All posts by Aeon J. Skoble

What Art Scolds, Whether Conservative or Woke, Have in Common

I had a revelation this weekend, finally understanding something about what the woke left has in common with conservatives.  The revelation had to do with Plato and Aristotle, which won’t surprise people who know me well, but will require some explanation.

The insight was sparked by a long Facebook discussion about the controversy surrounding the French film Mignonnes, released on Netflix as Cuties.  The film’s promotional material featured 11-year-old girls dressed in skimpy dance outfits, and a clip circulating on the internet showing their dance routine was decidedly age-inappropriate, filled with twerking and assorted other sexually-suggestive moves.  Conservatives on social media were apoplectic about the exploitative oversexualization of young girls, calling for Netflix and the filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré to be cancelled, and in some cases brought up on charges of child pornography.  They seemed to be imagining defenses of the film involving the idea that girls were “empowered” by owning their sexuality, though I actually didn’t see anyone advancing that argument in defense of the film.  The defenses I did see were mostly along the lines of  “that’s a three-minute clip, maybe the film isn’t as smutty as it seems.”  But the response to that was “anyone defending this trash is defending sexual exploitation of children.  You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

That’s a familiar script: woke critics of films like 16 Candles or 48 Hours criticize those films for sexist and racist tropes, and respond to any defense of the films with “you’re defending a racist film, you should be ashamed of yourselves.”  You see the parallels: conservatives accuse the defenders of Cuties of being soft on pedophilic exploitation of children, and the left accuses defenders of 16 Candles and 48 Hours of being soft on sexism and racism.   But are the defenders of those films defending the sexism or the racism?  Mostly no; they’re pointing towards some kind of contextualiztion, or differentiating between depicting an attitude and endorsing an attitude.  Nick Nolte’s character Cates calls Eddie Murphy’s character Hammond the N-word, for example, yet one of the key payoffs of the film is when Cates apologizes to Hammond for doing that, and upbraids his lieutenant for doing it, defending Hammond as smarter and braver than anyone else in the precinct.  So: 1, calling someone the N-word is bad.  2, a clip from a movie where someone does that looks bad.  But 3, the full context of the film may reveal that the story shows that doing it is wrong.   Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters talking like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

Similarly, conservative critics of Cuties point out that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  But is the filmmaker saying “no, it’s fine if 11-year-old girls dance in a sexually suggestive way”?   No. Turns out the filmmaker, Maïmouna Doucouré, an émigré to France from Senegal, agrees with the conservatives that there’s something wrong with a society that pushes young girls to embrace a hyper-sexualization, especially at a too-young age.  She says (I haven’t seen it, but several reviewers confirm this) that the film shows the young protagonist uncomfortably pressured into embracing this oversexualization, and rejecting it.  Nevertheless, the critics maintain, it’s bad to even show characters dancing like that because it “normalizes” the behavior, influencing  viewers to approve.

What finally hit me this weekend was the realization that what the woke left and the conservatives have in common is that their view of art is Platonic, and they both oppose an Aristotelian approach.  On Plato’s view, certain artistic representations should not be allowed, as their very existence can have a baleful influence on impressionable minds.  To be sure, Plato gets a bad rap from people who overstate and caricature his view to imply that all artistic representation is bad – he can’t literally mean that no representative art can be allowed, since he himself expresses his theories in artistic representations.  But he does seem worried that art, because of its ability to communicate in a way that bypasses the intellect, can give people bad ideas.  By even depicting bad things, he thought, people might get the wrong idea – what they call today “normalizing.”

Aristotle’s theory was a little more nuanced.  He’s aware of art’s ability to influence, but he argues that it’s not depiction that is of chief importance, but portrayal.  I’m oversimplifying a bit here, but basically the artist can depict good people or things or bad people or things, and can portray them as good or bad, or leading to good or bad outcomes.  If a good thing is made to look good, or a bad thing is made to look bad, that’s morally correct.  There’s nothing wrong with depicting vice provided that the vicious do not flourish as a result of vice. The essence of tragedy, conversely, is when a basically good person meets a bad end due to some weakness or character flaw.   What would be morally bad, on this theory, would be when the artist makes the noble appear base or the subject of mockery, or makes the vicious flourish.  So a story about a racist character isn’t per se bad – if the character learns why racism is bad and rejects it, the story is morally edifying. 

