A Philosopher's Blog

Scantily Clad Heroes

Posted in Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 17, 2017

Wonder Woman 2017cFeminists have long been critical of how female superheroes are presented in comics. In terms of appearance, they have expressed concerns about the body types of female heroes, the way they are posed, and the skimpy costumes most wear. One interesting visual response is the Hawkeye Initiative in which Hawkeye (or another male superhero) is drawn in the same pose and costume type as a female superhero. As would be imagined, the male hero looks absurd when so posed and costumed, which is exactly the point.

While the presentation of female superheroes in comics is certainly a first world problem, it does raise some important concerns. These concerns normally focus on such matters as the impact on body image, but my interest here is with considering the superhero costume from a practical standpoint. That is, what such costumes should be like when considered from a realistic perspective. While I am no expert on fashion, I will draw on my experiences as an athlete, martial artist and gamer to guide the discussion.

In the realm of fiction, being a superhero generally means being very physically active (running, swimming or flying after villains) and engaging in combat. This means that a sensible superhero would have a costume designed to take these into account.

While I am not a superhero, decades of competitive running have given me considerable insight into what sort of clothes are best to wear. One important factor is mobility—you need to be able to move properly in athletic clothing. One approach is looser fitting clothing that allows a lot of motion (such as running shorts) while another is the tight-fitting spandex (such as running tights) that also allow free motion. As such, the idea of heroes wearing tights makes sense—for the same reason that it makes sense for runners to wear them. Another important factor is temperature management. If a hero is like a normal human, they will generate body heat and sweat when they are active. As such, they will need to be able to stay cool while active but also remain warm when they are just patrolling or engaging in dramatic dialogue.

As a runner, I wear as little as possible when I am running in warm weather (for me, “warm” is anything over 55 degrees). This typically means just shorts, socks and shoes.  Many other runners are the same, with women generally adding at least the legally necessary coverage. Presumably a superhero that runs about would also want to wear as little as possible. As such, in warm weather superheroes dressed in super versions of running clothes would make sense—skin tight clothing with lots of skin exposed.  This, of course, assumes that the super heroes have the human need to stay cool when being active. A superhero that had no need to sweat could wear whatever they wished—the concerns of mere sweaty mortals would matter not to them.

Considering this, it would make sense for female superheroes to wear the same amount of clothing as competitive runners—that is, not much. However, the same would also apply to male superheroes.

While wearing minimal clothing is a good idea when active under warm conditions, like runners facing cooler weather, superheroes would need to cover up more to remain comfortable and perhaps avoid hypothermia. Practical and sensible superheroes should also consider following a standard practice of runners: wearing more clothing to warm up or when waiting to compete, then shedding clothing when it is time to get down to business. Since hanging out all day in sweat-soaked clothes is uncomfortable, sensible heroes would also change costumes when they can. And shower.

Unlike runners, superheroes spend much of their time in combat and this would impose another set of practical considerations in regards to clothing. Since superheroes tend to fight hand to hand, it would be unwise to have costumes that provide a foe with easy handholds. As such, tight costumes without extraneous material would be the best choice. Capes would, as always, be a poor choice.

When engaging in combat, it has always been a good idea to have protective gear. Some of this protection is intended to deal with the incidentals of combat, such as ending up in contact with rough surfaces (like being knocked down in the street) but most of it is supposed to provide protection against attacks. This protection usually takes the form of armor, ranging from ballistic clothing to powered armor (like Iron Man wears).

Armor does have the usual trade-offs: it tends to restrict movement, tire out the wearer quicker, and create overheating problems. As such, heroes that rely on speed and freedom of movement might be inclined to avoid armor or at least keep it to a minimum. The classic Batman, for example, did not wear any armor. However, as anyone who plays games like D&D knows or faces combat in the real world, armor is generally a good idea for those who are going to end up in combat. Otherwise all those knifes, bullets and ray blasts will be hitting your skin.

To be effective armor must at least cover the important parts (usually the head and torso) and that means that exposing a lot of skin (especially cleavage or the abdomen) is a bad idea when you are counting on your armor. As such, the typical fantasy drawings of heroines in armor are absurd. Or, as a veteran D&D player put it, “if the enemy can see your cleavage, they can cut your boobs.” And no one wants their boobs cut.

Superheroes who have powers that make them invulnerable or otherwise grant great defensive powers do not need to rely on armor and they can safely wear whatever they like; such as Power Girl’s famous cleavage window costume. While the classic Wonder Woman relied on her magical bracelets, the updated version seems to be close to Superman in her ability to withstand damage—as such, she would not need to rely on armor for protection. Superman, of course, does not need armor—his skin is almost certainly stronger than anything he could wear. As such, a superhero who still had to deal with the sweating problem but did not need armor would want to wear as little as possible, be they male or female. Perhaps this explains why Wonder Woman still dresses the way she does.

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Gender Nominalism & Competition

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 12, 2015

In the previous essay I discussed gender nominalism—the idea that gender is not a feature of reality, but a social (or individual) construct. As such, a person falling within a gender class is a matter of naming rather than a matter of having objective features. In this essay I will not argue for (or against) gender nominalism. Rather, I will be discussing gender nominalism within the context of competition.

Being a runner, I will start with competitive sports. As anyone who has run competitively knows, males and females generally compete within their own sexes. So, for example, a typical road race will (at least) have awards for the top three males and also for the top three females. While individual males and females vary greatly in their abilities, males have a general physical advantage over females when it comes to running: the best male runner is significantly better than the best female runner and average male runners are also better than average female runners.

