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in defense of #metoo: critiquing social justice projects without paralyzing activism (guest post by jaime hartless)

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Earlier this month, (yet another) national conversation about sexual violence was started when the New York Times published a damning account of decades of sexual abuse by renowned Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein— (yet another) man with apparently progressive credentials who used his power and authority to violate the bodily autonomy of women seeking to make it in the film industry. Since this story has broken, accusers of Weinstein have grown exponentially in number, with recent figures listing over 40 accusations by women, including such household names as Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie, and Cara Delevigne. Although Weinstein initially denied any wrong-doing, he was forced to own up to his abusive behavior as his brand began to collapse under the weight up these of accusations, leading him to be expelled from the Academy despite releasing a (sort of) apology that blamed his behavior explicitly on the ‘sixties’ and implicitly on sex addiction.

Feminist activists have since used the wide reach of the Internet to piggyback on the extensive media coverage of this scandal as a means of raising awareness about sexual violence, encouraging us to think of the Weinstein debacle not as an isolated incident but rather as an instance of a serious social problem. Perhaps the most powerful social media campaign to emerge from these efforts was the #MeToo project. On Sunday, October 15, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted “Me too…Suggested by a friend: If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” requesting “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘Me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

Not long after Milano tweeted this message, my Facebook feed swiftly became inundated with women posting #MeToo, sometimes with a devastating amount of detail about their experiences with street harassment, sexual harassment at work, and rape. This transformation of my feed stirred up conflicting emotions in me. On the one hand, it was absolutely devastating and heartbreaking to see so many wonderful women in my social networks admit that their lives have been so negatively impacted by sexual violence. On the other hand, there was something almost cathartic about witnessing these women talking so openly about an experience many of us are socialized to endure silently…something empowering about watching women from across the world find solidarity and even build digital community with one another. It was an almost Durkheimian moment of collective effervescence.

However, this solidary moment didn’t last long. Shortly after the campaign took off, the divisiveness and infighting that typically follows social justice campaigns on the Internet began to rear its head. A line seemed to be swiftly drawn in the sand between survivors or allies who endorsed the campaign and those who refused to participate in it. The issue was not that some survivors refused to engage with this project, but that their refusal to do so often took a somewhat adversarial tone vis-à-vis the survivors who did embrace the hashtag.

Some of these call-outs of the campaign have been subtle, such as Alex Benviniste’s tweet, saying “Reminder that if a woman didn’t post #MeToo, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t sexually assaulted or harassed. Survivors don’t owe you their story.” On the surface, this is an uncontroversial statement to make, at least amongst feminist audiences. Of course, the problem is bigger than we are seeing; after all, sexual assault is a notoriously underreported crime due to the normalization of violence against women. And, of course, no one is owed a survivor’s story. But the narrative framing of this Tweet seemed to point the finger implicitly at the #MeToo campaign, as though Milano’s invitation to retweet stories of abuse as a means of raising awareness was an ultimatum for survivors to disclose their most personal traumas for the good of the cause.

Other call outs of the movement were much more explicit. To be fair, some of these critiques exposed very important weaknesses of the #MeToo frame. For example, numerous feminists have challenged news sources who attributed the campaign hashtag to Milano, noting that black feminist activist, Tarana Burke, coined the phrase 10 years ago as part of a grassroots campaign to connect survivors of sexual assault. Other critics have pointed out how this hashtag may re-victimize survivors as they see triggering descriptions of violence crawl across their feeds or are forced to negotiate with the symbolic violence that comes from antifeminist men and women questioning the severity of their assault and authenticity of their decision to say #MeToo. Additionally, some have argued that the heteronormative and woman-centered nature of the original Tweet alienates transgender people, non-binary individuals, and LGBTQ-identified men who are statistically likely to encounter this form of harassment. It is clearly important to address these issues. However, it is possible to do so in a generative way without derailing the campaign as it tries to move forward.

