What Does It Mean To Assign Babies A Gender?

More Philosophical Difficulties With The Concept Of Gender

I’m posting this because I think it raises some interesting philosophical issues about what it even means to assign a child a gender at birth as opposed to merely assigning them a sex. I mean surely the article isn’t advocating that we stop observing which genitalia a child has at birth or even that we stop using those facts to make decisions1. So then what even does it consist of to assign a child a gender at birth?

It seems to have something to do with assuming they will fill a certain kind of societal role, i.e., will comply with the societal expectations we have for men or women. So, for example, merely having a doctor note the genitalia expressed by the child or passing that information on to others wouldn’t count but having a “It’s a boy” party, and thereby encouraging guests to give boy appropriate presents, would.

However, this raises interesting questions about whether it is meaningful to claim to have a certain gender (say one different than the usual one for your sex) but be non-conformist to the usual social stereotypes. Or, indeed, what it would even mean to claim a given gender identity in the absence of such gender stereotypes and whether one can coherently support the idea of someone being transgender (as opposed to simply gender non-conforming) while opposing the idea of expectations of gendered behavior, i.e., in order to support the idea of someone claiming a different gender must one in some sense assent to the idea that it is appropriate to have certain gender specific expectations of behavior?

Interestingly, if on accepts the analysis I offer below, on which gender identity is ultimately about a preference between various gendered societal roles it may be that the suggestion in this article is in a sense conceptually self-defeating since if society ever got close to the point of adopting this solution the very concept of gender as distinct from sex would dissolve.

Why we should stop giving babies a gender when they are born

Trans rights have burst into the spotlight in the past few years thanks to high-profile figures like Laverne Cox and Caitlyn Jenner, with the former’s 2014 Time cover seen as a watershed moment for the movement. Now, the debate has turned to children and gender.

Before I go one I’d like to impress the importance of distinguishing theoretical considerations from more practical ones. For instance, one could believe that gender identity doesn’t really make sense because it rests on the inappropriate idea that we should have different expectations and social roles for men and women while believing that since, in the near term there is no practical means of eliminating those expectations/roles the best thing to do is to support people’s ability to change which set of expectations/roles apply to them (or make the effort of opting out). This isn’t quite the position I hold but I would like to stress that however the theoretical discussion turns out I firmly believe that, as a matter of simple human compassion and empathy, we should respect people’s requests to be referred to and treated as the gender they identify with. Regardless of whether the notion of gender is philosophically suspect or not it causes people real pain to be misgendered and doing so benefits no one. Even if you believe transgender identification is a mental disorder2 which doctors should try to cure rather than accede to refusing to gender colleagues as they request or let them use the restroom of their choice, like screaming at someone whose religious beliefs you disagree with, accomplishes nothing but making more people miserable.

Tentative Thoughts

These kind of questions push me towards the view that the only sense in which one can claim to have a certain gender (as distinct from sex) is insofar as one is announcing an intention to comply more with the social expectations of and fulfill the social role of your chosen gender and requesting others apply those expectations to you. Obviously, one need not intend to comply with all the stereotypes and expectations society has of your chosen gender or request they all be applied to you but by announcing a particular gender identity one is suggesting that in the main you intend to comply with or wish to be treated according to the stereotypes for your chosen gender more so than the other gender. Or in the case of a declaration of a non-binary gender identity that one doesn’t intend to fill either social role and doesn’t wish to be treated as if one belongs in either.

Ultimately, this means that there is a certain sense in which I don’t think it makes sense to ‘really’ be intrinsically male (female) despite being biologically female (male). There is no societally independent objective notion of gender relative to which one is really male or female. There are only certain societal roles, expectations and stereotypes about men and women and attitudes people have about how they wish to relate to those roles, expectations and stereotypes. Thus, its simply incoherent to claim that one’s gender is really female but that one doesn’t intend to play more of the stereotypical female role in social interactions nor does one want others to treat you more according to the usual social expectations we have of women. In other words, the only real concept of gender (as distinct from sex) which we have recourse to is the operational concept defined by way of society’s gendered expectations. As such, the common implicit assumption in discussions of gender identity that gender is some kind of intrinsic property of the individual must be rejected.

To be clear I’m not suggesting that talk of gender identity is misguided or can’t be made sense of. The operational definition (or a precisification thereof) I gave above works perfectly well and makes sense of what is going on when someone makes a male or female gender identity claim. However, it does suggest a certain skepticism about claims of gender identities other than male, female and none of the above (if gender is understood as a desire to be treated as if you belong/don’t belong to certain societal categories it doesn’t really make sense to call categories that society doesn’t have gender identities) and suggests a certain degree of skepticism regarding the implicit assumption of intrinsicness often made about gender. Accepting this view, however, does limit one’s ability to simultaneously claim to have a male/female gender identity while resisting the idea that gender specific social norms and stereotypes should be applied to you.