American History X is a good illustration.  The film shows us vile, racist invective (and violence) from a neo-Nazi character.  But the point of the film isn’t to glorify these attitudes, it’s to condemn them.  The protagonist comes to renounce hate and try to redeem himself, but is (tragically) too late to save his brother.   Similarly, Cuties shows us lewd and age-inappropriate dancing from 11-year-olds, but the point of the film isn’t to glorify pre-pubsescent twerking, it’s to condemn a culture that makes young girls think they should sexualize themselves to get ahead.  A Platonist would respond to both by saying “these portrayals are made with good craftsmanship, therefore they’re dangerous, because people might get the wrong idea and emulate what they’ve seen portrayed.”  But an Aristotelian would say “these bad things are in fact being portrayed as bad, so no sensible person would draw the wrong lesson here.”  Although the racist speeches in American History X really are the sorts of things neo-Nazis say, and are delivered credibly and passionately by a talented actor, it’s plain that the filmmaker sees these as bad ideas, as indeed does the protagonist by the end of the film.  The film doesn’t “normalize” neo-Nazis.  No sensible viewer would see this film and think “yes, I should become a Nazi.”   John Hinkley seemed to be have been “inspired” to attempt to assassinate President Reagan by the 1976 film Taxi Driver, though most sane people would have no trouble recognizing character Travis Bickle as someone who is very disturbed and not the object of emulation.  In Cuties, the dance routine is indeed disturbing (a clip of that has been circulating on the internet), but it’s portrayed as disturbing in the film.  The in-film audience watching the dance is not cheering.  They look shocked and saddened and disapproving –  the same response as critics of the film.  And the protagonist realizes she shouldn’t act that way. 

So the woke critics of popular culture on the left, and the conservative critics who have been calling to jail the CEO of Netflix, share in common a Platonism about art that fails to adequately differentiate depiction and endorsement.   But Aristotle was right.  A film can depict bad people and bad things and still be a morally edifying film, if the filmmaker portrays them that way.  To be sure, some artists portray bad things in such a way as to glorify them or endorse them.  Criticizing those is one thing, but criticizing a film merely for depicting them is to have a mistaken conception of how art works.   

I should add that some of my interlocutors argued that unlike fictional portrayals of racism or violence, Cuties actually does have young girls engaged in age-inappropriate dancing, namely the child actors portraying the dance team.  That’s true of course: Joe Pesci was just pretending to shoot Michael Imperioli in the foot, whereas these young actors really are twerking.  But that argument proves too much: this would imply that child actors couldn’t do anything that would inappropriate to do in real life.  Child actors have portrayed victims of traumatizing crimes, as murderers themselves, as prostitutes, thieves, drug users, con artists.  Presumably, as actors, they’re clear about the distinction between real life and acting, and their parents support their budding careers.  The actors in Cuties, having read the entire script, would surely have seen that the filmmaker’s point is not that it’s awesome to have young girls oversexualized, but that it’s sad and dangerous.  Meanwhile, of course, there really are dance competitions for tweens that feature these age-inappropriate oversexualizations.  The difference between those young girls and the actors in Cuties is that the latter know it’s a portrayal of something bad.

The Platonic view has it that art has this tremendous power to influence, but simultaneously that it doesn’t matter how the story or movie portrays things. I think that’s self-contradictory.  The Aristotelian view on the other hand, accounts for art’s power precisely in its ability to make something look good or bad. If it makes good things look good and bad things look bad, there is no cause for moral concern. The problem arises when a movie makes good things look bad or bad things look good. Trainspotting is not morally problematic, because it makes a bad thing look bad. 1776 is not morally problematic, because it makes a good thing look good. If there were a movie that made the oversexualization of tween girls look like a desirable thing, that would be a morally bad film.  But it seems as though Cuties is not that film.  I say “seems” because I haven’t seen it – just like the conservative Twitter mob calling it pedophilia.  Reviews seem to indicate the mob is wrong, but the bottom line is, these conservatives are united with their counterparts on the woke left in sticking to a Platonic view: it’s enough to know something bad is depicted to know the art is bad.  Aristotle would disagree, and, on-brand for me, I’m going with Aristotle on this one.  It matters how people and ideas are portrayed, not just that they’re there.