Given that males generally have an advantage over females in regards to running (and many other physical sports), it would certainly be advantageous for a male runner if the division was based on gender (rather than biological sex) and people could simply declare their genders. That is, a male could declare himself a woman and thus be more likely to do better relative to the competition. While there are those who do accept that people have the right to gender declare at will and that others are obligated to accept this, it seems clear that this would not be morally acceptable in sports.

The intent of dividing athletes by sex is to allow for a fairer completion. This same principle, that of fairer competition, is also used to justify age groups—as older runner knows, few things slow a person down like dragging many years.  Because of this, a runner could, in general, gain an advantage by making a declaration of age identity (typically older). Perhaps the person could claim that he has always been old on the inside and that to refuse to accept his age identification would be oppression. However, this would be absurd: declaring an age does not change the person’s ability to compete and would thus grant an unfair advantage. Likewise, allowing a male to compete as a woman (or girl) in virtue of gender identification would be unfair. The declaration would not, obviously, change the person’s anatomy and physiology.

There are, however, cases that are much more controversial and challenging. These include cases in which a person has undergone a change in anatomy. While these cases are important, they go beyond the intended scope of this essay, which is gender nominalism.

Some competitions do not divide the competitors by sex. These are typically competitions where the physical differences between males and females do not impact the outcome. Some examples include debate, chess, spelling bees and NASCAR. In these cases, males and females compete equally and hence the principle of fairness justifies the lack of sex divisions. Some of these competitions do have other divisions. For example, spelling bees do not normally pit elementary school students against high school students. In such competitions, gender identification would seem to be irrelevant. As such, competitors should be free to gender identify as they wish within the context of the competition.

Interestingly, there are competitions where there appear to be no sex-based advantages (in terms of physical abilities), yet there are gender divisions. There are competitions in literature, music, and acting that are divided by gender (and some are open only to one gender). There are also scholarships, fellowships and other academic awards that are open only to one gender (in the United States, these are often limited to woman).

Since being a biological male would seem to yield no advantage in such cases, the principle of fairness would not seem to apply. For example, the fact that males are generally larger and stronger would yield no advantage when it came to writing a novel, acting in a play, or playing a guitar. As such, it would seem that if people should be able to set their own gender identity, they should be able to do so for such competitions, thus enabling them to compete where they wish.

It could be argued that the principle of fairness would still apply—that biological males would still have an advantage even if they elected to identify as women for the competition. This advantage, it might be claimed, would be based in the socially constructed advantages that males possess. Naturally, it would need to be shown that a male that gender identifies as a woman for such competitions, such as getting a woman’s only scholarship, would still retain the (alleged) male advantage.

It could also be argued that the divisions are not based on a principle of fairness regarding advantages or disadvantages. Rather, the divisions are to given more people a chance of winning. This could be justified on the same grounds that justify having many categories. For example, there are awards for being the best actor in a supporting role, which exists to create another chance for an actor to win something. If a person could just gender declare and be eligible, then that would create an “imbalance”, much as allowing non-supporting actors to declare themselves supporting actors to get a shot at that award would be unfair.

Of course, this seems to assume that there is a justified distinction between the genders that would ground the claims of unfairness. That is, it would be as wrong for a male to win best actress as it would be for a female screenwriter who never acted to win best actress for her screenplay.  Or that it would be as bad for a male to get a scholarship intended for a woman as it would be for a football player who cannot do math to get a math scholarship. This approach, which would involve rejecting one form of gender nominalism (the version in which the individual gets to declare gender) is certainly an option. This would not, however, require accepting that gender is not a social construct—one could still be a gender nominalist of the sort that believes that gender classification is both a matter of individual declaration and acceptance by the “relevant community.” As such, the relevant communities could police their competitions. For example, those who dole out scholarships for woman can define what it is to be a woman, so as to prevent non-woman from getting those awards. This would, of course, seem to justify similar gender policing by society as a whole, which leads to some interesting problems about who gets to define gender identity. The usual answer people give is, of course, themselves.

 

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Ad Baculum, Racism & Sexism

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Science by Michael LaBossiere on May 9, 2014
Opposition poster for the 1866 election. Geary...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was asked to write a post about the ad baculum in the context of sexism and racism. To start things off, an ad baculum is a common fallacy that, like most common fallacies, goes by a variety of names. This particular fallacy is also known as appeal to fear, appeal to force and scare tactics. The basic idea is quite straightforward and the fallacy has a simple form:

Premise: Y is presented (a claim that is intended to produce fear).

Conclusion:  Therefore claim X is true (a claim that is generally, but need not be, related to Y in some manner).

 

This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because creating fear in people (or threatening them) does not constitute evidence that a claim is true. This tactic can be rather effective as a persuasive device since fear can be an effective motivator for belief. But, there is a distinction between a logical reason to accept a claim as true and a motivating reason to believe that a claim is true.

Like all fallacies, ad baculums will serve any master, so they can be employed as a device in “support” of any claim. In the days when racism and sexism were rather more overt in America, ad baculums were commonly employed in the hopes of motivating people to accept (or at least not oppose) racism and sexism. Naturally, the less subtle means of direct threats and physical violence (up to and including murder) were deployed as well.

In the United States of 2014, overt racism and sexism are regarded as unacceptable and those who make racist or sexist claims sometimes find themselves the object of public disapproval. In some cases, making such claims can cost a person his job.

In some cases, it will be claimed that the claims were not actually racist or sexist. In other cases, the racism or sexism will not be denied, but an appeal will be made to freedom of expression and concerns will be raised that a person is being denied his rights when he is subject to a backlash for remarks that some might regard as racist or sexist.