Gender As Personal Identification

I suspect a common response to my suggestion above is that I’m ignoring the very real sense in which some individuals strongly identify as a given gender. I fully accept the fact that some people simply feel male or female and are more comfortable thinking of themselves in that way. For those of us, like myself, who are cis by default such feelings certainly seem puzzling but I’m very much convinced they are real. But if I’m convinced these feelings are real why not just accept that the concept of gender merely refers to the sense of personal identification as male or female?

For one thing, the discussion of personal identification (driven by a noble desire to be inclusive) elides the fact that this can mean very different things to different people. I found the answers to this question I asked on quora about the experience of gender dysphoria quite illuminating. In particularly, it suggests that while some people’s experience of gender dysphoria is best described as a desire to be socially treated as a member of the other gender other individuals feelings were directly related to a feeling of discomfort with the genitalia they were born with. However, the focus on social role seems both more common and more faithful to the idea that gender is something distinct from biological sex (or even desired biological sex) and the operational definition above seems to capture the primary ways people want to use the term.

But why not go further and simply accept the claims of strong personal identification with a gender as defining the concept of gender? This, after all, seems to be what most transactivists seem to favor and would allow one to make sense of both the variety of non-binary gender identification and those individuals who want to both claim a given male/female gender identity while rejecting the operational aspects, i.e., the request to be treated according to gendered societal expectations or desire to fit into gendered roles.

Unfortunately, this approach has several serious flaws. First, it seems unable to cope with the phenomena of cis by default as such individuals lack any particular feeling of personal identification but we don’t want to deny they have the default cis gender. One could offer a disjunctive definition of gender but such unwieldy theoretical constructs should generally be avoided. Even more problematic is that such an approach fails to pick out a clear concept as what feelings count as identifying as a particular gender will vary from person to person. Of course, one might try and offer some kind of objective yardstick of male/female identifying against which various feelings can be measured but that just pushes the problem of choosing a conception of gender back a level. More broadly, it still leaves us in want of any sense in which we should regard a particular kind of feeling of identification to be a feeling of gender identification rather than some other kind of psycho-sexual identification.

Besides, as a purely practical matter it might be best if the transrights movement, at least temporarily, disassociated themselves from the idea that one can simply choose a word that describes how you feel about your `gender’ and call that a gender-identity. Even if you don’t share my conceptual concerns about calling such identifications, no matter how sincerely felt, gender identities it may be a necessary tactical move just as it was tactically necessary for gays to disassociate themselves from other non-traditional relationships like polyamory in the pursuit of gay rights.

Philosophical Work

Yes, I’m aware that there is some philosophical work on this subject. Unfortunately, while there are a few interesting papers in the analytic tradition far too many are nothing but ideologically driven continentalesque concept association. Of the papers that are worth reading the only one that I’ve found which directly tackles these hard conceptual issues is “Science Fiction Double Feature: Trans Liberation on Twin Earth” but even this paper doesn’t, to my mind, give enough weight to how these terms are actually used and (perhaps motivated by understandable3 concerns about harmful effects on the trans rights movement or perhaps the authors simply don’t share these intuitions) avoids bullet biting when such bullets would conflict with transpositive ideology. However, It’s quite likely I’m unaware of some good work on this subject and would appreciate being pointed in the direction of other good analytic philosophy papers dealing with this subject.


  1. For example, parents who are perfectly balanced between choosing to relocate to an area with far more boys than girls or an area with far more girls than boys could presumably consider the fact that the balance of probabilities favors their child being attracted to individuals with the other kind of genitals when they grow up. 
  2. Personally, I think even phrasing it this way is to miss the point. Of course transgender individuals are suffering from a mental disorder as is anyone experiencing mental anguish. The only relevant question is whether things like gender reassignment surgery or claiming a different gender identity are effective means to reduce that suffering and I believe the evidence suggests they are. 
  3. Understandable and well-intentioned perhaps but still, in my opinion, a mistake. It’s my view that people can sense when certain conclusions or arguments are being avoided out of concern for their harmful impact and this works to push many readers towards a generalized skepticism of such work. At least in the context of an academic philosophy paper where there is little risk of being quoted out of context in the mainstream media, far better to defang the best arguments that can be raised against a position (or at least the public rhetoric associated with a position) and bite any required bullets while showing that need not force one to take an unsupportive or uncompassionate position regarding the vulnerable group in question. 

