Category: Sociology

Bright Sarcasm in the Classroom

That old American tradition, the Roman Salute

When a Pew research poll discovered a shocking divide between self-identifying Republicans/GOP-leaning Independents and their Democratic Party opposites on the question of the value of higher education, the commentariat went apeshit. Here’s a brief rundown of sources, left, center, and right, and what they decided are the key issues:

  • National Review: Higher education has eroded the Western canon and turned into a devious plot to rob our children of good thinking, spiked with avocado toast.
  • Paul Krugman at New York Times: Conservative tribal identification leads to opposition to climate change science or evolution, and further towards a “grim” anti-intellectualism.
  • New Republic: There is no evidence that college kid’s political views are changed by higher education and, also, that conservative-minded professors aren’t much maltreated on campus either, so the conservative complaints are just overblown anti-liberal hype that, they point out, has some very negative consequences.

I would make a slightly more radical claim than Krugman, for instance, and one that is pointedly opposed to Simonson at National Review. In higher education we see not just a dedication to science but an active program of criticizing and deconstructing ideas like the Western canon as central to higher thought. In history, great man theories have been broken down into smart and salient compartments that explore the many ways in which groups and individuals, genders and ideas, all were part of fashioning the present. These changes, largely late 20th century academic inventions, have broken up the monopolies on how concepts of law, order, governance, and the worth of people were once formulated. This must be anti-conservative in the pure sense that there is little to be conserved from older ideas, except as objects of critique. We need only stroll through the grotesque history of Social Darwinism, psychological definitions of homosexuality as a mental disorder, or anthropological theories of race and values to get a sense for why academic pursuits, in becoming more critically influenced by a burgeoning and democratizing populace, were obligated to refine what is useful, intellectually valuable, and less wrong. The process will continue, too.

The consequences are far reaching. Higher education correlates necessarily with liberal values and those values tend to correlate more with valuing reason and fairness over tradition and security. That means that atheism has a greater foothold and science as a primary means of truth discovery takes precedence over the older and uglier angels of our nature. The enhanced creativity that arises from better knowledge of the world and accurate and careful assessment then, in turn, leads to knowledge generation and technological innovation that is derived almost exclusively from a broad engagement with ideas. This can cause problems when ordering Italian sandwiches.

Is there or should there be any antidote to the disjunctive opinions on the value of higher learning? Polarized disagreements on the topic can lead to societal consequences that are reactive and precipitous, which is what all three sources are warning about in various ways. But the larger goals of conservatives should be easily met through the mechanism that most of them would agree is always open: form, build, and attend ideologically-attuned colleges. There are at least dozens of Christian colleges that have various charters that should meet some of their expectations. If these institutions are good for them and society as a whole, they just need to do a better job of explaining that to America. Then, like the consumer flocking from Microsoft to Apple, the great public and private institutions will lose the student debt dollar to these other options and, finally, indoctrination in all that bright sarcasm will end in the classroom. Maybe, then, everyone will agree that the earth is only a few thousand years old and that coal demand proceeds from supply.

Desire and Other Matters

From the frothy mind of Jeff Koons
From the frothy mind of Jeff Koons

“What matters?” is a surprisingly interesting question. I think about it constantly since it weighs-in whenever plotting future choices, though often I seem to be more autopilot than consequentialist in these conceptions. It is an essential first consideration when trying to value one option versus another. I can narrow the question a bit to “what ideas matter?” This immediately externalizes the broad reality of actions that meaningfully improve lives, like helping others, but still leaves a solid core of concepts that are valued more abstractly. Does the traditional Western liberal tradition really matter? Do social theories? Are less intellectually-embellished virtues like consistency and trust more relevant and applicable than notions like, well, consequentialism?

Maybe it amounts to how to value certain intellectual systems against others?

Some are obviously more true than others. So “dowsing belief systems” are less effective in a certain sense than “planetary science belief systems.” Yet there are a broader range of issues at work.

But there are some areas of the liberal arts that have a vexing relationship with the modern mind. Take linguistics. The field ranges from catalogers of disappearing languages to theorists concerned with how to structure syntactic trees. Among the latter are the linguists who have followed Noam Chomsky’s paradigm that explains language using a hierarchy of formal syntactic systems, all of which feature recursion as a central feature. What is interesting is that there have been very few impacts of this theory. It is very simple at its surface: languages are all alike and involve phrasal groups that embed in deep hierarchies. The specific ways in which the phrases and their relative embeddings take place may differ among languages, but they are alike in this abstract way.

