People, bodies, characters

by CarlD

Dyke the Elder recommended a fun book recently, The Infidel and the Professor by Dennis C. Rasmussen. It’s about the friendship between David Hume and Adam Smith and I’m looking forward to reading it. As we were talking about it I also thought of the book I’m using as the core text in all of my classes this semester, the Narrative, of a five years’ expedition, against the revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America, from the year 1772, to 1777 : elucidating the history of that country, and the description of its productions, viz. quadrupedes, birds, fishes, reptiles, trees, shrubs, fruits, & roots; with an account of the indians of Guiana, & Negroes of Guinea. By Captn. J.G. Stedman. Illustrated with 80 elegant engravings, designed from nature, by the author, 1796. I am not an expert on this text! I’m teaching it so I can learn new things.

As you know, Bob, all sorts of interesting stuff was happening in the late 18th century Atlantic World around the universal themes of freedom, rights, and humanity. And for just as long people excluded from the universe of propertied white men have been pushing back on their degradation to the service of their oppressors. The mismatch between the high pronouncements and glittering achievements of the Enlightenment and the grim practices of the colonial slave economy that financed it is clear enough to us now that it may even seem it was clear to everyone then, too. A book like Stedman’s is interesting because it’s right in the middle of the ideas and practices we’re interested in, but isn’t the product of hyper-elaborated cutting edge high intellection. What did a guy who was pretty much just a guy think about, for example, the personhood of enslaved Africans?

Stedman was an interesting nobody, a low level Atlantic World cosmopolitan born and raised in the Netherlands but identifying as an Englishman, a brevet Captain in a Scots regiment who couldn’t afford to buy himself a higher rank, who shipped out to Dutch Guiana because that’s where the action was for an ambitious guy of talent but little social or economic capital like him.

He was a smart cookie but he was little educated and no philosopher, so it’s interesting to see how he thought about the leading intellectual issues of the day, or rather, how he didn’t. His book was published as an abolitionist tract, complete with gorgeously gruesome engravings of slave torture by William Blake. But Stedman himself was untroubled by slavery, which he mostly didn’t think about, but when he did thought was convenient and patriotic and probably good for the slaves all in all. What bothered him was excessive cruelty in the treatment of slaves, which he reports with outrage and ascribes not just to the Dutch, but to everyone else as well, especially the Jews.

The front matter of the text is full of conventional hyperventilation about his poor literary gifts and the advantages of authenticity and veracity this guarantees. But in the same breath he tells us that

Here, in the different characters of a Commander — a Rebel Negro — a Planter, and a Slave — not only tyranny are exposed — but benevolence and humanity are unveiled to the naked eye. Here the Warrior — the Historian — the Merchant — and the Lover of Natural Philosophy will meet with some gratification; while, for having introduced my private adventures, I must make some apology — but none for those of the lovely Slave, who makes not the least interesting figure in these pages — as female virtue in distress, especially when accompanied with youth and beauty, must ever claim protection.

So are there any people in this text? Well sort of — there are characters, literary abstractions, some of them people-based, some of them (tyranny, humanity, female virtue) more directly concept-based. He certainly elevates the lovely Slave by treating her as a princess and a lady, but does he humanize her? It’s a better character than barbarous Jew, that’s for sure, and also than domestic labor appliance, and perhaps than mere “black body,” as we now say to dramatize the degradation of African humanity within systems of oppression. But characters dehumanize everyone. Her character certainly tells us nothing about her as a particular person nor, as feminist scholars have thoroughly established around the princess and lady tropes in our day, is it likely to lead there. She, whoever she was, is nowhere to be seen, replaced by a damsel in distress. And when it turns out from Stedman’s diaries that he purchased her from her mom as domestic help, and abandoned her readily for a proper white wife (who he didn’t get along with and used for socially appropriate reproduction) on his return to Europe, and that he was just routinely having sex with all of the slave women when the mood struck him, there’s just not much human left under the romanticism to have anything like human rights, let alone all of the detail people have.

Compare all this to one of the first stories Stedman tells in the main text, in chapter 1. He’s on the ship taking him to Surinam, in the middle of the Atlantic. He’s just told us about some interesting sea birds and gunnery practice.