Gender Neutral School Uniforms

Leave Schoolgirl Outfits To The Adults

Regardless of your views on transgender children how is this not a no brainer? The competing interest in allowing girls to wear skirts is only that it lets them express themselves as identifying as female but if you believe that self-expression is more important than the uniformity and equality conveyed by having all students wear the same outfit you shouldn’t be having students wear a uniform in the first place.

I mean something is seriously weird about a policy which tells children that generally conformity and equality are more important than expressing your individual features except for your gender. At best it suggests that gender is a particularly important division, more important than interests, abilities or other personal characteristics. At worst it encourages teachers to apply gender based stereotypes.

Perhaps you are skeptical that the mere symbolic differentiation between boys and girls would have any real effect. Maybe not. But if you don’t believe these kinds of symbolic distinctions make real differences what are you doing insisting on uniforms in the first place1? If you don’t believe that uniformity sends any important message but are willing to suppress the full range of individual student expression just for disciplinary convenience then surely the issues raised by girls wearing shorts (skirt length etc..) alone are enough to justify eliminating this last, much less valuable, irregularity even ignoring the extra concerns raised about gender.

School bans skirts to make uniform gender neutral for transgender students

“But when it was explained to us, it was about inappropriate dressing, I think it was the right decision to make.” The new uniform only applies for Year 7s but students in Year 8 to Year 11 are welcome to adopt the new uniform.


  1. One might try and suggest that uniforms are important to disguise income differences between parents but that this concern doesn’t implicate any strong symbolic value to the uniformity of the outfit. However, it certainly acknowledges that wealth differentiation based on student outfits make a big difference. Moreover, as someone who had to wear uniforms at school growing up I’m skeptical of this justification. It is still easy to tell who has money as expressed through haircuts, backpacks and other accessories (and tailored higher quality uniforms at some schools) and the uniforms themselves must be purchased in addition to casual outfits (except perhaps at some boarding schools) and differentiation based on parental income is generally less intense than differentiation based on style/interest. 

Does Predictive Processing Explain Too Much?

A Request For Clarification On What Predictive Processing Rules Out

So Scott Alexander has an interesting book review up about Surfing Uncertainty which I encourage everyone to read themselves. However, most of the post is really an exploration of the “predictive processing” model for brain function. I’ll leave a more in depth explanation of what this model is to Scott and just offer the following excerpt for those readers to lazy to click through.

Predictive processing begins by asking: how does this happen? By what process do our incomprehensible sense-data get turned into a meaningful picture of the world.

The key insight: the brain is a multi-layer prediction machine. All neural processing consists of two streams: a bottom-up stream of sense data, and a top-down stream of predictions. These streams interface at each level of processing, comparing themselves to each other and adjusting themselves as necessary.
….
As these two streams move through the brain side-by-side, they continually interface with each other. Each level receives the predictions from the level above it and the sense data from the level below it. Then each level uses Bayes’ Theorem to integrate these two sources of probabilistic evidence as best it can. This can end up a couple of different ways.

The upshot of these different ways is that when everything happens as predicted the higher levels remain unnotified of any change but that when there is a mismatch it draws attention from these higher layers. However, in some circumstances a strong prediction from a higher layer can cause lower layers to “rewrite the sense data to make it look as predicted.”

I admit that I’m intrigued by the idea of predictive processing, especially the suggestion that our muscle control is actually effectuated merely by `predicting’ our arm will be in a certain state and acting to minimize prediction error. However, my first reaction is to wonder how much content there is in this model.

Describing some kind of processing or control task in terms of predictions has a certain universality kind of feel to it. This is only a vague sense based on a book review but I worry that invoking the predictive processing model to describe how our brains work is much like invoking the lambda calculus model to describe how a particular computer functions. Namely, I worry that predictive processing is such a powerful model that virtually anything remotely plausible as a mechanism for processing sense data and effectuating control over our limbs could be fit into the model — meaning it offers no real insight.

I mean it was already apparent before this model came on to the scene that how we see even low level visual data is affected by high level classifications. The various figure-ground illusions make this point quite clearly. It was also already apparent that attention to one task (counting passes) could limit our ability to notice some other kind of oddity (a guy in a gorilla suit). However, its far from clear that the predictive processing model really adds anything to our understanding here.

Indeed, to even make sense of these examples we have to understand the relevant predictions to happen at a very abstract level that is highly context dependent so that by focusing on the number of basketball passes in a game it no longer counts as a sufficiently unpredicted event when a man in a gorilla suit walks past (or allows some other story about why paying one sort of attention suppresses this kind of notice). That’s fine but allowing this level of abstraction/freedom in describing the thing to be predicted makes me wonder what couldn’t be suitably described in terms of this model.