And likewise we have to ask what the impact is of scholarship like René Girard’s theory of mimesis. The theory has a Victorian feel about it: a Freudian/Jungian essential psychological tendency girds all that we know, experience, and see. Violence is the triangulation of wanton desire as we try to mimic one another. That triangulation was suppressed—sublimated, if you will—by sacrifice that refocused the urge to violence on the sacrificial object. It would be unusual for such a theory to rise above the speculative scholarship that only queasily embraces empiricism without some prodding.

But maybe it is enough that ideas are influential at some level. So we have Ayn Rand, liberally called-out by American economic conservatives, at least until they are reminded of Rand’s staunch atheism. And we have Peter Thiel, from PayPal mafia to recent Gawker lawsuits, justifying his Facebook angel round based on Girard’s theory of mimesis. So we are all slaves of our desires to like, indirectly, a bunch of crap on the internet. But at least it is theoretically sound.

The Linguistics of Hate

keep-calm-and-hate-corpus-linguisticsRight-wing authoritarianism (RWA) and Social dominance orientation (SDO) are measures of personality traits and tendencies. To measure them, you ask people to rate statements like:

Superior groups should dominate inferior groups

The withdrawal from tradition will turn out to be a fatal fault one day

People rate their opinions on these questions using a 1 to 5 scale from Definitely Disagree to Strongly Agree. These scales have their detractors but they also demonstrate some useful and stable reliability across cultures.

Note that while both of these measures tend to be higher in American self-described “conservatives,” they also can be higher for leftist authoritarians and they may even pop up for subsets of attitudes among Western social liberals about certain topics like religion. Haters abound.

I used the R packages twitterR, textminer, wordcloud, SnowballC, and a few others and grabbed a few thousand tweets that contained the #DonaldJTrump hashtag. A quick scan of them showed the standard properties of tweets like repetition through retweeting, heavy use of hashtags, and, of course, the use of the #DonaldJTrump as part of anti-Trump sentiments (something about a cocaine-use video). But, filtering them down, there were definite standouts that seemed to support a RWA/SDO orientation. Here are some examples:

The last great leader of the White Race was #trump #trump2016 #donaldjtrump #DonaldTrump2016 #donaldtrump”

Just a wuss who cant handle the defeat so he cries to GOP for brokered Convention. # Trump #DonaldJTrump

I am a PROUD Supporter of #DonaldJTrump for the Highest Office in the land. If you don’t like it, LEAVE!

#trump army it’s time, we stand up for family, they threaten trumps family they threaten us, lock and load, push the vote…

Not surprising, but the density of them shows a real aggressiveness that somewhat shocked me. So let’s assume that Republicans make up around 29% of the US population, and that Trump is getting around 40% of their votes in the primary season, then we have an angry RWA/SDO-focused subpopulation of around 12% of the US population.

That seems to fit with results from an online survey of RWA, reported here. An interesting open question is whether there is a spectrum of personality types that is genetically predisposed, or whether childhood exposures to ideas and modes of childrearing are more likely the cause of these patterns (and their cross-cultural applicability).

Here are some interesting additional resources:

Bilewicz, Michal, et al. “When Authoritarians Confront Prejudice. Differential Effects of SDO and RWA on Support for Hate‐Speech Prohibition.” Political Psychology (2015).

Sylwester K, Purver M (2015) Twitter Language Use Reflects Psychological Differences between Democrats and Republicans. PLoS ONE 10(9): e0137422. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137422

The latter has a particularly good overview of RWA/SDO, other measures like openness, etc., and Twitter as an analytics tool.

Finally, below is some R code for Twitter analytics that I am developing. It is derivative of sample code like here and here, but reorients the function structure and adds deletion of Twitter hashtags to focus on the supporting language. There are some other enhancements like codeset normalization. All uses and reuses are welcome. I am starting to play with building classifiers and using Singular Value Decomposition to pull apart various dominating factors and relationships in the term structure. Ultimately, however, human intervention is needed to identify pro vs. anti tweets, as well as phrasal patterns that are more indicative of RWA/SDO than bags-of-words can indicate.

Also, here are wordclouds generated for #hillaryclinton and #DonaldJTrump, respectively. The Trump wordcloud was distorted by some kind of repetitive robotweeting that dominated the tweets.





