use of the moniker, the ‘Opium War,’ was in an 1839 piece in the London Morning Herald; within months it would be echoed across the benches of Parliament and across the carronades of the fleet sent to punish the Chinese crackdown on British trade. The war’s nomenclature revealed from the beginning the multivalent views the British public held towards the war: it was at once the “unjust and iniquitous” Opium War — to use Gladstone’s well-known phrase — as well as the patriotic ‘China War,’ as its proponents wanted it to be called. The historiography of the war is similarly divided among varied lines. Some see the war as reflective of China’s failure to catch up to Western technologies; others emphasize the British desire to avenge their slighted national honour as the …

The Forgotten Story of How “Punching Up” Harmed the Science-Fiction/Fantasy World

The recent blowup over New York Times editorial board hire Sarah Jeong and her racially charged Twitter trail turned into a brawl over a key question in today’s cultural polemics: Whether derogatory speech about whites should be considered racist and, more generally, whether there is such a thing as anti-white racism. Most of Jeong’s defenders on the left not only argued that she shouldn’t lose her job but insisted that there was nothing particularly wrong with her white-bashing tweets, whether they were meant to mock racist trolls or criticize “white privilege.” “To equate ‘being mean to white people’ with the actual systemic oppression and marginalization of minority groups is a false equivalency,” wrote Vox reporter Aja Romano in a supposedly objective “explainer.” As the Jeong drama demonstrates, the view that “woke” white-bashing is a harmless, justified, and perhaps even commendable form of “punching up” is now mainstream in liberal/progressive culture in North America (and some other Western countries). And yet another culture-war episode from four years ago—one that, as it happens, Romano also covered in …

The New McCarthyism: Blacklisting in Academia

Blacklisting is back. In the days of Joe McCarthy, Hollywood screen writers and actors were the targets. Today, it is University professors accused of sexual harassment. Being accused is enough to destroy a professor’s career. Even speaking out against a false accusation can be dangerous, as I found out. One of the most widely discussed cases involves the philosopher Colin McGinn, who resigned from the University of Miami after the University accused him of failing to report a romantic, non-sexual relationship with a 26 year old graduate student.  The University did not accuse him of sexual harassment. Yet bloggers accused him and this was enough to get McGinn disinvited from conferences and speaking engagements, and blacklisted in the profession. In 2015, the student making the initial complaint filed a lawsuit against the University of Miami, McGinn, and me. I had commented on the case and was accused of defamation. The Judge dismissed all charges against me with prejudice and none of us were found liable for any of the student’s claims. Despite his legal victory, …

A Closer Look at Anti-White Rhetoric

Online controversy erupted earlier this month when The New York Times announced that technology writer Sarah Jeong would be joining its editorial board. Almost immediately, old tweets from Jeong containing derogatory remarks about white people were being shared widely on twitter. The next day, The Times issued a statement defending Jeong’s tweets as a response to online harassment in which she was “imitating the rhetoric of her harassers,” reflecting Jeong’s own statement that she was “counter-trolling” and would not do it again. The Times further claimed it had reviewed Jeong’s social media history as part of the vetting process and affirmed that her hiring would not be affected by the controversy. The following day, journalist Nick Monroe searched Jeong’s twitter history for the term “white” and found hundreds of tweets from 2013 to 2017. He posted the result in a long twitter thread, also widely shared. Some of the tweets were highly inflammatory, such as: “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men;” “Dumbass …

Norms of Good Governance: Where Do They Come From?

Some countries exhibit good governance while others do not. Even wealthy countries, with strong cultural norms of industriousness and excellence in education, can flounder when it comes to maintaining liberal democracy. For personality psychologists, such as myself, this presents an intriguing question: what is it about humans that makes democratic norms stick? What are the traits that facilitate honesty and transparency in administration at the highest levels? Whatever the answer turns out to be, new insights from personality psychology can help shed some light on how good governance can be both developed and maintained. Those of us who live in the Anglosphere (USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK) might be forgiven for thinking that our societal norms such as individualism, freedom of expression and public service are standard issue for humanity. They aren’t, they are WEIRD. That acronym stands for Western Educated Industrialised Rich and Democratic. And the name fits – WEIRD countries are rare, comprising only about 12% of the global population. This observation is usually viewed in the scientific literature as …

Why It’s Not OK to Hate Men

Is it okay to hate women? Obviously not. It’s not only stupid and immoral but impractical given how many of them there are and the marked differences between each and every one of them. Is it okay to hate men, then? Again, obviously not, for the same reasons. Except – it’s not so obvious. Because such sentiments are again entering the mainstream. I say ‘again’, since misandry – the unapologetic hatred of men as an undifferentiated group – is nothing new. Radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin and Valerie Solanis (founder of the Society for Cutting Up Men and shooter of Andy Warhol) were the most famous man-haters in the 1970s, but were pretty much disavowed at the time by many more mainstream feminists and later by third wave feminists. Misandry went out of fashion during the 1980s and the idea that feminists were all ‘lesbians and man haters’ was rightly ridiculed. Now it’s back – and much closer to the mainstream than it was 50 years ago. Despite all the remarkable advances we have made …

The Furore Over a Quebec Theatre Production Has Missed the Point

Quebec is a bastion of North American progressivism. Canada’s only majority-Francophone province is a place where postsecondary education is heavily subsidized, unions remain powerful, the social safety net is thick, and the power grid is fuelled by green hydroelectric energy. Given all this, it might have surprised some outside observers to learn that Quebec briefly played host this summer to a theatrical production described by one prominent artist as “reminiscent of blackface minstrel shows.” The controversy sprang to popular attention when Montreal’s Jazz Festival canceled the remaining performances of SLAV, in which a white star (surrounding by a largely white cast) performed songs composed by black slaves. Director Robert Lepage, a giant of the Quebec stage, denounced the decision as “a direct blow” to his artistic freedom. But activists within Quebec’s black community described the cancelation as necessary. “I am not the type to scream about cultural appropriation, but this project left me with an acrid aftertaste,” Québécois rapper Webster wrote in Le Devoir. “How many will benefit from black cultural heritage set to stage …

Nobody Should Listen to Twitter Mobs

Last fortnight, the New York Times stood behind its new editorial board hire Sarah Jeong, after critics on the right dug up Jeong’s offensive tweets sarcastically mocking white people, saying things like “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men,” and using a #CancelWhitePeople hashtag. The Times argued that Jeong’s tweets were a sort of counter-trolling response to sustained harassment she endured as a young Asian-American female technology reporter.  Jeong’s critics noted that her offensive tweets weren’t in direct response to any harassment, and that they displayed a degree of hostility to white people that would be considered racist and out of bounds if directed toward any other group.  Nonetheless, the Times did not fire her. This was the right decision.  People shouldn’t lose jobs and opportunities over old tweets.  But if the New York Times did the right thing here, then, by the same standard, several prominent media companies, including the Times, have made wrong decisions in the recent past. Nobody should be …