The attempt to describe our imagination, e.g., our ability to picture a generic police officer in our minds, as utilizing the mental machinery that would generate a sense-data stream as a prediction to match against reality raises more questions. Obviously, the notion of matching must be a very high level one quite removed from the actual pictorial representation if the mental image we conjure when we think of policemen is to be seen as matching the sense-data stream experienced when we encounter a policeman. Yet if the level at which we are evaluating a predictive match is so abstract why do we imagine a particular image when we think of a policeman and not merely whatever vague high level abstracta we will judge to match when we actually view a policeman. I’m sure there is a plausible theory to tell here about invoking the same lower level machinery we use to process sense-data when we imagine and leveraging that same feedback but, again, I’m left wondering what work predictive processing is really doing here.

More generally, I wonder to what extent all these predictions wouldn’t result from just assuming, as we know to be true, that the brain processes information in ‘layers’, there can be feedback between these layers and frequently the goal of our mental tasks is to predict events or control actions. Its not even obvious to me that the claimed predictions of the theory like the placebo effect couldn’t have equally well been spun the other way if the effect had been different, e.g., when your high level processes predict that you won’t feel pain it will be particularly salient when you nevertheless do feel pain so placebo pain meds should result in more people reporting pain.

But I haven’t read the book myself yet so maybe predictive processing has been suitably preciscified in the book so as to rule out many plausible ways the brain might have behaved and to clearly predict outcomes like the placebo effect. However, I wrote this post merely to raise the possibility that a paradigm like this can fail precisely because it is too good at describing phenomena. Hopefully, my worries are misplaced and someone can explain to me in the comments just what kind of plausible models of brain function this paradigm rules out.

Silicon Valley Politics

This is an interesting piece but I couldn’t disagree more with the title or the author’s obvious feeling that there must be a cynical explanation for techie’s distrust of government regulation.

Silicon valley types are simply classical pragmatic libertarians. They aren’t Ayn Rand quoting objectivists who believe government intervention is in principle unacceptable. Rather, they, like most academic economists, simply tend to feel that well-intentioned government regulation often has serious harmful side effects and isn’t particularly likely to accomplish the desired goals.

I think this kind of skepticism flows naturally from a certain kind of quantitative results oriented mindset and I expect you would find the same kind of beliefs (to varying degrees) among the academic physicists, civil engineers and others who share the same educational background and quantitative inclination as silicon valley techies. I’m sure that the particular history of poorly understood tech regulation like the original crypto wars in the 90s plays a role but I suspect it just amplified existing tendencies.

Silicon Valley’s Politics Revealed: Mostly Far Left (With a Twist)

But by the 1990s, with the advent of the World Wide Web and the beginning of the tech industry’s march to the apex of the world’s economy, another Silicon Valley political narrative took root: techies as unapologetic libertarians, for whom the best government is a nearly nonexistent one.

Reevaluating Police Shootings

Racial Justice By Universal Justice

Anyone who has been paying attention to US media should be aware of the problem of police shooting unarmed black men. There is no doubt these shootings are unacceptable and reveal deep problems in the way police function in the US but stories like that linked below raise the question of whether the most pressing problem is really racial bias or the way we’ve trained our police to shoot first and ask questions later.

Of course, we want a society in which whites and blacks can expect equal treatment from the police. However, given the deep racial differences in socioeconomic status (exacerbated by the rural/urban divide in where poor whites and blacks live) and the human psychological vulnerability to stereotypes it’s not obvious that there is anything we can do to ensure police don’t develop an unconscious perception of minorities as more threatening. Studies, such as this, suggest that the different treatment that whites and blacks can expect from police aren’t the result of animus as black officers are equally guilty of it. That points to other effects such as stereotypes developed as a result of policing economically disadvantaged minority communities as the cause.

Hopefully, there are strategies we can implement to counteract these stereotypes. Maybe rotating officers into positions where they interact with more high socioeconomic status minorities (or low socioeconomic status whites) would be helpful. I don’t know. This is an area in which more research is desperately needed. However, in the near term, rather than focusing on race and racial bias, we may want to instead focus on the kind of police culture and training that leads to incidents like the one described below. Even if our only concern was racial justice reducing the number of unjust shootings may be the most effective way to reduce the unfair burden of extra risk that minorities bear.