 #Grab the tweets
 djtTweets <- searchTwitter(searchTerm, num)

 #Use a handy helper function to put the tweets into a dataframe 

 RemoveDots <- function(tweet) {
 gsub("[\\.\\,\\;]+", " ", tweet)

 RemoveLinks <- function(tweet) {
 gsub("http:[^ $]+", "", tweet)
 gsub("https:[^ $]+", "", tweet)

 RemoveAtPeople <- function(tweet) {
 gsub("@\\w+", "", tweet) 

 RemoveHashtags <- function(tweet) {
 gsub("#\\w+", "", tweet) 

 FixCharacters <- function(tweet){

 CleanTweets <- function(tweet){
 s1 <- RemoveLinks(tweet)
 s2 <- RemoveAtPeople(s1)
 s3 <- RemoveDots(s2) 
 s4 <- RemoveHashtags(s3)
 s5 <- FixCharacters(s4)

 tweets <- as.vector(sapply(tw.df$text, CleanTweets))
 if (verbose) print(tweets)

 generateCorpus= function(df,pstopwords){
 tw.corpus= Corpus(VectorSource(df))
 tw.corpus = tm_map(tw.corpus, content_transformer(removePunctuation))
 tw.corpus = tm_map(tw.corpus, content_transformer(tolower))
 tw.corpus = tm_map(tw.corpus, removeWords, stopwords('english'))
 tw.corpus = tm_map(tw.corpus, removeWords, pstopwords)

 corpus = generateCorpus(tweets)

 doc.m = TermDocumentMatrix(corpus, control = list(minWordLength = 1))
 dm = as.matrix(doc.m)
 # calculate the frequency of words
 v = sort(rowSums(dm), decreasing=TRUE)

 d = data.frame(word=names(v), freq=v)
 #Generate the wordcloud
 wc=wordcloud(d$word, d$freq, scale=c(4,0.3), min.freq=min.freq, colors = brewer.pal(8, "Paired"))

djttweets = tweets.grabber("#DonaldJTrump", 2000, verbose=TRUE)
djtcorpus = corpus.stats(djttweets)
wordcloud.generate(djtcorpus, 3)

Monsters in Paradise

JotunheimenComing down out of Jotunheimen in the early morning hours, the crackling fragile ice of Nigardsbreen dropping behind us, we listened to Sigur Rós for the first time since leaving Iceland. I had taken a brief pulse of walk-around violence in Reykjavík before jumping in our 4×4 in the Thorsmork highlands and beating the poor beast down through 30 klicks of bad road and twelve random river fords, each fraught with mild uncertainty given that we didn’t have a snorkel on the Suzuki Jimmy manual (manual!). The BBC reported on the issue of violent crime in Iceland in an article by an American researcher who made the country the topic of his doctoral thesis. 90,000 guns in the hands of 300,000 citizens and nary a murder.

And Norway makes Iceland look quaint with its massive sovereign wealth fund that controls 1% of all securities worldwide. Social services, low levels of inequality, 4th highest GDP in the world, 48 weeks of paid maternity and paternity leave–these are the features of a society that has chosen to follow the uniquely Scandinavian model of growth and peace.

But unlike Iceland, Norway joined its near-neighbor Finland in horrific style when Anders Behring Breivik murdered a whole bunch of kids who were involved in a summer program on a lake island northeast of Oslo. Karl Ove Knausgård wrote the definitive piece in the New Yorker on the events and aftermath of that day I need to write something else about Knausgård and his style of writing in both My Struggle and recent New York Times pieces titled My Saga, but the Breivik piece sums up something that is I think critical to our attempts to understand these horrific events. Basically, there is nothing that can be done. We can take away the guns, slowing people down or reducing their effectiveness. We can try to intervene early with troubled youth. We can overreact and put metal detectors in every corner of society.

I sometimes imagine a society where acts or potential acts of violence are impossible because there is an ever-present eye watching everything and everyone, but it is an impersonal watcher that processes the scenes for specific cues about threats rather than the panopticon of old. I feel safe and secure in this imagined world, and see stun-rays shooting Breivik as he emerges from his Oslo flat intent on detonating the first bomb. That future may happen yet, but it only can correct for and not explain the monsters in our paradises.

