Brave New World Aftermath: Does Everybody Really Want to Rule the World?

It struck me as I was reading Brave New World, both in the beginning when Huxley takes us on a tour of his nightmare baby factory, and at the end when the World Controller, Mustapha Mond, explains that the people of the Brave New World have chosen stability and happiness over independence and change and growth: why would anyone want to create this?

Why would anyone want to rule this?

I admit freely that I don’t really understand the thirst for power. Myself, I’d really rather just be left alone. Sure, I can see the draw of commanding everyone to obey me, both for selfish pleasures (Like ordering people I don’t like to go get me a donut. No! TWO donuts. And then I won’t share the donuts with them. Ha! How you like that, Doug from third grade?!) and because I think that my vision of the world is the correct one and I would like to solve every problem that exists through my genius becoming law according to my whim.

Because surely that could never go wrong.

I have a certain amount of power, because I’m a public school teacher. And while I have no control over the larger context of my profession or the specifics of my particular job — I don’t get to pick my clients or my work hours or my work space — I do have quite a bit of control over my classroom and the other humans in it. I can boss them around. I can generally make them obey me, at least in small things. I have, no joke, gotten them to get me a donut. And you know what I think every single time I am required to take control over them? I think, “Jesus, do I have to do this shit again? Why me? Why can’t they just, I dunno, control themselves?”

Nothing makes you a libertarian anarchist like trying to control a room full of teenagers.

I genuinely don’t understand why people want power. The obvious reason is personal enrichment and glory, and I understand both of  those things; they’re not worth it to me, but I understand them. I want to be rich enough to have all the donuts I want, and I would love to have a donut named after me so I could be remembered after my death. But if it means I have to be in control of the donut shop, and get up at 2am to make the donuts, then the attractions of power become a whole lot less, for me.

(By the way: remember this guy? I do. Fred the Baker. Icon.)

I still don’t fully understand why Donald Trump became president. He was already rich and famous. I suppose a narcissist like our First Stooge can never have enough money and glory, and I guarantee his little troll-ego gets a big happy jolt out of bossing people around — since that was his whole shtick on his TV show — but unless one gets to be a third-world dictator, then being in charge is, believe me, a whole hell of a lot of work. Even being a third-world dictator is a lot of work: because dictators don’t just get power, they have to keep power. And the way you do that is by keeping the other wielders of power happy with you in charge. If your power base is the bankers and corporations, then they have to be given a free hand with the business world to make all the money they want; if the people get upset about the bankers and you want to squeeze those bankers to please the people, you can’t, because then you lose power. If your power base is the military, then you pretty much have to treat the generals as even more important than you, and make sure they get all the wealth and prestige they want. The person in charge has to work, continuously, to remain in charge. Even in my tiny world of one classroom with a couple of dozen students, being in charge is a constant pain in the ass. I can’t imagine what a pain it is to be President.

He must have known that, having been a dictator in the past, with his company. So why did he do it? I maintain that he enjoyed the race: he liked the debates (Which people still talk about him winning through his oratorical skills. No: you act like a shitpitcher, you’re going to score more points than someone trying to be polite. But in any real debate you’d be stopped by the moderators; that didn’t happen because the TV moderators were not really in charge, because they work for TV stations who love shitpitchers, so Trump was allowed to continue being an ass, and then pundits pretend it was a clever strategy.), he loved giving his rallies, he loved being on the nightly news; he’s been powerful and wealthy all his life, but he’s never had crowds cheering for him, and that must have been a hoot. I think he didn’t ever expect to win, and as surprised as we all were that Wednesday morning, he was the most surprised at all. I think he’s only running now because he can’t back down and maintain his ego.

But that doesn’t explain why he does all the stuff he does. I mean, if I’m right and he never wanted the job, then he’d spend all of his time on social media or the golf course — oh wait. My theory gains ground. But still: he also does stuff. He gives speeches that are not about himself. He holds a couple of press conferences. He works to pass laws and whatnot. He’s doing a terrible job, but he’s still doing the job; and now he’s fighting very hard to keep that job. So maybe it’s not as simple as I am arguing; maybe there is another reason for him to want power.

This is where  his supporters get the idea that he is beneficent and patriotic. We all know being president is a shit job, and only someone who really wanted to help Americans would take on that pile of shit. (Though here’s another theory: shitpitchers would be attracted to piles of shit, right? Maybe the biggest pile of shit job drew in the biggest shitpitcher in the country. It’s the law of fecal gravitation.) I don’t believe that because he’s not really helping anyone very much. Other rich assholes, sure, but I don’t think his loyalty to them is strong.

In the Brave New World, the people in charge have an even shittier job, honestly. Because they get prestige, but they don’t really get to be in charge: their job is simply to maintain the machinery of the society, which is exactly what I think makes being President so shitty: there’s an unending mound of duties just to keep things going. In Huxley’s book, the people they control are under perfect and total control, which, I would argue, would take all the fun out of being in control: there aren’t any rebellions to be crushed (And if you want to know how much fun crushing rebellions is, watch Star Wars and think about the fact that Darth Vader controls a GALACTIC EMPIRE and yet spends all his time chasing down a ragtag band of rebel scum.) and even the sucking up you get from your underlings is only because you programmed them to obey. I can see the ego boost from bending another will to your own; but when the will is already broken, what’s the point? In the book the controllers don’t get to put their ideas in place, don”t get to be glorified; the society has erased (and continues to erase) the past, and their social structure was set centuries before the book.