Reflecting on The Box

I just finished Marc Levinson’s book The Box (CE*), which traces the introduction and development of the shipping container and its impact on global trade. You might think from that description that it was quite a dull read, but actually it was fascinating. (Steve Davies has a very useful 3-minute overview here. Check it out, I’ll wait.) The story includes an interesting take on the nature of innovation – while Malcom McLean is clearly an important innovator whose role cannot be discounted, lots of other people and events are indispensable parts of the story, which, as Hayek would be happy to remind us, is vastly complex and is the result of more inputs that one might guess. Levinson notes that single-actor “a-ha!” stories stir the imagination, but tend to obscure the actual process by which change occurs. Individual insight and entrepreneurship are real, of course, but if we want to fully understand innovation, we need to know about the other inputs as well.

Levinson’s story is a great illustration of unpredictability and the difficulties in planning. The book shows how both governments and private actors made some bad mistakes along the way, and the way things are in 2021 were largely unforeseen in 1956. Not only would the people in 1956 not have been able to predict the way the shipping business would evolve, they also couldn’t have predicted the way those changes would impact manufacturing, global supply chains, urban planning, the economic impact on then-undeveloped countries.
Another thing I found useful in this book is that it’s a great illustration of the tensions between classical liberal proponents of free markets, and actual business leaders. Levinson’s story is rife with lobbying, subsidies, and regulation. The regulatory activity is an important part of the story; sometimes helping move progress along, often hampering progress or promoting malinvestment. In some cases the regulatory structure reveals the political influence of industry leaders, other times that of unions. Indeed, labor unions come off as not particularly more noble than the captains of industry, as we see them press for rules that allow for make-work and featherbedding, and to shield themselves from the disruption innovation frequently entails. But the business leaders are, in a different way, seeking protection from competition and subsidies for their experiments – the exact opposite of “laissez-faire.”

Levinson tells the story in a fair-minded way – he’s sympathetic to the dock workers who stand to lose jobs, even as he describes rules and practices that are plainly self-serving and can’t withstand rational scrutiny. Meanwhile, he’s very up-front about the way the business leaders transparently seek favorable regulatory systems, as if skillful lobbying is as much a part of business as entrepreneurship and competition. It’s a prime example of “Horwitz’s First Law of Political Economy”: no one hates capitalism more than capitalists. More precisely, in this case, they simply take it as a given that there is a regulatory apparatus, and therefore do see “competing” via lobbying for a favorable place in the regulatory regime like competing in the market. And when Levinson shows us the point of view of the legislators who are on the other end of the lobbying efforts, it’s sometimes almost comedic, as they have to juggle “protecting” the interests of shipping companies, railroads, trucking companies, manufacturers, longshoremen’s unions, the Teamsters, stevedores’ unions, and so on – all of whose interests are often at odds with each other, and with that of the general public.

Interestingly, despite all the intervention by regulators and lobbyists from both labor and business, the innovation happens, the industry evolves, and millions of people experience an increased standard of living as global poverty declines massively. So is “capitalism” the story of businesses and unions “competing” via lobbyists for special legal protections? Or is “capitalism” the word for exchanges and competition that happen without government intervention? Obviously the word gets used to mean both, although that’s oxymoronic (which is a good reason to avoid the word – a topic for another day’s blogpost). But the story of the shipping container shows that despite, if not because of, political pull and self-dealing, dynamic innovations have the power to help millions of people lead better lives, often in ways no one could have predicted.

CE*=RCL earns commissions if you buy from this link; commissions support this site.