Good Friends And Bullets, A Grimm Tale

What are friends for? Shooting, when the cop brain goes into survival mode. Andy Grimm, who knows Shaw, said he does not want the officer to be fired, the paper reported. “I know Jake,” he said. “I like Jake.” And Deputy Jake Shaw likes Andy Grimm too. “We know the deputy.

Galef’s Unpopular Ideas About Crime And Punishment

Missing from this list is the suggestion that we should be maximizing the economic value of convicted felons by making them use their skills to earn money to be paid to the state and the victim. There was an interesting post about this on econolog not too long ago and while practical considerations may limit the application of this idea I think it is something we should more seriously consider.

I mean a large amount of support for increasingly harsher punishments seems driven not by the idea that it is necessary for ideal punishment but by horror at what happened to the victim. But, to the extent that is true, maybe the victim should get the choice between longer/more extreme punishment and letting the perpetrator work in a more lucrative fashion to better compensate them. True, this would mean that less skilled/educated criminals might get the worse end of the stick but criminal justice is about making the best choice from bad alternatives and if we can better compensate some victims by letting the perpetrator work for more money maybe we should consider it.

Unpopular ideas about crime and punishment

I’ve been compiling lists of “unpopular ideas,” things that seem weird or bad to most people (at least, to most educated urbanites in the United States, which is the demographic I know best). Because my collection of unpopular ideas became so long, I’ve broken it into categories.

Cool Cassini Pics

Cassini Just Sent Back Closest Ever Images of Saturn, And They’re Incredible

NASA’s Cassini probe is plunging to its death. The nuclear-powered spacecraft has orbited Saturn for 13 years, and sent back hundreds of thousands of images. The photos include close-ups of the gaseous giant, its famous rings, and its enigmatic moons – including Titan, which has its own atmosphere, and icy Enceladus, which has a subsurface ocean that could conceivably harbour microbial life.

It’s Time To Show Your True Colors

Do You Care About Protecting Women Or Just About Middle Class Values

It’s time for everyone claiming to support criminal bans on prostitution because they want to protect vulnerable women to choose sides. Are you really concerned about doing what it takes to protect vulnerable women or are you just using that as an excuse to justify your middle class values and your discomfort with the idea of exchanging sex for money?

Time to choose sides since it looks like research based on the (unfortunately brief) accidental Rhode Island experiment in decriminalizing indoor prostitution has some interesting results. Decriminalization resulted in a 50% drop in gonorrhea and a 30% drop in reported rapes (which, given the ability for prostitutes to go to the police without fearing prosecution, should have increased if rapes had stayed the same). Importantly, it appears that even women who weren’t in the prostitution industry saw a decrease in incidence of rape. I’d say these results were surprising except they weren’t to those familiar with the field, indeed, that’s why I’m willing to say this seems like a pretty solid result (maybe not the actual number but the direction of the change).

While no one suggests that the lives of most prostitutes (though the high end ones sometimes do well for themselves) are sweetness and light but sex workers who have experienced decriminalization will usually express strong support for the change and the ways it has changed their lives. However, one could still make an intellectually cogent case for decriminalization creating a real net harm, e.g., suggest that even if it makes the lives of sex workers better it makes more people into sex workers. However, if this research stands up, its just no longer even plausible to claim women are better protected in a regime which results in 30% more rapes. No matter how far you stretch the additional harm of increased numbers of sex workers (though often of a different class which isn’t as vulnerable) it doesn’t go that far.

But I’m pretty pessimistic. While I believe the passionate advocates in this area really do care about the victimization of women (though one can care so much that you are unable to let some go to save more) I don’t think that is what drives criminalization of prostitution at all. Rather, it’s just more of the usual human psycho-sexual drama about the threat which ‘virtuous’ women perceive from prostitution dressed up in new language.

The Effects of Decriminalization in Rhode Island

The study itself was a standard difference in differences design. Basically, that means they look at the data on rapes and STDs from both Rhode Island and the rest of the country before the decriminalization and then after the decriminalization. If the difference between Rhode Island and other states changes at the time prostitution is decriminalized then we infer that this difference in differences is a result of the change in legal status at that time. Of course, the actual statistical work is a bit more complex than this and uses data over a number of years but it’s a decent way to estimate the effect in a natural experiment provided one doesn’t believe that some other change singled out Rhode Island at the same time. To further shore up their work they use synthetic controls (basically they find the states which resemble Rhode Island in terms of the pre-decriminalization data and then use those as a control instead of the rest of the US).

