Archive for July, 2010


Rape laws

I came across this law review article, which I think was written at the perfect level of sophistication for someone like me.

Apparently, rape laws have not changed with the times so that for sexual intercourse to count as rape, the person who is raped must be threatened with violence and must also resist. Before, the person had to resist to a very high degree, but most states now require only a “reasonable” amount of resistance. The problem with this standard is that it ignores the fact that many people undergo a kind of traumatic paralysis when faced with sexual abuse (or other types of trauma in other situations). So, someone may not resist at all when forced into sex, but in many cases this is just more evidence that a rape has occurred, not an signal that the person being raped really wanted it to happen (otherwise, why didn’t he or she resist?).

So, one proposal that was floated was what article called the “no” model in which sex is permissible unless someone says no. Again, this is a pretty poor model because if traumatic paralysis is in play, then people who do not consent may not be able to voice an objection. And even if they are physically able, they may not for all sorts of reason, one being fear (and fear can be operative even when the person committing rape has not made any threats yet). Also notice how demeaning this model of rape is. It’s as if saying that I have a right to borrow your car unless you see me and tell me I can’t borrow it. By presuming that sex with another person is acceptable absent their objection, it licenses others to use the bodies of others.

Another model, one which I’m attracted to, would say that intercourse is illegal unless there is some AFFIRMATIVE sign that it is acceptable. Under the “no” model, sex is ok unless someone says no, but on the “yes” model, sex is presumed to be illegal unless both people say yes. Now, yes doesn’t have to be explicit or even verbal, but could communicated in a variety of ways.

Still though, the author of this article claims that even the “yes” model is inadequate, because of two shortcomings.

1) Men often perceive women to be expressing sexual interest when they are not. I’ll call this the “bias toward yes,” from the eyes of a man.

2) Sex that occurs after other sexual stimulating (non-intercourse) would not be rape because of the consent that is implied by such actions, even if one of the partners does not want to engage in intercourse.

But I confess that I don’t really understand either of these objections. As to the first, what does it matter if the man engaged in a rape perceives implicit consent where there is none? The law is supposed to specify when a rape has IN FACT occurred, not when the rapist does or does not perceive it to have taken place. So, it may be accurate to say that a particularly aggressive man perceived his unwilling partner to be consenting, but his perception will not be relevant, at the time of the trial, to determining whether his partner DID implicitly consent. Pretend the neighbor hears the woman scream “stop! stop!” but the man says that he interpreted such screams as an expression of pleasure. Surely, we want our rape laws to say that this is a case of rape, but also one of misperception on the part of the man. Thus, it seems irrelevant that men are biased toward yes.

The second objection is equally puzzling to me. The author thinks the “yes” model would let rapists off the hook because a man could move to unwelcome intercourse on the basis of heavy kissing or petting, and somehow claim that he had implicit consent. But this confuses the “yes” model for the specification of implicit consent that we choose to adopt. It’s true if we adopt a poor standard of implicit consent, such as sexual touching = consent to intercourse, then of course our rape laws will be ineffective, but using such a standard would be like saying that I consented for you to borrow my car when I let you look at my keys. As the author rightly says, sexual touching, especially in an age of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS and religious beliefs about what qualifies as virginity, DOES NOT constitute an implicit agreement to full blown sexual intercourse. And so, in cases where a man moves to sex on the basis of kissing, we would have to look at more facts. Heavy kissing might constitute consent, but it NEED NOT, and the facts of the case would become relevant again. For intercourse to be acceptable, there would have to be a new instance of consent, either verbal or not, that the transition to full blown intercourse was acceptable.

Anyway, this author has a different idea for how rape laws should work, but in the end, her proposal doesn’t seem that different than the “yes” model, and in any case, it seems that the “yes” model would be pretty good.


Value the Meal

I recently got involved with a group called corporate accountability international and their current campaign to try and limit fast food advertising to kids (the title of the campaign is “value the meal”). The idea is that Ronald Mcdonald influences kids and gets them to buy more hamburgers, making them fat and causing other health problems to boot. (for you SM readers, this is a campaign John Stewart is working closely with, so check it out).

When I was approached about helping, I couldn’t help philosophize a little bit about this campaign and its tactics, and one thing that struck me is what I’ll call the inverse relation between change and justice.