Given that people are sometimes subject to negative consequences for making claims that are seen by some as racist or sexist, it is not unreasonable to consider that ad baculums are sometimes deployed to limit free expression. That is, that the threat of some sort of retaliation is used to persuade people to accept certain claims. Or, at the very least, used in an attempt to silence people.

It is rather important to be clear about an important distinction between an appeal to fear (using fear to get people to believe) and there being negative consequences for a person’s actions. For example, if someone says “you know, young professor, that we carefully consider a person’s view on race and sex before granting tenure…so I certainly hope that you are with us in your beliefs and actions”, then that is an appeal to fear: the young professor is supposed to agree with her colleagues and believe that claims are true because she has been threatened. But, if a young professor realizes that she will fired for yelling things like “go back to England, white devil honkey crackers male-pigs” at her white male students and elects not to do so, she is not a victim of an appeal to fear. To use another example, if I refrain from shouting obscenities at the Dean because I would rather not be fired, I am not a victim of ad baculum. As a final example, if I decide not to say horrible things about my friends because I know that they would reconsider their relationship to me, then I am not a victim of an ad baculum. As such, an ad baculum is not that a person faces potential negative consequences for saying things, it is that a person is supposed to accept a claim as true on the basis of “evidence” that is merely a threat or something intended to create fear. As such, the fact that making claims that could be taken as sexist or racist could result in negative consequences does not entail that anyone is a victim of ad baculum in this context.

What some people seem to be worried about is the possibility of a culture of coercion (typically regarded as leftist) that aims at making people conform to a specific view about sex and race. If there were such a culture or system of coercion that aimed at making people accept claims about race and gender using threats as “evidence”, then there would certainly be ad baculums being deployed.

I certainly will not deny that there are some people who do use ad baculums to try to persuade people to believe claims about sex and race. However, there is the reasonable question of how much this actually impacts discussions of race and gender. There is, of course, the notion that the left has powerful machinery in place to silence dissent and suppress discussions of race and sex that deviate from their agenda. There is also the notion that this view is a straw man of the reality of the situation.

One point of reasonable concern is considering the distinction between views that can be legitimately regarded as warranting negative consequences (that is, a person gets what she deserves for saying such things) and views that should be seen as legitimate points of view, free of negative consequences. For example, if I say that you are an inferior being who is worthy only of being my servant and unworthy of the rights of a true human, then I should certainly expect negative consequences and would certainly deserve some of them.

Since I buy into freedom of expression, I do hold that people should be free to express views that would be regarded as sexist and racist. However, like J.S. Mill, I also hold that people are subject to the consequences of their actions. So, a person is free to tell us one more thing he knows about the Negro, but he should not expect that doing so will be free of consequences.

There is also the way in which such views are considered. For example, if I were to put forth a hypothesis about gender role for scientific consideration and was willing to accept the evidence for or against my hypothesis, then this would be rather different than just insisting that women are only fit for making babies and sandwiches. Since I believe in freedom of inquiry, I accept that even hypotheses that might be regarded as racist or sexist should be given due consideration if they are properly presented and tested according to rigorous standards. For example, some claim that women are more empathetic and even more ethical than men. While that might seem like a sexist view, it is a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can be tested and thus confirmed or disconfirmed. Likewise, the claim that men are better suited for leadership might seem like a sexist view, it is also a legitimate point of inquiry and one that can presumably be investigated. As a final example, inquiring whether or not men are being pushed out of higher education is also a matter of legitimate inquiry—and one I have pursued.

If someone is merely spewing hate and nonsense, I am not very concerned if he gets himself into trouble. After all, actions have consequences. However, I am concerned about the possibility that scare tactics might be used to limit freedom of expression in the context of discussions about race and sex. The challenge here is sorting between cases of legitimate discussion/inquiry and mere racism or sexism.

As noted above, I have written about the possibility of sexism against men in current academics—but I have never been threatened and no attempt has been made to silence me. This might well be because my work never caught the right (or wrong) eyes or it might be because my claims are made as a matter of inquiry and rationally argued. Because of my commitment to these values, I am quite willing to consider examples of cases where sensible and ethical people have attempted to engage in rational and reasonable discussion or inquiry in regards to race or sex and have been subject to attempts to silence them. I am sure there are examples and welcome their inclusion in the comments section.

 

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Booth Babes

Posted in Business, Ethics, Philosophy, Technology, Video Games by Michael LaBossiere on June 25, 2012
English: Booth Babes from Eidos Stand at E3 2000

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While the various technology trade shows and video game expos are supposed to be about the technology and the games, considerable attention is paid to booth babes. For those not familiar with the way of the booth babe, a booth babe is an attractive woman (the “babe” part) who works at such an event (typical in or near a company’s booth) in order to attract the attention of the predominantly male attendees and lure them, like sirens of old, to the booth.

The job of a booth babe is typically not extremely demanding: they tend to work in two or eight hour stints (depending on whether it is a product unveiling or a full show). Wages vary, but are generally decent. For example, a booth babe working at Computex in Taiwan might make $100-170 for an eight hour shift of smiling and being leered at by hordes of nerdy men. The pay can, of course, be worse at less prestigious events and better at bigger events.

While booth babes might be considered an odd subject for a philosophical look, they do raise some interesting philosophical issues. For those who are wondering, philosophy events do not, as a rule, have booth babes. Mainly just elderly professors in tweed jackets.

One obvious point of concern for any job is whether or not the pay is just for the work being done. As might be imagined, most booth babes would prefer to be paid more. However, given the extent of the babe’s duties, the pay does not seem entirely unreasonable. What is of greater philosophical interest are the treatment of booth babes and the question of whether or not there should be both babes.

