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10 Silver Linings of Having an Asshole Father

I wanted to share my words from my dad’s memorial this past weekend, which took place at UMass Boston. You can read his official obituary here.

 

10 silver linings of having an asshole father

 

  1. When I met Larry Summers at the hedge fund he was known as a pushy, physically imposing and intellectually arrogant bully. He was all those things. He was also a pussycat compared to my dad. My dad taught me never to be intimidated by anyone.
  2. My father never displayed nor expected conformity. Since he never followed inconvenient constraints of etiquette or behavior, my father role modeled for me that most norms or even laws can be interpreted as rules of thumb to be considered and held up to inspection rather than thoughtlessly followed. That’s been useful to me, especially as a female intellectual.
  3. My father was incredibly wrong about a bunch of things, and wrong headed to top it off. He consistently argued that men are smarter than women, even as my mom consistently helped him write his research papers, he seemed to truly believe some eugenic beliefs, and he was very into evolutionary biological explanations for why he and men like him should be entitled to unquestioned power. But to his credit, he was always willing to argue these points. He taught me the value of intellectual debate and fighting for my ideas and values.
  4. For the same reasons as above, he often embodied selfishness, self interest, and lazy thinking. He didn’t even believe science when it was inconvenient to his worldview, as in the case of climate change. At those moments, it made it easy for me to see and pick apart the errors of his logic. He turned me into an intellectual critic, which has made me a ton of money over the years. So thanks dad.
  5. My dad claimed, out loud and often, to be the smartest person in the world. He even sometimes seemed to believe it. And the truth is he was really smart, but he was also weirdly emphatic about exaggerating such things to the point of incredibility. I want to thank my dad for helping me understand our current president at a deep level.
  6. In terms of parenting my children, my father taught me the value of consistent kindness by displaying the wreckage of sporadic cruelty. I’m a better mother for my childhood, during which I learned what not to do. It’s a backhanded compliment but it’s real.
  7. Just as his brutality was never subtle, his generosity was never fake. Many of the people in this room can personally attest to my father’s impressive generosity with his home, his hospitality, his jokes, and most especially his alcohol. I thank him for teaching me to welcome people into my home with openness and love.
  8. Along those lines, my father taught me to love ideas for their own sake. His favorite activity was reading, and reading out loud to whomever happened to be walking through the room. To this day I cannot stand Robert Heinlein or Oscar Wilde poetry but I do love ideas and I think he’s partly why.
  9. When I was a little kid, my dad expected me to sing folk songs with him. One day he yelled at me to sing the harmony instead. I thought it was just something I was supposed to know how to do when I was 8. So I did it. I don’t think I’d be able to enjoy music as much as I do without that.
  10. My father taught me to say what I mean and mean what I say. For example, he was such an asshole he wouldn’t even mind being called an asshole. Actually I’m not sure about that but I guess the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree.
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Star Island

Dude! No seriously, dude.

I just spent a week on Star Island. Actually, I got back exactly a week ago but it’s taken me this long to recover from the lost sleep.

In case you haven’t heard of it, Star Island is tiny island off the coast of New Hampshire that has been operated by the Star Island Corporation for more than 100 years, which in turn is organized by a bunch of Unitarian-Universalist and United Church of Christ members.

They organize the island into week-long camps and programs and have a bunch of folks come over and cult out. And when I say “cult out,” I want you to imagine burning man except for New England WASP-y families of four with lots of knitting and choral singing experience.

Here is the webpage for the week I just went to. It was co-organized by my good friend and yarn whisperer and art historian professor Elizabeth Hutchinson.

Through Elizabeth, I was lucky enough to be invited to a particularly long-lived and intense week as the “Theme Speaker.” What this means is I got to spend 1.25 hours every day for six days talking about my shame book, And dude, yes, that’s a lot of time to talk. So actually I broke it up Occupy style with progressive stack commenting (thanks to Elizabeth for taking stack!).

