Sunday, 10 June 2018

Feminism's Perspective

In certain discussions you'll often hear people say, "It's always the same with you isn't it? What about the men?" The point being made is that it should be possible to talk about inequalities toward women without considering men at the same time. That sounds reasonable, right?

Changing society is not a particularly easy thing to do. Sometimes you come along and people are just in the mood for change. There's something that's going which is so big and so unpopular that everyone's got a sense that the world's broken. All you have to do then is just show them how. But usually you've got to do more than have catchy slogans and the perfect pictures. Usually you've got to present the thinking and studying you've done to people (because, make no mistake, even when it's "easier" you've got this). And how can you do that if you're always getting distracted by other issues? "What about..."

There is another way of looking at things, though. And that's to say if you don't consider everything then you end up with bad outcomes. A lot of American centred discussions of gender inequality will bring up the CDC's definition of rape. That was changed some years ago to reflect feminist advocacy for change. Unfortunately, what happened is that most male rape victims don't count as rape victims under the new definition: the concept of raping is different when the victim is male or female. Even worse, because the definition was changed, there is far less impetus to change it again because a lot of people, metaphorically, went home, job done. (See pg. 13, column 2, bottom of page.)

I'm not sure how they arrived at their definitions, but you can imagine that their thinking was more marginal than it could have been. And by marginal, I use it in the statistical sense. We might have a joint distribution for two random variables M and F, but we can obtain marginal distributions from this by integrating M or F out. In other words, the marginal distribution describes the behaviour of a random variable when only considering that random variable. This is often sensible. It is also often not sensible.

This brings me to the following headline: "It’s 2018. Could we please stop sanctifying men for doing basic parenting." This is the kind of article that would probably not be published were it about women and written by a man. And if it was published it'd be couched quite differently. It's a thing, if you're confused, that women get to comment without question on men in ways that are now seen as downright odd if men do it. What particular insight into masculinity does a woman have over a man? Who knows, but lots of women write those. But to write about femininity as a man? Yeah... you don't really see this. (The fact is the rhetorical question I just posed is idiotic; the problem is not women writing about too many things but men writing about too few.) Anyway, my point is that a man probably wouldn't also forget that "Dads are babysitters" is a Thing. They'd never let such a headline be written.

(Hell, The Spinoff manages to write this headline a week removed from this headline: "Where are all the baby changing rooms for dads?" Notice also that this article was written by a woman... as I said, that rhetorical question is idiotic.)

Headlines are problematic. I've said before that they set the tone for what's going to be read... they're a vital piece of the contextual puzzle (and we know it is a puzzle). But they're also all that a lot of people will read. That's not a bad thing. It's a big world out there and a lot of stuff happens. Thus, bad headlines are a bad articles. And sometimes the bad headline is made even worse because it's not even accurate. In this case, it is, sadly, accurate.

It's an incredibly naive article. It ignores vital contextual information like the changing facilities infrastructure and wants to have it both ways with other contextual information. Take this point:
Articles like this, no matter how well-intentioned, do no favours for anyone.
The jumping off point always seems to be that a woman’s place is in the home, either as a full time stay-at-home mum or, at the very least, as the primary caregiver of the children.
There's a saying that no is statement can make an ought statement. That's not an entirely unproblematic idea but it's the inverse what's happening here. Cuming wants the ought (that these are non-notable) to be the is, but the reason why the jumping off point is that "a woman's place is in the home" is because that's the reality of what people think... it's why there's a cottage industry of sorts built against the "dads are baysitters" corollary. But you'd only look at this way by asking yourself "What about the women?"

The problem here is not women staying at home. It's not women being not seen as the breadwinner. It's nothing about women.

The problem is that fatherhood is not an attendant assumption about men, when it should be. It's this. And that's a pretty old film now. (Although, of course, it's more similar to babysitting, but ECE isn't babysitting either, and plays heavily into their unfamiliarity but even so.)