Other critiques, however, have been more problematic, such as Wagatwe Sara Wanjuki’s viral FB post, which reads:

I won’t say “Me, too.”…Partially because most of you know that already…But mostly because we shouldn’t have to ‘out’ ourselves as survivors…Because men have *always* seen the gendered violence happening around them (and/or being perpetrated by them)—they just haven’t done anything about it…Because it shouldn’t matter how many women, femmes, and gender neutral & non-conforming folk speak their truths…Because it isn’t about men seeing how many of us have been hurt; they’ve been seeing it for a long time…Because it shouldn’t be on our shoulders to speak up. It should be the men who are doing the emotional labor to combat gendered violence…Because I know, deep down, it won’t do anything. Men who need a certain threshold of survivors coming forward to “get it” will never get it…Because the focus on victims and survivors—instead of their assailants and enablers—is something we need to change…Because we’ve done enough. Now it’s *your* turn.

Before I discuss what I see as troubling about this framework, it’s important to point out what is helpful about this critique. Again, the poster is absolutely correct that survivors must have the right to decide how they want to process their pain and whether they want to channel it into their activism in any specific way. They are also correct to point out that this educational work shouldn’t ethically and morally rest on the shoulders of survivors and that we should not ignore the fact that cisgender men disproportionately perpetuate this abuse.

However, aspects of this critique don’t sit well with me as a scholar of social justice movements or as a feminist. As a sociologist, the claim that those oppressed by political systems shouldn’t have to take charge of fighting these battles, while nice in theory, seems fundamentally flawed as a political strategy. Social movements, at least on the Left, have almost always been driven by marginalized people who collectively frame their individual pain as part of a broader collective grievance, reaching out to more privileged constituencies to help them facilitate change. Pretending that this is not how social movements function seems somewhat counter-productive.

And if sexual harassment and assault survivors are not to be the ones driving this movement, then who will? Women and men who have not experienced these forms of violence? Is that truly a preferable state of affairs? Research on allies suggests that this may not be an ideal scenario for numerous reasons. Often when privileged people take on the causes of marginalized groups, they end up reproducing worrying social dynamics. White allies in anti-racist activism often allow their white guilt and residual racist ideas to derail activist efforts. Straight allies sometimes join LGBTQ activism because it makes them feel like a good person rather than because they care deeply about fighting homophobia. Men invested in feminism have been accused of co-opting the work of women activists. My own dissertation research shows that insiders in social movements often worry that allies, no matter how well-intentioned, lack the lived experience necessary to spearhead social justice movements. What would a campaign against sexual assault look like if it were only run by individuals who have never been catcalled, harassed at work, or sexually assaulted? How could we expect those individuals to know what survivors need…especially if, as the original poster suggests, they have been so historically bad at addressing sexual assault?

In addition to implying a trajectory for sexual violence prevention that feels untenable, posts like these are guilty of misdiagnosing the intent of #MeToo and underestimating its potential impact. For example, Wanjuki claims that #MeToo is ineffective because it will never convince predatory men (and those who are complicit in facilitating their predation) to change their ways or listen to women. This is undoubtedly true, but that fact hardly makes the campaign worthless. I would argue that rather than trying to reach these men, the #MeToo claims-makers are instead targeting two other audiences: 1) other victims of sexual violence and 2) apolitical moderates who are potentially sympathetic to survivors of sexual violence but either have yet to be convinced that the problem is widespread or prefer to go about their daily lives without encountering such unpleasantness. Reaching out to these groups can be immensely useful as a movement building strategy. For survivors of sexual violence, this can help cultivate collective online identities that both provide important solidary benefits (e.g., elevated self-esteem, a sense of community, and emotional support) and build vital networking ties that may be useful in future activism. And those ties would only be further amplified by raising the consciousness of those unaware of the scope of sexual violence. These new networks could then serve as a useful foundation for other progressive projects, such as fighting the recent rollback of Title IX or addressing sexual harassment and abuse in other industries and institutions.