On the 14th, in the morning-watch, we passed the Tropic, when the usual ceremony of dunking the fresh-water sailors was ransomed by tipping the foremast men with some silver. About this time the Boreas most unluckily lost one of her best seamen, the boatswain’s mate, whose hand slipping by the wet, he pitched from the fore-yard-arm into the sea. His presence of mind in calling to the captain, as he floated alongside, “Be not alarmed for me, sir,” in the confidence of meeting with relief, attracted peculiar compassion, and even caused some murmuring, as no assistance was offered him; in consequence of which, after swimming a considerable time within view, the unfortunate young man went to the bottom.

The next paragraph covers trade winds and dolphins, which he thinks are superficially charming mooches.

Are there any people in this story? There’s the mate, the captain, and the compassionate murmurers. It might be more accurate to call all of these ‘roles’. Presumably the Captain, in his authority, made a cost benefit kind of decision between hauling the whole ship around and losing way vs. losing a boatswain’s mate, and found the latter loss more tolerable. In a split second of responsible decision this fine fellow finds his value, and it’s remarkably low. Glug, glug. Well, right about the same time you’d line up rows of guys like this a few paces apart and have them blast away at each other with muskets until one side or the other broke. Talk about bodies. That was Stedman’s world.

I think it’s fair to say that Stedman had nothing at all resembling an abstract theory of universal humanity, and so the discourse of dehumanization would have made little sense to him. People came in various characters, roles, ranks, types, uses, and situations. He seems to have been able to deal with them accordingly without making any conclusions about their further attributes or qualities, sort of like the Walmart checker and I do with each other. Killing rebellious Negros or any other sort of enemy was fine with him; making them suffer unnecessarily in the process was not. There was a person in those bodies, but for the most part he wasn’t concerned with who that was. In fact across the board, he seems to have thought that wasn’t any of his concern.

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20 Comments to “People, bodies, characters”

  1. It’s hard for me to imagine that the weird development might be the idea of *humanization*, and that maybe dehumanization could only have become a concept once that had established itself widely. My intuition tells me that compassion is at least minimally built into our structure, but it’s easy to imagine someone in 2018 without specific guidance to the contrary viewing other people in a purely instrumental way.

    Do you know anything about the development of the concept of universal humanity? What makes me curious is whether abstract theories of things like this always lag behind other more organic social changes. In other words, could an abstract theory of humanity essentially function as a post-hoc justification for some more messy change that had already happened?

  2. Off-topic, but I grabbed a copy of The Infidel and the Professor. I didn’t know it existed! I’ve been reading and re-reading An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding again recently, with an eye to possibly producing an English translation for young people. It’s one of the weirder ideas I’ve had – and I’m certainly under-qualified to undertake it – but it feels like something that would be worthwhile even just as a personal exercise — a kind of daily meditative practice or something.

  3. I’ve been struck for a long time by attempts to leverage humanity as a standpoint of critique – that the problem with slavery and racism is that they treat humans as less than human, ditto sexism, etc. And then all the obvious hypocricies that follow where the exploitability of the oppressed group depends precisely on their being fully capable in all of the human ways.

    But this seems to me always to confuse a sort of aspirational moralizing discourse of really limited historical application with how people actually think and live. So in real life we have no trouble at all with humans coming in a variety of types and capacities. We don’t dream of thinking of our children or waitresses or cats as less than human, for example, that’s actually a really silly way to look at it. But it’s a category error to engage them seriously about the finer points of monetary policy or put them in charge of government agencies. There are just a million ways we distinguish people into functional subgroups, and enormous efficiencies to doing so that can’t be wished away by gazing deeply into every Walmart checker’s eyes and asking how their day has really been. There’s very little thought as such that goes into this.

    Like most people Stedman doesn’t have a “theory” of other people, or even in any clear and distinct way a “concept” of other people. This is why it’s so easy for him just to play around with characterizing them, and boinking them when he can get away with it. There are other people around and he takes them as they come. They are, in a systems sense, constraints and affordances to him. There are larger questions to ask about who and how came to be around and what they were available for, but it turns out you can follow the constraints and affordances analysis all the way back on that. Evolutionary adaptation dynamics subject to initial conditions. Why were the people of Africa enslaved? Willy Horton could answer: because that’s where the enslaveable people were. The European peasants were already spoken for, constrained, in ways that were tough to get around. Not ‘more valued as fully human’ so much as ‘expensive in binding obligations’. You couldn’t just take the Hessians, you had to rent them.