Unfortunately, a reason why this study itself is only fairly persuasive and not highly persuasive is that the recriminalization results were not as strong. While rapes did rise again after Rhode Island made prostitution illegal again this result had a p-value of only .2. The story the authors offer is that the fact that this change was widely anticipated might dull the statistical power of the difference-in-differences method. In other words, they are suggesting that maybe the rapes started rising again once everyone realized they were going back to criminalization. I don’t find this very plausible since most mechanisms for this effect I can imagine, particularly including the author’s suggestion that rape is a partial substitute for paid sex, shouldn’t see much change, if any, until prostitution is actually recriminalized.

However, I think this result actually fits very nicely into a different model. In particular, while it may be the case that rape and consensual sexual encounters are partial substitutes I’m pretty skeptical that accounts for the effects here. Its not as if prostitution doesn’t exist when it is illegal or someone willing to rape for sex wouldn’t avail themselves of it. Rather, I suspect there are more general network effects at play here. In the pre-decriminalization world you have a system that relies on a system of pimps, organized crime and other bad actors to operate in which the girls involved may have little control/ownership interests and probably have only a minimal support network among themselves. Decriminalization not only removes this criminal element from the scene it also, as suggested by the health data, draws in a new class of prostitute who has better resources, planning, risk mitigation and isn’t at the mercy of her drug dealing pimp, i.e., more middle class prostitution. Recriminalization appears to have push some people out of the industry but it doesn’t change the fact that the criminal element is no longer present. A prostitute with a regular list of clients, a system for meeting new clients online and who isn’t already enmeshed with the criminal element has little need to return to their clutches even after recriminalization meaning the benefits linger. Sadly, I would guess that in the long term we will see a regression to previous levels as the police work to disrupt the organization and continuing business relationships these women have used to replace pimps and organized crime and eventually people will go back to securing prostitution through this element and rapes will rise.

Luckily, one doesn’t need to believe my analysis (which is just speculation) since one can rely on the fact that the results found for decriminalization are similar to what other studies have found.

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The Story Of Decriminalization

The story of how Rhode Island came to decriminalize prostitution is pretty neat so I advise you to read this article. I am not, however, please with the top billing they gave people who in my opinion were nothing but moralizing middle aged women who had never had to make really hard choices using the language of concern for vulnerable women to justify their disapproval.

Prostitution decriminalized: Rhode Island’s experiment

Around the world, there’s a growing movement to decriminalize sex work. Last year, Amnesty International, the largest human rights group in the world, came out with a recommendation that governments should decriminalize consensual sex work and develop laws that ensure workers are “protected from harm, exploitation and coercion.”

Free Speech Slip and Slide

In the past I’ve written at length about my concern that the newly invigorated attitude that we must outlaw, or at least severely socially punish the speakers, racist/sexist/etc.. speech is a mistake. I have doubts about the efficacy of such punishments and believe that pushing racism adjacent views into a hidden underground where they fester and mutate1 creates more hate. However, the primary thrust of my concern was the usual slippery slope argument (importantly serious harms arise as soon as well-intentioned people start to fear that an epistemic mistake could land them in trouble). Unfortunately, evidence for a steep slippery plastic slope with extra soap arrived all too quickly.

Superiority of Western Culture

First we had this really stupid opinion piece that I would have guessed was written by a machine learning algorithm trained on 1980s era conservative values pieces if it had only mentioned crack (still managed a shout out to the pill for destroying our perfect 1950s society). Personally, I thought it was just as stupid this time around as I did in the late 80s and early 90s except these authors should have seen how that went and known better. However, as far as offensiveness goes it rates as a “kids these days…have no … always on their..” but somehow it has become the subject of accusations of racism and the subject of serious controversy (yes, that last article is written by a friend of the original author so take its slant with a grain of salt).

True, there is no credible effort to have the author fired from her position in the law school but it has generated enough outrage for students to get up in time to picket Wax’s class as racist and its not just some hasty people with signs. At least a non-trivial segment of the Penn campus left is willing to call this piece racist, sexist or otherwise suggest it isn’t just dumb and wrong but deserving of open moral scorn.

While one might try and charitably reconstruct some argument based on the text of the oped2 what is going on is what is always going on with accusations of racism/sexism/islamophobia etc.. Rather than parsing the literal content of a piece and asserting those claims amount to racism (or providing evidence that the author was being disingenuous) people decide to call something racist if it feels like the things racists would say. In this case there is no doubt this oped has that feel. Indeed, it hits many of the points that one would expect from a racist dog-whistle: glorification of European/western culture, suggestion that something associated with whites is superior, a nostalgic comparison to the 1950s, reference to some aspect of black culture the author disapproves of (“anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks”) and even the obligatory focus on whites that have the traits you are criticizing.