Here comes the crazy thing about this whole story. Believe it or not, these kind UU folks were not only willing to have me, they were totally into the topic! The audience never diminished, and I think it might have actually gotten bigger by the end of the week! It was truly amazing and I’m incredibly grateful for their attention and patience, because now I’m feeling much more confident about how my book is going to function as a narrative.

Here was the outline:

  • Day 1: What is shame?
  • Day 2: When does shame work?
  • Day 3: Fat shaming and wellness culture
  • Day 4: Poverty shaming and meritocracy
  • Day 5: Social media, incels, and anti-vaxxers
  • Day 6: AI and automated shame

I got tons of great questions during each talk and, because I was often to be found sitting on the porch knitting in a rocking chair, there were plenty of moments for people to talk to me in between talks and make thoughtful and useful comments. A truly intense and wonderful week, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Thank you, Star Island folks! Thank you for welcoming me and my son, for having a ton of music to enjoy, and a talent show that my son participated in eagerly, the armada boat race made up of duct tape, and the slip-and-slide hilarity (I’m talking about you, Cece).

Dude, though, back to the cult thing. The last day, after the last dinner at which every person was thanked for their help with the amazing week including the cooks, wait staff, and bell hops, we all danced around the island holding hands and singing about promises to return next year. By the end of it  I was a little worried that my son, who is 10 years old and had a blast the entire week, had been irretrievably indoctrinated. By the next day I was no longer worried, because he absolutely had and we will be returning next year. We will, we will, we will.

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New Bloomberg Opinion column: China’s AI shows us the future of health insurance

 

Hey! I’ve been kind of hibernating but this week I got so riled up about some incredibly terrible facial recognition stuff going on in China that I wrote a Bloomberg piece:

 

China Knows How to Take Away Your Health Insurance

 

For my other Bloomberg Opinion pieces, click here.

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Shame Versus the Free Market

One of the ways I want to understand the power and dynamics of shame as a social mechanism is by comparing and contrasting how shame works with the other forces that play similar roles but that we are much more aware of. Today I’ll start thinking about that with respect to market forces, and more generally the viewpoint of the individual as an economic free agent (hat tip to Josh Snodgrass for this prompt).

Shame is often inconsistent with rational free agency.

The first thing to note is that shame is not rational at the individual level. That is, when we are acting under the power of shame, we often act in direct conflict with our immediate “economic best interest.” Here are some examples:

  • If we’re shamed into being a good daughter or son in some way, we’re probably spending more time than we’d theoretically like helping out or spending time with our family.
  • If we’re shamed into being a “good mom,” that might translate into baking cookies for a bake sale that we know is ridiculous.
  • If we’re feeling spurned from normal society for being weird, it’s often an enormous amount of effort to either pretend to be normal or to accept the role of the social outcast.
  • Even if we’re the target of punching up shame, where we’re the the CEO of a chemical company that’s polluting the river, the point of the shame is to get us to stop it not because it’s in our interest to stop it – it clearly is in our interest to continue to do it – but because it’s against a larger public interest.

Indeed, shame often works really well to get individuals to act against their self interest in relatively small ways so that the group as a whole works more smoothly and is better off, at least ideally. The idea is, if the norms are reasonable and achievable, then people are shamed into following them for the sake of society.

When norms are unreasonable or unachievable, things can go wrong, and the free market ideology we have been indoctrinated with can make things worse.

So, when young men are informed that, in order to achieve social success they have to demonstrate sexual prowess, this is a huge burden on lots of shy, awkward, inexperienced youths. They feel an enormous amount of pressure to conform to this concept of “success,” and an enormous amount of shame when they continue to fail in this way.

My theory is that, in part because of our weirdly religious belief in free markets, coupled with the explicitly market-flavored nature of dating apps and other technological intermediations on the sex and dating fronts, we end up with bizarre pseudo-scientific theories of attractions and attractiveness that purport to “explain” everything about sex and dating but are fundamentally efforts to blunt the power of shame.