As might be imagined, the sort of technology and game events that feature both babes tend to be male dominated. Also, to fall into some stereotypes, many of the men who attend these events are not accustomed to being close to attractive women. There are also, unfortunately, some strong elements of misogyny and sexism in these areas. As such, it is is hardly surprising that booth babes get leered at. They have also been the subject of what seem to be sexist tweets, such as the infamous Asus tweet regarding the “nice rear” of a booth babe. Booth babes also get plastered all over the net in videos and photos, put on display just like the products they are selling.

On the one hand, it seems wrong to treat the booth babes as objects and to employ them to lure men to the events and the booths. This seems to involve demeaning both the booth babes and the males. The babes are demeaned by being presented as sex objects to lure in males and the males are demeaned because it is assumed that they need booth babes to draw them in (and that they want to see the babes).  This seems to be morally wrong. After all, this is treating people as mere sexual objects used to sell products. Both Kant and the feminists would agree that this sort of objectification is wrong. While this view is very appealing (and almost certainly correct), there are some points well worth considering.

On the other hand, if the booth babes were not sexy and if males were not attracted to this, then there would be no jobs for the booth babes. Put another way, what seems to make the booth babe practice wrong also seems to be exactly what gives it a reason to exist at all. Obviously, if  average looking women (and guys) were hired to stand around the booths in comfortable clothing, then they would not attract people to the booths. If guys were such that they did not have an interest in seeing booth babes, then there would be no reason to have booth babes. As such, the profession rests on the fact that males are lured in by a chance to stare at hot women in person. From this, one might argue that the sexism and leering that people complain about is an intrinsic part of the practice. Complaining about it would be on par with complaining that people ask Starbucks employees to make coffee for them: that is, obviously enough, what they are there for.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that perhaps the booth babe profession should be eliminated. After all, the mere fact that the job seems to be inherently exploitative and sexist hardly justifies its existence. To use an analogy, being an assassin requires killing people, but that hardly justifies the practice. Of course, getting rid of booth babes need not entail a ban on attractive women. This leads to the second reply: attractive women (or men) could still be hired to work booths without the strong exploitative or sexist elements. The Pax gaming events, for example, do not allow traditional booth babes.Of course, some might complain that any use of attractiveness is morally suspect-but it does not seem any worse than, for example, using talented, friendly or witty people to attract attention.

A final point of concern is that while such events are male dominated, there are still females who attend, often as industry professionals. No doubt most of them do not find the booth babes appealing and some of them probably find the practice offensive and insulting. After all, the booth babes make these events seem like a boys’ club rather than a professional event.  There are also no doubt males who find this practice offensive as well. As such, the use of booth babes might have a negative impact, which is opposite of what the companies want.

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Of Limbaugh and Maher

Posted in Aesthetics, Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on March 9, 2012
English: Rush Limbaugh at CPAC in February 2009.

Image via Wikipedia

When American radio personality Rush Limbaugh accused Sandra Fluke of being a slut and a prostitute, it created quite a stir. Folks on the left were suitably outraged and responded with both condemnations and attempts to exploit the situation to raise funds for political purposes. Some folks on the right also condemned Limbaugh’s behavior (or at least his semantics) and others pointed out that the left often seems to give a free pass to the apparently misogynist statements made by liberal celebrities, such as comedian Bill Maher.

I have seen Maher’s TV show and listened to Limbaugh’s radio program. While they certainly appeal to a specific audience, I found both of them to be fairly uninteresting and somewhat less than entertaining. Both men do, however, excel at being nasty to their opponents and both seem adept in expressions of misogyny. After all, while Limbaugh called Fluke a slut and a prostitute, Maher called Sarah Palin a “dumb twat.”Given that Maher and Limbaugh can be seen as two peas in a pod (although one is the left pea and the other the right pea), it is hardly shocking that Maher has come to Limbaugh’s defense as criticism mounts and sponsors have begun to dump Limbaugh. While there are many issues to address here, my main concern is with the ethical matters in regards to the claim that liberals like Maher often get a free pass while Limbaugh is being savaged.

It is, of course, worth considering the possibility that although the two men are being treated differently, the difference is fair. Making this claim stick would require showing a morally relevant difference between the two.

One approach that has been taken by some folks is to point out that Maher has gone  after the likes of Palin and Bachmann with his seemingly misogynistic comments while Limbaugh went after a young law school student. This approach does have some merit. After all, Palin is a public political figure and such attacks are part of the political game. In contrast, Fluke is just a young law student and hence attacking her is a different matter. To use an analogy, Palin is like an armed combatant who is a legitimate target and Fluke is like a civilian who happened to enter the combat zone. As such, attacking Palin is acceptable while going after Fluke is not.

One obvious reply is that if being in the public arena justifies such attacks, then Fluke made herself into a combatant. Metaphorically speaking, she took up arms and charged into battle-thus making her a legitimate target. However, there still seems something dubious about accepting that women who enter the public arena are thus fair game for being called “sluts” or “twats.” This takes me to the second reply.

Another obvious reply is that even though Palin is a public figure and hence fair game for harsh criticism, this hardly justifies calling her a twat. Going back to the war analogy, the mere fact that someone is a legitimate target does not entail that anything can be done to them without it being wrong. Intuitively, using misogynistic terms like “twat” and “slut” to attack women seems to be wrong. As such, if Limbaugh is in the wrong here, so are folks like Maher.

A second approach is to claim that liberals cannot be sexists using the same sort of logic that people use when they say that minorities cannot be racists or women cannot be sexists.

On the one hand, it could be argued that this is true. After all, someone who really is a liberal would seem to hold liberal views regarding women and sexism is hardly liberal.