Moral Feelings and Reactions

Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times rounds up the exceptional work of Jonathan Haidt and others in his opinion piece, here. In reading it, I was reminded of the complicated reactions I encountered to an opinion piece I authored in the local paper about five years ago.

I wrote the piece, titled “Scouts and the Constitution,” following helping neighbors develop a rousing audio-visual tribute to their son’s achievement of Eagle Scout status in the Boy Scouts of America. His journey was not without complications: the parents had misrepresented through omission certain moral failings of the boy, and the boy had, himself, some misgivings about the requirements that were involved in becoming an Eagle. Yet, they had all persevered through steadfast inertia and asked me to help put together a short video. It was not difficult, though I tried to point out that Steve Miller’s  Fly Like an Eagle probably sends the wrong message on closer analysis (more on that in a moment).

We attended his Eagle event at a local church and I got to witness my video being used as part of the activities. The scout leader spent some time describing the number of local scouts who had moved on to military careers and how scouting prepared them for national service.  But then he let slip that it was the conjunction of their religious commitment and scouting that made them especially suited to defend the US Constitution. I felt oddly hollowed out by that comment, though I myself have sworn that oath as part of joining the US Peace Corps several decades ago.

The problem that led to my editorial is that the US Constitution specifically calls out that there shall be no religious test for any elected position in the United States.  That seems wildly at odds with an organization that requires its members to swear allegiance to God, though allowing polytheists in while excluding Buddhists.  I suggested rather calmly that I thought that Eagle Scouts should lead the charge to make scouting less controversially patriotic and more American.

And the reactions began, in online forums and among my neighbors. To sum up, those who considered the Boy Scouts to be sacrosanct simply considered me to be an ass and a liberal one at that for even bringing up the idea that there was something unpatriotic about the policies of scouting. But, amazingly, I never heard a single complaint that I was factually wrong or misrepresented the Constitution or the policies of the Boy Scouts. In fact, like Jonathan Haidt’s studies, the people were simple offended at the violation of their feelings about the institution of scouting.  I, despite having been a Boy Scout for several years, had no such feelings; the institution was subject to scrutiny based on its merits like any other institution.  Quoting Kristof, I violated the “loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity” portions of the landscape of their moral feelings.  Moreover, Steve Miller’s song about a revolution to feed the poor probably doesn’t work for most of them, either, although the Boy Scouts are otherwise strong in the charitable-giving department: revolutions just don’t respect authority.

My takeaway, like Kristof’s, is that reason is secondary to the ethical calculus that is at play in social and political reasoning. Still, it leaves us with the quandary as to how one’s upbringing determines what valences are attached to the different dimensions of moral reasoning. There is some evidence, for instance, that authoritarian parents instill conservative values to their children, while liberals transmit reason-driven considerations of fairness. Kristoff distances himself from that work through a few rhetorical efforts to soften and diffuse the role of reason in moral decision-making.

Experimental Positive Morality

Gated from Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, the Dutch experiments concerning the “broken window hypothesis” are illuminating. The “broken window hypothesis” dates to the 1980s when criminologists Wilson and Kelling suggested that broken windows in an abandoned building might signal other vandals that breaking windows is permissible. This theory, though widely disputed among criminologists, informed increased enforcement efforts in the United States in the 1990s that correlated with the amazing reductions in the crime rate that have continued into the current decade.

What of the Dutch experiments? When artificial circumstances are established where people can, for instance, litter fliers, people will litter more when they are in an environment already littered or surrounded by buildings covered with graffiti. Small acts of theft also are enhanced by a shady environment.

If our moral sentiments are so heavily influenced by our environment, we don’t need convincing that our moral predispositions are socially influenced, as well. Teenagers and college students are case studies.

But what of positive influences? If graffiti enhances criminality, and a neutral environment is, well, neutral, is it possible that a beautiful, inspiring environment would promote positive morality?

In many cities and towns, artistic murals are applied to high-graffiti areas with the expressed purpose of eliminating graffiti, for example. Can astonishing architecture do similar things? Following the Dutch experimental setup, it would be easy to place fliers on bicycles around art galleries and interesting buildings, then monitor the littering rates. There are obvious problems with this methodology in that the people who live and work in some areas may have educational, class, and other differences with those who traffic other areas that are more prone to littering and graffiti. Experimental design could help to uncoil those factors and establish whether we can get better when in better surrounds.