    I’ve always been inclined to the default view that everything we think of as ideas properly speaking are post-hoc justifications, or I’d now say linearizations, sense and control strategies, for messy changes that were happening anyway. In this case we’d have to talk about why Stedman was over there – the tremendously disruptive wealth and opportunity the plantation economy was churning up in the European and global political economy.

  4. Constraints and affordances… Remember that guy who showed up on Asher’s Deacon post about two years after the action had died down, talking about proto-affordances? I just looked it up — Sloman was his name. He was trying to trace a learning path from concrete navigation through space toward abstract geometry based on affordances. I think a similar pathway could be hypothesized that leads from concrete navigation through interpersonal space toward abstract morality. An affordance-based morality would be based on action potentials of situations: do we pull the mate out of the water, or do we stick to the schedule and let him go to the bottom? As I recall, Sloman’s theory required pulling oneself imaginatively out of any specific navigational pathway through a particular physical space, exploiting specific physical affordances for and obstacles to movement, into a more displaced (transcendent?) POV of the situation, as if one could position oneself anywhere in the abstract geometric grid in which various objects and movements transpire. An affordance-based morality would require a similar sort of abstraction or transcendence, an imaginary stepping out of one’s own place and actions in the interpersonal situation in order to understand the abstract moral grid in which various people and actions transpire.

  5. Riffing on the dynamics… It seems possible that there’s a sort of self-reinforcing thing that goes on. The plantation economy attracts a certain kind of venturer, which shapes the dynamics of the economy, which attracts a certain kind of venturer, etc. That sort of thing seems to be the case with, for example, police work. Concentrations of a particular worldview create moral asymmetries, which create social conflicts. I see this everywhere (even though it’s probably bullshit).

    I’ll be posting some stuff here soon that’s a blunt attempt to get at whether people who don’t have theories of things don’t actually have theories or just don’t have explicit theories. And also whether there’s a benefit to trying to get more explicit (one possible benefit might be falling less often into the ways of moralizing that you mentioned). And also whether the act of theorizing and examining theories has a benefit that’s largely disconnected from how correct or incorrect the theories are.

    My take is that “constraints and affordances” amounts to a tacit theory that, left unexamined, avoids running afoul of anything else that happens to go through Stedman’s head.

  6. If that had been a self-driving ship, would its AI captain have left the mate in the drink or come back to get him? Having learned its moral reasoning through exposure to multiple variations on the trolley problem, how would it make the compassion versus efficiency trade-off? I understand that, in the first European ads for self-driving cars, Mercedes assured its customers that, when a collision was unavoidable, it would always prioritize the safety of its own passengers over those of other cars and pedestrians, whereas Volvo said its cars would remain impartial in its moral calculations.

  7. I do remember that guy John! And I like the accumulation and abstraction and heuristic approach. But I think it’s still trying to get moral reasoning to be its own separate domain of reasoning, and I don’t think that works to understand a story like Stedman’s, or most situations we may try to moralize that haven’t been carefully arranged as moral scenarios. You’re on the beach – the sun is blazing down – the gun is in your hand – the Arab looks up. Why did Meursault shoot? Does he know? Does Camus?

    Why did the captain keep going? Did morals have anything to do with it? Was it merely expedience? The men were upset – that had to be of some interest, but whether it was a concern or an opportunity is not clear. Did he need a show of force right then? Was he racing the other boat? On a time to delivery bonus? Itching for some port wench? Outrunning a storm? Did he have an ethic of seamanship about falling overboard? An ethic of personal responsibility? An aesthetic of sailing or ‘the voyage’? Did he have experienced reason to believe the rescue effort would come too late no matter what? Was he a Romantic, a Tory, a Jacobin? Had he stepped out to take a leak?