On the other hand, this could be seen as being a bit like saying that a person cannot be a liar because they are honest. But, of course, the person might not be honest. Likewise, although liberals like Maher claim to be liberals, perhaps they are not.  After all, calling women “twats” hardly seems like enlightened liberalism. There is also the possibility that just as when we say someone is honest we do not mean that they never lie when we say that someone is liberal we do not mean that they are liberal about everything. As such, someone like Maher could be liberal in some areas and not so much in others (such as when it comes to saying hateful things about women he dislikes).

As a final point on the liberal matter, there is also the tradition of folks who love humanity but who are not so keen about actual humans. As such, a person who holds to liberal ideas in theory might not apply them to specific individuals. So, a person might profess to the liberal values of equality and be opposed, in theory, to sexism and yet not practice those values. As such, it seems quite possible for alleged liberals to be sexist. Thus, trying to defend Maher and his ilk by appealing to their liberalism does not work. In fact, this sort of appeal makes them seem worse-they appear to be failing to live up to ideals that they are supposed to hold as good liberals.

A third approach is to argue that while both men said seemingly misogynistic things about specific women, Limbaugh’s attack can be seen as a general attack on women while Maher was expressing his dislike of particular women. In the case of Limbaugh’s remarks, the implication seems to clearly be that any woman who argues for having health insurance cover contraception is a slut and a prostitute. In the case of Maher, he seems to simply be using misogynistic terms like “twat” to express his dislike of particular women. He does not, however, present a general attack that claims all women are dumb twats-just, for example, Sarah Palin.

Thus, Limbaugh could be seen as presenting what might be regarded as a misogynist position while Maher is only using misogynistic language. While this might seem like a rather fine distinction, it does have the potential to be a morally relevant difference in that Mahers might be less bad than Limbaugh in terms of what they say about women. That is, Maher is being mean to specific women he dislikes and using hateful language whereas Limbaugh is not only attacking a specific woman but also engaging in a much broader attack on women (or at least a large subset of woman). That said, some might see Maher as also attacking a subset of women, namely conservative women that Maher’s dislikes.

While I do see something of a distinction here, this does not seem to warrant giving Maher a free pass while Limbaugh is being attacked. After all, Maher is still in the wrong for using such terms.

A final approach, and one that seems to have the most merit, is to argue that there is a relevant distinction between the two men in regards to their role. While Limbaugh and Maher are both media personalities, Maher presents himself as a comedian while Limbaugh presents himself as a commentator. As such, it could be contended that the role of a comedian differs from that of a commentator in ways that warrant the difference in treatment.

On the face of it, this does have some appeal. After all, when comedic shows such as South Park include insulting material, they are often given a pass on the grounds that this sort of thing is a legitimate part of comedy. To use another example, when stand up comedians include sexist and racist remarks as part of their acts, this is typically just considered part of comedy (with some notable exceptions, of course) and not taken as racism or sexism.

One reason for this, obviously enough, is that the comedians often employ racist and sexist language to lampoon racism and sexism. That is, they are laughing at/parodying  these things rather than being racist or sexist.  In the case of Maher calling Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” it does not seem that he is using comedy to criticize sexism against women. Rather, he seems to simply be calling her a “dumb twat.” As such, another reason is needed.

Comedy, as the saying goes, is not pretty. Aristotle, in his Poetics, regards the ludicrous as a subdivision of the ugly. As he saw it, comedy  involves “an imitation of characters of a lower type” and “consists in some defect or ugliness.” Given this view of comedy, it could be argued that comics can thus be excused for ugliness and acting as “characters of a lower type.” Thus, since Maher is acting as a comedian, then he can be excused for such behavior-he is just acting within the legitimate parameters of comedy. In contrast. Limbaugh is not acting as a comedian and hence subject to criticism that Maher legitimately avoids.

That said, there seem to be some points worth considering. The first is that  while Maher is a comedian, this does not give him a free pass across the board-only in the limited context of comedy. As such, if he is acting as a commentator (like Limbaugh) then his comic cloak does not protect him.

The second point is that the comic pass is not all encompassing. Aristotle notes that while the comic character is of the lower, it is ” not in the full sense of the word bad.” He also adds that the ugliness of comedy “is not painful or destructive. ” As such, a comedian can thus exceed the bounds of comedy (as has happened in other cases, such as Michael Richard’s infamous rant) and cross over into evil. While this can be a matter that involves some degree of subjectivity, it seems quite reasonable to regard calling Sarah Palin a “dumb twat” as going beyond comedy and into what is painful or destructive. As such, Maher cannot cloak himself in comedy to avoid the criticism he is due.

A third point is that Limbaugh can also claim to be a comedian-a very good case could be made that he is playing a role and is a parody of what he professes to be. Of course, this would almost certainly not get him that free pass, for the same reason Maher’s remarks are not covered by his comedic cloak.

In light of the above discussion it seems clear that if Limbaugh should be taken to task for his “slut” comments, Maher should also be criticized on moral grounds for his misogynistic remarks. The fact that Maher has largely enjoyed a free pass shows a problem well worth considering: the wink and laugh all to often given to misogyny coming from the left.

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The Sexist Imperative

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on March 2, 2012
English: Arcade fighting games

Image via Wikipedia

Being a long time gamer, I am very familiar with the vile mucous pits of sexism and racism that constitute much of the gaming habitats. Although I am not a member of any of the preferred target groups of the spewers of hate, their casual vomiting of hate causes me considerable dismay. While I have made the occasional futile attempt to correct such behavior, my usual recourse is avoidance (or the mute option).