Cuming's approach also makes her ambitions worse. The idea she's putting about is that these new stories hurt everyone. Well, sure, they do make the mundane extraordinary. But when you put them in context what it also says is, "Look, men can do this stuff." And if we think about Daddy Day Care again, we're either meant to laugh at them for being so useless at the start... or if we're nodding along saying, "That's so true" we're meant to evolve with the characters in the film so that next time we watch it we're laughing at them at the start.
And finally, this type of sycophantic fetishism of dads just being parents needs to stop BECAUSE IT IS PISSING MUMS OFF. 
Not even hiding her motives... this article is a classic illustration of What Aboutism.
Unless it’s a story about Chris Hemsworth moving to a really hot climate and he has to walk his kids and his dog every morning along the beach with shirt off while making sandwiches for lunch and being spoon-fed muesli by his male nanny, Chris Evans. 
This is an article in need of some self-awareness in a bad way. You definitely can write an article about how "Mummy Bloggers" are a Thing and "Daddy Blogging" is a miracle, but this isn't the way to do it. We don't once see a consideration of the other perspective... it's framed entirely from this what aboutist point of view. I don't want to say that's too wrapped up in her own emotional reaction because, you know, this, but it's too wrapped up in her own emotional response. Let me quote the following line on "hot history":
Whenever contemporary historians go at each other's throats over differences of opinion on current history, their more serene colleagues often offer the following consoling reflection. To their minds, contemporary history is history in which many parties still have a stake because individuals and groups are generally attached  to the image presented of them. And where different interests are involved, conflicts of interest are never far removed. Consequently, a calm and detached approach to the past requires severing the direct link with it, which in turn only happens with the passage of
 time. Temporal distance is in this view a necessary condition of scholarly distance;' hot history must first 'cool off' in the archives for a generation or two before it can be warmed up on paper in an adequate way by historians. For Clio's owl, too, only flies at dusk. (Chris Lorenz, "Beyond Good and Evil? The German Empire of 1871 and Modern German Historiography", Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 1995), pg. 729)
Emphasis Mine.

Notice also that Lorenz doesn't appear to buy into this point of view... it's just something he's talking about. Indeed, the idea of Hot History above isn't non-problematic. But the hands off approach, mental distancing, is something that is good and useful... depending on your purpose. But even if your purpose is otherwise, writing out your emotional reaction isn't beyond question. Allow me to quote the following at you:
The Link-Up organisations, which work so closely with traumatised individuals, would perhaps respond to the issues raised by stating 'yes, these things are true, Peter, but why talk about them? Let's help our clients to achieve as much as it's possible both in terms of family relations and identity. It doesn't matter about the larger picture.' ( Peter Read (2002) "Clio or Janus? Historians and the stolen generations", Australian Historical Studies, 33:118, pg. 60)
Emphasis mine.

In other words, just because it's true and authentic you're not free from the responsibility of what your output does. And yes that's a terrifying statement to make. But that's a fear that should be held in mind every time anyone sits down to write. We cannot escape that we're not islands. We're not even island chains. (That's an About a Boy reference.)

To be honest, Cuming's article could probably be published safely with only one alteration... some sort of disclaimer or qualifying remark or opposing article being linked to. But, as is, why was it written? What does it do? Does it understand what its backdrop actually is? Because it's not Mummy Bloggers. It's that there is no such Thing as Daddy Blogging... although, let's be real, there is it just has no cultural capital, which is why the capital T.

Saturday, 2 June 2018

"People Don't Like Traffic Jams"

"What we need," he said, "is for the motorway to be some sort of travelator. That way, even when there's traffic, at least you're moving."

"But what about merging? And offramps?" said his friend. "There'd be crashes."


The truth is that we already have such a system. Except it doesn't involve cars at all. Cars just aren't efficient.

Truth be told it doesn't actually involve travellators either (geeze, how do you spell that?).

The only way the system that the two schoolboys vaguely quoted above entertained could work is if the entire network worked this way. And, broadly speaking, this is what trains do.

Now I use this conversation as an introduction to my brief treatment today for a simple reason: trains are efficient. If you want to get buckets of people somewhere specific quickly, the best way to do that is by train. This has never not been true. Nothing else even comes close.

Okay, actually a few things do come close. Except, well, they're basically trains themselves. Or, rather, they are trains... just not heavy rail.

The thing is, back in the day, that trains used to be more than just the efficient way of doing things. They used to be the absolutely fastest way of doing it.

It used to be that if you turned up at the station, missed the train and the next one wasn't until the following day, waiting the whole rest of the day was the fastest way of getting where you were going... for even fairly short distances. Basically, anywhere you couldn't walk to. Give or take.