    What’s clear is that human life as such had not yet become sufficiently moralized to effectively outweigh any of these other considerations. There was no transcendence for the mate. He was expendable, like, more recently, soil bacteria. To go from there to maybe we can program artificial intelligences to respect and protect all life and arrange our entire existence as an explicit moral scenario is a mind-boggling historical development, which is why trying to read a flat humanist universality back into history makes me so mad.

    Asher, that self-reinforcing thing was absolutely happening. If you think about it, pretty much no one Europe was ‘working for’ even thought of going over to the new world. So you’ve got the risk takers going over, but also the misfits and losers and surplus people of various kinds. Normals filled in behind almost immediately, but it was a turbulent environment that rewarded rule breaking and improvisation.

  8. What is it that makes you so mad, Carl? Moral reasoning as its own separate domain of reasoning? Situations we may try to moralize that haven’t been carefully arranged as moral scenarios? Had not yet become sufficiently moralized? Transcendence? Arrange our entire existence as an explicit moral scenario? Flat humanist universality? Honestly, I don’t get it. Do you perceive me as upholding these positions? Or am I violating the uniqueness and emergence characterizing every specific situation, so that analyzing it into variables and categories is a mistake? At times I’ve had the sense here at the Voles that I’ve taken a side in an argument that I didn’t even realize was an argument.

    I don’t question that most situations are entangled in a congeries of affordances and constraints, most of which are being processed outside of conscious decision-making, and that the action taken often or typically results from some sort of aggregate synaptic vector calculus unavailable to conscious processing, with the rationale posited after the fact bearing limited relationship to the processes generating the decision. I also think that the various vectors and their strengths can be evaluated across multiple decision contexts to model with some degree of predictive accuracy the decision-maker’s unconscious weightings, and that the resultant calculated model might bear little relationship to the decision-makers understanding of his own behavior.

    What’s notable about the boatswain mate scenario is that it unfolded over a fairly long duration, such that the decision not to launch a rescue needn’t have been a snap judgment made on the spur of the moment. Conscious consideration could have been invoked, affording the opportunity to weigh explicitly the various factors you outlined and probably others as well. It’s certainly possible that the captain made a split-second unconscious decision as soon as the mate hit the water, and that he used the rest of the duration to rationalize that decision. The mate himself and evidently many of the crewmen were surprised that no effort was made to rescue the unfortunate seaman, so clearly there were differences of opinion as to how the matter should have been resolved. That makes it a dilemma. Is it a moral dilemma? How could it not be? But as you observe it’s also a financial dilemma, and a pragmatic dilemma, and a pleasure-seeking dilemma, and a tangle of all sorts of other motivations, of affordances and constraints. Maybe he hated that goddamn boatswain mate, was glad to be rid of him.

    But surely the specific event, while analyzable into variables and vector strengths, was unique, generating consequences that weren’t just statistical but absolute, especially for the poor dude consigned to the briny deep. Things could perhaps have gone some other way, but they didn’t, and so the course of the voyage was changed irrevocably.

  9. John, you’re great. No worries. By the way, are you getting this weird heavy air today? I feel like coaxing a thought out of my head is like pulling taffy. So this may be a bit thick and sticky.

    In this case and in many others the argument is not with you but there is an argument. I’m reacting to and attempting to trouble, without directly attacking, a kind of top-down moralizing approach to history in general and the crimes of history in particular that’s common sense in the cultural studies zones of the critical academy. For an example of what I’m reacting to click through the link in the second paragraph. I’m outraged by all of the things I’m supposed to be outraged by, but that seems much too easy to me, because the quicker I can get to outrage, the less work I have to do to actually understand what was going on.

    I would like to investigate what historical folks did know rather than hurl at them indictments about what they should have known. I’d like to start by being puzzled and curious, rather than righteous. In a sense, I’m just playing out Arendt’s banality of evil argument. I don’t see any evidence that people acting very badly according to this or that moral code requires much effort of explanation. All it takes is morals not being much on people’s minds. She put this in terms of thoughtlessness, but this already gives too much ground to moral reflection as a kind of compelling norm. I wonder what people do have on their minds instead.

