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Robot Overlords and a Eulogy to the Subway

May 7, 2020 Comments off
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Two new Bloomberg Posts!!

Guys I’m sorry I forgot to blog last Friday about a piece I wrote:

 

 

 

 

More columns are here.

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New Bloomberg Column: Let’s not make things worse for older people

April 22, 2020 Comments off

I was happy to connect with my friend Ashton Applewhite, an ageism activist whom I met at TED, to discuss aging in the time of Covid-19. It led to this new Bloomberg column:

 

Pandemic Data Could Be Deadly for the Old

 

See other columns I wrote here.

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New Bloomberg Column: This is Not The Flattened Curve We Were Promised

An empirical observation about models versus reality:

 

This Isn’t the Flattened Curve We Were Promised

 

See other columns I wrote here.

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New Bloomberg Column: COVID-19 tracking will not work

Another skeptical column from me today:

 

The Covid-19 Tracking App Won’t Work

 

 

See other columns I wrote here.

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New Bloomberg column: 10 Reasons to Doubt the Covid-19 Data

Hi all,

I’m back at Bloomberg, writing about reasons to doubt the daily data we keep seeing. I’ve added a few reasons since my post last week. Also, I’m preparing myself for bad data today and tomorrow delayed from Easter weekend:

10 Reasons to Doubt the Covid-19 Data

The pandemic’s true toll might never be known.

 

See other columns I wrote here.

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Diabetics potentially have a LOT to lose by using hydroxychloroquine

This is a guest post by Gary Cornell. Gary holds a Ph.D. in mathematics from Brown University and was the co-founder of the the major technical publisher Apress. He has written or co-written numerous best selling programming books and has been a Mathematics professor, a visiting scientist at IBM’s Watson Labs and a program director at the National Science Foundation.

I’m not a doctor nor do I play one at daily press briefings. But like most mathematicians, I do know something about basic statistics. And, like most academics, I read everything that comes out about drugs I am taking. Obviously, I concentrate on the statistical sections and the list of side effects and drug interactions in these research papers. And so, this being 2020, I have a google alert for the drugs I am taking.

Anyway, one drug I am taking is the maximum dose of metformin. It is the fourth most prescribed drug in the United States and is used by more than 150,000,000 people world wide. It is the usual first drug prescribed for Type 2 diabetes. It is a good drug, the side effects are usually mild and it is even being explored (the TAME trial) as a possible “longevity” drug. A good drug…

So I was shocked to see this link popping up in my in box:

 

This note is from researchers  at Johns Hopkins – which I hasten to point out is currently rated the #2 school in the United States for “medical research”. People there are not general considered practitioners of psycho ceramics, in other words.

Holy ^&%$#, I thought. And then I tuned in to the Sunday “briefing” where Trump doubled down on his pushing claiming that “what do you have to lose” – and prevented Fauci from tempering his response. Though mice results aren’t conclusive and perhaps fatalities are off by a factor of 10 or a 100. Who the &^%$ knows if taking this will kill me? Maybe it is much worse for people on the maximum dose of metformin like me. But, absent proof it is safe for people taking metformin, pushing it if you are taking metformin except in life or death situations would seem to me malpractice for a doctor and practically criminal for an economist or politician.

Oh, in case you are thinking that maybe except for people taking metformin, hydroxychloroquine is a “good” drug, Drugs.com says there are 332 drug interactions (59 of them being major). And here is the list of side effects

So, answer is, you have a lot to lose.

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Making facemasks: a step-by-step guide

You’ll need:

I’m following the pattern for “Mask 2 (large)” on this webpage. But to be honest I found it hard to follow which is why I’m going to tell you quite plainly how to do this relatively quickly.

First, download and print this pdf: mask+2+large+pattern

Or simply eyeball the following picture with the ruler as a guide:

You’ll want to cut out the printed version and then outline it onto cardboard, then cut out the cardboard so you’ll have a form you can reuse a bunch of times with sharpies:

This has been used a bunch and is kind of a mess. That’s ok.