When Equalizers Are Thought To Be Biased

Writing in the New York Times this past Thursday, Anthony Tomassini called for ending blind auditions for orchestras, because the orchestras are not coming out diverse enough. What strikes me as odd about this is that the whole reason for blind auditions is to encourage diversity, by eliminating unconscious bias. The argument would go something like this: the orchestra is all white men, it’s highly unlikely that no women or POC are talented enough to play enough in the orchestra, therefore it’s probable that there’s bias in the selection process, but if we hold blind auditions, no one will know the gender or ethnicity of the candidate. And sure enough, while women made up around 6% of orchestras in 1970, today “women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic.” However, black and Latino artists hover around 2%. So Tomassini suggests that we now end blind auditions in order to purposely increase POC representation in orchestras. The article considers, but is dismissive of, the idea that the best way to get more POC orchestra members is to address bias issues in school music programs, so that more POC are going to the blind auditions. Tomassini rejects this on the grounds that at the top levels, everyone is pretty much as good as everyone else, so we might as well prioritize other values such as representation.

While I suspect it’s false that there is “remarkably little difference between players at the top tier,” my point today is not to argue against Tomassini’s conclusion. I don’t have particularly strong views on how orchestras should be constructed. Rather, what motivated me was that I was reading this story on the same day that my news feed brought me yet another article arguing that the SAT is “mired in racism and classism.” In both instances, we have something that was designed to eliminate bias being castigated for being biased. In the old days, admission to elite universities was largely a matter of connections – if you were white and wealthy and attended good prep schools, you could go to an elite university. If you were female, or Jewish, or low-SES, or non-white, or a recent immigrant, it didn’t matter much if you were very smart and industrious. The “old boy” network would have still excluded you. Standardized testing was meant to undermine that bias by providing objective evidence that a woman, or a Jew, or a recent immigrant from Italy, or an African-American, could be just as smart, just as capable of dealing with college, as the WASP boys were. And sure enough, the elite institutions diversified broadly. But. It’s generally well-accepted that you can get better SAT scores if you have lots of prep coaching, which the wealthier can procure much more easily, so despite the success of standardized testing in increasing diversity, concerns remain about bias.

Now I do have slightly stronger opinions about education policy than I do about orchestra membership, and I am not convinced that the SAT is as horrible as Teen Vogue makes it out to be. But even if it is, it’s far from obvious what the solution should be. If we eliminate standardized testing, college admissions would be based on something else. High school grades? Given the great disparity in schools, this would make the problem much worse, not better. The rich kids from elite prep schools, or even just well-funded suburban public schools, will have at least as much of an edge in terms of showing good grades as they do in test coaching. What about appealing to other things, like who is on the crew team? It’s obvious that that sort of metric would be biased as well. What about the personal essay? That’s even more susceptible to coaching and prep advantages than testing. To take a page from Tomassini, we might say “well, there’s remarkably little difference between students at the top tier,” so we can select for as much diversity as we like – except in this case we don’t yet know which students are in the top tier.

What both of these stories have in common is a tension between conceptions of equality. If selection for elite institutions is based on racial/gender/SES discrimination, that’s inegalitarian. But if mechanisms for routing around bias fail to eliminate all bias, or introduce new bias, what to do? Does meritocratic egalitarianism help, or hinder, diversity along racial/gender/SES lines? I am not sure there are easy answers here. One piece of right-wing snark I saw online said of the orchestra issue “this is the civil war between white women and blacks.” The implication there seems to be that gains for women come at the expense of gains for African-Americans and vice-versa. It’s a zero-sum game in the sense that there are only so many slots in a particular orchestra (or an incoming freshman class), but how those slots are filled is a values question. What is the main desideratum? Excellence? Representation? Preservation of status quo? Inclusion? Exclusion? Not all these are mutually incompatible: When baseball was segregated, you couldn’t really claim that excellence was the main value, because the great talent of Negro League players was excluded. Promoting a value of inclusiveness aided the promotion of a value of excellence. (So too with Ivy League schools ending their prohibition of females, Jews, blacks, etc.) But different institutions might seek different values. In professional sports, you don’t have to be a native of (say) Pittsburgh to play for the Pittsburgh teams. But in international amateur competitions, the team from Finland is made up of Finns. There’s no metaphysical necessity behind one institution having one rule and the other having the other. That’s just the way those institutions developed. But clearly there’s a difference between (a) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Danes allowed” and (b) the Finnish team says “sorry, no Jews allowed, even Finnish Jews.” So some forms of discrimination are more legit than others. But that doesn’t tell us whether to abolish testing for college admissions, or blind auditions. Those institutions need to clarify – both to themselves and to their public – what their chief values are. We won’t solve the problem by just assuming that all institutions have, or even should have, the same values and purposes.