Finally, from a feminist standpoint, I cannot completely get behind the way many abstainers from the #MeToo campaign seem to be implicitly shaming those who participate. While I’ve yet to see a #MeToo skeptic explicitly tell a #MeToo participant that they are wrong for engaging with the campaign, the dismissive tone of many posts may be conveying that message indirectly. Although I lack definitive data on this point, I suspect a lot of these #MeToo cynics are battle-hardened activists—many of whom have watched similar campaigns like #YesAllWomen get derailed by the #NotAllMen crowd and are expecting the same here. Yet it’s important to remember that many posters chiming in with tentative #MeToo’s may be just dipping their toes into the waters of social justice work, perhaps even disclosing their survivor status for the first time and feeling affirmed and vindicating by the positive comments they have received in response. I worry that seeing take-down after take-down of the #MeToo campaign may be harmful to these individuals both personally and politically, making them feel foolish for sharing their stories with a campaign that so many feminists find ineffective and ultimately depressing their nascent passion for activism.

What then do we make of this divide between survivors who feel empowered by #MeToo and those who feel distanced from it? While there’s likely no easy answer to this question, it seems important to keep the energy of this campaign alive while still making space for people who feel such disclosure is not right for them. Neither abstainers nor participants should be shamed…nor should one approach be hailed as superior. Yet, despite the critiques that some feminist activists have of #MeToo, it feels premature to squander the momentum it’s generated. Not only has #MeToo caught the eye of the news media, it has also begun to generate interesting new campaigns that address some of the very criticisms that have been launched against it, such as the #ItWasMe and  #HowWillIChange campaigns, which were designed to encourage men to disclose times they have failed to address rape culture or directly perpetuated it themselves.

While it is vital we continue to push to make #MeToo more inclusive, it’s also important that we not let these criticisms devolve into the ‘more-progressive-than-thou’ rhetoric that often thwarts Left-wing projects. If we spend too much time reflecting on how to craft the perfect campaign, we may find ourselves paralyzed and unable to execute any campaign at all. Most activist efforts are flawed and imperfect, and, though we should always push to refine them, we can’t let our reflexiveness prevent us from doing the work that needs to be done. In the words of Lupita Nyong’o, “Now that we are speaking, let us never shut up about this kind of thing.”

Jaime Hartless is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia.

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Written by jeffguhin

October 20, 2017 at 9:36 pm

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book spotlight: the inner lives of markets by ray fisman and tim sullivan

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inner lives

The Inner Lives of Markets: How People Shape Them and They Shape Us is a “popular economics” book by Ray Fisman and Tim Sullivan. The book is a lively discussion of what one might call the “greatest” theoretical hits of economics. Starting from the early 20th century, Fisman and Sullivan review a number of the major insights from the field of economics. The goal is to give the average person a sense of the interesting insights that economists have come up with as they have worked through various problems such as auction design, thinking about social welfare, behavioral economics, and allocation in a world without prices.

I’ve taken a bit of economics in my life, and I’m somewhat of a rational choicer, so I am quite familiar with the issues that Fisman and Sullivan talk about. I think the best reader for the book might a smart undergrad or a non-economic social scientist/policy researcher who wants a fun and easy tour of more advanced economics. They’ll get lots of interesting stories, like how baseball teams auction off player contracts and how algorithms are used to manage online dating websites.

What I like a lot about the book is that it doesn’t employ the condescending “economic imperialist” approach to economic communication, nor does it offer a Levitt-esque “cute-o-nomics” approach. Rather, Fisman and Sullivan explain the problems that actually occur in real life and then describe how economists have proposed to analyze or solve such issues. In that way, modern economics comes off in a good light – it’s an important toolbox for thinking about the choices that individuals, firms and policy makers must encounter. Definitely good reading for the orgtheorist. Recommended!