    I like your emergent, situated model of moral reasoning. I think you’re just plain right about it, to be honest. I see my pigs begin to generate proto-moral reasoning in relation to food and pets every day, but so far they are not distinguished in their ability to abstract and strategize the good. Where you get into the gears of a post like this a bit is I’m trying to get clear of a kind of dumb way of applying morals to history and see what history looks like without leaping to moralize it. So ‘here’s how we could do the morals thing better’ is a great conversation but not my first preference for the conversation to have.

  10. I’m highly grumpy about the moralization of a lot of things, especially politics and economics. There’s a problem with blocking Merrick Garland’s nomination for the better part of a year, but it’s not a moral problem. There’s a problem with deregulating certain kinds of corporate activity, but again — not a moral problem. It’s not just that moral discourse tends to be dumber discourse, or that it engages a more emotion-driven thought process. It’s that, for it to do its job, it needs to ignore or stomp over precisely the things that provide traction on the actual problems. So we end up getting a splendid drama in which there is no practical role for us besides “spectator”.

    I suspect that my grumpiness about this is one of the reasons why I don’t have many followers on Twitter.

    Anyway. One thing that I was curious about was whether there might have been a protocol (even if it wasn’t known to Stedman) for dealing with people falling off the ship, or whether it would have been an obvious if slightly regrettable fact that the best thing to do was keep going. Protocols are interesting in that they need to shoot for simplicity over optimality to be useful in the moment (e.g., there’s no time for anyone to argue that losing a *really really good* boatswain’s mate would change the equation). They’re also interesting in that they tend to be rubric-like, foregrounding criteria and procedure, backgrounding justification of values, and also sort of sneaking in consistency as a value.

    It’s the murmuring that made me think of protocols. We murmur in the face of things that we find unfortunate but unavoidable.

  11. In his infamous experiment Milgram was investigating obedience to authority, but in popular culture the findings were interpreted as a moral indictment: those people are just as bad as the Nazis! As the years turned to decades Milgram himself came under accusation as being an immoral authoritarian manipulative Nazi for running that experiment, even though at the time it was hailed as scientific genius within the field.

  12. Yes. The Goldhagen controversy is another example. In Ordinary Men Christopher Browning shows that lots of guys in the reserve police units carrying out the roundups and executions in the early phase of the Holocaust had no particular opinions one way or another about Jews, were not coerced, and mostly did it because there they were, it was a dirty job, and they didn’t want to let their buddies down. This impossible finding was fiercely disputed by Daniel Goldhagen, who refused to believe that Germans could act that badly without actively hating Jews, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners. Intelligent design is an all-purpose cognitive bias.

    This nice review of the state of the field on man’s inhumanity to man at the New Yorker (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/11/27/the-root-of-all-cruelty) contrasts the canonical dehumanization view with the edgy emerging consensus that we act badly toward each other at least in part because and in virtue of our shared humanity, which puts us in a shared moral universe of transgressions and sanctions. I’m inclined still to think that this is a little too clever, and that both poles of the discussion rely on a formalized concept of humanity that isn’t anything like how people actually think.

    Asher, when I was growing up I went through a phase of reading all of the age of sail and piracy books on the shelves (courtesy of Dyke the Elder). What I learned from them is that life was nasty, brutish, and short for seamen in general, and that there was a sort of baseline of brutality that everyone pretty much took for granted. Shipboard conditions were grimly squalid and dangerous. The hierarchy of the ship was maintained by violence and men were routinely hung, keel hauled, and whipped to death just to make a point about who was in charge. Attrition was high and replacements were press ganged from the docks or from other ships by force, and integrated into the new crew with ruthless barbarity. No doubt my sources were playing up the manly romance of struggle and endurance, but still the murmuring that caught your eye is familiar to me as the norm of, as you say, an unfortunate but unavoidable situation. I think it’s in that context too that sailing on makes sense exactly as a protocol – he was expendable, and was expended.