Interestingly enough, there are those who actively defend this element of the gaming community and some of the top players are counted among this body. Most recently Aris Bakhtanians presented the sort of quality defense one would expect to given for sexism:

The sexual harassment is part of the culture. If you remove that from the fighting game community, it’s not the fighting game community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years.

One problem with this “defense” is that Bakhtanians is committing the classic fallacy of appeal to tradition. After all, the mere fact that something has been “established” for years is no evidence that it is good, correct or even sensible. For example, people have been committing murder and rape for years, yet no one would consider these practices justified by their longstanding existence.

Another way to see the problem with this “defense” is by considering the following modification of his argument:

Slavery is part of the culture. If you remove that from the slave plantation community, it’s not the slave plantation community… it doesn’t make sense to have that attitude. These things have been established for years.

While the racism and sexism he is defending are clearly not as wicked as slavery, his reasoning does parallel the sort of “reasoning” that is regularly used to defend immoral practices. As such, his reasoning should be rejected on the grounds of its absurdity. My criticism is, of course, based on using parity of reasoning and a reductio ad absurdum.

Interestingly enough Bakhtanians seems to believe that any attempt to criticize the fighting game folks because of their  behavior would be  “ethically wrong.”

Like  Ben Kuchera at Penny Arcade, I think that this is perhaps the first time an “argument” has been given that it would be unjust to reduce sexism and racism in the gaming world (or at least the fighting game community).

On the face of it, it seems absurd to think that it would be wrong to reduce or at least criticize behavior that is itself morally wrong.  Of course, Bakhtanians does attempt to defend this sort of behavior but his defense hardly seems to be intellectually compelling. As such, he does not seem to have much of a case. On the positive side, having a high profile gamer say such things does serve to draw attention to the vile attitudes that taint the gaming community (of which I am a member) and the need to clean up these mucous pits.

He even attempts to defend this behavior by claiming that this attitude of hateful exclusion is the “beauty” and “essence” of the fighting game community:

The beauty of the fighting game community, and you should know this – it’s based around not being welcome. That’s the beauty of it. That’s the key essence of it.  When you walk into an arcade for the first time, nobody likes you.

This sort of attitude hardly seems beautiful. It might be the “essence” of the existing community, perhaps in the same way that racism is the essence of white supremacist groups. However, this sort of essence seems to be undesirable. After all, the general idea of a community that is based on an activity like gaming should be founded on inclusion rather than exclusion. After all, this is a community of video game players and not the KKK.  In any case, the burden of proof seems to be on him to show that such sexism and racism are both morally desirable and essential to this community.

It is at this point that someone might wish to bring up the matter of free speech. I am, of course, a well-established defender of free speech. However, freedom of speech does not extend to the freedom to say things that do unwarranted harm to people. This includes intentionally creating an environment that is brutally hostile to people based simply on their gender or race and this seems to be the sort of thing that he is defending. While he thinks that being told that this is wrong is wrong, his moral compass seems to be pointing in the wrong direction.

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Is Ladies’ Night Sexist?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on April 6, 2011
Ladies' Night (song)

Image via Wikipedia

A segment on Den Hollander, a lawyer who become moderately famous for his crusade against ladies’s night drink pricing, appeared recently on the Colbert Report. This mocking segment got me thinking about this topic and the philosophical issues involved with the matter.

For those who are unfamiliar with the concept of ladies’ night, this is a practice followed by many bars and nightclubs that involves free (or reduced prices on) drinks and admission for women. The objective is, of course, to lure in women with the special pricing and use the women to lure in men (who will be paying full price).

On the face of it, the claim that ladies’ night is sexist seems laughable. After all, it is simply a marketing device used to increase business and hardly a device of cruel oppression. To claim that this practice would be on par with claiming that deals limited to children (such as reduced movie prices) or the elderly (such as reduced admission prices to some parks) are cases of ageism. Since such a claim would be absurd, it would follow that the attack on ladies’ night is absurd as well.

It could also be argued that ladies night is not sexist on the basis that men are not actually being harmed by the practice. After all, while men do have to pay more than women on ladies’ night, men typically go to ladies’ night to meet women who have been knocking back the free (or cheap) drinks. As such, far from oppressing men, ladies’ night is actually advantageous to men in two ways: 1) there will be more women present and 2) their judgment will probably be impaired by alcohol.

However, it is certainly possible to argue that ladies night is sexist. After all, what the customer is being charged is based on the customer’s sex and this not does seem to provide a relevant difference that would justify a difference in pricing. As such, this would seem to be a clear case of sexism.

In regards to the analogy to special pricing for seniors and children, there are various replies that could be made. The first is that the analogy breaks down because everyone gets to be a kid (and hence can have access to the children’s specials) and everyone has a shot at being a senior (and hence can get access to those specials). In the case of sex based pricing, men do not get to become women without expensive medical procedures, and hence men will not have access to that pricing. The second is that many of the discounts are situations that involve relevant differences. For example, children’s meals are often less because they are smaller than adult portions. As such, the analogy seems to fail.

It can also be argued that age based specials are, in fact, cases of ageism. After all, in those cases in which there are no relevant differences (such as portion size), then a difference in treatment would seem to be ageist in nature. Likewise for ladies’ night.

Another approach to arguing that ladies night is sexist is to consider whether or not the following would be a case of racism. Imagine, if you will, a night club that offers (in addition to ladies’ night) a whites’ night. On white night, whites get free admission and free drinks , while non-whites have to pay the normal prices. No one is excluded based on race, it is just that whites get special pricing for that night. I am inclined to believe that whites’ night would be regarded as a sexist event. However, it seems no more racist than ladies’ night is sexist.