I’m thinking in general of the “PUA” culture, where women are scored from 1 to 10 and men learn strategies to land them in bed that have nothing to do with human connections. The flip side of that bizarre artificial market structure is that, at the extreme end, we have incels undergoing drastic plastic surgeries in order to look like sexually successful men which they refer to as “Chads.”

Of course we’ve seen women go under the knife for decades, and it’s become somewhat normalized, even though it’s of course due to the same thing: pressure to conform to some norm, and shame that one’s body isn’t a perfect 10.

Shame and Scoring Systems

Speaking of being a perfect 10, I think the easiest way to access how shame works vis-à-vis free markets is to think about how easily scores and scoring systems evoke in people a deep sense of shame.

Whether it’s an SAT score, a GPA, the ranking of the college you went to or your kid got into, your weight, your BMI, your IQ, or your Twitter followers, people have gotten used to – and to a large extent embraced – the concept of being measured by externally defined, maintained, and verified scoring systems. They have profound effects on society, at least to the extent they people care about them.

And, for me at least, that’s the weirdest part. People really do care about rankings and scores, far beyond what I’d consider reasonable.

I think I see the unreasonableness in such systems in large part because I often understand the flaws in the systems, and I’ve worked out the exceptional people who are measured as unexceptional, or the unexceptional people who look amazing to a scoring system. It’s not so easy to think through this kind of thing, and when you do, you lose admiration for the system itself, which on the one hand helps you distance yourself from your score and any associated shame you might have for a “bad score,” and on the other hand allows you to see just how much blind faith and undue grief we as a society project onto such systems.

Push and Pull

Stepping back, I think I’m ready to say that there’s been a massive and largely undescribed conflict between the two systems of powers represented by the informal social mechanism of shame and more formal market mechanisms. They are not consistent with each other, and as individuals and groups, we’re being pushed one way by shame and another way altogether by market incentives.

On the other hand, the proliferation of “markets,” whether represented by dating apps or college rankings, have given us new ways of determining our intrinsic worth, which is what shame is all about. And to the extent that we have embraced these systems, which I think is far reaching, we’ve got a whole new set of things to be ashamed of. You could almost say that we’ve come to replace some of our old-fashioned notion of self-worth as family members, as citizens, and definitely as consumers by the scores that we’ve achieved. In that sense we’ve externalized and even privatized the dominant shaming mechanisms.

How could we possibly keep up with all of these ways of evaluating ourselves and being evaluated?

How Technology Comes Into Shame

Next time I’ll talk further about the reason I’m writing this book now. It has to do with the way technology is intermediating shame mechanisms: how it works, how it’s been changing us, and how I believe it’s going wrong.

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Shame is Power

June 7, 2019 Comments off

 

 

Dear Readers,

 

You’ve been killing it with the amazing comments and I don’t know why it took me so long to get back to blogging. I love you all.

So what I realized soon after posting my last blog is that I didn’t sufficiently set the table for a discussion about group shame. I’m going to write today about how I see shame as a form of soft power, and next time I have time to write – I’m hoping it’s tomorrow – I’ll write about this kind of soft power that shame inhabits versus other kinds of power structures, especially free market incentives. Then after that I’ll circle back to group shame and address many of the excellent suggestions and comments you guys have made. Thanks again.

 

Cathy

 


 

Shame is power. It’s a specific kind of informal, soft power, that I believe is overlooked but is incredibly influential. It explains unexplained, important trends that we are so familiar with we can barely see them, even when we look.

I have plenty of examples of this, of course, because shame is also omnipresent.

So, for example, take a look at this recent article about Japanese hikikomori, the (almost entirely male) adult, jobless recluses that typically spend their lives on the internet and live with their parents or other family members. They are highly stigmatized – shamed into staying reclusive, in other words – and even their families are so ashamed of them that they rarely discuss the problem.