This campaign makes a lot of sense I think. It doesn’t strive for a fat tax, new laws, or a new federal agency to monitor food companies. In fact, it’s not even trying to shut fast food companies down or even hurt their profits (though it might do that as a side effect, and it may intentionally strive to hurt the fast food industry in the future, I don’t know). Rather, its goal (right now) is very simple; it simply wants companies to advertise less to kids because kids, as we all know, can’t make informed choices to the degree others can, and so are at risk of being induced to eat more unhealthy food than they otherwise would, making them sick.

Notice how this limited goal nicely sidesteps complaints about “parental responsibility.” Some people say that fast food companies should be given free rein to sell whatever they want to whoever they want and that parents have an obligation to make sure their kids are healthy. I doubt this position is supportable, but EVEN IF IT IS, this campaign does not call it into question since it does not ask for any fines or legislation to be aimed at fast food restaurants. In other words, pretend that 100 parents who live near a mcdonalds decide to be very active in making sure their kids eat health. They serve only healthy food around the house, but face a question about what to do when their kids are out in the neighborhood. They can EITHER install shock collars on their kids at all times that prevent them from walking into the mcdonalds more than a certain number of times in the week OR try and organize so that less commercials reach their children, thus lowering their appetite for mcdonalds. Pretend that they do decide its easier just to protest until mcdonalds stops marketing to kids, then they have SUCCEEDED in their parental obligation. People who are working for this campaign are thus not trivializing or bypassing parental obligation, but working to meet this obligation.

However, let me return to my theme: that there is an inverse relationship between change and justice. There is almost no question that this is a worthwhile campaign, but at the same, the likely impact might be modest. If mcdonalds stops advertising to kids, will it advertise more to adults, who then may take their kids to mcdonalds more? Also, what are the reasons for kids getting too fat? Is it the MARKETING of fast food companies, or is it complicated sociological and economic factors like the fact that fast food is fast and cheap and that the U.S. has no established eating or cooking culture unlike nearly every other part of the world? This question about the amount of change the campaign will do is especially pressing to me since I don’t think there is much evidence that advertising can change the demand curve for people. In other words, I think commercials usually reveal information rather than making someone desire something more.

So, to conclude, the point is this. When you do something that is almost certainly acceptable and probably morally good, then its likely that you aren’t changing things that much. Big changes, almost always, are much more controversial. For example, pretend you were advocating a calorie tax instead of just ending fast food marketing. The amount of change you could get with a step would probably be enormous, but its much more objectionable. For example, it might make people less able to afford food or more likely toskimp on important vitamins. This is not to say big changes are necessarily wrong (think of civil rights, which was an earth shattering change to the status quo, but a slam dunk from the perspective of moral reasoning), but just that often, the bigger the change, the more carefully one has to think about the ramifications and more likely the change will need a careful and thoughtful defense.

Anyway, after all this philosophizing, I jumped on board with the project, because sometimes excessive thinking can be a perverse kind of paralysis in itself. For me, the gains of democratic activism, community participation, and consciousness raising about obesity far outweighed my ivory tower doubts about whether this campaign would change American life as we know it. Rather, it will make some kind of positive difference, and that is enough for me.


Superhero films

I saw this post randomly, and it jogged my memories about all the superhero movies that have been put out recently, and I tried to come up with a reason for why some are successful (iron man, x-men, batman, etc.) and compelling and some are garbage (daredevil, fantastic four, elektra, ghost rider, etc.). Here it is.

Hollywood is kind of a like a smart-alecky teenager, and so does best with movies that have some sort of deeper message, but not too deep. I use the teenager metaphor because they are emotionally deep enough to wrestle with problems, but immature enough to fall victim to hysterics and melodrama when faced with very difficult and complex “adult” problems. If you make things too nuanced, the lessons are lost on a mass audience or by directors trying to work for a mass audience.

The movies that succeeded this decade, by and large, took advantage of this sweet middle ground. Take batman for example. There’s really something pretty deep being said in some ways. The story is caricatured account of Jungian psychology. Bruce Wayne is haunted by his parent’s death but also by bats, his Jungian shadow. He attempts to banish these demons by embracing his subconscious and his desire to cause fear, at the horrible cost of his social life, and to some degree, his sanity (the Joker in film and the comic books is always noticing how close Batman is to him in his insanity, very powerful stuff). Still though, everything is very stereotyped for the most part. Batman is good, he fights evil, but he has a tinge of psychosis himself. In the latest installment, he battles partly with two-face, again an OBVIOUS and stereotyped representation, again, of batman himself, who manages his twin identities at great psychic cost.

Iron man plays well I think on similar obvious, but nonetheless compelling psychological drama. The man is an egomaniac whose danger is physical: his heart is slowly stopping, and so he must take on a metal exterior to live. As we see, he is emotionally very vulnerable, and so his metal weapon is physical heart machine as well as a psychological metaphor for his psychological hardness.