Then you outline with a sharpie on your dishcloth:

I got 12 cardboard outlines on! That means 3 masks. Be sure to avoid the hemmed edges.

Next you cut them all out:

Next, pair up the cloth pieces to match:

Next, sew along the foot of those matched boots for both pairs with a 1/4″ seam:

And now put those two pieces together, with the seams on the outside for both pieces:

Next, sew all around the above piece (so sew the two pieces together) with a 1/4″ seam except for about two inches at the bottom seam:

 

It’s time to turn this whole thing inside out by squeezing it through that two inch slit!

Poke your fingers into all four corners plus the nose part at the top to make sure it’s all the way inside out.

Here’s the other side:

Next, sew a three inch line along the nose top (a 1″ seam) and stick the metal wire into that channel:

Do you see the channel? The wire has to go in this area except, of course, you need to have it on the inside.

Next, you want to sew along the entire edge (very close to the edge, maybe 1/4″), starting at one end of the nose wire channel. Halfway along you’ll carefully close the hole at the bottom:

Here it is at the end:

this picture is overexposed but the idea is you close up the nose wire channel on both sides.

Next, you fold back 1.5″ of the ear flaps and sew down:

This is the back of the mask after sewing down both flaps.

Next, measure out 1 yard of elastic cord and tie together the ends:

Next, use a crochet needle to pull through flaps and then tie it together:

Finally, yank the elastic cord until it’s hidden inside a flap and tidy everything up by snipping off the stray threads.

It’s ready for a cute model!

Now’s the time to squeeze the metal wire to make it fit your nose.

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Comments on COVID-19

I am, like you, restless and having trouble coping with the tragedy going on. It’s especially hard to think through the logical details of issues that only two weeks ago seemed urgently important. So instead, like you, I find myself with an internal dialogue of how the publicized statistics are consistently biased or wrong. At the risk of simply supporting your own internal thoughts, here are a few of mine:

  1. We still aren’t testing people, even in New York, which is the most tested population in the current mostly highly infected country according to the crap data we have.
  2. What that means to me is that we can ballpark how many actual cases we have if we know what the condition is for actually getting tested. In New York, it’s something close to “needs hospitalization.” Considering that only about the worst 10% of cases in countries that do widespread testing actually need hospitalization, that means we can multiply our confirmed case count by 10 to get an estimated total case count.
  3. That means that, instead of 60K cases in New York state, which is what this webpage says this morning, we can assume it’s actually more like 600K.
  4. Similarly as a nation, we should multiply the confirmed case count of 143K by ten to get an estimated 1.43 million cases in the US.
  5. Is that an overestimate? Perhaps. It’s possible that enough testing is happening in those car wash type setups, where people are at least capable of driving a car, to make it pessimistic.
  6. On the other hand, we’ve seen plenty of examples in the NYC area of people calling their doctor with intensely bad symptoms who are told not to overburden the hospital system and to take care of themselves at home.
  7. Also, it’s worth pointing out that multiplying by 10 assumes that more than half, and perhaps up to 75% of all actual cases are entirely asymptomatic. This is something we’ve been seeing in places that have done randomized or comprehensive testing.
  8. All the above are ballpark reckoning, but honestly I trust my numbers more than any official ones.
  9. Especially because we’ve been hearing stories told in Spain and Italy that their death counts are not including horrible fucking things that have been happening in nursing homes. That means those terrible numbers are heavily underestimating actual deaths.
  10. Also, we should not trust China’s death count numbers, which some say are underestimating actual death counts by a factor around 15.
  11. And if we don’t trust their death counts, we should also not count their confirmed case count, which has been tiny recently.
  12. Why this matters a lot to us right now is that China closed Wuhan on January 23rd, which means they are/were under quarantine stricter than ours for more than two months, and we’d REALLY like to know what the actual situation is right now, but we don’t.
  13. Long story short, being a skeptical data scientist means not trusting the data whatsoever. The best we can do is use the data and our real world knowledge to ballpark what might actually be happening. We will never know the true numbers.
  14. One exception might be the Netherlands, which I’m keeping my eyes on. I don’t think they lie as much as most other countries.
  15. I could be wrong about that too.
  16. I hope tomorrow’s post will be more optimistic.
  17. One last comments: Sunday reported deaths are lower than other days because of the way reporting happens.  Doctors and others are taking a well-deserved rest. So don’t get excited about flattening curves based on Sunday data:

daily deaths sunday effect

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A better proxy than confirmed cases for the US is hospital beds

If you’re anything like me, you’re driving yourself a bit nuts looking for information on the COVID-19 situation in the U.S. as well as internationally.

And, if you’re like me, you will have been tearing your hair out frustrated by the bad quality of data. For terrible political and cultural and of course capitalistic reasons, we are not getting tested at reasonable rates as charts like this demonstrate:

 

That means, as cool as websites like this or this are for up-to-date data on country and state level confirmed positive test results and deaths, we are not actually seeing enough to know how bad things really are. Note to the people who run those sites: please add columns for “number of tests administered” so we have some idea of how incomplete the data really is.

All of the above is nothing new, I’m sure you’ve already complained at length to your friends about this very topic.

The only things I really want to say is that, considering that we don’t know who is infected, we should use as a proxy of our problem not the “confirmed case” count but rather the “hospital beds used above normal” count.

It’s not perfect metric either, primarily because the virus takes days to spread and days to get people quite sick, and indeed once the hospital beds really start filling up, it’s already a much bigger problem. But I’d still argue that we should try to use this proxy, for the following reasons:

  1. Hospitals definitely keep track of their bed counts, you can be sure of that. So the data is available.
  2. It doesn’t depend on the availability of testing, which as we’ve discussed above, is very problematic. Our death count is most assuredly way too low because there have likely been plenty of people dying of coronavirus who just never got tested.
  3. In other words, counting beds is relatively free of political manipulation.

There are also problems with this proxy, both of which make it underestimate the problem. First, because people who have elective surgery are rescheduling for a later date. Second, because our social distancing has probably made other illnesses less common, leading to less hospital stays for other reasons.

Even so, I’d love an intrepid journalist to try to collect this statistic from many national hospital chains, and compare it to last year’s bed count, as well as yesterday’s and last week’s, to see how things compare.

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Wash your hands *and* your phone

I don’t know about you but I’ve spent quite a bit of time on the phone talking to friends and family about the COVID-19 virus and bemoaning how difficult it is to get people to do simple stuff like washing their hands and not touching their face.

And, again, I’m on the phone talking about this, while copiously touching my face and my dirty phone.

And it occurred to me that washing our hands won’t be all that helpful if our phones are dirty, which they of course will be because we cannot stop using our phones even for a minute, especially when we want to check in on our loved ones and also Twitter.

Here’s the standard problem I see:

Go on subway, touch things, read phone, get to destination, touch things, put down phone, go to the bathroom, wash hands carefully, pick up phone again.

See how that works? The only germs we’re not getting on our phone is actual bathroom germs, and that’s only if you don’t bring your phone with you to the bathroom, which let’s face it people do in general.

So, how do we address this? It’s going to be tricky! We will need to clean our phones, and moreover to clean our phones without once again getting phone germs on our hands. I’m dizzy with the procedure we will have to follow assuming we have wipes that actually clean our phones and our hands.

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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.

Categories: Uncategorized

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?

Categories: Uncategorized

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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Sex Robots!

Guys I’m super proud of this Sex Robots essay I wrote for Boston Review:

 

A History of Cyborg Sex, 2018–73

 

 

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Bloomberg Opinion piece on Facial Recognition

My newest Bloomberg Opinion piece just came out:

Amazon Can’t Fix Facial Recognition

Companies lack incentives to stop the creepiness.

See the rest of my Bloomberg Opinion pieces here.

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