The problem with taking this as grounds for accusations of racism is that it confuses being the sort of person whose strong affinity for traditionalism and reverence for long lived institutions and practices may make needed reform more difficult with actual racism. However, we are generally quite willing to let the earnest man who is such a strong believer in feminism that he frequently gives a piece of his mind to men who he views as pushing an aggressive male-centric approach on women and thereby does more to perpetuate the stereotype of women as unable to handle these situations than anyone he criticizes. This case is only different in that it is harder to imagine genuinely feeling that these old school conservative values are the secret to a better life and wanting to help minorities by sharing. Also in that often people who feel this way about morals and newfangled social innovations also feel this way about minorities but that’s just a stereotype.

Most importantly, it renders the standard for racism uselessly subjective. If it is no longer necessary to have overt animus or believe in some particular stereotype then it is insanely easy to apply the term to virtually anyone you want. Especially given that as the sphere of things that have been labeled racist expands fewer and fewer non-racists say anything in that sphere so just imagine the same dialog in 20 years about pieces supporting free speech. It would be something mostly racists talk about as a cover, anyone like me writing about it would explain that we believed in it for everyone (while detractors would point out that we kept focusing on the free speech of the racists as they don’t see it from the context in which that is the right place to make one’s stand), one could raise analogies to the contract rights arguments offered in the civil rights movement (yes its bad but the constitution…we just can’t do anything). The only thing this lacks is the subjective feel that comes from hearing lots of racists say something that sounds similar but we can’t cede to racists the power to decide what is and isn’t considered.

Also, as a practical matter this kind of use of the accusation of racism isn’t productive. The reason to use the term at all is to invoke our shared disapprobation of certain behaviors to change people’s behavior. Telling someone ‘suggesting that blacks only eat fried Chicken or look like Gorillas’ is racist usually results in an immediate change and the world is a better place but when you say that some vague thing about the gestalt I get from your article is racist doesn’t. If I were the author and was willing to sell out my views so I wouldn’t be racist how would I even know where to start?

Call these ideas out as stupid or even the kind of progress phobic thinking that perpetuates racism that’s great but its just not racism.

University of Tampa’s Impolitic Twitter Firing

Also, we have the University of Tampa firing a visiting professor for the following poorly considered and bumblinging inappropriate tweet

I dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.

This is obviously just a case of someone not realizing how what he said would be taken in context. When he did he apologized. That should have been the end of it.

While at first glance one might feel that this isn’t really relevant to the broader picture at the moment. However, while it wasn’t exactly an academic paper this tweet is fundamentally nothing but an expression of a political sentiment. Indeed, suppose the author really believed this was some kind of divine vengeance on Texas for voting GOP. Surely that is core political-religious speech if anything is so its hard to see how this is anything but a direct attack on the idea that Professors get to comment on current events and broader social issues without fear of being fired for controversial views (assuming they don’t bear on their academic qualifications…mathematicians probably shouldn’t say $\omega$ and $2^\omega$ have the same cardinality).

Mistakes

We need room for people to make mistakes! Even mistakes about what to believe on controversial issues because only when people feel they won’t lose their jobs or be shunned if they get it wrong can they allow themselves to explore the issue and reach the right conclusions.

I know its really hard in these discussions to imagine any other perspective than your own but rarely is it the case that someone just wakes up out of the blue filled with hate and the desire to see another race suffer. Sure, sometimes the reasons are just visceral (your gang is white they are black) but in most cases there is some chain of thought and emotion that made every step they took seem reasonable so if you suspect the target of your criticism of simply reasonless hate you should probably reevaluate that view.

However, that is what makes the situation so dangerous as well. Given that even racists think they have good and sound justifications for their beliefs an atmosphere which imposes severe penalties for even minor infractions allows only one safe response: parrot back the official dogma.

But, if we are going to fix the remaining barriers and harms inflicted by problematic stereotypes and structural racism/sexism we need to find them in non-obvious places and that takes open speculation. We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit so more looking for white or male ‘perpetrators’ (if it could have been fixed easily that way we would have) we instead need to look at the less examined reservoirs of stereotypes such as members of the group themselves or the well-intentioned helper3. That means we need to walk on the edge and consider possibly offensive or unpleasant possibilities if we are going to figure out what is really going on so we can do something to fix things.


