All posts filed under: Features

Against Research Ethics Committees

Author Note: This article is based on a presentation at the Economic Society of Australia Annual Conference, and draws on an earlier discussion of an incident with an Australian university ethics committee “Why Ethics Committees Are Unethical” Agenda 10/2 2002.  The views expressed here are personal, and should not be attributed to the organisations with which I am affiliated.  Ethics committees have been part of the life of medical researchers for some decades, based on guidelines which flow from the World Medical Association’s 1964 “Declaration of Helsinki.”  This declaration was aimed at physicians and draws heavily on the Nuremberg Code developed during the trials of Nazi doctors after WWII. It has been joined by more recent guidelines such as the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects” and many others. In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) issued its first Statement on Human Experimentation in 1966, and the current set of NHMRC guidelines, now issued jointly with the Australian Research Council (ARC) is the National Statement …

‘The Rise of Jordan Peterson’—A Review

Given today’s downward cultural spiral, it’s disturbing but not surprising that the makers of a thoughtful new documentary about Jordan Peterson are having a hard time finding somewhere to show their film. Many mainstream and independent cinemas have refused to screen it because they’re “fearful of controversy” or “morally concerned.” One theater in Toronto cancelled a week-long showing after some of the staff “took issue with it.” A theater in Brooklyn cancelled a second screening, despite the fact that the first sold out and received good reviews, “because some staff were offended . . . and felt uncomfortable.” We were going to join 11 Canadian cities watching #RJPFilm today but we received a last-minute cancellation from the Brooklyn venue because apparently some staff were offended by the content and felt uncomfortable to work at our screening.. https://t.co/nOTpoiGuGg — Patricia Marcoccia (@pmarcoccia) October 6, 2019 Jordan Peterson. Jordan Peterson. Jordan Peterson! That name, that man, that swirling storm of impassioned controversies—again? After the flood of protests, podcasts, profiles, social media storms, hit pieces, and heartfelt testimonials …

Olga Tokarczuk: Poland’s “Patriots” Struggle To Accept The Nobel Prize

For a few minutes on Thursday afternoon, after Olga Tokarczuk’s Nobel Prize in Literature had been announced by the Nobel Committee, Polish public television did not mention her name. Her picture appeared on the screen of TVP Info, the public news channel, along with the headline: “A Pole Awarded the Nobel Prize.” But her name was conspicuously omitted. I had rushed to turn on our TV at the Warsaw editorial offices of Gazeta Wyborcza, a liberal newspaper, to see how public television would handle the news. Previous Polish Nobel Laureates—from Marie Curie to Wisława Szymborska—have been sources of great national pride in Poland. But Tokarczuk is on the Polish Ministry of Culture’s informal “black list,” and it may well be that in the minutes following the announcement of her award, the TVP Info editors simply did not dare mention her name. So, ironically, a writer who has been consistently denounced as unpatriotic by the ruling national-conservative establishment, was simply described as a Pole.  This weekend, a week before the parliamentary elections next Sunday (October 13), the charismatic …

The Misuse of Empathy Is Devaluing Pain

Pain is losing its meaning, and empathy is the culprit. Treating the pain of others as if it were one’s own has become less about relating to the anguish than demonstrating the empathizer’s piety. Spotlighting someone else’s suffering is now a means to an end, so it should come as no surprise that cultural and political appeals to humanity’s empathetic edge seldom produce the intended result; instead, it’s often divisive, self-centered, and unhelpful. Advocacy for change built on a transient emotional state is weak motivation for sustained action. Getting people to think about how they’d feel after following through with an action, however, is far more effective. Shifting those attitudes could be the key to combatting the nearsighted emotional surges that hijack a coherent sense of direction in Western culture. And it may reclaim the respect once held for pain—and the people who are experiencing it—in the process. Empathy is a fundamental human emotion that helps us to understand one another. Typically, it has been reserved for personal relationships, which helped to ensure sincerity. When …

The Meritocracy Trap—A Review

A review of The Meritocracy Trap: How America’s Foundational Myth Feed Inequality, Dismantles the Middle Class, and Devours the Elite by David Markovitz, Penguin Press (September 2019) 422 pages. Meritocracy is in trouble. Recent years have seen a flood of articles deploring inequality and blaming meritocracy for it. In the vanguard is Yale Law professor Daniel Markovits who attacked meritocracy in its home, in an address to Yale University graduates in 2015. His new book, The Meritocracy Trap,1 has just been published. Professor Markovits is a meritocratic champ himself: “In the summer of 1987…I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and [then] attend[ed] Yale College. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at…the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard University, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees [in philosophy, econometrics, mathematics and law] along the way.” Despite his own success in the meritocratic sweepstakes, Markovits is highly critical of what he sees as an inevitable bad outcome. The book has nine chapters, beginning with ‘The Meritocratic …