Trains weren't about speed, though. It was freedom, liberation and modernity.

Which is how cars are sold these days.


It's true... cars can go places trains can't. Trains are always going to need rails... it is what makes them work (and by God do they work).

You're never going to be able to have an offroad holiday with a train or even drive out way beyond where anyone wants to go. No-one's ever going to build a railway out that far. The best you're going to get is, say, a train station out to some lake at the foot of a mountain. It'd be a great holiday spot: but the whole point is that everyone would go there... and, well, it is called Lonely Planet, isn't it?

Doesn't say much for cars if their selling point is holiday-making, right?

Oh, but Harry, they don't just sell cars like that, do they?

Well, no. But have you ever stopped to think about just how many car ads rely on messages from outside everyday life? It's a lot. Probably most of them. A lot of the rest don't even try and make you think about how you use the car, it's all about the technology... which is still what the car could do, not what it will do.

People don't like traffic jams.

As a cultural moment I think cars are done.

I look at the world these days and everything seems to be moving on from the car itself. Sure, the second biggest movie franchises in the world right now is about driving fast cars, but it's not. Wait, what? Yeah, the Fastchise actually demonstrates my point perfectly. Trust me... I've seen all of them.

In the first Fast and Furious movie, Dom tries to explain who he is. He lives life a quarter mile at a time. In the third film, the reason he comes to Tokyo is for a race. Both these concepts are out the window by... certainly the fifth and probably the fourth film (the transitional one). By the time Dom actually gets to Tokyo in the seventh film (catching up the parallel events of Tokyo Drift) he's got an entirely new motive and raison d'etre.

Don't get me wrong, if you like fast cars the Fastchise is probably going to be your kind of movie. Even in film 7, probably the most family-centric one, it's got a line about a car kept in a penthouse that goes, "Nothing's sadder than keeping a beast locked in a cage." It doesn't stay in its cage. Let me tell you that. But the point is that the context of the Fastchise has completely changed around this line. It was never just the cars, sure, but the way the movies used to try and connect the audience with the characters was. Not. Any. More.

Unconvinced? How about the hysterics about self-driving cars? People just can't wait until they're a thing. People are so hyped they've convinced themselves Elon Musk is the second coming of Christ... something else people are notoriously hysterical about.

The thing with self-driving cars is... well, look at what we were just talking about. The whole cultural moment of cars is that you are the driver, that you are in control and that you are free. You don't sell cars with traffic jams and it's even rare to sell them with avoiding traffic jams (even ads about driving in cities are about parkour but with cars; well, I'm sure such an ad exists but this Top Gear segment will have to do). You do, however, sell self-driving cars with traffic jams. It might even be their raison d'etre.

The entire point of self-driving cars is to be everything we spent years telling people cars weren't. They take the man out of the machine, and put the machine back in.

Look, cars aren't going to go anywhere. Despite Elon "Look at me I'm a Genius" Musk's proclamations, self-driving cars are a long way away. They can drive, sure, but only in very specific conditions... such as those featured in... car ads. Which, as I've mentioned, basically ignore real human usage of cars. Even a total flip on societal perceptions won't kill cars. Hate-driving will become a thing. And, let's be honest here, trains survived the car age. Not everywhere, to be sure, but they lived. And not just as luxuries.

What's probably more concerning is that motorway mania isn't likely to die with the car. It takes a long time for the human brain to catch up with the reality of its existence. We keep, for instance, asking ourselves about academic arms races or a tertiary education bubble, but what if we're living in an age which assumes a university education? Perhaps Americans too, now, look at Plankton's "college education" lines with the same puzzlement I used to (college is high school in NZ), "But isn't everyone?"

With motorways we have decades of planning, educational and institutional cultures to move beyond. Decades of contracts and business models. It's why we have roads of National Significance in NZ that no-one actually drives on. Roads where you can actually experience what life in a car ad is like.

The car is done. It's time is over. Trains are once more ascendant. Not because they mean anything, but because they work. Although, to be fair, I would say that societal concerns are more Victorian than they've been in a long time. Not in the sense of specific values (which are clearly very different) but in the sense that the markers of having made it now look a lot more like Victorian expectations. No longer do you have gadgets that help you do something, you have technology that does it for you.