They’re coming up right now as a topic for two reasons: first, because there’s a lot of them, and they’re getting older, and their parents won’t be here forever to look after them, so it’s unclear what will happen to them, and second because one of them went berserk and stabbed some kids a couple of weeks ago and, even though they as a group are not violent criminals, it’s the nature of a stigmatized and shamed group to be also criminalized.

These two things: an undue burden on their family, and on society, and a potential violent threat, will no doubt both deepen their shame – and thus the power that keeps these unfortunate individuals apart from the rest of society.

To see the power of shame as it is exerted on the hikikomori, and to test it, imagine if there were other similarly sized (estimated at 1 in 60 of working age, or 1.2 million in Japan) subpopulations of people whose lives were so disconnected and impoverished. Imagine, in particular, that otherwise perfectly “normal” people suddenly found themselves suddenly unable to leave their room and behave effectively and go to their jobs, but this time for physical rather than mental and psychological reasons. That would be a national health crisis, and my guess is we’d get to work trying to solve the problem. We’d talk about it a lot, and we wouldn’t blame the victims. We’d establish programs to help their families.

 


 

I gave a couple of examples last time of shame. One of them was sexual assault in the military. Take a look at this article about Senator Martha McSally, who described her sexual assault in the Air Force:

She said she did not immediately report the attacks because she “didn’t trust the system at the time.” Later, when she began talking about them, she said she was so horrified about how her account was handled that she thought about quitting the Air Force. “Like many victims, I felt like the system was raping me all over again,” Ms. McSally said.

That is power. The system itself perpetrated shame on the victims of sexual assault, keeping them in line and silent about their suffering and trauma.

Not all suffering and trauma is shaming. We celebrate members of the military who are wounded in combat. What’s the difference? It’s shame that keeps abuse victims quiet. Shame has an amazing power of coercive silence, and it works systematically in certain specific ways on certain specific people.

 


 

Two last comments.

First, power is easier to identify when it’s measurable and formal. Shame is impossible to measure directly, except in oneself and even then it’s accompanied by a form of amnesia that makes us want to think about something else. Shame is also inherently informal. As soon as it’s written down and formalized as rules, it’s no longer exactly shame but instead takes on a form of institutionalized power. That’s not to say that institutionalized power cannot be shaming, because we already saw it can with sexual assault in the military.

Second, power is easier to identify when it forces us to do something that we otherwise wouldn’t do. Shame isn’t always like that. Instead, shame often forces us not to do something we otherwise would do. We would complain, cry out that we are suffering or traumatized, but instead we are shamed into thinking it’s our fault that we are suffering, and we should constrain ourselves by any means necessary, and stay silent. How do you measure what’s not happening because of shame?

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Group Shame

 

Dear Blog readers,

 

I’m kind of stuck in my new book about shame, so at the advice of my BFF Laura I’m writing a good old fashioned blog post  – or perhaps many! – to try to get through some sticky topics.

I hope it helps! And I know you all are rooting for me, and that definitely helps.

I’ll start with the reasons this is a hard question, then an example of when it happens, and I’ll finish with why it matters to me.

 

Love,

Cathy

 


 

When we think about shame, we almost always consider the individual experience. I want to know how to talk about the group experience instead. I’m stuck on how exactly to do it.

So the question of today is, how does one make the transition between the language of the individual experience to the language of a group experience?

I’ll first list the reasons that we’re more comfortable talking about the individual experience:

  • We each experience shame individually, so we can talk about that as our own experience. We are therefore less willing, out of modesty or just a sense of being factual, to talk about what “people like us” have experienced.
  • Psychology and psychiatry as fields focus on shame of the individual, often in extreme cases involving childhood abuse or neglect, so they become idiosyncratic narratives that couldn’t possibly be what everyone experiences.
  • We are just used to hearing individual narratives, often about tragic heroes and their journey. Those stories obviously become archetypes for something that we can aspire to, but they don’t seem ever to become truly shared, in part because they’re so epic.