So why would they want the job?

Are they selfless lovers of humanity? Like Trump?

But then why would they crush the humanity out of the people they “serve?”

Like Trump?

I don’t have an answer here. I realized, when I went to get that video clip at the beginning of this, that the song might be satirical; that Tears for Fears meant the song to make the same point I’m making, that ruling the world would be hellish.

But I guess Satan chose to rule in Hell, didn’t he? Maybe that’s enough.

All I know is, it’s time to go make some donuts. Play us out, Fred.

Brave New World Aftermath: Can’t we all just get along?

Image result for brave new world

Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World  is a classic dystopian novel.

In which everyone is happy.

It’s quite wonderfully insidious; usually a dystopian novel shows us a world where no one is happy, and challenges us to find a way to imagine happiness in it: in 1984, everyone suffers all the time, until Winston Smith tries to find a way to, well, live, laugh, and love; the jackboots of Big Brother and the Thought Police stomp that dream out of him. In Fahrenheit 451, the people are committing suicide and killing each other, while screaming at their television sets and cringing away from their devilish firemen; but when Clarisse McClellan tries to think for herself, she is vanished (and probably killed), and when Guy Montag wants to read books instead of burning them, he is arrested and forced to murder his former friend and then run for his life. In The Handmaid’s Tale, happiness is not the thing; purity is. Nobody gives a shit about happiness, and so that’s exactly what they get: shit happiness.

But in Brave New World, when John the Savage wants to be different from the people of the Brave New World, he demands the right to be sad and miserable and angry. And then he is chased out of society, because everyone there is happy, and no one has the freedom to frown, so to speak. Really, no one has the freedom to be alone, which is probably the more disturbing part; that is a common thread in all four books, and I think in all dystopias; everyone is watched, all the time, and it’s horrifying.

I should point out here that we are also watched all the time, and it’s no less horrifying for being real; but there is still some difference for us: the government has the ability to watch us all the time, but they don’t actually care about what 99% of us do.  And while our friends and neighbors are in our business every day, it’s usually because we put our business on social media, or on the grapevine. We still, generally speaking, have the option of privacy. Corporations building data profiles of us are involved in every second of our day that they can be, and that’s probably the most ominous; but really, they just want to sell us shit, so while it’s creepy that the Facebook ads reflect what we were just thinking or talking about, it’s nothing more than something to scroll past. At some point the corporations will realize that they can create markets for their products by screwing with us; that’s when it will get bad. It’s also incredibly dangerous that the data collected on each of us could very easily be turned over to the government (I was going to write “seized by,” but really, what corporation would ever say no to Uncle Sam come looking for intel? They can still sell things to people under NSA surveillance, after all. Maybe rotate some ads for firearms or “Don’t Tread On Me” flags into their feeds.), because the government is certainly willing to screw with us; but as of this moment, to quote the Doors, “They got the guns, but we got the numbers,” and so these tools are not yet  effective. Certainly something to watch out for.

But in the Brave New World, the people don’t have to watch out, they don’t have to suspect their government: they are happy. All of them. All the time. The Big Speech — another common thread through all these books, and perhaps in some form in all dystopian novels, as every dystopian novel has a message to give, and an important one, so the authors don’t want to take a chance on us missing it — given by World Controller Mustapha Mond (Huxley was a brilliant writer, but really, his names are lame. The use of Communist/Socialist names — Marx, “Lenina,” Trotsky — is annoyingly on the nose, and while it’s kinda clever that Mustapha in Arabic means “chosen” or “selected,” the fact that “Mond” means “world” and Mond controls the world… well.) at the end of the novel explains why the society of Brave New World chose happiness and stability over freedom and progress: because there was a terrible war, and afterwards, people wanted to be safe. So they chose to create a stable, safe society, and the only way to do that was to make everyone happy, all the time — or rather, maybe the goal was to achieve happiness for everyone, and the only way to do that was to make sure society was stable, was safe, was static. Every aspect controlled, nothing left to chance.

The result? A society where everyone is designed to be happy. Where the people are cloned, genetically and chemically modified, conditioned and trained from birth to have specific needs and specific wants and specific fears and specific aversions, all of that intended simply to make them happy with their life exactly as it is. They are built to do specific tasks in society, to enjoy simple things like sex, sports, and soma, the wonder euphoria drug that eliminates all chance negative emotions, and never to want to do or be anything other than exactly what they are.

And I read this, and I think: are they right?

Isn’t a happy, stable society better than one that has misery and suffering? Even if, as John the Savage (The one person in the society born to be a part of society, but not raised in it, so not controlled by it) argues — rightly, I think — that sorrow is necessary for tragedy, which is necessary for great art and great genius? Do we really need art and genius? It seems like a reasonable argument to say that most people would prefer to be happy, rather than great, and that happiness — contentment — seems much more likely to make us productive and useful members of society, and to ensure the continuation of the species. Aren’t those the goals?