It might, of course, be argued that whites’ night would be racist and ladies night would not be sexist because there is an established history of racism against non-whites and there is not an established history of sexism against men.

While this is a point worth considering, accepting this sort of reasoning would seem to involve accepting that without an established history of sexism or racism against people of type X, then an action cannot be sexist or racist against people of type X. This would mean, obviously enough, that racism and sexism could never occur. After all, there could be no racist or sexist acts prior to racism and sexism and there could be no racism and sexism prior to racist acts.

It might be replied that ladies’ night is not really sexism or at least not a big deal because it is such a small thing. After all, allowing women to have free drinks while men must pay hardly seems like a big deal. It is not like men are being denied the right to vote or being denied access to scholarships that are only for women. There is no systematic or wide scale oppression; just a difference in drink prices.

That reply does have some appeal. After all, it actually is a little thing and people generally find it laughable that anyone would be concerned about something so silly. However, the fact that something is a little thing does not mean that it is not sexist.

In light of the above arguments, it seems reasonable to believe that ladies’ night is actually sexist. As compensation for years of cruel oppression, I only ask that the ladies buy me a drink now and then.

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Directions

Posted in Miscellaneous by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2010

While watching CNN this morning, two of the TV personalities were chatting about the stereotype that men, unlike woman, prefer not to ask for directions when driving.

What struck me about this exchange was the fact that men chatting about women in a comparable way (patronizing and critical) would be blasted as sexism. I suppose that women stereotyping men is funny, men stereotyping women is sexism.

What I found most interesting, however, is that the claims about men and women in regards to driving are based on the fact that the average man tags on an extra 276 miles a year due to being lost while women add on 256 miles. Assuming the data is accurate and the margin of error is minimal, this means that men only drive an average of 20 more miles than women due to being lost. While this is a difference, it is hardly a significant difference.

It is also claimed that 26% of men wait at least 30 minutes before asking for directions and 12% will never ask directions. 74% of women will ask for directions. 37% of women and 30% of men claim they will do so as soon as they  realize they are lost.

Interestingly, Jacky Brown of Sheilas’ Wheels said “Our research not only reveals that men aren’t quite as confident behind the wheel as they make out when it comes to navigation but also that women are in control when it comes to modern motoring.”

Brown’s claim does not seem to be supported by the data. After all, the fact that women drive 20 less miles due to being lost hardly shows that men are not as confident as they claim nor that women are in control. At most it shows that women drive marginally less lost miles (about 93% of what men do). Given the marginal difference, it would seem unreasonable to read much, if anything, into such data. After all, such a slight difference could easily be the result of how the data was collected and such factors as the sample size.

A final point worth considering is that while the news about the story often includes commentary comparing men to women in a way that is unfavorable to men it is still the case that men only drive 20 more lost miles even with our reluctance to get directions. This, some might say, shows that men are better navigators. Of course, it would obviously be sexist to even suggest such a thing.

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Victim Fallacy

Posted in Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on September 17, 2010
Rendering of human brain.
Image via Wikipedia

I’m working on the next volume in my fallacy book series, so I’ll post the entries as I write them. Any useful criticism would be appreciated.

Victim Fallacy

Description:

This fallacy occurs when a person uncritically assumes that the cause of a perceived mistreatment (such as not being hired or receiving a poor grade) is due to prejudice (such as sexism or racism) on the part of the person or persons involved in the perceived mistreatment. The form of “reasoning” is as follows:

1. Person P believes s/he is being mistreated by person or persons M.

2. Person P regards himself or herself as a member of group G and believes this group has been subject to prejudice. Or P believes that M regards him/her as a member of G.

3. P uncritically concludes that his/her perceived mistreatment is the result of prejudice against G on the part of M.

This is a fallacy because the mere that that a person perceives himself or herself as being mistreated does not provide sufficient justification for the claim that the alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice. After all, even if the situation does involve mistreatment, it might be the result of factors that have nothing to do with prejudice of the sort being considered. For example, imagine the following situation: Jane is taking a chemistry class and always comes to class late, disrupting the lecture when she strolls in. She also blatantly checks her text messages on her mobile phone during class. She earns a B in the class, but is assigned a C instead because the professor is angry about her behavior. Jane would be correct to conclude she has been mistreated  given the disparity between what she earned and what she received, but she would not be justified in assuming that it was “just because she was a woman” without adequate evidence for the professor being a sexist.

This mistake is reasoning is similar to the various causal fallacies. In these fallacies an uncritical leap is made from insufficient evidence to conclude that one thing caused another. In this case, a leap is being made without sufficient evidence to conclude that the alleged mistreatment was caused by prejudice.

Reasonably concluding that an alleged mistreatment is the result of prejudice involves establishing that the mistreatment is, in fact, a mistreatment and the most plausible explanation for the mistreatment is prejudice. Without taking these steps, the person is engaging in poor reasoning and is not justified in his/her conclusion-even if the conclusion is, in fact, true. This is because good reasoning is not just about getting a correct conclusion (this could be done accidentally by guessing) but by getting it in the right way.

If a person has good reason to believe that the alleged mistreatment is a mistreatment and that it is a result of prejudice, then the reasoning would obviously not be fallacious. For example, if Jane was aware that she earned a B and was intentionally assigned a C, she would be justified in believing she was mistreated. If the professor made sexist remarks and Jane knew he downgraded all the other women in the class and none of the men, then Jane would be justified in concluding that the mistreatment stemmed from prejudice.