Next, the reasons we absolutely must have a concept of group shame:

  • Shame is social. There’s no such thing as shame outside the group experience. Shame is experienced with respect to a norm, and a norm is something that exists in the framework of a group.
  • In some sense, I can restate the above by saying, the individual experience of shame, for each person in a group that shares such a norm, is just a variation on a larger theme. Each person in the group will experience the shame associated to a group norm somewhat differently, but all of their experiences together will comprise the group experience of shame, and we cannot understand the norm without understanding the individual experiences as a group.

 


 

When norms change, this concept of group shame is particularly interesting. Consider the #MeToo movement. It’s an example of a shifting norm, where certain types of behaviors, which were kept quiet even though they were technically unacceptable, have become something that we discuss openly.

The discussion is a mess, obviously, because we haven’t yet come to any sort of agreement on what the border of acceptability really is yet (I have way more to say on this but I’ll put it that way for now to avoid changing the entire point of this blogpost).

And yet it’s pretty clear that there’s an associated group shame that is a direct consequence of the rise of #MeToo, namely the group shame being felt by men who feel newly scrutinized by the shifting norm. And to be clear, I’m seeing very different reactions by different men who have had different kinds of experiences. It’s fair to say that the men who should be feeling the most amount of shame probably aren’t the ones who are, for example.

But the reason I brought up this example is that, as a group, it’s really happening. There are reactions, and they run the gamut from deep, abiding shame to defensive outrage to non-defensive activism, which probably most of you wouldn’t recognize as shame at all.

 


 

Why bother talking about group shame? I’m convinced that, depending on the type of shame, we can more or less predict what will happen with that shame at the level of social experience.

I’ll go into my taxonomy of shame in another blog post, but for now I’ll just present my list of types: punching down, punching up, and punching nowhere.

In the case of punching down shame, which you can think of as bullying shame, the result of group shame will be exploitative, whether it’s getting fat people to join Weight Watchers (i.e. profiting) or silencing rape victims in the military (i.e. maintaining power).

Maybe the most important thing about group shame is that, statistically at least, it works really well. Fat people keep feeling shamed about their bodies and they keep diligently signing up to pay for a solution that won’t work. Assault victims know they will not be heard.

The question then becomes, what has to change for that dynamic to change? Or to make things really explicit, what would need to change to make the weight loss industry unprofitable? For the military to actually address the problem of rape and sexual assault?

In some sense I already know the answer: the underlying norm itself needs to change. But that’s too abstract. I want to talk about it as the group dynamic itself changing, which of course ends up being the individuals in the group experiencing changes.

 


 

Comments/ questions welcome!

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Shame Machine: an owner’s manual

Friends, I’m writing today to announce that I’m hard at work on a new book, called:

 

Shame Machine

an owner’s manual

 

It’s once again being written with my editor Amanda Cook at the publisher Crown Random House, just like Weapons of Math Destruction. The tentative release date is January 2021, after the next presidential election.

The idea of the book is to understand shame as a social mechanism. When, why, and how do we shame each other? Who profits from shame? Who maintains power or gains power through shame? When is shame valid, and when is it simply mean and cruel? How is shame delivered in the age of big data?

I come to these questions because of the proliferation shame-based interactions and strategies in politics but also interpersonally; from my experience of getting my insurance company to pay for bariatric surgery, to observing people interacting viciously on Twitter, to hearing how teachers were unfairly scored with the value-added model, it seems like shame is the informal glue that holds our system together. So naturally I started nerding out bigtime.

Shame Machine is a culmination of quite a bit of thinking and writing, research and personal development that I’ve been busy with for the last couple of years. Readers of my blog will have noticed that I’ve been posting a lot less, and this is why. Where I tried out a bunch of ideas for Weapons on this blog, and heard back from you guys (thanks again!), this time it’s quite a bit more personal, so I’ve been hesitant to write about it openly while I was still thinking it through. Suffice it to say I’m sure you readers would have had lots of great advice, and hopefully I’ll be able to ask you for thoughts in the future.

Anyway, I’m out of the hibernation/ideas/planning phase and into the writing phase, and it’s both amazing and scary.

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