Even if they aren’t, isn’t the loss of freedom worth the great benefit that the society actively seeks in the novel: the elimination of war? There is not a doubt in my mind that war is the greatest evil, the most abhorrent atrocity, that humanity has ever created or faced; what price should we be willing to pay to free us of it?

After reading this book — though it did genuinely give me pause and make me think twice, and then a couple more times after that — I think the answer is No. No, the price of safety and stability is not worth it. No, the goal is not simply happiness and contentment for all people at all times. Even, I think at least half of the time, if we achieved the end of war.

Because what makes war such an abomination is that it degrades our humanity. In addition to creating or multiplying every other horror we face — death, famine, pestilence, cruelty, greed, deception, hysteria, you name it and war is where you will find it more often and to a greater degree than anywhere else — war takes away everything that ennobles us. In the midst of famine, we can find unmatched ingenuity, and inconceivable endurance, and breathtaking altruism and generosity and self-sacrifice; in the midst of plague, we find kindness and grace and dignity in the midst of and because of the suffering; and so on, through all of it.

But war does quite the opposite. War makes kind people cruel, and healthy people sick, and civilized people into savages. War is the triumph of inhumanity over humanity.

But so is the Brave New World. Because whatever those people are, they are not human. Humans are not designed, and humans are not crafted and shaped like pottery on a wheel, and humans are not set into a groove out of which they will never skip. Humans cannot be perfectly ordered: we are chaos, we create chaos. It’s one of the reasons we are so good at war, because we are so very, very good at destroying things. Especially ourselves. We’re good at building — or else there wouldn’t be any targets for war to aim at — but we’re even better at burning it all down.

And that’s necessary. Because without destroying what is there now, you would never be able to build anything new. Creation implies destruction, but it is valuable  when destruction is for the purpose of creation, when it is part of a continuing cycle: whereas if we end destruction, and end creation too (The people in the book are not created as humans are, through the act of love and the processes of nature; they are built like machines, which is origination, but not, I would argue, creation — and I’m not even touching on the religious argument, which would be a much more poetic way to say the same thing), what we achieve is — stasis. The end of movement.

Death. And not a death that continues the circle of life, giving rise to something new to replace what is lost; here nothing is lost, and so nothing can replace it. Everything is just — still. Stopped. Perfectly motionless, without growth, without progress, without change. Which is no less dead than death itself. And while I will often argue that progress for the sake of progress is cancerous and absurd and deadly, I certainly wouldn’t prefer the final end of all progress.

Not even if it made me happy.

 

I do not think that this means we need to accept war. I still believe it is the extreme end, the Ultima Thule, of human malignancy; which means we can draw back from it, lessen it, even essentially eliminate it; though it is probably also true that some shadow, some residue, will always remain to harm and torment us. It is in our nature: not that we are made to war, but that we are made to try and reach and explore and find new ways to do things, and one of the ways to do things is to go to war; so even if we forgot it, we would rediscover it again, and again. Curiosity killed the cat, and we are forever curious. But just as more freedom and individuality is better than less, even if it is an imperfect freedom and individuality (which is what we have now), less war and more peace is better than the reverse. So I think there is a goal, and a way to achieve it, without also losing everything that we are.

I also recognize that there are events and actions that might be labeled war, but are not the horrors I’ve been describing; there are times when people have taken up arms to put an end to the horrors, when military intervention is the only way to save people. I don’t want to use the phrase “police action,” because Vietnam was a lie and the police as saviors is a fraught idea anyway; but there are times when force is both necessary and humanely applied. Someone who uses force to defend themselves or another from an attacking force has done nothing wrong. I don’t mean to either denigrate that, nor argue that even that should be (or could be) eliminated; that is the shadow and the residue of war that probably should remain — though ideally, since that sort of violence is triggered by the inhumane violence of dictatorship and oppression and vast chaotic upheavals, if we could end those, we wouldn’t need to send the Marines to intervene. But I’m not sure we could end those, either, because I think having the good and valuable tool of a defensive force can very quickly be turned to evil purposes (Which is why the Founding Fathers of this country pushed for a militia and abhorred the idea of a standing army — COUGH COUGH LOOKING AT YOU, MILITARY INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX), and then the solution becomes the problem. So it goes. We can’t close Pandora’s box.

So no. I don’t think we can live like the Brave New World. (And let me point out that, we discover, neither can they, not entirely, because there are people who don’t fit their molds, and who cause problems, and who are eventually exiled; Mustapha Mond is grateful that there are so many islands in the world to send misfit toys to — but that’s not a  solution, it’s just pretense.) I don’t think we can all just get along.

But I think we can get by. And get to be ourselves. And that’s probably better. Because that way we get to have art and beauty and truth — and that, I think, is really the point.

Shakespeare, as usual, (and as Huxley himself recognized) probably said it best:

O, wonder!
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!

The Brave New World, for us, is wondrous because of the people in it; it is brave because it faces turmoil and tribulation and suffering; it is new because it moves through the cycle of destruction and creation. It lives, and it changes, and it grows. Like us.

In the book, the quote is used ironically. We have to make it true.