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome

Written by fabiorojas

October 19, 2017 at 4:08 am

legislators are less likely to vote for the draft if they have draft age kids

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From a new working paper, “No Kin in the Game: Moral Hazard and War in theU.S. Congress,” which can be read at NBER. Eoin McGuirk, Nathaniel and Hilger Nicholas Miller use Congressional voting data to show that there is a negative correlation of draft votes and voting for the draft:

Why do wars occur? We exploit a natural experiment to test the longstanding hypothesis that leaders declare war because they fail to internalize the associated costs. We test this moral hazard theory of conflict by compiling data on the family composition of 3,693 US legislators who served in the U.S. Congress during the four conscription-era wars of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. We test for agency problems by comparing the voting behavior of congressmen with draft-age sons versus draft-age daughters. We estimate that having a draft-age son reduces legislator support for pro-conscription bills by 10-17%. Legislators with draft-age sons are also more likely to win reelection, suggesting that support for conscription is punished by voters. Our results provide new evidence that agency problems contribute to political violence, and that elected officials can be influenced by changing private incentives.

Recommended. H/T: Peter “The Entrepreneur” Klein.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 18, 2017 at 4:01 am

levy book forum part 1: what is rationalism, pluralism and freedom about?

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Levy book cover

This month, I will discuss Rationalism, Pluralism and Freedom by my good friend Jacob Levy. I usually don’t write much on “political theory,” as it is a genre of scholarship that I am not fluent in, but I thought orgtheory readers might enjoy this book.

Levy’s goal is to review the tradition of political thought in the West and argue that there is a fundamental tension. First, one might think that, from a liberal perspective, that people have the right to association. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of Western liberalism is the view that people have the right to live in neighborhoods they choose, join churches they like and otherwise hang out with who they want. Yet, at the same time, these non-state groups impose all kinds of restrictions. And this is the tension: liberals tend to put tight reins on states – they are supposed to have limited powers over people – but people can still join groups that are highly illiberal in character.

Summarizing this book is tough, but it has a few major sections, each with a distinct message. The first clearly articulates the problem and offers the argument that states and private groups can over-reach and move in illiberal directions. The second major section ranges through political and social thought and is an exploration of thinking about the boundaries between states, civil society and individuals through modern (e.g., 1500+) history. The third section is an argument against synthesis – you can’t believe at the same time that groups are totally awesome because they shield you from the state but at the same time totally be against their constraining character.

The book is really two short books – one on history of thought and another on ethics (how two normative positions are mutually exclusive) – so my discussion will not go into every detail. What I will do is pick out some parts that sociologists might enjoy and put them under scrutiny.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 17, 2017 at 12:02 pm

third world quarterly retracts “the case for colonialism”

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News has come that Third World Quarterly has withdrawn “The Case for Colonialism.” It’s a weak article, but I do not believe that it should be retracted. So what happened? According to the journal’s website:

This Viewpoint essay has been withdrawn at the request of the academic journal editor, and in agreement with the author of the essay. Following a number of complaints, Taylor & Francis conducted a thorough investigation into the peer review process on this article. Whilst this clearly demonstrated the essay had undergone double-blind peer review, in line with the journal’s editorial policy, the journal editor has subsequently received serious and credible threats of personal violence. These threats are linked to the publication of this essay. As the publisher, we must take this seriously. Taylor & Francis has a strong and supportive duty of care to all our academic editorial teams, and this is why we are withdrawing this essay.

Horrible. Nobody, including, academics should be subject to violence. I completely understand this action. At the same time, I wonder what can be done in the future to protect freedom of speech. People like to joke that sensitive academics are imposing a “heckler’s veto” but this is much, much worse. This now sets a regrettable standard – if you don’t like an idea, make a “credible” threat of violence.

At this point in time, I do not have a clear thought on how academics should respond to threats. But at the very least, we, as a community, can say “enough is enough.” Academics should be united in defending speech. I hope the next time a controversial speaker arrives at campus or published an ill argued article, that fewer of us will demand “retraction!” Now, we have seen the next step and it is not good.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 16, 2017 at 4:24 am

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nancy ska/tom thumb

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One my favorite Wayne Shorter compositions, done in the “ska-jazz” style.