The x-men does well because it explores prejudice. The x-men all have really cool powers, but they’re hated and they have to live with their outcast position in the world.

The movies that fail as superhero films I think either try to get nuance d or stay at the surface and just wreak destruction with special effects (notice that there’s nothing wrong with action and special effects, but see how the above movies integrate drama with explosions and so integrate meaning into the exhibition of super powers).

An obvious example is Hulk. There is a story to tell here, but it’s hard to tell it in a movie format because Marvel comics tells the drama of his alienation and rage over MANY comic books, and it often takes on a soap-opera-y feel. Hollywood could only create a big brute breaking stuff. Not too compelling. Think also of Elektra. Hot chick that kills people? Not really very original or sophisticated. Same with Ghost Rider. Fantastic Four similarly had no real driving drama behind it. It was a family that got along (for the most part) and was capable of kicking ass. Not too much tension to make a feature film about. Or lastly what about superman? It’s hard to get anything going there at all because an invincible person is just so divorced from human concerns. I think this flaw in the comic is reflected in the fairly lackluster performance of the restarting of that franchise.

The one film series that might give this theory trouble is the Spider Man franchise. I’m just not sure what to do with it. “With great power comes great responsibility” I guess, but Peter Parker is pretty put together. Maybe there’s love-ish drama with MJ, but I don’t know, I don’t find it very gripping. I didn’t like most of the spider man series because I think they sometimes focused too much on ordinary movie/plot concerns and didn’t really get any super hero action. The focus on character development was especially problematic for me because I didn’t feel that there was that much there to begin with. But anyway, people can do what they want with the spider man stuff.


Political Charts again

Here I talked about the benefits of having some record of the statistics politicians use, and after talking with my dad, I found out that there is something pretty awesome and kind of similar.

Apparently, the show “This Week” (a roundtable news show) has a page that checks the accuracy of some of the claims made on the show. It’s not very data or numbers based, but I still think its pretty sweet for what it is.



Not the insect, the sport.

I’m trying to read a book right now called the Bodyline Autopsy in which a famous cricket controversy is dissected.

This incident — “bodyline” bowling — is supposed to be really interesting, but this book is REALLY hard to read. First, the guy who wrote it is British, and his choice of words is maddening for someone who speaks American English.

Also, the book is written as if it was organized by a third grader. There’s been reference to roughly 15 people without any introduction and the time period keeps shifting from the 1880s, to WWI, to right before WWII.

But lastly, there’s cricket, which is probably the most complex game I’ve ever tried to understand, and I’ve been reading the book with a glossary of cricket terms open and I’m still making no progress. Take this sentence, “His broadest concession was an acknowledgment that Bodyline led to a beneficial amendment to the laws, whereby bowlers could at last get their due by winning leg-before decisions to balls coming, having pitched outside off stump.” Huh? Bowling? It’s PITCHING!


Politics and Charts

It’s really hard to keep up with political discussions about economics. There are lots of reasons for this difficulty. One is that intellectual labor is divided. Nothing new about that but it the more knowledge we amass the more people have to keep it all together. So, when politics shifts to talk about economics, it’s hard for the average person to keep up.

Here’s a completely impractical, but I think, nonetheless, interesting partial remedy. What if members of the administration, when they went on TV or gave a press conference, brought charts and data with them. All data from economics papers are made available by the author and certainly scientists are required to have data available so that their experiments can be replicated and reviewed in detail. Why not for politicians. I’m not saying this should be a law that is “enforced” but just something it would be good to do. How awesome would it be if Geither made the data he was referencing available on some website so that after the show other people could review it at their leisure and so see the numbers he’s referring to. Sources, statements, and extrapolations could also be analyzed.

I think this would have one main benefit, which is that numbers might actually become important. Neither I nor the host of the show, David Gregory, knows enough economic data to know (or to even question) OFF-HAND if Geithner is quoting numbers that are not generated from the best methods, irrelevant, or deceptive (date periods are especially deceptive, since numbers can change a lot depending on when the time period is, take for example, before or after the financial crash). But if politicians started to regularly give their data sources, it would encourage the use of solid and informative numbers. Of course, this is exactly a reason that politicians probably would not choose to make their data available, but if there were pressure for this sort of thing, then we might be able to raise the comprehensibility of certain types of political issues.