Mind the Gap

Last one. The student who suggested this was definitely on the side of “The wage gap is only because men work harder and have better jobs!” That is, not because of discrimination, but because men go into STEM fields more often, and are more aggressive in seeking promotion and wage increases. But then the question becomes, “Why do men go into STEM fields more often? Why are men more aggressive in seeking promotion and wage increases?”

Here’s my answer.

 

QUESTION:  Is there a gender wage gap? What explains the gender wage gap, if there is one?

There are simple answers to these questions, but there’s a problem: these questions come at the topic from the wrong side. 

Oh – the simple answers are, respectively: “Yes;” and, “Sexism.” 

But when we focus on questioning the existence of the gap, when we try to examine the truth value of a simple truth, the only way to have the argument is to keep breaking the wage gap down into smaller and smaller pieces, because that response values the position that the truth is not true: there must be a reason why my opponent questions the existence of the wage gap. Let’s consider his argument. Is there maybe a flaw in how we describe the wage gap? How we measure it? Is it only a rumor, or propaganda? 

So then we look for explanations that could cast doubt on the existence and extent of the wage gap: is the wage gap because women work fewer hours than men? Because women are less likely to go into high-paying careers? Because men have more education? Because women leave work to have children? Because women are less assertive in demanding more money or greater pay increases? Because men are smarter than women? 

Other than the last one (which, again, has a simple answer: #NOPE), each of these can be adjusted for when examining the data; if you look only at hourly wages, it removes the difference in hours worked and resulting total salary; if you look side-by-side at only specific careers, it removes the question about men going into more highly paid careers than women, and so on. 

Two things result from this: one, with each adjustment, the wage gap goes down; but two, the wage gap never disappears. Since it goes down, however, someone with a specific bias in this argument could extrapolate from the adjusted data and say there is no real gap, or it doesn’t matter; or someone could intentionally skew the data or make unfounded claims to support a different argument.

Here’s an example, from the Economic Policy Institute, a Washington thinktank which has a left-center bias, but is highly rated for its truthiness, according to mediabiasfactcheck.com (Source: https://mediabiasfactcheck.com/economic-policy-institute/). The EPI did a meta-study of several wage gap studies, and then adjusted for different factors, and reported this:

 

Models that control for a much larger set of variables—such as occupation, industry, or work hours—are sometimes used to isolate the role of discrimination in setting wages for specific jobs and workers. The notion is that if we can control for these factors, the wage gap will shrink, and what is left can be attributed to discrimination. Think of a man and woman with identical education and years of experience working side-by-side in cubicles but who are paid different wages because of discriminatory pay-setting practices. We also run a model with more of these controls, and find that the wage gap shrinks slightly from the unadjusted measure, from 17.9 percent to 13.5 percent.9 Researchers have used more extensive datasets to examine these differences. For instance, Blau and Kahn (2016) find an unadjusted penalty of 20.7 percent, a partially adjusted penalty of 17.9 percent, and a fully adjusted penalty of 8.4 percent.

Source: https://www.epi.org/publication/what-is-the-gender-pay-gap-and-is-it-real/

 

What matters is that second fact. The wage gap doesn’t disappear. It is always there. And just as an overall analysis of all workers will have some extraneous data and some uncontrolled influences and therefore exaggerate the problem (Regionalisms, for instance. Is it likely true that in some areas women are less educated than men because a strong religious influence makes it taboo to teach women, or because the teachers are traditionally men who do a better job of teaching young men than they do teaching young women, and therefore women have fewer high-paying jobs or are paid less because they have less education? Of course it is. So these factors may make the wage gap seem larger than it might be in some other locale, while not reflecting a “true” national wage gap. This is why statisticians have margins of error and confidence indices. But I don’t even understand the sentence I just wrote, so I just use lots of words and examples.), so too will generic adjustments remove some important data (Such as a part-time worker, who was told straight up by a supervisor, “I’m paying you less because you’re a woman, and for no other reason,” but the data vanishes because we only look at full-time workers. And so on.), so the adjusted rates aren’t any more objectively true than the unadjusted rates. All of it is skewed, all of it is complicated.

But what matters is that second fact. The wage gap doesn’t disappear. It would take some genuine statistical skullduggery to actually make it disappear. Which tells us that we shouldn’t be questioning the existence of the wage gap, we should be using it as evidence. The question that matters isn’t: Does the gender wage gap exist? The question that matters is: Is our society still sexist?

And the answer is yes. As proven by countless individual anecdotal experiences, and by a hundred objective facts. Among them: the wage gap. 

There is a thing my students do when I assign them difficult essays; in fact, it is such a common thing that it shows up on rubrics as a possible reason to lower a grade: they “substitute an easier task.” Rather than analyzing the plot, they summarize the plot. Rather than evaluate the characters, they describe first one character, and then another. This is what we have done in our society: we see that sexism still exists, we see that there is a gender wage gap; and rather than deal with sexism, we substitute the easier task, and pass laws that say women can’t be paid less than men for performing the same job. The first one was passed in this country in 1963: President John Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, which attempted to “prohibit discrimination on account of sex in the payment of wages by employers.” (Wikipedia.org) 

And that’s when the problem was solved. 

Yeah. Right. Because laws like that are the perfect way to eliminate sexism. 