50+ chapters of grad skool advice goodness: Grad Skool Rulz ($4.44 – cheap!!!!)/Theory for the Working Sociologist (discount code: ROJAS – 30% off!!)/From Black Power/Party in the Street / Read Contexts Magazine– It’s Awesome 

Written by fabiorojas

October 15, 2017 at 4:07 am

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nudging the economists (guest post by juan pablo pardo-guerra)

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It is the best of prizes. It is the worst of prizes. Let me focus on the latter.

On Monday, the renowned behavioral economist Richard Thaler was awarded the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel Prize in Economics. For the Washington Post, the award made “economics more human—and real”. For The Atlantic, it was a much-deserved recognition for someone whose “career has been a lifelong war on Homo economicus”. There may be much to celebrate, but there is even more to ponder.

Thaler’s award speaks to three problems in economics and its relation to the ‘real world’ it inhabits. Firstly, it is disparaging that the prize recognizes research showing “that people can be influenced by [mostly social] prompts to alter their behavior” given that other sections of the social sciences have been doing this for, well, just about forever (e.g. seems there was this French dude called Gabriel Tarde…). This year’s Nobel Prize was as much a recognition of behavioral economics within the intellectual firmament of the discipline as a legitimation of economic imperialism: a finding is only truly relevant if published by an economist (corollary: being an economist from Chicago helps).

This year’s Nobel Prize is problematic for a second reason. Behavioral economics does not seem to be in the same league as the politically troublesome contributions of some of the more controversial previous laureates (think: Milton Friedman or Robert Lucas), but as a matter of fact, it sort of is. Though it might make economics “more human—and real”, the behavioral turn doesn’t make away with the ontological commitments of discipline, privileging market processes and individual action as the fundamental sources of virtue. Consider the metaphor of the ‘nudge’, central to the type of applied behavioral economics that made Thaler’s research so publicly relevant. Rather than questioning the economics of general equilibrium, ‘nudging’ is a proposal in calculated engineering: we can build policies that create outcomes similar to those of theory by gently walking slightly irrational, bounded economic agents through the correct ‘architectures of choice’. I am not saying that this is not positive: I am sure that creating psychological incentives so that people increase their investments in retirement will eventually help them; but so would a stronger social security net and a stronger, better funded state welfare apparatus. At the end of the day, the metrics of success in behavioral economics are uncritical of how the economy is built and remit to the ‘less human’, more market-centered, and ‘more surreal’ varieties of economic analysis that behavioral economists like Thaler so bemoan at a first degree of approximation.

Thirdly, the economics prize showcases and arguably reproduces the lack of diversity and intellectual variety in the discipline. Historically, the economics prize is overwhelmingly white and male. Only one woman received the prize to date—Elinor Ostrom, “for her analysis of economic governance”; the same is true for non-white economists—represented by Amartya Sen for his “research on the fundamental problems of welfare economics”. So while economics might expand its reach in colleges, universities, and government offices throughout the world, the Nobel committee reminds us year after year that there is pretty much one type of economics that is better than the rest. It has a race; it has a gender. This is quite regrettable, particularly in a year when discussions about gender in economics were so prominent in the news. There is no dearth of women or minorities in economics—example: Maureen O’Hara’s work in market microstructure theory is perhaps more relevant and intellectually important than Eugene Fama’s somewhat passé discussions of asset prices and market efficiency from the 1970s that were recognized with the Nobel Prize in 2013. (Harvard’s Carmen Reinhart also jumps to mind).

So this was the best of prizes (for Thaler—kitchen remodel) and the worst of prizes (for the rest—economics won’t change much), a missed opportunity to nudge the discipline in a slightly different direction. Perhaps this is asking too much from a committee that represents all too well the gendered dynamics of economics in Sweden (I could not find a female committee member, but I might be wrong): in 2005, Statistics Sweden only identified one full professor of economics in the entire country. How’s that for an architecture of choice?

Juan Pablo Pardo-Guerra is an assistant professor of sociology at UCSD. His research explores the connections between markets, cultures and technologies.

 

Written by jeffguhin

October 11, 2017 at 12:26 am