The Ways of the Will

I like doing book reviews, because they give me a chance to reflect on my reading and keep my observations around for my own future viewing. However, I think they are often off putting to many readers who have not read the book and have no intention of reading the book.

So, I’m going to try and be even more broad about this book, which is a collection of essays by psychoanalyst Leslie Farber titled The Ways of the Will.

The book is mainly about psychoanalysis, but in a very accessible style. What the hell is psyhoanalysis about? Well it used to be about dreams and sex, but now I get the sense that the discipline is mainly just about psychology from the perspective not of controlled experiments but an analysis of individual cases (i.e. patients), pop-culture, literature and other “soft” types of analysis.

This book has some interesting essays, one of which is Farber’s long excoriation of Harry Stack Sullivan, an American psychologist who served as Farber’s mentor. He’s just pretty brutal toward this guy, and as a portrait of academia, it sounds dead on to me.

But to get to the more interesting stuff, most of the essays focus on “the will” which Farber points out, must be present in all psychological theory as a motive force even though every theory gives it a different name: anxiety (sullivan), sexual desire (Freud), aggression, and on and on. So, Farber, wisely I think, decides to call a spade a spade, and suggest that we should just accept that will is what drives us and then go on to theorize about how it operates and what it responds to rather than playing games about what to call it.

So he looks at a lot of emotions (jealously, suicidal drive, envy, greed) and psychological states (schizophrenia, anxiety, hysteria) and tries to clarify our thinking about them.

There are two big themes here. One is the interesting point that we can’t will certain things. We can’t will ourselves to act naturally, because it is a contradiction (when we walk into a party and say nervously to ourselves “act naturally,” we’ve already sealed our fate of awkwardness). There’s a story that illustrates this point well I think. A zen master is talking with his students and then walks into his house and lights it on fire. He yells to them that he will only come out when they “say the right thing” in response to his plight. His students stand around trying to think of what to say when another student comes along and is told that the master has locked himself in his burning house. The newcomer says “O my god!” and the master comes out. Get it? The right thing to say is just what one would naturally try to say, and trying to “plan out” the right thing to say in such circumstances is SELF DEFEATING. Just like TRYING to fall asleep. Farber thinks that psychological maladies of all varieties come from trying to will things that cannot be willed. For instance we try to will someone to be in love with us, but such a thing cannot be willed but only allowed for. You can only be open to someone loving you; you cannot force it.

His other point is about the tendency of people (and mainly academics and psychoanalysts) to invest too much meaning in certain states. My favorite essay in this regard is about death. He talks about how some people invest too much meaning in death or make it too important to human life. Some psychologists of his time made out the fear of death to be the all controlling impulse behind human psychology and found this fear everywhere, even in minor setbacks and pains which supposedly were prefigurations of the ultimate powerlessness we have at our respective ends. These psychologists advocate a society and psychological interventions designed to make us resistant and unafraid of death. This has some appeal, and there is some powerful rhetoric discussing how we could live with supreme meaning only in the face of acknowledgment of its end. Think of people who, on the verge of death, achieve a kind of cosmic serenity and find joy in all things. So, to these psychologists, we must live in the face of death. This removes fear and introduces meaning to our day to day struggles.

I think Farber rightly mocks this naive treatment of death as a kind of melodramatic reaction to the fact that human life is limited. Death, as I’ve argued before on this blog, is not entirely bad or to be feared, but neither should it be treated as a mere psychological hitch that humans can cast off. Death is fearful master, and it should be treated as such, and with reverence, and yes, fear as well. But as Farber puts it, we cannot live our whole life in the shadow of death because though this elevates all experience, it also levels it all out and makes us incapable of celebrating life. In fact, Hannah Arendt has a wonderful point about this when she notes that we need not focus on death to elevate life since we could achieve the same effect by focusing on the poignancy of BIRTH. Heidegger celebrated mortality and Arendt natality.

Farber’s nuanced treatment of death is just great, and I think his whole essay can be nicely summed up in his closing paragraph. This also gives a feel for Farber as a writer, and I must confess, I think his style often very rich, though he repeats some phrases and can fly off into a rhetorical frenzy at some points.

For myself, I don’t think death has been brought down from the mountain. I can hear it howling up there on some dark nights, just as all men everywhere have head it. And as for this cartoon creature we presumably now have tethered in back of the house, where we tend it and talk to it and let it into the parlor on special occasions, it is just a dummy, a death-dummy; and if that sound you hear from the mountain top is not howling, it is laughter. For what would know better than death that the way to deal with man’s presumptuous challenges is to reduce him not to silence but to silliness.