It’s not that it’s a bad idea to make it illegal to discriminate on the basis of sex; there are those people who openly do it, and they shouldn’t be allowed to. But the real problem is sexism. Because even if the wage gap did disappear, even if we did find the perfect legal remedy for it, our society would still be sexist: and people would suffer in other ways. 

It’s time we dealt with the real problem, instead of substitute an easier task – and then fail to solve that one, too.

This Is Inappropriate

(Okay, the title’s a little clickbait-y. This is entirely appropriate. Promise.) This was a sample I wrote from a student’s suggestion of topic.

 

Why should the school care about what students wear? 

I’ve heard students argue about dress codes for as long as I’ve been a teacher. Honestly, they have terrible arguments: but not because they’re wrong. They have terrible arguments because they’re young and inexperienced with argument, and because their emotions often tend to overwhelm their reason – they get busted for wearing clothes they like, told the clothes they like and feel comfortable in are bad or inappropriate or in poor taste (And all too often, the arguments leveled against them by adults are direct insults – “Why would you wear that? Why would you think it was a good idea to wear that to school?”); of course they get upset, and of course that makes it hard to think clearly of logical reasons why the dress code is bad. That’s without even talking about the deeply troubling message of the dress code, especially when it is enforced against young women: your clothing is incorrect because it shows your body, and your body is inappropriate. Is unacceptable. Is wrong.

Enough is enough. I have been asked to take up this argument, and though I don’t necessarily have personal insight into the dress code – I myself was never busted for a dress code violation in school, even when I wore clothes with offensive messages on them, which I did for years; I have never been told as an adult that my clothing is inappropriate (other than when my friend laughed at me for wearing a white suit, saying I looked like Colonel Sanders. She wasn’t wrong, though.) – I do have logical reasons why the dress code is wrong. The first and most important is: because it upsets the students so much that they can’t think straight. 

Because it does that. That is not to say that students being upset is reason to let them break the rules, which I know is the immediate thought of those who believe in dress codes – probably including the words “snowflake” and “safe space” and maybe some aggressively angry references to people in the past being tougher and stronger and whatnot than kids today, and maybe even a muttered “Avocado toast!” – but it is something that should be considered: because this is a school, and these children are our students. The first (ostensible) reason for a dress code is to ensure that students can focus on their education; but if students are so upset by the dress code and the methods of its enforcement that they can’t, as I’ve said, think logically enough to argue against that dress code, can those students be expected to think clearly enough to learn? And if not, what exactly is the dress code supposed to accomplish? Are those reasons enough to ruin a child’s education, even for one day? Enough to harm that child’s self-image, to teach that child that she herself is inappropriate? 

First, let’s examine the idea that a dress code reduces distraction based on sexuality. That is, when girls wear revealing clothing to school, the boys are incapable of thinking about schoolwork, because all they will be capable of doing is ogling the girls in their revealing clothing. (To a far lesser extent the argument goes both ways: but dress codes are overwhelmingly focused, both in the specific restrictions and the enforcement, on female students post-puberty, because of the distraction of male students post-puberty. LGBTQ students are twice as likely to be the victims of sexual assault or harassment, but I don’t hear that in the arguments for the dress code.) I’ve heard the argument made that revealing clothing invites harassment from teenaged boys, as well, from which girls need to be protected. By disallowing the girls from wearing revealing clothing, thus keeping them safe from boys. (Which is why, currently, 58% of high school girls experience some form of sexual harassment [That number varies by study. A Harvard school of education study found that 87% of teenage girls suffer sexual harassment. Check the link.], and over 10% say they have been forced to have sex: because the dress code is working!)

The obvious answer to this problem – and it is so obvious that it has become a meme, an online trope – is to teach the boys not to harass the girls (Again, this goes both ways, as well, but people rarely focus on sexual harassment of male students. Assume I’m including that issue, as well. I am.), and to redirect the boys to their schoolwork, to train them to overcome their urges and focus on the task at hand. If school can’t even do that, what are we even doing? And if we can’t do that because it can’t be done, if teenaged boys are so inevitably focused on sexual thoughts that no power on this Earth could stop them from staring at girls and fantasizing, why would you ever think that a loose polo shirt and ill-fitting dress pants would do the trick? I’m not going to pretend that this argument is reasonable, because I refuse to accept the underlying claim that males cannot possibly overcome our urges, that we are all rapists at heart, barely held in check by terror of punishment; but the same clichés that give this argument its power contradict the idea of a dress code: if teenaged boys are so horny, thinking about sex every seven seconds, willing to do literally anything for the chance at sexual release, if, as movies describe it, “linoleum” or “a stiff breeze” are sufficient to put teenaged boys in the mood – what clothing choice could possibly stop that?

Is it possible that, instead, we should deal with the actual issue head on? Teach students, especially male students, about consent? About rape? About sexual harassment? Teach our students the truth about their pubescent hormones and their bodies?  Stop pretending that sexual urges are bad, but teach them that unwelcome sexual advances are bad, and are not excused by clothing choices? Is it possible that we should teach young people to control themselves, and to redirect their thoughts when they become problematic? Talk about it all honestly, so that we can address actual concerns, answer their questions, rather than try to shamefully cover up? As awkward as those conversations might be, I would have that conversation a thousand times before I would tell a female student to cover up because I can see her breasts.