  1. I’ve seen any number of scenarios in which the perception that certain topics can’t even be discussed doesn’t erase those ideas from people’s minds. Rather, it pushes them to form groups (the ones that go silent when a woman or minority comes by and we work so hard to eliminate) in which they feel they can comfortably express views they are sympathetic to but are too controversial for general consumption. Unfortunately, when people gather together for the purpose of feeling safe sharing controversial views creates a strong social pressure not to call anyone else’s views in that group out for sexism/racism/etc.. even in a polite friendly way. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly both such groups form and how quickly they descend to the lowest common denominator and serve as a breeding ground where hateful ideas can infect good people because there is no opportunity to apply the corrective of a good counterargument and criticism. 
  2. Taking their complaints at face value would seem to suggest the problem is that suggesting WASP culture (not so named) is superior is racist or at least unacceptable and bad. While those of us immersed in liberal sensibilities naturally flinch a bit when the suggestion is made that one culture is superior to another that doesn’t make the claim wrong or racist. Indeed, we all believe that, at least in the modern context, modern western culture is superior to the violent revenge culture in some New Guinean tribes all things considered (of course cultures have so many traits surely we could cherry pick a few improvements but the original piece doesn’t deny this). Hell, the very idea of tolerance and equality that those on the left are fighting for is a rare value for a culture to have and we are right to identify it as something good and important. But I think this “can’t say one culture is better than another” line isn’t a very charitable interpretation. 
  3. Everyone knows that a great deal of slut-shaming and outfit policing is done to women by women and we’ve learned recently that it is other women who do the majority of interrupting women and may very well be the ones preventing more competitive female involvement. This matches both my experience at caltech (women who had few if any female friends their whole lives were way more likely to just blunder in and shot their load on the conversation or dismiss someone else’s contribution as stupid) and what evolutionary psychology would suggest (men have little interest in policing women but each gender needs to police rivals). Of course, men aren’t on the hook they are just on the hook for something else perpetuating harmful male stereotypes which can harm women as much as they do men (say by men not being willing to become primary caregivers). 

A US House Of Lords

As our system of government becomes more complex the importance of independent agencies and the boards that govern them continues to grow. If we define such agencies functionally, rather than legally1, this sweeps in the obviously influential supreme court but in the modern world more and more turns on agencies like the FCC, Federal Reserve, SEC, etc… Indeed, in many ways these independent agencies are more important than congress itself. For a variety of reasons congress simply isn’t equipped to engage in precedent driven rule making requiring substantial expertise and institutional competence, e.g., its hard to imagine congress successfully running the recent broadcast incentive auction or developing a set of rules for whitespace devices much less run the Fed.

However, recent battles over supreme court appointments and the controversial choices of new FCC commissioner Pai to rollback net neutrality rules expose the obvious danger in this system. As the importance of these agencies increases the importance of these appointments to various political interests grows and that turns the appointment and confirmation process into an acrimonious partisan struggle. Now, at first glance one might think that’s fine. After all, if these agencies have so much power over the lives of average Americans isn’t it appropriate for our political disagreements to play out in the appointment process? Unfortunately, especially given limitations imposed by supreme court precedent, this method of choosing the heads of independent agencies is problematic for a number of reasons.

  1. Political interest in such appointments is usually limited to a few hot button issues which means politicians will favor predictable ideologues.
  2. The best policies for these agencies are often counterintuitive and not what plays well for voters who lack the time to learn.
  3. The president is given a disturbing amount of (effectively) legislative power.
  4. Politicians’ self-interest will push them towards the most vanilla least criticizable candidates rather than the best.
  5. All too often political conflict leaves us with unfilled positions exacerbating the other problems, particularly 3.

I think we can do a lot better. We need a way to render such appointments responsive, in a long term sense, to the will of the voters but insulated from their immediate interests and preferences. I propose a kind of US house of lords consisting of former senators and representatives who have retired from office (and are barred from ever holding federal elected office again) as well as perhaps former judges and commission members from these independent agencies. Unlike the UK house of lords I wouldn’t let membership determined by votes but be automatic for all former congressmen who wish to join with their voting power proportional to their number of years of service (thus making the votes proportional to congressional representation modulo age/participation gaps). One might imagine multiple ways this could work from the body directly selecting appointees to being responsible for admitting distinguished academics, lawyers, etc.. into various expert bodies which then nominate board members for independent organizations.

Importantly, in the long run this body still reflects the choices of the American voter but, barred as they are from running for future office, their concerns will tend to be more long term and historical in nature. This would be especially true if we mandated secret voting in this ‘house of lords’. The voters will never again evaluate them for public office so why not let them vote secretly?

Of course this would require a constitutional amendment but I still think it’s a neat idea.


  1. That is an independent agency is a unit of the federal government answerable to a governing body appointed by the president with senatorial consent but whose members can’t be removed without cause.