Allegory for last week

I’m thinking of writing an essay on themes of moral equality and its consequences for political theory. I’m going to argue that people are morally justified in resisting, by armed force if necessary, when agents of an oppressive, colonialist power routinely violate their rights, acting like a thuggish, occupying army rather than, as their propagandists claim, dedicated protectors of public safety. Part of the basis for this will be the idea that it’s conceptually mistaken to think that there are different classes of person, some of whom are morally better, or more capable of self-control, than others. On that (wrong) view, one would be able to justify all sorts of oppression and rights violations, but on the view I’m going to defend, all persons have equal moral worth, so there’s no good justification for, say, beating peaceful protesters, or arresting them on trumped-up charges and punishing them in kangaroo courts that are rigged to keep them down. I’ll use the fundamental moral equality premise to argue that people’s basic rights are conceptually prior to state power, and that therefore the latter is hard to justify – at a bare minimum its authority would require consent, consent that is conditional on that authority not overstepping its bounds and becoming oppressive. When power is abused, consent is withdrawn, and the power then lacks legitimacy and hence can be resisted. I would think this essay will be welcome in the current climate of protests against police brutality and mass incarceration and policies that treat whole segments of the population as second-class citizens.

I’d be mistaken, of course. In most online discussions of that essay this past week, I saw people getting it wrong in two distinct ways. One set was people who thought it sounded pretty cool, but somehow thought that it meant that the people protesting rights violations were the bad guys and that the brutal repression was justified, and that it’s fine to treat whole segments of the population as if their rights didn’t matter. Some of them actually said that whatever the agents of state power say is ipso facto right. These people say they like the essay, but have managed to miss its point entirely.

The other set was people who agreed with me that it’s bad to systematically violate rights, yet for some reason hated the essay. When I tried to ask them why they hated it, some of them accused me of endorsing the rights violations. That’s self-evidently stupid, of course, since the essay is about why those rights violations are bad. Other people said they hated the essay because not everyone takes it seriously enough. That struck me as an odd reason to dislike an essay. If it makes a sound argument that you agree with, you should like it, even if other people have ignored it. Some people said they didn’t like the essay because some other document, written by someone else, has a lot of flaws. When I said that I agree that that other document has serious problems, and indeed that its problems were largely rooted in insufficient attention to my essay, they simply reiterated in “this-one-goes-to-eleven” fashion that the other thing is flawed.

Anyway, I’m not actually not going to write this essay, first of all because people just insist on missing its point, or on getting mad at me about something other than what’s in the essay, and second of all, because it would be plagiarism, in case this allegory wasn’t obvious enough.

No True “No True Scotsman”

Say you encounter someone, Sam, saying “I dislike [movement/theory/group G], because they say [bad thing B].” Say you’re a member/proponent of G, and you not only agree that B is bad, but you’re pretty sure that’s not representative of G, and indeed inconsistent with G, so you tell Sam that, and Sam replies that some other person Bob says B, and that Bob is a G. Under what conditions can we properly affirm that Bob is in fact not a G? In logic class we encounter the “no true Scotsman” fallacy:
“No Scotsman would drink vodka”
“McGregor [a Scotsman] drinks vodka.”
“Well, no true Scotsman would drink vodka.”
The illicit rhetorical move accomplished by this fallacy is to immunize a generalization against a refutation by counterexample by smuggling in an ad hoc modification to the definition.