Once we get past the question of sex-based distraction, the second most common argument for a dress code is even sillier: not because those who create and enforce dress codes have terrible goals, but entirely because the benefits are not worth the costs. The argument is that the dress code reflects a professional work environment; students will not be allowed to wear tank tops and miniskirts (or sagged jeans and wifebeaters) to work. Which I suppose is true (Except for my former student who wore a bikini to work, because she was Miss Teen California; and let’s not pretend that none of our students become models, or strippers, or dancers, or Hooters waitresses – or simply work at home, a trend that has grown enormously as telecommuting and gig work have become more popular; and working at home means you can wear literally nothing to work, every single day. Even if you have to teleconference, nobody sees if you’re not wearing any pants.) but here’s the thing: students aren’t at work. School is not work. You can tell because we don’t pay them. I am a firm believer in the idea that students work as hard at school as most people do at their jobs, and their compensation is the education and the opportunities they gain; but nonetheless, they are not professionals, and should not be held to professional standards. Simply because any professional can quit: and students cannot. Since we compel them to attend, they should be allowed more freedom than a professional would be – and letting them wear what they want seems a reasonable concession.

In terms of preparing them for their future: how much preparation does this habit actually require? Is it hard to figure out how to dress for a professional office? If it is, then kids are in trouble: because it’s not actually how they are required to dress for school. I’ve never been required to wear a uniform polo shirt – and I work in a high school. One with a uniform code: for students. But on the other hand, I never thought it would be okay to wear booty shorts and a mesh crop-top to work, so practice not wearing booty shorts and a mesh crop-top to school doesn’t seem necessary. If someone is confused about the appropriateness of their attire, then what is required is a conversation: not years and years at a school with a dress code. If we’re going to all this effort, and causing all of this discomfort to our students, in order to spare their future supervisors from having one potentially awkward conversation, we need to straighten out our priorities. Because school staff have years of awkward conversations, which can have serious effects on the students’ self-image, in order to spare one adult conversation. It’s simply not worth it. Thinking that it is, is silly.

We can ratchet the silliness up another notch with this next one: uniforms make the student body look and feel like they belong, like they are part of a unified team. It’s difficult to believe that actually works; I’ve worn the same outfit as another person before and somehow never thought of the close bond that was thus created. I’ve never hugged the other people wearing Doc Martens just because what they have on their feet resembles what I have on my feet. (If that worked, wouldn’t we all be bonding over the simple existence of socks? WOO! SOCKS! HUG IT OUT FOR SOCKS!) Maybe it’s because I never played a lot of sports, and it’s the sports uniform that makes a team come together; but I did play some sports, and I did have a team uniform: it didn’t make me feel like I belonged. Probably because the other kids on the team made fun of me. Even though we were all wearing the same uniform. Because I was bad at sports.

Which brings us to another potential reason for a dress code, or more specifically for a uniform code: if students wear uniforms, then none of them can make fun of other students for what they are wearing. There is, I admit, some truth to that; because students do mock each other for their dress, particularly along socioeconomic class lines. But I cannot imagine that identical uniforms will overcome those class distinctions: the rich kids will still have, and will notice and comment on, their better hair and skin and makeup and accessories; even if every kid had a bag over their head, kids would still know who was rich and who was poor, and there would still be conflict.

This is what is wrong with all of the arguments for a dress code, or for a uniform code: they all treat the symptoms, and not the actual problem. If students are being distracted by sexy thoughts about their peers, the issue is the distraction and the sexy thoughts; not what the peers are wearing. If students mock each other for their clothes, the answer is not to change their clothes; it is to change their attitudes and their behavior. If we want students to feel like they are part of a team, that they are in a place where they belong, then by God let us make them feel like they are a part of the school community: let us treat them as equals, not as underlings. If we want them to feel like they belong, then please, let us treat them as if they have a right to be on the school campus, as if this is a place that they can feel comfortable: let them wear whatever they want to wear. 

Then if one of them shows up in a Speedo, we can have that one awkward conversation. 

I was going to do it anyway…

Here we go: time for teaching argument again. I had my students write a sample essay, so I could see how well they argue already and what they need to learn; while they were writing, I was writing.

This one was my choice of topic.

 

Is there any value in teaching argument?

The cynical part of me says no, because my students either know how to argue or they don’t, and going through my class doesn’t seem a terribly good way to get them to understand what argument is or how to craft a good argument. I’ve taught argument for twenty years now, and still people make the same mistakes and have the same wrong conceptions of what argument is. They still yell at each other; they still try for insults, mockery, and Gotchas as a way to “win” an argument. They still think that everyone has the right to their opinion, no matter how absurd, unfounded, or even dangerous that opinion may be; and they don’t think that a person should have to support their opinion, because they don’t think people should question each others’ opinions. Mainly because they don’t want me or someone like me to question their opinion, because they can’t support their opinions: they can yell about them.