‘Oikophobia’: Our Western Self-Hatred

It was an Italian evening in late summer at the end of the previous decade, and I was having dinner outside in the shade of the Roman Colosseum—the emblem of a decadent Empire whose ruins were everywhere to be seen. One of my fellow diners, a young graduate student of Ancient History, suddenly made the disquieting observation that she could never speak ill of another culture. Not only was she unable to do so, but in fact she emphasized that she did not even have the right to do so. When I asked her, alluding to her own Austrian roots, what she might say of a culture that produced, say, Adolf Hitler, she replied that she as an Austrian European may criticize European and Austrian culture, and consequently that brutal dictator. My follow-up question, whether then by her logic a non-Austrian or non-European should not be allowed to criticize Nazism, did not receive a clear reply. But my fellow diner continued to insist that we should only criticize our own cultures, never others. I thus …

University Harassment Policy and Its Problems

Chatting with a student at the end of a long day, our conversation shifts from academic matters to the personal when I mention that I have to get home to my kids. He says I look too young to be a mother. I tell him I’m so tired all the time that I feel ancient. He asks if I have any time off coming up, and what I’d like to do to relax. It dawns on me that he’s flirting. And it occurs to me that I might be flirting back, awkwardly. I certainly didn’t mean to flirt with a student. I was just, you know, being myself. He’s 23 and I—ahem—am not. He’s cute. And clever. It’s not the worst conversation I’ve had with guy. But it’s not the best, either. After a few minutes, I tell him I have to go, and that it’s been a great semester. We were just two people talking, enjoying a moment of unguarded informality in the empty halls of the academy. This kind of conversation has happened …

The Problem with Sensitivity Readers

The idea of a sensitivity reader, the newest profession birthed in our politically correct times, instinctively does not sit well with writers. Because writing is not about protecting people’s feelings—it’s about provoking them. And nobody pursues a career in the arts because they like being told what they can and can’t say with their work. So I, like many writers, watched the influence of these “editors” grow with significant consternation. In theory, sensitivity readers simply review looking for anything that might offend the arbitrary sensitivities or transgress the invisible fault lines of the moment. In practice, I saw what looked like hordes of censors with the power to block the publication of Young Adult novels. I even watched as one professional sensitivity reader—a black, gay man—had his own novel sunk for not being sufficiently sensitive to diversity concerns. I shook my head and then, for some reason, I thought, “Well, I’d like to try that.” Earlier this year, between the final passes on my book Stillness is the Key, I told my publisher that I …

The Man at the Arcade

It was March, 1987, and I was 15 years old. I was in the arcade on Wilson, in Uptown, Chicago, asking for quarters. I’d only recently been released from the mental hospital. I didn’t know where my parents lived. That morning, I’d made my way to the 51st Street Elevated, where I climbed the back of the station onto the platform and caught a train to Loyola. There I met up with some friends. I had new friends at the group home, but I didn’t like them as much as my friends on the North Side. That doesn’t explain how I arrived at the arcade on Wilson, though. Why Wilson, and not Dennis’s place on Clark Street near the 24th District? Maybe I had a meeting with my caseworker at the Department of Children and Family Services office, or something like that. We’re talking 32 years ago. Maybe it wasn’t March. Maybe it was April. I asked a man for a quarter and he said no. The guy kind of sneered at me. He had …

‘Cancel Culture,’ Roaring Twenties-Style

The term “cancel culture” has become hotly contested of late. Critics say it is indiscriminately used to describe different degrees of mass opprobrium produced by transgressions that range from the trivial to the criminal. Now, while mob justice is never a particularly good idea, it is certainly true that some instances are more serious than others. Probably the worst kind involves a serious accusation made against a public figure, who is then investigated and cleared, but whose life and reputation are never allowed to completely recover. I was reminded of this reading Claire Lehmann’s recent essay about the fate of Giovanni da Col, a young man driven from the journal he founded amid accusations of sexual and financial impropriety, despite the fact that these claims had been investigated and found to be baseless. Woody Allen, meanwhile, had his career belatedly derailed by the reemergence of child molestation allegations, first made by his estranged partner Mia Farrow during an ugly custody fight in 1992. These claims, too, were thoroughly investigated at the time and dismissed, but …