  13. The linked New Yorker article does offer nice counterpoint. One of Bloom’s longstanding contentions is that from early childhood humans tend to overhumanize, ascribing intent to natural events like flowing streams and rocks rolling down hills, anthropomorphizing pets and dolls, inferring the agency of gods who can’t be seen but who act an awful lot like humans. I’m pretty sure our cat has a universal sense of felinitity: every time he sees a cat go by he leaps at the window — I don’t think he harbors kind intentions toward those interloping conspecifics. The implication is that it requires effort to dehumanize one’s fellow humans. This is where the affordance idea comes in handy. Bloom contends that even little kids are inveterate essentialists, attributing human-ness to invariant intrinsic features, but it seems more likely that kids are responding to ecological invariants — affordances — emerging in the interpersonal force field. So to dehumanize someone else you don’t have to deny their human essence; you have to desensitize yourself to the interpersonal affordances. Ignoring interpersonal affordances by willpower alone is difficult: what helps is to embed your interpersonal interactions in an ecosystem that dials back the inter-human affordances for you. Bureaucracy engineers dehumanizes environments via structured encounters and protocols for handling them. Nothing personal: it’s just business, or jurisprudence, or science, or warfare.

    Asher, it’s a good question what effect grumpiness has on other people. Twitter is a partially dehumanized social space, so the affordances are already mediated and muted. Does grumpiness afford fight and flight, with flight being the easier course of (in)action on social media, whereas perkiness affords affinity, following, liking? Why don’t the grumps want to band together with each other? Or why don’t the perkies welcome diversity of opinion/attitude offered by the grumps? BTW, I score something like 98th percentile on the disagreeableness factor on the Big Five personality inventory — hey, some of us have the gift.

  14. Not to go overboard, but here’s another seafaring yarn:

    “Since the eighteenth century, there has been in circulation a curious story about Descartes. It is said that in later life he was always accompanied in his travels by a mechanical life-sized female doll which, we are told by one source, he himself had constructed ‘to show that animals are only machines and have no souls’. He had named the doll after his illegitimate daughter, Francine, and some versions of events have it that she was so lifelike that the two were indistinguishable. Descartes and the doll were evidently inseparable, and he is said to have slept with her encased in a trunk at his side. Once, during a crossing over the Holland Sea some time in the early 1640s, while Descartes was sleeping, the captain of the ship, suspicious about the contents of the trunk, stole into the cabin and opened it. To his horror, he discovered the mechanical monstrosity, dragged her from the trunk and across the decks, and finally managed to throw her into the water. We are not told whether she put up a struggle.”

    – from Graukroger (1995), Descartes, an Intellectual Biography, quoted in the frontispiece of Paul Bloom’s 2004 Descartes’ Baby.

  15. Hanging in my office is this fabulous object, the head of Descartes rendered as a hot air balloon with the Demon of Doubt riding along in the basket. By Rachel, after Toulmin’s Cosmopolis. She seems to have captured his problematic relationship with embodiment all too accurately, if not even as vividly as he himself did.

    https://i1.wp.com/deadvoles.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/descartes.jpg?ssl=1&w=450

  16. Returning to the Bloom article: “…not all dehumanization is accompanied by cruelty. Manne points out that there’s nothing wrong with a surgeon viewing her patients as mere bodies when they’re on the operating table; in fact, it’s important for doctors not to have certain natural reactions—anger, moral disgust, sexual desire—when examining patients.”

    Y’all may recall that I graduated from Michigan State University, which has found itself in the crosshairs lately for having failed to stop a doctor who habitually did not curb “certain natural reactions” while treating female gymnasts, and then for covering up its institutional failures in an effort to protect itself from lawsuits. In the immediate aftermath of the trial ESPN published an exposé of the MSU football and basketball programs, accusing them too of aiding and abetting sexual predations perpetrated by players and coaches, essentially tying the coaches and administrators together the bad doctor in exemplifying a systemic and longstanding pattern of corruption.