But if I judged what topics should be taught by how well my students absorb them, then honestly, I wouldn’t teach anything; because no matter what I teach, or how I teach it, some of my students don’t get it. I could give the same description, or a similar one, for any topic I present to my class, any skill I try to instill in them. Sometimes they go out knowing only as much as they knew coming in. 

But that’s not entirely true. First because the topics in English class (and probably every class, but this is the one I know) are not discrete and mutually exclusive; reading narratives and writing essays and analyzing setting and character and especially plot are all skills that will serve the students well if they ever decide to participate in a serious argument. Speaking and listening, and writing and reading, are generally useful skills, and they all encourage growth in each other; and while my students may not all master argument, they do all improve in some way in my class, and any area of improvement is at least somewhat valuable in every other area. (This is also why I don’t like standards based grading, but that’s a different argument.)

Secondly, it is impossible to say what effect I have on my students in the long term. I know for a fact, because I have been told this by former students, that my class, for any of a myriad reasons, had a significant impact on them, often in ways they did not expect and I could not predict, often years after they moved on to another teacher or another school. So do my students learn better argument from me even if they don’t show tangible improvement while we are working on the unit? I hope, and think, yes. 

So my answer would be: yes. There is value in teaching argument. The impacts may be invisible, they may be far in the future; they may even be tangential, as argument skills may be improved by some other part of the class, or other skills may be improved by the work on argument. The important factor is this: argument itself is important. People in our world need to know how to argue. They need to know how to clearly define their subject and their claim, they need to know how to find and build support for their opinions, they need to know how to listen to, analyze, question, and address alternative viewpoints. They need to know that opinions are not inherently equal in value, nor sacrosanct, just because an individual (who is equal in value to all other individuals) holds that opinion, and they need to know how to dislodge someone from a dangerous or wrong opinion, both for their own convenience and for the greater good. They need to know how to recognize when an argument is lost and should be given up. They need to know how to deal with being wrong, and having someone else prove it to you.

We need these skills in our society. I don’t know for sure that our country is falling apart, or rather being blasted apart, by partisan intransigence and rancor; but I know, for sure, that our inability to argue rationally is making everything in our democracy worse: less sure, more troubled, more irrational and therefore dangerous. And when democracy fails, then some form of tyranny is the inevitable result. And we don’t want that: not even if the tyrant is on our side.

Don’t believe me? Then let’s argue about it.

 

All Together Now: Split Up!

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World War III might be coming soon. (I mean, probably not, but who can say? Who’s to say what CheetoFace the Kleptocrat will do next?)

But the meme war has already begun.

I had a class ask about the war yesterday, and about the draft, and about everything they worry about or are confused by regarding the whole mess. I helped them as much as I could, which wasn’t enough — because I can’t stop the war. One of my students made a nice point, though: someone said that memes would be turned to propaganda for one side or the other, and another student said, “All propaganda is memes.”

That’s the truth. And the corollary is probably also true: all memes are propaganda.

I have a troubled relationship with memes. I think they’re funny a lot of the time, and I’m impressed by the creativity behind them; but I loathe when they are used as arguments. Memes are inherently reductive, and more often than not, flat out wrong. I used to make it a thing to argue with anyone who used a meme to establish a position, especially a political position, especially on a genuine controversial issue.

Like this bullshit:

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Nothing on this meme is true. The U.S. isn’t third in murder rate; we are 77th. Washington isn’t even in the “top” 30 cities in the US with the highest murder rates, and the other three are not the cities with the highest murder rates; in 2018 the total number of homicides in the U.S. was 16,214, and if we take away the 765 murders in Chicago, the 174 in New Orleans, the 304 in Detroit, and the 160 in Washington D.C., (Admittedly, this is a hell of a lot of murders) the number drops to 14,811. My math gives us a murder rate of 4.49 per 100,000 residents; lower than the U.S. rate of 5.0 murders per 100,000 population, according to the FBI, but according to this chart, that would move us down — exactly nine spaces. To between Niger and Lithuania. I’m not even going to talk about whether those four cities do in fact have the “toughest” gun laws in the United States, though I will note that the states  with the most restrictive gun laws according to this article are Hawaii, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, California, Illinois, and New York. Soooo…. I guess Chicago might be in there. Right?

And is that woman really the Second Amendment? She seems too young.

Anyway, I’ve argued against a lot of memes over the years. It’s slowed down a bit: I stopped trying to argue with everyone and everything I disagree with, and the memes have increased exponentially in number, and increased (though not exponentially) in amusement.

But now we get to the current meme war.

Currently, the memes are showing up (from what I have seen, though my experience is certainly not comprehensive)  in two main forms: World War III is coming, and that’s fucked up and I’m scared, and therefore I’m going to use black humor to deflect from my fear. That looks like this:

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I don’t have anything to say about those memes other than: I’m sorry. I’m sorry that my generation and the ones before mine sunk this country, and this world, into this nightmare of eternal war, and now the current generations have to pay for it. I’m sorry for all that my country has done to harm other countries. I do recognize that there have been some good outcomes of American military intervention; but those outcomes do not come anywhere close to making up for the damage we have done. Not even close.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about here. I’m a pacifist, I’m anti-war; my position on American wars is not surprising.