But is every scenario like the one I’ve described an example of “no true Scotsman” fallacy? Say Bob claims to be a Christian, but frequently lies and betrays and kills. When asked, he reports that he does not believe in the divinity of Jesus, or even in God at all. So if Sam said “I dislike Christians, that Bob guy is just awful,” and you replied “look, Bob just is not a Christian, so you’re mistaken to dislike Christianity because you don’t like Bob,” would you be committing “no true Scotsman” fallacy? I think the answer is no. You are correct; Bob, despite calling himself Christian, is not one, and Sam is wrong both to take Bob as representative of Christianity and to dislike Christians on that basis.

This comes up in political contexts, of course. Sam claims to dislike libertarianism because he read something by Bob, who also claims to be libertarian, to the effect that it’s great that the police harass racial minorities and imprison them for minor offenses, or that immigration from Mexico is a bad thing because they’re mostly criminals anyway. This is a fictional example, but I’ve engaged on social media with people who claim that libertarianism is bad because that one guy is a racist, or that one other guy opposes immigration. I generally respond by enumerating the ways in which racism (or closed-borders or protectionism or what have you) just aren’t part of libertarianism. Am I committing “no true Scotsman” fallacy? I don’t think so. I think, as in the case of Bob the non-Christian, that there has to be a way to respond to caricature and distortion that is not also committing the fallacy. As with the religion case, Bob may simply be inaccurate in his self-description of his politics.

First of all, we might distinguish between (a) people who are academics, writers, attorneys, people who think about things enough to have what could even be considered a coherent set of views, and are libertarian, from (b) right-wingers (or whatever) who like 2 planks of the LP platform and then say they’re libertarian while nevertheless disagreeing with the other 95% of it. People in (b) are not coherent, and their self-labeling just cannot be taken for what libertarianism is. To act as though that is what libertarianism is is either unserious thinking, or deliberate dishonesty.

I can see how it might look like I’m doing “no true Scotsman,” but I am not. I’m saying that just because Bob says “yeah, I’m a libertarian,” that doesn’t mean that Bob is representative of libertarianism, and it might not even mean that Bob is libertarian at all (in the same way that he’s not a Christian). Here’s how: It’s possible that people can like something about a label, or what they heard that one time, that makes them think “that’s me,” when in fact they’re so misinformed that it really isn’t. This happens all the time – for example, lots of college-age people report a self-identification as socialist. On investigation, though, this turns out to mean they favor universal health care and free college, or are worried about income inequality, not that they want to abolish private property and nationalize all industry. So they say “I’m a socialist,” but in fact are not, because they don’t even really understand these theories well enough to have a coherent view. They’ve heard that free health care is socialist, and they want free health care, so they say they’re socialists. But if you give them some Marx to read, that’s not what they want at all. So too with libertarianism. Libertarians call for lower taxes, Bob wants lower taxes, so he says he’s a libertarian. But that’s obviously wrong if he simultaneously rejects the other 95% of what libertarians say. Bob is like the free health care kid in my analogy.

Of course, there are things libertarians disagree about, and in most cases it’s unhelpful to apply “purity tests” and excommunicate people. But if labels can mean anything anyone wants them to mean, there’d be little point in doing political theory, or philosophy at all, because nothing means anything, humpty-dumpty style. Socialist, fascist, libertarian, Austrian – we have to have some usage standards about when these words are deployed or we can’t really have any discussion at all. Most people are very confused about politics in general and labels in particular, so those of us “in the business” need to help promote clarity. It’s as if people debating medical issues said “hey, I say it’s virus, so just because you call it bacteria doesn’t mean I have to agree. It’s a virus to me”; or if people debating astronomy said “look, comets and asteroids are the same thing in my book, so I don’t care what you think the distinction is.” Nothing productive would come out of discussions like that.

We not only can help out by pushing for clarity and precision, we should do so. Whatever your political position, your cause will be poorly served by imprecision and humpty-dumptyism. I think it’s fine to claim that lots of self-labeled “socialists” aren’t actually socialists, and that lots of self-labeled “libertarians” aren’t actually libertarians. People’s self-claimed labels may not be accurate, especially in a world where labels are often a substitute for philosophy. It isn’t a “no true Scotsman” fallacy to point that out.