    I find myself of two minds about these allegations. Certainly Nassar acted immorally and illegally, in violation of standards of conduct long endorsed by doctors and relied upon by patients, and he deserves to rot in jail. But what about the football and basketball coaches? The most damning charges stem from events that occurred in 2010 — not that long ago, but sometimes societal standards change rapidly. It’s been well known that women have a hard time making sexual assault charges hold up in court: her word versus his, the additional shame of the victim subjecting herself to public scrutiny in the courtroom. At the same time, there’s been the longstanding presumption of innocent until proven guilty. One of the cases that ESPN brought out involved two freshman basketball players who may or may not have raped a girl in their dorm room. There’s a videotaped interview with one of the players: he seems to exemplify the attitude that “no means maybe; it’s up to us to get her to yes.” He acknowledges in the interview that she felt “disrespected,” and the two of them apologized afterward. Is this rape? Arguably it is, even though they didn’t use physical force to keep her there. Still, she didn’t press charges, I think because the DA advised her that there wasn’t enough of a case to bring to court. Her complaint did trigger an internal investigation by the MSU athletic department. I’m not privy to the decisions made behind closed doors, but I suspect they used the presumption of legal innocence as rationale for not disciplining or expelling the two players. There may even have been concern that expelling the two players for an unproven allegation might subject the university to legal actions by the players themselves. Often a school’s public rationale for getting rid of players like this is “violation of team rules,” but given the public awareness of the situation people would have put two and two together. It’s worth noting that this event wasn’t unknown before the ESPN article; it was widely discussed back in 2010 in the MSU message boards, and protests were made during home and away games about the program’s failure to act. But my sense is, at that time in recent American history, consensus hadn’t yet swung toward a presumption of guilt in such cases.

    As William Gibson remarked, the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet. Now the future is pretty much everywhere. Over the past couple of years MSU has begun expelling players based on accusation even in the absence of legal proceedings, so it’s gotten the message too. But it seems to me that the university is being accused, and found guilty by public decree, of moral failings that were handled at the time according to standards and protocols that, at the time they took place, were still widely accepted as appropriate. Or maybe I’m just exercising dissonance reduction now, justifying the tepidity of my own outrage 7 years ago when these two new players looked to be key cogs in maintaining MSU basketball at its high levels of performance.

  17. Yeah, it’s quite dizzying isn’t it. I’m so pleased overall with the cultural movement toward greater care for persons, but I also have to keep checking my reactions for the apologetics of the old brutality. So on the one hand I totally agree that active consent is a much better standard than no means maybe. But on the other hand I’m repulsed by victimology and I think really deep down that sometimes shit is hard, toughen up and act responsibly for yourself. And as I’ve said before around here, waiting for other people to change so you can like your life better is an amazingly vulnerable kind of strategy. But just as amazingly, that seems to be exactly what’s happening now.

  18. Really enjoyed the Bloom article. I’ve heard him on a few podcasts and found that his arguments grow on me over time.

    As is usually the case, my feelings about morality go through a phase shift as the conversation moves from the systemic to the personal. We seem to be at a moment when we have trouble acknowledging the pretty obvious fact that victims are very often not completely blameless and that perpetrators are just as often not creatures of pure evil. I guess you know the stakes are high when any small concession feels like a total betrayal of your position. The systemic issues are going to play out as they always do, as struggles to take and retain power. In light of that, the conversations I’m hearing make a lot more sense. They’re a necessary component of the overall battle, like holding a hard-won piece of ground. Once the balance of power shifts, there’s more wiggle room and purity becomes less important. I look forward to that, but mainly because I think it will be a really good thing when the balance of power does shift. Here’s a recent example of what I mean (taken from the area of my day job at a non-profit whose goal is to measure the criminal justice system):

    https://injusticetoday.com/the-single-most-important-person-to-reform-the-criminal-justice-system-is-not-f6e6104033df

    John – there does seem to be a sweet spot for grumps at least in my corner of Twitter (mainly game developers who kvetch about particular frameworks and programming methodologies). I’m not in the sweet spot, because I don’t avoid politics. There seems to be at least a small place for the human there too. A lot of the people I interact with are part of our local Upstate game development scene, and we do a lot of mutual encouragement and commiseration. They largely like my animated gifs and ignore my political rants.

    That Descartes story sounded almost like a passage from Dictionary of the Khazars.

  19. During the Vietnam War, I read a book by Frances Fitzgerald called Fire in the Lake. One of its central claims was that the meanings of “sincerity” were diametrically opposite for Americans and Vietnamese. The former assumed that sincerity meant “To thine own self be true.” Vietnamese assumed that sincerity meant “Do what your role requires, regardless of personal feelings.”

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