Not surprisingly, the main factor that leads people to commit this fallacy “honestly” is because the group in question has been subject to prejudice. From a psychological standpoint, it is natural for a person who is aware of prejudice against the group in question to perceive mistreatment as coming from that prejudice. And, as a matter of fact, when considering a perceived mistreatment it would be quite reasonable to consider the possibility of prejudice. However, until there is adequate evidence it remains just that-a mere possibility.

In addition to cases in which the fallacy is committed as an honest mistake, there are cases in which this type of “reasoning” is cynically exploited as an excuse or even as a means of revenge (charges of prejudice, even if completely unfounded, can do a lot of damage to a person’s career in many professions). As an example of an excuse, a person who has done poorly in a class because of a lack of effort might tell his parents that “the professor has this thing against men.”

In addition to the fact that this is a mistake in reasoning, there are other reasons to avoid this fallacy. First, uncritically assuming that other people are prejudiced is itself a sign of prejudice. For example, to uncritically assume that all whites are racists is just as racist as assuming that all Jewish people are covetous or all blacks are criminals. Second, use of this fallacy, especially as the “reasoning” behind an excuse can have serious consequences. For example, if a student who did poorly in a class because of a lack of effort concludes that his grade was the result of racism and tells his parents, they might consider a law suit against the professor. As another example, if a person becomes accustomed to being able to fall back on this line of “reasoning” they might be less motivated in their efforts since they can “explain” their failures through prejudice.

It must be emphasized that it is not being claimed that prejudice does not really exist or that people are not victims of prejudice. It is being claimed that people need to be very carefully in their reasoning when it comes to prejudice and accusations of prejudice.

Examples

Example #1

Sam: “Can you believe this-I got a C in that class.”

Jane: “Well, your work was pretty average and you didn’t put much effort into the class. How often did you show up, anyway?”

Sam: “That has nothing to do with it. I deserve at least a B. That chick teaching the class just hates men. That’s why I did badly.”

Bill: “Hey, I earned an ‘A’, man.”

Sam: “She just likes you because you’re not a real man like me.”

Example #2

Ricardo: “I applied for six jobs and got turned down six times!”

Ann: “Where did you apply?”

Ricardo: “Six different software companies.”

Ann: “So, why didn’t you get a job? Was it because you don’t actually have any experience in software?”

Ricardo: “All the people interviewing me were white. A person like me just can’t get a job in this white world.”

Example #3

Dave: “Can you believe that-those people laughed at me when I gave my speech.”

Will: “Well, that was cruel. But you really should make sure that you have your facts right before giving a speech. As two examples, Plato was not an Italian and Descartes did not actually say ‘I drink, therefore I iz.’”

Dave: “They wouldn’t have laughed if a straight guy had said those things!”

Will: “Really?”

Dave: “Yeah! They laughed just because I’m gay!”

Will: “Well, they didn’t laugh at me, but I actually did my research.”

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Is Hate a Constant?

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on August 13, 2009

These days, when people in America think of hate, they tend to think of racism. After a bit of a pause, they will probably think of sexism. While sexism has no doubt been around since there have been men and women, what is now considered racism is a fairly recent phenomenon.

A look back at history does reveal that prior the the modern forms of racism and sexism, people still hated each other. For example, the Romans so hated Carthage that they destroyed it and salted the ruins. The ancient Greeks and the Persians were not very fond of one another, and there were other historical hatreds between nations.

Naturally, there was also considerable hatred between individuals over various matters. The causes of such hatreds are generally similar to those of today: real wrongs, perceived wrongs, or that good old fashioned hate without any real reason.

In these days of sensitivity, the definition of hate has been expanded considerable, so that even saying mean things is seen by some folks as a hate crime. Of course, plenty of old fashioned style hate remains-the sort of hate that leads to injury and death.

Since I am a professional philosopher and also rather like history, I have done some modest research into hate across the ages. While my investigation is hardly a rigorous study (and is funded only by loose change), the main finding is that hate is a constant across human history. What changes are the particulars of the hatred, such as the insulting terms, stereotypes and who hates who.

Some aspects of hatred are no doubt rooted in biology. After all, animals seem to be capable of intense dislike, even hatred and they are not subject to the social conditioning of human society. Humans presumably also have hardwiring for hate. Of course, what a person hates is determined by more than biology.

Some types of hate are based on personal experience and some are even justified. For example, if someone murders your best friend, hating that person would be justified. Some hatreds are based on personal experience, but are overblown. For example, a guy may hate a woman because she is not interested in him. These hatreds are most likely just part of what we are, although wisdom and moral decency enjoin us to resist such hatreds. However, the capacity to hate seems to be part of all of us.

Some hatreds are intentionally and artificially generated and cultivated. For example, many theorists claim that modern racism was shaped as a political and social tool to justify such evil things as slavery and the conquest of the new world. To use a specific example, the inhabitants of North America were often initially cast as “noble savages” who were free of the corruption of the European cities. However, that stereotype was rapidly replaced by the stereotype of the “savage redskin” when the Europeans found that the new world had stuff well worth taking (like land and gold).

In some cases, we have clear evidence of campaigns of hate. The era of WWII exemplifies this. Naturally, Hitler’s campain against the Jews (which built on pre-existing hatred) is the main example. However, the American’s casting the Japanese as “Japs” and the Japanese regarding Koreans and Chinese as subhuman are also examples. In our time, the campaigns of hate continue. In some cases, these are based on religion (hatred between sects and faiths), in some cases they are based on politics (hate campaigns against liberals, for example), and there are numerous other examples as well.

If history is any indication, hate will thrive for as long as we do. While people point to the dilution of sexism and racism, both still live on. Also, as we keep old hates alive, we also create new ones.  Perhaps hate, like the speed of light, is a constant.