No: what I wanted to talk about is the other class of memes. Memes like this:

Image may contain: possible text that says 'Pay attention to who gets upset when a terrorist leader is killed. PAY CLOSE ATTENTION.'

And this:

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And this lil beauty:

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So look. People can be in favor of war with Iran. I don’t agree, but they have the right to believe that it is the right thing; there’s at least some kind of argument in support of that, so it’s not insane to think it. Iran certainly does and has done terrible things, and maybe war would stop that.

But first, we here in this country need to not act as though we have the moral high ground: we do not.

The truth is that Soleimani was not all that different from any of about five dozen current and former American politicians and bureaucrats — if anything, he was considerably more restrained about the use of force. Yes, he was involved in a lot of bloody wars — but so was every American president since 2000, and besides half the wars he fought in were started or fueled by the United States. It’s just another instance of America’s gigantic hypocrisy when it comes to war.

America is guilty of everything we accuse Iran of doing

Second, whether you are for war with Iran (or war in general) or not, your position does not in any way have any implications about your citizenship, your rights, or how you feel about this country. You can love America and hate the war; you can hate America and love the war; and everything else in between — and the one does not at all imply the other.

I’m not sure how to explain or argue for that idea other than just to state it. To state clearly that one of the foundations of this country is freedom of thought and opinion, and the freedom of speech that allows us to express those opinions in a public forum. There is not any requirement to support the government, the war effort, or even the troops; there are reasons not to support all of those institutions, and therefore someone could reasonably have that opinion, and still think the U.S. is a good country and want to be a part of it. And of course, an American can think that the U.S. is a terrible country, and hate every little thing about it — and still be an American citizen. No less of an American citizen than the most flag-kissin’, woo-hootin’, ‘Murrican-chaps-wearin’ yahoo out there. And if you don’t understand that, the problem is you, not the person who disagrees with the rising tensions in the Middle East. Not someone who sympathizes with Soleimani: because you can think a man is a bad man, and still not want him dead, or be sad that he died — and again, even if you think Iran is a fine country and Soleimani was an Iranian patriot hero, you will still be an American citizen. Because citizenship, moral or legal, is not predicated on one’s opinions. Ever. Actions can change one’s legal or moral right to citizenship; if you try to harm America, one can argue that you lose some right to call yourself an American (Though personally I would say you need to actively alter your legal status, intentionally [And thus President Obama’s killing of Anwar Al-Awlaki was murder and not an act of war] ; and to me, morality has nothing whatsoever to do with citizenship: good Americans and bad Americans are Americans alike.), but saying you want to harm America is only words, only an opinion. It would be far more harmful to America to try to strip someone’s citizenship for an opinion or a statement thereof, because that is a violation of that foundational freedom of opinion and of speech.

And refusing to support a war, a war that will most certainly harm America — and thus should be opposed by those who want to do what is right for this country — is in no way something that changes one’s right to be an American. Doesn’t even make you a bad American. Though I guess someone could have the right to flip me off for that opinion, so I shouldn’t put that last meme into my display of objectionable memes. (Though also, isn’t that desecration of the flag? Just sayin’.)

It’s bad enough that we have to deal with jingoist nationalists trying to murder people around the world. Please don’t also make me have to defend my right to inclusion in my own native country. Please understand the country you claim to love, at least as well as it’s understood by those you say don’t love it enough.

Try to understand the war as well as this guy: (The first Tweet makes the point, but go read the whole thread.)

I do love my country. I do. I hate war. And so I refuse to allow those two things to be seen as the same thing. Even by my countrymen: whose right to be wrong I will defend to my last breath. So please do the same for me.

Understand that we can disagree, but when we fight each other over our disagreements, when our different opinions make you consider me inhuman, or undeserving of inclusion in your group, then we become divided in a way that is incredibly difficult to put back together. And that division hurts us. Not the difference in our opinions: if I think stopping the war is best for America, and you think fighting the war is best for America, then we disagree, but we are not divided: we want the same thing. We stand on common ground. We can discuss it, because we can both start our arguments with, “I want what’s best for our country, just like you do, but…”

But if you think I am not deserving of the title “American” because I don’t share your opinion, then we can’t even talk: I say, “I want what’s best for America,” and you say, “No you don’t, you’re not even a real American.” Now we are arguing about me, not about our country and how to help it.

That is what benefits the enemies of this country, and what harms this country: if we cannot see each other as equals, who happen to disagree.

There’s been far too much of that lately. We should stop doing it. All of us. Right now. Especially as we consider going to war, again. Because if we have to fight each other, we can’t also fight our enemies — and please understand that, although I do not want war, and I do not want violence, I do want to fight my country’s enemies. Enemies like ignorance, and bigotry, and dehumanizing hatred. That is what I will fight. That is what I do my utmost to protect my country, and my countrymen, from.

Because I love my country, and I want what’s best for us all. All of us. That’s what matters to me.

Remember what matters most to you.

Remember: united we stand.

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I HAVE FOUND THE PERFECT RUBRIC!

I don’t want to ask you to go to Twitter — but if you could go there and Like and maybe Retweet this, that would be swell.

Because this? This is the best thing in education. Ever.

 

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I’m now officially done with grading, forever. Thank you, Typical EduCelebrity!